Florence in December is wet and bright. It’s all frosted windows and puddles just beginning to ice over. There’s a jubilance in the air despite the early evening. The holiday season is coming and the whole city knows it.
Feral dogs lurk in open doorways and by the curbs of roads, their noses full of the sweet scent of Christmas. Florence is a good city for wild dogs, but they rarely survive the winter. If they fail to learn the streets, they starve.
Instead they learn to beg, and to sit up straight. They shake, roll over, play dead. They become civilized. They tame themselves.
The bells of Florence strike the hour, and such a creature walks home.
No one can tell he was once feral. Hannibal Lecter is careful to make sure this is so. Today he has elected to wear silk, blood red and checkered with crimson. The weather is not kind to silk this time of year, but what is a suit for if not for the wearing?
Lecter tucks his hands into his pockets, careful not to wrinkle the lines of his trousers. The evening chill doesn’t bother him. Winter took so many bites out of him in his youth that its teeth no longer worry him. He has not forgotten his boyhood, but neither are his recollections of it as clear as they once were.
He remembers howling at the sky and hearing no reply from God. He had been young then. God had since given him all the replies he wished to hear.
Other memories come tantalizingly reflected in the mirrored halls of Lecter’s mind. He can recall his own teeth, chattering in the cold. Falling out one by one as the years rolled by, replaced by the teeth of a man and a man-eater. The teeth of his sister, found buried in mud and snow and excrement. The teeth of the man who ate her. Back then, Lecter had been more animal than child. Uncivilized and hungry for blood, if only to warm his numb belly and stave off the starvation of the unforgiving yule.
The world was different then.
Here in Florence, fairy lights are strung red and green in the windows. Every storefront is a gingerbread house. Lecter can smell the panettone in the bakery displays, resplendent in their colorful boxes. Flour and butter, and currents sometimes, with bright notes of oversaturated lemon and orange. The aroma of hot chocolate and roasted chestnuts from a nearby street vendor is almost enough to mask the scent of impending rain. The gutters and rainspouts are close to freezing over. Knots of icicles are already dripping from the mouths of the gargoyles.
Lecter buys a loaf of panettone on his way home and tucks the red and green box under his arm. He can feel the warmth of the cake through the paper. It’s beautiful, and like most beautiful things, Lecter intends to eat it. Not now, but later, after it has ceased to give off warmth. Then he will take it into himself, and it will enrich him. Make him more than he is.
The last time he took something beautiful into himself, it betrayed him. The taste of that betrayal still rises in his throat like bile and threatens to choke him.
He split his beloved open with a knife.
The blood that poured forth ought to have been steaming hot, like the last breath of a dying man. It wasn’t. It was cold, cold, cold. Cold enough to numb Lecter’s fingers, and the blade of the knife he held in them. A betrayal for a betrayal. You opened my heart, now I open your belly.
Lecter tilts his head back, breathing deeply, and thinks of the body of his beloved bleeding out across the altar of his kitchen. A broken thing, poorly used.
The panettone is still warm in its candy-colored box.
At least he won’t go hungry.
Hannibal Lecter is the new curator and translator at the Palazzo Capponi. He busies himself amid the dust of days gone by, surrounded by the antiquated symbols of civilizations long dead. This little corner of the world is defined entirely by beauty and intellect. Lecter is happy here. It is the farthest thing from uncivilized.
Time passes at a crawl with no one to talk to. Bedelia Du Maurier is a conqueror, not a poet, and she has no taste for Lecter’s particular brand of whimsy. He suggests to her one evening, as they gaze at the stars from their ice-frosted balcony, that if the city grows any colder the hands of every clocktower in Florence must surely freeze solid, suspending time in a single, frozen instant. She stares at a fixed point three inches to the left of his head and says nothing.
The Palazzo Capponi is more of a mausoleum than a museum. Nothing lives there but moths and Hannibal Lecter. Lecter doesn’t mind this- after all, there is nothing living inside him either. Only a corridor of dark mirrors reflecting into each other, and a distant memory of a frostbitten forest and fingers gnawed bloody in a weak-willed attempt to bite them off.
Lecter’s mind is not turned inward these days, but outward. He is planning his speech before the Studiolo like a priest preparing a homily. Perhaps he will preach about Judas Iscariot. He is curious what Du Maurier will do if he does. He is still thinking about this when he leaves work, his case under his arm. Down the vaulted corridor, and the wide flight of stone stairs. Then through the shadowy, marbled interior of the foyer, and out into the failing light of a late afternoon.
There he finds Anthony Dimmond, producing himself uninvited from the courtyards like Odysseus from his horse.
He looks now much as he did in Paris. He smells like cheap binding glue and arousal, and his placid, wine-dark eyes look at Lecter like he’s the most interesting thing he’s seen all day. He has broken off from a tour group, Lecter notes. A tourist, as well as a poet.
“Hello!” cries Dimmond, as though greeting an old friend. “Bonjour!”
Lecter says nothing.
“We met in Paris a few months back,” Dimmond continues, offering his hand. His nails are flawless, but his cuffs are twice-turned. “Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you, but here I was, and then, there you were . . . I never forget a face.”
“Anthony Dimmond,” says Lecter, taking in Dimmond’s louche posture and expensive, worn-out clothes. He is dressed in sugarplum violet, paired with a polka-dotted scarf of the sort that a man on the way to a party might buy on the street. Lecter can tell by his hair and his shoes that he would not do well in academia.
He is also the only man in Florence who knows Roman Fell’s face.
“You just missed Roman,” says Lecter, watching for Dimmond’s reaction.
Dimmond’s face falls into a politely performative expression of remorse. “Did I?” he says. “Was hoping to take the piss.”
“Spare the piss for the time being,” Lecter smiles. “If you’re free, my wife and I would love to have you for dinner.”
“I prefer not to be tied down,” says Dimmond with a playful smirk. His shoes click against the pavement with every step. Lecter’s feet are silent. “I’ll admit that traveling alone is a unique sort of torture, but it has its appeal. I and I alone become the caretaker of my experiences. Only through writing them down do they become real. You understand, I’m sure.”
“You’re a diarist?”
“God, no,” Dimmond laughs. “Far too many diarists in Cambridge.”
They pass beneath the shadow of the cathedral in the Piazza del Duomo. The bells chime the hour, and Dimmond marks it only by glancing at his watch. It’s cheap and expensive all at once, an ugly thing with a leather strap and a moon-white face. The watch of a TA with no money and a little taste.
“I’ve not had the pleasure of attending Cambridge,” says Lecter. “I went to university in America.”
“There’s no finer school in the world. A veritable petri dish of academic burnout and repressed sexuality. Wilde would be proud.”
Lecter can imagine Dimmond lying on the wide green lawns of Queen’s College when he was young, feeling out the sweaty shape of some other boy behind the rose bushes. It’s a pleasing image, and one that Lecter dwells on as he watches Dimmond pick at his shirt cuffs. He can see the veins in his wrist, curving like vines. Dimmond would not do well in a real winter. The wolves would swallow him whole.
Wilde would be proud indeed, Lecter decides. Dimmond’s inner mythology is beginning to remind him of one of Wilde’s fairy tales. Pretty, but poorly written.
“Shame. You were both suddenly so fascinating. Even so,” Dimmond says with a careless wave of his hand, “you’re far more fascinating than dear Roman. Cambridge is not lacking in pretentious boors, but he was the emperor of all of them.”
He licks up two oysters in one mouthful, and Lecter watches the movement of his throat as he swallows. Dimmond eats like a man accustomed to hunger. Lecter wonders how many parties he has charmed his way into for the sake of the hors d’oeuvres. Living from party to party, impermanent and beyond influence.
“Of course we were all terrified of him,” Dimmond continues. “We used to call him Caesar. Because Roman . . . Fell?”
Lecter, delighted, rewards Dimmond with a smile. Du Maurier stares into the depths of her wine glass.
“I believe I will take you up on that offer after all. The Inferno has never been a particular interest of mine, but I’d be happy to spend an hour or two of my Friday night listening to Roman butcher it.”
“Dr. Fell is more of an authority on the subject than you might imagine,” says Lecter. He touches a napkin to his mouth and rises from his chair, adjusting his waistcoat to lie straight. “I suggest we take our coffee in the sitting room and discuss it further.”
“Alright then,” says Dimmond, visibly pleased. He stands and looks questioningly at Du Maurier, but she only leaves the table and disappears into the hallways leading to the master bedroom, her expression cold and tight.
She does not return, even after they’ve poured the coffee. Dimmond is silent for a time, his mouth quirked slightly as he runs his fingers along the rim of his bone china cup. Lecter sits as still as a trained dog, sipping his coffee slowly and enjoying its fragrant bitterness. “What school of poetry do you favor, Mr. Dimmond?” he asks finally. “I am a classicist, myself. You have the look of a romantic.”
“What movement, you mean?” Dimmond laughs. Lecter watches him split open a slice of panettone with his fingers. His hands smell of coffee and currants. “Poetic movements, like bowel movements, produce little more than shit. Blood too, if you’re particularly unlucky,” He swallows another mouthful of coffee. “You’re so full of questions for me, but I’ve asked so little of you.”
“What would you like to know?” Lecter asks. He crosses his legs and reclines in his chair. He is reminded of a time, a thousand years ago, when his beloved had sat across from him much like this, drinking wine instead of coffee and praying at Lecter’s altar. If he tilts his head just so, he can almost imagine his beloved sitting there in Dimmond’s stead.
His beloved had eyes like the black side of the moon. When Dimmond regards Lecter, his eyes are brighter than collapsing stars.
“Boris,” he says, “I would like to know everything.”
Lecter’s eyebrows raise, incredulous.
“I want to know where you came from. You’re no ordinary man, I can see that much. You know, I think if I delved deeply enough into you, I wouldn’t find a man at all,” Dimmond leans forward in his chair, runs his tongue along his teeth as his eyes take the measure of Lecter’s body. “I am stymied by you. A pagan with pretenses of Christianity. And don’t deny it,” he adds, raising a finger to silence him.
“I am no pagan, Mr. Dimmond,” Lecter murmurs. “Christianity is a civilizing force. I find it comforting.”
Dimmond looks at Lecter like he knows him, and this, perhaps, is what makes Lecter begin to hate him.
“The early Christians resented paganism in all its forms,” Lecter says coldly. “Wherever they found the wild things of the world, they tamed them. Reshaping the world in their own image, as God shaped man.”
“I suppose you could call that the true meaning of Christmas,” says Dimmond with a wry grin. Lecter thinks of his beloved, fever hot and pleading not to be lied to, and smiles humorlessly at Dimmond without really seeing him. “You know, you need not be too civilized. I can help you, if you let me.”
Lecter can smell Du Maurier standing in the doorway behind him. Dimmond’s eyes flicker over Lecter’s shoulder, just once, and Lecter knows he sees her too.
Fear is an emotion like any other. Bedelia Du Maurier is balancing on the edge of a knife, all that emotion just barely kept in check. The slightest jostle might tip her into panic.
The stars are out tonight, arrayed in splendor through the windows of Vera dal. Du Maurier’s hands are steady when she pays for Lecter’s wine, but there’s something behind the clerk’s eyes that she doesn’t like. A shadow falls across her and a man leans in close to her ear. “Florentines say Vera dal, with its wealth of cheese and truffles, smells like the feet of God.”
“Hello, Mr. Dimmond,” she says, because there is no one else who it could be.
“I must confess to a certain abstract curiosity about your husband. I don’t know if it’s you, me, or God, but there’s something in the air, Mrs. Fell.”
He says the name like he’s calling the results of a duel. Du Maurier turns and walks away, the little copper bell above the door jangling as she goes.
Dimmond lopes along in her wake like an animal after a scent. He’s wearing a warm evergreen peacoat today, with a sprig of holly tucked jauntily into his lapel. “Even in the teeth of evidence, you’re just going to walk away?”
“Those aren’t the teeth you should be concerned about,” says Du Maurier, tightening her coat around her against the cold. God, but Florence is cold. Had it always been so cold? She can hear the crunching of new-formed ice beneath her heels, like the hollow bones of a bird.
“Where are Roman and Lydia?” Dimmond asks pointedly.
“I don’t know.”
“Does your husband know?”
“He is not my husband,” Du Maurier murmurs. “He is something entirely Other. If you think you’re going to manipulate the situation to your advantage, think again.”
“You want to be caught,” he tells her. It isn’t a question.
Du Maurier looks steadily back at him. “Will you help me?”
The Studiolo is calm and dusty, full of tame scholars and quiet minds. Lecter presents the topic of the evening with all the grace of a maître d’ unveiling the next course. “In accord with my own taste for the pre-Renaissance,” he says with a smile, “I present the case of Pietro della Vigna, whose treachery earned him a place in Dante’s Hell.”
Du Maurier has come to hear him speak. Lecter always insists upon it. A chef is nothing without a table to serve. “Dante’s pilgrim finds him in the seventh level of the Inferno, reserved for suicides,” Lecter continues. “Like Judas Iscariot, he died by hanging. Judas and Pietro della Vigna are linked in Dante’s Inferno. Betrayal, hanging . . .”
He makes his way through the crowd like a benevolent preacher. He stops to brush his hand against Du Maurier’s shoulder, as gentle as a warning bite. Lecter can smell her concern beneath the cheese-and-truffle scent of Vera dal.
“Then, linked since antiquity, the image appearing again and again in art,” He clicks through the projector slides to punctuate his point. The images appear fuzzy and washed out by the Studiolo’s cheap cameras. The net value of their archives could buy Rome twice over, yet they run their lectures on cheap plastic and bad wifi.
Dimmond slips in at the back. Lecter feels the animal in him respond to the sight, eager to jump at the provocation of Dimmond’s smile, but he restrains himself. Dimmond stands at the back of the room like a specter, as though about to rattle his chains and proclaim himself the ghost of Jacob Marley.
“Io fei gibetto a me de le mie case. I make my own home be my gallows. Mr. Dimmond,” Lecter raises his voice slightly. “Please join us. We were just about to discuss the matter of chewing in Dante.”
Dimmond nods politely and sits. When Lecter looks away, he finds Du Maurier’s chair to be vacant. He continues his speech nonetheless, playing the part of Roman Fell as Dimmond watches. Lecter wonders what he will do when faced with this little obscenity. Hello, Caesar, is written behind Dimmond’s eyes.
When Dimmond approaches him after his lecture, he smells like the feet of God.
Lecter falls silent, his heartbeat slowing. Dark mirrors reflect ever-inward as the glass gives way to ice. Doors unto doors unto doors. Giants moving in the dark. He talks, and so does Dimmond, but he hears nothing.
The scent of a red-haired woman on his beloved. The scent of a blonde-haired woman on his poet.
He has to eat him.
The revelation is as quick and easy as the snuffing out of a candle.
“What do you want, Mr. Dimmond?” asks Lecter, and he’s surprised to hear that his tone is only mildly curious. He can already taste Dimmond’s gristle in the back of his throat.
“I want to make a deal with you,” comes Dimmond’s reply. He looks pleased with his earlier turn of phrase. I’m here to help you untwist. The word lent a dark drop of inspiration to Lecter’s imagination. There must always be artistry to a murder, a measure of creativity. Otherwise it is an act of savagery.
Hannibal Lecter is not a savage.
“You have lied to the world about who you are,” says Dimmond. He leans in closer, his shadow a long and limber thing across Lecter’s chest. “That’s a kind of treachery not even the blood of Christ can redeem.”
Blood on his hands. Blood on the kitchen floor. Blood from his beloved’s belly.
“How remarkable,” Dimmond murmurs, his eyes falling half closed, “that Christians sacrifice God for the sake of man, but pagans sacrifice man for the sake of a god.”
“Come back to my room,” Lecter whispers back. “I believe we can come to an agreement.”
“I suppose I should start praying,” Dimmond grins. “Are you familiar with the prayer of St. Benedict? Of course you are. I bet you have all the saints memorized. The whole bloody calendar.”
The clouds over Florence have begun to disperse, revealing the faint pinpricks of stars in the blue-gray twilight.
“I found your speech intriguing,” says Dimmond. He licks his lips as he regards the heavens, as though daring the stars to out-shine him. “Not half so intriguing as you, mind.”
“You handled Professor Sogliato’s curiosity very well.”
“As did you.”
Lecter walks ahead, and Dimmond follows two steps behind. “I found your work on the subject of treachery particularly worthy of interest, given your treatment of dear Roman. The heretics would have us believe that Judas Iscariot was blessed above all others for his betrayal.”
Hunger gnaws at Lecter’s gut as he listens. Hunger for beauty, for sustenance, for the taming of a wild thing. The scent of Dimmond’s treachery is still thick enough to taste. “If Judas Iscariot’s betrayal was ordained by God, thus ensuring the crucifixion, then what of Brutus?”
“Brutus betrayed a friend, a Roman, a countryman. Judas betrayed only God. Nothing more human than that.”
The holiday spirit is alive in the streets of Florence. Lecter can see it in the ice reflecting the starry night above, the fairy lights dripping from the eaves of houses, the clutches of holly and heather strung up in the windows. Children in coats and mittens chase each other around the lamp posts. A light snowfall, dusting the shoulders of passersby like powdered sugar, would complete the scene exquisitely, and for a brief moment, Lecter feels warm. The ritualistic traditions of Christmas are endlessly fascinating to him.
“It would be unwise to presume to know my mind, Mr. Dimmond,” Lecter says. “I am a stranger to you.”
He circumvents a frozen puddle on the pavement, but Dimmond walks through it, crushing the crust of ice. “Oh no,” Dimmond says coolly. “Not a stranger, no. I feel convinced I must have seen you somewhere before. I must’ve hung my head over the edge of my childhood bed at least once, looked in the gap beneath it with my hair in my eyes and all the blood rushing to my head, and seen your teeth gleaming back at me.”
“Is that how you spent the lonely winter nights of your youth,” Lecter murmurs, more of an observation than a question.
He is keenly aware of Dimmond’s eyes on him. “No,” Dimmond says after a moment. “Not really. You know, I dare say . . . I believe I used to listen for sleigh bells.”
His breath leaves trails in the cold air. Dimmond tilts his head back, two gloved fingers pressed to his lips, and flicks them away as though removing a cigarette. He blows a silent puff of frost into the wind and smiles.
Lecter observes this display in silence. It’s a whimsical gesture that’s almost enough to change his mind.
Lecter bloodies a bust of Aristotle against the back of Dimmond’s head. It would appear that academia is harder than poetry, he thinks as Dimmond falls.
Dimmond’s death is not immediate. His legs twitch. He groans. Lecter watches him drag himself across the floor, trailing blood like a cardinal’s sash. He can imagine the lights popping in Dimmond’s brain, the broken synapses, the fragments of scattered verse.
Lecter breaks his neck as a mercy. The rest of him he breaks for pleasure.
He hangs Dimmond’s corpse in a frozen meat locker, far from the garden courtyards and vaulted ceilings of the Palazzo Capponi. The body dangles bowels-in and bloodless, like a macabre Christmas tree ornament.
Lecter considers him at length, and concludes that even the most exquisite tree must be trimmed for the beauty of the whole. Dimmond’s limbs are a collection of dead branches and fruitless vines. The stars in his eyes have long since gone out.
It’s the arms that Lecter takes first. These he removes at the elbows, one after the other. The left hand is set aside to be pickled- it amuses Lecter that the left hand of a hanged man, when pickled and dried, is said to grant light only to only the holder- and the right is set aside for consumption. Lecter is already imagining the way he’ll prepare it, fanned out in salted slices like the feathers of an angel’s wing. One hand in Hell, and the other in Heaven.
He lingers over Dimmond’s hands for longer than he should, running his thumb along the cold, dry knuckles. He thinks of his own knuckles, cracked like chestnuts and bleeding in the winter chill. He thinks of Dimmond’s fingers splitting the panettone, and his coffee-stained breath as he laughed.
Dimmond travelled alone, and feared neither God nor the Devil. Lecter imagines him as he must have been, a long time ago. Young and happy in the green gardens of Cambridge.
His kneecaps crack beautifully, like oyster shells. He would never have knelt to Lecter’s doctrine in life. He will kneel in death.
Lecter discards both legs, removed below the knee. They are still in their polished black shoes, like the hooves of a devil. Or a faun, as Dimmond would have preferred, but Dimmond is dead and past caring. Besides, a faun and a devil leave the same tracks.
Lecter breaks Dimmond’s ribs one by one, and thinks of the Angelmaker. A murderer from a lifetime ago. His design was not unlike this one, but Dimmond is wreathed in ice, not fire, and when Lecter peels back his skin and lays the palm of his hand flat against the wet, exposed nerves of Dimmond’s body, he half imagines him to jump under his touch. To flinch, and smile with brutal teeth, and say, is it that kind of party?
Dimmond's body breaks like new gingerbread. He will make a fine sacrifice, pure and without blemish for Lecter’s beloved. “And so the poet has become the poetry,” Lecter says aloud. He smiles, but no one laughs. His beloved, he thinks, would have laughed.
Outside the warehouse, church bells are ringing in the Christmas season. Lecter stands silent amid the hooks and carcasses and admires his work. The reshaping of Dimmond’s body is nothing short of a delight. Even the memory of his beloved’s blood on his hands cannot touch Lecter here. History is unforgiving. Fantasy is a far better bedfellow.
He considers the long, silent train ride ahead. Alone with his demons, and the ghost of a man twisted into an uncomfortable position in one of his trunks. He will make a place for Dimmond in his mind, and in the Capella Palatina. A gift for his treacherous beloved.
Lecter inclines his head to Dimmond’s memory. He presses two fingers to his lips and removes an imaginary cigarette.
“God bless us,” he breathes, watching the plume of frost fade into the air. “Everyone.”
His smile doesn’t reach his eyes.