Stumblestone

1839. Tumultuous times in Albania, Serbia & Croatia as they fight to free themselves from the Habsburgs & the  Ottomans.

Enter the Pfiffmaklers, a travelling theatre troupe, who find the single survivor of a massacre who needs their help. Freely given by some of them, if not by all.

A saint soon to be laid to rest in Ravenna.

A bull race about to begin in a far flung village in the Italian mountains, where Tosk Albanians have been settled for hundreds of years.

Pfiffmaklers caught up in the maelstrom of a complicated skein of  politics not their own.

Pfiffmaklers soon fighting for their own survival & that of the child they have rescued...

The latest book by Clio Gray, who has set the historical novel on a new course.

Published by Sparsile Books, June 2022

Stumblestone  - an extract

1          The Border of Albania and Montenegro, Spring 1839

 

Down the wide street the company came, newly whitewashed walls a grimy pink from the ox-blood used to fix the paint. They passed between the fig trees growing on either side of the promenade, gnarled roots coiled about their bases like thick brown snakes, palmate leaves covered with fine red dust blown in from the south. A quiet buzzing of fig wasps crawling through tiny holes at each fruit’s end to reach the recumbent flowers within, lines of ants running up and down garnering the sugary juice exuded from those tiny doors.

A peaceful scene, it might have seemed, unless you’d gone inside the cottages, found each one emptied of its inhabitants, signs of hurried departure that might have troubled you: saucepans of soup sitting untouched on home-hewn tables, slices of dark bread hardening in the noonday sun, cauldrons hissing and spitting as the last of the water inside them evaporates on feeble fires left to die.

Just gone twelve, according to the sundial you would have seen if you’d progressed further through the village, reached the patch of grass that once passed for a drying green, a sundial etched with Persian markings signalling the hours and minutes of the day.

You might have wondered how such an oddity had ended up in a backwater like this, a village on the edge of nowhere, tipping from the mountains into the sea somewhere between Albania and Montenegro; a village that had no name as far as any cartographer knew; a village that began and ended with its one wide street, and the green with the singular sundial at its centre.

You might have wondered about its history, only by the time you’d got to the green you’d have been so appalled by what you saw all thoughts of history and sundials would have gone out of your head, for you’d have seen the entire occupancy of the village scrummaged up as one—a heap of bodies piled ready for the burning; each one dispatched by a bullet to head or heart, or hacked by dagger and billhook. All thirty-seven of them, presumably all harvesters of figs or the fish they pulled from the waters of the sea lapping a few hundred yards away on the westerly side of the street. And only one of them alive.

The thirty-eighth.

A child of maybe five or six, who was crawling her way unseen out of the heap of her dead relatives.

‘What the hell happened here?’ Heraldo Pfiffmakler asked of no one, the entire clan coming to a halt beside him. Their garish clothes seeming completely out of place; the sugared violet-scented almonds they’d stuffed their pockets with, ready to throw out to smile-beaming children, remaining where they were. No amount of scent, violet or otherwise, able to stop the Pfiffmaklers gagging as the sea breeze brought the smell of blood wafting over them. Their approach sending up drifts of flies from the haphazard pile of bodies, buzzing briefly at the interruption before settling back to their feast, laying eggs by the hundreds of thousands, corpses soon to be rippling with their progeny.

Heraldo put his hand up to cover his nose then let it drop, the hairs on the back of his neck going up as he detected movement; a tale coming to the fore of revenants roaming the dark forests reeling up the mountains in this remote place. Tales his mother and father were so adept at concocting wherever they went, using details of the geography and topography surrounding them to spectacular and spine-chilling effect.

‘Oh Lord,’ he whispered, lunging forward, away from his extended family who remained still and standing as if grown from the soil like the fig trees back in the street. ‘I think there’s someone alive!’

Taking quick febrile steps about the horrid pile, unable to allow himself any nearer until he got to the other side where the girl was burrowing, clawing, her way out. Heraldo appalled at the blank whiteness of her face as it appeared, looking like a piece of vellum scrubbed clean, waiting for a life, a history, to be inscribed upon it. Her body spasming and then stilling as his shadow fell upon her, waiting for the end.

‘It’s all right, little one,’ Heraldo encouraged, moving his body, shifting away its shadow, letting the sun fall upon the girl’s face in the hope that she would see him for what he was—a travelling showman, come here to entertain, enliven this community with carnival songs, plays and puppetry.

Although plainly that time had come and gone.

‘That’s it,’ he coaxed, the girl twitching but not moving until Heraldo’s cousin Ludmilla materialised by his side.

‘Let me,’ she intervened, orange skirts so bright they might have melted snow.

‘Come on, my love,’ speaking with a gentleness Heraldo had only heard when Ludmilla cooed to infants in their basinets. Ludmilla moving closer to the carnage than he would have dared, taking hold of the young girl’s bloodied, broken-nailed hands. Gently pulling her free.

Maybe you’d have done other than the Pfiffmaklers did, which was to go through the deserted village, tying anything of value to their already full carts, cosseting the single survivor. Wrapping the girl in shawls and blankets to stave the shivering she seemed unable to stop. The girl mute all this while, and no one seeing fit to interrogate her.

Maybe you’d have had sang froid enough to rootle through the charnel heap, dismantle it limb by limb, body by body, in hope of finding someone else alive or something of value you could later have pawned. Or maybe you’d have hightailed it out of the village to the nearest centre of authority and reported what you’d seen, handed the mute girl over to some uncertain future.

But that was not the Pfiffmakler way.

They’d been tinkers and entertainers for generations, always at the edges of society, always on the move. The girl adopted into their ranks without need for debate or discussion. Just another straggler with nowhere else to go who needed help and found it freely given, by most at least.