“Come closer,” the old man cackled drunkenly. “For that pint of ale, I’ll tell you a story. Something to keep you company, you might say.” He accepted the drink greedily, and began immediately.

“It was fifteen and ninety; after the big plague. Here in the lonely country, it wasn’t so bad; but I was a merchant. Seeing most of your customers die off makes you consider things. I reckoned I’d travel south to Italy, get some sun, and take a few choice items with me.

Back then I could still sell tinder to the devil, and by the time I reached Milan, I had enough to set up shop in the market square.

The best business always came when there was a hanging. They called it “The Executioner’s Fair.” I used to know the Italian for that, but can’t recall it now. People would come from all over to watch the convicts swing. All us merchants did very well. With the fair would come food, musicians and of course, the Punch and Judy show.

This particular show, by “Professore Dante”, was called “The Choir of Pulcinello”. You’ve seen the show before I’ll reckon. Old Punch, or Pulcinello if you like, gets the best of his wife, the law, the devil and the hangman, through trickery and that big stick he carries.

I went to see the show one afternoon, as I had heard everyone talking about it. He did ten shows a day, which also was unheard of, so nearly everyone had seen it. It also meant that Dante was the last to leave every day.

The show was like nothing I’d ever seen. Up to ten puppets at a time came on. Angels sang in choral harmony as they took Pulch’s victims up to heaven. Chaos reigned in court as puppets argued over one another. There was no way this could all come from one man.

My curiosity got the best of me. That night, I waited, concealed, and followed the Professore as he left. He was a stooped, twisted man, and wore a cloak that obscured his features. I watched as he walked towards the flyspecked corpses that had hung that day. He cut them down, put them on his handcart; and continued down an alley. I had no choice but to follow.

It was then that I heard the chewing sounds.

As I made my way down the narrow, yellowed street, I saw the Professore’s discarded cloak and shirt. Dread filled me as I rounded the final turn, and beheld insanity.

The creature was fishbelly white, and where I’d seen a hump was in reality a muscled clump of tentacles, all engaged on ripping chunks of flesh from the dead. I gasped, and he turned, exposing six gaping mouths erupting from his chest, each lined with needle teeth. All were currently being fed chunks of meat by the flailing arms. I noticed his muddy brown eyes boring into me, and the total absence of a mouth on his face.

“YOU SHOULD NOT BE HERE.” A cacophany of voices growled. The effect was dizzying. His appendages stiffened then, and the mouths began to hiss,, “Nottt to seee and live!” His eyes rolled back to the whites, and he took a halting step toward me.

I ran then, as fast as possible back to my lodging, packed what I could carry, and fled for Europe. Hell, it seemed, was truthfully at my heels.

Not three years later came the Great Plague of Milan, and I prayed that the “Professore” met his end. But I fear every day that the Corpse-Eater will come looking for me; wanting to silence the only witness to his secret. Except now you know too.“

The traveler motioned for more ale, and put coin on the table. The old man thanked him, and shortly after slumped into a besotted sleep in his chair by the fire. The silent man went upstairs to his room and began to unpack his puppets.

"The Choir of Pulcinello"
Copyright: © 2009 Chris Allinotte

Chris Allinotte lives and works in Toronto, Ontario. His other writing has appeared on Flashes in the Dark, The Oddville Press, Thrillers, Killers n' Chillers, and MicroHorror. Information on these and other stories can be found on his blog at chrisallinotte.blogspot.com.

Previously published at Microhorror.com on October 4, 2009

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