Aphelion Issue 268, Volume 25
December 2021
 
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If Winter Comes

by Gregory Santo Arena

'If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?' -- Percy Bysshe Shelley




Uno

 
     'Giovanni! Off you go!
Rina's in hospital.'

Hearing Signora Raffaella shouting to him in Italian to hurry off to the hospital because Rina had been brought there shortly before, Giovanni sped away down the hill on his cycle. The door of the small damp flat which was home had banged behind him when he had heard the news from his neighbour lady.

As he gained speed going down the twisting narrow road weaving in and out of the houses attached to the hillside in the little green valley, Giovanni heard Rina's huge Bergamask sheepdog, Torquato, running next to him panting like a steam engine.

     The two of them arrived at the turning at the same time and continuing their perfect synchronisation turned sharply left where the crossroads were nestled in by a small fountain and ‘lavatoio’ (a type of roofless and wall-less wash house) where the old ladies did washing.

     The cold early April air burnt Giovanni's lungs as he started up the road climbing the east wall of the valley. Giovanni would have been able to hear his own laboured breathing if it were not for Torquato's now frequent and thunderous barking.

     Finally, the two of them arrived at the top of the hill where the nuns ran a nursery next to the church dedicated to those who had lost their lives in the World Wars.

     Giovanni would have slowed more, perhaps even stopped there at that point which to the left looked down to the city and to the right the small valley where Giovanni lived ... But Torquato's barking pulled him out of his reverie and they continued on. They passed under the arch of a building which spanned the road like the Bridge of Sighs in Oxford.

     Giovanni's old cycle creaked and bounced on the road's cobbles as gravity seized it and began pulling it down to the other side of the hill towards the hospital where Rina was. The hospital was in the part of the city that the locals called the 'lower town'. That is the town at the bottom of the hill which housed a mediaeval acropolis which in turn was called the 'upper town'. Down they went, Giovanni clinging skilfully to the handlebar and Torquato barking in thunderous roars.
          

Due

 
     Rina lay there immobile.
Giovanni went into her room and slowly approached the bed. He took her hand watching her as she slept.

     She seemed like a sleeping baby there in the gentle light of the small otherwise vacant room. Her brilliant cocoa-brown eyes were closed peacefully. She was so different from her regular self. She was not shouting at Torquato because he had peed in the sitting room or reproving Giovanni because he always spent too much time with her instead of friends or schoolmates. Her face was relaxed and tranquil, without the cares and pressures of working as a cleaning lady all day. She seemed a child.

     Giovanni started crying. Before having come into her room a sister had told him that she would not wake. He could not believe it. She had to wake sometime. How could she sleep forever? He wondered. Rina was gone, but she was there. Giovanni could not quite sort it out. He did not want to believe it. He would not believe it.

And even Veronica had seemed so strange. She had been outside the hospital entrance -- supposedly to visit Rina as well, but...

Veronica was a girl about eleven --Giovanni's age -- who lived in the same road as he and Rina.

     Giovanni was even more convinced of it as he quietly sobbed and tried to make his head stop spinning. Standing next to Rina's bed and still holding her hand he was nearly completely convinced of the fact that Veronica had come to the hospital, not to visit Rina, but ... It was general knowledge to everyone that lived in their road that Rina had been brought to hospital. So by rights anyone coming to the hospital should come to see Rina and not...  

Giovanni was certain now. Veronica had come to see him.

She had had this daft smiling face. It was the same that she had had for weeks. It seemed ludicrous, but he believed it now. Why she had come to see him was still a mystery though. Trying to sort it out while thinking of a way to get Rina back since the sister had said she would always sleep and wondering if Torquato was all right where he was waiting outside, Giovanni plopped down in a chair adjacent to Rina's bed and fell asleep.

Tre

It had started snowing. Now there was already a lot of it about. Giovanni groggily surmised the situation from Rina's window. He rubbed his eyes again trying to wring the sleep from them. He saw that Rina was fine. She slept peacefully in the luminous darkness of the room. He knew she was going to wake up eventually. He just knew it – even if the sister was saying the opposite. He just wondered when. The white, white snow outside reflected all the available light and filtered it into the room. The small banks of snow forming in the hospital close were like Rina's form under the white bedclothes.

     As Giovanni was becoming more and more cognisant, the snow storm outside intensified. There was a lot of wind whirling about outside now. All of the twirling outside made Sabbia's head spin.

     He realised that he felt dreadfully hot. He touched his brow and found his palm full of sweat. He reached to the adjacent window to open it. He couldn't breathe any longer and his eyes burnt. He struggled with the window handle while the storm outside shrieked.

     Giovanni twisted the handle and the two halves of the casement window flew open. The snow and wind swooshed in knocking him away and towards the door. Within seconds the storm filled the room with blinding snow and deafening wind.

     'The sister will really give me a rocket now,' Giovanni yelped in its Italian equivalent fighting his way towards the open windows, the wind and snow pouring in to batter against his face and closed eyes.

     Finally, he closed the windows. His darkish straight hair was filled with snow and his brown eyes were refreshed by the cool snow. The room was cool now. He breathed easily and almost in a relaxed fashion until he noticed the room. It was covered in about two feet of snow

     He looked about incredulous.

     But this in itself wasn't so strange. Once during a summer storm, the kitchen filled up with about eight inches of hail because the window had been left open. And all the crops in the surrounding fields had been devastated.

Being just under the Alps, Borgo Vecchio, Giovanni's city, was sometimes attacked by some very fierce weather. No, this was not the strange bit now. What was strange was that Rina was gone.

Silently, Giovanni backed away from the window through the snow. It was just now that he realised that the continuous noise he had been vaguely aware of before was Torquato's wild barking. He was in the close under Rina's window making a dreadful racket.

     Giovanni somehow found the door, pulled it open against the barricade of the snow, then ran.

Quattro

Torquato had led Giovanni up the hill barking furiously at the huge flurry of snow flying overhead in the white opaque sky which was so characteristic of winter snow storms. The two of them had been chasing after the flying mass since it had captured Rina and shot out the window.

They were just coming up the steps to the nunnery and the church. Giovanni's legs burnt and his heart pounded like a pneumatic drill, but he continued running towards the path which led up to the highest part of the surrounding hills where the castle was. The cloud was going there.

But Torquato stopped, ran about in little circles, his blond woolly coat glistening in the scarce light, and moved towards the arcade of the nunnery which was in the direction of their house.

Giovanni stopped a moment, unconsciously thought about where he had left his cycle hidden at the bottom of the hill -- the bike was not much use coming back up the extremely steep ascent -- gasped for air, and then realised that Torquato wanted him to follow him towards home.

     'But --' Giovanni muttered gesturing to the cloud which was flying ever more quickly towards San Vigilio the highest point of the surrounding hills on top of which the castle was situated.

Torquato barked and barked until Giovanni followed. This not only set off the entire neighbourhood dog population barking, but also the lighting up of a good number villas since it was now about eleven o'clock at night.

           Running was difficult because the falling snow was becoming shin-deep. Giovanni was dripping was sweat but kept right on behind Torquato. They shot under the arcade and started the steep descent to their decrepit villa which had been split up into flats decades ago.

A couple of nuns caught in and greatly delayed by the surprise storm eyed them curiously as they passed and then with great interest when Giovanni slipped and began sliding down the hill.

     Giovanni's slipping down the entirety of the hill was a stroke of luck though. He made it down in record time. A few moments later he and Torquato were outside their flat.

The snowy silence about the decrepit villa was broken by the slushing and tramping of Giovanni and Torquato. As they bounced in under the arch of the villa gate, they made an effort to move about cautiously as not to wake anyone.

     They slowly approached Giovanni's window which looked out onto the terrace and then onto the green valley below now covered in a veil of snow. Torquato stopped halfway to give himself a good shaking off.

     Giovanni, dripping with sweat and too hot to feel the cold, arrived at the window just realising then that he had absolutely no idea why he was approaching his bedroom window. Before he could think about it even for another second, he nearly jumped out of his skin.

     As he had lightly touched the sill something had brushed against his hand. Muffling a shriek, he saw that it was only his two hamsters Dante and Beatrice.

     'What?' he managed watching the two of them scurrying back and forth on the sill.

     More strange than the fact that they had somehow slipped their cage (but then again this was a feat they had occasionally performed in the past) was the fact that one of them had a string in its mouth and the other a small bough of olive with six inches of thread attached to it.

     Beatrice gave the little bough to Giovanni having bunged it from the corner of the sill and having pulled it as she had gone backwards.

     Giovanni slowly put it in his shirt pocket and then buttoned it up inside.

It was a tiny bough of olive tree blessed by the local priest. It was like the one Rina had used in the past to send away the hailstorm that had ruined her poor geraniums.

It had been a summer hail storm which had flown straight out of the Alps. Rina had lit the bough and thrown it in the flower bed.

The hailstorm had in fact subsided, but not before destroying all of her geraniums. Rina had cried and cried. Other than Torquato they were the only thing she had.

     Then Dante dropped the piece of string into Giovanni's hand that was somehow automatically opened to accept it.

Torquato started making noises to go, whining and shifting about. Giovanni wondered if he should not pull the string and so did.   There was immediately a slight thud at the opposite end of his room. Giovanni pulled more and then saw that attached to the other end of the string was his bow case. It slid to him almost by itself just like all his memories of his daily target practice in the meadow between the two walls of the valley came rushing back to him now.

As Giovanni pulled the case through the iron bars of the window of the ancient and musty villa, Dante and Beatrice scurried away towards their cage. (The bars were a reminder of the long-ago days when the villa was frequently under attack.)

Giovanni tucked the bow case under his arm and ran off heading towards San Vigilio Castle with Torquato.

               

Cinque

 

     Waiting for the clouds to bring Rina, Giovanni wondered about Veronica. What did she do on Sundays? Was it her brother who was a wing? Her hair was very long. When he saw her last, he could see his reflection in her dark eyes.

     The heavens flashed with lightning as clouds swirled up onto the top of San Vigilio. They undulated up from the south-west wall of the rock fortress, the walls of which were perfectly flush with the rocky outcrop of the very high hill. In fact, the castle and hill seemed a single structure. The top of the hill crowned by the castle was quite flat, and encircled by a four-foot-tall parapet. It had been perfect for ancient warfare. Now the clouds obscured the eerie white snowbound sky whilst dancing macabrely about the flames of the wrecked lightening-struck tourist restaurant. Evidently it had fallen victim to the snow tempest and freak weather. An arriving fire engine's siren wailed in the far distance. The cloud mass had finished its ascent and was approaching Giovanni amongst the fallen trees. The hilltop was bare now, the violent winds of the snowstorm having torn away all of the usual trees. Suddenly the snowy clouds drew back as if to fly away, but instead unveiled a transparent cumulus of snow in the midst of the rubble and smoke.

     Under the milky transparent dome Giovanni saw Rina sleeping in her hospital bed.

     The strange mass of clouds twisted round, coiling, uncoiling, encircling Giovanni whilst the dome became milkier and more opaque.

Watching Rina's figure slowly fading away under the increasingly white and opaque shell out of the corner of his eye, Giovanni readied an arrow. But then he stopped, perplexed. He did not know where to aim. Where was its head, its heart?

Sei

The mass of clouds whirled about him more quickly as if sneering. He drew. He held his breath and closed his eyes.     He could feel the thing swirl about him tousling his hair and making gooseflesh jump out of his skin. In his mind's eye this monster -- and just now Giovanni had finally decided it was a monster -- was protean: perhaps firstly a dragon, then a flying squid with razor-sharp claws at the end of every tentacle, and then a huge tarantula drooling poison ready to trample and squeeze him to its horrid body not only suffocating and crushing him but simultaneously injecting him with poison while its mandibles slowly, but precisely and continually ripped away the flesh about his skull --

He released the arrow.   Its shrill parting whistle like a snake's hiss pulled behind it Torquato's barking.

Giovanni remembered that a clumsy altar boy had spilt a whole jug of holy water on his bow and quiver the week before when he had forgotten them at the local youth club.

     Giovanni opened his eyes and realised not only that Torquato was beside him but that his barking had also been radar for the shot.

     As the hill exploded in light, Giovanni automatically loaded another arrow. It seemed like daylight as an orange football-sized sphere sizzled in the air 100 feet above. All of its solar energy shot out of it like an incredible short circuit while the clouds flew away to the opposite end of the castle, 150 feet or so distant from Giovanni.

     Giovanni fully understood now. He had shot in the direction that Torquato's barking had travelled. He also realised that the holy water was a good thing now even though at the time when his wooden bow and arrows had been doused, he had been quite worried about them becoming warped. Evidently the holy water had reset his bows and arrows.

     He pulled the bowstring to his cheek and looked up in the white opaque sky to where the clouds huddled.

Giovanni wasted no time and let the second of the seven arrows fly. Upon impact the compact cloud mass fragmented into a million pieces. As the flash of the blast subsided a luminous silver disc appeared above the splintered mass which was now sending down innumerable streamers which encircled the acropolis.

Torquato had started baying, but Giovanni had already realised that the streamers had solidified into tentacles and the mass above the thorax of a huge squid which was now plummeting down on top of Giovanni and Torquato, its huge evil beak rapidly opening and closing making a horrible screeching noise. Giovanni quickly launched a completely vertical succession of three arrows at the squid before throwing himself down into the dungeon entrance adjacent. As he tumbled down the stairs Torquato bounded after him.

     Two seconds later there was a horrendous thud on the earth above which shook the entire hill. It was a good thing that Giovanni and Torquato had tumbled down into the dungeon because the goings-on they could see through a grating were horrific. There was a storm of flying swords, hammers, and lightning hacking pulverising, and frying the devilish squid-beast. Within a minute it was pulp and liquid which was not only dribbling down the sides of the hill but also being absorbed into the white snow of the castle summit.

          The two wasted no time and leapt back up the stone steps to the ground level of the hill. A strong wind was blowing which tousled Giovanni's hair and Torquato's fur. The clouds were amassing and darkening on the southern face of the summit.

'Dai, dai, vieni bastardo,' Giovanni said.

     He drew. And in the direction in which Tarquato barked there was a disturbance, a turbulence in the air which became a huge throbbing. A huge black heart appeared and then about it jumping

out of infinity a dragon materialised. It roared and spit fire.

     Giovanni released. The arrow immediately penetrated the scales on the dragon's chest. As it screamed and blood spew, Giovanni's heart began burning. As the dragon writhed, its enormous tail flailing about and nearly toppling the hill Giovanni thought about Veronica. Oddly there was a calm in his mind and Veronica wandered there. Then he realised that his heart was not burning, but that the tiny bough of olive in his pocket was. He also realised that he only had one arrow left.

     As the dragon vaporised into cold winter mist and floated away, Giovanni pulled the tiny bough out of his pocket. He gently tied it to his last arrow with the length of thread that dangled from it. The little flame did not burn him and did not consume the bough.

     Now the mist spread encircling the large turret of walls which in turn encircled and crowned the hill. The circle of mist began solidifying as did the vertical cloud mass supporting it. The encircling part became massive arms and where they joined the vertical mass enormous shoulders.

     The monster was nearly completely materialised. Its gargantuan baying shattered the heavens and the mere gaze of its huge single eye seemed to batter the hill and castle.

     Now completely solidified in a body of ice, the Cyclops beat the hill with its Fiat-sized fists while its breath uprooted the plants and shrubberies still left intact along the castle's rim.

     The Cyclops was opaquely transparent and made of bricks of hail. Giovanni saw himself reflected in the thousands of bricks which made up the giant iceman like a fly sees myriad images. But here it was only Giovanni a thousand times over – a very formidable adversary.

Because it was vaguely transparent it seemed less consistent in form than the other marvellous beasts. But it contained the force of the wind -- the force which seems insubstantial because it is not seen, but whose force is enormous when felt – like when you believe or refuse to believe something.

The enormous fists swung side to side coming ever closer to Giovanni.

     Steadying himself on the continually quaking ground, Giovanni drew. The torch-like arrow vaguely illuminated the twilight of the arriving dawn and as if a beacon drew the Cyclops towards him. He aimed for the monstrous pink, bloodshot, and blazing eye.

This trick of the burning olive bough had worked for Rina before: He hoped it would work now as well to send away this storm.

     As he ever so slightly relaxed the finger aligning the arrow on the taut bowstring, Giovanni pungently remembered that the hailstorm had stopped, but not before having destroyed Rina's flowers – even though she had so ardently believed it would. He hoped the flowers would be saved this time.

     It came closer. Its massive chest, shoulders, and arms closed in. It was coming still closer to Giovanni nearly touching the opaque cubicle of ice and snow in which Rina lay.

     Its eye zoomed in on Rina's small icy prison. It grinned snickering terribly. The echoes of his voice and the stench of his putrid breath monsooned about while he reached for Rina's opaque cube.

     Giovanni released.

     Instantly, the arrow landed in the huge red, pink and white eye whilst its trajectory had left a blazing path in the sky.

As the arrow plummeted into the eye, the monster screamed in agony. It clutched at the deadly stinger. And while the arrow plummeted down through its nearly transparent icy body, the Cyclops wretched in pain tearing at its heart where the flaming arrow stopped. Its fiery path was marked down the axis of its huge clear milky-marble body as the trajectory in the sky had been.

     The hailstone Cyclops was lost to sight as its heart burst into flame. The flames engulfed the beast as it roared, doubled up, and pounded the hill with fists now drained of their force.

Giovanni lowered the bow and a great sadness came over him as he watched the Cyclops suffering so.

The scene finished quickly even though the great flames from the heart continued. But then Giovanni realised he was looking directly into the sun as it rose from its easterly cot.

Giovanni muttered and ran to Rina’s little icy dome.   Slipping, he fell on his knees and nearly collapsed onto it. But he had stopped his momentum by pushing on the dome and catching himself as if doing an odd press-up.

The dome was perfectly clear now and Rina lay inside sleeping tranquilly and smiling. There was a white opaqueness all about her. It seemed a type of milky mist of swaddling clothes.

     The dome reflected the immense light of the rising sun. It ignited in light and blinded Giovanni.

     He closed his eyes for the pain and covered his face with his hands moaning and groping. When the burning that nearly penetrated his eyelids and hands had passed, he immediately felt Torquato

behind him who quickly knocked him to the soggy ground while barking and cutting capers.

     Giovanni pulled himself up to his knees and looked about his vision clearing. Torquato carried on with his usual antics splashing mud and water everywhere. The snow was all but gone now.

     Giovanni stood up wiping his face from the onslaught of slush Torquato continued to kick up. Seeing clearly now, he expected not only to see Rina angry as a hornet because of Torquato's mud-covered coat but to hear her swearing like a trooper.

     Rina was nowhere to be seen. Neither was her icy cot.

#

     When the sister at the hospital together with some other staff and a doctor arrived in Rina’s room and saw that the machine next to her bed had been bleeping in a continual type of low shrill and that its illuminated graph had been flat as well for a few minutes.

     They did not understand where the young lad had finished up. And they did not understand why the room was so dreadfully cold and filled with snow.

Sette

     

Torquato barked and whined at the voices Giovanni could hear approaching. Giovanni slowly backed away from the spot where Rina should have been and in doing so stumbled over his bow. He did not want to believe she was gone.... but sometimes disbelief can be even stronger than belief and can even create monsters to slay.

     Getting his balance, he scooped it up and unstrung it. Torquato, strangely sedate, led him away from the castle's only entrance and exit as a group of people, firemen, and the owner of the hapless restaurant arrived.

     As the group entered Giovanni and Torquato circled about some fallen trees and odd debris from the freak storm. The reconnaissance group was so intent on the damage they probably would not have seen Giovanni and Torquato even if they had not been hidden behind the wrecked bits while making their getaway of sorts. Going down the stairs the two of them were engulfed by a crowd making its way up to the castle summit.

     The swarm of police, firemen, officials, curious citizens and both professional and amateur scientists lured by the night's odd lights, sounds, and weather had not taken any notice of the drenched dog and sopping lad, the two of them now mixed into the swarm of people as well.

     Within minutes they had gone past the hill's most remote villas and entered the small road that linked the castle with the quarter below.

     They passed the flash pub and the cable railway station which came up from the historic centre, it too on a hilltop, but lower than San Vigilio castle.               

They started across the small piazza towards the tiny footpath that started there between the pizzeria and the church and then weaved down through 17th and 16th Century villas to the city centre.

The two bedraggled subjects were halfway across the piazza when Veronica emerged from the footpath.

     They stared at each other in disbelief. Giovanni was surprised to see her, Veronica quite bewildered at the ragamuffin Giovanni.

     Giovanni stood there dumbfounded, but Veronica came to the middle of the piazza where he stood.

     'Ciao Giovanni.'

     'Ciao Veronica.'

Then thirty-five girl guides filed out of the little via where Veronica had come from and like her they were dressed in uniform -- Giovanni only now noticed Veronica's attire because of the reinforcing stimulus of the procession.

They continued staring at each other as Veronica's passing girl guide companions incited her to continue with them: 'Dai Veronica! Muoviti! Andiamo!'

‘Get a move on!’ ‘Off we go!’ they cried. And she finally did when the old biddy nun carrying up the rear arrived giving disapproving looks to Veronica and looks of disbelief to Giovanni.

     'See you tomorrow at school,' Giovanni managed as she moved off to join in with the Sunday walking tour.

‘Sì,' Veronica replied hurrying to the long file of chattering girls that immediately started teasing her.

     Giovanni continued staring at the parting regiment with his unstrung bow poised on his shoulder. He exchanged last minute glances with Veronica until she disappeared round a corner.

     Then Torquato nudged him brusquely and barked telling him that it was time to go home.


THE END


© 2021 Gregory Santo Arena

Bio: Gregory Santo Arena lives in Italy.

E-mail: Gregory Santo Arena

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