A Feather for the Devil, a short story by Marianne G. Petrino

Fantasy: Short Story
Title: A Feather for the Devil
Author: Marianne G. Petrino
Twitter name: @ninetiger
Word count: 1196

He was not a handsome devil. Only a pureblood spawn of Lucifer could claim the beauty of a fallen archangel. But he made do very nicely with his other attributes. Squat and olive in complexion, Manii Inferni was just a typical minor hellion hailing from the base of Mt. Etna in Sicily, third fumarole on the left as he enjoyed telling his American cousins.  His curly black hair and smoldering dark eyes, his best features, fascinated ladies of all ages and made them overlook his great hook nose and large, uneven teeth. A flashed smile, a mischievous wink, and a measured dose of his lilting Italian accent was usually all it took to hook his fish and reel it into the sphere of his influence. And he always dressed well, another quality most ladies seemed to appreciate, having tired of the tee shirt and scruffy beards of aging college boys stuck in adolescence. His tailored suit, only Armani would do, gave him the appearance of a noble seeking one last grand ball to attend with some lucky woman.

His chief activity was creating mischief and leading women, although the occasional man was a nice challenge, into sin. He gave one discreet nudge yesterday at the local coffee shop, and a housewife ate six donuts in gluttony as he regaled her with stories of the old world aristocracy, which he had gleaned from a romance paperback. Yet her tears of remorse at her overindulgence made him ache in a most unpleasant manner as he charitably paid her bill.

Every devil aspired to complete a Contract, a timeless trap offering damnation. It was what his parents had expected of him, their constant nagging about his lack of ambition enough to wear down even his sharp, discreetly hidden horns. That he had actually gotten a middle-aged woman to sign over her soul still astounded him.

In her drab studio apartment, Juliana Theresa painted small sculptures with care. The Mediterranean had kissed her complexion too, which had given him an immediate fondness for her and a desire to walk away from leading her into temptation.  She was a bag of scrawny bones, her ragged cotton dress loosely hanging on her frail form. With her large, crooked nose and elongated face, the short woman was ugly by human standards, but she was very appealing to him. She’d have easily blended in with his more revolting, but fun-loving, Neapolitan kin. She was also relatively poor, an artist struggling to carve out a livelihood in a small, rust-belt city whose impoverished populace had no interest in collecting art. But she had not asked for beauty, youth, or wealth. What she had agreed to challenged the very Gates of Heaven, a resounding howl of protest for an earthly loss.

He had met her seven days earlier at his normal hangout, a rundown coffee shop that attracted the desperate and the depraved. She had recognized him instantly for what he was and had said to him, quite plainly and directly as any good Sicilian would, “I wish to resurrect the Carolina Parakeet!”

“An extinct bird? Surely, signorina, you would like…money…beauty–”

“No. The birds are brought back to life, or we have no deal!”

“Very well.”

He had spelled out the conditions. She would craft a hundred plasticine sculptures of the birds, fully painted. In return, he would pour the “Elixir of Life” upon them, dramatic, cacophonic music not included, too much trouble. It had taken some effort to mix up a batch of the fluid on such short notice. His leather-cracked grimorie, a Florentine relic he cherished, had archaic units of measure that took time to convert to modern measurements. A favor called in from a devil of even lesser rank than he, one specializing in teen jealousy and hair pulling, got him the horseshoe crab he needed. The secret ingredient for a beautiful glow was in the creature’s blue blood, but cooking it up gave him a strange desire for calamari. That the diabolical fluid only generated an illusion of existence was not something he had to reveal. For a few minutes, it would look as if it had brought the birds back into this reality. In her moment of joy, he would lightly tap her shoulder with his skull-topped cane; the carved head would suck her soul straight down into the earth beneath Mt. Etna. Where her spectral essence went from there, well, that was for the better looking devils to decide.

The woman rose. “Finished! Now you must fulfill your bargain,” she demanded, her pale blue eyes fierce in their regard.

In another week, she would have been dead of natural causes, the uterine cancer finally destroying what had remained of her organs. Why chose damnation now? he wondered. Such an hellacious puzzle!

Manii approached her work bench, a dilapidated kitchen table, her best stick of furniture. He poured out the elixir from a crystal bottle he had gotten long ago from an Egyptian princess, a nice touch he thought with pride. What was her name? Meret? he wondered, a memory flaming briefly into mind of his youth in Alexandria. Oh, such wild times those were too. That glorious library! Lots of sinning among the stacks.

He was supposed to feel exhilarated for achieving what few devils had actually ever accomplished, but all he felt was a sadness that made his square toes curl. Was it really pride that drove the woman, or was it just a desire to bring something of beauty back into the world? Why shouldn’t Carolina Parakeets return? What cosmic plan of the Almighty would noisy little birds upset?

The figures began to stir and squawk. The small parrots fluffed their green feathers, orange and yellow heads appraising each other as if they had known they had awakened from a long dream called extinction.

Manii considered his bottle. He had never had the opportunity until now to try the formula. Potent stuff, he thought. Those birds would have fooled even me.

The woman opened a window; the parrots flew swiftly away. “Godspeed!”  she cried before she collapsed and died.

A stray feather landed by the devil’s feet. He picked it up and fingered it gently, the coarse texture making him tingle with surprise. The evening news would be very interesting tonight, he thought. He chuckled to himself. What if she had decided to try a Tasmanian Tiger, instead. That would have sent the scientists scrambling, but that project would have taken too much plasticine clay to have been practical.

Manii Inferni regarded the corpse with fondness. Signorina, hai fatto bene! He tucked the feather into his lapel and patted it. His record remained unchanged; he had only led people into venial sins, and he remained pleased with that, despite the literal tongue lashing he faced from his disgruntled parents. How the yanking hurt!

A shadow suddenly broke the rays of sunlight streaming into the apartment. An immense hawk vaulted itself off the roof of the abandoned building next door and rose up into the piercing blue sky. The minor devil bowed and murmured, “Mysterious ways.”

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5 thoughts on “A Feather for the Devil, a short story by Marianne G. Petrino

  1. Nice story. Manii’s personality really comes to life, and I like the parental influence on him. I’m curious to know why if Manii knows about her cancer, he didn’t add ‘a longer life’ to ‘money…beauty…’ when asking what she wanted. A great ending (although I had to read it twice to put it all together – probably because it’s not my usual genre).

  2. Thanks for the comments! They are appreciated! About the cancer, it is a valid criticism. However, why should Manii show all his cards to the person he is trying to trick, neh 😉 Also recall that Juliana interrupted him, so maybe that was third on his list. Consider: Does Juliana even know she has uterine cancer? With that disease, many woman don’t know they are sick until they are close to death. She never mentions that she is dying when she pigeonholes Manii. Maybe she knows something is wrong, but does not want to face it directly. She is a typical starving artist, so she probably does not have heath care. To leave something behind is her driving, almost irrational force. I also think to know about the cancer beforehand takes out some of the punch, so I took a risk writing it this way. Just saying 🙂 BTW, I am curious as to how you read the ending since this is not a genre you normally read. I think it can be read several ways depending on what you, the reader, bring to the story. Thanks again for taking the time to comment!

    • Re the ending, just wasn’t sure if there was symbolism with the hawk or the feather with regards to the last two words of the story, that’s all. It makes sense, and as you say, it can be read several ways, and that’s why I re-read it.

      Totally agree about knowing about the cancer would take the punch out, but there are other ways of putting it without giving it away. 🙂

  3. The devil really is in the details – square toes, antique measurement conversions – they provided so much richness. I quite like Manii and his satisfaction with his life and ambitions; a devil who will pay for the honour of leading a lady into temptation. It occurs to me that he might make a very interesting graphic novel character.

  4. It was funny. Yesterday I was at the small press expo in Bethesda,MD. Any number of capable artists could have rendered Manii in a mini comic 🙂 Some days, all the cylinders are on, but not enough days. Thanks 🙂

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