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A villa abandoned for more than a century, an immense park. Amongst the trees hundreds and hundreds of statues, sculpted from chalk. Originally they depicted monstrous creatures, but by now no one can see them. With the passing of the years they deteriorated, decomposed, and now a white blanket has covered the entire garden, erasing life itself. An old blind military man goes to visit the garden every day. Waiting, for a long time. Waiting for a woman, Angelique. The beautiful nurse who, over fifty years ago, in Indochina, devoured his eyes. He knows she will come back one day, because that is her home, and he is ready to face her. He is willing to sacrifice anything to get his revenge, even becoming a murderer.
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Illusion Novella # 8
Original Title: Il giardino di gesso
Translated by Robin Pedrazzoli
© 2018 Illusion
© 2015 Stefano Pastor
Graphics: Angela M.
All rights reserved
A discrete knocking at the door.
“Mrs. Mancini is here, mum”, Lin murmured.
Her voice was harmonious; she always spoke softly when she was in that room. Her mother was ill, a devious, unstoppable disease: she was going blind. It had begun two years earlier, a gradual decline in sight, which had become more and more aggravated. The doctor had given no hope of improvement in the course of the disease. It would not take long before reaching absolute blindness.
Lin had abandoned her job, had improvised as a nurse, had devoted her every moment of her life. Because she loved her, she loved her so much. It was not the woman who had created her, that was what she knew, Lin was Korean, but Lucia Renda had adopted her, had taken care of her, and she never wanted for anything.
Their life had always been happy and harmonious until the illness had taken root. Then expensive care had threatened their financial security. Lin had been forced to look for a job, and now Mrs. Mancini, a helpful neighbour, had to look after her mother.
Mrs. Mancini also came in silently and took off her coat and gloves.
Now Lucia Renda saw only shadows so everyone was trying to avoid sudden movements or sudden noises that would have frightened her.
“How was your first day of work, Lin?”
She had not had much choice; she did not have any qualifications. At first he had tried to resume her old job, assistant in a bookstore, but unfortunately, it had not been possible. Thanks to the experience she had gained with her mother, she had been employed as a chaperone for a visually impaired person.
“It will not be easy”, Lin admitted.
Mrs. Mancini greeted Lin’s mother, who was lying on the bed and sat down beside her. “How was he?”
Lin sighed. “Odious.”
Mrs. Mancini chuckled softly. “You just met him!”
“And I already don’t know how much more I can take.”
“It can’t be that bad!”
“You think? He was in the military. In fact, he believes he is still there.”
“That does not seem like such a terrible thing.”
“Do you know how he lost his sight? Fifty years ago in Indochina. Right during the war with those damn yellow gooks. He does nothing but repeats it.”
“Oh.” Mrs. Mancini shook her head, embarrassed. “And how did he react when he knew you…”
“He doesn’t know!” Lin said. “I avoided telling him! To him, I’m Miss Renda and that’s all, there is no need for him to know anything else. He’s blind, don’t you remember? He can’t see.”
“Sooner or later someone will tell him.”
“I will resolve that when the time comes. As long as I can tolerate him until then.”
“Is he offensive?”
“Against the gooks? Yes, a lot. Very offensive.”
“And what are you going to do?”
Lin did not answer and smiled at her mother. “We need his money.”
Lucia Renda shook her head. “We have not reached that point, Lin. If you don’t like it just leave it. I do not want you to suffer.”
Lin got up. “Don’t worry; I know how to deal with it. And if he continues this way, I will tell him clearly what I think of him.”
“Are you sure you can do it?”
“He’s an old man, Mom. Despite what he says he’s just a poor old blind man. His tongue is sharp, but he can no longer hurt anyone.”
“I still don’t like you going to him. Look for another job, Lin.”
“I will, but for now, we could use his money .”
Then she smiled at Mrs. Mancini. “I hope to be back by this evening.”
“Do not worry, dear; I do not have anyone at home waiting for me, don’t trouble your self on my account. Your mother and I will keep each other company. Right, Lucia?”
Lin kissed her mother and left.
His name was Gérard Brainc. That he was a soldier was obvious from his appearance and his bearing. What rank he had achieved was a mystery. Lin suspected that his military career had stopped shortly because of his impairment, but in his mind, he was still there, in Indochina, every single day of his life.
Though French he was fluent in Italian, but with a slight foreign nuance. From what she had gathered he had been living there for many years now.
The first day had been terrible. Despite the cold, Brainc wanted to be accompanied for a walk outside It had been more a forced march than a walk, he was never tired. Hours and hours in which he had spoken continually, leaving her confused and exhausted.
Brainc hated everyone, truly everyone: the damned Catholics, the dirty niggers, the homosexuals, who he called with more colourful names, the infidel Jews, but especially the pig gooks.
Lin had never met anyone so racist, so full of hate, so acrid. A repugnant individual.
That morning she found him ready to go out with his long coat that went down to his feet and the inevitable stick in his hand.
“You’re back; I would not have expected it!” This was his welcome.
Lin knew that Brainc had already changed several companions: no one stayed long with him.
“Hurry up; I’ve been waiting for a lifetime. Let’s move.”
It was not easy to be his eyes. Often, Brainc got fervent in his monologues, gesturing, and ignoring Lin’s warnings. The day before he had almost fallen a couple of times and he almost finished under a taxi.
“Colombian, do you understand? I asked for a maid, and they sent me one of them! I told them what they could do with her!”
Get away, pretend not to hear it, resist the impulse to push him herself under another taxi.
“Moves, you’re not paralytic! I can not always wait for you’re fancy!”
“I said I want to turn right!”
“But there is nothing there, Mr. Brainc. On the other side, instead…”
“Are you not listening to me? Are you deaf? Have they sent me someone deaf now?”
Lin let it go. “To the right, there is only the chalk garden.”
“So? Am I not free to go?”
“We’ll get dirty, Mr. Brainc. Also, the wind is rising.”
“Is this what you are concerned about? Dirtying your pretty little dress? Or would you prefer to still have a job, tomorrow?”
“Do as you please. Do you want to get dirty in that cemetery? Then let’s go.”
They changed direction, while the old man mumbled. In front of them a large avenue, surrounded by ancient sequoia. Dry leaves, on the ground, moved by the wind.
“So you call it chalk garden too?”
“Does it bother you? Everyone calls it that. I can call it Leibner Garden if you prefer.”
The old man chuckled. “You know the history then.”
“I heard something. But I do not think anyone knows the true history.”
“I have all his disks. You can listen to them.” Then he added: “If you stay long enough.”
“All original editions of the beginning of the century. They are very rare.”
“Are you a collector?”
He shook his head. “I do not like music; I find it useless. It is Leibner who interests me. What do you know about him?”
“I think he was a famous Austrian composer. Strauss’s student, I think. He was very rich, and he settled down here.”
“You are wrong. All the riches were his wife’s. She was a baroness. The villa was also hers.”
Lin shrugged. “Whatever, they settled down here. In the early years of the century, I think. There was also a daughter.”
“Daphne. Yes, they came here in 1903. Daphne was only fourteen years old.”
Lin looked at him impressed; Brainc’s knowledge surprised her. “Then there was Zephir.”
“Leibner found him and took him to the villa. No one had ever heard of him, but Leibner presented him as the greatest sculptor in the world.”
“And was he?”
“We will never know, don’t you think?”
“I don’t understand… The villa is full of his works.”
“Corroded, all corroded by time. Unrecognisable. He never wanted his works to be photographed, and now it’s too late.”
“Chalk…” Lin murmured.
“Yes, all the works of Zephir were made of chalk. He knew that they would not survive, he chose it specially. As if he wanted to be forgotten.”
“At that time they had to be beautiful.”
“There is no one who has seen them in person. It has been almost a century now.” He took a long sigh. “He came for Daphne, to make her a statue. That was Leibner’s gift for her birthday. But he never went away.”
Lin remembered the story. “He made statues apon statues, filled the garden of the villa with hundreds of statues. No one knows how many there are; they have never been catalogued, they are constantly discovering new ones in the most unthinkable places. And all in chalk.”
“Already in the 1930s, they began to decompose. The rain, the wind, corroded them. Chalk powder engulfed the whole garden, covering everything with a white mantle, like snow. And since then it has always been so. Still today the deterioration continues, and the statues fade away.”
“Is it not possible to stop it? Today there are some very effective fixatifs.”
“Do not be fooled by the gates always being open; Villa Leibner is private property. No one can intervene. If the owners do not care about saving them, nobody can do anything.”
Lin thought differently. “Villa Leibner has been uninhabited since 1914.”
“You are informed, I see. But this does not change the fact that it has owners, even if they do prefer to let it go to ruin.”
“Who are they?”
The old man chuckled. “I’ve never found out, though, even though I’ve been searching for years.”
Lin refrained from asking personal questions, the mood changes of the old man were sudden, and she did not intend to be offended yet again. She fought with more neutral arguments. “They say that those statues were strange.”
“Not at first”, said the old man, satisfied with the question. “Mostly of gods and heroes. Then, over the years, Zephir’s style changed, his figures were less and less human, more… alien. They say the last works were terrifying.”
“What do you mean?”
“There are very few who have seen them, he hid them, in the darkest and most forgotten places in the garden.”
“But it’s not that big!”
Lin had never come over there, even as a child. It was too dirty; there was a risk of ruining her clothes. Her mother had forbidden outright. But she knew that other children had been there, and had explored it.
She tried hard to remember. “There was gossip. About Zephir.”
The old man snorted. “They said he was Sophie’s lover, Mrs. Leibner, then Daphne, when she grew up. They also said that Leibner knew it but did not care. He had been enchanted by his art; he would do anything to make him stay in the villa.”
“How did it end?”
A cheeky smile. “You don’t know?”
“I’m asking you.”
“Nobody knows. No one has any idea what happened to them. Everyone disappeared at the threshold of World War I. Perhaps they felt the imminent disorder and preferred to move to safer places. Maybe not.”
“Is nothing known about it?”
“No one came back after the war. The villa was intact, it was spared from being bombed, but no one came back to live there, ever again.”
Already a whitish, thin powder covered the wall. Lin realized that their objective was near. All the houses on the street were very old and mostly abandoned. They were ancient villas, very distanced from each other, with largely abandoned parks.
“Why is it open to the public?”
“It is not open to the public. It’s just open.”
“I do not understand.”
“Me neither. No agreement has ever been made with the municipality. It has always been so, that I know of, the gates of the villa have always been open, no one has ever seen them closed.”
“And who opened them?”
“Leibner, I guess, when they left.”
Lin looked at him incredulously. “Have they been open for nearly a century?”
He chuckled. “I think so.”
“Yet there is an owner.”
“Taxes are paid every year. It’s all sorted out by a Swiss bank. So yes, I guess the villa has an owner.”
“That’s crazy”, Lin said.
Everyone had visited it at least once. Anyone who had gone to that city, for pleasure or work, hearing about that strange attraction, had to witness it in person. No was ever disappointed.
The chalk garden was impressive. From the street, you could not see the villa, surrounded by centuries-old trees.
The first impression was to be in front of a snowy landscape. Then the realization that it was not so. Then there would be a feeling of watching a show as if it were all a set design, then this also faded. Desolation strikes suddenly: not a frozen, crystallized world, but a dead world. The statues furthered this impression. They were corroded, unrecognisable.
There were not many, at least at first sight. Two at the entrance, at either side of a white stone path.
Two rows of benches along the path also covered with chalk. Pure white meadows, on either side, with two marble fountains.
But the most striking were the trees. They also seemed to be transformed into statues. White, twisted, apparently dead or dying. There were many of them, almost a forest, and the green seemed banned from that white landscape.
More than ever Lin felt that she was in front of a cemetery.
“You do not want to get in there!”
“I’m thirty years old here, Miss.”
“It’s just chalk; it doesn’t kill. Do I look dead?”
“It’s easy to slip; you have to be careful.”
“You be careful. By now I know every single stone in this garden. I do not need your help.”
Brainc broke away from her and went on. Lin looked on, desolate, in her whitewashed coat. A frosty wind lifted flakes of chalk, spreading it in the air. It could have been snow. She went after him, annoyed.
“The third bench is the most comfortable”, Brainc said. “Let’s sit down there.”
“It’s all dirty!”
“Does the white frighten you?”
She preferred not to argue. She reached the bench and tried to remove some of the dust. But now it had been encrusted, over the decades, layered, it seemed as if fossilized. She was content to sit on a handkerchief.
The old man sat rigidly, careless of dirtying his coat.
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