Antonio Casella - Short fiction

Short Stories

 

 

 

 

A Misfit in Heaven

 

 Antonio Casella


 

After just a few days in heaven Norris Brown began to fret. He knew it was wrong and the fact that everyone else looked blissful didn't help either; it only went to make him feel even more inadequate.

     In time the stress became unbearable. You can't hide that sort of aggravation in heaven for long. So the word was out: Norris Brown, the new guy, was weird. Norris Brown was in strife. Norris Brown was depressed. Depressed! cried several of the souls when they heard it whispered through  the grapevine, how can you get depressed in heaven, for godssake? They were mystified. More than that, they felt personally hurt. It was unheard of, an embarrassing scandal. Something had to be done about it.

     He needs therapy, they said. So they sent him to see one of the great sages of antiquity. Which sage it was Norris didn't really know, they all look the same with their white beards and deep, lustrous eyes. Could have been Socrates, or Cato the Younger, Confucius, wise Solomon, who knows? But there seemed to be no doubt, by the reverence they accorded him, that he was one of the great pillars of ancient wisdom.

     "So, young man, tell me what is on your mind," began the Sage in gentle tones rolling up the sleeve of his sweet-smelling cream tunic.

     Norris looked at the blue sky through the leaves, listened to the birds, took in the cool scents of the flowers and felt very stupid and very ungrateful. They'd gone to a great deal of trouble to accommodate him, given him the honour of a session with a great man, nothing but absolute honesty would suffice.

    "Oh great and wise one," he began, "why am I so unhappy when I should be the happiest man in Heaven?"

    You could tell, by the tautness of the lines around his deep ancient eyes, that the         Sage was taken aback. He gave his long white beard several strokes.

      "Come with me."

    He took him for a long walk along the most beautiful, the most suggestive cobblestone avenue, shaded by newly‑leaved elms of tender, lime green; flanked on either side by paddocks of sweet‑scented violets, and pink and magenta primroses. The sound of gurgling water led them to a pond and there they sat under a willow on a limestone bench encrusted with delicate moss. Canaries, finches and nightingales were staging a melodious concert such as the great Mozart or Chopin at their inspired best might try to emulate.

     "It's so beautiful here," said Norris, "please let me remain, this is one place where I know I will be happy."

    That's precisely the reaction the wise man wanted, and of course he granted Norris his wish. The great thing about heaven is that it's for all souls. There are no exclusive suburbs or millionnaires' condominiums.

    For a while Norris was indeed the happiest soul in heaven. He drank of the wonderful smells, listened to the glorious music, let the silver light warm him all over and infuse him with the joy of eternal life. This lasted a few days, perhaps a week (it's difficult to keep track of time in the afterlife, since not many are interested in it) then, in what must have been the second week, Norris started to experience a resurgence of ennui.

    The Sage spent most of his time doing precisely what wise souls are meant to do: sitting under a huge chestnut tree contemplating the glory of creation. Consequently he did not notice the sudden change in Norris' mood, until during one of his walks he nearly tripped on him, lying on the grass in tears.

    "It's all very beautiful I know... and so peaceful too... it's just that... there is nothing to do," he said sounding truly pitiful as he pulled at wild oats, put it in his mouth  and chewed nervously.

    The sage drew a sigh of exasperation. His expression became even more kindly.

    "You see, my son, here in heaven we don't have to do things, you can if you wish it, but heaven, particularly the higher heaven up there ‑ and he waved his large hand up towards the upper reaches where the mountain was enveloped in a puff of silver cloud ‑ is for living the contemplative life."

    And he explained all about the contemplative life, seeking the infinite, searching for beauty eternal and everything. Norris had to admit that he made it sound beautiful, but he soon lost concentration. The fact is that Norris wasn't endowed with the best of brains. At school he had trouble understanding such concepts as osmosis; as for semiotics it left him utterly fazed. So he had to concede that he wasn't a brilliant scholar.

    However nobody likes to be judged  an ignoramus and Norris was no exception, so he pretended he understood, thanked the Sage for his advice and departed leaving him to cogitate under his chestnut tree.

    Everyone naturally assumed that he was cured, so they gave him a big party. They came smiling beatifically, present in hand: chocolates, a book on how to grow the best camellias, another called 'Aromatic Delights' ... that sort of thing. Quite a few brought wine, wine the likes of which can only be produced by heavenly vineyards and whose magical taste therefore cannot be described, as there is nothing on earth to compare.(Although admittedly some of our brews would not to be scorned by celestial dwellers).

Needless to say that Norris clean forgot about his ennui. They all forgave him, in fact there was a general sigh of relief that things had worked out. The last thing they wanted was a disgruntled soul in heaven. You never know, these things have a way of snowballing and soon they'd be having a general mood of discontent on their hands.

So perhaps they overdid things a little and Norris drank and drank of the beatific elixir, more than was good for him. That is to say, it was great at the time, but the next day... well one really would have to be a super saint to think of the aftermath in moments of supreme joy like that.

    In all that wine-imbued euphoria Norris was overwhelmed by gratitude and Joy, wondered why in heaven he had been unhappy. He felt so overwhelmed  that he cried copious tears, apologised for being so ungrateful and kissed just about each one of the guests, some with rather more fervour and persistence than was appropriate.

    The next day Norris woke up and found that the place just didn't seem the same. Of course things look different the day after, but it's an indication of how miserable he felt that he thought someone must have laced his drink the night before. An absurd idea, nobody in heaven would do that, if they were capable of such a thing they would not be there. But Norris was too despondent to see the logic of such reasoning.

    When the souls found that Norris had reverted, they could not hide their dismay. Alarums of discontent pounded the tranquil walls. Nothing nasty of course, this was heaven after all, but really their patience was wearing thin. It's alright to feel low occasionally, even the good are not immune to it, but Norris' attitude was unacceptable. It was becoming quite disturbing actually. There were private rumblings and public  remonstrance.

    A mob gathered in the streets. We know that individually all souls in heaven are good, the best... but even the best‑intentioned can lose it in a crowd. Their comment, I'm afraid, were not very edifying.

    'The man's a nuisance.'

    'A spoilt little brat'

    'An arrogant so and so, just who does he think he is?'

   'Frankly I believe it's quite, quite serious. Norris Brown is dangerous He must be       stopped.'

    'The problem with him is... he doesn't know how  well off he is. Send him down to hell, then  he'll know all about it.'

    The more elderly souls, who had the good sense not to join the march, looked on aghast from the sidelines. They hadn't witnessed such commotion since that time a woman had outraged everyone by suggesting that God should retire and make way for a female to be elected to the position.

    Of course their frustrations were understandable. Undoubtedly Norris was being difficult, they could understand some souls losing patience, but to call him names was just not helpful, apart from the fact that it ran counter to everything that heaven stood for.

As for the threat of hell... the last time it was tried, all hell broke loose, literally. The truth is that hell felt greatly threatened by anyone who had tasted the bliss of heaven and then, for whatever reason, was sent down. It just caused so much bother. No, that option was out.

    "Wait a minute," said a lady with shaven head and unshaven underarms, "let's not get carried away, what we need to do is find a solution, not condemn him. I mean if that's how he feels who are we to judge? Are we in heaven or what? We need to start from where he is at. Some flexibility is required here. After all, things are changing fast out there and this Norris Brown may well be the shape of things to come. "

    "That's right,' said a man with weedy strands down to his shoulders growing from around the edge of a shiny pate, warming up to this line of discussion, "this is a great challenge for us. We need to adjust to the new reality. We have been a bit complacent, let's be frank about it."

    At this point a lady with golden hair piled up on her broad forehead, cathedral style, rose grandly and spoke.

 

    "I cannot believe I have heard correctly. Is it suggested that we compromise our standards and pander up to apathy? Why, this soul isn't just a fool, he is positively subversive. Don't you realize that if an exception were made of him we would have millions of worthless souls knocking at the door of heaven? Never, Never. I will not let this institution, the highest and most prestigious in the whole of creation, be demeaned," her rouged cheeks hid the full intensity of her anger, "and if any more like him present themselves at our door they will gain admission only over my dead soul".

Which straight away put paid to that possibility, for as we know souls live forever.

An impasse had been reached. They stared at each other despondent. Meanwhile Norris was waiting outside in trepidation, conscious of the fact that his eternal destiny was being decided. Finally the Head Committee person came up with a suggestion.

    "It's clear, fellow souls, that a mistake has been made. This soul is just not one of us. He doesn't belong. Heaven is a great privilege, the reward for a life well lived. This man is unhappy and dissatisfied. Something is badly wrong. Send him back to the Registrar, let him sort it out".

    The Registrar was a comfortable, well‑groomed man in his late fifties, wearing casual soft white shoes, gabardine trousers and white cotton shirt with permanently pressed open collar. He looked like the sort who enjoyed his earthly life and in heaven continued on the same vein. As a matter of fact the Registrar was about to leave, bag over shoulder, for the golf course.

    Needless to say Norris' arrival didn't please him much.

    "I can only spare a few moments," he said glancing at his watch, "what can I do for you?"

    Norris began to explain. The Registrar lost patience.

    "Well look, you'll have to come back after lunch. I just haven't got the time to sort you out," and he brushed past him. At the door he stopped, "wait a minute" said he squinting, "aren't you the guy we had so much trouble placing... Morris something..."

    "Norris'

   "That's it, Norris Brown. Twenty‑six. Pretty inconclusive sort of life. Unemployed, unattached, apathetic. Spent most of your time trying to figure out what to do with yourself. Not enough sins to deserve  hell, not enough good deeds to qualify for heaven. It was touch and go there for a while. In the end we gave you the benefit of the doubt and sent you up; by default, as it were. Didn't work out, eh?"

    'Well ... "

    "I thought so. Now what? No point sending you down to that other lot at this stage, they're getting choosy these days. They can afford to, just about everyone's heading their way lately. What a mess!" He looked at his watch again, made a reluctant decision, "ah what the hell, I'm gonna be late anyway. Tell you what, I just remembered..."

    He put down his bag and went back to the desk, turned on the screen, pressed a few keys.

    "Ah, ah! I thought so. You're in luck. Guy just died... playing  a few holes. Wow, what away to go!" he laughed, greatly amused "yeah, looks like the type that could serve our purpose. It's the only way out..."

    The Registrar then went on to explain the procedure for a soul transplant.

    "This is  very unusual, might start a precedent  I'll probably regret…  Never mind, I'll have to cross that bridge when I get to it.  Anyway, it's your only chance to have another go. For godssake do something with yourself though. Live. I mean to say, nobody expects you to raise hell, or get yourself  crucified, but you need to justify your life some way. Now, get going, and don't let me see you here again until you've lived a bit."

    He picked up his bag and before dashing out he added, "for starters you can learn to play golf and be of use to someone."

    That morning a couple of tourists trying out the Resting Meadows golf course, discovered a man slumped by the sandpit at the seventh hole. In the hospital, when he came to, a dark‑haired nurse with watch pinned on her ample breast was measuring his pulse. Norris, who now answered to the name of Derek Jeggo, gave her a sleepy smile and asked,

    "Do you play golf by any chance?"

 

 

 Published in  The West Australian,  February 26, 1994.

 

I’m Bored Said Lucifer

 

Antonio Casella

 

(Published in The West Australian, November 21, 1992)

 

 

 

“I’m bored,” said Lucifer, polishing the huge diamond on his little finger, with the tip of his magnificent tail - a nervous motion that betrayed a restless spirit – “these modern men and women are painfully boring. What shall we do about it?”

 

He sat leering at the devils of the Grand Satanic Council, trying to discover a scintilla of demonic inspiration in their charred eyes. They were all there, all thirteen of them: Beelzebub, Asmadai, Ronwe, Mammon, Xaphan, Nisroch, Azazel, Ariel, Moloch, Adramalech, Arioch, Ramiel and Crino. Faces he suffered from time immemorial.

 

Azazel drew hard on a hand-rolled cigarette, not caring about the fact that the paper had stuck to the ulcer on his lip. It was an affectation, a display of machismo. Lucifer cringed. It had come to this. One had to suffer not only dullards and dolts, but pathetic poseurs as well.

 

“I’m utterly, tragically, hopelessly bored,” he concluded with a sigh that blew an icy wind down the spine of all the demons.

 

What now? They thought. Lucifer’s self-dejection would not last. His mood, they knew, could swiftly change to one of merciless cruelty. (Like that time he gave Arioch – out of whimsical rancour  - the job of tempting that tedious Mother Teresa to acquire a diamond necklace for herself). And all because of his notorious boredom. It was, together with his vanity, his great weakness. Finding new ways to relieve Lucifer’s boredom was constant headache for everyone.

“That was a wonderful way of expressing your tragedy,” declaimed toad-faced Asmadai. It was feeble attempt at diversion, bland and pathetic. Lucifer realized it, but appreciated the gesture all the same, even if it was spoilt by young Crino’s irritating twitter as he shared a private joke with Azazel.

 

How he regretted ever promoting that ostentatious little fop to a permanent seat in the Grand Satanic Council! Of course, had he been in a better frame of mind, Lucifer would have remembered that, not long ago, he had taken more than a passing interest  in Crino’s blueberry lips and the fox-like ears that frisked at the mere suggestion of…never mind. Then he had even tolerated the young demon’s extravagant forays. Like the time he had dyed his fur, all the way down his spine, celestial pink!


“It’s true,” agreed Beelzebub, “These modern humans are a great bore, a real let down. Whatever happened to the Attilas and the Neros, the Ivans and the Sades of yesteryear? There is only one thing that will fix matters,” and the indolent eyes of Beelzebub suddenly shone with the polish of the gourmand before a freshly laid out table, " what you really want is a war. I mean a real war. Not these pathetic skirmishes you've been giving them lately."

 

Lucifer fumed. The 'you' of direct accusation had not escaped him. Could that dullard of a Demon still be thinking of toppling him ?

 

"A war! " cried Crino, " how unsubtle."


Lucifer had to agree, Among that hopeless, diabolic crew, Crino was the only one with any taste. Pity he should waste it on frivolous self‑indulgences and with Azazel, of all the demons!

 

"You're quite right Beelzebub," said Lucifer, tugging at the lobe of his left ear , where a sudden rush of contempt for his off-sider had concentrated, "I can't think of anything more boring than these modern wars. Nowadays it's wham, bang, puff and it's gone. No passions, no suffering, no heroism. La grande passion", he enunciated, turning the French like a man savouring the first juicy peaches of the season, " Oh, if only they brought back French! It set a tone all of its own for civilized discussion. This awful English has usurped language,of all feeling."

 

"Of course, we all know that's a direct result of American imperialism," put in Xaphan the Philosopher Demon whose speciality was cause and effect.

 

The very mention of Americans got Lucifer's tail up.

"Ah, don't you talk to me about those uncouth Americans! Don't! In a matter of a few years they have managed to destroy what little trace of style remained on earth. In place of civilization they have introduced that awful pestilence they call American pop culture."

 

Nobody quite understood the connection with American pop culture; although everyone agreed it was there.

 

"A pestilence, yeah let's give them an epidemic enthused Asmadai, thinking that it would endear him to Satan.

 

"You're quite right about that," started owl‑faced Xaphan again "what's missing in all this is guilt. The creatures have simply been allowed to get away with murder without feeling an ounce of guilt. People get murdered all the time of course, but never out of personal rancour ... or envy..."

 

“.... Or jealousy,” insinuated Azazel, daring to glance towards The Master.

Lucifer could have struck down the impertinent demon…but,  noblesse oblige, particularly in the public eye.

 

“…Or jealousy, or bitterness, or hate. There is no personal involvement almost. Just a mechanical action, without cause, without effect. Therefore what we need ask ourselves is why ? Always there is the 'WHY ' hovering large in all such questions. Why is there no suffering? No passion? Think about it fellow demons."

 

"Give 'em a good ole war," insisted Beelzebub for no other reason than the fact that thinking gave him a headache. Xaphan proceeded.

 

"Clearly, in each case the answer has to be fear."

"Fear ?" called someone .

"Fear, fear, fear " came ponderous the voice of Xaphan, "We've given them so much, so many toys that is, that ... well, they really believe that they are masters of their own destiny now."

"Bull argued that insufferable slob Azazel who fancied himself as something of a barefoot philosopher,” I don't claim to be a great philosopher but I know one thing,  we gave them the bomb, and that’s put more fear in them than any threat of hell."

 

"Well spoken Aze !" cried Crino with more enthusiasm than the occasion warranted. And to make matters worse Azazel turned his coal‑fire eyes on him, smiled in a very private way and, said "thank you Crino,l, and took a particularly vigorous draw on his hand‑rolled cigarette.

 

Lucifer was livid, though of course his lineage and position prevented him from showing it. So that was it? The two were siding against him! It piqued his 'amour‑propre’ that anyone whom he had honoured with his attentions should now start a liaison with that revolting ram‑faced poseur, Azazel. And then there was the question of power.

 

Crino was sly, intelligent and ambitious. His promotion to 'The Council' had caught everyone by surprise except Lucifer himself of course. (But now, in retrospect, he wondered whether he had allowed his heart dull his reason) The young demon's influence was on the rise too, everyone knew of his outstanding success in drawing to himself an ever‑increasing number of young souls. Add to that, the growing wave of tramps, the destitute and social outcasts who gravitated to Azazel, and you had a formidable force that could prove to be irksome to Lucifer.

 

 “To return to our point, or rather the point made by Xaphan,” and here Lucifer allowed the philosopher a very faint but unmistakable smile, “it was well made. Fear is certainly the issue, though Xaphan has not qualified the kind of fear he means, which he most surely would have done, had he been given the opportunity to..." And here Lucifer's furrowed brow wide‑swept the large hall, "Xaphan, you have my permission to proceed."

 

"Yes, that's so . The only effective fear is fear of the unknown. The bomb is no mystery. For all its potential destructiveness it does not compare with the intense, private terror of a good old‑fashioned ghost for instance. The bomb, in my view, was a grave mistake because it has put their destiny to some extent into their hands. Or at least, so they believe, which amounts to the same thing."

 

"In that case give 'em a good old earthquake or something," said Beelzebub who liked simple, quick solutions.

 

" Hm, yeeees ! " continued Xaphan " that's definitely better than a war, but it lacks the element of motive . You see, you give them a motive that they can instantly recognise (and that's not so easy as it used to be in these days of schepticism ) and guilt will germinate. Fear and guilt now there's a powerful combination for you."

 

"I know , I know Xaphan," said Lucifer in a voice that was almost too undignified for a demon of his exalted rank. Those two had put him in a foul mood. "When you think of the marvellous dramas we were able to enjoy over the eating of an apple, the exquisite turmoil, the ingenious repercussions that spanned the centuries.... Now they'll murder a neighbour, betray their friend and disown their daughters and they don't even care."

 

"Worse still , they don't even know they've done it," said Xaphan, "the fact is that in our efforts to extend our power we have convinced them that there was no such thing as sin. They have come to us in hordes, but the price we paid is that they are no longer afraid of us, or even believe in us. We, fellow Demons, have become irrelevant to them .."

 

There was silence around the Great Satanic Hall. Xaphan proceeded to fill it with more solid words of wisdom.

 

"Our problem is, how do we get back to that wonderful age when men and women knew how to suffer? When they were at the mercy of their suffering, and our power."

 

"Just give me the Dark Ages," lamented nostalgically Lucifer," the gorgeously ascetic days of Medieval Man, the delicious excesses of the Inquisition. I want men and women to be conscious of sin. In our efforts to make them commit sin without compunction we have destroyed it. We have wrecked the quality of life, theirs and ours. Above all we have turned existence into a great bore. That is unforgivable.”

 


"Really, I don't know what all the fuss is about," put in Crino curtly " who cares     about what humans do anyway?"

 

Lucifer was too shrewd to be drawn directly into the fray with junior subordinates. He scanned the table and set his gaze on stupid, toad‑faced Asmadai, who promptly obliged.

 

"Lucifer, our mighty and beloved father is bored with them," croaked he, "what more needs be said?"

 

And here Crino did something quite insolent He flashed a cheerful glance towards Azazel and said, “I'm not bored, are you Azzie?"

 

Azazel gave a mocking cough and drew a powerful puff on his cigarette. Crino cackled back. Lucifer observed and let it pass for the present. But all the members of the Council except those two imprudents, whose judgement was surely impaired by the fact that their tails were entwined behind the chair, knew that Lucifer was not one to forget an insult.

 

"Clearly, " said he reverting brusquely to the royal plural, as his fur changed hue from porporial red to livid purple, "we have an unresolved dilemma on our hands. We will give the matter some thought, then take a decision at a later date.

 

That evening Satan gave a spectacular party attended by all the illuminati, gliterati , litterati of the Underworld. He made his entrance in grand fashion ‑as always ‑ advancing majestically on a throne of white gold encrusted with diamonds , rubies and pearls; lapis lazuli blue as an Arabian night, vermillion garnets and countless other rare gemstones. He was carried by four powerful eunuchs and four majestic amazons wearing stoles of orange and saffron. Behind him followed a retinue of concubines of many races, of sprites and demons with heads of beasts, of belly dancers with snake bodies, Sumo wrestlers with hanging flab, dwarves that somersaulted their way indo the great hall, and much more.

 

Next to Lucifer  sat a splendid Egyptian girl, tall and statuesque, whose mantle opened on the stupendous landscape of her body. About her neck a magnificent rebus pectoral slung down over the hills of her breasts capped by fresh ebony tips.

 

As for Lucifer himself ... words struggle to describe his magnificence, imagination may do it more justice. So be it. But let us at least mention his splendid tail (whose value in the underworld cannot be overestimated) It stood supine up his spine, stockinged in a cloth of  gold lace, ringed with jewels of glittering colours all the way up towards the tip, where the fur opened up like a flower from its stem of gold, and curled fluffy and triumphant over Lucifer’s proud head. It was just like old times.

 


The entertainment was first class too. After the black theatre, the wrestlers and the perfunctory orgies, the very popular Marquis de Sade gave a powerful reading of Poe's 'The Pit and The Pendulum'. But the best, as usual, came last.

 

Lucifer's palace stood on top of a hill that looked down on the deep Valley of Forbidden Love. At precisely midnight, Lucifer ‑ ever the great romantic ‑ gave the order that the curtains be drawn and through the grand terrace that overlooked the valley appeared myriad scenes of courting, agonising, delirious lovers whose love was destined never to be sated. The length and breadth of the valley from one sheer wall to the other echoed to rapturous screams of promises, of accusations and recriminations, to wrench the heart of the most insensitive demon.

 

The climax came when a notorious pair of pigeon lovers: Paolo and Francesca, gave an ethereal display of love dance right below the terrace. They mixed slow gliding motion with sudden pirouettes; gentle air‑loops with head‑spinning twirls; all backed by precisely modulated wing‑flaps and sensual dove‑cooing. The performance expressed exquisitely all the tragedy and the poignancy of more than seven centuries of unsated love. And when the star‑crossed lovers finally vanished down the black valley in a flapper of wings, there was not one dry eye among the demons.

 

As everyone finally recovered from this sublime catharsis, Lucifer gave orders for all the demons to assemble in the, Great Hall for an announcement. In the dreary council sittings debilitated by boredom, he had felt ill at ease and vulnerable. Here amid the pomp and spectacle, he was in a class of his own.

 

"Fellow Demons, I have considered, much considered, the questions raised at today's Grand Council meeting. We all agreed that lack of emotional stimulus is the great malaise of contemporary mortals. The question is, what to do about it?

 

"Three options were offered. First, the natural calamity, be it earthquake, flood or fire. While I agree that the prospect of, say, a Mexico City disappearing in the gaping mouth of a vortex would indeed make a vision splendid; almost too splendid to resist ...  Here the assembly erupted in a long applause of approval.

 

"As would " continued Lucifer on the same vein savouring his own success, " as would: Los Angeles devoured by fire, or Naples inundated by spluttering Vesuvius…”  renewed applause, as all demons, who lacked no imagination in these things, visualised one-and-a-half million demonstrative Neapolitans in a paroxysm of terror.

 


"But all these temptations I have resisted because they do not constitute real solutions but brief indulgences. Humans forget all too soon (it's an irritating trait of theirs) and soon we would have the same problem on our hands.

 

"On the subject of war, I share the opinions eloquently aired by our eminent philosopher Xaphan. No, what we want is something long‑lasting, limited in impact, but widespread in range; and it must be seen as originating from us."

 

Cries of 'hear, hear' echoed through the hall.

 

"That leaves us with an epidemic, as suggested by one of our most senior and incisive members of the ‑Grand Council: Asmadai. I need not remind you, fellow demons, of the successes we have enjoyed in the past whenever we adopted similar methods. Think of the Black Death and its repercussions of fear, suspicion, guilt and destruction."

 

The demons twittered as they nostalgically re‑lived those exciting times.

 

"This time, to make the point more forcefully, I have decreed to spread it via 'sinful behaviour'. That ought to produce guilt, fear and discord; and multiply suspicion. You will appreciate that this is a most important mission. One which requires both delicacy and great competence

 

At this point Lucifer turned to Crino.

 

"Come forward Crino".

 

Crino was about to protest, but Lucifer is not called 'The Great Schemer' for nothing.

 

"Don't Crino, no need to express your gratitude. We, in our wisdom, have chosen you, over‑and above a host of deserving demons, because we know you will do justice to this unique undertaking. Go to, and do us proud. And... do take your time. We shall be pleased to recall you at our leisure."

 

Uproarious applause, after which Crino was left no choice but to pack his bags with the lethal alchemy especially prepared by Adramalech, the demon chemist.

 

Then, early that morning, as the second millennium took the final turn, Crino set off (still suffering from a hang‑over) to go and spread the virus among humans, as a grim reminder that it was their duty to relieve Lucifer of the heavy pack of his boredom.


 

 

San Rocco Comes to Visit

 

ANTONIO CASELLA

 

First published in “Antipodes” in June 1995

 

On his seventy‑first birthday Nando Miraglia's wife died. Friends pecked him on the cheeks, slapped his back, printed voluble phrases in the deaths column of the newspaper. Nando took it all passively, looking vague.

"Poor man," they commiserated, "he is in a state of shock."

Not for the reason they imagined, though. The loss of his wife he had expected ever since Alzheimer's had started to pillage her brain cells. The shock for him was to perceive, surfacing through the complex layers of his grieving, an unmistakable sense of release.

It's not as if he hadn't loved his wife. He had been affectionate, faithful, "Premuroso," as his friends put it. For years during her long illness he had cared for her himself, refusing all help.

The morning after the funeral he woke up charged with irrepressible energy. An opaque film lifted and he stood on a rise looking at the landscape of his existence with new eyes. Fresh air tickled his nostrils as dawn rattled expectant promising some wondrous revelation.

A brief phase of euphoria? Perhaps, but it was still there the next morning, oh such clarity! Dusk, formerly the "hollow hour" now flushed him with vigor. The only sadness ‑ a melancholic acceptance really ‑ that there would be one less day to savor and to witness.

His mind started to wander to Casignana, his birthplace he had not visited in fifty‑two years. There it was, limpid as a picture inside a glass bowl, emerging from decades of oblivion.

Once or twice, when drink had made him maudlin, he had talked about it to his wife.

"The feast of San Rocco was very special, Fran, they came from all around the villages to witness the miracle of San Rocco. They hitched two bullocks and marched them down the church aisle to kneel before the holy statue."

“Who?”

"The bullocks. They went down on their front legs. It's true. I saw it with my own eyes."

"I believe you. Just watch that beer, you're spilling it all over your shirt."

Born on a wheat farm in Narrogin, she spent many a Saturday baking scones for the Country Women's Association. How could Frances have understood?

He decided he would go back to Casignana. He set about the preparations feverishly, energized by visions of himself surrounded by relatives eating focaccia freshly out of the brick oven at the cascina, on the beautiful Sila forest, under a canopy of birches.

One night he woke up from a dream in which, due to a power failure, the alarm clock had failed to go off and he had missed his plane to Rome. As he leaped out of bed he felt dizzy and before he had taken a couple of steps he collapsed. At the hospital they diagnosed severe angina.

"You'll need to postpone your trip. Take it easy for a while."

Take it easy? No way! He had taken it easy all his life. The routines that had governed his days for half a century now seemed dull, wasteful. He would rather risk a heart attack than go back to that. Now every moment was precious, every living thing a masterpiece.

He started walking to a park nearby, where parents took children to play. That's where Nando sat for hours watching. He loved people, and he loved children best. He felt that only they could share the joy that was wanting to burst out of him.

He would have liked to take them in his arms, pull funny faces to make them laugh, play chasy with them. A young girl of five or six came over for her ball that had rolled under the bench. Nando picked it up and handed it over, giving the child's hair a gentle tussle.

"Why are you crying?" she asked.

Nando chuckled.

"I'm not crying."

"Come here Kirstie," called the mother.

"You're crying," insisted the child, pointing. "It's all wet under your eyes."

The mother gave him a guarded look. There had been a report of child molesting in the area only the week before.

Half way home Nando noticed that he had lost his wallet. Must have fallen out of his breast pocket when he bent over to retrieve the ball. As he strode back across the park it started to rain. He reached for the hood of the parka to pull over his head, when a yelping made him stop. There, near his feet, a Jack Russell stood on its hind legs, the wallet in his mouth.

"Ma vadda la," he said in Calabrian dialect that he had started to use lately, "ma chista e propriu bedda." And he laughed totally charmed.

A voice echoed, also in Calabrese. "Oh, menu male me paria ca vu nnavu iutu."

Speaking was a small man in his late forties with thinning hair and skin so pale and delicate that he must have been a tourist newly arrived from the winter of the Northern Hemisphere.

Turning to the dog he said, "avanti va, dacci u portafogghiu. "

The dog obediently deposited the wallet on Nando's boot.

"How did you know it was mine?'

"Oh, Gaspare never makes a mistake. He can smell you on the wallet."

Nando fell in silently behind the stranger and his dog, too awed to think of what to say.

"I'm glad you still speak dialect. Hardly any, one over there" ‑he waved thin fingers northward

"does anymore."

"You have recently arrived then"'

"Yes, in fact, I've come for a visit."

Nando smelled the birches of La Sila on his breath.

"Where from?"

"From Calabria, like you. My name is Rocco... is this where you live? Nice home.”

"Come on in," Nando was unable to erase the tremor from his voice, "try my new wine.”

Time passed pleasantly. His guest became chatty.

"I really love it here,” said Rocco tending his glass for a refill, "there is only one thing that concerns me. "

"What?"

"I have heard that in this country they not allow vaults to be built above ground. The thought of  rotting underground… I don’t know,” his  brown eyes moistened, “you must forgive me, I get a  little sensitive about such things, especially over a  glass of good wine, and yours is especially good.”

Nando poured him another.

"You are too kind, but I shouldn't. It will render me quite brillo. I may not find my way back."

Nando cleared his throat.

"I have a spare room.”

During the night Nando was awakened by  dog scratching at his guest’s bedroom door. He got up to investigate.

"Should I put Gaspare out?” he asked through the closed door, “it’s all fenced in at the back.”

No reply. Ever so gently Nando opened the door. The last thing he expected was to find his guest dead. He looked so serene on the bed: his delicate features set off by the jarrah headboard. And then an idea, which had been floating about                                       

His consciousness ever since he had set eyes on him, suddenly crashed ­through.

He rushed to the bottom drawer cltable and sifted frantically. There, among the papers of personal correspondence, he discovered what he was looking for: a postcard picture of San Rocco, Patron Saint of Casignana. Amazing, the same dark beard, the paleness, the big round eyes. True, the dog in the picture was larger, but this was Australia after all.

So… he went back to bed, where he knew he could think better, mulled over the matter for some hours, and then the Holy Spirit spoke to Nando. In the morning he ordered a truck load of bricks, one of sand  and four bags of cement. By mid‑afternoon he set to work.

"I've decided to build me a brick oven,” he said to his nosey neighbor, "nothing like homebaked bread."

“That old guy has really lost it this time,” said Jacinta to her male companion, watching through the bedroom blinds, "he's building an oven in the middle  of North Perth, for godsake."

Even though the dog spent hours by the structure, howling,  driving the neighbors crazy, no one would have suspected had it not been for the fact that a friend’s daughter had come down with a serious disease. Moved by the family's deep concern, Nando suggested a novena. So every day the group gathered, rosary beads in hand, by the "shrine" in the garden.

So much commotion could not fail to attract attention.

Jacinta, who normally had a suspiciously large number of middle~aged males calling on her, was losing friends alarmingly. So she rang the police.

One night as the congregation knelt down (the sick woman wrapped in "the sacred cloth," Rocco’s former dressing gown) the police raided the house.

The authorities ordered that the partly decomposed body be cremated, and Nando, declared severely over the loss of his wife, was put on Prozac.

At first his request for the ashes was refused but, as there were no other claimants, he was allowed to have them on the promise that he would not try to rebuild the "shrine" and place the ashes in it. To prove his good faith, Nando dug up the site, scattered the ashes into the soil and planted a few shrubs, including a jasmine.

In time, with the help of Prozac, Nando came to be convinced that the whole incident had been an aberration. But then something strange happened, the jasmine began to grow at a prodigious rate, climbed over surrounding shrubs, tangled around itself, and in a matter of months became a dark green mass higher than the demolished structure.

In spring it burst into a profusion of blossom, whose perfume spread all around the garden and upward, dispelling the city fumes from the air. Nando and the dog sat out the evening lull on the veranda, the perfume drenching them. Whenever the Indian Ocean breeze brought a particularly strong wave of scent, the dog opened its droopy eyes and whined audibly.

"Yes, yes, Gaspare, I know," Nando chuckled with conspiratory pleasure, "it's San Rocco come to visit us again, but . . . shhh," he whispered, finger‑on lip, " we mustn't let anyone know."

 

 

 

SAN ROCCO VIENE A FAR VISITA



di Antonio Casella

 

 

Il  giorno in cui Nando Miraglia compì settantun anni, morì sua moglie. Gli amici lo baciarono frettolosamente sulle guance, gli diedero pacche sulle spalle, composero qualche frase di circostanza per le colonne degli annunci funebri. Nando si sottopose a tutto con aria assente.

"Poveretto", lo commiseravano, " E' sotto shock".

Non, però, per il motivo che immaginavano. La morte della moglie se l'aspettava ormai da quando il morbo di Alzheimer aveva cominciato a devastarle il cervello. Ma per lui il vero shock fu di avvertire un indubbio senso di liberazione, che affiorava, attraverso i complessi strati del suo dolore.

Non che non avesse amato sua moglie. Era stato affettuoso, fedele, premuroso, per dirla con i suoi amici. Durante la sua lunga malattia aveva provveduto lui stesso ad accudirla, riflutando ogni assistenza.

La mattina dopo iI funerale si svegliò carico di un'energia irrefrenabile. Un velo opaco si era sollevato: si trovò ad osservare con occhi nuovi, come da sopra un colle, il panorama della sua esistenza. L'aria frizzante gli solleticava le narici mentre un'aurora sferragliante gli prometteva mirabili rivelazioni.

Una breve fase di euforia? Forse, ma il giorno dopo quella sensazione era ancora lì; si, e con quale chiarezza! Il crepuscolo, che prima lo rendeva malinconico, adesso lo riempiva di vigore: l'unico rammarico- piu' che altro una malinconica rassegnazione- ­era che gli rimaneva un giorno di meno, da assaporare e contemplare.

La fantasia lo trasportò a Casignana, il paese natale che non visitava da cinquantadue anni. Eccolo, nitido come una fotografia dentro una palla di vetro, emergere da decenni di oblio.

In rare occasioni, quando il bicchiere l'aveva reso stucchevole, ne aveva parlato con sua moglie.

"La festa di San Rocco, era davvero straordinaria, Fran. Venivano da tutto il circondario per assistere al miracolo di San Rocco. Appaiavano due buoi, li spingevano lungo la navata della chiesa, e quelli s'inginocchiavano davanti alla statua del santo."

"Chi?"

"I buoi. Si piegavano sulle zampe anteriori. Ti dico che é vero. Li ho visti con questi occhi".

"E va bene, ti credo. Ma sta' attento con quella birra. Ti stai macchiando tutta la camicia."

Nata in una tenuta agricola di Narrogin, spesso e volentieri trascorreva il sabato a preparare pasticcini per la Country Women's Association. Come avrebbe potuto capire Frances?

Decise di tornare a Casignana. Si dedicò febbrilmente ai preparativi, rinvigorito dalla visione di se stesso sotto un tetto di betulle, in una cascina della foresta della Sila, circondato da parenti, in mano una focaccia appena cotta al forno.

 

Una notte si svegliò da un sogno in cui, per un'interruzione di corrente, la sveglia non aveva suonato e l'aereo era partito per Roma senza di lui. Saltando giù dal letto ebbe le vertigini e svenne prima ancora di fare due passi. All'ospedale gli diagnosticarono un serio caso di angina pectoris.

"Dovrà proprio rimandare il viaggio. Se la prenda calma per qualche tempo"

Prendersela calma? Neanche per idea! Per tutta la vita se l'era presa calma.. Le abitudini che per mezzo secolo avevano dominato le sue giornate sembravano ora un monotono spreco. Preferiva rischiare l'infarto piuttosto che tornare alla vecchia vita. Ogni momento, adesso, era prezioso, ogni essere un capolavoro.

Prese l'abitudine di andare a passeggiare nel parco, dove i genitori portavano i bambini a giocare. Rimaneva a guardare per ore. Amava la gente e soprattutto amava i bambini. Sentiva che erano i soli in grado di condividere appieno la sua gioia traboccante.

Avrebbe voluto prenderli in braccio, farli ridere con smorfie buffe, giocare con loro a rimpiattino. Una bimba di cinque o sei anni gli si avvicinò per recuperare la palla rotolata sotto la panchina. Nando la raccolse e gliela porse, scompigliandole affettuosamente i capelli.

"Perché piangi?" gli chiese.

Nando ridacchiò.

"Ma non sto piangendo"

"Kirstie, vieni qui!" gridò la mamma.

"Si che stai piangendo," insistté la bambina, indicando col dito. "Sei tutto bagnato sotto gli occhi."

La mamma gli lanciò uno sguardo circospetto. Solo una settimana prima nella zona s'era sparsa la notizia che avevano molestato dei bambini.

Rientrando a casa, Nando s'accorse a metà strada di aver perso il portafoglio. Gli doveva essere scivolato dalla tasca quando s'era chinato a raccogliere la palla. Mentre tornava sui suoi passi cominciò a piovere. Allungò la mano per tirarsi sulla testa il cappuccio del giaccone, quando un guaito lo costrinse a fermarsi. Proprio ai suoi piedi c'era un Jack Russell ritto sulle zampe posteriori e col suo portafoglio in bocca.

"Ma vadda là,"' disse, usando il dialetto calabrese (un'abitudine ripresa da poco), "ma chista é propriu bedda." E rise, affascinato e incredulo.

Gli fece eco una voce, anch'essa in calabrese: "Oh, menu male, me paria ca vu nnavu iutu."

A parlare era stato un ometto poco meno che cinquantenne dai capelli radi e dalla carnagione cosi pallida e delicata che doveva trattarsi di un turista appena reduce dall'inverno dell'emisfero settentrionale.

Rivolgendosi al cane, disse: "Avanti va, dacci u portafogghiu."

Docilmente l'animale depose il portafoglio sulla scarpa di Nando.

"Ma come ha fatto a sapere che era il mio?"

"Oh. Gaspare non sbaglia mai. Ha sentito il vostro odore."

Ammutolito dall'emozione, Nando seguì in silenzio lo straniero e il cane.

"Mi piace sentirvi parlare in dialetto. Ormai là sopra ‑le dita sottili indicarono vagamente l'emisfero del nord‑ non lo fa più quasi nessuno."

 

      "Ma allora siete arrivato da poco."

"Sì, infatti sto qui in visita."

Nando sentì nel suo alito il profumo delle betulle della Sila.

"E da dove venite?"

"Dalla Calabria, come voi. Mi chiamo Rocco... abitate qui? Che bella casa."

"Accomodatevi, prego" Nando non riusciva a dominare un tremito nella voce, "vi faccio assaggiare il mio vino novello."

Il tempo passò piacevolmente. L'ospite divenne ciarliero.

"E' proprio bello qui," disse Rocco, porgendo il. bicchiere per farselo riempire, "ma c'é solo una cosa che mi preoccupa."

"Che cosa?"

"Mi hanno detto che in questo paese non si costruiscono cripte in cimitero. L'idea, di dover marcire sottoterra... non so," i suoi begli occhi castani si inumidirono, " perdonatemi, forse divento troppo emozionate su certi argomenti, soprattutto dopo un buon bicchiere di vino, e il vostro è davvero speciale."

Nando gliene versò ancora.

"Siete molto gentile," proseguì "ma non dovrei. Finirò per diventare brillo.  Non voglio

perdere la strada di casa."

Nando si schiarì la gola.

"Io ce l'ho  una stanza per gli ospiti."

In piena notte Nando fu svegliato dal cane che grattava alla porta del suo padrone. Si alzò per vedere cosa succedeva.

"Vuole che metta fuori Gaspare?" chiese davanti alla porta chiusa, "di dietro é tutto recintato."

Nessuna risposta. Molto delicatamente Nando aprì la porta. Tutto si sarebbe aspettato tranne che trovare il suo ospite morto. Steso sul letto, appariva del tutto sereno: I suoi tratti delicati risaltavano sulla testata di jarrah. E a quel punto un'idea, che gli fluttuava nell' inconscio fin dal primo momento che l'aveva visto, venne a galla all'improvviso.

Corse alla toletta e cominciò a frugare freneticamente nel cassetto inferiore. E li, fra carte e documenti sbiaditi, trovò ciò che cercava: un'immagine di San Rocco, patrono di Casignana. Incredibile: la stessa. barba scura, quel pallore, quegli occhi così grandi. Certo, il cane del ritratto era più grosso, ma dopotutto qui si era  in Australia.

Chiaro dunque... si rimise a letto dove sapeva di poter riflettere meglio. Rimuginò per qualche ora sull'intera faccenda, e infine lo Spirito Santo parlò a Nando. Al mattino ordinò un carico di mattoni, uno di sabbia e quattro sacchi di cemento. Verso la metà del pomeniggio si mise all`opera.

"Ho deciso di costruirmi un forno a legna," spiegò a quella ficcanaso della sua vicina, "Non c'é niente di meglio di una bella pagnotta fatta in casa."

"Il vecchio stavolta é proprio uscito di testa," disse Jacinta al compagno di turno, mentre spiava attraverso le persiane della stanza da letto, "Dio santo, s'é messo a  costruire un forno nel cuore di North Perth!"

 

Quantunque il cane ululasse per ore e ore accanto alla costruzione facendo ammattire il vicinato, nessuno avrebbe sospettato niente se la figlia di un amico non si fosse ammalata gravemente. Mosso a compassione dalla grande angoscia dei familiari, Nando suggerì una novena. Una piccola folla, rosario alla mano, prese a riunirsi ogni giomo in giardino intorno al "santuario".

Era impossibile che tutta quella baraonda passasse inosservata. Jacinta, che era solita a ricevere le visite di un numero sospettamente elevato di signori di mezza età cominciava a perdere clienti in maniera allarmante. E così chiamò la polizia.

Una sera, mentre la congregazione era inginocchiata (con l'inferma avvolta nel "sacro drappo", cioé nella veste da camera che Rocco aveva indossato), la polizia fece irruzione nella casa. Le autorità disposero che il cadavere, ormai in avanzato stato di decomposizione, fosse cremato, e Nando, cui fu diagnosticata una grave depressione provocata dalla perdita della moglie, venne sottoposto a una cura di Prozac.

Inizialmente la sua richiesta di avere le ceneri fu respinta, ma poiché nessun altro si fece avanti gli permisero di tenerle, a patto che non tentasse di ricostruire il "santuario" per conservarle. A dimostrazione della sua buona fede, Nando dissodò il terreno, vi sparse le ceneri e vi piantò qualche cespuglio, fra cui una pianta di gelsomino.

Col tempo, e con l'aiuto del farmaci, Nando arrivò a convincersi che l'intera vicenda era stata un'aberrazione. Ma poi accadde qualcosa di strano: il gelsomino prese a crescere a un ritmo prodigioso, sovrastò i cespugli che lo circondavano, s'aggrovigliò in maniera incredibile e nel giro di pochi mesi divenne una massa verdescuro più alta della costruzione demolita.

In primavera esplose in una profusione di fiori che spandevano il loro profumo per tutto il giardino e anche verso l'alto, purificando l'aria dalle esalazioni della città. Nella quiete della sera Nando e il cane, inebriati dalla fragranza, sedevano in veranda. Ogni volta che la brezza dell'Oceano Indiano portava un alito di profurno, particolarmente intenso, il cane socchiudeva gli occhi assonnati e guaiva.

"Sì, sì, Gaspare, lo so," ridacchiava Nando con gusto cospiratorio, "é San Rocco che é  tornato a farci visita, ma ssss," sussurrava col dito sulle labbra, "non dobbiamo farlo sapere a nessuno."

 

Antonio Casella

 

LA VENDETTA DI SATANA

 

Antonio Casella

 

 

"Che barba!" disse Satana, lustrando, con la punta della sua magnifica coda un enorme diamante che portava al mignolo (un tic che tradiva la sua inquietudine), "Quest'umanità moderna é terribilmente noiosa. Cosa possiamo fare?"

Seduto sul trono, guardava di sbieco i demoni del Gran Concilio Satanico, cercando di scorgere in quegli occhi di bragia una scintilla di diabolica ispirazione. C'erano tutti, tutti e tredici al gran completo: Belzebù, Asmadai, Ronwe, Mammon, Xafane, Nisroch, Azaziele, Axiel, Moloch, Adramalech, Arioch, Ramiel e Crino. Facce che sopportava da tempo immemore.

Azaziele trasse una profonda boccata dalla sua sigaretta rollata, senza curarsi del fatto che la cartina gli era rimasta appiccicata alla ferita sul labbro. Era una posa, un'affettazione di machismo. Lucifero ebbe un fremito. A tanto si era giunti, dunque! Non bastava dover sopportare gli idioti e gli imbecilli, ma anche dei patetici poseurs.

"Sono assolutamente, tragicamente, disperatamente stufo," disse infine emettendo un sospiro che mandò un soffio gelido lungo la schiena dei demoni.

Che fare? pensarono. Quella malinconica passività di Lucifero, non sarebbe durata a lungo. Come ben sapevano, il suo umore poteva di colpo tramutarsi in crudeltà spietata (come quella volta che ‑ per semplice malumore - aveva incaricato Arioch di indurre in tentazione quella noiosissima Madre Teresa, perchè si comprasse una collana di rubini e diamanti). E tutto per via di quella maledetta noia che era, insieme alla vanità il suo principale punto debole. Inventare nuovi modi per alleviare la noia di Lucifero era per i demoni la preoccupazione più assillante.

"Hai recitato magnificamente la tua tragedia," disse con enfasi quel viscido rospo di Asmadai. Era un debole tentativo, blando e patetico, per distrarlo. Lucifero, se ne rese conto ma apprezzò comunque il gesto, anche se l'effetto fu rovinato dal fastidioso sghignazzare di Crino, che scambiava scherzose intimità con Azaziele.

Come si pentì di avere concesso a quel piccolo e fatuo damerino un seggio permanente nel Gran Concilio Satanico! Certo, se si fosse trovato in una migliore disposizione d'animo, Lucifero, si sarebbe ricordato di come, non tanto tempo prima, egli stesso avesse nutrito un interesse tutt'altro che passeggero per le labbra color mirtillo di Crino e per le sue orecchiette volpine che fremevano al solo indizio di… ah, meglio lasciar perdere.

A quel tempo era anche passato sopra a certe sue abitudini stravaganti, come quando quel diavoletto si era messo in testa di tingersi un'intera striscia del pelo dorsale d'un colore rosa cherubino.

"É proprio così" concordò Belzebù, "questa umanità moderna è del tutto insipida. Che delusione! Ma dove sono andati a finire gli Attila e i Nerone, gli Ivan e i de Sade di una volta? Non c'è che un rimedio", e a questo punto gli occhi indolenti di Belzebù s'accesero di colpo della luce che brilla negli occhi del gourmand davanti a una tavola appena imbandita‑ "Quello che ci vorrebbe è una guerra. Ma una guerra vera, dico, non queste patetiche scaramucce che vi siete inventati negli ultimi tempi.”

Lucifero trasalì. Non gli era sfuggito il tono d'accusa contenuto in quel "siete". Possibile che quel deficiente sognasse ancora di spodestarlo?

"Una guerra!" esclamò Crino, "ma che idea trita!"

Lucifero non poté che dargli ragione. Di tutto quel branco di diavoli ottusi Crino era l'unico dotato di una qualche finezza. Peccato che sprecasse tanto talento in frivolezze. E poi addirittura con Azaziele, figuriamoci!

"Hai proprio ragione, Belzebú," disse Lucifero, tormentandosi il lobo dell'orecchio sinistro, dove si era localizzato un subitaneo flusso di disprezzo nei confronti del suo vice, "Non riesco a concepire niente di così noioso come le guerricciole di questi tempi. Ormai é tutto un Wham! Bum! Paff! ed é già finita. Niente più passione, sofferenza, eroismo. La grande passion", scandì Lucifero, arrotando la 'r' col gusto di chi assapora le prime succose pesche della stagione, "Oh, se almeno tornasse in voga il francese! Conferiva un tono tutto particolare alla conversazione mondana. Questo abominevole inglese ha privato la lingua di qualsiasi finezza."

"Beh, si sa che é tutta colpa dell'imperialismo americano," sintromise Xafane, il Demonio Filosofo laureato in Causa ed Effetto.

Il solo accenno agli Amenicani fece drizzare la coda a Lucifero.

"Nessuno, capì bene che cosa c'entrasse la cultura pop americana, anche se tutti riconobbero che esisteva.

"Ecco, una pestilenza: mandiamogli un'epidemia!" si entusiasmò Asmadai, pensando così di ingraziarsi Satana.

"Mi sembra un'ottima idea", interloquì nuovamente quella faccia da gufo di Xafane, "Quel che manca in tutto questo é  proprio la colpa. Queste creature pensano di poter commettere un delitto senza provare neanche un briciolo di colpa. Magari si ammazzano fra di loro, ma non lo fanno mai per rancore personale... o per invidia..."

"0 per gelosia..." insinuò Azaziele, osando lanciare al Maestro uno sguardo carico di sottintesi.

Lucifero avrebbe potuto annientare quel demonio insolente, ma… noblesse oblige, soprattutto in pubblico.

"0 per gelosia, o per rabbia, o per odio. Non c'é  più coinvolgimento personale. Solo un atto meccanico, senza causa ed effetto. Dunque la domanda da porci é: perché? C'é sempre un grande perché che volteggia sopra domande di questo genere. Perché manca la sofferenza? E la passione? Pensateci su, cari condiavoli".

"Mandiamogli una bella guerra," ribadì Belzebù, perché  la sola prospettiva di dover mettersi a pensare gli procurava il mal di testa. Xafane proseguì.

" Èchiaro comunque, che ciò che manca é la paura".

"La paura?" domandò qualcuno.

"Si, paura ... paura.... pauraaa…" tuonò la voce sonora di Xafane, "abbiamo dato loro tante cose, tanti di quei giocattolini che, beh, ora magari pensano di poter controllare il loro destino."

"Balle!" sentenziò l'insopportabile Azaziele, dandosi arie da filosofo scalzo, "Non pretendo di essere un gran filosofo, ma di una cosa sono certo: abbiamo dato loro la bomba, e questo li ha atterriti molto più della semplice minaccia dell'inferno."

"Ben detto, Azino!" esclamò Crino con più entusiasmo di quanto l'occasione richiedesse. A questo punto gli occhi di carbone ardente di Azaziele si volsero verso di lui e, con un sorriso complice, gli disse "Grazie, Crino!", e trasse un'altra gran tirata dalla sua sigaretta.

Benché il suo rango e la sua carica gli impedissero di manifestarlo, apertamente, Lucifero illividì. Era vero, dunque? Quei due erano in lega contro di lui! Il fatto che  quel diavoletto, che egli aveva onorato della sua simpatia, avesse stabilito una liaison con quel rivoltante muso da caprone di Azaziele lo ferì sul vivo. E poi si trattava anche di una questione di potere.

Crino era scaltro, intelligente e ambizioso. La sua promozione a membro del Concilio aveva colto tutti di sorpresa. Tutti, s'intende, tranne Lucifero (che ora, ripensandoci, si stava chiedendo se non avesse lasciato che il suo cuore offuscasse un po' troppo la ragione). Oltretutto il potere del giovane demone era in ascesa. Tutti sapevano del suo crescente successo nel sedurre le anime dei giovani. Considerando, inoltre, le schiere sempre, più consistenti di vagabondi, regetti ed emarginati che gravitavano intorno a lui, si poteva radunare una forza formidabile che avrebbe potuto, dare molto fastidio a Lucifero.

"Riprendendo il nostro discorso, o piuttosto il discorso iniziato da Xafane", e qui Lucifero elargì al filosofo un sorriso appena accennato ma, inequivocabile, "l'argomento era ben impostato. La paura é indubbiamente il punto centrale, quantunque Xafane non abbia spiegato a che genere di paura si riferisse, cosa che avrebbe certamente fatto se qualcuno non  l' avesse interrotto..." E a questo punto lo sguardo burbero di Lucifero, passò in rassegna l'intera sala, "Xafane, ti autorizzo a continuare.”

proprio così. La vera, autentica paura é la paura dell'ignoto. La bomba non é un mistero. Anche se il suo potere é devastante, non ha confronti  col cupo e intenso terrore provocato, ad esempio, da un bel fantasma vecchio stile. La bomba, a mio avviso, é stata un grave errore, perché ha messo nelle mani dell'umanità il proprio destino. 0, almeno, gli uomini pensano che sia così, il che, tutto sommato, é la stessa cosa."

"Allora mandiamo un bel terremoto o qualcosa del genere," disse Belzebù, a cui piacevano le soluzioni spicciative.

"Bah, insomma..." proseguì Xafane "Senza dubbio é meglio della guerra, ma ciò che manca  é l'elemento della motivazione. Capite, se agli uomini si presenta un motivo facilmente identificabile (cosa che diventata molto difficile, in questi tempi di scetticismo), il senso di colpa rinascerà. Paura più senso di colpa: ecco la formula vincente."

"Lo so, lo so, Xafane", disse Lucifero in una voce fin troppo accorata per un demonio del suo rango. Quei due gli avevano rovinato l'umore. "Quando penso alle splendide tragedie che nascevano dal semplice atto di mangiare una mela, a quello squisito tumulto, alle geniali ripercussioni che duravano secoli e secoli.... Ora invece ammazzano il vicino di casa, tradiscono l'amico, ripudiano le figlie e non gliene importa nulla."

"Peggio: non si rendono neppure conto di averlo fatto" disse Xafane  "la verità é che per estendere il nostro potere li abbiarno convinti che il peccato non esiste. Sono accorsi da noi in massa, ma il prezzo che abbiamo pagato é che adesso non ci temono più e non credono neanche più in noi. Per loro, cari condiavoli, siamo diventati totalmente irrilevanti."

Profondo silenzio nel Gran Salone Satanico. Un silenzio che Xafane s'affrettò a riempire con ulteriori parole di saggezza.

"Questo é il problerna: come ricreare quelle epoche splendide in cui gli uomini e le donne conoscevano il senso della sofferenza? Quei tempi in cui ciascuno, era in balia della propria sofferenza e quindi in nostro potere".

"Ridatemi i secoli bui," lamentò nostalgicamente Lucifero, "il seducente ascetisrno del Mondo Medioevale, i deliziosi eccessi dell'inquisizione. Voglio che le donne e gli uomini siano consapevoli del peccato. Impegnandoci a convincerli a peccare, senza provare rimorso, abbiarno distrutto il peccato. Abbiarno compromesso la qualità della vita: la loro e la nostra. Soprattutto, abbiamo trasformato l'esistenza in un grande tedium. E questo é imperdonabile."

"Veramente non capisco perché dobbiamo prendercela tanto" disse bruscamente Crino, "e poi, chi se ne frega di ciò che fanno gli esseri umani?"

Lucifero era troppo astuto per cadere nella provocazione di un subalterno. Il suo sguardo indagatore esaminò tutti i presenti, fermandosi poi sull'ottusa faccia da rospo di Asmadai, il quale  fu pronto a rispondere.

"Lucifero, il nostro amato padre onnipotente, é stanco di loro," gracchiò "C'é  bisogno di aggiungere altro?"

A questo punto Crino fece una cosa davvero insolente, lanciò un rapido sorriso ad Azaziele e disse, "Io non mi annoio affatto; e tu, Azazuccio?"

Azaziele tossicchiò con ironia e aspirò una gran boccata di fumo.

"Neanch'io"  rispose con un sogghigno.

Lucifero prese mentalmente nota e per il momento lasciò correre. Ma tutti i membri del Concilio, tranne quei due temerari, il cui buonsenso era certamente annebbiato dal fatto che dietro la sedia avevano le code teneramente intrecciate, sapevano, che Lucifero, non era tipo da dimenticare un affronto.

"E' chiaro," disse lui, tornando, bruscamente al plurale majestatis, mentre da rosso porpora il pelo gli diventava violaceo, "che ci troviamo davanti a un dilemma irrisolto. Esamineremo la questione e decideremo a tempo opportuno".

Quella sera Satana diede una festa spettacolare, a cui parteciparono, tutti  gli illuminati, le stelle, i letterati, insomma tutti i personaggi del bel mondo infemale. Lui fece, come sempre, un ingresso trionfale. Apparve su un maestoso trono d'oro bianco, incastonato di diamanti, rubini e perle, con lapislazzuli di un azzurro da notte d'Arabia, granate vermiglie e innumerevoli altre pietre preziose. Era sorretto da quattro poderosi eunuchi e quattro maestose amazzoni che indossavano stole color arancione e giallo zafferano. Seguiva un corteo di concubine di molte razze, di elfi e demoni con la testa d'animale, di danzatrici del ventre  serpentino, di lottatori Sumo dai flanchi debordanti, di nani che si esibivano in vertiginose capriole, e tanti altri.

Accanto a Lucifero sedeva una stupenda fanciulla egizia, alta e statuaria, il cui manto s'apriva sull'abbagliante panorama del suo corpo. Dal collo le pendeva un magnifico rebus pectoris che accarezzava le colline dei seni coronati da fresche cime color ebano.

Quanto a Lucifero... non esistono parole adeguate a descriverne la magnificenza. Solo la fantasia può rendergli giustizia. E sia. Ma va fatto almeno un cenno alla sua splendida coda (la cui importanza nel mondo degli inferi non va sottovalutata). Essa si ergeva sulla sua spina dorsale, fasciata da un calzerotto ricamato in oro e tempestato di gemme variopinte fin su all'estremità, dove la pelliccia si apriva come un fiore sul suo stelo dorato per arricciarsi, vaporosa e trionfante, sopra il fiero capo di Lucifero. Era come se fossero tornati i tempi d'oro.

Anche gli intrattenimenti furono di prima qualità. Dopo il teatro noir, gli incontri di lotta e le consuete orge, il popolarissimo Marchese de Sade si esibì in un'intensa lettura de " Il pozzo e il pendolo" di Poe. Ma il meglio, come sempre, venne alla fine.

Il palazzo di Lucifero sorgeva  in cima a un colle che s'affacciava sulla Valle dell' Amore Proibito. A mezzanotte in punto Lucifero ‑da quel gran romanticone che é-  ordinò che saprisse il sipario. Al di là del gran terrazzo che dava sulla vallata apparve una miriade di scene di corteggiamento: coppie agonizzanti di amanti in delirio, il cui amore era destinato a non realizzarsi mai. In lungo e in largo per l'intera valle, da una parete rocciosa all'altra, echeggiarono struggenti invocazioni: promesse, accuse e recriminazioni tali da spezzare il cuore al più incallito, dei diavoli.

Il clou si ebbe quando una nota coppia di colombi innamorati, Paolo e Francesca, si esibì in un'eterea danza d'amore proprio sotto il terrazzo. Alternavano movimenti lievi e fluttuanti a repentine piroette, delicate evoluzioni aeree ad avvitamenti acrobatici, scandendo il tutto con battiti d'ali perfettamente modulati e un sensuale tubare di colombi. Lo spettacolo esprimeva, con grande eleganza, tutta la tragica e dolorosa intensità di più di settecento anni d'amore inappagato. E quando infine gli sventurati amanti sparirono nell'oscurità della valle in un turbinio d'aria, non un solo diavolo aveva gli occhi asciutti.

Non appena tutti i presenti si riebbero da quella sublime catarsi, Lucifero decretò che i demoni si riunissero nella Gran Sala per un annuncio ufficiale. Nello squallido ambiente del Concilio, stremato dalla noia, si era sentito a disagio, e vulnerabile. Ma qui, in tanta spettacolare fastosità Lucifero non aveva rivali.

"Miei cari condiavoli, ho riflettuto a lungo e intensamente sui problemi sollevati oggi durante la riunione del Gran Concilio. Concordiamo tutti sul fatto che la mancanza di stimoli emotivi é alla radice del grave malaise che affligge gli odierni mortali. Il punto  sta qui: come si esce da questa situazione?

"Sono state avanzate tre proposte. Prima di tutto una calamità naturale, come un terremoto, un diluvio, o un incendio. Non nego certamente che la prospettiva di, diciamo, una Città del Messico risucchiata dalle fameliche fauci d'un vortice sarebbe una visione sublime, direi anzi quasi troppo bella, per resistere alla tentazione..."

A questo punto nell'assemblea scrosciò un lungo, caloroso applauso.

"Così come," proseguì Lucifero sulla stessa linea, assaporando il suo successo, " Così come una Los Angeles divorata dalle fiamme o una Napoli sommersa dall'eruzione del Vesuvio. E qui ancora grandi applausi mentre i demoni,, ai quali in questo senso non manca sicuramente la fantasia, visualizzavano un milione e mezzo di esuberanti napoletani in preda a un parossismo di terrore.

" Ma io ho resistito a tutte queste tentazioni perché non scioglierebbero il nodo, della questione: sarebbero, soltanto gratificazioni di breve durata. Gli uornini dimenticano subito tutto (È una delle loro caratteristiche più irritanti) e così il problema si ripresenterebbe molto presto.

"Quanto alla guerra, condivido 1'opinione tanto bene espressa dal nostro eminente filosofo Xafane. No: occorre qualcosa che duri a lungo, che abbia un impatto limitato ma effetti molto estesi. E inoltre dobbiamo dare la percezione che la causa stia tutta nel loro comportamento…"

Un coro di "Giusto! Giusto!" echeggiò nella sala.

"…Non rimane quindi che un'epidemia, come consiglia uno dei più saggi e incisivi fra i membri del nostro Concilio, Asmadai. Non occorre che io vi ricordi, cari demoni, i grandi successi riportati in passato quando abbiamo fatto ricorso a misure simili. Pensate solo alla Morte Nera e a tutte le sue ripercussiorni,  in termini di paura, di sospetto, di colpa, di annientamento."

I diavoli si leccarorno le labbra, riassaporando  nostalgicamente il piacere di quei tempi.

"Questa volta, per dare ancor più forza al nostro messaggio, ho decretato che il contagio debba avvenire tramite una 'condotta colpevole'. Ciò dovrebbe produrre sensi di rimorso, paura, discordia; e disseminare il sospetto. Vi renderete conto che si tratta di una missione delicatissima, tale da richiedere grande sottigliezza e competenza..."

A questo punto Lucifero si rivolse a Crino.

"Fatti avanti, Crino".

Crino era sul punto di protestare, ma non per niente Lucifero viene chiamato 'Il Gran Macchinatore'.

"Lascia stare, Crino. Non é necessario che tu ci esprima la tua gratitudine. Fra un intero stuolo di demoni più che degni, noi, nella nostra saggezza, abbiamo prescelto proprio te perché siamo consapevoli che sarai all'altezza di questa cruciale missione. Va', dunque, e rendici orgogliosi di te. E.... prendi tutto il tempo che vuoi. Saremo noi a richiamarti quando lo riterremo opportuno".

Scroscianti applausi. Dopodicché  a Crino non restò altra scelta che quella di riempirsi le valige col mortale farmaco appositmente preparato da Adramalech,  alchimista dei demoni.

E così, all'alba, mentre it secondo millennio si apprestava a compiere gli ultimi giri, Crino (ancora sofferente per i postumi di quella sfrenata notte di piacere) si mise in viaggio per andare a propagare il virus fra gli umani, quale terribile monito che é loro dovere alleviare la gravosa noia di Lucifero.