The Contract


“I am Lucida Samminiati. I am beautiful; the most beautiful in Lucca. I shall remain so.”

Lucida stood before the mirror and gazed at her naked body – its curves and lines, her face, her hair. She touched her pubis, then probed. She fell backwards onto her bed and moaned as she writhed. When she was done she stood before the mirror again, her face flushed and alive, her mouth sultry-slacked. She conjured up the image of Vicenzo and wondered how it would be once they were wed and he probed her.

“You what?!” exclaimed her mother when she told her that she wished to marry. “You are still young my child.”
“I wish to marry and I wish to marry Vicenzo.”
“Vicenzo? He certainly would be suitable but there might be better offers, better opportunities. Do you not think we should wait?”
“I wish for no one else but Vicenzo. He is from a good family and I like his appearance.” She closed her eyes and envisaged his bulge and then his face.
“He is well-mannered and well connected,” her father agreed. “If that is what you wish then so be it.”
“Perhaps we can arrange the engagement and then wait a year,” her mother suggested.
“I wish to be married now.” Lucida stamped her foot and glared at her mother who stepped back towards her husband and tried not to cringe.
Her father held up his hands, palm forward. “So it will be arranged if Vicenzo is pleased
“He will be pleased,” Lucida said. And he was.

Her body was addicted to his. She craved his presence. When he left the house she sat at the window and watched his carriage disappear. She remained there, restlessly occupied with her needlework and dreams until he returned when she flung herself into his arms and dragged him to their chamber.

“I want to eat you, consume you, so that you and I become one.” Vicenzo plunged himself into her as if to satisfy her desire.

And then he was gone: killed in a property dispute. Her very being wilted. “I will kill him who killed my husband. I will kill them all.” She felt powerless in her oath.

“You cannot continue like this Lucida,” her mother told her twelve months later, fearing her daughter would be permanently lost to grief and thoughts of revenge. “You are young, just sixteen, and need to marry again.”
“How can you say that,” Lucida cried. “I love Vicenzo and can never marry or love another.”
“You are lucky, my child, to have known love. Few do. But you have little wealth and the Diversi family do not wish you to remain dependent on them. Your father and I are happy to have you return to us but the business will fall to your brothers and you need to make a marriage and a future for yourself. Gaspare di Nicolao Mansi has offered his hand.”
“That old ugly man! No and no again!”
“He wishes to meet you and we have arranged for him to come. He says he has an offer that may please you.”

“I do not care whether you love me now or in the future Signore Diversi.” Gaspare di Nicolao Mansi sat comfortably in the chair opposite Lucida who sat straight, her face a blank, her eyes turned from him. “I am offering a business deal.” She turned to him slightly. “I need a wife who will be an asset. She will wear my fine silks and be my ambassador. She will enhance my business. There is no doubt that you are beautiful both in face and form and will wear my materials perfectly. I shall respect you and ask the same in return. We shall both be discreet and protect each other’s reputation, working as a united couple. We are very similar, you and I. We have both loved deeply. We have lost those loves. We are both determined and independent. We are both free spirits, whether you yet know it that or not, I do not care to know. Think about my offer. You will be wealthy and have high status amongst the Lucchese nobility. I will give you three months to consider what I have said.”

Lucida returned to her chambers and watched his carriage leave. She smoothed her dress over her hips and stomach and felt their shape, the sharp bones of her pelvis and the soft space between. She moved her hands lower and felt the shape of her. Her body, so long asleep, slowly roused.

“Maria, come,” she called to her maid. “Help me strip. I wish to be free to move. Ah yes, that is better. Now leave.”

She moved about her room in her light underclothes and felt the swing and sway of her body. She examined herself in the mirror. Her face was thinner but unblemished by grief although it had lost its earlier innocence. She stripped herself of her remaining garments and revealed herself fully. Once more she moved her hands across her body, exploring it as Vicenzo once had. “Oh my love,” she sighed, “I will exact vengeance for your death. I shall not forget you. Every pleasurable fuck will be to your memory. And there are so many to be repeated over and again.”

She married a second time.

Gaspare was courteously attentive and indulgent. He enjoyed her preening and ensured that she had all that she needed to reflect and enhance her beauty. She was his living art. Therefore he did not temper her temper or cruelties. He watched her perfect the art of the coquette, likening her to a fisherman who baits the hook and teases the fish before landing it and then eating it leaving nothing but the bones. She was her most beautiful when playing the game of seduction. It was theatrical and he, the audience, was entertained. He also appreciated her loyalty to their contract. But he had never expected it to be otherwise. They were from a society of merchants and both understood the benefits of keeping a contract.

“Ah, love,” she said to her maid, reflected behind her in the mirror, after a particularly languid afternoon, “it keeps me young. See, you have no lover and your face is marked by his absence, while mine is flawless – not a line or blemish in sight; kept so by the regular exercise of the humours of the body.” She looked closer at her face and smiled briefly before noticing a fine line at the corner of her eye. She leaned in closer. No, it could not be. She spun round at the maid. Had she noticed? She had said nothing. Did that mean that she had not seen the line or that she had and was now laughing quietly at her? She stood up suddenly and struck the surprised woman hard across the face. “Get out. I never want to see you again.”
“But madam, what have I done?”
“Just get out before I tear your eyes out.” The maid fled; she knew better than to even remain in the palazzo if she was to value her life.

Lucida tore at her clothes, at the curtains and furnishings, shrieking with anger. Everyone knew better than to try to calm her down. They had seen the maid flee. Finally, when she calmed down she sobbed, for the first time unaware of the mirrors or her reflected image. She sobbed for some time, sitting on the bed keening her anguish. Then, something caught her attention: a shadow? a movement? a sound? She looked up. It could not be the maid who had fled and with whom she would deal later. She would not have dared to return without a summons.

She saw a figure in the mirror. She looked around to see who had entered her room. There was no one. She looked again at the mirror. Again, rather than her reflection, she saw a man, well made, well dressed and good to look at even if his face wore a somewhat malicious, sinister expression.

“Who – who are you? What are you doing here?” She began to feel emboldened. “How dare you come to me uninvited!” She advanced toward him, hand raised.
He smiled a thin leery smile. “Get out! These are my rooms and I did not give you permission to be here.”

The man stepped out of the mirror.

“But you will be pleased to hear what I have to offer just as you were pleased with your husband’s offer. You like favourable contracts.”

He stood in front of her. A strange smell stung her nostrils. She flinched and tried to step back from him but he held her firmly with one hand while he traced the line at the corner of her eye. “One line and then another,” he said softly.
“The inevitability of age regardless of mixed humours.”
“But I have a solution,” he whispered in her ear.

She drew her breath in sharply. He muzzled her neck before returning to her ear.

“Thirty more years of youthful, unlined, unblemished beauty.”
“Thirty years,” she moaned and melted at the thought. He held her close.
“Thirty years and then you give yourself to me. No more, no less. After thirty years your face, your body will reveal those years. Unless you come with me.”
“Come where?” she sighed.
“To me. I alone am the place.” He held her closer. She felt as if she was liquid. She nodded. He tightened his hold. “Say yes,” he breathed.
“Yes, yes, yes,” she murmured softly
“Midnight,” he continued to whisper. “In thirty years, to the day and month”. He breathed a long breath and she breathed with him. “Midnight, 12th February.” They breathed deeply together.

He released her. In her dazed state she saw him fade into the mirror, only his strange ether hanging in the air.

“It is almost as if you have done a deal with the devil,” Gaspare commented one day as they sat together in a moment of privacy, while he gazed at his wife’s unblemished beauty.
“Yes,” she smiled, “almost”.
“I hope not,” he replied, chuckling “one contract is more than enough. I do not wish to lose you.”
“Ah, my husband, yours is easy.” She reached out to his hand, now frail. “You have been faithful to your word and I hope you can say the same of me.”
“You have been all that I could have hoped for, even more.” He squeezed her hand and they sat for a while hand in hand, the joy of accustomed intimacy.

Time passes, mostly unnoticed. There were moments when she did take it into account briefly and noted that thirty years is not the infinity that she had imagined at sixteen or even twenty.

“My lady, your husband, my lord, is not well.” It was February 1649.

“What is the matter?”
“He is dying my lady, of the plague.”
“The plague!” Lucida touched her face and looked into the mirror and saw the unblemished complexion of a sixteen year old. “Keep his door closed and send all his servants away. It must not spread. Burn all his clothes and furnishings. Wash him, give him fresh linen and clothing and then go, on fear of your life.”

She consulted the calendar: February 2nd. How had she missed it? She looked toward her rumpled bed, still warm after Conte di Tempo had left. She looked out the window. The minute hand of the clock face of the Torre delle Ore had just moved. It was three hours to midnight exactly. How had the days passed and the day along with the night, arrived? Had she been in a trance? The Torre delle Ore as always towered over the city of Lucca, keeping watch, keeping time.

She gathered her thoughts. She must halt time.

A whiff of sulphur, a rustling in the walls, shadows in the mirrors; she had no time to lose.

She dressed quickly, gathered a hooded cloak against the creeping winter air, and called for her carriage. She glanced out the window and saw the hand on the clock jump forward.

“Quickly,” she urged the driver, “to the Torre delle Ore. There is no time to lose.”

His whip flicked across the horses and they jumped forward. The carriage raced toward the tower. All was still, quiet, except for the clopping of the fast-paced hooves. But listen: could she hear the sound of other hooves beating the cobblestones?

“Faster, faster,” she shouted, her voice shrill in the still, cold air. The whip flicked, the horses strained, their mouths flecked with white foam.

As they drew in front of the tower, Lucida tumbled out, gathered her skirts and raced into the tower. She ran up the two hundred and seven steps, barely drawing breath. She reached the top. The minute hand clicked to mark another minute to midnight. She needed to stop the hand’s advance. She needed to stop time. She looked around.

Suddenly he was there in front of her. He smiled slowly. “I thought that I would find you here – at the hour, or almost. How punctual.”
“No,” she screamed, backing away.
“Come, my dear. You are, as promised, as beautiful as ever.” He held a mirror to her perfection. She gasped, caught between perfection and the desire to live.
“No,” she shrieked again and the hand showed a minute to midnight.
“It is a deal – there is only a minute to spare.”

She backed towards the stairs, turned to flee but he caught her and dragged her to his carriage, waiting outside the window, fiery red, drawn by four black horses, prancing the air below. She cried, she howled, her face crumpled as the clock struck twelve. She was in the carriage careening along the walls of Lucca, past the lions guarding the gates. The carriage rocked and shook. The door burst open and she was free, soaring through the air, falling, into the gardens before she was swallowed by the pond.

There she lies, hidden amongst the lily leaves, sung to by a chorus of frogs, cleaned by nibbling fishes.

Each year on the 12th February the people of Lucca hear the thunder of the carriage wheels and horses’ hooves echo along the walls intermingled with the desperate cries of a woman while the Torro delle Ore chimes midnight. And then a beautiful woman rises up from the pond in the park before falling back into the waters with a gently splash, disturbing the fish slumbering amongst the roots of plants that draw nutrients from the sludge below.