back




G R A N D I O S E    C Y C L O T H Y M I A

by Miracle Jones





How loud will death be?  Will it come as a mind-filling bang, as the wretched double blow of an ill-moored ship’s cannon? Or will it be a rising silence—dirty guncotton plunged slowly into each ear until the oily rags converge?

Do thoughts diminuendo until you can no longer hear your own voice, not even as a voice in a dream, not even as the bombination of voracious insects in a warm field of God’s sunshine? Or does your terrified brain fill up with thunder at the very end like a raging megrim that rips your head apart as you disappear into the abyss, your exquisite interior palazzo just another exploding barque sinking on the horizon?

Will death be infinitely loud or will death be infinitely quiet?

I get no satisfying answers from my dottori now. They tell me lies, fearful of my rages. They lie to me about the weight of the soul as measured in a floating corpse. They lie to me about how the water goes down to a measurable degree if this struggling carcass drowns in a tub. They lie about how this means that the soul, in weight, has exited the body, thus proving immortality. They lie to me about how the weight of a pregnant woman increases tangibly during the quickening, when an infant psyche first enters the plastic flesh in her womb as measured by this child’s first tangible physical spasms. They lie not just about corporeal phenomena, but they also lie about supposedly universal personal experiences of the soul’s passage, such as the white flame that presages the almighty chorus of angels who absolve the dying human animal from his final duties at the moment of quietus. They lie that this phenomenon has been documented by Roman consuls who were able to narrate their own deaths past the curtain of consciousness as a result of their dedicated Stoical training. They lie right to my face, saying that the proof is all right there in Origen and Aquinas, as if I can’t read the Latin myself.

They’re so full of shit that I could fertilize roses with the vapors spewed from all their chucking and churring. But they’re the only real authorities I have on the subject. My dottori have seen more death than any toothless grenadier or drunk pikeman. Soldiers are babies. Give them any tit to suck and they’ll murder for you, but they’ll cry about it later, hiding themselves from God in your skirts. Dottori, on the other hand, wallow in the lore of annihilation practically and without illusions like whores bathing in perfume in preparation for their daily mounting. Dottori cut the strings that tie women to their mewling spawn without blinking, without achieving even the mildest erection at the sensuous screams and tortured stretchings. The mother bleeds out and they whistle on down the lane to their next paying gull, daydreaming about their coffers filling with the gold of their victims. Death is their profession. Death is their pimp and paymaster.

My fevers have taught me that death will be a close personal thing—bright and intense—even though my dottori lie to me and tell me that death is like falling asleep. I refuse the sleep-inducing draughts they bring, denying them their narcotic falsehoods. They tell me I must rest! But there can be no rest when you’re being eaten alive by your own festering corruption.

In fever, I make a proclamation. I tell my Chamberlain that a new law must be carved on the walls of my courts: any love proclaimed in a dream, if certified by a priest, counts as a solemn contractual promise to marry in the waking world. I want everyone in Mantua to guard their hearts while I can still make them fear me.  I want them to fear each other, to cease their spurtings, tumblings, and seductions. I want them to hew as close to their own thoughts in solitude as I must cleave to mine. While I yet live, this new law will teach them to be careful about those they think about too loudly. To be careful about those whose longings they try to hear too keenly.

Despite the promise I extract from my trembling Chamberlain, I do not actually care if my new law is etched, duplicated, and distributed. How would it even be enforced? I know my court thinks me mad. But it is art; it is metaphor. Demanding impossible things makes me feel better.

I send my advisors away. They are relieved to be out of my sight. Alone, I lay in my bed and I stare at my wound.

I know the turn of every flap. I know the contour of every angle. I know the hue of every fester. The rain swells my wound. The heat puffs it.

It will not close.

No matter how I squeeze and twist, it will not pinch shut.

There is too much pus, too much inflammation. It is a killing wound.

There are stripes now: lines of infection where I was once told that the wound would seal. I see the blistering ooze where it has inflated yet again and has begun to leak, soaking my useless bandages. My dottori wrap me and wash me daily. It does no good. They feed me raw meat. They swish around my ducal piss in glass beakers, whispering about its color and cloudiness. I pay them for this. I force them to crimp my wound and burn it. They wash the leaking edges and drain it when the pustules grow so large that they must be tapped and spilled. 

The maddening itch is constant. I cannot walk more than a few steps without collapsing. I expand and liquify in my bed, impatiently awaiting oblivion’s merciless candlesnuffer. My lustrous black hair falls from my head in patchy tangles. My barbiere has artfully hidden the worst damage, threading my black locks with the hair of a horse which has been bred to match me. In fever, I tell him I will cut out his tongue with his own shears at the first rumor of my baldness. 

A sovereign must always appear indomitable or else there will be total social collapse. My body is the body of the state. My barbiere’s knowledge of my body’s betrayal—no matter how trivial—is therefore a state secret.

I should cut out his tongue anyway. Barbiere should be as silent as those who wash the dead: they should be submissive, tender, and precise. Barbiere steal life for a living, pruning away the evidence of time, and so therefore they should also know exquisite loss.

It is decided: the mouths of barbiere shall be sewn shut with the very hairs they cut. When I am better.

“Where is the wound in Mantua that matches the wound in my thigh?” I scream at my Chamberlain. “Carry me there!”

I would submerge myself inside this ravine, rubbing the slimy edges with my bearded cheeks, tasting the pink drippings, mapping the progress of the expanding crevice so that my engineers might plaster the depths and fresco the walls.


***


A miracle!  The stays of despair are slashed open to expose hope’s heaving breasts. The bright sunshine of possibility steps out of her miserable fairy costume of failure and falls quivering to her knees. Suck, sunshine! Suck sunny pig of hope until you weep and gag!

My frail little army of opera dorks, assassins, and libertines has sacked Venice. We’ve ransomed the nobility where they’ve hidden in their colleges. We’ve put their professors on boats and brought them here in shackles. They’ll do my bidding or their wives will be fucked to death by diseased sodomites in our gaols and their daughters made public, taxed by the state for every splash of life they do not swallow.

These hostages conspire against me already. But their research into factual and repeatable scientific medicine cannot be denied. Hope returns. Hope! According to my lances, these Venetian dottori revere an anatomist named Gobbo above all other men. He’s been directing them this past decade of their decadence, leading their work in dissection and classification. Gobbo has even surfaced, bravely announcing himself to spare others more inquisition. He will be brought here before me. Will there be sexual longing in his bleary brown orbs when he gazes on my exceptional gash? They say this man has raised the dead and sanitized the insane. They say he has cut byblows out of the Doge’s favorite fallen cousins to live against nature, keeping the Doge’s rosy portals to paradise alive to breed again.

I make it known that I will triple the budget that the Doge allocated to Gobbo for his medical investigations. Gobbo will recognize an equal in me. He will apply what I’ve learned as a physician of the state to my ailing body. We’ll work together—brothers of method—to first heal my leg and then heal this land.

Any infection of rebellion will soon be salted and cured like Parma ham. Spread for me, hope!  Every wet hole that hope covers in shame belongs to me now and I will ravish them with the same jubilant bravura as my expert puncturing of Venice.


***


Wrinkled old Gobbo tells me that he’s never seen a wound like mine before. He tells me I should have either scabbed by now or that I should already be dead. He does not understand how the fester hasn’t yet reached my blood. How my organs have not burst with replicating purulence. He carefully jokes that I therefore might live forever.

“Forever in this agony?” I ask.

“To manage a state competently is always agony,” he chuckles.

I tell him about my fevers. How they come and go. He tells me that this is a good sign. He tells me that perhaps I’m making myself sick with worry. He says that my body wants to heal but that I’m resisting my body’s natural processes. He suggests that I might cover the wound so that I do not see it. That I might go about my business as if it does not exist. He offers me Venetian techniques for diverting my thoughts. Ergotic wafers, to provoke St. Anthony’s Fire. Self-abuse. The Turkish pipe.

I order him to be whipped and then returned to me.

He returns sufficiently chastened. He’s a new man with a new prepossessing limp. He no longer carries himself like a Venetian dandy but instead has the careful wisdom of a Mantuan thrall, complete with his own open wounds to contemplate. Is he ready to take commands?  I do not tolerate familiarity, even from an equal mind. This is not a collegiate symposium.

“Perhaps you are now ready to apply yourself to the actual problem,” I tell him.

“I’ve indeed been thinking hard about your affliction, my lord,” he says. “I’ve put myself in communication with certain Jesuits who have strong ideas about methods of inquiry capable of achieving repeatable results. But I cannot promise an ending to your suffering, no matter how much you discipline me. As a man of science yourself, surely you understand the limitations of knowledge we face together.”

“I’ve also been through Jesuitical training,” I inform him. “Forty days of privation and prayer. I emerged closer to God. Pray continue.”

“Your wound is unique,” he tells me. “I’ll need to know more about how you acquired it if I’m to proceed. I’ve heard rumors…”

“What rumors?” I demand.

“There are those who believe that a wound such as yours must have some element of black magic to it,” he says. “Some kind of enchantment.”

“Controsenso,” I say. “Total bullshit. And please now tell me the exact provenance of these rumors.”

“Venetian sheep drovers,” he says quickly. “Dead now from grief. However, what assassin wouldn’t want to know how to create a gash that never closes or a wound that never heals?  Were you slashed in such a fashion, my lord?  Was this wound the product of such a vendetta? If there is some poison in the wound…”

“I was drunk,” I tell him. “Fully drunk on an empty stomach. Two donas goaded me to dance. I slipped on a piece of silk beside my bed. A woman’s undergarments. We were watching ourselves fuck in a giant oval glass propped against my commode. I tried to catch myself and failed, lurching into the piece. It was a wedding present from the Swiss. I cracked it, creating fractures and shards. I slid my leg down a new edge in the silvered flash. My flesh kept ripping as I tried to pull myself away. I was too drunk to be gentle with myself.”

“And where is the glass now?”

“Shattered. The frame cut to pieces with an ax. Burned.”

“And the women? Can they be questioned?”

I don’t answer him. He lowers his eyes.

“They laughed when I fell,” I say. “They couldn’t help themselves.”

“Can a similar glass be acquired?” he asks, taking a deep breath. “For study?”

“I’ll send for one,” I tell him. “But you should not wait for it to arrive before you begin treatment.”

“No, my duke,” he says. “Treatment will begin immediately.”

“There’s more,” I tell him. His thoughts about poison rankle me. He is right: I must keep nothing from him if I expect results.

“Go on,” he says.

“When I fell, I fell right into a pan of urine and night soil beside my bed that had yet to be emptied. I bled into the pan for awhile before I could be lifted and turned.”

He nods.

“The glass will dictate the nature of the treatment,” he informs me.  “I’ll also need prisoners.”

“Prisoners?” I ask him, smiling now. “Prisoners of your own? Just as you are a prisoner to me?”

“Yes, my lord,” he says. “Of your age and build. Approximately.”


***


I order Gobbo to be given his own staff. I allow him to provision his own research facilities. I order my own cuochi to craft meals for Gobbo, though he takes very little food or drink. His jowls begin to match the bags under his eyes. He’s become a very serious man and I appreciate the humorlessness he cultivates. The more joyless he grows, the more I reward him with life’s pleasures. I thrill to see him so engrossed in his business that he does not appreciate the taste of a chocolate cherry washed down with champagne or glory to the feel of rich brocade on sun-bronzed skin. I send him taffeta marinated in malted finocchio so that he might wipe his own ass the same way that the pope wipes his. He scribbles on his parchment in his clumsy codes which are broken each night by my spies. He’s making lists of symptoms along timelines. He’s preparing designs for some grand Venetian experiment. I am satisfied that he’s truly on about his business.

The new glass arrives from over the mountains, brought by covered wagon. The campaign brings tales of banditi in the passes; close calls and nightly raids by rebels barely repelled. I order several young men hanged and declare them to have been the leaders of this criminal rebellion, hoping to cause a season of quiet in the city. I feel the rebellion’s fire in my thigh. I know I must not slacken in my resolve nor succumb to the lazy treats of mercy. 

There can be no culture without peace. There can be no progress without stability.

When the glass arrives at my palazzo, the package is opened to reveal a fracture along the top edge. I’m furious, but Gobbo assures me that this will not alter his plans.

“And what are these plans?” I ask him.

He tells me the broad outlines of his experiment and I can’t help but smile at his brilliance and audacity.

The shards are still held in the frame and the glass is perfectly serviceable otherwise but for some slight bubbling. Despite my satisfaction that the fracture will not alter his designs—that the mirror indeed must be cracked further to achieve his ends—I do order another glass to be sent to me from Switzerland. I am entitled to a perfect mirror.


***

 A bad night. Fever takes my poor brain. I cannot rest, even though I cannot move. I’m spatchcocked by waking dreams, terrible visions of my own face in semen-streaked reflections. I reach out for naked breasts and swelling cocks, the milkable organs of men and whores. These balloons of agony swell with corruption and then burst, blood and yellow infection spilling out from bloated udders and distended ureters. Throbbing red tubes the size of cats are caked with white pustules and pant like tongues, steaming up the mirrors all around me. I scream for the sausage-splitting to end, for the burst casings to be swept aside, for the blemish meat to be squeezed out and wiped clean.

When the morning light blazes on my brow, my fever breaks and I fall into stupor.

I scream for fresh milk from my Chamberlain. The milk is good and sweet. I let it run down my chin, guzzling as I crouch in the sunlight of my window. The warmth of milk is the opposite of the muscle-breaking fire of my ague. I weep with gratitude. I’m still alive.


***

I’m given a tour of what Gobbo now calls his Elaboration.

Gobbo has taken over a flooded old dormitory that once belonged to my carabinieri. He’s made something like a human wasp nest with cells adjoining each other, even pumping out the standing water from the basement using Venetian methods that I’ve quickly ordered to be reverse-engineered and redeployed at all of my estates. 

He's built fifty rooms in the dormitory, each sealed away from the others, each containing not more than a bed and chamber pot. A black-bearded prisoner in their forties has been assigned to each room. They do not all have a patrician’s bearing or a regal appearance, but there are some handsome men counted among them. They’ve each been cleaned and barbered and they are being fed above their station, some of them even given access to the same fruits and wines as me. They’re allowed to circulate in the common areas and they seem to be treating the reassignment from my gaols as something of a holiday. Each of the rooms is somewhat different: there’s a different climate, a different color to the wall, a different kind of bed, a different temperature. 

“Today we begin in earnest,” Gobbo tells me. “I assumed you would want to see the procedure in action in order to appreciate the science of it.”

My men carry me in a chair around the Elaboration, letting me peek into each cell through ingenious sliding windows where I may remain concealed. It’s a bright spring day and my wound does not throb or leak. I cannot stand, but I’ve got more energy than usual. My morale is high, especially upon seeing such delightful pains taken for my own personal benefit.

“Who’ll be first?” I ask Gobbo, eager to begin.

He looks at me for a long time. So long that I fear he is being insolent. But then he looks at the floor and nods, flapping his jowls and eyebags. He instructs my men to cart me to one of the rooms. We enter. There is a man who looks much like a man from my own house, only thinner and taller with a more scraggly beard that has perhaps only been cleaned and oiled for the first time today. He’s eating figs in a spiced clam sauce with his bare hands and he looks up as we enter. He does not recognize me, and why should he?

“And how are we feeling today?” asks Gobbo.

“Salutare as a mulo,” he says. “Will we stay here?”

“Do you like it in this place?” I ask him.

“I would stay here forever!”

Gobbo nods to the men behind me and they grab the prisoner by the neck and shoulders, restraining him. He goes limp instantly, trained to submission by years spent in custody. I lean forward, smelling his subservience, fascinated by what I’ve been told will happen next.

A rag is stuffed into his mouth and then a thick cane is pressed against the rag, hard against his palate to stop his wind. He’s told to clamp his teeth down on the cane. Straps are applied to his head to keep the cane in place. His voice must be muffled so that he doesn’t alert the prisoners in the adjoining rooms to their own fate.

Gobbo unwraps a shard of mirrored glass from red velvet. He holds it out to me.

“Would you like to make the cut?”

“I’m no surgeon,” I tell him.

In fact, I cannot help but merely watch. My arms are weak. My breath is short. But perhaps just seeing the act done will help me heal?

The man’s pantaloons are pulled down and his white thighs are exposed. He’s got a triskelion tattoo: a Gorgon with three legs bent around a leering face in a triangle pattern that marks him as a Sicilian pirate. The blackness of the hairs on his legs contrasted with the paleness of his skin makes my breath catch. Naked, we are the same. My own leg twitches. I feel the dizziness of a slight fever. I make fists in the chair where I sit, willing myself to stay present for this. I must not swoon. I must not let myself be overcome.

Gobbo slashes the man’s thigh in a diagonal, driving the piece of glass deep and grinding it to intentionally make a jagged cut. The man’s cane-muffled silence means that his screams are the only piacere del tormento denied to us. We all lean forward together, tasting of his torture.

Gobbo ties off the wound immediately, applying pressure to the burbling blood, catching the thin torrent in a filthy bucket brought out to keep the floors of the Elaboration from becoming too slippery. There will be much blood leaked today. The cut is nasty and deep. Gobbo presses the flaps of skin together and immediately begins to sew them with needle and thread, creating a rough textured seam like the join of a peasant’s jerkin. When the flaps are sealed enough that the blood stops pouring out of the pirate’s leg in a spurt and the pirate realizes that he is not actually being murdered, the man relaxes. Gobbo soothes him, telling him what will happen next. That he’s part of an experiment. That he’ll keep getting fed here, and that his only job now is to get better. To heal. 

Gobbo crouches to peer into the man’s chamber pot and he sees that it is full of issue. He dumps the chamber pot over the fresh wound, rubbing the urine-feces blend into the latticework of crude sutures like rubbing olive oil into a baking potato. The man drools around the cane in his mouth, kicking his legs and twisting in the arms of my men.

Gobbo wipes his hand on the man’s bedsheets and finally the man is lashed to his own bed by my burly servants. The door is then locked.

“We can’t have any screaming until we are done with all of them,” Gobbo explains. 

“Well plotted,” I tell him. “And so how will this man’s experience differ from my own as a point of illuminating contrast?”

Gobbo checks a parchment hidden inside his tunic. He mutters to himself, looking at the number printed above the man’s cell.

“This patient will not be receiving fruits or vegetables or an allotment of wine,” he tells me. “He’ll eat nothing but meat and he’ll drink nothing but small monkish beer.”

“You really think diet could be so important?” I ask, trying to fly above the crest of fever that threatens to overwhelm me into insensibility. “People’s tastes differ so wildly and yet they do not drop dead due to alimentary prejudice.”

“We must test every possible variable,” says Gobbo. “My lord, we must keep moving. It is important that all the wounds be made at once for the purpose of comparison.”

I nod, gritting my teeth, my fists trembling at my side. I need to see as many of these experiments performed as possible while I still have the strength.

We move to a different floor of the dormitory. I peer into the window of the next room he chooses.

“Astonishing,” I mutter. The man inside has my same eyes, my same jaw. He could be my brother. He’s somewhat broader than I am. Thicker in the chest. His hands are larger and more gnarled. He sits hunched over on his bed, quietly stewing in much the same way that I tend to brood. I move away from the window when he looks up.

“This one looks much as I do,” I tell Gobbo. “We are strikingly similar in manner and appearance. Where did you find him?”

Gobbo looks at his notes. He looks at the number above the cell.

“One of your own soldiers,” he says. “Arrested for treason.”

I stare intently at Gobbo, judging both what he’s just said and the way he’s said it.

“Treason,” I repeat carefully. “And so what do you have planned for him? Something particularly awful as befitting his unforgivable crime? It is astonishing that he still lives.”

“We currently have him set for an all-cherry diet to see if a flowing, emulsified stool will have an effect. We intend to keep him in a room painted blister red where we will keep the temperature high by means of steam.”

“No,” I suggest. “For this one, I would suggest something more extreme. Hand me your paper.”

I look at his notes for a long time. It takes me awhile to parse his crabby handwriting. It’s also true that my eyes are somewhat bleary. It must also be admitted that I do not have total command of my fingers. My hands shake, making his lines difficult to read.

“These are all somewhat arbitrarily apportioned, are they not?”

“Yes,” says Gobbo, his eyes flashing. “Arbitrary but organized.”

“There,” I say, pointing. “Restraint plus darkness for this man. See to it.”

“It will be done,” said Gobbo. “We’ll switch this subject out with the man already assigned down below to that particular fate. But let’s move on for now.”

“No. I gave an order. I’ll go no further until this traitor has been sliced open and sealed in darkness.”

“Are you sure you wish to attend? I’m not sure the dampness will be good for you.”

“We don’t have any idea what will be good for me yet,” I say. “I’m taking a personal interest in this coward. Physically, he seems to be a very likely analogue to me. I’m curious what will happen if he is trussed in the darkness and fed nothing but milk and grain, like a veal calf.”

“The Veal Duke,” Gobbo suggests. He immediately regrets the jest. Yet I’m so pleased by what is transpiring here in his Elaboration that I let it go entirely. I even repeat his jest to him and we both laugh. We laugh together.


***


After the tour, I collapse at my evening meal and I succumb to insensibility. 

I’m told upon waking that I pass more than two weeks in this state. I’m lucid again but famished. Weaker.

All I remember are shadows over me and the smell of fear. The fear is not always my own. I remember passionate arguments. I know from whispered conversations in the other rooms of my bedchambers that my Chamberlain is having a hard time keeping the priests away. I’ll not take extreme unction unless it’s absolutely necessary, especially not from a Jesuit. 

After my stupor, I become obsessed with the certain revelation that dying will come with the same unavoidable inevitability as the feeling of uncontrollable nausea that leads to unwanted vomitus. There will come a moment when it will be impossible to avoid the upswelling bolus of annihilation from my gullet. The resulting rush of blood to my brain will alert me to this moment of oblivion. It will feel exactly the same as the moment when it becomes impossible to hold back egesta. I assume there will be much the same mind-erasing pleasure of relenting to this feeling and also much the same belly-curling terror.

It's possible to choke down vomit. It’s possible to stay absolutely still and to let your heartbeat chase away the dizziness, burning away the poisonous liquor or tainted food with the baleful fire in your blood. If I do not move—if I barely breathe—I can concentrate my own powers against death and overcome this involuntary ejection that erases lesser men with weaker wills. 

I’m learning much about myself. When I recover, there will be none in Italy who might oppose the iron resolve I am cultivating. I’ll someday add Rome herself to my gains in Venice. Total unification of the peninsula will be next. 


***


I’m well enough to hear news from the Elaboration. It’s the only subject I care about.

Many of the men did not survive the first bleeding. Infection set in immediately and the poison they cultivated ruined their blood. One man jumped from his own balcony, screaming that he was being eaten alive by maggots. There were no maggots found present in the puzzle of his flesh when he was scraped from the cobbles below nor otherwise found in his bedclothes nor wriggling in the scat he left behind. He was clearly suffering a derangement, yet it is unclear whether he brought this derangement with him or whether he acquired this derangement as a result of Gobbo’s experiments.

Several of the men have survived and they are being watched constantly for improvements or reverses. I have instructed Gobbo not to provide too much care to any of these men. We want these doubles to experience extremity in order to test any new methods for recovery at the edge. Any discoveries we make that might be transferred onto me will be even more effective if coupled with my own high standards of living.

“What has become of the man with the triskelion tattoo?” I ask, naturally curious about any of those prisoners with whom I’ve established a personal relationship. “The Sicilian pirate?”

“Dead,” says Gobbo. “Died of an infection three days post incision. He went very quickly. He was already somewhat malnourished and he was known to suffer from boils and rashes.”

“And what about my Veal Duke?” I ask, trying to hide my excitement.

Gobbo’s eyes flash. He senses my enthusiasm and he is intrigued by it. The man sees very deeply. He knows I have pinned my hopes on this specimen. The Veal Duke and I could pass as twins. If this traitor experiences the same enduring but unhealable gash that is killing me, we will know more about my own situation. I’ll be able to predict my own limits by testing him first. He could stay in his dark room, restrained and living on milk and pap. It will do me good to know that I’m not alone with my wound. That I have a twinned soul out there in the darkness, soldiering on in the same agony that I must endure. The very idea gives me strength. I feel my spine stiffen and my testicles stir.

“The Veal Duke is thriving,” says Gobbo. “But I’m hesitant to say more as of yet.”

“Thriving?” I gasp.

“The wound sealed immediately and has already begun to knit. Perhaps it is the damp after all. Or the diet?  We’re considering expanding the study in order to dig deeper into the revealed truth. The Elaboration has many new empty rooms now. More prisoners could be found, though there are fresh rumors about our aims in the city. New prisoners will not come willingly.”

“You mean he’s actually going to live?”

“Oh yes,” says Gobbo. “I cannot speak to his sanity after several weeks down there, though he does seem particularly strong-minded.”

“You’ve visited him? You’ve witnessed this miracle with your own eyes?”

“I must confess some surprise,” says Gobbo. “I was certain that you had sentenced him to his death. However, I’ve been corresponding with my Mantuan peers and it is known here that a restrictive diet and the curtailment of personal freedom has been known to keep those prisoners who must undergo torture alive far past the time you might expect them to weary and reduce. Something about the body entering a state of fertile infantility, perhaps. The direct attack might stimulate the body’s natural defenses.”

“I want to see him,” I say. “If there is hope for this peasant, then there is absolutely hope for me. I want dark curtains brought into the palazzo immediately. No more light anywhere. My diet shall be milk and grain. See to it.”


***


The Veal Duke doesn’t speak. He seems perfectly fine. He has a little tremor in his leg, but his gash is clean and there is no strong smell. The edges of the fissure are black and crusty, but there is no deadness of skin nor spreading branches of ulceration. If I were to prick the wound with a needle, it would bleed instead of bubble. I hate him. He does not smile at me or try to talk to me. His clear brown eyes are empty. 

“I’ve been in the darkness eating nothing but runny farina for days now,” I say to Gobbo. “I’ve seen no improvement. And yet this man is completely cured.”

I cannot take my eyes away from the Veal Duke. What separates me from him? There is no area where we are similar that I do not have the advantage.

“it could be the damp,” says Gobbo. “It could be something about the pressures of depth. There are changes in pressure under the ocean, for instance. It’s been documented. Air has weight. Perhaps being underground…”

He trails off.

“There’s also the matter of his restraints,” he suggests.

“I’ve been utterly immobile,” I say. “I’ve been laying here on my back in the dark sweating and suffering.”

“Even in sleep, my duke?” says Gobbo.

I have no answer for him. I cannot truthfully say whether I have moved my legs or arms during sleep. I grimace. My leg throbs. Does the leg of this Veal Duke throb? Why can he walk around and act according to his own will whereas I must stumble and shiver, dependent and attenuating?

“We’re very much alike, are we not?” I ask the Veal Duke. “We could be brothers.”

He doesn’t respond. His cheek doesn’t even twitch. He stares right through me, as if I’m not even in the room with him. There’s nothing in him that is better than me. Perhaps his brain has been injured in combat?

“We could start isolating the variables,” suggests Gobbo. “We could put one man in restraints and put one man in darkness. We could feed one man a gruel diet and put one man underground. We don’t know precisely what method we have used that has caused such a rapid cure, or if the cure has been conjured by all our methods in conjunction.”

“There isn’t time,” I say. “There isn’t time for any of that. You will take me exactly to his room in the Elaboration. I want the exact same treatment as him. And it must be done instantly.”

The Veal Duke looks away from me, disgusted. I reach out for him, feeling his leg, rubbing my fingers along his wound. I look to my own puckering flesh. The smell of my own disease disgusts us both. I can see him blanch—his whole face cockling like an asshole lowered to a candle flame. The sweetness of the living rot is intoxicatingly awful. I want to push his face into it. I want to make him swallow the muddy yellow tallow of my open sore.

Gobbo makes arrangements. Soon strong hands reach under my armpits and secure my midsection, lifting me into my chair.

The last thing I see before I lose my wits is the Veal Duke sitting on my own bed and Gobbo standing over him with a comforting hand on his shoulder.


***


Do I awaken in darkness?  Am I awake?

I try to move but my wrists are lashed to the corners of a bed. I remember giving the instructions. “Tighter,” I said. I try to move my legs, but my feet are also similarly trussed. All four corners of me are lashed so.

I’m soaked with sweat from head to foot. This is the treatment I’ve requested. My heart beats madly. With my fever temporarily broken, I suddenly realize that something is gravely wrong here. I’ve not been subtle enough to see these literal snares. There are Venetian Jesuit methods at play in these gloomy depths. Moves are being made beyond what I can fathom because I’ve been too long in pain and too overcome by rage. I’ve let myself worry more about my own body than about strategically deploying power to arrange the fear that I must provoke to protect my state. I’ve committed the ultimate sin of desiring something tangible. Of depending.

“I need water,” I shout, experimentally, not wanting to display panic. Panic is weakness. Strong men do not follow panic blindly into battle. I’m bravely undertaking the most grisly and brutal treatment possible for my leg and soon I will be thought heroic for my personal sacrifices. But my legend will only begin to take shape once I recover. Right now my mouth is caked solid and my fingers are numb. I’m alone in the dark and thirsty.

“Water,” I shout. “Bring me water immediately or I will make pickled cheese in your severed heads and serve it to your children on Candlemas.”

I do not hear anyone move outside my door. I listen for the screams of the men around me in the Elaboration. I hear nothing. Is it possible that I am alone here?  Would I be able to hear screams above me from so deep in the undercroft? 


***


I’m not getting better. I’m getting worse. I’m getting worse every hour. I’m getting worse every fifteen minutes.


***


The infection has spread rapidly up my leg. My insides are burning. My rectum throbs. It’s agony when I pass wind, which happens constantly as my insides inflate. I’ve pissed myself ten, eleven times. I’ve tried screaming. I’ve tried threats, commands, weeping. No one comes. I shiver with thirst. I can only make a bleating noise. The fever is so high that the room is no longer dark. It’s brightly lit and I can see everything clearly and beautifully as if painted by a Flemish master. I can see the rats moving inside the walls. I can see bedbugs looping each other on the ceiling. My wound glows with bright purple light. I can see the sun outside through the ceiling walls, blazing above all five floors. I do not know the time, only that it is high noon and that it is always high noon and that it has always been high noon.



***


They must have the Veal Duke in my place, wearing my clothes, walking around pretending to be me, issuing my commands. He’ll even have a scar that proves his identity. Was this the Sicilian pirate’s idea?  Sicilian minds cannot be trusted. Their minds are as slippery and serpentine as liquid shit. Gobbo must be riding the Veal Duke around like a mule, lashing him like a slave, telling him what to say and do. Was I ever in charge of this experiment?  I made all the decisions, and yet here I am! Why have they not just slit my throat mercifully?  The Veal Duke is fucking my wife, eating my food, running my city. The Veal Duke is alive and healed and I am down here bleating for water in the darkness. 

I will kill him them all when I am free. I will kill every single one of them. I will strangle them all with my own skeleton fingers until each of their tongues pop like fruiting sores.



***



I awake to ghostly Latin mumbling. I’m not alone here. I can’t turn my head to see who haunts me on either side, but I smell the sweet loamy funk of heavy incense as it washes over me. 

“You say the Duke has ordered all the troops out of Venice? La demenza! Such great expense and we won’t even retrench our bloody gains?”

“It’s not put to us to question the subtle minds of superior men.”

A thumb makes an oily cross on my shivering forehead. 

“We’re done with this one. Holy tomato, this poor doomed vagabando stinks.”



***



A flaming meteor from the seventh sphere descends. I close my eyes but it does not matter if they are open or shut: I can’t look away now. The building must be on fire. My whole body ignites.  I’m floating in this bed a hundred meters above the ground. My tongue is solid as a rock and it sticks straight up from my cracked and bleeding mouth like a moss-covered cairn.


***



The sun is my room. The sun is above me and beneath me. I cannot turn but for the fire. One glass filled to the brim with cold river water would cure me entirely. The water is coming. It’s on its way. I’m so grateful that the water is coming. I can taste it. The water will be here soon. I’ve ordered it. I’ve commanded it to be done. It will happen.



***



I CANNOT STOP IL VOMITO DELLA MORTE

If I am still ever so still if I do not move if I stay so fucking still 

THE RIGITARRE AGAIN I CANNOT STOP IT MUST COME NOW

MY SPINE WILL SNAP

I can keep from moving I can become a statue I am already a corpse there is no life here keep moving keep moving do not see me


***


it is a spiral in two directions…flaming starlings plasmatic bedbugs circling in two directions right above my eyeballs

OH GOD

IL VOMITO

THE PUKE

THE RIGITARRE 

I CANNOT STOP THE RUSH

OH GOD

THERE IS NOTHING BUT BLUE SUNSHINE

I’M RAPING THE SUN AND THE UNIVERSE IS SCREAMING

MY UNCLEAN SOUL CLAWS OUT BLOODY THROUGH MY UNCUT COCK

IT IS LOUD LOUD LOUD 

IT BURNS IT BURNS IT BURNS

THE SUN THE SUN THE SUN

THE UNIVERSE UNFOLDS

ONE LIFE ADDED

ONE LIFE LOUDER NOW

HELL IS AN EYE

A VOLCANO GAP

IT IS TIME TIME TIME

AN INFINITELY CLANGING BELL

PEALING LOUDER BY DOUBLE WITH EVERY SWINGING CLAP

I SHOULD NOT BE HEARING ANYTHING PAST THE GATES OF PEACE BUT I HAVE MADE MY WILL TOO STRONG

LOUD

THE ANSWER IS LOUD

LOUD LOUD LOUD

FOREVER FOREVER FOREVER







more stories

(c) Miracle Jones 2023