by M. L. Archer
Ever wonder why the devil plays a fiddle?
From the journal of Signor Crescenzo Clemente, translated from the Latin text.
Cremona, Italy 1570
I have reached the shadows of my life and feel I must confess the sin which burdens my soul while there is still time. I pray God will show mercy to an old and feeble man.
Fifty years have past since I participated in the blasphemy which may yet unravel the world. I tell these things to my family, and they respond that I am mad. I cannot blame them, nor feel shame at their disrespect, for I have earned it many times over. However, God has placed it on my soul to write this warning: Astounding as it may sound, the greatest threat to all of God’s created earth is the violin.
I can sense your disbelief and disdain. After all, you may say, the violin? Why, what of the delightful parties, the sounds of merriment, or the songs of glory played in praise to God? How could it ever be our undoing?
Many years ago, I chose a dark path and became apprentice to a cruelly single-minded magician named Alberto Fortuno. He, and therefore all who followed him, became enamored of a lie. And, as is the case with lies, it came born of lust, a desire for power and absolute control over the affairs of men.
We worshipped Azazel, one of the great elder gods, whose minions blessed us with mighty power. We became wealthy, strong. Those kneeling at impotent altars called us Master. However, Fortuno told us our reward would be beyond anything man had known if we but aided our god. In bitter jealousy, The False One held Azazel prisoner. We were called to set free him.
In the dead of night, before the eve of the autumn solstice, we gathered below the church. In bitter irony, I will tell you that the tunnels and catacombs beneath Cremona were built to protect its citizens from invaders. That night, little did the townspeople know the protected places were breached.
Wearing the robes of our order, we gathered. In a lower chamber, Master Fortuno sat before a humble wooden table. A scroll lay before him. He told us that, just as The False One gave instructions for an ark to His prophet, our god would set before his conduit, our Master Fortuno, the design for a device capable of opening doors to the unseen world.
We began the chant, burned the incense. The elders of my sect brought a goat, legs bound, and butchered it before the master’s table, for blood must always be spilled. Blood lust rules the elder gods.
They filled a chalice with the goat’s blood and brought it to my Master. He dipped his fingers in it and swiped them across his face. I saw him close his eyes. His chest heaved, his breathing deepened. Master Fortuno opened his eyes once more, only long enough to grasp the chalice and pour the remaining blood down his throat.
Fortuno threw back his head and bellowed, “Worthless ones! Filth! Unbelieving! Cover my head! Make me unable to see! I shall show you the true POWER!”
With all speed we took a piece of black cloth, laid it over his skull and bound it around his eyes. What Fortuno did next filled my heart with dark glory.
You must understand, we had essentially blinded him. A single candle merely spat shadows along the walls making the room dim even for those visually unencumbered. Yet Fortuno performed the impossible. I saw him take the quill feather into his hand, effortlessly dip it into the ink—and begin.
I cannot describe the sense of awe which enveloped me at the sight. Fortuno’s hand flew over the scroll with inhuman speed. Tiny scratches of the quill formed a picture which would have taken one of the great artists weeks to produce.
Lest you suppose he peered intently through the black material, I will tell you that was not the case. Master Fortuno tilted his head back, his blindfolded eyes aimed toward heaven. Dark patches formed on his robe and around his eyes as the sweat poured from him. Many times he cried out like one in pain. I feared exertion and the thick, over-powering stench of goat blood would cause him to faint. Not at all. His fist pounded the table; he shouted words such as, “Stop! You are destroying me!” And yet he dipped the quill and the session continued. At last, the picture, complete, Fortuno gasped. “Help me—help me remove the cloth.”
We hurried to his aid, for truly, Fortuno’s entire body quaked, his energy drained. The cloth removed, his head was drenched with sweat, his eyes dark hollows. He gripped the page and cackled like a madman.
“Brothers! See now! We will build an instrument that shall resonate through out the heavens. As the False One brought His creation into being with a single spoken sentence, we shall become its master’s with a single played song. It speaks with the voice of a human and will clear the way for our Lord Azazel. We are to call it—the violin.”
Master Fortuno chose two of us to assist him in constructing the instrument: myself and another of the order, a quiet, intelligent young man of my own age, Marcus Vicente, the carpenter’s nephew. For several weeks Vicente and I worked together, and I found his company most agreeable. We carved and formed pieces of the violin from fine, dark wood. The exact nature of Fortuno’s plans caused the work to proceed with little effort. I marveled at how light, how thin and smooth we made the wood, and yet, when set and assembled, the design held with incredible strength.
Upon completion, Vicente lightly thumped the violin with his index finger. Amazed, we both heard what the instrument promised. Understand, at this point the violin had yet to be strung, its ebony tailpiece not yet fitted; it remained an unvarnished, unfinished work. But with that one single tap we heard a promise of tone and beauty so desirable that resisting it would be as futile as Eve resisting forbidden fruit. I knew the sound of this instrument would resonate throughout the heavens. I heard it and my heart sang.
By my side, Vicente whispered, “Azazel shall be free.”
I turned to Master Fortuno. “May I begin its finish work?”
Fortuno shook his head. “No, no, my son. Not yet. You are fine apprentices and therefore I shall tell you both our next steps. We have given birth to a brand new instrument.” His lips curled with a dark smile. “Hasn’t Cremona’s beloved priest taught us that birth must be followed by baptism?”
Both Vicente and I laughed. We enjoyed his mocking.
“Tonight, we baptize, not with water, but with what our true god loves the most: blood. I have heard him call for the blood of innocence corrupted. And further, he requires blood touched by Azazel’s most beloved chieftain.”
Vicente solemnly bowed his head. “We shall obey him.”
This time, we gathered not underground but beneath the heavens. On a hilltop outside of town, they came. Not merely the handful of us from Cremona, but many carriages arrived, and men on horse back. We did not need to ask how they knew to be there at that exact time, that exact place.
Two of my order, Luigi Zittelli and Martine Colombano, erected a long, low table on the top of the hill, ropes fed through the slats from beneath so that a sacrifice could be properly bound.
Blood would spill. I knew this, yet I felt no remorse.
Overhead, starlight contended with a brilliant moon.
In the hour of the demon, Fortuno stepped onto the altar, violin in hand, and raised the instrument over his head.
“Brothers! Behold the key!”
Cries went up among the Order, and several prostrated themselves on the ground in unholy reverence.
“They baptized The False One in water, and the spirit entered forevermore. Tonight we shall baptize our beautiful key in the blood of corrupted innocence, blood touched by Azazel’s own minion, and the spirit shall enter it for all eternity!”
Many of the men began to chant in groaning voices the name of our god, “Azazel, Azazel, Azazel…”
“Join me in the call, for after the baptism, the spirits must begin their search. They must discover a person capable of playing our violin with great skill, for to do otherwise would not free our Lord.”
Several of the hooded men leaped to their feet.
“I will play it! I will learn!”
“No! I demand the honor!”
Fortuno smiled. “Brothers. While I understand your passion, no one here could possibly become its player. None of you suffer the indignity of The False One’s bloodline.
“Therein lies the beauty: the Wicked One imprisoned Lord Azazel for the sake of his Chosen People, and now Azazel demands one of those Chosen set him free. Our eyes could never detect who carries the blood of Israel’s most horrific tribe, but the spirits shall find him. Come! Let us give them leave! Call! Call to the powers of the air!”
In the strange language of fallen angels, the Call began. Each man uttered the names of the fallen, and for the first time the sound of their voices chilled me. All about us the air charged and sparked like flames on the hearth. I felt myself grow lightheaded. Nearby, one man dropped to the ground, writhing, shrieking in the ancient tongue, “Azquiel! Forencia! Seti!”
Fortuno stood on the altar and shouted, “Cry out for all you are worth!”
The rumble of men’s voices raged in the night. Fortuno’s lips curled. He beckoned one of the elders to step forward. The man hauled a large sack over his shoulder. Fortuno climbed from the altar, and the hooded man emptied his treasure onto it. A girl. My heart paused. I knew this female. Maria Teresa de Santos. A beautiful girl, barely a woman.
I saw her daily in the marketplace, obedient, assisting her mother, her lovely face constantly dressed in a smile, her form enticing. I lusted after this girl, and now my heart shattered. She would become our corrupted innocence.
They bound her naked to the table and my manhood rose at the sight. I prayed to Azazel if she must die corrupted then let me be the one. For him, I would take her and then lovingly press my blade into her heart.
The brothers bound her and forced a cloth into her mouth to hold back her screams.
Fortuno bid the crowd be quiet.
“One of you will carry the demon into her. I have seen it.” He gazed across the crowd, seeking. I stepped forward, holding back my desire to shout that I was her intended. And indeed, Fortuno stepped my direction—then beyond.
Shocked, I spun in time to see him lay hands on Vicente.
“My son, have you ever laid with a woman?”
“No, master, I have not. I am for Azazel.”
“Then his minion bids you welcome.”
Fortuno touched Vicente’s forehead. He cried out, staggered, and dropped to his knees, head bowed, body quaking.
Why was I not chosen? The act surely would mean more to me than Vicente. For several moments I stood, angry, disappointed; every ounce of my being hated and envied Vicente.
Then he lifted his head, and gazed upon me. For the first time in my life I stared into the face of something inhuman. No light escaped his eyes, no warmth, but the cold heart of darkness owned by the abyss. His lip hoisted in a snarl. I had the sense of a creature willing to strangle me where I stood.
A growl rumbled from his chest. Like an animal, he stalked forward. Ripping off his robe and tunic, he attacked the girl. I have seen beasts of the field mate with greater tenderness. Vicente’s body pounded her until black blood flowed from between her legs.
My anger stung. Here lay a daughter, a sister. She might have been my lover some day. I glowered, but held my tongue.
Fortuno lifted a hand directing other of my brethren. “Hold him!”
Several men stepped forward and grabbed Vicente by the arms and legs, forcing him to remain in position above the girl. For a moment he fought like a wild thing, but his body seemed to sigh out its spirit power, and Vicente came to himself. “What are you doing? Unhand me! I have played my part! Master Fortuno!”
Fortuno ignored his cry, but turned to me and held out the violin. “My beloved apprentice. I give you this honor. You may hold the instrument as we finish the ritual.”
I sneered in Vicente’s direction. “Yes, Master Fortuno.”
My anger towards Vicente roiled. And yet the cold hard seal around my own heart began to crack. Would they sacrifice Vicente? Before most rituals, the participants knew exactly what their part would be. Vicente’s wild, fearful eyes clearly told me he had not counted on this.
He screamed, “Clemente! Please! Old friend!”
Tears streamed. Coward.
I saw them hand Master Fortuno a blacksmith’s hammer and a long, pointed spike.
Vicente strained to raise his head. “No! Master! Do not kill me! I beg you! She is our corrupted innocence! She has been touched by the demon!”
“No. You are the corrupted one. You have been filled with the spirit. Be at peace. Your blood will set our Master free.”
Without a trace of mercy in his eyes, Master Fortuno pointed the spike into Vicente’s back and brought the hammer down with all of his might.
In five strong blows, he drove the spike through both bodies. Each strike made a sound like forcing a blade through a melon. Vicente’s muscles seized, his eyes bulged and remained wide and staring, the horror of his final moments reflected therein for all eternity.
But—what had he done? A faithful servant, cheerful friend, lead into deception and now death by treachery. What had the girl done other than exist as a reflection of God’s beauty?
I gazed at the violin and knew the truth. We were monsters.
“Crescenzo,” Fortuno beckoned me, “Come, hold up the instrument, show us the violin’s back.”
I did as commanded. A powerful gust of wind swept across the hill. Around us demons roared, and from the clear skies a sound of thunder rolled.
Fortuno dipped his fingers in the blood that gushed from Vicente’s horrible wound.
Fortuno shouted to be heard. “With half of David’s Star we release the demon and curse mankind!” He drew a single straight line across the instrument’s upper back. “We curse the father!” Another line formed half of the point. “We damn the son!” And the final line. “We spit upon the Holy Spirit!”
I blinked. Master Fortuno gazed at me, an intense look of curiosity upon his features. My mind did not accept at first that from out of nowhere, an arrow had come to lodge in his heart. Then, another man, standing by his side died the same way.
I spun around. The invaders from the northern lands. I heard their battle cries now. I squinted in the dimness and made out the dark silhouettes of men and horses. We suffered no attacks from them for at least a score of years, and yet tonight, they found us. Their men would be upon us in minutes.
Master Fortuno dropped to his knees, but I showed the same loyalty he paid Vicente and ran for all I was worth. Arrows flew past me, so many that I wondered why I was not killed. I ran calling through the town proper that we were under attack and the men of Cremona responded.
For myself, I ran to Master Fortuno’s workshop and wept until exhaustion and fear took me down into darkness.
I did not know what to do the next day. I could not return to the order. My Master was dead. I had no purpose. I did have the violin.
I thought at first I should destroy it. This instrument of death and dark magic held demon blood. But the more I studied it, the more its beauty captivated me. Though born of evil, perhaps its creation might yet bring some good into the world.
Suddenly, I knew what I would do. The violin had touched, not demon blood, but the life source of a much-loved nephew. I would finish the violin and present it to Vicente’s uncle, Guiseppe Amati, so that their family might have some token of the nephew they lost. I would not tell them of his involvement in the order. Not at all. I would say that the barbarians took his life.
I varnished, polished, and strung the instrument. The violin sang with the voice of an angel. His uncle would be proud, and that would be enough. I took Guiseppe the violin and one of the viol bows before heading off to begin my life anew as a member of our king’s navy. A man of letters and learning, I received a commission to lead and spent many years away from Italy.
Upon my return, my heart became choked with fear.
Walking down the streets of Cremona, I heard a sound that terrified me. High and sweet like songs of heaven. I hunted until I found the source. A street musician played a violin.
“What are you doing?” I shouted at the man.
Wide-eyed at my reaction, he said, “Signor, I am playing the fiddle. Is it not to your liking?”
Horrified, I studied the instrument he held in his hands. It was not the same violin.
I gripped the top of the poor man’s tunic. “Where did you get this? Tell me or I swear by the gods—”
“Andreas Amati! He is an uncommon craftsman! Please, do not hurt me, Signor.”
“Andreas Amati? Where is his shop?”
He pointed to the west. “There! That way! There is a beautiful violin painted on his sign!’
I let him go and ran.
I arrived at the shop, ripped open the door, and gasped. Violins hung along the walls, polished, beautiful. Stunning bows lay upon a broad table. A young child with a cherub’s face and black curls sat at a work table. He fingered pieces of violins, puzzling over how he might make them fit.
“Young man! Is your father here? Andreas Amati!”
From the very back of the shop, a head popped up. This man resembled the boy. “What on earth, Signor? Why are you shouting?”
He stepped forward, noticed the boy. “Girolamo! What have I told you?” Amati turned and called to another man in the back of the shop. “Antonio! Please, come take your little brother. Find his mother.”
The man gave a quick nod. “Of course, Poppa.” He collected the little boy and carried him out the door.
“I am sorry, Signor. The boy, he wishes to do everything I do. When he is older, then I will teach him. I am Andreas Amati. I am at your service.”
“Signor Amati. Years ago, I brought your father a violin made by your cousin—”
Amati’s eyes brightened. “Oh! Signor Clemente? It is an honor! I was much too young to remember my cousin—but the violin. God in heaven! What a magnificent instrument!”
He shook my hand and embraced me like a father. “I studied it for so long and then decided I simply must build one like it! As you can see”—he waved an arm toward the finished violins on the wall—“we have made several. It is a good thing, too. For, alas, thieves took my cousin’s beautiful instrument. At least, we believe so.”
“What do you mean?”
Amati shook his head. “We awoke one morning to find it gone. What else could it be?”
My heart felt sick. I left his shop and returned to sea. On my last voyage, one of the sailors brought a violin with him. I could not bear it. I see them in every port. I hear them in my darkest dreams. They call out to fallen Azazel, comforting his blackened heart. When last he stalked the earth, only a single family survived. I fear this time his corruption shall end the entire world.
The Fortuno violin lives. In the depth of my soul I know that it lies in wait. The spirit searches relentless. Azazel shall have his player if he must wait a thousand years. He shall have every desire. Why did I not destroy it? I saw too late that my compassion for Vicente’s family was yet another deception. I alone have condemned men to death. People who do not deserve to die anymore than Vicente or Maria.
I have seen the marks of my order in pagan places, and my blood runs cold. When will we run out of time? When will the spirits find a skilled musician and true son of Israel? I do not know, but on the day Azazel walks free, the angels in heaven shall weep.
Dear God, show mercy for my part in this! God grant mercy to us all.
Original Fiction © 2010 M. L. Archer
Author’s Note: Andreas Amati is credited with creating the first violin around 1560. Girolamo Amati grew up and taught his son, Nicolo Amati, the luthier craft. Nicolo later trained the man known as the greatest violin maker of all time, Antonio Stradivarius.