A drawing by Emily Tupper, age 8
A flash fiction response to a challenge issued by Chuck Wendig at terribleminds.com.
I came close to not completing this week’s assignment to write flash fiction where a historical character is featured as the protangonist. Of all people, I became stuck on Alfred Nobel, founder of the Noble Prizes. Why? Because I discovered a contradiction about him which is not widely known.
In the last year of his life, Nobel wrote a play called Nemesis. He was 83 years old, a man of the world, richer beyond rich, never married, with no children, and yet he put all his efforts into writing a play. Ans his was not the first to tell this story. Clearly, he had strong motivation. What was it?
The story itself is about Beatrice Cenci, a girl from 15th century Rome who killed her father in conjunction with her family and a lover. This event was a scandal in Rome, partly because it was well-known that her father was horribly cruel, and also because Pope Clement VIII took possession of the wealthy estate upon their execution. Whatever the truth was (documents now suggest she gave birth to a child before her execution), her story has resonated for centuries with playwrites, painters, and the man named “The Merchant of Death” in a premature obituary.
I’d like to believe that Nemesis (Crazy fact #654: it was written in Swedish and Esperanto and has never been translated into English), while called a “lurid parade of torture, rape and incest that features a drug-induced vision of the Virgin Mary, a conversation with Satan and ends in a 40-minute torture scene”, says what Nobel’s six annual Prizes do not; justice is blind and life is cruel. The story of a 22 year old unwed pregnant murderer who became a symbol of injustice against the Roman aristocracy must have spoken strongly to the man who invented dynamite, created a better cannon, and manufactured all types of weapons to be used for war. With the premature announcement of his death several years prior, Nobel got a look at his future legacy and did not like what he saw. Nobel made a change to his will. His vast fortune now funds awards for five categories of science with the most prestigious award handed out for promoting peace among men.
With this flash fiction I found a way to tie Alfred Nobel and Beatrice Cenci together. Enjoy.
Oh, the night. It was dark and stormy and the wind blew beneath the pane of window glass in the bedchamber, the faintest whistle of a warning.
Alfred sat up in bed, alarmed. He had a thought that maybe he wasn’t alone but perhaps that was sticky residue from the nightmare. Months, it plagued him. He hadn’t had a single night of good sleep since he’d begun the writing of Beatrice Cenci’s tragedy. In a way, he wasn’t surprised. Her story grabbed like the memories of a long lost lover, always open, always waiting. She’d teased Percy Shelley, Hawthorne, Artaud, Caravaggio, and Reni with arms long rotted away to bone and yet those ephemeral appendages gathered artists in to examine over and over the horror of her life and death. Alfred wondered not for the first time, if it was the horrifying death she suffered under sentence from the Pope after a lifetime of ills born at the hands of her demented father which enticed wonder or if was the promise of maidenly youth waylaid?
The shutters blew open with a crash, freed from their position latched within. Alfred felt a chill and reached for the bedcovers before he changed his mind. Instead, he reached for the oil lamp. His hand shook as he lit the small flame. He set it upon the bedside table and eased back against the pillows. It was then he saw the figure in the corner.
“No! It can’t be!” His insides coiled and twisted. There, next to a bound leather copy of the play about her on the other side of the room stood Beatrice herself, a fearsome apparition of his imagination.
Her eyes slowly closed and opened in acknowledgement as he took in the sight before him. She looked kindly toward him, waiting. While her corporal visage was youthful in appearance, her filmy gown was tattered and dirty. Shadows flickered across the room. Bright life blood stained the once-soft linen. Then the room grew chill and he watched the color of the stains change from a visceral glistening red to decrepit aged discolorations.
“Why? Oh, why have you come?” He would have fallen prostrate before her on the floor if his body allowed but at age of three and eighty, it was enough of an effort to clasp his hands together begging for mercy.
“You summoned me from my grave in San Pietro and I have come.”
At this, Alfred began to shake. He thought of himself as a man of science although the misprinted obituary some years before alleged he was a man of war, a “Merchant of Death” no less! The thought of it still made his blood rise. Yet neither war nor science could explain how a ghost came to stand before him.
Hastily he apologized. “I had no intent to disturb your eternal rest. In truth, I do not know why you are here.”
“Listen to your heart, dead Alfred. Does it still beat?”
The wind picked up as Alfred fumbled for his neck. But as his hands rose to the base of his throat, he knew the answer. The time had arrived. A moan escaped his lips, a rattle of death’s recognition.
It was then he felt light of body, like youth streamed through the now-collapsed veins. Alfred crawled from his deathbed invigorated. In the distance there was a sound like one of his cannons had fired into the lake. Surely it was only thunder but he chuckled roundly as his neighbor’s peace was disturbed a final time.
He caught sight of the figure again, now robed in a clean colorful dress. The high color of youth blossomed in her cheeks. She was beautiful.
“If I could stay just a moment longer, there is one more preparation I would kindly take.”
Beatrice nodded. Alfred crossed the floor, his bare feet gliding lightly across the tile. From his chest of drawers, he procured the letter etched with the name of his solicitor. He set it next to the still corpse on the bed. A moment later he tucked the bound copy of his play beneath the other curled up hand.
He turned. “I’ve worried every last stop, turn of phrase, and detail down to the dramatic conclusion where the Pope executed you before a Roman crowd of guilty denizens. I hope my version paid homage to your spirit and beauty.”
Beatrice’s ghost smiled at that. “A labor of love on my behalf is sweet payment for the life I was denied. If only I had escaped cruel Death to raise my own child…” and as her voice trailed off, Alfred realized of what she spoke. She had left behind a child! How had he not come across that in all his research? “Worry not. It’s a secret that will have its turn in the light of day, much like the revelation of your six prizes.”
“I hoped as much,” he said, shaking his head. Thunder rumbled in the distance. The rain stopped.
“Come, Mr. Noble.” Beatrice held her arms out and Alfred succumbed to her embrace.