Fiction: “Grace” by Jason M. Jones

Then turning to the spirit once again,
I said: “Francesca, what you suffer here
melts me to tears of pity and pain.

But tell me: in the time of your sweetest sighs
by what appearances found love the way
to lure you to his perilous paradise?”

The Inferno, Dante, Canto V, Circle Two

I. Francesca

Paolo threw himself from the window last night, but it might have been the night before or the night before that. It might have been a hundred years ago, and it’s quite likely he’ll do it again tomorrow. Time means so little when the same monotonous moonbeams have streamed through these broken panes for years on end and all I see is night.

He returned inexplicably, and that’s what matters. I woke (who can say how long I slept?) and there he was, sitting across from me. We never share a word, but lacking that mad look, the snarling smile and arch of his brow, this room would lose meaning, the shadows wouldn’t take form, and our story would dissolve.

When I close my eyes, I can see his face—not Paolo’s, but a replica—a round, olive orb, curtained by twisting black locks, his brazen scowl as he crept the corridors before our death, his eyes like flames in the bedroom’s hearth. He clutches a long knife below the blade’s silver glint—his lips a demonic curl—and he springs through heavy wooden doors to catch us off guard.

But how can I tell this story outside of time without confusing myself? I prefer to think of that first night with Paolo, but it’s hard to conjure. If he feels this way, does he suffer as I do?

Paolo, please speak.

If only we could.

*

I remember a luminous day. The sun in my father’s study brings warmth to an otherwise dreary room, its illicit rays casting curious patterns on the walls. I’ve been beckoned here to find my father standing behind a desk opposite Paolo, whose face is framed in shade. Paolo’s the proxy, an intermediary for my marriage, but I think he’s Giovanni, my fiancé, and as he takes a short step forward, I want to marry this handsome man whose muscular arms bulge through that shirt’s soft, fine silk. In that instant, we’re at once beginning to love and finished, and an image strikes me as prophecy: my naked form staggers across the floor toward Paolo’s; a gash separates his neck and shoulders; and I have only enough strength for a few indistinct thoughts before joining him here.

*

I stare at the moon until its phosphorescence drives me mad. I hate the moon, but when it disappears behind heavy clouds, I hurry to the window with a fear that exceeds my hatred. To lose that light would mean losing both Paolo and the memory of our life, and I couldn’t endure that no matter how much I crave an end to this.

*

Paolo and I make love that night beneath the glow of a solitary candle. He steals past the guard he placed outside my tent, and his smooth body moves across mine in long, gentle undulations. His lips nestle on my neck, his fingers gliding against my back. “Francesca,” he whispers—his first words in passion. “Francesca.” We were married that afternoon—he in his brother’s stead—but I want to believe he’s Giovanni, and when I say this name, he doesn’t correct me. In the midst of orgasm, the deception doesn’t matter. As long as Paolo’s nearby, I don’t care that we’re committing a sin.

I still believe we’ll be forgiven, since we couldn’t have known, exhausted beneath that brown canvas canopy we’d set in motion a chain of events that would end only in Giovanni’s far-off castle. While Paolo and I lay entwined, I was betrothed, wed, and killed; I was born to play a part in the peace between my homeland Ravenna and their kingdom of Rimini, a pattern of life and death swirling around me.

*

Outside the window, blue mist surrounds our sharp steep mountain; a lifeless tree with cracked limbs juts from the rocks; and when Paolo jumps, I watch until his body’s black outline disappears. The height reminds me of our castle at Rimini, cold nights in winter, locked as I was by Giovanni in the east wing chamber. I see jealousy in his eyes, lack of trust, and I experience emptiness, separate from Paolo.

*

I have trouble recalling things now. I strain, but it doesn’t do much good. Am I sure we lived? I have vestiges of memory, but this isn’t proof of existence, and I’m left to obsess over the arbitrary importance of events. I can’t even be sure we died, since we’re still here, but perhaps I can find sense in the process of listing facts: Paolo was my lover; Giovanni was my husband; Paolo and Giovanni were brothers… My father, he ruled in Ravenna…

*

Paolo is often away, leading mercenary troops in Romagna. Earlier, I hear Giovanni’s booming voice, admonishing him for a loss in the fields. It quakes the stone walls, and I envision him in front of Paolo, limping back and forth, so close that Paolo can smell his putrid breath, see the rotting teeth and pink lining of throat, the heartless cavity of Giovanni’s chest. When Paolo comes to my chamber later, he weeps in my arms like a child. I hold him and brush the hair from his eyes, but he locks my arms above my head, pulls the dress past my waist, tears my undergarments away, and thrusts me upward. I lean my head into his shoulder and bite his neck, but above our measured breath and stifled cries, I hear a cloth-bound limb scraping the cold floor. I glance past Paolo, and in the darkness, think I see Giovanni’s eyes, but they vanish so quickly I might be mistaken.

It’s possible we understood our deaths weren’t far off. It’s possible that when we saw the first flash of that knife, we surrendered completely.

Giovanni knocks me off the bed, pulls me from the floor, and hits me so hard that I tumble across the room toward the fire. My hair is set ablaze; a gaping crimson wound spreads from my chest; and my left breast hangs in a loose fold as I claw my way toward them, not to stop Giovanni, but to touch Paolo one last time. I stretch my arms, clutching the cracked ground, a slick bloody trail behind me. My fingernails break, and my head lights the room like a torch leading back to my beloved, but Paolo never moves.

Giovanni straddles him, runs a hand across his brother’s face, and in a sharp concise sweep, drags the blade across Paolo’s neck. He goes limp, and as I watch him die, I find myself fading away. I try to think of something I’ve forgotten, something important, but it eludes me. I want to call for help, but I can’t.

*

Was this my life then?

My memory often fails me. A love affair. Marriage and death. A birth somewhere—mine, or possibly, my children’s. I suppose that without time, memory means little, but I try to summon what I was thinking when I died. Maybe it had to do with the moon. I retrace my steps, but all I recover are fragments of ecstasy marred by violence. I wonder what Paolo knows, sitting there, staring out the window. I’d like to ask what we’ve done to deserve this, but we’ve lost more than the will to speak.

II. Paolo

…Nothing else is important.

Below us, there are other levels than this, and near the ground, Giovanni waits for me, covered in ash. He laughs at my weaknesses now, like he laughed at me when we were children, but I’ll put an end to this in the same way I stopped it back then.

Can you hear me, Giovanni?

I’ll put an end to this.

*

We used to hunt in the woods with our father. You and I set traps for foxes, rabbits, and smaller animals, prying open that sharp-toothed jaw where they tripped the mechanism and got caught and killed, but you never suspected that I’d planted one beneath the lush begonias in our garden. When it clamped down on your leg, you cried out, and I ran to our mother with a look of concern so cunning that neither she nor father suspected me. “Giovanni’s hurt,” I cried, and they attributed the accident to one of our enemies. But I’m sure you remember how you lay in bed suffering for months. There was even talk of severing the limb, but in the end, the infection didn’t spread, and it was saved. At first, I didn’t understand why you chose not to expose me, but you were biding your time. You were certain you’d have revenge, and you did. But keep this in mind: Even though you ruled over Rimini, I ruled over you. Your younger brother was always more clever than you were. I took your leg, and later, as adults, I took your wife.

*

Below the mountain, below the mists, there’s a sea that I fall into whenever I plunge through the window. The boiling water envelops me, and my flesh erupts in blisters, but I’ve seen you. You’re in a room, but yours is full of charred embers and dark figures that lash you with red tongues and tear your flesh. The last time I fell, you were peering through a window, laughing despite your punishment, and you whispered one word, a name I somehow heard above the wind rushing past my ears and fierce surge of waves below:

“Francesca…”

I always return from the sea, but never know how. I don’t climb the mountain, and if I tried, I’d likely fall, so there has to be another explanation, but this isn’t important either.

Francesca continues to mock me. She sleeps most nights, but when she’s awake, she stares with such brutal eyes. She blames me for this. It’s my fault we’re here, but that’s of no importance. What matters is you. I’d like to punish you. I’d like to destroy you. I picture myself with a firm grip on your throat. “Breathe,” I’ll hiss. “Breathe if you can.”

I should jump again.

*

My slightest movement provokes Francesca to watch me, and I wonder how she feels when I’m gone. I try to sit as still as possible so I don’t disturb her, but she follows my eyelids as they open and close. Does she think I’m trying to kill myself? I can’t tell her I’m not, can’t say there’s another reason for jumping. When I leap, I try to yell, “Don’t worry, I’ll be back,” but there’s no wind in my lungs. The glass breaks; the shards splinter; and water surrounds me. Then everything runs together: images, sounds, sensations, emotions. Unclear and impossible to understand. The water’s dark at first, and then I close my eyes to keep out the searing heat.

Can I feel my way toward you?

Can I reach dry land if I swim hard enough?

I count my strokes, but the distance is indeterminate. Through my closed eyes, I can sense the light of burning torches, and then I’m lost again in the pitch black eternity of sea. My strokes shorten, grow weak. The water pressure increases as I sink. With my eyes closed, I ask “Is this real? Or am I with Francesca in the room, dreaming?” and I have to keep them closed for fear I might realize I haven’t moved at all. Still I swim, and my muscles strain to carry me further. “Giovanni,” I think, “Giovanni.” I reach out and touch a smooth obsidian surface. I reach out and pull against the water. My muscles strain tight and release. I feel myself rising to the surface, and I pull against the current. If only I could fight against the current. If only I could open my eyes, but I have keep them closed and rest. I have to reach you, Giovanni. I don’t know why, but I do. Nothing else is important…

Weekdays between nine and five, Jason M. Jones edits academic journals in the Philadelphia area. He spends the rest of his time writing stories, some of which have appeared in Potomac Review 47, LIT 19, The MacGuffin, The Pinch, and Gulf Stream. For more, please visit: http://www.jasonmjones.net

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