Latte e sangue
15×21 cm, 480 pp, ISBN 978-88-97308-85-0
Novel / Historical Novel / Adventure Story
Milk and Blood
The captivating plot of MILK AND BLOOD only confirms Silini’s genius. Its short chapters make the story flow smoothly across several intriguing sub-plots. Despite its many pages, Silini’s novel reads in a breeze: every element is perfectly placed, with no hint of redundancy.
A book to not miss!
La lettrice assorta
Milk and Blood
In the murky days of the 17th century, gory events unfold on the Alpine foothills, in the lands between the Duchy of Milan and the southern bailiwicks of Switzerland. Maddalena de Buziis is the only survivor of a beastly series of abductions, rapes, and murders. The culprit is the Wizard of the Canton, a mysterious practitioner of necromancy, who has fled Vimercate for the safety of Switzerland. The story of the Wizard is told in the previous novel (The Girl Snatcher). As a traumatised Maddalena struggles to recover from her misadventure, someone starts to hunt her down, determined to find her at all cost. Her pursuer belongs to the fiercest criminal gang that preys on the lands between Italy and Switzerland. The man behind it all, though, is a dark mystic devising his eerie schemes from his bleak abode on Monte Generoso, known as l’Uomo dei Trii Böc (“The Man of the Three Holes”).
Born in Mendrisio in 1965, he graduated in Theology in Freiburg in 1989. He is married and has got a son. Silini is the leader writer of the Approfondimenti column of the Primo Piano section for leading Italian Swiss daily Corriere del Ticino. He has produced several documentaries and press reports investigating Swiss society and culture.
In 2005 he was voted “Swiss Journalist of the Year” by Schweizer Journalist. In 2015 and 2017 he was awarded the “Swiss Press Awards”, the most prestigious press prize in the country.
Trii Böcc – Upper Mendrisio. Autumn 1659
Kneeling by the window, the man brought his fist to his chest and tapped it three times – just as the prayer instructed.
His sternum pounded thrice and he imagined he was a wooden trunk lying in the mud – liquid soil, dirty water –, not different from the trunk at his feet. The bottom boards were darker than the rest. The man touched the boards, and it felt wet. He lifted the trunk to his eyes: dark drops were condensing at the bottom, slowly dripping on his shoes.
He shook his head. Things had not gone as planned. The people he had hired for the task – the Fontanas from Brusata – had been more than happy to accept the job: what motivated them was not only the promise of a generous salary, but also the chance to exact revenge at last. They got down to work at once: the task they had been asked to perform was almost impossible, and yet they managed to complete it in three weeks’ time. The Fontanas were obviously very determinate; plus, they could rely on a dense network of secret informers, both within and without the bailiwick.
Unluckily, his hirelings had not fulfilled his most important request.
“What is this?”, the man asked the brigand who had delivered him the trunk. He actually knew perfectly well what was in it.
“Open it, and see for yourself!”.
“Later. In any case, this wasn’t the agreement.”
“We couldn’t keep to it”, replied the brigand in an apologetic voice. He was a grim, sweaty, swine-faced man, and he was annoyed that he had to slog up the mountains to that tuff abode in the dead of the night. “I had to improvise”, he added, with a display of unease. “She refused to come with me and wouldn’t stop yelling. Now, however…”.
“Things weren’t meant to go like this”, the man stopped him.
The brigand nodded and pulled a faint smile, then shrugged as to apologise: “Too bad…”. Then he went on to demand the whole sum that had been agreed upon: forty Milanese scutes.
“You will get twenty, and that’s it.”
The brigand tried to make a scene.
“Corpodebis!”, he spat indignantly. “We did all we could. We managed to track her, even if nobody knew where she was. How does it matter if she’s… It had to be done sooner or later, am I right?”.
“Maybe. But it was up to me.”
“What’s more”, the brigand went on as if he was not listening, “carrying her up here in one piece would have been a horse’s work, not a person’s.”
In one piece, he considered. He looked at the other man and wondered if such a being was worthy of the definition of “person” at all.
“You will get twenty scutes. And that’s it.”
The brigand knew that could happen. However, he was not a simpleton: he had already taken his counter-measures just in case. Before completing his task with his own methods, he took a necklace from the woman, then made her strip and took her clothes. They were no noblewoman garments – no silk or damask –, but they were well kept and looked almost new. He could sell them at the market; or maybe even give them to some girl down at Angelo’s inn, provided that the lass was pretty enough, and willing to sleep with him. As for the necklace, it could be worth a few coins. He thought back to the victim, naked and helpless under his sleek dagger, and a swinish grin crossed his face.
A village in Brianza, four months earlier
Walking in the woods was like breathing – just as natural and necessary. The dark green paths that snaked through the Alpine foothills did not scare her. She was not afraid of wolves and she did not fear the brigands: she had met both, and they were not as evil as lore and laws depicted them, after all. Away from the voices of the world, she morphed back into an animal amongst animal, a living creature amongst many other living creatures that were not endowed with her gift of speech. Yet, in some way she could not quite explain, the creatures DID talk to her: they talked about themselves, about mankind, about Heaven. Silence – what silence? The sound of the woods was almost deafening. The woodpecker, the mouse, the fox, the chestnut husk falling to the ground, the wind murmuring through the shrubs, the woodworm gnawing away in its stool – she felt as if she could hear everything, even the non-existent sound of the asparagus and the mushrooms that spring in the night, piercing the fallen leaves with their soft white tips.
She was not IN the wood – she WAS the wood. She understood it many years before, when, a girl of sixteen, she had escaped the carriage of Cesare and Barbara – her earthly mother, stubborn as wonderful –, setting off on a wild quest for herself and her roots.
Brusata – A hamlet of Novazzano
Carletto. “Little Carlo.” Again with that pet name.
“Ah – sorry, I just can’t help it. I call you Carletto only because we already have a cousin called Carlo. It has nothing to do with… Oh, come on, don’t pull that face at me! We grew up side by side after all – you, me, and Cesarino, didn’t we?”.
I’m going to kill him one day. I swear I will.
“It’s alright, Marsilio, but this will be the last time. I’m serious about it. You have to call me ‘Carlo’. No, you know what? Don’t call me at all. I mean, I don’t even exist, do I?”.
“Drop it, Carlo. You are the one heir of our grandfather, we all know it. You are in charge of the secret business; me and Carlo – yes, yes, the other Carlo, the Roman one – take care of the public trade. That’s it.”
Carlo, Carlo, and Marsilio were the Fontana cousins, and the family’s empire had been passed on to them. A fourth cousin had been the late Cesarino, known as Crapanegra, “The Black Noodle.” Cesarino was one of the bastards of uncle Cesare, the last fruit of his boudoir adventures: Cesare loved the child dearly, but could never recognize him. He had raised his son amidst the brigands that served him, side by side with his other sons and nephews, then put him in the service of a mighty acquaintance of his – a Francesco Secco Borella from Vimercate, who had by then been long lost. As for Cesarino, he met his end in a big sack left on the steps of the bailiff of Mendrisio. Someone – the culprit was never found – had tied Cesarino’s hands and feet and had cut off his testicles, leaving him to bleed his virility away to death. Carlo, grudgingly known as Carletto, would have paid any amount of gold to put his hands on the man who had killed his cousin, even after all those years. Cesarino was more than a relative: he was his best friend, and no one should have never hurt him. No one should have never offended the Fontanas in such a way.
A few hours before, a wandering friar named Antonio had knocked at his door. Speaking on behalf of his old and dreaded master, he had presented Carlo a way to avenge Cesarino. Carlo had called over Marsilio and told him everything.
“In short, cousin mine”, he had said, “according to Brother Antonio, Cesarino died the way he died because of a woman called Maddalena de Buziis. It was because of her that he was caught, castrated and left to bleed out. This Maddalena is hiding somewhere just beyond the border. To find her is hard, as she surely goes by a different name now. However”, he added, perking up, “hard does not mean impossible. A wandering painter from Como, now nowhere to be found, asked her to pose for his Madonnas for years. Do you know what this means? There are dozens and dozens of Virgin Marys with this girl’s faces, all over the churches of Mendrisio and Milan. The name of the artist is unknown: for some reason, he just went by the nickname of ‘ul pitur’, the painter, and never gave his personal details. But he was very good at his craft. Brother Antonio told me what churches to visit. So that’s the deal: if we find the girl, his master will give us all the gold we want.”
Marsilio did not look too excited.
Cabbio – Muggio Valley
“In illo tempore, which means at that time, dixit Jesus turbis Iudaeorum, Jesus said to the multitude of Jews, Ego vado, I tread the straight and narrow path. I will repeat that: the straight and narrow path. But there’s no need to translate the whole Gospel of John: you know very well that you tread instead the twisted path of crime, the road of temptation, the marshes of sin. And in peccato vestro moriemini: you will die in your sin.”
Father Tommaso raised his eyes from the Gospel and peered at the eight pious women that had come to the humble church of Cabbio to attend Mass that morning. The youngest of them was old enough to be his own mother. He considered what to say next. Could his oration against the sin of seduction be of any use to those decrepit crones? Were carnal affairs of any interest to them anymore? He noticed a gleam of shock flickering in the eyes of Antonia: sitting at the front row, she had a mop of white hair on her head, and the haggard look of a timeworn widow. As old as the hills, and alone for most of her life. The priest hurriedly rejected the idea that one can never forget the memory of pleasure; that one could sin even without the touch of a man or a woman in flesh and bones; and that memories and imagination were enough to damn a soul. Father Tommaso listened to his common sense once more and decided to lead his flock of old devout away from the cliff of sensuality. When a woman like Antonia got into bed, all she looked for was her cat to pet as she said the rosary. No boudoir adventures for her: that was for sure. It did not make any sense to vex those hoary females of the hills with his sermons against fornication, talking to them as if they were young, flirtatious prostitutes. And yet such were the instructions the Church had been giving to him for years. Priests were expected to exert strict control over what people did in their intimacy – especially women. The designated pulpit to deliver such moral discourse was the altar. Father Tommaso lingered a few more seconds on Antonia’s eyes – the eyes of an old child. He resolved to attune the rest of his speech to the vocabulary of mercy.
“Vos de mundo hoc estis, dearly beloved, you are of this world – we all are. Ego non sum de hoc mundo. But Our Lord isn’t, as He comes from Heaven. He lives up there, and we live down here. I wonder, though…”. He was now talking to himself rather than to his audience. “Are Heaven’s doors sealed to us? Mary Magdalene sinned because of her weakness, but she entered Heaven anyway. King David sinned because of his malice, but he wasn’t rejected either. Even Saint Peter, who denied he knew our Lord Jesus Christ, was accepted in Heaven.”
Sitting on their pews, the hags held their breath, unsure whether to nod or to pretend they did not hear. What did the turbis deorum, the ochestis or whatever it was called, have to do with them? What was their business with the Magdalene and King David? Yes, they would all die, moriemini, at some point – at that rate, though, they would die of boredom. Couldn’t the priest just hurry up at last? There was stuff to take care of, back at home.
God willing, the sermon ended and so did the Mess. The curate had retired to the sacristy to take off his vestments; when he returned to the church, he almost burst into laughter. The only person still sitting on her bench was Antonia. His pompous lecture, that could only fit a whore, must have had startled her. Father Tommaso gave Antonia an indulgent smile.
Appiano Gentile – Province of Como
The Beast looked into the eyes of the Madonna.
I’m gonna fuck her before I kill her, he thought as he admired the delicate features of the Virgin Mary, depicted in that fresco in Appiano Gentile.
“Yes, yes…”, said the local priest – an elderly, slippery man who seemed to miraculously regain his lost memories as soon as the brigand put two coins in his hand. “Now that I think of it, I remember that girl quite well. She was…”. He screwed up his eyes as his ears turned purple. “She was a piece of… Well, she was a sight to behold. With all due respect, of course.” The man paused the second he noticed the feral grin that was forming on the other man’s face. “Don’t get me wrong, stranger. I speak as if I were her father, no, her grandfather.” He kept stroking his white beard, soft and perfectly neat.
Grandpa would have been happy to fuck her, too, the brigand considered, but he pretended to believe his words.
“Of course, Father. Of course. Where was she from? Who came with her?”.
“It was a long time ago… I can’t quite tell.”
“Make an effort. It’s something important.”
“I can make all the effort I am capable of, but…”. The old priest stretched out his empty hand.
A coin for a memory. Same old, same old.
“I’ll give you one more coin. No more, no less.”
“Make it two. You have no idea how much money I spend to embellish a little the House of God…”.
“And your own house, too.”
“Nothing – I was talking to myself.”
The hand of the priest was still outstretched in waiting. Alfredo Castiglioni, known as The Beast, threw his fingers in the small leather sack at his belt, produced two glimmering coins and reluctantly put them in the other man’s palm.
“You must be really keen on this whor… to this girl”, the priest said as he withdrew his hand.
“That’s none of your business, reverend.”
“There’s no need to get mad, stranger.” Flames of lust were blazing in the eyes of the priest. “I know how it feels…”. He winked at him. “Youth, with all its vigour… Ah, to have some fun with a nice – how should we call her? An angel, a slut? Some sins are worth committing. I am a bit jealous of you.” He spat on the floor.
Hell, this fellow is sicker than I am, the brigand thought.
As soon as Giacomo put foot in his tavern, Giulio Bonfanti, the innkeeper, rolled his eyes and swore in silence. The violence of the blasphemy was proportional to the gravity of the situation.
Oh, that’s no good, he thought.
To have in his tavern three infamous hotheads like Carlo “Caligula” Fontana, Alfredo “The Beast” Castiglioni, and Giacomo “The Sack” Storno meant only one thing: trouble was on its way. Damn big trouble.
Caligula and The Beast had arrived a few minutes earlier, promptly taking over the chairs next to the fireplace where two elderly men had been sitting up to that moment. Ignoring the weak objections of the old folks (“Ni da via ’l cü!”), the felons sat face to face to go over the latest events undisturbed. All of a sudden, everyone else in the tavern seemed to remember that they had very urgent business to attend to somewhere else and, one by one, they left on the sly.
Only then The Beast started to report to his boss. The first attempts to track down the girl called Maddalena de Buziis had been fruitless. Following the tip-off given by the priest of Appiano Gentile, he even visited the village where the parents of the painter who had depicted Maddalena lived. They were not there, though, and neither was the girl. Caligula just nodded in silence.
“We’re going to need a hand from our informers”, he said all of a sudden, glancing at the innkeeper from a distance. “And we’ll have to pay them handsomely, if we want to get somewhere. Let’s start with him. He was a trusted informer of dear uncle Cesare – may he rest in peace in the eternal flames of Hell”, he added, crossing himself with a sarcastic look.
After they ordered their drinks, the brigands asked Bonfanti to help them gather information about a certain girl they could not track down. They gave him a description of Maddalena – that wonderful young woman.
“A true Madonna in flesh and bones”, commented Bonfanti.
“Keep your eyes and your ears open, Giulio. Report immediately to us as soon as you catch a whiff of something. Don’t ask: just listen. Always with discretion.”
“You can trust me. What’s the lass’ name, however?”.
The felons exchanged a long look. Finally, Carlo Fontana darted a threatening glance at the innkeeper and gestured as if he was pretending to cut off his own throat.
“Fine, we’ll tell you. But if you spill the beans…”. Saying that, Fontana waggled his pointer finger at him, as if the finger was covered in blood.
Bonfanti swallowed. “I will keep my mouth shut! I swear.”
“Her name is Maddalena de Buziis”, said Alfredo Castiglioni.
“Maddalena de Buziis… as in de Buziis from Mendrisio?”.
“Exactly”, replied Caligula.
“I used to know a very beautiful woman – I think her name was Barbara. Barbara de Buziis. She lived in the neighborhood, but she went missing a few a years ago. I remember her well.”
“Let’s just say that the girl we are after might look a lot like her”, was Caligula’s obscure remark. He put a coin in the innkeeper’s palm and, with that, he sent him off.
“There’s much more money in for you, but you must help us find the girl.”
Riva San Vitale – A bailiwick of Lugano
Rina Balestra was a former prevadessa: a prostitute that specialised in priests. Rita did not live with them – God forbid!, she said to Maddalena, They are so vain. She did not want to become another sexual slave to men who had made vows of chastity, poverty, obedience. Rita was not a skivvy serving in the sacristy. Twenty years ago, men would lose their heart to her; Rita, though, would accept nothing but the advances of the priests. She would welcome them in a canopied bed that almost looked like a high altar, enriched with precious fabrics and vases that were always beautiful with fresh flowers. Her room at the first floor of the inn of Riva San Vitale was decorated with the majesty of a cathedral: for two decades, that room had been a secret shrine, and the high priests of the bailiwick and beyond came to worship it.
“You only slept with priests?”, asked Maddalena.
Sometimes, clarified Mea, only when she felt like it, or when she was offered a considerable amount of money, she would allow into her clientele a few men that were not part of the clergy. She was especially fond of the Germans, “those Christless brutes.”
“Because they speak very little and fuck very much. And when they do speak, you have no idea what they say”, replied Rina Balestra in a gleeful chirp. “Trust me on that – sleeping with men is boring enough as it is. But when they start with their endless moaning… Husbands that whine about how their wives vex them; old men that can’t get it up and come to you hoping for a miracle, but it won’t get up anyway, and they end up crying on your tits. Charlatans that promise they’ll marry you, talking your ear off with the description of a wedding that will never take place; thieves that won’t stop talking and that steal your jewels as they talk; drunkards that blabber about the most ridiculous feats, yelling and even beating you up, thinking that you are somebody else… Silence is way better. And a good, grumpy German soldier is the best.”
Her field of choice, though, was the clergy. She deemed unfair that the Holy Church forced priests to have “a cock between their legs and no chick to keep it company.” What is more, if a priest could afford to visit her, that guaranteed a steady income. Apparently, the definition of “vow of poverty” was not especially solid.
Rita was the best in her trade. Her nickname was Mea Pulpa, a parody of “Mea Culpa”: one of the many devices she had designed to give pleasure to the saintly men. She would come up with all sorts of sacred performances in her incense-filled room – processions, holy dramas, and not-so-holy apparitions. Rita was a genius when it came to pleasing the priests, satisfying their obscene sacramental fantasies. She never missed a shot. Most importantly, due to their vow, priests would never ask her to marry them. “What else could I ask for?”.
Civitavecchia – Vatican City State
“What a shitty place.”
Cosma Poncino was not famous for his rich vocabulary. Whenever he found himself in a sticky situation, he would always choose those simple words to give expression to the intricate knot of his uneasiness. Truth to be told, his motto was quite accurate, philosophically speaking. The way Poncino saw things, it was the place itself that was shitty – not the reasons that had led him to that particular place. Whatever accident occurred to him, the cause was never his own baseness: it was luck itself, that had dragged him to a hostile ground.
Criminals do not care whether their actions are good or bad. The only good thing is the haul, and whoever stops them from getting it is bad. It was a very simple game, and just as merciless. If you were in the right place at the right time, you could become rich; otherwise, it was endgame – usually an extremely painful one.
Poncino had been lucky, all things considered. It was a privilege to still have his head attached to the rest of his body, after getting close to that bastard house in Riva San Vitale. But he was still far, far away from regaining control over his wandering existence: once again, he was forced in a place he would have been very happy to stay away from. There were no evil spirits, but something quite worse: hard work. It was a place where people had to drudge in the mud, sweating blood in the dirt of the quarry, moving heaving heaps of bricks with their bare hands.
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