Alchemist's Gift

By mark giglio All Rights Reserved ©

Humor / Thriller

Merely Players

From inside the cottage, Marcella Andano heard the donkey braying and men talking. She cautiously opened the shutter so very slightly and looked out of the cottage window. Marcella was relieved to see Cesare.

Two years earlier, when the fear was that witches and demons were afoot, Marcella’s Aunt Prunella had arranged for her to live with Cesare. His cottage was remote, and might kindly be described as a cozy refuge.

Cesare knew the Andano family somewhat, and he had recently had dealings with Marcella and her sister when they had come to him looking for a coffin. Though the circumstance was morbid, Cesare felt a mutual attraction.

On the morning they spoke, he became lost in her large and kind eyes. He liked her girlish face, the straight nose, her fine thin lips, the small pearl-like teeth, and the deep dimple in her round, pretty chin. Her form was pleasing; her arms, hands, and fingers were delicate, as were her legs and feet. Marcella wore simple clothing and a small gold cross that was a gift from her Great-Aunt Prunella, given to her when she made her First Communion.

Cesare was also taken by Marcella’s clear and pale complexion. He could hardly know that as a child she had often wondered how she happened into a family of sturdy, olive-skinned hat makers. In fairy tales, the princess always had fair skin. When she had the rare luxury of a daydream, Marcella would trace the paths of the pastel blue veins on the backs of her hands or, when in front of the the looking-glass, on her neck with her fingertips. She closed her eyes and imagined those pale blue paths were roads leading to distant castles where she would be recognized as a long-lost daughter and be embraced by joyful parents who would offer her innumerable choices of nearby kings and princes to marry.

Marcella came to live with Cesare after her Great-Aunt Prunella, who was close to seventy, made the long, slow trek accompanied by her grandson to his cottage. For privacy’s sake, she sent her grandson off on an errand to buy honey from the apiarist further down the lane. Prunella sat at the table and produced a small flask of brandy. They drank. Only after making Cesare swear on the “blood that flowed from the wounds of our Savior” never to tell a soul what she was going to divulge, would she relate the Andano family saga.

Her story began with Farintino Andano’s wife Amelia, Marcella’s mother. Amelia came from simple, gentle people. She had been a pretty, light-hearted, naïve, and happy girl of seventeen when she married the milliner Fausto Adano’s son, Farintino. Farintino was her senior by almost as many years.

At the time of his son’s marriage, Farintino’s father Fausto Andano was fifty-six years old. He was slightly taller than most, with a trim and sturdy physique that he had inherited from his father’s side of the family. His mother, Louisa Parma, bestowed upon him her fair complexion; waveless, light-colored hair; and the deeply dimpled chin that defined the Parma clan. Fausto, an only son, grew up with three sisters, one older and two younger. He was precocious and catered to by a doting mother and grandmother. With his good looks, light hair, dimpled chin, and a little charm, he exacted his adolescent desires from those who gave in to his charisma. Fausto happily went from maiden to maiden.

Beatrica Patatucci was an only daughter and the youngest of six children. She had dark curly hair, dark eyes, and an olive complexion. She was a romantic and spoiled girl of sixteen. Putting herself under Fausto’s spell, she let herself be conquered by her own passions.

Much to Fausto’s consternation, his and Beatrica’s parents arranged their marriage as the baby that grew inside Beatrica began to show. Their son was dark-skinned and curly-haired. They named him Farintino, and he was the image of his mother, Beatrica. From thence Fausto harbored resentment toward his new wife and the baby who caused him to lose his freedom. Within two years, Fausto’s parents had died of cholera, and he inherited the business and the responsibility that went with it.

For Farintino and his wife Amelia, their first year of marriage was exciting and joyful for the young bride. Amelia brightened the dreary house with her youth and energy. She would sing or whistle or recite clever rhymes for her own amusement as she swept and cleaned and cooked.

The house had been without a woman since Fausto’s wife Beatrica died six years past. Amelia’s presence pleased Fausto. She kept a good house and was an excellent cook. She was so pretty and alive and warm.

Amelia always had something good to say, and she readily shared her smile with everyone she met. More than once, her natural kindliness and warmth elicited flirtatious responses from the men. Amelia was oblivious to the advances of these hopeful suitors. Ever respectful and polite, Amelia relied too much on her smile to be the only answer to those veiled invitations, innuendos, and layered intimations that she did not understand or know how to tactfully counter. Of course, to some, her smile was taken as a tacit “maybe.”

One fine day, Fausto’s older sister Prunella, when at market, heard people discussing Farintino’s young wife. “She is not from around here. She is from the south, and you know how the women from the south are!”

“Look at the way our men fawn over her. It is disgusting.”

“That Farintino is so old. I am surprised he is not a cuckold.”

“I have never seen her go to confession.”

“I do not know who she thinks she is, singing and always smiling all the time. Why? And do you see the way she walks, swinging her hips back and forth? She always sweet-talks us sellers to give her the best price. She has even done it to me.”

“She is nothing but a tramp.”

These baseless remarks were made by unhappy and small people who, for a myriad of sad reasons, felt it necessary to check the joy and goodness of others because they found no joy or goodness in themselves. In reality, they had only seen Amelia briefly at market with her basket on her arm, or after mass in the escort of her husband.

Prunella mentioned these conversations to Fausto. Fausto had no interest in gossip spread by lustful men and jealous women, and thought it not worth mentioning to his son. But a kernel of doubt about Amelia embedded itself in Fausto’s mind and germinated in a fecund fold of Fausto’s subconscious.

Three things happened after Prunella visited her brother. It was Fausto’s habit to rise with the sun, dress and prepare his two hens eggs beaten in diluted wine for his breakfast. He would drink his concoction on his way to open the front door survey the weather.

On a certain sunrise at the beginning of July, Fausto heard a rustling noise and footsteps on his front stairs. As he was almost at the front door, he quickened his step and threw the door open. He saw a hooded figure heading away from the house and pass through the gate. Fausto called out. The person turned away quickly and then ran, as only a young man could, across the piazza and into an alley. Fausto was irritated that the person did not stop and identify himself. Why would someone bother him so early in the morning? The answer lay at his feet. It was a letter. Fausto picked it up. It was addressed to ‘The beautiful girl who lives under this roof.’ Fausto unfolded the paper. It was a love letter with phrases like “My heart is on fire. You are so fair and beautiful. Your smile is like the morning,” and on and on. The letter was not signed.

“Ugh, young fool!” Fausto crumpled it up then on second thought, smoothed it flat and locked it away in his desk. Fausto harkened back to his own youthful attempts to woo with the written word. He sighed and likened each day that passed was a heavy and sad step taken away from his callow and interrupted youth. Now he inhabited this lonely place in his life. Fausto missed being tended to by a woman. He missed someone who would listen and agree with what he had to say. He missed performing his marital privileges.

Later that week, on a hot and humid night, the inside of the house was unbearable. Fausto, Farintino, and Amelia hoped to find relief outside under a magnificently black sky that sparkled with stars. Even at ten o’clock the walls of the house and the paving stones under their feet were still warm. The three sat at a wooden table next to the garden. The men sat facing each other. Amelia was the third leg of this triangle. She sat on the end of the table making a bridge between her husband and father-in-law.

Crickets and frogs chirped in the garden and insects buzzed around an old-fashioned oil lamp in the middle of the table. The lamp’s swaying flame sputtered, giving off a soft light that illuminated their faces. The men drank diluted wine, and Amelia drank honey water with mint. They silently ate from a platter of dried black olives, cheese, and bread.

Amelia fanned herself with her open hand. Sweat shone on her face and neck and upper bosom. She pulled her long, curly hair into a ponytail. Fausto looked at his daughter-in-law’s graceful neck and pretty profile. For the first time, he saw her not as a child or his son’s wife, but as a woman. Amelia’s sleeveless blouse, wet with perspiration, clung to her breasts. A lone whippoorwill made a soulful call.

“Too hot for bed,” Farintino sighed.

“Much too hot, good husband.” Amelia sipped at her honey water and announced in an impatient huff, “I cannot stand it.” Amelia stood, pulling her sweat-dampened blouse away from her chest several times in quick succession. She rolled her long skirt up at the waist and stopped when the hem was just above her knees. “ I am just so hot.”

Fausto’s eyes were drawn to her well-formed legs. With some effort, he looked away. His attention went to the platter of food. A moth had landed on a piece of cheese. Its wings fluttered in a blur as it aimlessly scuttled about. Fausto pinched the moth’s wings between his thumb and forefinger. “You are mine.” Fausto slowly moved the struggling moth toward the flickering flame of the oil lamp.

“Papa! No, please, he is one of God’s creatures. He can act no other way.”

Fausto stopped. The moth’s legs crawled frantically in the naked air. He looked at Farintino for a second. His son shrugged his shoulders and rolled his eyes, and gave a patronizing smile as he glanced over at his wife. She looked back with a knitted brow.

“You are right, dear Amelia. We are all God’s creatures, and we can act no other way.” He let the moth go. The moth flew on its ragged wings in shaky circles, slowly tightening its orbit around the oil lamp until it flew into the irresistible flame and blindly embraced its mortality.

Farintino shrugged at the whole affair. Fausto looked at Amelia and then brushed the dead insect off the table. “It was his fate to come here on this night and die. Do you believe in fate, Amelia?”

Amelia was a little shaken by the question. “I believe in our Lord Jesus Christ.” She did not understand why Fausto might say such things.

Fausto smiled and took a drink of wine. “Perhaps it is your fate to believe in Jesus Christ, just as it is, let us say, the fate of a man to write love letters to a beautiful young woman.”

Not quite knowing what to do, Amelia cautiously glanced at her husband. Farintino looked at his father and then to his wife. “Father, perhaps it is all of our fates to go to bed. The air is a bit cooler now. What do you say, Amelia? Ready for bed?”

Amelia did not like this talk of fate. “Yes, Farintino. Let us go to bed.”

“Are you coming, Father?” Farintino asked.

“You two go ahead. I want to finish my wine.” Farintino already slipped into the shadow of the garden gate. Amelia was left to clear the table. Fausto continued after he heard the gate squeak and the handle’s dull click. “Come, let me give you a kiss goodnight.”

Amelia saw this as something good and hopeful. She lived under his roof for close to a year and tried to do her best in everything she did, but she never felt that Fausto accepted her. A kiss was the first sign of affection he showed her. She placed the platter and glasses on the table and approached him. Fausto put his hands on her shoulders and pulled her in a bit closer. He closed his eyes and gave her a gentle and lingering kiss on the cheek. “Sleep well, dear one.” He left his hands on her shoulders until she pulled away.

“Goodnight, Papa.”

Three days later Farintino left to buy supplies. He would be gone for the better part of a week. More love letters came, one each morning just before sunrise. Fausto read the letters and locked them away.

Fausto insisted Amelia clean and scrub the hearth while Farintino was away. They were alone together in the house, Fausto at his desk attempting to work on his ledgers and this pretty young woman he put before him.

Amelia knelt before the fireplace on a little piece of tattered carpet. She used a brush, made of willow twigs bound together with a leather cord, to scrub and dislodge more than six years of soot and smoke from the hearth stones. It was slow work. As was her way, Amelia made a happy little ritual out of cleaning. Every part of her scrubbed the blackened stones. From sitting on her heels, she would push forward with her thighs, raising herself over her straightened arms and then ride the brush forward to complete the cleaning stroke, pull back, and start again. Before long, Amelia started to hum.

All along, Fausto knew his attempts at his work would be in vain. Amelia was the only object of his attention. The room melted away. He let himself be entranced by the rhythm of Amelia’s body as she cleaned. He wanted to play with the errant strands of hair that peeked out from the colorful kerchief she wore. He could feel his hand touching her. He watched her shapely hips and bottom rise and fall with each thrust. He greedily drank in the olive tones of her naked arms and neck, calves and feet; how her clothes either defined and caressed her feminine form, or hung loosely allowed his imagination to come to life.

Amelia sang. Fausto found her voice intoxicating. “You sound like a love bird.”

“You are so kind.” Amelia turned her head toward him and smiled. She had smudges of soot on her face. The compliment warmed her spirit. She looked away and continued her work.

“And why do you sing?”

Amelia looked back at Fausto once more. “I sing because I am happy.”

“And what makes you happy, dear one?”

“To be here under your roof, to be able to tend to this house and to make both of the men in my life happy.” Amelia sat back on her heels and then stretched, arching her back.

“You must be tired. Come over here next to me. There is something I want to do for you.”

“For me?” Amelia was pleasantly curious. She went to Fausto’s side.

Fausto turned in his chair and motioned with his hand for Amelia to lean in closer. Not more than a few inches separated their faces. Fausto gently steadied Amelia’s chin with his left hand, took a handkerchief from his pocket, and dabbed at the soot marks on her forehead and cheeks. “You are all smudges. Let me help. Such a pretty face,” he sighed.

Amelia blushed. “Thank you, Papa.” She shrunk back slightly.

Fausto fought back a grimace at her use of “Papa,” and coaxed her back with a smile. “Now, now, you must not be afraid of me or shy away if I say nice things about you.” He continued to wipe away the smudges. “So, you like living here and making me happy, yes?”

Amelia humbly looked down. “Yes.” Her voice was soft and small.

Fausto let the handkerchief fall and laced his fingers behind Amelia’s neck. In an unforgivable rush of bravado, he pulled her toward him. Amelia lost her balance and fell forward onto Fausto. Fausto pulled her body against his. He felt her soft breasts roll against his chest. He lost himself in a sea of her warmth, her scent, her youth, her hair, her skin, her mouth, and her lips. Fausto kissed her parted lips and pushed his cheek against hers.

Amelia could not wiggle free. She was stooped over, half-lying across Fausto’s chest with her arms held fast at her sides encircled by his surprisingly strong arms. She could barely move. She tried to twist her shoulders, but he only tightened his grip. She wagged her head from side to side to avoid his hideous attentions. With all of her strength she pushed with her legs toward Fausto, tipping the chair back past its balance point.

To Amelia, it seemed like an eternity for the chair to hit the floor. Fausto hit the back of his head and his left shoulder on the tiles. They rolled out of the chair and ended up next to each other on their backs. Fausto felt the lump on the back of his head. Amelia tried to get up, but Fausto’s hip pinned her dress to the floor. She propped herself up on her elbows and looked over at her surprised and angered father-in-law.

“Papa, what are you doing? This is not right.”

Fausto saw that Amelia could not move. He rolled over on top of her, making sure to kneel on her dress between her slightly spread legs. He leaned over her and pushed down against her chest with his left hand. “Fate took Beatrica away and now has delivered you to me.”

Amelia squirmed. “But Papa, I am Farintino’s wife. I am your daughter.”

“You are a woman, and you live under my roof.”

“Please let me up. Please stop now.” Amelia’s heart was pounding and her eyes began to tear.

“I have heard how you tease the men at the marketplace. The way you walk around this house like you own it. You think you are so pretty and smart. You do not fool me.”

Amelia said nothing. Her silence drove Fausto deeper into his delusion. He ran his thumb roughly over Amelia’s lips. “You think you are so pretty, do you not? So pretty that you can make any man do whatever you want, you and your lovers. Ah, these cowards who leave their love letters at my front door before the sun comes up. You bewitch them. You bewitch everybody. You think you can use your beauty for whatever you want.”

“I do not think I am pretty. That would be vanity. I am just a girl, your son’s wife. Please, Papa, please stop now.”

“Vanity? If it were not for vanity, we would have nothing.”

In the darkest moment of her life, Amelia felt Fausto’s hand slither under her blouse and roughly cup her breasts. Fausto’s hands eagerly explored and exploited the sacredness of her still body. He was surprised she did not move when he clumsily pulled her dress and underskirt up and away. She felt the raw shock of the initial penetration, and she felt the weight of his body on top of her, but the sensations were distant, mechanical, dreamlike… Everything stopped and Amelia felt strangely calm. She did not resist. She closed her eyes. She could hear only the beat of her heart.

Amelia opened her eyes. She was cradled in shimmering clouds. Below was an immense coastal city with so many buildings, houses, and roads. So many roads. A thousand colored specks moved along those roads, so far below her. She saw enormous silver birds and great ships without sails, churning their deliberate paths over the green water. She saw a long arching bridge that connected a slender silver isthmus to the bustling shore.

Amelia felt a rolling jolt. Next to her appeared a perfect little girl, and Amelia could see nothing but the beautiful and illuminated face of this little girl. The two of them floated just below Heaven. Shimmering tendrils of light coursed between their eyes and fingers and minds and hearts and souls. This communion between the two was so warm, so deep, and tranquil, so complete and loving, that Amelia never wanted to leave the moment.

“Cover yourself!” said Fausto, out of breath.

Amelia returned to the moment. Fausto stood over her, and tucked his shirt into his pants and glared at her with a mixture of self-loathing and disgust. “Not a word of this to anyone. Do you understand me?” he hissed.

Amelia did not answer. She did pull her underskirt in place and her dress down. She sat up and tucked her knees up under her chin.

“Well, do you understand?” Fausto snapped.

Neither Fausto nor Amelia imagined her answer. “What is done can never be undone. Nor should it be,” she said softly and thoughtfully. “I would like to rest now. The hearth can wait until tomorrow..?”

Fausto could not get past Amelia’s cool serenity. “Yes, it can wait until tomorrow. Now…now leave my sight.”

“As you wish, Papa.” Amelia stood and straightened her clothing. Not quite knowing why, she stopped at the doorway and turned to Fausto. He made an impatient display by angrily fussing with some papers on his desk. Fausto quickly looked away from Amelia and then, just as quickly, back again, hoping for some reaction on her part. Fausto pouted and crossed his arms high on his chest. Amelia turned away and left him with his anger.

When she entered Farintino’s and her sunless bedroom at the back corner of the house, Amelia knelt and made a sign of the cross. She closed her eyes, bowed her head, and recited the Hail Mary to herself. She repeated the phrase “… blessed is the fruit of thy womb… blessed is the fruit of thy womb…”

From the moment Amelia left the room, Fausto hated her. He hated her because she did not try to fight him off, she did not cry, she did not become ashamed or afraid. He hated her because she did not hate him back. He knew Amelia was lost to him and for that he could never forgive her.

V

Farintino was his father’s creature. As a scrawny child, he was browbeaten and belittled out of his childish enthusiasm and curiosity until he mechanically and meekly did what he was told. Fausto believed compliments and praise made one lazy and weak. The boy grew up under the critical eye and tongue of his father and a silent and submissive mother. All through his adolescence, and even into his late twenties, Farintino wandered in a wilderness of self-doubt and self-deprecation. Farintino was told so many times that whatever he did was never good enough that he took it as the truth. He grew into a man without confidence, self-respect, or ambition.

Even now, he still felt an icy prick when Fausto demeaned him or made light of him in front of Amelia, family, friend, or customer. Fausto was oblivious to his son’s feelings and thought he was clever and witty. It was “just a good-natured ribbing, a good laugh.” Farintino laughed right along with the others, not at the pun or jibe or barb; he laughed at the absurdity and the meanness of his life.

“The Andano family name must live on,” Fausto announced to no one in particular. Fausto’s relentless mocking of his only son as inept, unmanly, and stupid made Farintino a poor candidate for marriage. After several attempts to find a wife from local and suitable families, Fausto turned to a matchmaker. With her help and the desperate poverty of Amelia’s family, Fausto found a wife for his son and so fulfilled his duty to his ancestors.

Farintino had little interest in marriage and absolutely no desire to bring children into his hopeless world. With the news of the coming baby, Farintino was somewhat surprised. He and Amelia certainly had consummated their marriage. They made love once or twice a month, and this was at Amelia’s gentle coaxing. Farintino looked on his marital duty as just another opportunity to fail and disappoint. Now that Amelia was going to have a baby, he felt different about the situation and better about himself.

The wound Fausto inflicted on Amelia scabbed over, and his attitude toward her, though barely civil, with Farintino present was aloof and toxic when they were alone. Amelia held herself constant and would never counter Fausto’s coldness and snubs. He questioned her silence to her face. He took that silence as some kind of unspoken approval of what had happened. He told her so and said how it disgusted him. She could have no other woman in the house other than his sister Prunella. She would not sing in his presence. She would not speak to him unless he spoke to her first. He forbade her to call him “Papa.” She would address him as Fausto. Amelia’s upbringing did not allow her to call him by his Christian name, so she called Fausto “sir” on those rare occasions he did ask her a question.

She kept silent to spare her unborn daughter, to protect her unaware and powerless husband, and to try to maintain some peace with her father-in-law. Amelia bore these burdens alone with only the strength of her prayers. She found solace and innocent happiness in her coming baby.

Amelia and Farintino naturally became closer. Fausto heard his son and Amelia laugh together. He saw his son run his hand over his wife’s belly and smile. He watched them embrace. He listened to them share the details of their days.

One morning it all became clear. Fausto would court his son. It would be so easy to gain him as an ally with smiles and compliments. Since the unpleasant incident, they ate in silence. Fausto no longer dominated the mealtime with his sermonizing or end his harangues with, “Now, am I right or am I wrong?” He would stare coolly at Amelia when they ate and gave an airy sigh of disappointment. Fausto acted out his dark ritual during every meal until Amelia, unable to bear it anymore and in tears, excused herself and hurried out of the room. Farintino started to follow his wife, but Fausto grabbed his son by the arm and held him back. Fausto shared his worldly observation with his son and loud enough for Amelia to hear as she stood right outside the doorway wiping away her tears. “Women! They get themselves knocked up and become impossible bitches until they have the little bastards. Then they forget all about the husband.” Fausto’s mocking chuckle was a sly invitation. Farintino hesitated for just a second but joined his father with an uneasy smile. Fausto gave his son a pat on the shoulder, “Ah, women. Who wants to understand them? Why?” Farintino nodded and continued to eat. The comment was punctuated when Amelia slammed the door to hers and Farintino’s dark little room. Fausto looked at Farintino and smirked.

Then, as if it had always been a matter of course, Fausto asked his son for his opinion on some such detail in the making of a hat. Farintino was dumbstruck and flattered. His father had asked him his thoughts. Farintino cautiously gave his opinion and waited for the sarcastic slam. There was none.

Fausto began placing his hand on his son’s shoulder and pulling him in a little closer when they spoke, which was more and more often. Fausto made cutting remarks about some such townsman or woman, and Farintino was invited to add his comments, which he did more and more often, and after a while, without Fausto’s encouragement.

In time, Farintino laughed more easily. Any and every person, dead or alive, might be their victim. Amelia became the object of belittlement more and more often. Farintino did not counter these attacks. If he did, he laid the onus on Amelia to “not be so serious,” as it was “just Papa having a little fun.” From then on Amelia would serve her father-in-law and husband their meals and eat alone, either in the kitchen or her room.

Farintino was now entwined in the tight coils of his father’s confidence. He was giddy with his father’s acceptance. He saw his papa in a new shining light. They stood together. Farintino’s shyness and humility and obedience were replaced with the over-bearing righteousness of a recent convert. Farintino came into his own just as his father had hoped: as a copy of himself.

Amelia met Farintino a week or so before their wedding. She mistook his humility, passivity and awkwardness as signs of a gentle and shy nature. After a short time living under Fausto’s roof, she realized her husband was little more than a shadow living in the bigger shadow of his father. Farintino was unused to her gentle ways and encouragement. He did not understand nor trust her motives. Amelia hoped that familiarity would lead to friendship and friendship would be a path to love. That path was forever darkened and made near impassable by Fausto’s deed.

Amelia tried to stay strong as her husband was lured away. She prayed to the Holy Virgin but always felt unworthy to take communion. Her silence that was to protect her baby, her husband and herself now was a sin. If she had only told Farintino the moment he returned from his buying trip, maybe things would be different. If she spoke out now against her father-in-law, who would believe her? She found herself desperately alone. She could not return to her mother’s home in disgrace, penniless and with another mouth to feed.

During the pregnancy, her only companion was to be Fausto’s oldest sister Prunella. Prunella was an ageless woman of average height, full figured and unlike her brother Fausto, had an olive complexion, soft features, and, of course, the Parma dimple. Her hair was white with a few random dark streaks. Delicate wrinkles were lightly etched around her eyes and in a very fine cross-hatch bordering her upper and lower lip. She saw the world through thoughtful eyes. She was three times a widow and a mother of eight. She lost three children as infants, another under the wheels of a runaway wagon and two girls to the plague. Her two surviving children were her sons, one a monk and the other a soldier stationed in Sicily.

In November, Fausto asked Prunella to live with them and run the house. She was to escort Amelia to market and church and to look after her. Fausto told Prunella to keep a keen eye out for any young man who spoke to or smiled at Amelia. “Any one of them could be the lover. We owe it to Farintino.” Prunella was surprised at her brother’s vehemence toward his daughter-in-law. She agreed to help out of familial duty and her curiosity.

After Prunella settled in she did not understand what could change a happy and exuberant bride into such a morose and beaten down figure. She noticed a change in her nephew, as well. Farintino had become just as mistrusting, judgmental and cold toward his wife as Fausto. For all the murky rumors of infidelity, all of Fausto’s insistence that Amelia was an adulteress, Prunella trusted her intuition; Amelia had the simple, loving heart of a child. The gentle, honest and pious qualities in Amelia’s everyday behavior endeared her to the young mother-to-be. Prunella opened her heart and could not help but love Amelia as she might a daughter.

On a cold and rainy morning in late January, Prunella and Amelia sat at the kitchen work table. Outside, the sky was filled with a silver gray cloud bank that opened in fierce and short downpours. A fire danced and crackled in the hearth. The women were bundled in woolen shawls and drank hot chicken broth spiced with leeks and a sprinkling of oregano and pepper.

“Have you and Farintino picked out a name?” Prunella asked as she licked the little bit of honey off the ends of her forefinger and thumb from the small sweet rolls that were set out.

“When I asked, Farintino said he did not care.”

“If it is a boy, Fausto; if it is a girl, Faustina. You cannot go wrong with the master of the house with those names,” suggested Prunella with a smile. She blew on the steaming broth and took a sip.

Amelia’s hands began to shake. She put her mug down. She began to shiver and wrapped her arms around herself tight and closed her eyes. She convulsed as tears streamed down her cheeks.

Prunella was stunned. She put her arm around Amelia’s shoulder and stroked her hair. “What is it, dear girl? There, there, what can it be?”

Amelia’s chest heaved, and she held back her sobs long enough to reply. “I cannot tell you. I cannot tell anyone. I cannot even tell the priest.”

Prunella was shocked. “I cannot believe you committed so great a sin that there is no forgiveness,” Prunella said gently.

“If I tell you, you will hate me too, and you will never believe me.”

Amelia closed her eyes and hid her face in Prunella’s bosom.

“Tell me, child, please.” A most tender sympathy filled her soul.

“Promise you will not hate me. Promise me.”

Prunella smiled at Amelia’s innocence. “I promise never to hate you, sweetheart.” Prunella gently kissed Amelia’s cheek and wiped away a tear with her fingertip.

Amelia could finally tell the sordid story of the rape, about her dream, the supposed love letters, about Fausto’s constant insults and reproaches, how he isolated her from Farintino with his false love for him, and how he made her life a hopeless hell. Prunella was flooded with her own memories.

“Please do not hate me.” Prunella’s gentle tone of voice dispelled Amelia’s fears. She held Amelia’s hands. “Believe me, child, I do not hate you. I love you more than ever.” Her eyes narrowed and her voice became defiant. “It is true Fausto is my brother… but he does not act like a brother should to a sister. When he was fifteen, he tried the same thing with me. I fought him with all my strength. I kicked and slapped, pulled his hair, and scratched his arms and face. That is what it took. Then, crying, he begged me not to tell Papa. His tears and apology were very convincing. So I did not tell. I told myself that he got the worst of it; what harm is done? I wish I did tell Papa. Fausto tried the same with two of my daughters, one when she was only eleven and the other when she was thirteen. I sent them away to Santa Dorotea Convent. I never saw them again. They died of the black sickness a month after they arrived.” Prunella pulled Amelia’s hands to her lips and kissed them. “Now, what are we going to do, my dear daughter? You are sure the child in you is Fausto’s?”

Amelia nodded and spoke softly. “Oh, yes, I knew the very moment. Poor Farintino barely made me a woman.”

“More of my brother’s handiwork, I am sure.”

Amelia averted her eyes and barely shook her head in the negative.

“You must not blame yourself. You did nothing wrong.”

Amelia thought before she answered. “I blame no one. I trust in the Holy Virgin and our Savior to guide and protect me. I do not seek vengeance or wish anyone ill. I only want a safe place to raise my child.”

In the fourth hour of a windy and wet third of March, in the year of our Lord 1482, Marcella Andano was born. Mother and daughter, both exhausted from the ordeal, lie together as one. The midwife had already tidied up, been paid, and left. While Marcella struggled through labor and gave birth, Prunella relived the most sacred and spiritual moments of her own nativities. All during labor, time was so elastic and fleeting. The hours were compressed into minutes and the seconds stretched into painful eternities. Prunella let Amelia squeeze her hand through the pain. She wiped the sweat from Amelia’s face and neck and gave her words of encouragement.

When Marcella finally entered the world, Prunella was just as exhausted as the young mother. While mother and daughter were still in the inexplicable wonder of the moment, Prunella looked on, happy and relieved that there were no complications. She sat in a chair next to the bed, rosary in hand, on the brink of nodding off.

Fausto awoke just before sunrise, dressed in the dark, and headed off to the kitchen to prepare his breakfast of two hens’ eggs whisked together in a glass of diluted wine. He walked and whisked to the front door, opened it, surveyed the dark and dreary weather, returned to his seat in the candlelit kitchen, and drank his concoction.

Fausto had mixed feelings about the birth of the little girl. He knew it was a girl because he had overheard the midwife talking with his sister.

Fausto drank down the last swallow of his breakfast, wiped his lips on the back of his hand, and left the kitchen. He stopped in the main room and opened the shutters. It was still very early, and the sky outside was as dark as the inside of the house. There was a chill in the air. He looked down at Farintino who was fully clothed and asleep in a chair near the hearth. The fire was reduced to a few ash-covered embers. Farintino faithfully stayed awake for as long as he could, but finally dozed off.

Fausto did not notice Farintino stir as he quietly passed by. Fausto went down the hall and pushed open Amelia’s door. The room was warm and lit by a few candles in wall sconces and on the dressing table. The soft golden halo surrounded Amelia and Marcella. Amelia was barely awake. She held the sleeping Marcella in her arms. Fausto saw Prunella asleep in a chair, head hanging down, rosary in hand.

Fausto leaned in close and looked at the baby’s small, puffy red face. Marcella’s hair--of which she had quite a lot--was light, unlike Amelia’s and Farintino’s. Marcella had the Parma chin with its deep dimple. That trait had not been passed down to Farintino. Their eyes met and for an instant there was an uneasy and deep connection that neither one wanted to acknowledge.

“A girl, is it?” Fausto said in a loud whisper. “Oh well, that figures.” Prunella recognized her brother’s voice. His presence pulled her to the edge of wakefulness, but she was still too much in a dream state to open her eyes.

Fausto touched the dimple on his chin, thought for an instant, and then pretended he had an itch. He left his fingers there and rubbed as he spoke, now in an audible but low voice. “She is not one of us. Look at her… that hair… she does not look like you or my son. Are you sure Farintino is the father?”

Amelia started at the accusation. She closed her eyes and prayed to the Holy Mother for strength.

A bolt of anger shot through Prunella when she heard Fausto’s awful words. She was wide awake now, but she kept her eyes closed. Prunella wanted to jump up, take her rosary beads, wrap them around her brother’s neck, and squeeze with all of her might. She held herself in check. She forced herself to keep her eyes closed. She did not move. She feigned sleep and with a racing heart thought of Amelia and Marcella and her nephew. Prunella asked herself, “What good would it do? Why ruin the most wonderful and holy of days with something that will lead to nothing good?” It pained Prunella that she, again, would allow her brother to not be held accountable for his deeds.

Unbeknownst to Fausto, Farintino had followed him into the room. Farintino did not quite hear what his father said to Amelia. When Fausto turned around to leave, he was startled to see his son standing there. Fausto grunted and made his intentions known by sticking his chest out as he advanced toward the door.

“Father, where are you going?”

“I leave you to your little wife and that baby--not a son, I might add. Oh yes. Yes, least I forget… congratulations.” Then, with a characteristic smirk Fausto added, “May you have as much joy in fatherhood as I have had.” With that said, Fausto left. The house was cold. Fausto took his thumb and forefinger away from his chin and decided to grow a goatee.

For all of Fausto’s sarcasm and affected disappointment, parental love would not be denied. Farintino and Amelia--and for a while, Aunt Prunella-- enjoyed Marcella. As soon as Amelia was capable of taking care of both the baby and the house, Fausto ordered his sister to be gone. Farintino fell from his father’s grace and was again the brunt of jibes and jokes. Fausto never held Marcella, or for that matter, even acknowledged her existence.

Fausto held sway until a very hot and humid August afternoon. All that morning the two men worked in the sweltering shop. Fausto went on and on until Farintino could no longer stand to hear his father berate Amelia, his Aunt Prunella, himself, and now even little Marcella. It was time to eat and rest for the afternoon until the heat of the day broke.

The two men entered the cool and dark main room of the house. They drank water that Amelia left out for them and stood near an open window where they could feel a mounting breeze that heralded a hopeful change in the weather. Fausto drank from his cup, yawned, looked at his son, and began again. “Another thing. That brat kept me awake with its crying. Crying all night. Cannot that wife of yours shut the little thing up?”

Farintino put his cup of water down on the side table next to the window. He had heard these complaints all morning. His blood pulsed and surged through his entire being. His lips parted as the air rushed in and out of his lungs. His face contorted in an uncontrollable glare as he turned toward his father. Fausto was about to deliver another complaint but stopped in mid-breath when he saw the threatening look on his son’s face. For an instant, Fausto feared his son. He quickly looked to the left and then to the right for an escape. Farintino grabbed Fausto high on the shoulders, lifted him to his tiptoes, and held him against the wall.

Farintino forced his face into Fausto’s. “That is enough! Enough! She has a name. It’s Marcella. Marcella.” Farintino set his father down and continued with heated impatience. “Why is it that you treat my daughter and Amelia with such contempt and hate, and for that matter, myself? Be the man, be the father that you should be.”

As soon as Farintino loosened his grip, Fausto wiggled free and pushed him away. “You question me? You threaten me in my own house? Who do you think you are? I treat you the way I do because that is all you know and that is all you deserve.” Fausto took a step away from the wall and Farintino backed up. Fausto shook his head with false pity. “You are such a glutton for punishment. I treat your precious wife the way I do because she is nothing more than a common slut. I allowed her in my house and let her marry you out of kindness, and what do I get in return? Do you not see the way she acts, the way she carries on with any man she meets? She gives everyone that… uh… charming… smile of hers. She even tried to work her wiles on me. It was your Aunt Prunella who told me that everyone in town is sure you are wearing the horns of a cuckold.”

Farintino was dumbfounded. “I cannot believe what you are saying. What are you talking about?”

Fausto grabbed Farintino by his shirt, high on his shoulder as one might a child, and hurried him across the room to his desk. Fausto pulled out his key fob and unlocked the desk drawer. With a gesture that was more exaggerated than he wanted, he pulled the drawer out, spilling its contents on the floor. The packet of love letters fell between the two men. A few more papers floated in a seesaw motion and gently landed around the tightly tied packet. Fausto kicked the letters toward Farintino.

“Pick them up. Look at them. Read them.” Fausto crossed his arms and watched Farintino stoop down and pick up the letters. He untied the string and read the first letter. After the first few sentences, he understood what they were. He glanced at the next three or four, put the letters back in order, and tied them together with the string. He quietly tossed them on the desk. He stood there numb. “Where did you get these?” Farintino finally asked.

“I found them in the house,” Fausto answered coolly.

“Does she know you have them?”

“No, no, she does not. And anyway, she will deny ever seeing them.”

Fausto became impatient as Farintino deliberated what to do next. Finally, he looked to his father for some advice.

“Send her and that brat of hers back to the sorry village she came from.”

Farintino shook his head. “No, I care for the child. She is an innocent.” Farintino thought of the pure, loving look Marcella gave him when he held her.

“I suppose you cannot send the mother away and leave the baby behind.” Fausto rubbed his forehead and thought for a second. “Well, you could give your wife a good beating from head to toe, front and back. You must break their spirit. You know, I had to beat your mother when we were first married. She came to me spoiled and with strange notions. I think after the fifth or sixth time she came around.”

Farintino thought for a few seconds. “I must talk with her.”

“Talk? What is there to talk about?” Fausto nodded toward the packet of love letters and raised his eyebrows in a quizzical and incredulous way. “Be like me. Be a man, or you can go to her like a schoolboy with your hat in your hand. I am sure that would suit you just fine. Yes, Il Signore, you go talk.”

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