Alchemist's Gift

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A Gift of Chance

Dawn unfolded its golden wings over the awakening town. Silvery fog hung in the surrounding hollows, causing the hilltops to appear as islands. Father Eduardo awoke and finished his morning prayers before the four bells. He sat on the edge of his cot and ate a breakfast of a boiled egg, an orange, and three of the crucifix-shaped biscotti graciously contributed by the Bakers Guild. From his garret, he had a view of the town’s southern roof line. He enjoyed seeing the shops and houses come to life as lamps were lit behind curtained windows and white smoke swirled out of chimneys. Just before six o’clock every morning, he watched with fascination as fifteen-year-old Christina DeLucia, bucket in hand, hurried across the empty square to the fountain where, for just a few un-chaperoned minutes, she and Francesco Turro, the tanner’s son, would meet and steal a kiss.

“Father Eduardo,” Annamarie called from outside his door.


“Father Eduardo, it is Cesare Lippo, the furniture maker.”

“What brings him to the church so early?” Eduardo slipped a wedge of the orange into his mouth.

“He would not say. What should I tell him?”

“Tell him to wait by the front door and I will see him.” Father Silva finished eating the orange and put on his house robe and a heavy shawl over his shoulders. The rising sun sat on the horizon and sent warming rays into a grateful sky, but the air was still cool and crisp and damp.

Earlier that morning when the cock crowed, Cesare Lippo, as was his habit, quit his bed and started the day. Cesare did not attend mass. He believed the entire world was his church, the sun and moon his god and goddess, and the planets his saints. His heaven was here on earth. His heaven was in the sunrise, the birdsong, the smell of roses, and the taste of honey. His daily actions toward his fellow men and women were the true test of his soul.

The story of the miracle had started him thinking. He was intrigued that the wood, the remains of the Sacred Apple Tree, though seasoned and quite dry and at one point even soaked with oil, had refused to burn the witches. He learned how the same wood, after being drenched in that terrible downpour for a good hour and a half, had caught on fire immediately and warmed the room where the five women were and where the miracle took place.

Cesare knew this wood must possess some rare mystical quality. He wanted that wood, and he came to ask Father Eduardo for it.

Father Eduardo opened the door. Cesare bowed, removed his cap and held it in his hands. “Good day to you, Father.”

“And to you, Cesare.” The young priest looked at the man before him. Cesare was just forty. His youngish face belied his age, and he still had his youthful strength hidden in an unassuming body. His face was quite regular, and his features, though not too remarkable, were pleasing enough. He had a warm smile, and he could express himself quite plainly, be it pleasure or disdain, with the subtle flash of his eyes.

“It is the wood.”

“Wood? What wood?” Eduardo was slightly puzzled.

“From the burning.”

“The firewood… is that what you are looking for?”

Cesare nodded eagerly.

“There are some pieces here and there. Most of it was collected by whoever wanted it.” Father Eduardo thought for a moment. “As I recall, there were quite a few larger pieces, some as tall as a man, dragged to the rear of the blacksmith’s shop. Go ask Antonio. Tell him I gave you permission to take what you need. And Cesare, I would like to see you at mass now and again.”

Cesare bowed and smiled. “Yes, Father. Thank you, Father.” He quickly headed to the blacksmith’s shop. The front door was slightly ajar. Cesare entered the dark cavern of a building. At the center, Antonio Delatorre, a short, stocky, red-faced man, stood in the glow of the orange fire. The wall behind him and the ceiling above came to life by the surreal, elongated shadows of his movements as he pumped the bellows. He worked so intently that he did not see or hear Cesare enter.

Cesare watched Antonio for a moment and then spoke. “Brother Antonio, are you well?”

The blacksmith gave a start. He picked up a hot poker and held it a little in front of him. “Who’s there? Come forward and show yourself.”

Cesare took a step closer and stood in the orange halo that now engulfed both of them. “It is I, Cesare Lippo.”

“Cesare Lippo. Yes, I am well… and you?” Antonio put the poker back into the fire.

“Well enough. And your wife? Well, I hope?” Cesare could never understand how a beautiful woman such as Antonio’s wife could ever be attracted to such a dark, homely man who smelled of smoke, soot, and sweat.

“She is well enough to do whatever she wants, it seems. Why do you ask?” Antonio’s tone rang with resentment. More than once he had suspected her of cheating on him. On the day of the burning, he saw his wife, or someone from behind who greatly resembled her, on the arm of a young man. Had it not been for his bad limp Antonio might have caught her. He lost sight of them in the crowded piazza. When he returned to his forge, he took out his anger over this latest--and her other suspected affairs--by beating the white hot metal so hard that sparks took frenzied flight and filled the seething air around him.

“Just extending a courtesy, my friend. That is all.”

“Well, keep your courtesy to yourself.”

“And so I shall.” Cesare remembered why he was there, and he did not want to queer things over something he might say or unknowingly insinuate.

“How can I help you? Iron straps? Hinges? Do you need steel tempered?”

“No, none of those things. I came about the wood. The firewood from the burning.”

“The wood, eh? There is the greater part of the trunk that stands as tall as a man. Taller than me, for sure.” He chuckled. “You can have at it. I tried to use that cursed wood in the forge, and it just will not burn. All it does is smolder, even when I pile white hot coals on it and work the bellows. I have never seen anything like it. Did you bring a wagon?”

“No, but I shall get one.”

The two men went to the back door of the shop, and with some effort, Antonio dragged the door open. Broken tools, broken weapons, and even pieces of outdated armor were strewn about the yard. The bronze bell was on a pallet. The wood was next to the bell.

Cesare went to the tree trunk and ran his hand over the coarse bark. At his touch, he felt a delicate tingle in his fingertips. The sensation traveled up his arm, circled his neck, and then flooded his mind with contentment and peace. He took his hand away and caught his breath. “I am destined to make something from this wood.”

“No doubt you will… no doubt you will…”

Cesare Lippo was a master furniture maker, and his pieces graced many a salon in some of the oldest and richest villas and estates for a hundred miles around.

“Have at it, Cesare Lippo.”

Cesare looked over at the bell. “The bell. Is it cracked?”

“No. It is a miracle. It was struck twice by lightning and then fell from the campanile, and did not crack. It truly is a miracle. The striker is fused on its pivot. No more than heat and a few hammer blows to free it up.” Antonio bid Cesare good day and hobbled back to his forge.

Cesare left the yard by a side gate. As he crossed the square, he happened upon the carter, Giovanni Bellini, who was leading his donkey and small cart out of an alley. Cesare hired Giovanni quite often to deliver his pieces.

“Hey! Giovanni! Here, over here,” called Cesare.

Giovanni waved. “Salve, Cesare, what brings you to town?”

“I have come to collect some wood.”

Giovanni laughed. “You live in a forest, my friend.”

“So I do.” Cesare grinned and shook hands with Giovanni.

They first met when Giovanni had asked for a night’s lodging, nine or ten years past. Giovanni had just been let out of the army. He was returning home to his little village to the south, very near the Convent of Santa Dorotea.

Giovanni was a well-built man of average height. He had a tawny complexion and wavy dark hair, and would be considered handsome except for the deep diagonal scar that crossed his left cheek, curved over his sunken eye socket and ending just above his eyebrow. With the help of a few stitches by the attending field surgeon, the wound had healed as best it could.

Upon his return, Bellini discovered that his parents had died in one of the many outbreaks of the plague, and his sister, out of hunger and desperation, left with a rather brutal cavalry officer and was not heard of again. “Where is this wood, Master Lippo?”

“Behind Delatorre’s shop.”

Giovanni tugged on the bridle. The fat little donkey gave resistance, pulled her head back, and then brayed loudly. Giovanni smiled and patted the beast on its muzzle.

“Come on, Jezebel. Be a good girl. Pull the little cart for Giovanni.” He stroked Jezebel’s ear and gave another tug. The cart creaked forward.

“You still have your Jezebel, I see,” said Cesare.

“Ah, yes, a match made in Heaven. She is a faithful partner, as long as she gets enough to eat.” He gave her an affectionate pat on the muzzle. If it were not for Giovanni, Jezebel would have been slaughtered and eaten long ago.

When Giovanni found out the fate of his parents and sister, there was nothing to keep him in the little hamlet. Giovanni had enlisted in the army as a boy of fifteen, and so he had no trade. If he had stayed, he could have either been a woodsman or a shepherd. He found neither choice very appealing after seeing a bigger world. His father’s few stony acres were barely the trouble to work, even for a simple vegetable garden. His parents’ house was not abandoned long before the neighbors took the doors and windows and even the tiles from the roof. With the inner walls exposed to the rain and wind, large chunks of plaster fell onto the floor.

Giovanni left. At the end of the third day, he approached a farmhouse to ask for a place to sleep. The farmer’s wife opened the door and could not hide her revulsion at the ugly scar and sunken eye. She called her children to come see the man with the evil eye. They stood with mouths agape. “My husband in the corral behind the barn.” She made the sign of the cross, kissed her thumbnail, and quickly closed the door.

The children--three stair-stepped, curly-headed boys under the age of eight--excitedly ran ahead to announce that the man with the evil eye was coming.

The farmer was in the muddy corral. He was bald and lanky and wore a blood-smeared apron, and he held a large knife with a dull gray blade. He had his left arm crooked around the neck of a healthy young donkey. He held the animal’s head back to expose its throat to the track of the blade. The boys stood on the lowest the rail of the corral to watch.

Giovanni asked for a night’s lodging. The farmer let the little donkey go. He was agreeable, and the two men fell into conversation. As was expected from any traveler, Giovanni shared his story. All the time he spoke, the donkey was gamboling about, much to the delight of the farmer’s three sons, who laughed and hee-hawed right back at the impish animal. Even Giovanni and the farmer had to smile at the animal’s antics.

When Giovanni finished his narrative, he could not help but ask, “Why are you going to slit the donkey’s throat?” There were plenty of chickens scratching about, and he could hear the bleating of sheep. The farmer said with a bit of dark humor that Giovanni and the donkey were very much the same. Giovanni gave the farmer a quizzical look. The farmer coaxed the donkey up close with kind words, snatched it by its ears, and dragged the animal to where Giovanni stood.

“Look. She is blind, like you. She is no good. No one will buy her.”

The donkey’s right eye was as dull and gray as the knife blade the farmer held to her throat. He let go of the donkey’s ears, and again she frolicked about, prancing from one end of the corral to the other. Without another thought, Giovanni offered the farmer a silver piece for the half-blind donkey. The farmer gladly accepted. Giovanni went from wayfarer to honored guest.

To the very vocal dismay of the farmer’s wife (which was quashed by a threatening glare from her husband), Giovanni, evil eye and all, ate with the family. He slept deeply and peacefully, as he had not done so for a long time.

Giovanni named the donkey Jezebel. They left before sunrise. She was quite timid and lost when she left her familiar world. Jezebel was unwilling to cross the field that stood between them and the road. Giovanni tugged; she held firm and went into a long and loud bout of braying and bucking. He slackened the rope, and she settled down.

Giovanni tried to entice her with an apple he had been going to eat for his breakfast. Jezebel’s curiosity was piqued by the loud crunch and the sweet scent that surrounded them. She stopped her fussing, leaned in close, and cocked her head to see. Giovanni dropped the bite of apple in his palm and held it under the donkey’s nose. Her nostrils flared and her lips quivered. He felt her warm, moist breath against his hand. Even with the apple he could not coax her. It was not that Jezebel was being obstinate; she was afraid until Giovanni changed sides and led her from the right.

With the cart loaded, Cesare, Giovanni, and Jezebel left Terra Sanctus by the west gate. The road narrowed from a broad entryway of ancient paving stones to smaller cobblestones and then to a rut-scarred country lane. The air held the sounds of birds, the whispering breeze, and a monotonous moan made as one of the cart wheels rubbed against a dry axle. Jezebel pulled at an even pace. The four miles trek wound through low hills sparsely covered with evergreens and golden grass. Low dark scrub grew along the roadside. They came across an occasional fruit or walnut tree. Their leafless, leaden branches captured shards of sky and clouds, sun and shadow, within a myriad of intersecting angles that created the effect of looking up through a leaded glass window.

They came to Cesare’s path. The cottage sat on a level area up a slight, winding walkway a hundred paces in from the lane. The air under the canopy of trees was humid and spicy and crisscrossed with delicate, diagonal shafts of dusty sunlight. The ground on either side of the path was damp and coffee-brown. The ferns that bordered the walkway sparkled with dew. The trees protected Cesare’s cottage from the winter winds and rain, and the intense heat of the dry summer days.

The rear wheels of the cart stuck in a rut at the very top of the path. With one last effort, the donkey, Giovanni, and Cesare bounced the cart onto the level. Jezebel announced their arrival with a few loud brays and a sneeze for good measure.

Cesare looked in at the load of wood. He ran his fingers over the thick branches and trunk, and again he felt a surge of energy travel up his arm. “Giovanni, my friend, I feel it in my soul. I will make something from this like nothing anyone has ever made.”

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