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Published: Thu Jul 1 2004
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Destruccion por un remolino del aire Xocomeel del Lago Atitlán / Destruction from a Vortex of the Xocomil Winds around Lake Atitlán (detail), 2014, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.

Uncle Hector was a great one for stories. If Hector couldn’t stretch the truth, it wasn’t worth telling.

One night, at the century’s dawn, he sat the children down for what he called lessons. History lessons. Two of the girls ran screaming from the room. They knew what was in store.

‘Paris. The Revolution of 1789. Danton, Robespierre, all those rascals. A jewelled crown worth its weight in gold—or a guillotine? You didn’t know what you’d get. Loose talk meant that heads would roll.

‘Remember Madame Lafarge? Wet herself each time she watched the blade fall. Or Madame Gavroche: fluttering, stomping, squawking, barely able to contain herself. The epithets and tongue-wagging of the age inciting her…how she loved watching that parade of poor souls, loved it when they took the blade.

‘A colorful epoch. A good time was most definitely not had by all.

‘The Arch-Quack (he went by a hundred different names: “Le Menteur,” “King of Lies,” “Giuseppe Balsamo,” etc.) arrives. A crowd, a bristling human hedge, lines both banks of the Seine just to catch a glimpse. Would their hero wave to them? Or waggishly toss his Phrygian cap to the adoring crowd? Would he burst upon the scene, borne aloft by his besotted regiment of familiars…this tatterdemalion Pride of humanity, this babbling, bubbling insect, this knave who twisted their ears with promises—every last one specious—of benediction, healing, transfiguration?

‘Difficult to imagine how Cagliostro could top his last time around…The freethinker, that satin-bound cockswain, had arrived so triumphantly—straddling two giant swans. This time it would be different. A clatter of hooves, the groan and rumble of wheels, the sharp crack of whip on horsehide. Cagliostro and “wife” regally carriaged, their six noble steeds conveying them effortlessly to the head of the triumphal procession.

‘Balsamo (that had been his common name) had been a difficult child. A fractious child. His pranks wore heavily on nanny’s nerves.

‘Even the austere regimen of the monks could not deter the youth. Young Balsamo’s penchant for mischief remained untrammeled. (During mealtime readings of the lives of the saints, Balsamo would substitute the names of the most notorious courtesans of Palermo for those of the Blessed.) The Bonfratelli of Cartegerone threw up their hands in despair, letting loose this untutored Apache upon an unsuspecting, benighted world. Giuseppe Balsamo was gone to the world. The sorcerer Cagliostro had risen to take his place.’

Uncle paused here, rubbing his head as though to forever erase these strange and ancient events.

‘My head aches, my temples pound when I think of Cagliostro—that insolent weasle, that reprobate, that satanist—pledging me to secrecy, wheedling me, working me with his confidences. “Marano,” he would say, “there is a cave,” and “Marano, there is a great treasure buried there,” and “Marano, the treasure is guarded by demons, by a three-headed dog.” His requirements were few. Get him a priest for the exorcism and a few ounces of gold, and the box of ancient lusters would be mine . . .

‘Cagliostro and Lorenza thus set out from Milan, mumbling paternosters along the way. Their progress from alms- to counting house was infernal, regal, inexorable. Cagliostro, couching his pimpish solicitations in the language of the Mass, offers the female pilgrim’s favors to any passersby who can pay the price.

‘Lorenza: a wan Rosamunde barely lit by the dwindling light of the transept.

‘Holy Mother of God, but she was a looker! A mysterious figure in black baize stoops at her side. This is the historical Casanova.

‘Cagliostro and Lorenza overtake him. The votive offerings flicker in protest. No matter. Lorenza moves closer, pouring forth the scheme of the New Age into the aspirant’s ear…

‘Some time later, the shaken colombe pulls on his trousers, rises to his feet. It was good. Very good. A new believer in Cagliostro.

‘Now finish your pie.’

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