Michel and the Nonna

This is an excerpt from Sweep Off Those Waves. The narrator is Michel, the cousin of the main character, George, and like him he’s an alien called a sixer. Michel lived in Montréal from 1968 to 1972, during part of which time he claims was an enforcer for the Mob.

Michel and the Nonna

Back when I was in Montréal I had to do a protection job.  I don’t want to say the names because every time I get sued George has to pay and that’s his fault for allowing the court system to get hold of him and he tells me to shut up anyway. You should be able to tell which family it was from the story.

The boss never talked to me. I always talked to a guy named Vic. One day Vic leaves me a note at the dead drop to tell me to come in for a meeting.  I go to see him at a restaurant for my detailed instructions. When I get there he tells me that I am going to be protecting the boss’s grandmother.  Vic is not happy and he says, “The reason you get the job is because no one else wants it.  She is a witch, and you have to be careful around her.”

I used to try to laugh once in a while, I still do.  This seemed very funny.  So I laughed.

Vic yelled and said, “Don’t laugh!  It isn’t funny.  You make sure that crazy bastard Francesco doesn’t get near her.” So that’s what my reputation for being fearless got me, a babysitting job for a woman over 90 years old.

In those days no Mafia don would give an order against the women of a rival’s family but there was a gang war going on and the boss was really nervous. That’s what Vic said.

I said, “If she’s a witch shouldn’t Francesco be scared of her?” No answer, he just stares at me like I’m stupid. He gave me the address, told me not to leave the house until I was relieved and that might be a while, and told me go straight there.

I went home to pretend to change my suit (it drives my boss crazy he can’t tell who my tailor is. I designed all my own suits in those days.  I can make my skin imitate serge, buckram, merino wool, silk undies, all that.  It’s a talent – George can’t do it for shit. The real trick is keeping the right amount in the human’s hand when they reach out to feel it, and fixing the temperature.)

So I ‘changed my suit’ but actually I went home to call Hermes and leave a message that the next time he saw that gorgeous eyeful Benthesikyme he should tell her from me I think she is smart, strong and will make wonderful babies.

Then I went to the apartment and Nonna was there. I think it’s funny that she’s an old Italian lady living by herself because that’s not how it works – Nonna lives with you, not two doors down.  She is no more that a meter and a half high and her back is crooked and her feet are swollen and she has the meanest old face I’ve ever seen on a human being.  I’m not scared of nothing and this woman scares me.

She starts praying in Italian as soon as she sees me and making the sign of the evil eye.

I know the Calabrian dialect, from when I lived close to Reggio. “They say you’re a witch,” I say.  “None of that stuff will work on me.”

“Who’s your father?” she says.  I think I’ll have a little fun with her, so I say, “A monster.” He was a big ugly landmorph, like me — close enough.

“Who’s your mother?” she says. “A saint,” I say.  She’s a sociable watermorph, and very sweet-tempered, so it seemed reasonable to tell that lie.

She knew it, too. “You’re lying!”

“Maybe I am, but I’m in your house, and you’ve not offered me any food, so what does that make you?”

She gives me pasta with rat poison in it.  I can taste it but it has no effect on me except to make me not like her very much.  I pouch it so I can dispose of it later, but I pretend to eat it like I’m starving.

She waits and waits and waits for me to sicken or die, and I don’t.  I ask for more, and she gives me more, and I eat it all.

“How did that taste?” trying to smile as she takes away the plate.

“I have a charm against poison,” I say.  “It works pretty good, don’t you think?”

She drops the plate and pivots so slowly she nearly falls over.  And she’s yelling “Give me that charm! I must have it! If you have a charm against poison you must give it to me now!” and she’s coming back at me, spit flying.

“It would be better to get a charm against bullets for your grandson,” I said, “But I don’t have one of those.” I dodge behind her and pick up the broken plate and dispose of it.

I stayed with her for the day.  I’m not like George; when I’m asleep I go back to being invisible. I had to hide myself in her apartment up in the ceiling so she can’t find me.

Three times in the night, she yells, “Michele get your sorry carcass down here!” and each time I’m sawing logs and I wake up like a drunk from a cattle prod, thrashing around and she’s yelling at me to come to her.  Each time I move across the ceiling quiet and sneaky and go to another room and come at her looking all human from first this room and that, and the conversation goes:

“Where were you?”

“I was patrolling, like I was paid to, since you should have an honour guard of grandsons and instead you have a big ugly hireling guarding you from your grandson’s enemies.  Be glad you have that.  Your cooking must have been legendary in its lack of appeal.”

“You are a filthy liar.”

“You are still alive,” I said.

“I don’t need you,” she says, and her voice cracks in half on ‘you’ and instead of sounding stupid to me it’s like she’s giving me a glove that says she can take me.

I’m exhausted but I am not going to sleep so I jam myself up into a different corner and try to doze.  I haven’t got rid of the pasta with poison sauce yet. It’s sitting harmless in one of my pouches.

Next time she calls she says, “When do you sleep?”

I say, “I’m as old as you are, and you don’t sleep.”

She peers at me.  “You’re a young man, not 40!”

I laugh and say I’m over a hundred, but the charm for that was born into my body, and I can’t give it to her.

She laughs and this time she doesn’t stop.  She has a coughing fit and I pick her up and before I can stop myself – I’d never done this before – I suction her airway so fast she doesn’t know I did it, and I sit her down. I call her Nonna, which is rude. “Nonna, even if you can’t sleep, you gotta let me sleep.  I will wake if there’s trouble.”

“But where are you sleeping?” and now her face stops being mean.  For a couple of seconds I believe her, and that sweet old lady face she’s barely able to push air through. Then I smell the hate coming off her, and I’ve only ever smelled that on people who are no longer rational. “Nonna, I have to sleep.  I’ll be hiding, but I’ll wake if there is trouble.”

“You shouldn’t be hiding from me,” she says and I pick her up and stuff her back in her bedroom like I got a blowtorch on my ass.  Then I hid again.

She woke me up again about an hour later.  Landmorphs don’t like broken sleep. My reaction should be to tell this terrifying old lady va te faire foutre and a whole ‘nother set of words in Calabrese and Greek and English. I tell her to go back to bed and stay there or I’ll tie her into it until she shits herself.  “I’ll tell my grandson!” she says and I know she has long since outlived any fondness he ever had for her and he’s probably thought of taking a pillow to her.

 I wake up, still invisible, and she’s looking right at me, the scariest thing.  It’s like a human being scared of a spider.  In your mind you know it can’t hurt you but it’s not what you want to wake up to.

“I can see you,” she says.

“Okay,” I say, and I show my true form and drop down to the floor.

She don’t scream, she don’t pray, she don’t say nothing for a long time.  She don’t even step back. I’ve never been caught by a human.  I wonder what she’s going to do.

“Are you a servant from the Old Ones?” she says.

“Yes.” It was easier than the truth. Humans like to stay inside their worldview and get angry and hard to predict if they’re forced out of it.

“I summoned you to look after my grandson.” She said this with pride.

“You think so?” Amazing, what powers humans think they have. But she saw me.

“You’re here.  You look after him.  I don’t know his business and I don’t want to know. Don’t tell him about the poison and I won’t tell him what you are.”


I stayed in her apartment for a week. I stopped trying to hide and she stopped trying to look for me.

I try to imagine what kind of person would think they could summon a friendly demon, and then calmly sleep in the same house.  It’s a contoured ocean of many opposing currents, as my mother would say.

I looked in every drawer and under every floorboard and hiding place, thinking there was a book or some kind of herb or drug or something, but I never figured out what technology or ‘magic’ she used to see me, and I don’t know how she figured out I wasn’t human. I found out later there couldn’t have been a book, cause Nonna couldn’t read.  I have some ideas, but I can’t ask her; she died in ’72 and no-one in her family knows anything about witchcraft.

You will eventually find out how Nonna saw Michel in Hair Sinister.