A Stereoscopic Landscape View of Torino with Damsels and Distress’, Celia Neri

Illustrations © 2020 Josep Lledó

 [ Stereoscope, © 2020 Josep Lledó ] The stereoscope rose as high as her, in the shape of a crenelated tower, the wood painted to mimic stone walls and arrow slits. Sophia clapped her hands in delight at seeing it.

“Signor Alfieri! This stereoscope is amazing!”

The merchant bowed.

“Thank you, Contessa Roveda. I immediately thought of you when it arrived in my shop. I couldn’t resist delivering it to you myself to see the delight on your face. I think your late father would have enjoyed it: it has the most peculiar mechanism.”

Sophia tore her eyes from the stereoscope standing in the middle of the music room to turn towards him and gave him a beaming smile.

“If I may, Contessa Roveda,” added Alfieri, “I also have a set of stereoscopic cards made specially for this very device. You see, the external shape of it has been designed to reflect the stories told by the cards.”

“How wonderful!” exclaimed Sophia with bright eyes. She went back to the stereoscope and turned around it. Being closer, she realised the staggering level of detail on the tower: each stone was drawn, a few blades of grass painted as if they had grown in the space between the slabs. The brass visor, which looked like a round porthole, was exactly at the right height for her and seemed part of the design of the tower itself.

“It will, of course, be slightly more expensive than the previous one you have been kind enough to purchase from me. But as you are a favourite patron of mine, it will be my pleasure to include the exclusive set of cards with the stereoscope.”

Sophia drew herself reluctantly from the device and moved towards Alfieri to examine the cards he held in his hands. There were dancing skeletons on Piazza Vittorio Emanuele I, two seamstresses trying to drown another in the Pò, a woman and a demon facing each other near a well in the Quadrilatero Romano, a waggish Beelzebub taunting someone in front of the Palatine Towers, all painted in bright, vivid colours.

“Are they all views of Torino?” asked Sophia.

“They are indeed. Made by a local artist with a taste for the barocco and the bizarre, as you can see from the scenes and the colouring. I thought you would enjoy the surreal blending in with the familiar landscape of our beautiful city.”

“Indeed, Signor Alfieri, indeed. In this century of enlightenment and industry, it is always amusing to see science overlapping with superstition.”

The merchant didn’t reply, his face with a professional smile set upon it, and said instead:

“May I be so bold to set the first card for you before we conclude so that you can enjoy the extreme precision of the stereoscope?”

“Please, do.”

Alfieri moved at the back of the stereoscope, hidden from view by the tower. Sophia heard a wooden trap door being opened, some metal clinking and then a slight whirring.

“Please, Contessa, you can now look.”

She approached her face to the visor: she could see a three-dimensional view of a palazzo as viewed from the street.

“Oh!” she exclaimed in surprise, “It’s my home!” She peered closer: the stereoscope had now shifted the lighting and the palazzo windows were illuminated like coloured jewels as the street outside darkened. At one of the windows, she briefly thought she saw a male silhouette moving; but before she could remark upon that wonderful effect, she heard Alfieri’s voice murmuring coldly in her ear, “Indeed it is.” She hadn’t heard him moving so close. She took a step back to scold him about how unseemly it was.

Her foot moved backwards, her eyes moved away from the visor, only to find her foot in the grass and her eyes suddenly contemplating not the music room in her palazzo, nor Alfieri’s face, but the bank of the Pò, the powerful river flowing muddily in front of her. The herbs looked too green, the sky a striking blue; only the river’s colours felt natural.

“She’s here!” shouted a voice behind her.

Sophia turned in alarm: a young woman was hitching up her skirts and moving swiftly across the grass to reach her.

“How did she arrive here?” asked another voice.

Sophia turned again: another woman was standing just below her, on the lip of the Pò, her stockinged feet in the water, her dress wet up to her waist.

The first woman had arrived next to her and violently grabbed her hair.

“Ouch! You’re hurting me! Leave me alone!”

She felt her chignon unknotting, the pins falling and strands of her brown hair tumbling on her neck. The woman wasn’t letting go of her: Sophia fell on her bottom and she was dragged below, to the muddy slip of soil the other woman was standing on.

“Let me go!” shouted Sophia.

“She’s squealing like a pig!” laughed the woman who held her.

“She won’t scream so much once she’s in!” cackled the other.

Sophia was roughly thrown into the mud and then dragged to the water.

“Wait! Wait!” she said, “Why are you trying to drown me? What have I done?”

“What kind of stupid question is that?” said the woman who was towering above her. “You know why we are drowning you.”

“I actually don’t know why we are drowning her…” the other one said thoughtfully.

“What? Why do you need to know? We are going to drown her, that’s all that counts.”

The cold water was now battling at Sophia’s waist. She couldn’t see much with her hair falling all over her face and the panic. She struggled to stand up but the pull kept her in a most undignified position.

“You have no reason to kill me!”

“I don’t need one. And if you really want one… I don’t know, maybe you stole my boyfriend, that’s why you need to kiss the river.”

“Your boyfriend? Ha!” said the other woman.

Sophia felt the grip pulling her into the river relaxing.

“And what is wrong with my boyfriend, mind, Maria?”

“You don’t have a boyfriend. I have. So it’s my boyfriend she stole. And my name isn’t Maria.”

“I have a boyfriend. My name is Antonella, yours is Maria and you don’t have a boyfriend because you’re too ugly to have one.”

“Am I?” shrieked NotMaria.

Sophia felt someone rushing past her and she was knocked and pulled again, falling back first into the river. Antonella’s grip on her hair suddenly disappeared and Sophia rose up quickly out of the water. Spluttering, she moved her wet hair from her face to see the two women fighting each other in the Pò. Sophia stood a minute or two, catching her breath, her mind reeling from the strangeness of what had happened, until she realised she had to escape before these two crazy women turned on her again. She climbed up the bank and looked down on them: they were still fighting, hair was pulled, slaps were given. Sophia sighed: what a ridiculous and pathetic sight. It was exactly like those two maids at home, Alessandra and Maria, she had stumbled upon as they were name-calling each other over the butcher’s apprentice. Now that she felt more secure, she couldn’t let that go.

“Ladies, ladies!” she called in an imperious voice.

“Ladies? Who’s she calling ‘lady’?” asked NotMaria with a sneer.

“Certainly not you,” replied the other.

“Nor you! Look at her with her airs!”

“We should try drowning her again.”

“You’re not drowning me again,” said Sophia. “What kind of attitude is that? Killing another woman for no reason at all? Fighting each other over a man? Don’t you have a little bit of respect for yourself?”

Sophia was full of righteous contempt. Romance wasn’t in her life, never would be, and was she glad of that! Science was a much more interesting endeavour than pining for a man and his prowesses.

“What are you harping on about?” said NotMaria, “I’m a seamstress, so is she. Whether we want it or not, we have to find a man and marry him. Then we’ll pop him brats who will feed us when we’re too old and blind to earn money. Of course we’re fighting over him!”

Sophia tried again, hoping some flattery would win them to her cause.

“You are, obviously, not without intelligence. Why don’t you get an education and become more than just seamstresses?”

Antonella jeered. “Ha! Who’s paying for it? Look at her with all her fineries and her delightful little blue slippers! Do I look like my life can be like yours? Do you think, with all your royal airs, that you can lecture me when you have no idea what I’ve to go through?”

It was a lost cause, felt Sophia. It had been the same with the two maids. After all her lecture about the self improvement of women, they had gone back to hating each other; at least they had tried to be discreet and done their jobs well.

She turned her back on the Pò and the two women and tried to orient herself: she was at one end of the Corso Regina Margherita. She didn’t know how she had arrived here but Sophia knew it was as if she was inside one of the cards Signor Alfieri had shown her, however improbable it sounded. She remembered another: the waggish Beelzebub at the Palatine Towers. Walking down the Corso, she would arrive there in twenty minutes. If a creature born out of superstition was indeed present, then she would have to think long and hard about how she had ended up in her own stereoscope and, more importantly, how to get out of it.

“Hey, Your Highness!” said Antonella in her ear. Sophia jumped. She hadn’t realised the two seamstresses had stopped fighting and joined her. “What are you thinking about?”

“Do you know if there’s a demon at the Palatine Towers?” asked Sophia.

“A what?” said NotMaria.

“A demon, Beelzebub, Prince of Hell… You know…”

Sophia expected them to react with the cries of fear and urgent signing she associated with the little people, but the two women just looked bemused.

“I’ve never been to the Palatine Towers,” said Antonella.

“Me neither,” added NotMaria.

“Well, if you promise not to drown me, maybe we could go…”

At this moment, a deafening metallic click rang. She cried out from the pain. She shut her eyes and put her hands on her ears, but it wasn’t enough to mute the loud whirring that followed. She felt the earth rocking beneath her feet, jolting her. It stopped after a minute.

Sophia opened her eyes. She was now standing on a small piazza in the Quadrilatero Romano, the tall and narrow houses encircling her in shadows. In the middle of the paved space was a well. Casually leaning against it was a demon, watching her with a sneer on his face. Sophia stood, frozen. It was what one of the cards had depicted. There was no other explanation: she had somehow ended up inside the story the stereoscope was telling.

“You understand it now, don’t you?” said the demon raising his voice. He looked like every demon described in superstition: dramatic red skin, a tail, two horns on his forehead, a small goatee adorning his chin, and goat legs.

“You can come closer. I don’t bite, you know,” the demon shouted to her.

“Excuse me for being cautious, sir, but I find myself faced with two impossible things: the place I’m in and you. It’s making me a bit wary,” replied Sophia.

The demon laughed.

“I like you! ‘Excuse me for being cautious, sir…’ All haughty and proper when you are, indeed, deep into horse shit!”

“I’m sorry, but…” started Sophia.

“Cut the manners,” interrupted the demon, “And come closer. I’m tired of shouting across the piazza, and I can’t move too far from the well. I have things to tell you.”

Sophia stepped towards him; not too close, not too close, she thought to herself. She moved from the house shadows to the grey well illuminated under the harsh sun.

“I will stop here, if you don’t mind, sir.”

“As you wish,” replied the demon. He sat on the coping and gestured grandly. “Make yourself at home on the pavement. We have to talk.”

“I’d rather stand, sir.”

The demon rolled his eyes.

“God preserve me from privileged self-righteous young women!”

“I’m sorry, sir, but isn’t there a paradox in a demon invoking God’s name?” asked Sophia.

“What’s your name?”

“Sophia Roveda, contessa di Tenda.”

“Well, Sophia Roveda, contessa di Tenda, do you know where you are?”

“According to all appearances, I am in Torino. But the situations I’m encountering are similar to a set of stereoscopic cards I was shown. I thus deduce that I am inside the stereoscopic device I was evaluating.”

“And what do you know of stereoscopes, young lady?”

“Stereoscopy is a technique for the reproduction and three-dimensional perception of an image. Two parallel lenses, placed at a distance similar to the one between our eyes reproduce two images of the same subject from a slightly different perspective, thus creating the three-dimensional perception.”

“Well done! I like a well-read woman,” said the demon in a mocking tone.

“My father was a scientist, he taught me. My pet subject is optics.”

“So, you’ll understand when I tell you that you aren’t really in here. It’s just your brain watching the cards that thinks you’re in here. The drawback is that whatever happens in here, your brain will think it is happening to your real body.”

“So if I had drowned in the Pò…” said Sophia pensively.

“You’d have fallen dead on the floor, out there, with none the wiser. The illusion is so perfect that your brain thinks it’s reality despite what your body may tell it.”

“But it never happened with any other stereoscope I tried or bought!”

“Signor Alfieri’s stereoscope is a bit different.”

“You know him? How? Who are you?” Sophia asked frantically.

“A very stupid artist who painted the cards at his command and thought it would be fun to give my own face to a demon. Ah, well, I always knew I’d pay for my ego one day. Being poor and thinking yourself smart isn’t a good combination in our world, you know,” sighed the creature.

Sophia wasn’t listening to him anymore. She was frowning, trying to make sense of what she had heard. The panic had subsided. There was a mystery, a scientific mystery at that, and she would solve it.

“I don’t understand: my consciousness, soul, whatever you want to name it, came into the stereoscope because my eyes are tricked into thinking I’m really in there. But how could you come into it simply by painting your face?”

“As the English poet would say, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

“That’s not a reply. And what’s your name anyway?” asked Sophia, her aristocratic manners returning fully.

“Giancarlo Felici, Miss Sophia.”

“That’ll be Contessa, to you, thank you. If it weren’t for your cards, I wouldn’t be in here.”

“But what if I told you I know how you can get out?” said Giancarlo.

Sophia considered him thoughtfully. It was difficult to think of him as a vain artist when seeing him, with all his demonic accoutrements, but he only had to open his mouth for the truth to be revealed. Maybe he actually knew something to get her out of this stupid situation.

“Why would you help?”

“Because I’m trapped here too. If you get out, the system will probably fail, and I’ll be back in my own body, just like you will.”

“You have no guarantee of that,” said Sophia.

“You’re a scientist. You know experimentation always comes with some risks, and that’s one I’m willing to take.”

“All right, I’m listening.”

“I painted a way out of the stereoscope by drawing it incomplete on this side. I didn’t really like what Alfieri intended to do with it. Do you remember the card with Beelzebub? On it, I’ve drawn a key piece of the stereoscope. If you find and take it, and then if you go to your palazzo, you should find in there a replica of the stereoscope. Then…”

Giancarlo couldn’t finish the sentence. The deafening metallic clinking was heard again, followed by the loud whirring. The world blurred before Sophia’s eyes until they flowed with tears. When the sound stopped, she wiped away her tears to find herself exactly where she wanted to be: the Palatine Towers, their red bricks glowing dully under the sun, rose in front of her.

The grass stretched on Sophia’s left. Giancarlo had painted it with yellow hues, as if it were the height of summer. It rose and fell until it met the white stone of the Roman ruins in the distance. But against that quiet, bucolic scene, the Palatine Towers stood with all its crimson martial air. Sophia moved toward the building, and she couldn’t help realising how much they looked like the stereoscope itself, with its slits and bricks and crenelated tower. She could see the crumbling stone wall on her left, the outline of houses in the Quadrilatero Romano beyond. Of Beelzebub and the key, though, there was no sign. Sophia felt that was most vexing. She’d have stamped the ground, had it not been a ridiculous gesture for an educated gentlewoman.

“Hey! Your Highness!” shouted a voice from behind her. Sophia turned and saw two women coming towards her: Antonella and NotMaria.

“You’re here! But… How?” It was impossible. If what the painter had said was true, they were in the stereoscope itself, following the cards. In the real world, the road from the Palatine Towers led to that stretch of the Pò where the seamstresses had been; here, there was no real topography, no path the two women could have followed, between them.

“It was a bit weird,” said Antonella.

“It was very weird,” added NotMaria. “There was a lot of white, like… I don’t know, the world never really touched the whole of itself.”

“We ended up in a flurry of whiteness. Felt like when I had to go fetch my Ma last winter with all the snow. But less cold,” said Antonella.

“Girls, I’m so happy to see you,” said Sophia. And it was true, she realised. In this eerie place, these two outspoken women—if murderous on occasion—had become familiar, and thus reassuring, faces. Their stubbornness reminded her of the very qualities she had always valued in herself, persistence and courage.

“Excuse me,” started NotMaria when she had said them just that, “But why would you call us stubborn when you call yourself persistent and courageous?”

Sophia looked stricken. “I… I don’t know. It just felt like…”

“You know, Fidelma, it was a bit stupid of us to come here and try to help her. She just thinks we’re her maids or whatever,” said Antonella with a sneer. “Let’s leave Her Highness to her clever devices. Come, Fifi!” As one person, the two seamstresses turned their backs on Sophia and started to leave, the heels of their shoes stomping away the earth of the footpath.

“Wait! Wait!” shouted Sophia. The two women stopped and turned, arms crossed in front of them.

“Why would we wait?” asked Fidelma with a frown.

Because you tried to kill me and you owe me, NotMaria? thought Sophia. No, no, no. She couldn’t say that. And it wasn’t NotMaria anymore, she had obviously settled on another name.

“I’ll try to do better,” she said.

“Yawn…” said Antonella, her hand in front of her mouth. “My old man also said that to my mother after he beat her. And then he would start again.”

“You can’t compare me to someone beating his wife! And furthermore, what are you going back to? I’m offering you an adventure!”

“Oh?” asked Fidelma.

Antonella shrugged.

“Indeed!” said Sophia, her voice enticing. “Here, at the foot of the Palatine Towers, is a key I’m looking for. But it is guarded by Beelzebub himself whom we will have to trick to rob him of it!”

She saw Fidelma giving a slight push with her elbow to Antonella. She looked at her, affronted. Fidelma raised her eyebrows, an evident invitation to stop sulking and try the offered adventure instead.

“Oh, all right, Fifi! But if Her Highness doesn’t stop treating us like mud, then I’m going back,” Antonella finally said.

“My name is Sophia.”

“Yeah, right, whatever. So, where’s your Beelzebub?”

The three women returned near the Palatine towers: on each side, two towers; linking them, a red brick wall with a gate. But there was no sign of a demon, nor of any metallic piece that would belong to a stereoscope. The women started looking through the grass.

“What does this key of yours look like? Is it like a key to open a door?” asked Fidelma, as they were all three on their knees, passing their hands through the yellowed blades.

“It probably looks like a cog, or a mechanical part. Anything metallic you see, call me…”

Minutes passed, what felt like hours passed. Sophia’s back hurt from peering at the ground. Finally, Antonella shouted in triumph. She stood where the brick wall met the grass, a cog in her hand, jubilantly held over her head.

At this very moment, Beelzebub appeared.

“Oh goodness,” sighed Sophia, “Giancarlo really went for all the clichés when painting him.” The creature in front of her was another version of the demon in whose form the painter was trapped, but this one’s face reeked of malevolence, a ghoulish smile on his face, a red cape flowing grandly behind his portly body.

“Ladies…” Beelzebub said, “You are robbing my property.”

“Your property?” asked Antonella, hands on her hips. “Says who?”

Beelzebub looked confused. “Well, I… I, Beelzebub, Prince of Hell, adversary, accuser and slanderer.”

“Well, I, Antonella, seamstress, adversary of that idiot baker in the Via delle Rosine and slanderer of any holier-than-thou woman, say this is mine.”

Sophia was watching the scene, fascinated: if it had seemed that she had been the main character in the two previous cards, Antonella was very much the one here. She was a small woman, but with her proud attitude, it felt as if she was looking down on the demon who was squirming in front of her.

“It’s not… It’s not supposed to happen like that…” stammered Beelzebub.

“How is it, then?” asked Antonella, majestically.

“I’m Beelzebub, you’re supposed to fear me… You should give it back, or plead, or even grovel.” The demon tried to regain some composure and some semblance of a menacing air: “Give it back, or I’ll call the legions of demons, and we will drag you to Hell where you’ll be tortured for eternity!”

“Ha!” laughed Antonella in his face. “You need your mates? But I can’t see anyone around. So you know what, ugly? I’m keeping it. Good luck getting it back.”

Magnificently, Antonella turned her back on him, her skirts swishing in the process. She then started on the footpath heading towards the Quadrilatero Romano.

Sophia and Fidelma hurried at her side.

“Brilliant!” exclaimed Sophia.

“Marvellous!” said Fidelma.

Antonella grinned in pleasure. She put the metallic piece in Sophia’s hand who examined it briefly as they walked: it was indeed a cog. Behind them, the demon was wailing.

“Where are we going now?” asked Fidelma, without a backward glance.

“If everything happens as I think it will, I’ll disappear again and end up on Piazza Vittorio Emanuele I. Can you…”

Again, the sentence was cut. Again, the clanking and the whirring drowned the world out of focus and in pain.

Before Sophia opened her eyes, she knew what she would find. And indeed, in front of her stretched Piazza Vittorio Emanuele I, immense, bordered on three sides by impressive white houses and arcades; on the last side, in front of her, the newly built bridge over the Pò leading to the Church of the Gran Madre de Dio. As ever on this square, she felt slightly seasick. She knew it was the illusion created by the architect who had wanted Piazza Vittorio to look flat when in fact it wasn’t. The effect, though, felt doubled this time. She started retching on the setts.

“Eww…” she heard Fidelma saying next to her.

“Are you pregnant?” asked Antonella, a glint of delight at the prospect of gossip in her voice.

“Certainly not!” Sophia replied vehemently, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. She fought the nausea now caused by the taste in her mouth and the foul smell coming from the paving.

“Let’s move,” she said. “I’m glad to see you. How come you’ve arrived so fast?”

“Oh, it was all Fifi’s idea,” answered Antonella.

“Yes,” piped in Fidelma. “It was all white and flurry. So I thought, it means there’s no road to cross, no street to walk. So if they aren’t here, it also means we can actually be there. Oh… When I explain it, it makes no sense, but it was perfectly clear in my head.”

Sophia appraised her with her eyebrows raised. “That’s fascinating,” she said. “You postulated a vacuum, a zero, rather than mass and space, and thus moved from one point to the other. Fascinating…”

 [ Danse macabre, © 2020 Josep Lledó ] Antonella interrupted her: “That’s all good, but what are we going to find in here?”

“Probably a danse macabre,” replied Sophia.

“A what?” asked Fidelma.

“A danse macabre. It’s French, it means Dance of Death, dance of the dead. It’s a motif in art and music. I heard the Camille Saint-Saëns piece of music on this theme last year in Milan. It was lovely.”

“I understood only two words out of four in all that you’ve said,” said Antonella. “Are you saying we’re going to face Death?”

“Look!” exclaimed Fidelma, pointing in front of them.

The square was slowly filling with skeletons who all took poses and stopped moving as others appeared.

“Well,” said Sophia, “It all now depends if it is the mediaeval dance macabre or the modern one.”

“What’s the difference?”

“In one, we all dance with the skeletons, because those skeletons represent our future, all humans must die; we dance in harmony as we all know that. In the other, Death comes looking for us.”

Antonella seized her skirts in her hands.

“I’m not waiting for Death to show up! I’m dancing with them!”

And she started hitting the ground with her foot, once, twice. The lone long note of a violin rose. A skeleton came level with Antonella and both of them started marching in rhythm with the music, followed by couples of skeletons

“It’s a Monferrina!” said Fidelma to Sophia. “Do you know how to dance it?”

“No, it’s a folk dance, I’ve never been taught those.”

Fidelma hurried to link arms with a lone skeleton and they joined the promenade. “Do as I do!” she shouted over her shoulder.

The three women soon found themselves following the lively march steps, matched by the music that came out of nowhere. The skeletons turned, bowed, and cross-stepped; the three women accompanied them. The rattling bones surrounded them, their white ivory mirroring the facades of the houses. Sophia was out of breath, and as she lifted her eyes away from following Fidelma’s feet, she saw the whole square was full of dancing skeletons, a sea of the dead weaving in and out the music, in a celebration of the passing of time. On the roof of a house she saw a huge black silhouette, playing the violin: Death. She shouldn’t worry about that, she thought, she had to focus on the steps.

“The dance usually stops when morning comes!” she shouted, panting, to Fidelma.

“But it is day! How long is it going to last? A Monferrina is only a pattern repeated three times.”

“How many have we done?”

“We are on the second. Are you all right?”

Sophia wasn’t all right. She was a scholar, for goodness sake! Her ballet lessons dated back to her childhood, and even if she was barely in her twenties, she hadn’t done any physical exertion such as this for at least the past four years. She was feeling her cheeks reddening and burning, her lungs bellowing to find some air, her heart beating faster and faster, her feet were trying to rebel. She had no idea what would happen if she faltered, but she was afraid Death would soon swoop down from the roof.

“Third movement!” shouted Fidelma over the music. “Hang on!”

Finally, the violin slowed down. The dancing couples faced each other. The skeleton in front of Sophia bowed low, as did all the others around her. She bowed too. And, like dew in the morning, they evaporated.

She gave a look up to the roof were Death had been. It was deserted, as was the square. The sound of the breeze in her ears replaced the eerie music and the rattling bones.

“Thank you,” she managed to say to the two seamstresses.

“Are you all right?” asked Antonella. “You look like you could faint.” Her cheeks had taken a lovely rose hue, but Sophia knew it was a far cry from the puce colour that was probably all over her own face.

“No time for that. I must prepare: the next card has to be my palazzo.”

“What?” asked Fidelma.

“Never mind. Ladies, it was a pleasure to meet you.”

On cue, the noises of the card changing rang loud and the world blurred.

Sophia was in the street facing her own palazzo. She ignored a pang of longing for home and quickly crossed. She opened the door and rushed inside. She knew Alfieri had to be in here: when she had first watched the card, she had seen a silhouette passing in front of the windows. If Giancarlo had unwittingly painted himself in, Alfieri had probably planned to be in the stereoscope to oversee the whole scheme. “But I know the place like you do not,” she thought.

There were three ways from the hallway to reach the music room in which the stereoscope stood on the first floor. She bolted for the servants’ stairs. The other places had had that slightly surreal aspect of a too brightly coloured painting, but her palazzo felt like a shadow theatre, all in bronze and grey hues. She quickly reached the first floor and opened the door: no one. She started running down the corridor. It was somehow strangely liberating to run on those parquets, as she had when a girl, before she was scolded too many times to try again. She heard a shout behind her, “Stop right here!” It was Alfieri’s voice, coming from the landing on her right, at the entrance of the music room. Instead, she headed straight in front of her, into the library, opened the door hidden among the shelves on the right hand wall and found herself in the music room. She quietly shut the door behind her: with some luck, Alfieri would look for her elsewhere before coming here. Without a noise, she approached the stereoscope. There it stood, exactly where Alfieri had had it delivered in the real world. It looked the same, but in the strange colours of her palazzo, it seemed oddly menacing. She turned around it and found the trap hiding the mechanism. Sophia gave a quick look around to check if the merchant was coming, but she was still alone. She put her hand in her décolletage: just like the peasants women she had seen doing countless times on the market place with coins, she had put the cog in here for safekeeping. She had to search a bit, the piece had moved with all the dancing and the running. “What I wouldn’t give for pockets…” she thought. Finally, the metallic part was in her hand. She opened the trap and looked at the mechanism. Her pet subject was optics, but her father had been fascinated by automatons. She felt quite confident watching the clockworks in front of her: the cog had to be placed… Right here… She extended her hand. The voice rang again, this time full of rage, “Stop!” Sophia didn’t heed it, but carefully placed the cog and then activated the lever.

The world clanked, and clinked, and whirred, and blurred.

Sophia felt herself being seized by her upper arm. Two aggressive hands.

“How did you escape, little Eve?” hissed Alfieri in her ears. He was standing behind her. She squirmed to escape him, but he was holding her in a vicious grip.

“How did you escape?” he repeated.

“Let me go!” said Sophia. She started moving, pulling him with her, but he didn’t release her.

“I won’t, oh no, I won’t. Years of planning, years of building and designing until I found the most perfect optical illusion, so perfect you thought yourself in it. And here you come, ruining it all.”

“Ruining it?” screamed Sophia. “You put me in there! I didn’t ask anything!”

“On the contrary, you asked for it,” he said. “Your father is already burning in Hell and you’ll soon join him. Educating you, letting you study science! Blasphemy! He should have had you reading Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians instead!”

“You are unhinged!”

“And you are an abomination! Unmarried, childless! Only interested in the mysteries that belong to men! Abomination!”

Inch by inch, Sophia had dragged him on the landing at the entrance of the music room.

“Milady… Is everything all right?”

Still holding her in front of him, Alfieri pivoted: two maids were watching them, their eyes wide in fear.

“Everything’s all right! Go back to your duties!” shouted Alfieri.

Sophia realised she had to act now. She stamped on his foot. From the surprise, he released his grip on her. She turned to face him: the merchant seemed frozen, his eyes wild, his mouth a fine line of rage, just a pace or two from the staircase behind him. With all her might, Sophia pushed him.

She barely had time to see surprise on his face before his body, like a broken automaton, fell, disarticulating itself over each step of the ancient dark wooden stairs until it rested on the winder, a disjointed mechanism.

Sophia and her two maids remained a minute without speaking, contemplating side by side the body of the man below them. She took her eyes away and looked at them. They were the two maids she had lectured, in what felt now like a lifetime ago.

With a smile, she thought of Antonella and Fidelma. She suddenly clapped her hands.

“Ladies, stop dallying! Maria, you will go fetch the butler so he can warn the police that Signor Alfieri has had the most terrible accident and fell on his own in our staircase. Alessandra, you will carry on your duties.”

Both maids bobbed a curtsey and answered: “Yes, Milady.”

“Oh, also, you’ll tell all the maids that from now on, every morning during one hour, I’ll teach you all to read.”

The two maids looked at each other without a word.

As if Antonella had been over her shoulder, Sophia could hear her asking, in that jeering tone of hers, “You think you’re doing them a favour? But they’ll have to catch up work after that.”

“Oh, all right,” said Sophia out loud, “I’ll also get an extra maid to help out. Now off you go!”

The two maids disappeared.

Sophia returned in the music room. The stereoscope was still there, standing as a proud tower.

“What a beautiful century of enlightenment and spectacular technology we are living in,” she said.

© 2020 Celia Neri

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