The cardinal eats plums in the garden of the villa. Ripe and purple, the juice sluices down his chin. A piece of skin catches in his teeth.
Elvira sits on the fountain still in her wispy nightdress. She balances on the back of a cherub, which is leaning away from the leaping dolphins at the fountain’s centre; the fountain isn’t on. Elvira dangles her toes in water that has gathered in the oyster shell basin below the cherub’s mouth. She sees the cardinal wipe his face with his tasselled belt. The sun is hot on her neck even though it is still early.
“Elvira!” The cardinal’s voice gurgles, not unlike the fountain when it’s on. It surprises her. She thought she was invisible up here – not really invisible, but at least, unseen.
“Elvira, how much Latin do you know?”
“None,” she answers. She doesn’t add ‘sir’, although she considers it.
He looks at her for a long time and she almost leaves, but the water is cool like a tune played high on a flute; she kicks her feet and the droplets turn to diamonds in the sunshine.
“I will teach you Latin.”
“I’ll think about it,” she says.
The cardinal slots the rest of the plum into his mouth and after a great deal of sucking and masticating, spits the stone into the fountain, splashing her feet.
The man who lives in the wall likes a drink every day at four o’clock. The girl with the Disney face, corn-blonde hair and immobile features looks just like Elvira but is actually stitched into the tapestry that covers the man’s wall. Elvira brings her pitcher and fills the man’s glass with apple juice. Elvira wonders if he thinks she is the girl stitched into the tapestry because he has never spoken to her, even so, when she passes by, she always fills his glass. He keeps his face behind the wall. It is only his hand that anyone can see, that anyone will ever see, Elvira suspects.
A baby, long gone, used to cry out: “Come on Articular, show us your face.”
The man in the wall always ignored the baby. This calling out, even by a baby, was probably too much for a man who lived inside a wall. Elvira could never understand why he was embarrassed. A hand is enough. He keeps his fingernails clean, trimmed, and Elvira has glimpsed a white cuff and a dark sleeve. He seems a respectable sort of person even though he lives inside a wall.
Every morning before work, Elvira sits in the garden and listens to what’s going on:
“Where are you?”
“I’m over here, in the oak. Where are you?”
“In the cedar.”
“Come over here.”
“No, you come here.”
“It’s better here. The wind is in the branches.”
“Here you get a view of the valley.”
“I’m off to the lawn. Where are you now?”
“I’m on the other lawn.”
“This lawn is better, they’ve watered it.”
“But there’s a person standing on your lawn.”
“It’s not worrying me.”
“So, I’ll come over to you. Where are you?”
“I’m right behind you.”
“Don’t get so close. Go over to your lawn. Where are you now?”
“In the cedar. Where are you?”
“In the oak.”
Sometimes Elvira listens from the fountain, other times behind a rock or beneath an arch.
The cardinal sits at his desk as Elvira polishes the floor. On her knees, she rubs wax into the old wood and buffs it up until it’s slippery. She can see the cardinal’s slippers: cream silk with curlicues embroidered in gold, and little wooden heels. The heels make her laugh. She doesn’t want the cardinal to see her smiling, so she dusts the walls with her back to him. The trompe l’oeil cherub and the tapestry bee sing a duet but it is only when they are joined by the blackbird outside that it becomes an opera. Elvira hums as she works.
When the singers arrive, Elvira has already set out the sixteen golden chairs with seats embroidered with peonies. The singers mumble and mouth vowels. She brings them jug upon jug of ice-cold water. They drink as much as she brings, and she makes ten trips to the tap. Later, they will strut and gesture, open their massive mouths and drown the bee, the blackbird and even the cherub, with their voices of depravity that threaten to cover the world with streaks of red.
A dog barks, and in the oaks the blackbirds sit silent. The fountain has been skimmed, thirty large candles line the drive. The topiary is dotted with baby’s breath and tied with pale pink satin ribbons. Inside, Elvira has dusted the paintings, the floors are gleaming. She has plumped all the cushions on the sofas and chairs. She has laid a damask cloth on the circular table with the lion’s feet. Elvira has polished one hundred champagne flutes.
As the sun goes down, Elvira rests in the branches of a cedar. The torches by the olive planters are lit. Their flames flutter in the breeze. A waiter is leaning against the doorframe smoking.
When he’s finished he flicks his stub into the fountain and pulls the tall glass doors open, wedging them with pots of roses. Cars draw up and park by the stables. The drive fills with glamorous women in lace dresses, men with bellies pulled in by tight belts. The sky is turning pink and purple.
Elvira collects eleven silver trays of food from the kitchen. Each tray is loaded with miniature saucers of food: scallops in tequila with lime and avocado; artichoke and razor clams in ginger jelly; wild prawns in Manzanilla with carrot shavings and damson paste; spit-roast pineapple with aubergine caviar and anchovy butter; pistachioed asparagus with lobster and passion fruit; plum-lacquered pigeon with shimeji mushrooms and piccalilli; malted calf’s tail with mandarin and fennel butter; tea-cured eel with eucalyptus mash and salsify; sherried turbot with hay-smoked walnuts and beetroot cream; flamed ale mussels with sorrel ketchup and runner bean mousse. She places them on the tables that have been set up between the fountain and the tall, glass door, arranging the trays so the colours match and contrast. She places a hundred tiny gold forks in glasses on the tables, hangs damask napkins on the low branches of trees, and floats finger bowls of attar of roses in the fountain.
The wind blows pale dust around the garden. It snags on the whiskers of the men and sticks to the lips of the women in lace. The women grumble and hobble in their stilettos, and then perhaps they remember where they are, because they churn up their smiles and look interested in the cardinal who is standing beneath an arch in his purple robe and they approach Elvira who is dressed in her smart blue uniform with the white apron and cap, and is handing out the tiny portions of food, and miniature forks.
When the singers have done their bit, the people wander. Beyond the topiary at the front, the garden is filled with ruined arches and rocks that have survived for centuries in no particular order – a prayer to randomness and the beauty of decay. Elvira passes lavender and cashew cakes dusted in silver to the people as they move amongst the stones. Stones thrown like dice bring uncertainty. She thinks the people recognise this.
And all through the night the fountain pumps out its endless secrets.
When the people have gone, Elvira watches as the cardinal flies over the woman with the fruit, the one in the cage with the two babies. The woman clutches her horn of plenty, and exposes her large white breasts and button nipples while one of the plump babies grasps three pheasant’s feathers and tries to tickle the cardinal’s feet. Above the woman’s mouth, the other baby dangles grapes, freshly plucked from the vine outside. The woman laughs as she grabs one in her teeth. A kingfisher flies silently out of the cage, a lark sings, grateful for its escape.
The cardinal flaps his robes, snorting his approval, kicking his little wooden heels at the puffy white clouds in the sky. “One day I will set you free from your cornucopian cage. You with all your wants and needs. You will never be famous, as I am, but you will grow less plump, if that’s what you want.”
Behind the cardinal’s back, a hand emerges from the wall, holding a glass. Elvira fills the glass with apple juice. The only one who sees is the green parrot. A golden naked woman touches her belly.
Elvira listens to the lark spell the letters of freedom. Is that what she wants, too? To be free of the garden and the cages of cornucopia. But what about the man in the wall? Will the babies bring him juice?
“When I’m free, I will tip it all on your head,” she says to the cardinal.
The next day, wind rattles the leaves of the old camellia, and Elvira dies another death as the rooks bicker in the oaks. The fountain loses its place and splutters, and the blackbirds sing their usual inanities.
The rooks enjoy the wind. It tousles their feathers – the more blustery the better.
“Brica-brica-brica on Mount Anvil,” the cardinal chants. Perhaps it’s Latin. “That’s what it’s all about,” he adds. Some people try too hard to be interesting.
“If you repeat it enough, does that make it the truth?” Elvira shouts back at him.
Amanda Oosthuizen’s stories and poems have featured on the London Underground, in art galleries, Winchester Cathedral, in anthologies and numerous competition listings. Recent work is at Cosmonauts Avenue, Storgy, Under the Radar, Ellipsis, 3:AM, Magma, Rarebyte, The Woven Tale Press, Loose Muse Anthology, Somewhere to keep the Rain (WPF anthology), the Pre-Raphaelite Society's Review, and is forthcoming in LossLit, Riggwelter, Cabinet of Heed, Prelude, Humanagerie and Ambit. She earns her living by writing and arranging music and teaching woodwind. web: http://amandaoosthuizen.com twitter: @amandaoosty