PROLOGUE to The Powder Merchant
The promenent-looking couple dragged their eight-year old son down the narrow, cobblestone street of one of Palermo's poorer neighborhoods. Reluctantly, they walked the few remaining blocks to the address given. The noise, the smells, and the obvious poverty of the area were distastful to them.
Yet, this journey was less disturbing than much of their previous experience with their child. Even his birth proved to be difficult, requiring a cesarean section and the termination of the woman's ability to bear children.
Baby Alexander had rejected his mother's milk. One wet nurse after another failed to satisfy him until they found a strange woman who did. Deeply mysterious, she kept to herself and rarely spoke to the family or servents. As soon as the baby was weaned, she left without notice, never to be seen again.
In fact, the family considered her something of a saint for tolerating Alexander's bizarre, inconsistent behavior--one moment a sweet, innocent child, the next having a terrible tantrum. Of all the nurses and companions they'd hired, she'd stayed the longest.
After the departure of the wet nurse, the incorrigible child's conduct worsened, accompanied by symptoms of physical illness: high fevers, stomach cramps, and headaches. The parents had taken him to one doctor after another, even psychiatrists: no one could provide an explanation.
Medically, Alexander appeared to be a normal, healthy toddler. The last doctor, with some embarrassment, suggested that he might be faking his symptoms to get attention. Finally, a friend told the mother about a woman in Palermo--a medium with strong powers of healing.
"I still think this is a foolish idea," the father said in a mixed European accent, while tugging at his son's arms, forcing him to keep up with them. "If all the expensive doctors can do nothing, how can a fortune teller help?"
"She's not a fortune teller," answered his wife, with an Italian/Russian accent. "She is said to be touched by the hand of God, blessed with the gift of seeing and understanding all things when in a trance."
"Superstitious nonsense!" the man blurted irritably. "We're wasting our time!"
One look at his wife, however, and he regretted his words, for there were tears in her eyes. He knew and understood her frustration. He felt it as well.
"What can we do?" she asked bitterly. "No one else has been able to help, and if we can't find hope soon, I don't think I can bear it any longer. Don't you understand?"
"I'm sorry," he whispered tenderly. "I know it's been more difficult for you than me. You're at home with him all day."
The woman clutched her husband's arm. If only he knew the whole story, how she had to deal with the mothers of the children her son had attacked, trying to subdue and calm Alexander when he'd go through the house smashing furniture and windows. Anything made of glass--especially fine crystal--seemed to attract the boy, tempting his destructive urges. And his bloodcurdling screams, when punishment had him locked in his room, were hard to endure.
Strangers would comment on how cute he was, like a little cherub, with his lustrous brown curls, gray slate eyes, and rosy dimpled cheeks. But the child invariably responded with obsenities that seemed shockingly bizarre from one so young. He had no friends and didn't seem to care, even for his family.
Only one thing could keep him quiet for long periods of time: the world globe in the library. The globe fascinated little Alexi; he studied it endlessly, spinning the ball round and round, gazing at the masses of water more than at the continents.
The last straw for the boy's parents came when, at age six, he was barred from the Milan library after stacking a number of books in the middle of the reading room and setting fire to them. That incident had forced this trip to Palermo.
When they arrived at the address, the recalcitrant youngster became suddenly violent, flouting into one of his raging fits. "No!" he screamed, trying to break away from his parents to run. "I won't go in there! You can't make me! I won't! I won't!"
Alexi managed to free himself from their grasp, rushing back down the street. His father chased after him, calling out, "Stop! Come back here you little--"
The child scampered so fast on his little legs that he might have gotten away if not stopped by a burly street vendor, who grabbed and held him by his collar until the father caught up. The strong man laughed at the boy's vain attempts to break free and his cries of "Let go of me, you bit bastard! Son of a whore!"
The unruly one continued to struggle as his father collared him, chiding him angrily: "Where did you think you were going? What if you got lost in this strange city? What would you do?"
"I don't care!" Alexi yelled back. "Anything's better than living with you two!"
"You don't mean that."
"Yes, I do! I hate Mama! And I hate all these people you keep taking me to who poke and stick me with needles!"
"This isn't going to be like that," his mother assured. She was trying to be soothing, but an anxious quiver was in her voice. "No one will ever touch you."
"Everyone just leave me alone!" screamed the boy. "Can't you fools understand that?"
"We only want to help you," she said, plaintively.
"That's shit!" he shouted, and then he spit in her face.
The mother was stunned for a moment: then a flash of anger gripped her, and she slapped him across the face. Obviously, she regretted her action as soon as it was done, but she didn't apologize for it shocked her son into silence. Hoping that the boy was now going to be obedient, the father knocked on the huge, ancient, double wooden doors.
A plump young woman--dressed in black,, with a black shawl over her head--promptly responded.
"Signor and Signora?" she asked, pleasantly.
"Yes," the father replied, acknowledging the alias he gave in order to protect the family name.
The woman looked down at the child. "And you must be Alexander," she said, smiling. "What a pretty boy you are!"
"And you're a fat fucking pig!" he fired back.
The young woman was shocked.
"I'm sorry," the father apologized. "But the boy is uncontrollable...that's why we're here." He kept a firm grip on his son's hand, unable to predict what he might do next.
She nodded. "I understand. Please come in." She stepped aside and opened the doors wide. "Mother waits to see you."
The dark home was sparsely furnished but spotlessly clean. The young woman led them into a second room, lit only with a single bare electric bulb, where an older woman--as thin as her daughter was fat--sat facing them at a large wooden table surrounded by chairs. On the wall behind her was a simple wooden crucifix.
Her eyes were directed toward the group, but they seemed to focus someplace far behind them. After taking a few steps toward the woman, Alexi stopped, frozen in fear.
His father, still holding his hand, could feel the boy trembling.
"Yes, you are the one, Alexander," the aged woman said softly. "But your last name is not what you are now called." She smiled faintly. "I understand the reason. It is wise that you be called by another name."
"Please, sit down." Her daughter gestured to the chairs around the table. "I'll sit alongside her and write down everything she says. Let the boy sit facing her."
The family followed directions as the daughter explained what would take place. "She may tell you some things before she goes into the trance, and you may speak to her as you would normally. However, once she is in the trance and speaking, do not interrupt. If you have questions, hold them until she falls silent. But it may not be necessary to ask them, even then, for she may answer questions without your asking. Do you understand?"
The parents nodded. Then she looked at Alexander. He didn't respond but stared at the aged woman with an expression of terror.
She focused on him, her eyes narrowing into slits. "The boy was born August 31, 1931."
"Why, yes, that's right," the mother agreed.
"It was while the sun was eclipsed in Virgo, conjoined with Neptune," the seer continued. "He was delivered ... no, he was plucked from the womb in the afternoon. It was while Aquarius was rising." She shook her head woefully. "For a long time, I knew this day would come."
She fell silent, her eyes closed. The room was death quiet. Even Alexander didn't move. Gradually, a sense of heaviness seemed to come over her oddly, she appeared to shrink even smaller.
When she spoke again, her voice sounded different, more monotone than the soft, sweet timbre of her natural speech. "I address myself first to the parents of the subject, Alexander. Your child's not suffering from any physical or mental illness; yet you face a grave responsibility in rearing him. His abilities are far beyond the normal, and when he grows up his imagination will be extraordinary. His soul is very old, very special. It has been incarnated many times, each time profiting from his evil ways. When he becomes a man, if properly guided, he may not only improve his own development, but make the world a much better place for others. But if he again seeks to swim in greed, the world will become a sea of sorrows."
The mother tried to stifle a sob. It was barely audible and didn't distract the seer.
"He'll have the choice of doing either the greatest good or the greatest evil," the old woman went on. "One lifetime of genuine sacrifice, and many of his old debts will be paid. Parents, do not fret or grieve. Your work is done. You've brought him into the world; the rest is up to him."
A long silence followed, as the confused couple looked at each other hesitantly, wondering if more should be said. The medium's daughter noticed their consternation. "You may ask questions now, if you wish."
The mother spoke up. "He's the only child I can ever have. I want to give him love and guidance as other mothers do for their children. Why can't I do this?"
"I'm sorry," the elder woman answered. "This is the challenge your own soul must face in this lifetime--to understand and accept that you can't do anything for him. If you try to change that, he'll ruin your lives."
Seeing the tears flowing down his wife's cheeks, the father asked, "Are you suggesting we put him into a home for disturbed children?"
"I cannot answer that. You have choices and must decide what they are."
After a pause, the medium's voice grew stronger, less gentle. "I now address myself to you, Alexander Volga. Do not pretend to be too young to comprehend what I say. You understand far more than you let others think. You know that wickedness first touched you when you were cast out from heaven onto earth, where your greed destroyed the mightiest of lands. In this lifetime, you'll again have money, power, and influence. And once more, you will be faced with choosing good or evil."
The boy didn't respond but continued to look at the seer blankly, fear freezing his stare.
"You're already seeking to find that lost civilization," the medium continued. "You turn the globe around and around look for what is not there any longer, like an amputee feeling for his missing limb. You leaf through pages of books, trying to see a picture of Eden your mind paints from memory. You will never be complete until you return to it, one way or another. If you succeed, you'll be forced to make a decision, and that choice won't be easy. You'll have the chance to experience love or power beyond human comprehension."
The old woman lapsed again into silence. Her daughter turned to Alexi. "Do you have any questions?"
"Yes," he replied, scowling.
"What is it?" the daughter asked.
"Can I leave now?"
She looked at the boy's parents.
The father sighed. "Yes," he said. "I think we've heard enough."
As the clairvoyant gradually came out of her trance, her daughter escorted the family out and into the front room. She folded her penciled transcript and handed it to the man. "Thank you," he said, taking it reluctantly. "But I don't think we'll have any use for it."
He reached into his pocked for money, asking, "How much do we owe you?"
"Whatever you want to give is fine," the young woman replied. He took a sizeable amount from his pocket. "Thank you."
The medium's daughter glanced nervously at Alexander. "Good luck to you, signor and signora. I...I've never heard Mother give a reading like this one. I really don't know what to think of it, but..."
"Yes, well," the father stammered. "I'm not sure what I think of it, either." He looked to his son. "You know what she means, don't you?"
"She's nuts!" the child broke in strongly. "All I know is that she told you to leave me alone. Listen to her."
Uncomfortably, the distraught couple said good-bye to the woman before tugging the defiant kid onto the street.
Alexander offered little resistance. But after they'd walk a short distance, he spoke: "How did she know our last name?"
The mother shrugged. "I never told her."
"Are you going to do it?" he asked.
"Do what?" the mother wanted to know.
"Give me up?"
His father spoke sharply. "I don't think any of her gibberish means anything. It was a mistake coming here."
"I'm not going back home!" Alexi said, decisively. "I hate it there!"
"But you have to," the mother protested. "We can't just abandon you!"
His father was growing increasingly angry. "Yes," he snapped. "Why not? Why don't we just abandon him? Let him see what it's like out there in the world without food and shelter?"
The mother turned pale. Surely he was just bluffing, attempting to frighten their son. She protested: "You can't mean what you're saying!"
"I'm entirely serious," the husband said in frustration. "The old woman said it herself. We have to let go of him."
"But I can't..."
"We don't have to simply desert him on the street," he offered, growing excited by the idea that had begun as a bluff. "Why not turn him over to God? Just take him to a church and leave him there. Let the priests raise him."
His wife stared at him in disbelief. "You're really serious about this, aren't you?"
"Yes," he replied, earnestly. "You know what'll happen if we take him home. He won't change. Our lives will be ruined."
"But he's our only child."
"No," he protested. "If what that woman said is true, Alexi is God's unruly child. Let the Almighty handle him."
She looked down at her boy. Her hands were trembling, and tears were in her eyes. She tried to put an arm around him, but he kicked her in the leg, staring at her coldly and defiantly.
"Why do you do this?" she screamed.
The father could see his wife was on the brink of giving in, so he pursued. "If he has to learn the difference between good and evil--if that's what's wrong--then it's best he be brought up by servants of God." He shrugged. "I could send money to the church to take of expenses."
"All right," she said, with a sigh that seemed to lift a great burden from her spirit.
Even the child's mood improved. He was actually cheerful as the family walked the streets of Palermo looking for a church in a nice section of town.
It was growing late by the time they came across one that seemed right. The front doors were open, but there were no priests or caretakers about. The large nave was completely empty. They walked up to the front pew and sat.
The father decided to write a brief note, explaining the situation, placing it into an envelope along with more money. As an after-thought, he enclosed the penciled notes of the old woman's prophecies for Alexander--without mention of a last name--before placing the envelope in the boy's coat pocket.
The mother attempted to kiss her child before leaving, but he pulled away from her. "You're going to go," he said simply. "So go."
The parents both stood, preparing to leave their offspring sititng alone in the front pew.
Suddenly, the mother borke in hysterical cries, screaming out, "No, I can't leave him! Not like this!"
The father took her into his arms, trying to embrace her, to comfort her, but she broke free.
"If we do this, I cannot live with myself!" she cried out. "You said we would entrust him to God! You didn't say we would desert him!"
She looked down at the boy, her gaze met by one of hatred and revulsion.
"All right, sit her with him, and I'll go search for a priest."
The husband returned in a short while with a clergyman--a young, cadaverously thin one with hollow sockets for eyes. When the priest looked into the boy's face, something seemed to pass between them.
The father said to his wife, "Father Antonio said we can write to him directly when I send money to support Alexi."
"Yes," the priest agreed. "Do not worry. Your son and I will get along just fine."