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The long shadow of death cuts so deep into the room that Chiara can feel the bite of its moon-sharpened edge on her skin.
She avoids looking at the bed as she crosses the cool tiles to the window and opens the shutters. Alpine air sweeps in, painful against her wet cheeks.
“Mother.” Giovanni’s voice is faint now, little more than a moan.
Chiara moves to the bed and places a hand on her son’s forehead. Cool. Giovanni appears peaceful, features calm, eyes closed.
“It’s okay, Mother.”
Chiara doubts that but smiles as best she can. “The doctor will be here in the morning. A specialist, they said. She’ll know what to do.”
Giovanni sighs distantly. “It’ll be fine, Mother. I promise.”
Voices drift in from the street, the sharp barks and laughs of teenage boys. Chiara closes her eyes and tries to breathe steadily until they are gone.
Dr. Gallo arrives mid-morning and asks to see Giovanni without preamble. In the bedroom, Chiara draws back the bedclothes to expose her son’s body for silent examination. The doctor pokes at the hard, grey flesh with a small steel pointer, her other hand worrying at a gold crucifix hung round her neck.
“Petrification. Well. There are a few records of human tissue mineralising in the archives at the National Library, though they are very rare. Mainly documented by priests, who ascribe it to periods of great stress or trauma. Has your son experienced any difficulties recently?”
Chiara thinks of the Conti brothers, the three boys always hounding Giovanni and getting bigger and bolder all the time.
“He won’t say.”
“I see.” As if that is a failing on Giovanni’s part. Or hers.
Chiara takes a deep breath. “So you’ll take him to hospital? There is some treatment?” She can’t keep her voice from breaking.
“I’m afraid not. There is nothing that can be done in such cases and moving him will just accelerate things. Take comfort in this: God is calling him home.”
A flush of rage claws over Chiara’s skin. “He can call all He wants. We won’t answer.”
Dr. Gallo offers a sad smile. “Sometimes innocents are chosen to bear great burdens. Their suffering is all the more meaningful, for being undeserved.”
Chiara turns to the window and watches the pale sky in silence, until the doctor has gone.
While Giovanni sleeps, Chiara prays. But not to any god the good doctor would recognise.
Bread is all that Chiara can stomach. Leaving the little bakery in the square, a loaf clasped under her arm, she sees Tomasso Conti leaning by the fountain, smiling to himself. Until her hands are around his throat.
“What did you do to him? What did you do!”
He struggles, wide-eyed, thrashing; then is free and running across the square, people staring at them both.
The loaf lies forgotten on the cobblestones. Chiara’s fingernails are streaked with crimson. She walks home carefully, so that the blood doesn’t drip.
The bed is empty. Almost. Beneath the sheets are only fragments of powdery stone. Chiara runs her hands through the silt. Could a person, an entire life, have been reduced to this?
The town is quiet outside the open window. Probably she should weep for her son. Instead, she gathers handfuls of Giovanni’s remains into a bowl before pouring herself a glass of Amarone and pulling a chair to the window.
As the daylight drains from the sky she sits, working the dust with her hands, Tomasso’s blood still tacky on her skin.
She prays. Three times she casts the bloodied powder from the window into the evening air.
And three times, a shadowed breeze carries it high over the houses.
The little town is no longer quiet, its steady drone punctuated by shouts of alarm that echo around the narrow lanes. Chiara sits, sipping wine and watching the glowering sky as it fades to darkness and back to light again. Sometimes she walks the room or rubs grains of stone from her son’s bed between finger and thumb, watching them turn to dust.
As twilight comes once more, she looks from the window to see one of Giovanni’s school friends passing the house.
“Francesca!” It feels odd to speak, as if she has spent an age in solitude.
The girl looks up in surprise. “Ms. Lombardi. How is Giovanni?”
“Resting. What’s the news, Francesca? I haven’t been out. But I hear things.”
The girl’s eyes widen. “You don’t know? Two of the Conti brothers are dead. Carlo hanged himself from the old chapel bridge last night. Then this morning, Federico was found at Saint Peter’s. He’d climbed the roof and fallen — or jumped — and his body was amongst the tombs, all smashed up. Imagine! Two of the Conti brothers, dying days apart.”
Chiara grinds stone dust between her fingertips. Traces of dried blood still stain her skin and nails.
“How awful! Their poor mother must be suffering terribly. And how is young Tomasso taking it?”
“He’s refusing to leave the house. Just hiding in the basement, scared half crazy. Isn’t it dreadful?”
“It is.” Chiara settles once more into her chair and pours another glass of wine.
She watches the sky redden over the river, the smoke climbing across the moon. Hears the anguished pealing of the church bells. All too late for poor Tomasso. All too late.
Something moves in the shadows behind her. The smell of smoke is sharp in the bedroom.
Chiara turns, but does not look. She crosses to the door, leaving the window open to the cold night and flickering sky.
She pauses at the threshold. “Goodbye, Giovanni.”
The darkness maintains its silence. She closes and locks the bedroom door, then stands in the stillness of the hallway, a great emptiness held in her mind that permits no thinking or feeling. It is only when the dawn comes that she finally moves, crossing to the bathroom to try to wash the blood and smoke from her hands.
Interview with Rob Francis, Author of “Dust to Dust”
What inspired your story?
I went through a phase of being really interested in the idea of petrification as a stage of transformation, and what might cause it. In “Dust to Dust,” the trigger is trauma, making the body gradually mineralize. From there, I started to imagine the rage and frustration a parent would feel if their child was undergoing such a process, and what steps they might take to achieve a cure – or, if that wasn’t possible, revenge on whoever caused the trauma. I knew it was a gothic story as soon it started to develop, what with its blend of love, tragedy, the supernatural and a hint of madness.
What’s your favorite gothic story or poem and why?
There are so many to choose from! Like most fans of gothic short literature I hugely enjoy pretty much everything by Poe, M.R. James, Shirley Jackson, and Robert Aickman. My favorite story is perhaps The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral by Robert Westall. It’s a (relatively) contemporary take on gothic themes – a secret from the past, imprisonment, enchantment, death, all set amongst the spires of a fictional English cathedral. Westall’s short fiction is well worth a look and he wonderfully portrays a more down-to-earth side of the English ghost story that is a refreshing departure from, though every bit as good as, the earlier work of M.R. James.
How long have you been writing?
I’ve been writing non-fiction for many years but started writing short stories in 2014. I just couldn’t help myself.
Do you have a theme you return to time and again?
My two favourite themes are sacrifice and betrayal. They seem to be two fundamental yet somewhat opposing elements of human nature and provide endless storytelling possibilities.
What are you working on now?
I’m just finishing off a novelette which is essentially an Aickmanesque (though I may be flattering myself a bit there!) ghost story set in an English seaside town. Once that’s done I’ll be continuing my series of flash fiction horror stories – I love flash fiction and find myself writing more flash than anything else.
What else would you like people to know? Where can people find you online?
I am an academic and writer with around fifty stories published in various magazines and anthologies. Recent work has appeared in The Arcanist, Apparition Lit, Tales to Terrify and Weird Horror Magazine. I am an affiliate member of the HWA and on Twitter at @RAFUrbaneco.