Impostors: The Muse
José Inácio Cantor de Luna glanced down at his stocking. There it was: a long smear of dirt or grease or shit running from just above his ankle to just below the hem of his velvet breeches. He cast his eyes up and down the street to check he was unobserved. He wanted to examine the stain more closely, but felt this would only draw attention to the source of his embarrassment.
José Inácio sighed. The street was still empty, devoid of all traffic, the shutters of the houses shut tight against the midday heat. Nobody was stirring. Even the dogs had slunk away to whatever shadow they could find in the back streets and alleys of the sweltering city. José Inácio also longed to get out of the heat: beneath his heavy black velvet coat, beneath his brocade waistcoat, beneath his silk shirt, he was crammed into a corset he had taken to wearing to preserve his figure. He felt clammy and wretched and ridiculous: his scalp itched under his wig, his cravat was choking him, and he was desperate to rid himself of the guilty secret of the tight whalebone corset. Worst of all, there was the filthy yellow-brown stain all up one side of his white silk stocking.
Finally, he could bear it no longer. Looking around one last time, José Inácio scurried into a darkly shaded alley—little more than the gap between two terraces—and crouched down to fuss over the filthy stocking. The corset made it hard for him to bend at the waist and he was panting in the heat, his face flushing with the effort of stooping down. Even worse, he had nothing with which to wipe away the stain. He pulled out his handkerchief and dubiously inspected it. The handkerchief had been a gift from Valentina—and his heart rebelled at the thought of soiling the fine Venetian lace—and he also had nothing with which to wet the handkerchief. He hesitated a long moment: he didn’t want to make the stain any worse and he didn’t want to spoil a precious keepsake. His mouth felt dry and he struggled to gather any spittle in his mouth: when he did hawk something up, it felt heavy, viscous, slimy with catarrh.
He was on the point of giving up on his mission and retreating to the cool of his own apartment, when he suddenly heard the high-pitched screams of squabbling children. There was a squall of catcalls—foul words lisped by lips too young to understand much more than the wickedness of speaking them aloud— and then a ragged chorus of raucous laughter.
Surprised to find himself a puffing, red-faced man— poised to gob into a perfumed lace handkerchief— the illustrious poet, senator and knight of the Imperial Order of the Rose, José Inácio Cantor de Luna, froze for an instant, then began to scuttle further up the alley, away from the rowdy cries of the children, the scabbard of his court sword clattering against the rough stone walls. After a brief spurt that made his head spin, José Inácio slowed to a brisk walk. He pulled down his waistcoat, straightened his wig and mopped his brow. His heart was thumping in his breast and the whalebone corset was chafing against his sweat-drenched skin. And there was still the filthy smear of dog shit all down one side of his stocking.
He would slip home as best he could, sending his man to Valentina with a spray of white gardenias, his excuses and maybe a little pocket edition of his Sonnets, tied up with white silk ribbon to match the flowers. He was unwell: he had migraine, a sick headache, a fever. A doctor had been called, but there was no cause for alarm: he was afflicted by nothing more serious than a summer chill brought on by the extremity of the heat and mental exhaustion. And most of this was true: he really did have a headache and he was sweating profusely beneath his shirt, and his heart still ached at how noble motives had been traduced and his name exposed to calumny, half-truths and insinuations—often little more than bare-faced lies spoken by sneering knaves and then repeated word for word by credulous fools.
Perhaps it really was the first flush of fever. Perhaps he ought to take to his bed to restore his equanimity after the day’s ordeals Perhaps he needed to recover from the wounds inflicted on his soul by the past few weeks of shame and indignity, the baseless cavilling of ingrates, the pious platitudes of self-serving humbugs. Perhaps a mild anodyne of laudanum might, indeed, be prescribed that he might rest until his strength of body and peace of mind were restored sufficient for him to take up once again the lance of truth and do battle with his hydra-headed foe. Perhaps he might be lulled into dream, his fretful mind breaking free of its moorings, floating on the swirling currents of reverie through enchanted glades people by bare-limbed Indian nymphs and flowery groves sacred to the ancient gods. Or his captive soul would break free of its shackles to soar into the empyrean on the back of the winged steed of imagination to bring back visions snatched from the brink of eternity.
José Inácio opened his eyes: he could glimpse a bead of sweat hanging, glistening and prismatic, on the underside of his brow. He could taste the salt on his lips and his heart raced as he laboured to draw breath. But if only he could get home without further incident, all would yet be well. Nobody need know anything more than he had been left indisposed by a bad case of sunstroke.
It had been foolish to take fright like that—the children would not have bothered about a soiled stocking. Nor would they have cared a fig about his dishevelled appearance or guessed at the sweaty swollen gut crammed inside his whalebone corset. They would not have rounded on him, as their elders had done, snapping and snarling at his flanks, baying like the hounds of Actæon for his guiltless blood. No, they were too young to know envy, their minds yet uncontaminated by malice, their hearts not yet cankered by the worm of experience. Some lines from his ‘Ode on the Soul’s Reflections on Eternity’ came unbidden into his mind:‘A lovely shepherd boy, leaning his ashen crook/ Against a willow bough, told his heart’s woes/ To the silent stars and the bubbling brook,/ To the mournful moon and the summer rose,/ His tears misting each crimson petal, like the dew—'
José Inácio broke off abruptly. He could smell the shit from his filthy stocking. This would not do at all: he felt stifled and miserable, crammed into his heavy court jacket and silk waistcoat, the flabby fat beneath his arms bulging over the hard edges of the tight corset. Again, his stomach turned as he caught another whiff of excrement. He felt nauseous and his head was spinning, like he was intoxicated with strong liquor. Surely, this really was the beginning of a fever. He broke into an awkward, limping, uneven gait—halfway between a brisk walk and a jog— his sword trailing behind him like an animal’s tail. He no longer cared how foolish he must look, his old-fashioned periwig perched askew on his broiled and bulbous head. And then, just as he was thinking things could not get any worse, he felt a sudden churning in his stomach, an answering convulsion in his guts, and he was gripped with the sudden conviction that he would soon need to void his bowels. José Inácio began to panic: the alleyway was narrowing into a jitty again, and the way ahead seemed blocked with piles of firewood and discarded building timbers.
What if he could not get through? What if the way ahead just petered out into a dead end? What if he emerged in one of the slums on the eastern slope where the poor lived crammed into flimsy lean-tos and makeshift shacks? What if he became lost in the planless, lawless, aimless maze of dark alleys and stinking, sunless walkways? José Inácio faltered—uncertain whether to push on or retrace his steps and return to the street below—and then he felt another sharp jabbing pain in his abdomen and a sickening lurch in his bowels. José Inácio turned tail and began running pell-mell back down the steep slope of the path, stopping now and again to try to reduce the mounting pressure in his gut, aware of how his soles slapped down on the baked and rutted clay as though he was flat-footed.
As he approached the base of the hill, he saw the children were still there, milling about in the street. They were laughing, singing, shouting, screaming: some were skipping hand in hand in a joyless parody of a round dance; others were playing tag, darting hither and thither through the crowd. Some others—mostly older boys—were lolling in what was left of the shade, clinging to the wall, jeering with desultory disdain at their younger siblings. José Inácio quailed: they would see him, breathless and bespattered, clutching his stomach with one hand, clinging on to the gilded hilt of his toy sword with the other. Again, he hesitated, wondering whether he should retreat back up the alley, drop his drawers and hide away, skulking in the shadows, until the crowd of children had passed on.
And then, something moved inside him, a sharp painful compression in the pit of his stomach, and he pressed on in panic, stumbling out into the blazing midday heat, turning his heel on the uneven cobbles, then limping off in shameful retreat from the startled children.
It began with a few of the older ones: they were pointing, whispering, giggling, calling out from the backs of their hands for their friends to join in the fun. There were a few catcalls and whistles, and then some little child, with rosy cherubic cheeks and bright blue eyes, piped up in a clear high voice. ‘Old Crow, Old Crow, Old Crow!’
In a moment, the child’s cry was picked up by other voices: ‘Yes, yes,’ they squawked, ‘he looks like an old crow—an old crow with a broken wing.’
‘Old Crow! Old Crow!’ the children shouted excitedly.
‘Back to your nest, Old Crow!’
‘He can’t fly. The cat will get him.’
‘Old Crow, Old Crow, Old Crow!’ the children began to chant rhythmically. ‘Old Crow, Old Crow!’ the little ones joined in uncertainly. ‘Old Crow, Old Crow, Old Crow!’ sneered the older ones, raising themselves from lounging somnolence.
‘Look, he’s got shit on his sock!’ pronounced one flaxen-haired boy in a broad whisper, his baby-blue eyes dancing with impudent delight.
‘Funny-looking wig,’ murmured back his companion.
‘Funny-looking sword,’ smirked the first boy.
‘Don’t stab us, Shitty Feet,’ called out a bolder spirit, before collapsing into joyless sniggers.
‘Old Crow!’ chorused the rest of the mob. ‘Old Crow, Old Crow, Old Crow!’ they repeated again and again and again.
José Inácio half-stopped, half-turned, thinking he should not give into his diminutive tormentors. A few of the children were barefoot and in rags and there were a couple of black faces amongst the mob, but most looked like the sturdy offspring of the city’s shopkeepers and artisans: they wore canvas breaches and white cotton blouses, and some had embroidered waistcoats or jerkins made of soft kidskin. These were neither the curled darlings of the rich nor the lawless guttersnipes of the slums. These were children of the middle sort: children who should know better, whether or not they recognised him as a celebrated poet and a leading member of their nation’s Senate.
And then, José Inácio caught sight of something that stopped him in his tracks. Walking to him slowly, evenly, with a pale face and huge dark eyes was Valentina’s daughter. She looked him up and down, her gaze bereft of any sign of pity, any semblance of filial affection or respect for his years.
He voicelessly mouthed her name, smiling weakly, beseeching her not to join in with her new playmates. But she did not smile back. She did not acknowledge any familiarity. She did not concede any intimacy, any special entitlement to affection or loyalty. No, there was only cold, quiet, unwavering malice. With her dark steady eyes—eyes that were as hard as fragments of broken glass—she held his gaze for a moment, then she began to advance towards him, leading the others in their chanting: ‘Old Crow, Old Crow, Old Crow, Old Crow.’
José Inácio froze, held captive by the relentless gaze of the children, then his own eyes dropped to the filthy stocking. He felt another churning of the stomach, another jolt in the bowels, and he was hobbling over the cobblestones in headlong flight, his sword swinging and rattling behind him. Wave after wave of the children’s laughter broke over him as he fled in loose-bowelled shame from the chanting voices and from the hard, black eyes of Valentina’s daughter.