Rome Black Magic
Paolo felt hollow. For days he'd been hearing insistent echoes inside himself. He sat slumped in a steel chair in the studio and repeated under his breath the incantation she'd taught him. "Darksome night and shining moon, east, then south and west and north, ... and blah blah blah."
What fucking nonsense it all was. That month with her was the craziest time of his life. Her love potions - so he would desire her forever, she said. She had the power to get what she wanted, she claimed. Her little altars and her satanic images, her "pets" - the frogs and the disgusting spiders and brown mice - her special cups and platters and sharpened knives and exotic incense, her Wiccan texts, her talk of "her" witchcraft and the candles all over her apartment "to strengthen her spiritual force."
"Queen of heaven, queen of hell,
Horned hunter of the night,
Lend your power unto the spell,
Work my will by magic rite."
Several minutes had passed since the latest eruption of his rage. His face was still purple. He held his hands in front of his face and couldn't stop their trembling. Usually mild and measured as someone who has life under control, he'd become a victim of uncontrollable tantrums.
"What a stupid asshole to quit my job at Cinecitta," he shouted down the empty hall, "where I made a hell of a lot of money - just to work at this fucking TV." He hoped the boss hidden down there heard him. Probably fucking his secretary in the conference room right now. He stuffed his key rings, his equipment and gadgets and personal gear into a leather bag and rushed toward the exit to freedom.
"No!" he yelled back down the corridor. "You can stuff that night duty up all your asses."
It was after midnight. But he was leaving early. Now that figlio di puttana of a manager had transferred him to the all-night shift. Fuck them all! And they still hadn't even paid him last month's salary.
"What a fool I was! To think these fucking clowns could make a decent station out of their c-films and stupid talk shows.
He slammed the glass doors of the pretentious studios and limped down the steep narrow street toward his beloved Cinquecento. Rare street lamps cast elongated shadows, deformed and grotesque, among the ordered rows of ancient pines. Streets were still wet from the downpour in early evening. Banks of fog swirled down below under the Olympic Bridge and along the Tiber.
"Eko eko azarak, eko eko zamilak," he chanted at the full moon racing through oceans of whitish clouds. "Eko eko cernunnos, eko eko aradia."
Where had she learned all that crap anyway? From her gypsy mother? Or from her English father, that nutty professor of something esoteric? But then most Romans were superstitious. All of Italy was like that. Didn't even the Pope himself launch his anathemas against the pagans of Rome and the black magic city of Turin? A people of sorcerers and shamans and exorcists. One big Sabbat of witchcraft and the evil eye and spells and curses. Everybody throwing around menacing witchcraft words - sortilegio, malia, fattura and fattuchiera, incantesimo, stregoneria and iettatura and malocchio.
He gunned the little car in second gear in a mad flight down the Fleming hill toward Via Flaminia. He made no attempt to avoid the water-filled potholes or dodge the molehills erupting under the macadam atop the buckling pine tree roots crisscrossing the street.
"Rodeo!" he shouted over the din of the sputtering half-liter motor. "Fucking cross-country run!"
Recently his thirst was insatiable. Just since morning the cramps in his side and the pains in his chest had worsened. "I must have fever. Gotta' get home ... take my temperature. Those bastards, those Goddamn fucking bastards! I'm supposed to work all night ... and they still haven't paid me a fucking lira."
He'd been raging all day. Raging at his boss. Raging at the owners of the new TV group. Raging at his own stupidity. They'd promised him. He'd left a good job at the film studios - chiefly to have more free time for Lisa.
On the Lungotevere the post-cinema traffic was heavy. Dim yellow lights flashed weakly in the pale fog hanging over the Tiber. At the Matteotti Bridge he braked slightly when he heard sirens arriving from the Prati side. "Tahh-ta-tahh-ta-tahh," he mimicked as it passed noisily in front of him. It was nearly one a.m. when he turned up the hill of Via Panisperna. Surprisingly he found a reasonable if not legal parking place directly under the windows of his apartment house.
He was gathering his things on the passenger seat and when he suddenly started at a loud knocking on his window. An African face was pressed against the glass. A string of brightly painted dolls jangled near his face. Where the hell do the vendors come from at this hour? Two grinning cops standing at the entrance to the precinct station ten steps up the street waved at him and slapped each other on the shoulder. He didn't laugh at their stupid joke.
He was flushed and hot and so overwhelmingly weak that the four flights of stairs that he normally took three at a time seemed endless. "Stay calm," he told himself. "Like Mamma says, getting excited can be dangerous."
"Oh, dio mio, what's wrong?" Lisa exclaimed when he staggered into the bedroom. She was propped up on several pillows watching an old John Wayne film. He noted her filmy gown. Her long red hair wound like tongues of fire across the yellow and white sheets. They'd been together less than two months; she never slept before he arrived. Each evening his only thought was to get back to her.
Broad-shouldered, taller than average, with wide-set blue eyes and silky blond hair, Paolo Rovere looked like an American. His school years in Rome's English schools and the intellectual atmosphere his mother created at home had left their mark on him so that people frequently took him for a foreigner - until they heard his Rome dialect or encountered his volatile nature. He defined himself as a hybrid Roman.
"They want to put me on night duty but I refused ... I'm busy nights," he said, forcing a weak grin. "Lisa, tesoro, I'm sick ... very sick. See if there's a thermometer. Gotta' get in bed. Gotta' lie down."
Lisa leapt from the bed to help him undress. In confusion she took off one of his shoes before running to the bathroom for the thermometer. She pushed him down on the pillows and sat beside him. He was still half dressed. She didn't know where to put the thermometer. He grabbed it with a powerful veined hand and jammed it in his mouth. She sat beside him watching the thermometer and chatting about her evening.
"I worked on the living room all afternoon. What a mess! I was looking again at that pillow we found under the couch. That one," she said pointing at a raggedy bundle near his head. "Strange looking," she said. "Those bizarre colors ... looks like a child made it. Where did it come from anyway? Here, let me see. Paolo, my god, you've got nearly 39! You must have the flu. Tomorrow morning we have to see a doctor."
He groaned, turned on his side and pulled his knees under his chin into a fetal position. He was sweating and shivering at the same time. Cramps swept over him in waves of intense pain. "I can't wait, Lisa. I though that once in bed I could ... look, you better call Mamma, quick. I have to get to a hospital. I'm worse ... much worse."
The girl was paralyzed like one who'd never seen serious illnesses first hand. After reaching Paolo's mother she sat next to him while he moaned from time to time and pressed her hand. Finally Dora arrived and took charge. Soon after an ambulance came and the medics carried the groaning man down the narrow stairs.
The two women rode in the ambulance in an unimpeded race through night-time Rome - down the Quirinal Hill to Piazza Venezia, through to Largo Argentina and out across the Garibaldi Bridge and Viale Trastevere and up the long hill to the Hospital of San Camillo. The huge medical complex was quiet. They drove directly to the surgical pavilion where the clinic director was waiting. A close family friend, he had known Paolo since he was born.
Paolo submitted docilely to the x-rays and accelerated catskans, blood tests and urine tests, preliminary examinations and the consultations that failed to identify or even locate the massive infection that the medical team suspected.
"It's poisoning," Paolo heard Dario, the clinic director, tell his mother.
He had to smile to himself. In the ambulance he'd begun to grasp what was happening to him. But they wouldn't believe him if he told them it was sorcery.
"We've started him on antibiotics," Dario said. "Let's see how he reacts during the next eight hours. We don't think his condition will worsen."
"I've never seen him like this before," Dora was saying. "I mean like the last few days. So mad all the time. So rabid. Raging about problems at work. Look at him! He's gray. That powerful boy. Never sick a day in his life. Strong as a lion."
She adored her only son. She'd showered him with affection for his 29 years, particularly after her separation from his father when Paolo was still a child. He was the center of her life. Emotionally Dora and her son formed a close team - even if in recent years he'd tended to go his own way and keep his private life to himself.
"Morgana," Paolo whispered.
"What's that?" the famous physician said, leaning toward Paolo.
"One of his ex-girl friends," Dora said.
"She has put a curse on him," Lisa said.
"Absurd!" Dora whispered. "It's bile. It's his temper tantrums, I know it."
During the night Paolo appeared to be comatose. Yet he was wide awake. His sense of hearing was acute. Intently he listened to the sirens of arriving ambulances and police cars. He heard the squeaking of wheelchairs and mobile stretchers. Nurses and doctors popped in continually. He heard their comments to Dora and Lisa. He knew his mother was shivering in fear and apprehension in the cold room. He recalled the white teeth of the grinning African at his window.
Images of Morgana flickered brightly across his brain and just as quickly vanished into the night. He saw her draw on her cigarette, laugh gaily and pull up the top of her off-shoulder flowered dress. Her long black hair glistens and her silver earrings jangle. She lights another cigarette, she swears in Italian then in English about the mother-fucking traffic on her way home from the studio, and she stirs another of her secret potions. He knew he was bewitched. What could all their antibiotics do?
By noon the next day the clinic director and his two chief surgeons had concluded that Paolo's kidneys were failing. An operation was urgent. That afternoon he awoke to find tubes attached to arms and body. He opened his eyes wide and looked at his mother. In her eyes he saw reflected his terror of some terrible secret he'd perceived during his stay between life and death.
"It's Morgana," he said again. "She swore she'd kill me and have her revenge. I know it's her."
"Oh Paolo, Paolino caro, you have to forget all that superstition. This is the best hospital in the city. The doctors think you've been poisoned. I told them about the bile too. How many times I've told you not to worry so much about your job. Not to get so upset and furious. Don't worry now. You're in good hands. It's already better."
Paolo watched his mother talk. She didn't believe he was better. He smiled faintly. Ironically. She looked puzzled. She'd never wanted to let him get away from her.
Paolo had married his childhood sweetheart Giulia when he was 24 and she 22. Even after she got pregnant and they married for the sake of their parents, their teenage dreams of a beautiful world together had seemed within reach. But after the birth of their daughter, Giulia was always busy with the child, as was the young grandmother, Dora. It had seemed natural that they move into Dora's big country house together.
If Paolo accepted the new situation as the order of things, he was nonetheless aware that Giulia was slipping back into the bourgeois habits that he had attempted to eradicate in both of them. So that while she floundered in complacency, he was increasingly bored. He felt confined by the humdrum of everyday life from which he'd escaped. As the months passed and since he was doing well as an assistant cameraman at Cinecitta, he moved his family back into their own apartment in city, hoping to bring excitement back into their lives.
But the boredom remained. In his mood of general discontent and, used to getting everything he wanted in life, it was inevitable that he would meet another woman.
Morgana was different from anyone he'd ever known. The kind of woman he would have wanted Giulia to be. A costume designer for RAI Television, Morgana lived in a world of make-believe. He fell for her the first time he saw her. Late one evening after some on-set photography, he went home with the wild Morgana and overnight found himself in the kind of modern bohème he'd always dreamed of. He never returned to the home life of wife and family.
"We don't understand why his condition has degenerated," the doctor admitted to Dora and Lisa that evening. "We were convinced the problem was the kidneys. Now I don't know. I'm sorry Dora but the staff advises an exploratory operation of the stomach region."
"Dario, please listen to me! It's the bile, I know it. An attack of bile. And he's too strong to die from bile. That's not possible."
Paolo listened to the talk around him. He smiled to himself. But he couldn't lift an arm. He was too weak to open his eyes or even feel pain. Bile! He could tell them what he had! He now knew he had the wasting sickness that Morgana talked about all the time.
His naive mother! But what did she know about demonic spirits? How could he begin to explain a woman like Morgana who claimed she felt allegiance only to the devil? How could he explain to the doctors that a sorceress was in confederacy with Satan to destroy him? What doctor would believe that?
"It's Morgana!" Lisa said it for him. "She's mad. A witch. She'll kill me too. I know she wants me to die. Paolo was out of his mind after only a month with her. You didn't know all that, Dora. I don't think she even wants him for herself. She just wants to possess him. To have him forever - in her power. She once said something like that. She said she wanted him dead. Dead, he's hers forever. But Paolo only wanted to escape. That's the real reason we're together now."
"That's when his temper tantrums began," Dora recalled. "When she threatened him. And he was so upset with his life - with Giulia and the baby. Then, his furor about his job. I'm sure all this will pass and he'll settle down again."
Paolo wanted to laugh at his mother's unnatural conviction of his physical strength - as if he could overcome any threats, any mortal dangers. She told everyone that he was born strong. Not only would her son never die, she believed, he would not even suffer.
As if from far away he heard her say, "Dario, I hope you doctors will soon accept my theory on all this."
The next morning they opened his stomach. At the same time they removed his appendix - just in case. Dora and Lisa were both in a state of nervous exhaustion and shock. They practically lived in the hospital.
At about noon Paolo's older sister, Marisa, and her husband, Giulio, arrived from Sicily. Paolo was relieved that Giulio was there. He was his favorite relative. Giulio not only believed in black magic but he also frequented centers of the cult in South Italy. His excited eyes were popping from their sockets as he listened to Lisa's version of the events. His interest was almost professional. He then revealed that he knew the names of some of the most fashionable priestesses of witchcraft in Rome.
"Yes, yes," Lisa cried at one point. "Paolo insists that it's all Morgana's doing. He feels it. He knows she has cast spell on him - on us. He says he keeps seeing her before him. He feels her presence, her sorcery, her evil. He feels the power of her curse. For a moment last night he had such terror in his eyes. She wants me too, Giulio."
"We'll see," he said. "I think we can counter this spell. I'm going to look up the high priestess. She's the most powerful exorcist in Rome. She's the only one to help us now."
Paolo lay immobile. He didn't open his eyes. But thank God the crazy Sicilian had come. A madman, just like Morgana. Maybe he would bring them all to their senses. Maybe they would grasp what was happening to him.
His mother didn't even understand that the very name Morgana was magical. If his mother could only see Morgana standing before her altar with her death-watch candles casting shadows across the room, chanting some ode to Satan. If she only knew of Morgana's fiery love, her elixirs and gingerbread cookies. Oh Morgana! Morgana who hated the sacraments and spit at crosses, and on holy days cursed all the more.
Dora should hear that sorceress lift her voice and name his names. "Oh Satan!" she would begin, he'd at first thought just to impress him, "God of This World, Ruler of Darkness, Prince of the Power of the Air, Angel of the Abyss, Beelzebub, King of Death, Tempter, Roaring Lion, Adversary, Abbadon, Apollyon, Dragon, Old Serpent. Oh, yes, Satan you will reign!"
In the afternoon a close friend of Paolo's telephoned Lisa to ask if they had lent Paolo's car to anyone. He was puzzled to learn that they hadn't used it since Paolo himself parked it in front of their apartment house. And who would bother to steal such an old car?
"I saw it just now," he said, "parked - or rather wrecked - in that little piazza around the corner from your house. It's lying on its side, the fenders and headlight on one side ripped off. What's left of the door is mangled and hanging open."
At that moment Giulio returned. He was elated about the wrecked car. "That's typical," he shouted. "That's one of the signs. That's what the old exorcist Teresa just told me to look for. When one's material possessions begin to suffer too, there's certainly a powerful curse at work."
While Dora scoffed and turned her back on the others, Giulio paced the room with his hands locked behind his back, his face flushed and excited. "Lisa," he yelled, "she asked if Paolo has received any presents recently. She asked specifically about a pillow."
"Of course, the pillow I've been talking about! I was telling Paolo about it when he came home so sick. Not a present but we found it under the couch. A simple little thing. Rag-like. He'd never seen it before."
"That must be it. Did you examine it? Did you open it, or see anything strange about it?"
"Only that it looks like a child made it."
"That must be the carrier of the spell. We have to open it. There must be some token inside. Come on Lisa, maybe there's still time to get it to the exorcist."
No sooner than they left, Dora's sister telephoned from their villa in the hills north of the city. "Dora, I'm sorry but I need help out here. Paolo's dogs are sick. First they began barking, all excited. I couldn't calm them. Then they began stumbling around the yard and vomiting. Dora, I hate to tell you this but Tiziano is dead. And Caravaggio is barely breathing, he's probably dead too. I can't do anything. And now the power is out again. Oh God, Dora, they must have been poisoned. But who would do a thing like that to those beautiful animals?"
When Paolo moved back into the city two years earlier, he left his two Dobermans in the country with his mother. He loved them as much as his daughter and was meticulous in his care of them. They would be happier there in the country, he'd thought.
Dora was speechless. She could no longer follow the sequence of the events crashing around them. Just when her own personal life was again beginning to find direction - finally she was happy with the man she'd loved for ten years - her beloved son was dying before her eyes. Gian Paolo had finally made the final break with his wife, Luisa but the worrisome aspect was Luisa herself. If she had never accepted the reality of their virtual separation, when Gian Paolo formally moved out she had vowed a terrible revenge.
When Giulio and Lisa returned they found her sitting at bedside. Giulio was in a fever as he reported their findings. So agitated was he to be in the world of magic and sorcery, in the world of life and death, that he paid little attention to his mother-in-law who was now of secondary importance. He was at home with the evil eye.
"Just as the exorcist suspected," he said jubilantly. "Broom sticks and a piece of knotted red ribbon in the pillow! Teresa has begun her incantations to exorcize the - the evil spirit. If it's just not too late!"
As if he'd expected such news Giulio nodded his head knowingly when he heard about the dogs. Everything was proceeding according to a logic that Dora, the intellectual realist, could never understand. He knew she could never accept that that Renaissance intellectual, Pico della Mirandola, died at age 33, not from a heart attack but from a sorcerer's curse because of his diatribes against the astrologers.
Dora never hung charms over her doorway to protect herself from the malocchio like most Romans. She scoffed at Neopolitan soothsayers and Tuscan faith healers just as she did at Luisa's threats.
"Giulio, the doctors have diagnosed an acute infection of the pancreas," she said. "They're going to operate again tomorrow morning. It must be that! Oh, if he'd just stayed calm and had his symptoms diagnosed sooner! All that agitation is killing him!"
"Dora, don't you see yet? That's the way witchcraft works. It's at work inside him. Around him. It's at work in his entire sphere. Maybe in us too. He couldn't fight it alone. But now that we know we can organize a battle against the evil spirit."
"She wants to kill us both. Oh Paolo," Lisa said, grasping at his hand, "how could it happen to us - just when we were beginning to live."
Paolo held his eyes shut and smiled to himself. He didn't answer. What could he do? He felt like the battlefield where the war between magic and reason was being fought.
The days passed in the fog of his agony and their desperation. One operation succeeded the other. Rome's renowned specialists became increasingly puzzled. Panic reigned in the surgical pavilion at San Camillo. While Dora only hoped for a medical miracle, all the time Giulio knew that their procedures were useless - the real battle was being fought in a dark backroom in the exorcist's apartment in Trastevere.
While Dora existed in a stupor of pain and exhaustion, Paolo weakened. He was alienated in a nether world that only he among those forming the microcosm of the sterile room could penetrate. From time to time in recent days he'd known exceptionally lucid moments during which he talked only of the spell - and how he wanted to survive it.
During two more weeks of confused nights and days, of three more operations and complicated treatments, of MRIs and Catskans, of doctors and nurses and relatives and friends passing through the haze, Dora and Lisa sat dozing like zombies in the morgue-like atmosphere near the disintegrating Paolo. His body functions were now conducted by an increasingly complicated system of tubes and electrodes attached to his martyred body.
At one moment on a Sunday morning, Dora felt Paolo stir. She stood up and looked down into his emaciated face. She met his intense gaze and gasped. His eyes were alert, interrogative and imploring. While they looked at each other, he exhaled a long sigh.
"Mamma, it's no use. I can't go on any more. Mamma, tell me, who did it. Why?"
Then abruptly, without waiting for a reply, as if he'd been considering his action, he sat bolt upright. Before his astonished mother could stop him he ripped the tubes and wires from his body. He made as if to leap from the bed. But it was too much. After his useless effort he seemed to surrender. His body deflated. For some seconds yet he sat on the edge of the bed gasping and panting, his chin on his chest, before falling back heavily.
"Paolo, Paolo, no, no, you can't. You can't get up. You're better, caro. I know it. I can see it. I know how strong you are. You don't have to prove it to me, the way you used to. Oh, Paolino, you're stronger now." Dora's cries became progressively louder and hysterical.
"Mamma, I can't." His voice faded, nearly extinct. He whispered barely audibly, "Who did it?" he seemed to say.
When Giulio, the nurses and some friends of Paolo's finally ran into the room, Dora was holding her son in her arms, imploring him to resist.
"He killed himself," Lisa howled from the corner of the room where she had watched it all. "He tore it all away - and died. He couldn't bear it anymore. He couldn't resist the power of the curse. He couldn't bear to suffer anymore. It was hopeless. He wanted to die."
"No, no, Paolino," Dora cried "You're strong. The doctors will cure you. They know about the bile attack - and the poison, the pancreas."
"Just yesterday," Giulio said, "Teresa told me that she didn't believe Morgana was the sorceress. The problem, she said, we were exorcizing the wrong sorceress. We just needed a little more time to find the real one."
"Time!" spat out of a medical student friend of Paolo's. "Those doctors had plenty of it - to massacre him like a pig."
For months afterward the dispute continued as to why Paolo killed himself - or, as some charged, whether the hospital killed him. The only point of agreement was that fate had dealt him, and Dora and Lisa too, a miserable card.
Neither Dora nor Lisa could find peace. Instead of cementing their relationship, their common grief poisoned it. Intellectually Dora still could not accept witchcraft as an explanation for what she called "the unacceptable wrath of destiny" even though Lisa assured her that Paolo himself believed in the power of sorcery.
His only doubt, Lisa said, had been that anyone could hate him enough to cause him to die in that horrible way. At the end, she said, he didn't believe that Morgana, after only one unsatisfactory month
together with him, was capable of hate sufficient to conjure such a powerful and evil demon.
Dora told Lisa that she'd been with Paolo too little time, that she didn't know his physical strength, and that he could have resisted all the sorceries of Rome.
If Lisa on the other hand continued to live in doubt, her fears for herself began to ease. Of course, if Morgana was responsible then the same hate and the same evil spirit could be loosed on her. But she'd begun finding relief in a factor concerning Dora's relationship with the man in her life, Gian Paolo - an important factor that could save Lisa by exonerating Morgana.
Giulio stuck to the sorcery explanation of Paolo's death. But secretly he accepted the exorcist's conviction that not Morgana was the sorceress - no part-time witch like she could have resisted the counter spells and counter charms of Rome's most powerful exorcists. After gathering information about Morgana and visiting her in her apartment on the Aventine, Teresa was convinced that she was a fake witch.
After Dora's nervous breakdown and her return home from the clinic in the Alps, she avoided Lisa. There was no reason to recall the pain and stir up old doubts. Nevertheless, several months later, Lisa brought to the villa some photographs and writings of Paolo that she knew he would have wanted his mother to have. Since Lisa was unaware that Dora had returned home and because of the unexpectedness of the confrontation, they both said things they wouldn't have said otherwise. Their meeting in the large country kitchen was brief and terrible. Their eyes seemed to harbor burning hate and accusation one of the other.
"Why are you of all people looking at me like that?" Dora said. "My son is dead because of you. If it was sorcery, as you all claim, then you brought it down on him. You brought down on his head the wrath of the evil spirit - if such a thing exists. That woman hated him so much because of you."
"Dora, the question is not whether it was sorcery. The real question is who was the sorceress. The question is, who cast the spell that killed your son. And who was the main target?"
Dora was not converted to witchcraft but in her search for an answer, for any explanation of her son's death, she gladly made of Lisa a general scapegoat. But one doubt had plagued her. One mysterious element was gnawing at her conscience. Was Giulio right? Was she herself not the primary target of the sorcery? How could she ever be sure about responsibility for Paolo's death? Had Paolo suspected that in the end? Was that what he wanted to say in those moments of his dying?
Dora had a guilty conscience. She had torn Gian Paolo from the arms of his wife and away from his children. Above all, from the bed of a desperate and vindictive woman who had sworn revenge against Dora.
"Dora," Lisa continued, "how can you say such things to me? I know about Gian Paolo's wife. About what happened after he left her. Paolo told me about the curse on you, Dora. Oh, yes, he knew! According to that curse, one of your children would die in agony.
"Now do you believe in black magic, Dora? Do you?"