This short story, based on my song Haricot Bean & Bill, was written in 2010. An accompanying essay, Music And The Adult Folktale can be read here.
The Florists Of San Nicolao
When she thought back she just remembered looking. Looking out long and hard past branches that stretched across a narrow path and over to the rocks. There were dark, tough leaves with globes of moisture growing slowly on their tips and bursting in tiny drenching splashes over the scrubland. From there slope opened to hill and hill became mountainside, punctuated with crags and firs and veering down to where the Metropolis lay, marked out in burning rows of light.
The village in which Joanna and her younger brother Paco lived seemed to exist apart from the world. Hardly anyone visited and the few who happened on San Nicolao as they travelled up and over the mountains hurried on quickly. It wasn’t so much that the place was unwelcoming but that it was possessed of a silence and darkness that didn’t invite comment, although its founders were Christians and had erected a primitive statue of Jesus on the cross before putting roofs over their own heads. Over the generations the little wooden statue had been known to speak to certain villagers; others saw it weep and cast its eyes to the clouds. The people of San Nicolao worked the land to the extent they could be bothered, growing a few vegetables to eat or exchange, and certain headily perfumed flowers of rich purple and turquoise which were said to have healing powers and which they draped round the doors of their wooden houses. The only villager who regularly visited the Metropolis was the children’s Grandfather, Anselm. Every few weeks the old boy would make his way across that little path and on down the mountain to a huge market where he would sell boxes of his magical flowers to well heeled ladies and businessmen, exchanging the money he made for books to stock the village school, icons for the tiny church, bottles of wine and cigarettes.
Paco drove his sister mad. She complained that the boy was born so restless he was bored the very moment he started doing something and, further, was most determined to let everyone else know it. On the other hand he was funny, inventive and irreverent which brought compensations. Joanna watched one night as he squatted outside the window of Mrs Danez’s house pretending to be the voice of the Virgin on her mantelpiece.
“I’m coming for you, Maria,” he whined. “It’s time to come to me! Maria! Maria! Turn your back on San Nicolao and this harsh world, come to me!” And the woman was on her knees in front of the icon weeping and saying the Memorare over and over until the boy just burst out laughing. Screaming with laughter he was, and for once Joanna was hooting and screaming too, making a run for it back to the safety of their little shack. Paco stayed and took his medicine, giggling hysterically as Maria battered him and battered him. On another occasion, just after nightfall, the boy decided to creep up on Grandad in his little house and shake the old guy up a bit. As he stole past the threshold, ready to pounce, he saw a ragbag of strangers handing Grandad some parcels, laughing and drinking wine. The child drew back for a few minutes. When he looked again the men were gone and Paco ran for Joanna who was at their favourite perch looking over at the Metropolis.
“There’s the path, Paco,” she’d always say, “and there’s the mountain, and there’s the road, and there’s the lights.”
“And that’s where the world is!” he’d chime in.
Joanna went round to see Grandad every morning after breakfast in her canvas grays and washed pinks and her worried little face. It was a short walk down the main street of San Nicolao past the statue of Jesus, the tiny school and church in the square, Maria Danez’s house and a few stalls that sold vegetables and basic provisions. Anselm would be in his little patch, pruning tomato leaves and watering the purple flowers while smoking cigarettes and drinking wine. He did this steadily, day after day, stopping often to sleep in the sun or to answer Joanna’s questions about the history of their village. The girl always wanted to know why the town had grown up here of all places, so far away from things and people and the ocean. Anselm answered all such questions with variations of his stock answer:
“The world is a harsh place and we’re better off out of it.”
The girl would persist, asking about the Metropolis, about its streets and colours and dangers and joys but the old man would shake his head again:
“It’s nothing compared to this, honestly. You can sit on your perch in the fresh air and look at the Metropolis; those poor idiots have to live there! Forget it, go to school they’ll tell you all you need to know. Maybe one day you’ll come down to the market and help sell the flowers.” Joanna sighed.
“Believe me,” said Grandad, “you’ll be happy to get home at the end of it.”
“What about the children in the world, Grandad? Are they just like us?”
“Go to school.” And off she’d go, meeting Paco who would usually be hiding at the far side of Maria’s house and who would usually try to scare Joanna by jumping out shrieking and screaming. The only person affected was the long-suffering Maria Danez who would howl from the house and run out shaking her fists and clutching her big chest. One morning on their short walk to school Paco was hopping back and forward, kicking up stones with his dusty boots.
“I want to go back to Grandad’s and see if those men come,” he said.
“I don’t know,” replied the girl, “there’s nothing to it Paco. They’re just men from the village having a meeting or something.”
“A meeting?” laughed Paco. “Shut up! Don’t you think I would have recognised them? Come on! It’ll be a good laugh. We can scare the old coot.”
“Maybe. We’ll see.”
That night they sat quietly on their favourite perch above the road, looking out over the Metropolis with its blurry lights. After a while they made their way back up to the village, turned left at the school, past Maria’s and on silently to Grandad’s house which sat right at the edge of the village where trees loomed dark into the mountains. The old boy would be drinking wine and smoking, reading his Bible or The Lives Of The Saints. They turned into the garden, crept along the side of the house and hid down where the tomatoes grew. They could see into the house and beyond, down to the Metropolis. As the minutes passed in the darkness every sound seemed to magnify and echo in the still air. Leaves and branches softly shuffled, punctuated by the odd crack from the woods. Hunched there, the two started to feel cold.
“I want to go home,” whispered Joanna.
“Just two more minutes,” the boy said. The few lights still burning in the other village windows were going out now and Joanna worried about the short trip home in pitch-blackness. Paco was nipping her arm, partly to keep her awake, partly for devilment. The music of the night, the scent of jasmine was around them. Then the lights came one by one out of the woods, tiny at first but growing and swaying backwards and forwards, maybe three or four of them. The sound of feet on bracken and coarse whispers. Now it was Paco who wanted to run.
“No,” said the girl, hunching down as the lights grew bigger. “Shut up.” Now they could see three figures coming out of the darkness, dimming their torches and approaching the back door of the house.
“It’s the men from before,” hissed the boy, “and they’ve got more parcels, look.” Joanna saw Grandad get out of his chair, walk towards the back door and let the men in. There was an air of cordiality about the gathering as the men laid a few packages on the little table. He poured glasses of wine which the men drank quickly before shaking the old man by the hand and leaving the same way they came in, back into the woods with torches blazing.
Paco and Joanna sat looking on as Grandad drained his own glass then left the room briefly, returning with a box of his beautiful flowers which he also set down on the table. In the guttering candlelight of the room, those purples, blues and greens glowed deep, magical and fragrant. The old man started unwrapping one of the parcels, peeling back brown paper to reveal light silk beneath. Out of that first nest he brought a thin chain which looked of fine material, gold or platinum perhaps, studded with tiny pink stones. He peered at it in the dim light. Then he took one of his flowers, gingerly opening the outer leaves to expose the yellow stamen before gently wrapping the chain around its base. It looked beautiful lying there, the rough gold of the stamen casting flecks of powder over the thin chain, it’s rosy stones like pale ladybirds dusted with sleep.
“I’m bored, let’s go home,” said Paco, as Grandad closed the blue leaves over and picked up a new flower. This time he fetched another chain from the parcel, a light linked silver chain with a small crucifix on the end which he kissed, laughing to himself, before repeating his action and wrapping it round one of the flower’s stamens. Next he found what looked like earrings of small amethysts set in rose gold with studs at the back. This time he picked up one of the flowers and, turning it upside down, carefully pressed the studs of the earrings into the stem, making sure they were securely attached before returning the flower to the box. Joanna was silent as Paco tugged at her arm, asking when they were going.
“Shut up,” she said. “Soon.” As the minutes passed in the darkness the girl watched as Anselm pulled pieces of gold and silver out of the parcels, beautiful watches, delicate diamond rings and necklaces and continued to wrap them round the flowers, roll them up inside their leaves and stick them into the tough stems. Now and then he would take the silk wrappings and fold them neatly on the table in rows laying more little jewels on top for sorting. The candles blazed on, lighting the silks and blossoms, sometimes catching the trinkets with which they were strewn and studded so that this new landscape started to resemble the Metropolis below. The old man stopped for a moment, sipping his wine and puffing on his cigarette, like a giant blowing grey trails of fog across that great city on his table with candles for the sun, moon and stars. The night outside his home continued to glow and Joanna thought she could discern a growing hum from the Metropolis, as if all the noise of the day, the children and animals and machines she constantly imagined, had accumulated and was rising towards the mountain. As Grandad left the room to bring another box of flowers Joanna turned to address Paco who was lying asleep.
“Come on in darling,” said Grandad who was now standing over the children. “It’s cold and you’ve been here long enough.” The old boy gathered Paco in his arms and the two went inside the house.
“Do you want to help?” he asked Joanna, as he laid the sleeping boy on a chair.
“If you like,” she replied, “what do I do?”
“Well, the most important thing is to get as much of that stuff onto the flowers without making it obvious. We just do two boxes like this and the other boxes are flowers only.” They worked on, wrapping the chains and necklaces and watches round the flowers. Joanna found some scarves of fine silk, kid gloves and stockings in the packages and found a way to wrap them round the bottom of the flowers where the roots were still attached to the earth. Whoever buys these will be able to clean that dirt off no problem, she thought. She was working steadily. Now and then Grandad would come over and fix something she was doing so that it became perfectly integrated in the flower – an ochre jewel darting among the stamens, a thin chain across purple leaves like a shining caterpillar trail. And he told her bits and pieces. The men were bandits, that was perfectly true, protected from the world and hidden in the darker recesses of San Nicolao, going about their business on the other side of the hill down in a parallel Metropolis. They were okay though, the old boy said. Just doing what they had always done.
“Some of their kids go to your school,” he laughed. Joanna wasn’t saying very much. Now and then she laid her head against Anselm’s shoulder, just briefly, touching then withdrawing and looking at him.
“Are you coming to the market with me tomorrow?” the old boy asked, but Joanna was unsure.
It was late now. Grandad lifted Paco in his arms and together he and the silent girl walked through their night village, past Maria’s dark house with its icons of the virgin and saints, lit by flares in pewter holders, their big eyes staring lifeless into the blue-black sky. A family of ragged mountain cats stared at them from under the abandoned street stalls as they went on:
“Did you get the stuff, Anselm?” one of them asked.
“I did indeed. Goodnight to you.” They passed the little wooden school with its painted blue and pink eves, rendered black and brown in the night and home to the bats of San Nicolao who by now were on the prowl zipping diagonally back and forward like phantoms against the stars.
“Market day tomorrow, Anselm?” they chirped.
“Indeed it is,” he replied, “goodnight to you.” Just past the school, they came to the highest point of the village, near Paco and Joanna’s favourite perch, and they could see the sprawling city, blazing in gold and charred orange. They could hear it, too, the hum of those streets rising stronger now, snatches of music from bars carried on the warm winds over the buildings, the low slopes of the hill, up and up to the scrub land before them, the narrow path and the branches stretching to the perch. Dull church bells, coyotes, cats, the beating of the wings of night birds. They turned and went on, past the statue of Jesus with his head bowed in sorrow, wrists and feet bleeding crimson paint from the coarse wooden spikes that held him there.
“Goodnight Anselm, goodnight Joanna,” said Jesus. “Get that boy into bed will you?”
“Indeed I will,” answered Grandad, “and Goodnight to you.” As the three approached Paco and Joanna’s empty shack, Grandad turned to the girl.
“The little guy won’t understand like you can. Just say it was villagers bringing Christmas presents.”
“Indeed I will,” she yawned. “Goodnight Anselm.”
They lay quietly through the night, huddling together under a knitted blanket as the night music closed in further and wrapped them in dreams. Joanna would have been asleep by the time Grandad got back to his house, the contraband waiting for him under stellar candles. When morning came she felt shaky, unsure of what she’d seen and done. “Christmas presents?” the boy yelled, “that’s stupid! It’s only March!” Soon, though, he was back stuffing his face with porridge and thinking of new ways to torment Maria. He was going on about drawing a moustache on her icon of the Virgin. Or putting a hat on one of the saints. His sister wasn’t listening.
“I don’t feel well Paco. Tell the teacher I’ll come tomorrow.” And off Paco went, kicking up stones with his dusty boots.
Joanna was sitting at the feet of the statue and staring out at the Metropolis. The village was quiet, the other kids were already in school, the vegetable sellers were not yet at their stalls and the bats of San Nicolao were asleep under their eves.
“I hear you’re ill,” said Jesus. She was silent a long time before looking up.
“Grandad’s a thief? Is that it?”
“He’s a florist,” said Jesus, “and those bandits are the fathers of everything in this village, including me. Your Grandad used to be thief, that’s true, and so were your parents if you must know. Most people here were at one time.”
“Even Maria?” the girl asked.
“No, not her, although I’ve said to her before: Maria, you wouldn’t have your books and your icons and your fancy knickers if it wasn’t for these bandits you keep praying for. Or against. I’m never sure.”
She walked on, ducking past the school where the other children were singing their morning hymns, through the narrow streets of San Nicolao with it’s tiny painted houses, past where Maria Danez watched along with her icons, and on to the last house. Anselm was loading boxes of flowers on to his cart. She kissed the old man and they pushed the cart off, along the path, down the mountain and onto the road, towards the dark and light of the World.