Tales In Firelight And Shadow by Alexis Brooks de Vita

Tales In Firelight And Shadow

(Alexis Brooks de Vita)

Tales in Firelight and Shadow



In the dark night of the human soul, a fire is lit and a tale is told, stirred from a chthonic pottage of dirt, blood and terror: the folktale. The flame that simmers our earthly supper does double duty as light through black hours toward the brave sun of day. We feed the body and the faltering spirit with hearth fire, campfire, candlelight, and electricity: flames promising that we are not alone.

Like those flames, the following tales edify and terrify as they cast light in flickering contrast to the encroaching shadow, beginning with the deceptively beguiling tale of Mary Turzillo's "Pigeon Drop." The magic tale, the enchantment, we realize with a start, is a terrible illusion. Or is it, asks Jason Parent's tongue-in-cheek "Moody's Metal," a talisman clutched against witches, curses and despair?

Oh, but where is that folktale world so fondly recalled from childhood? Right here in Patricia Stoltey's sun-spattered "Three Sisters of Ring Island," a familiar story scraped to its bare bones-so to speak. In this skeletal frame, if we look around, we will discover that we live poised on the sea-sprayed cliffs of Joseph Michael's "Nuckelavee," immersed in the realm of fairy, fear and chaos, in Tenea D. Johnson's "Sugar Hill."

Or, in the small hours, might we prefer to face the unknown worlds within ourselves? Then welcome to master fantasist James Morrow's excavation of the secrets of the furrowed-brow philosopher in "Spinoza's Golem." Certainly, the intrepid reader thinks, foot on the brink of a precipitous plunge, this tale carves a face on our wordless grown-up anxieties. For is it not precisely our ache for both profound meaning and unbreakable belonging that renders Christina St. Clair's "Green Cat" a universal cameo of pathos and pity?

We reach out a hand to stay the destruction, to say, "Turn back; take back those words and all that pain."

For, none of us wants to be-or see-that disillusioned soul for whom it has all ended too soon, that one made up of shadows and whispers for whom there will be nothing sweet, nothing else, nothing more: Alfonso Arteaga's "La Planchada."

How we dread to come across those doomed to endure the lessons of what it all meant, too late to mend or make amends: T.J. Weyler's "Keepers." So much of our suffering comes with the discovery that we are neither who nor what we think we should have been-as Ceschino's "Tailed" brings, quite literally, home.

Had we not better take these chances, live these enchantments, do exactly as Alexandra Dairo-Brown's "Mercy and the Mermaid" so triumphantly do? Surely the folktale exists to indulge our desire for life filled with love and joy-and to show us our fears that perhaps our lives will not be so idyllic.

To show us how to bear up under the grinding down, as in Novella Serena's "My Bogeyman."

If living has deprived us of the love we need and the meaning we seek, montage asks from the depths of "Sans Lake," can we not reach out again to the world one last time from that spiritual place that surely is to come?

We who peer through an opaque lens at the dark side of the moon watch as A.J. Maguire's "The Nano-Fisherman's Wife" shakes her head and cautions us not to risk our one sure chance at happiness, for we never know if it is our last: the thought that troubles F. Brett Cox's "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" and Jennifer L. Julian's "Dance."

For, as sun shreds night with returning opportunity, we must each answer that question we can only resolve for ourselves: what do we make of this folksy knowledge gained from those who've gone ahead and reached back with a cautionary tale like a friendly flame, torchlight that reminds us in our blindness that daylight is always coming, just ahead?

Closing this volume, we may consider that our folktales, braided of firelight, song and shadow, have taught us to see the darker side of right, a faithful kind of insight.

We read, dream and forge on, knowing we shall wake in a larger world, braver for our sojourn in sightless times and wiser for patience learned through old lessons enjoyed anew.

- Alexis Brooks de Vita


by Mary A. Turzillo


A cat told me this story. I was looking up relatives who I had heard lived somewhere in Campbasso, and during my search I encountered this ancient feline hunting voles on the wall of the Borgo Antico in Termoli. He was walking on the wall, which was almost vertical, picking his way, very sure-footed. I believe this cat's name was Massimo, but he mentioned it only once and after would not repeat it.

He told of Puntino, a half-grown kitten, perhaps a relative of his. This little Puntino knew no magic himself but lived with Cagliostro the Mage of Venice, along with a pigeon named Semiramis. Puntino was entirely black except for a white diamond on his chest. His mother had been feral, and perhaps the rest of his litter remained so, but he picked scraps of meat from the cacciatore left over on Cagliostro's plate, and he purred at the magician's feet.

Cagliostro traveled the circuit and during high season never spent more than three successive nights in the same bed. The mage was ambitious, always striving to create new tricks. The pigeon Semiramis was the star of his current finale.

Puntino at first played too rough with Semiramis the pigeon, but after a while, he grew gentler and considered the bird his friend. However, every morning, the bird would shriek in terror, until Puntino calmed her by catching her and letting her go several times. She seemed to settle down and even show guarded affection to both cat and magician during the off-season, when Cagliostro retired to a villa in Rodi Garganico.

"Why so nervous?" Puntino meowed at the bird sometimes, but Semiramis never answered. She couldn't talk, he decided, only coo in that soothing way cats like.

For one engagement, the magician's lodgings were directly above the theater where he performed, and so Puntino slipped down and draped himself on the back of an unsold seat in the balcony to watch. A pianist played bits of Puccini overtures and also Tartini's "The Devil's Trill Sonata," to build suspense for the magician's tricks, music Puntino found almost as delightful as his lost mother's purr.

At the finale, Cagliostro crowed, "And now I present my longtime avian companion, the honorable Semiramis, a dove of noble birth and intrepid spirit!" The magician always referred to Semiramis as a dove, since it sounded more elegant than "pigeon." Cagliostro invited children in the front rows to offer the bird crumbs, and Semiramis pecked at these warily.

With a flourish, the magician placed Semiramis's cage on a table at the front of the stage. He made a show of demonstrating that there was no hole in the tabletop, and nothing underneath the table. He even asked a small boy in a sailor suit to come up and crawl underneath it. The boy did so, waving shyly at his parents in the third row.

Cagliostro then clapped sharply, and a massive safe, half as big as a steamer trunk, descended from the fly space. The safe, suspended on a rope, dangled ponderously above Semiramis in her flimsy cage on the table.

The bird hopped about as if having a presentiment. Puntino's ears perked forward and his green eyes glistened with interest.

Cagliostro mounted a stepladder and drew out a sword which he'd used in a previous trick. The pianist leaned into the ivories, rumbling forth arpeggios in a minor key.

Then the magician slashed the rope that suspended the safe. It fell! The audience gasped.

Crash! The massive safe utterly smashed the cage. The table rocked, but did not collapse. Feathers swirled in the air. Was that a spatter of blood? Exciting. Frightening.

The audience tittered and shifted in their seats, but Cagliostro descended to the stage floor with a triumphant smile. He reached into the pocket of his silk waistcoat and with a flourish produced a slip of paper. He perused the message and then twirled the dial of the safe. The minute he had opened the door, Semiramis, uncaged, unharmed, fluttered out.

Cagliostro nimbly caught the bird's legs. She cooed, obviously unhurt.

How had the magician done this? Puntino was only a nine-month old kitten, but he knew that the magician's other tricks were all bogus-devices purchased by mail order or made by his own clever assistant, a dwarf girl named Lucrezia who lived near Termini.

Puntino padded back up to the magician's digs, settled on the soft rug at the foot of the bed and thought about this.

When the show moved to a new theater, Puntino followed Cagliostro to see if perhaps he had made a deal with a minor devil. Perhaps some of the magician's magic was real.

The magician set out for the theater, only a few blocks away. As always, he wheeled his gear on a cart, with the safe strapped securely in front and the bird cage dangling from his arm. But instead of going directly to the theater, he detoured to a verdant piazza. Puntino pussyfooted after him, curious as only a green-eyed black kitten can be.

Cagliostro opened the door to the safe easily. Aha. The magician had the combination memorized, and the consultation of the slip of paper was all just for show. Then Cagliostro squatted on his heels in the grass and strewed bread crumbs about his feet.

After a time, the pigeons pecked closer to the magician. Cagliostro's quick hand whipped out and grabbed one by the feet. He stuffed it into the safe and snicked shut the door.

Now the magician had two doves, two Semiramises. He dusted off his hands and headed for the theater.

A ticket-taker shooed Puntino away at the door, so he hid under an awning that had blown down. He waited until two dancers in the previous act came out through the stage door to escalate some lovers' spat. Then he slipped inside, like a wraith.

The pigeon act went as it had before, but this time, Puntino was sure he saw blood and possibly even, with his alert cat senses, heard a pigeon shriek.


When scraps of meat from the cacciatore appeared in a dish on the floor that night, Puntino refrained from eating them. "Not hungry, kitten?" said Cagliostro. "I'll give you a special treat if you help me create a new trick."

Puntino had no way to tell anybody the secret of his master's pigeon trick. But he tried valiantly to warn the new Semiramis. Pietosa! She listened and then tried to fly away, but the windows were closed, and the magician let her flap around until she lay exhausted on the wooden floor. Then he put her back in her cage.

One day, Cagliostro came home with another black cat in his arms. This one was entirely black, with no white diamond on its breast. He put the cat down in front of a plate of leftover cacciatore, and it ate the meat bits avidly.

Puntino hissed a warning, but the new cat only licked its whiskers and dove into the plate to lick the sauce.

When the magician opened a bottle of ink, Puntino was gone.


So said this ancient cat, this Massimo (if that was truly his name). But how can you trust a cat of Termoli? Cats are all liars, and particularly those of the Borgo Antico of Termoli.

I did find the descendants of my great-grandfather, Giuseppi Antonio Torzillo, but my Italian was laughable, and I never got to tell them the story of Puntino. And anyway, I don't think they liked magicians.

The End