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Pastiche of an old Italian folk tale.

Darling, Be Afraid

There was a married couple who could not get a child. They prayed and begged God for a child, and after many years they were gifted with the perfect daughter. She was modest and well mannered, so pious and polite. She was also very beautiful, with her hair the color of wheat and her skin white as ricotta.

After so long without a child her parents wanted grandchildren, so as soon as their daughter was old enough they invited the young sons of their distant relatives to come wooing, but their good intentions were foiled by their daughter's perfect modesty. No matter how hard the young men tried to coax a laugh from her lips, Starra, for that was their daughter's name, would sit silent and blushing and stare only at her little hands clasped in her lap. If any of these boisterous boys thought to compliment her beauty or grace, she would respond in a gentle whisper that everyone had to strain to hear, 'I beg of you, sir, we should not be vain when no beauty lasts beyond death, or even a few years.' If any a man thought to compliment her modesty, she would respond in a voice so little that even the mice laughed at her, 'I beg of you, sir, I dare not hope for anything, for we can take none of it with us and I couldn't bear losing anything.'

So it was that even a year of trying, the despairing couple could see no sign of grandchildren at all. The story of their troubles reached one of the grandfathers of the Skybo family, whose symbol was an X. 'Hey, you six-pointers,' he said to them, both a description and insult, as Starra's family's symbol was a six-pointed star. 'I hear you have a daughter you can't marry off. One of my cousins has a son who's twenty five, can you believe! - and he also won't get married. He says to me, "Eh, Grampa Cross-Boss, you get me riled up with all your talk, I don't need a wife to make me happy." He says, "I've got a gun, and she's beautiful enough!" Whoever heard of such a thing! I don't know what to do with him!'

And so an unlikely husband was found for lovely Starra. Boy Skybo was a beautiful young man, bright and blonde as though a god of the old country had been made flesh. The couple were very pleased and thought fondly of the future beauty of their grandchildren, star-crossed though they'd be.

Soon came the day when Boy Skybo came to greet his bride-to-be. Starra's family put on a great dinner with everything from the old country, even wine bought from a clan of five-point stars (and no one liked the five-pointers, who charged such exorbitant prices). Boy brought all his friends to show off to, but only he was allowed to sit beside modest Starra.

Starra said nothing and only looked down at the floor. Boy laughed enough for both of them and drank a great deal of wine. Right in the middle of the dinner Starra's father hissed: 'Starra! Go down to the cellar and fetch more wine. My son-in-law's glass is nearly empty!' He gave her the flagon to refill.

Starra went to the cellar with a long face, not at all befitting that of a soon-to-be bride. She placed the bottle under the cask, opened the tap and waited for the bottle to fill up. While waiting, she started thinking: I'm going to be married, and in nine months I'll have a son. He'll become a big, bright man just like his father, and everyone will expect me to be happy. But how can I be happy when I know that one day he'll die! His father will die too, and I will die, and maybe our son will get to watch us die or maybe we'll have to watch him die, he might sicken from something, or another Cross-Boss or Five-Point will kill him...oh, how can I ever be happy when I know the ending to every story? We're all going to die!

At that Starra burst out crying as she had never cried before.

The tap was still open and the wine ran all over the cellar floor, staining the white of her dress to a perfect bloody red. Upstairs, Boy still had no wine. 'Where's Starra?' Boy shouted, 'my glass is half empty when it should be half full!' He laughed at his own joke, and all his crude friends around the table laughed with him. In the meantime Starra's father turned to his wife and said: 'Go on, go see where she is. Maybe she's fallen asleep, stupid girl.'

Starra's mother went down to the cellar and found her daughter in the middle of a flood of tears and wine. 'What's the matter? What happened?'

'I started thinking,' Starra said, 'nine months after I marry this man I'll have a son, and I'll probably name him after Papa, but even after all of that my son will die because we're all going to die and oh Mama, I was so afraid—' but just then Starra looked up. Through the wine fumes, eyes full of tears and the flickering light of the lantern Starra saw her worst nightmare: her mother's face looked like that of a skeleton. 'Mama you're dead too, oh God help me!' Starra ran to the corner and shrieked and wept. Starra's mother wept as well, tugging at her hair as any a mother would do if her daughter started screaming if she came near.

Meanwhile upstairs Boy still waited for his wine and his wife. 'I'm sorry,' Starra's father said, 'I don't know what those women could be doing. Perhaps they both had a stroke, I'll go and see.' And he left, leaving Boy Skybo and all his friends in the dining room.

Down in the cellar he found the two women wading through the wine, weeping like newborn babies. 'What in God's name has happened?'

'Husband,' Starra's mother cried, 'she's gone mad, she says I'm dead, and that she's dead; she says our beloved grandson is dead before he's even been born yet, oh, what are we to do?'

Starra also wailed and tore at her hair. 'We're all going to die,' she cried, 'we're all dead already!'

Starra's father went to the wine barrel and closed the tap, and tried in vain to calm down his wife and his daughter. The hems of his trousers were wet with wine, and secretly he wept more for the waste of good wine than for the waste of good women, as this was a time of prohibition.

When nobody returned from the cellar, Boy stood up and said, 'So what kind of stroke is this that takes down two women and a man, hey boys?' He made a gesture with his hand in the air that could have been a very lewd kind of stroke, or it could have been the motion of a man cocking an imaginary gun. Boy laughed, and all his men laughed too. 'Let me go and see.' Off he went, down the stairs.

Hearing all their wailing and weeping, Boy stuck his head around the corner and shouted, 'What the devil's come over all you to start wailing like that?' And he was thinking: aiee, what a noise, and I haven't even whipped out my lovely gun yet!

'We're all going to die,' Starra beseeched Boy. 'She tells me I'm dead,' Starra's mother wailed. 'Such a waste of good wine,' Starra's father wept.

At first Boy thought they were joking, but realizing they were serious he started to laugh until his eyes ran with water to match their tears. 'Oh God, this is too good,' he said, 'I always figured you were all a bit stupid but never this stupid! So you know you're going to die? It's just my luck to get mixed up with you lot, I almost think I want to pack up and leave!'

He almost did leave then, all three of them wallowing in their wine, but Boy liked to finish a thought once he had it. He drew out his great gun, and the wailing and bemoaning of the husband and wife grew exponentially, while Starra went very silent. It would have ended then, but Starra threw out her hand and met Boy's eyes and said, 'I beg of you, sir, please don't kill me, I'm so frightened.'

'Frightened of what?' he asked, curious. 'Of my gun?' He showed her the mouth and the barrel, the beautiful engraving on the shaft, the style of the trigger. 'It's just metal and mechanics, sweetheart, it's nothing to be frightened of.'

'I beg of you, sir, but I'm not frightened of the gun,' Starra said.

'Is it me?' Boy stood straight and squared his strong shoulders, beaming with pride. 'Are you frightened of me?'

'Oh no,' Starra said, 'you're so bright and beautiful, I couldn't be frightened of you.'

Boy was getting bored by then, but any a young man liked to be complimented. He spoke gently. 'But what then, Starra? What are you frightened of?'

'Of death itself,' she said. 'I am so scared, I dare not hope for tomorrow, or for a new dress, or for a son or a daughter, or even for you, sir, even for a husband, because death will come and take it all away from me; I've been so scared and now all of a sudden it's here, and I'm terrified!'

'Oh, how irritating, you're expecting death every single moment of the day.' Boy frowned, because this was his greatest excitement: he only liked to kill people when they least expected it. 'That's no fun at all! You need to get over this ridiculous fear of death before I can kill you!' Boy waved his gun. 'After all, it's just a part of life, and nothing to be afraid of. See?'

And so saying so, Boy shot both of Starra's parents right there, and the cellar was at last silent. After that, Boy left the house and never once looked back.

Starra looked at her parents lying still in the cloudy red wine, and thought: Boy is the master of death. I have to have him. I have to learn how to overcome my fear of death.

Starra went upstairs and put on a clean dress, because the one she was wearing was covered with blood and wine. She walked through her city until she came across an alley where a young man with red hair was balancing on a slack rope, high up in the sky. 'Hello, sir,' she called, nervously, for she was not much in the habit of talking to strange men. 'Aren't you afraid you'll fall?'

'Will you laugh at me if I fall?' the young man called down to her. 'You probably wouldn't, you look too polite, little lady. But maybe inside you would laugh. Maybe I should fall! You look like you need to smile more.'

'Oh no, don't fall,' Starra cried, 'because if you fall from that height you know you'll die.'

But the young man fell anyway, only at the last second he caught the rope so he hung from one hand. He dropped to the alley and did a great tumble-turn and a handstand, and a twist and a flip until he stood on his feet, without injury. He bowed like a gentleman. 'Oh, little lady, still no smile for me? That's a shame.' The young man with red hair kissed the back of her hand. 'I'm not afraid of dying or of being dead. If I die, the world will end, and nothing will matter at all after that. So why waste time being afraid?'

Starra thought: that's one man who's not afraid of dying, but that's not my way. I'm still afraid. And so she continued on her search.

Starra found many men as she searched, but it seemed every man was afraid of death, some even more than she was! Some of them prayed to avoid death, some spoke to foreign gods and devils to make deals for life, some of them even dreamed up stories about living forever, and elixirs of youth and immortality. Starra grew very tired of searching. At last she thought to look inside the library, where men dead now had once been alive, and writing about death. Inside, she found a serious young gentleman reading a book. 'Hello, sir,' Starra whispered, so quietly, not because she was in a library but because she hated to interrupt a man at his work. 'If I may ask, are you reading about death because you're afraid of it?'

The serious man put aside his book. 'No,' he said, thoughtfully, 'I'm reading about it because I like to know how other frightened men have written about death. Sometimes fear can be a very beautiful thing.'

'But how can you not be afraid?' Starra asked. 'There could be such pain, or it could come on you all unexpected, or it could be long and lingering and create much suffering...'

'I think you're confusing death with dying,' he said. 'We might have no control over death, but we do have control over how we go about dying. If it comes quickly, ah, well then we've been lucky, or we take luck into our own hands and put a bullet where it matters. But I don't care about the dying. I'm interested in what comes after, because we can never know the truth of it until it happens. The way a man will fabricate facts to avoid his fear is fascinating!'

Starra thought: that's the second man who's not afraid of dying, but I'm still afraid! And so she continued on her way.

After a very long time searching Starra had nearly given up hope. She went into a six-pointer's church to pray for guidance, and that she might live another day. Inside the church she found a boy and a girl, kneeling side by side and praying with such fervor Starra was surprised, for she thought only she ever prayed so intently. 'Excuse me,' she asked them, 'are you praying for your lives too?'

'Why?' The boy leapt to his feet, startled. 'Has someone taken them away while we had our eyes closed?' And the girl said: 'Oh no, I really liked my life! How could someone steal it away like that, that's so mean!'

'Did you take my life?' The boy asked Starra, suddenly suspicious. 'I don't see anyone else around to be stealing away my life.'

'N-no,' Starra stuttered, 'I don't want your life, I can barely hold onto my own.'

'Such a shame,' the girl murmured, 'I love my life so much I can hardly imagine not having it!' On her heels the boy said, thoughtfully, 'Who's trying to take your life away from you? Can we stop them for you?'

'No,' Starra said, moved by the generosity, 'no one's trying to, I'm just afraid that I'll lose it when I least expect, and so I expect to lose it all the time.'

'But that's so boring!' the boy cried. 'Life is supposed to be unexpected, I wouldn't have it any other way! How can you be scared of that?'

'But I'm not afraid of living,' Starra said, 'I'm afraid of death. Aren't you afraid of death? Isn't that why you were praying?' Indeed, she could think of no other reason to speak to God except to plead to live another day.

'We've got no time to be afraid,' the boy announced, 'not of death or of policemen or of missing a train. We were praying to say thanks for the wonderful sunset!' The girl nodded, smiling, but then she said, 'If you're so afraid of death sneaking up on you all rudely, fine lady, why don't you just make an appointment?'

'Exactly,' the boy said, 'just like going to the doctor's!'

'Oh, I'm terrified of doctors,' the girl agreed, 'they prod and poke, and they're horrible.' 'All amateurs,' the boy said, 'not experts at all.' The girl nodded and continued: '...but if I've made an appointment at least I know when a visit is coming so I can be sure not to go!'

And that, Starra thought, was the third man she met unafraid of death — but also the first woman.

After some thought Starra made her way to her husband-to-be's house and knocked on the door, but he was out on his family's business. She wandered and listened, spoke and begged until she finally found where Boy Skybo was. She made her way through the building and past all the bodies to find where he stood, one foot on the chest of a police officer like a hunter stands over a fallen stag.

'Hello, sweetheart.' His blood was high like a hunter's, and he was very happy to have a beautiful woman here, witness to his strength. 'Come to look your fears in the face?'

But Starra said, calmly: 'If you please, sir, I'm not afraid of death any more.'

'Hmm.' Boy held her chin, cruelly, and looked her in the eye. 'It's true. It's good you've come back to me, because I want to marry you now. Where were you?'

'I was learning how to be fearless,' Starra said.

Boy laughed and laughed. 'I've always said if you look far enough you'll find something worse to fear. So, what was so horrible about what you learned that you come running back to me?'

'I found some people who aren't afraid of death,' Starra explained, 'but even for them death will always be unexpected. But with you, I know death is coming for me. I know how it's going to come, and when, and so I can't be afraid of it.' Starra's eyes gleamed, bright and brave. 'And you are still going to kill me, aren't you? So I'll marry you, because I'll never fear death again. But you have to promise you'll kill me!'

'Ah, shit,' Boy said happily, 'of course I'll promise to kill you. But if you're always going to expect me to kill you, then I can't kill you then, can I? It's no fun at all if you're expecting it!' Boy kissed her deeply and said: 'Just as long as you know that on the day you stop expecting me to kill you, that'll be the day that you die.'

'I know,' Starra said. And Starra smiled, as she was content.

But because Starra never stopped expecting death, Boy never killed her. And so Boy and Starra lived just like everyone else did, right until they died.

September 2011

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