Alchemist's Gift

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The Serpent’s Tooth

Fausto was still the master of his house. He still had influence over his son and daughter-in-law, and never let the embers of doubt completely burn out. Amelia tried to be a good mother and a good wife, but her haunting secret led her down a path of mild madness that could only be held at bay by an obsessive amount of prayer. A pot might boil over or Marcella might fuss. Amelia would hear the fire hiss when the pot boiled over and hear Marcella’s cry when she needed tending and know these things were happening, but to Amelia they were happening a world away, and she was unwilling to leave that safe and holy place that she inhabited when she prayed.

When Amelia was taken to pray, Fausto would look at his son and say things like, “anyone who prays that much must be guilty of something” or “a good wife does her duty to her master here on earth as well as in Heaven.” Farintino had no argument. For his own sake and peace, he overlooked Amelia’s obsessive praying and after a time he convinced Fausto, who didn’t much like his food burned or the sound of a crying baby, to take on a servant.

Farintino, when his doubts were in abeyance, truly cared for Amelia. He remembered when they first married, how Amelia was always so happy and bright and singing. She was such a pretty girl. Farintino was lucky to have such a wife. But at times when he looked at Marcella, he could see only how different she looked from him and Amelia. Amelia was also haunted by the glaring similarities between Fausto and Marcella, and was glad Fausto had grown his goatee that hid the telltale dimple.

Amelia’s and Farintino’s relationship was defined by the hundreds of daily details and decisions that had to be made, and of course, Marcella. Once in a while they would escape Fausto’s hold. Farintino did not spend every day second-guessing his wife’s faithfulness, and Amelia wasn’t always at her kneeler with her head bowed praying for strength and guidance. There were bright and light moments, but they were few, and that fragile world of ease and happiness eventually slid back under the somber and sober pall. Marcella spent her first years in this emotional twilight.

Marcella was an only child until the spring of her fourth year. Three days before Easter, Amelia gave birth to a baby girl. Marcella’s new little sister had a head full of dark curly hair and a dark, glowing complexion. Fausto warmed up to his new granddaughter immediately and sincerely congratulated both parents.

In the three years that followed, Farintino and Amelia had two more dark-headed, dark-skinned girls. Fausto looked on with a strange satisfaction, knowing that his son could do no better than himself in creating an heir to carry on the Andano name.

Marcella became a great help to her mother. Her three sisters took up all of her time as Amelia was at her kneeler praying or needed to work more and more in the shop. Fausto’s hands were riddled with arthritis so he spent his time pacing between his son and daughter-in-law, pointing out any flaws or imperfections in their work.

When the youngest was weaned, Marcella took on all the motherly tasks. More than once Amelia would come into the house to find an exhausted Marcella sitting in a chair, a baby in each arm, rocking the one in the cradle with her foot.

Marcella was just that much different in looks and in age to feel the outsider. Her three sisters were entwined tightly in their own little knot. They were lively and curious, and constantly giggling and exploring the house or playing in the garden. Marcella was either cleaning up after them, or preparing them something to eat, or kissing a bump or bruise, singing to them or teaching them their prayers.

When the oldest, Maria, turned eight, she took over the care of her two younger sisters. For the first time in that many years, Marcella was free. Amelia and Farintino made no great demands on her. They left her to herself. Marcella spent lazy mornings walking the sunny paths that took her into the country. She found a pond that she especially liked. She would sit under a tree in the late afternoon and when the sun was just right the air would be glazed with a delicate ivory glow, and she could see countless insects of all sizes and shapes on the wing, diving, darting, and dancing on the breeze.

On one such afternoon, Marcella sat on the cool ground, rested her back against the trunk of an old walnut tree, and looked out on her favorite pond. Bits of golden light filtered through the branches and leaves and made a pattern that twinkled and shifted back and forth in the breeze that was alive with the dusty scents of summer. Long wisps of almost transparent white clouds hung motionless in the sky.

Marcella opened her pouch and took out her lunch of a crust of bread, some cheese, and a good size bunch of red grapes. She spread her bandana over her lap and lazily ate as she looked out at the meadow that was more gold than green. Her eyes slowly closed. She listened to the leaves whisper over her head and heard the sweet songs of birds as they called to one another. The last thing she heard was her own breathing as she slipped into an afternoon nap.

Whether it was a dream or a vision, Marcella could not tell. But she took it to be real and something special. When she awoke, she quickly gathered up her uneaten scraps of cheese and bread, tossed them into her pouch along with her bandana, and started quickly back home. She was bursting with the excitement of what she just experienced and needed to tell someone.

The country lane seemed to stretch on forever as she passed certain landmarks that she used to measure the way: the little tufts of weeds that looked like horses tails, the dead tree with the broken branch, then the little pile of stones that were stacked knee-high right before the bend in the lane. As she walked up the last hill, a young man came toward her. They stopped for a moment and exchanged greetings. She commented on his hat. It was one of theirs. Once past the stranger she started to run when she saw the walls and gate of Terra Sanctus.

Marcella ran through the gate past the ragged beggars, who looked up hopefully when they heard footsteps and returned to their chatter when they realized it was only a girl. To save time, she ran behind the last aisle of stalls and tents that made the far border of the open-air market. She headed across the piazza, stopped in front of the church, genuflected, made a quick sign of the cross, and hurried on her way.

Out of breath, she arrived at the front gate. She opened it and ran into the house. She was just about to speak when Maria brought her finger to her lips and shushed her to be quiet.

“I have just put the girls down for a nap,” she whispered rather impatiently.

“Mama?” whispered Marcella back.

“At her kneeler, in her bedroom,” Maria whispered and fell back into the chair.

The door was ajar. Marcella peeked in. Amelia was at her kneeler. Her head was bowed, and she was fervently praying. Marcella went in quietly and watched her mother. She tried to remember every detail from her dream.

Amelia finally looked up at Marcella very closely and did not say anything. She kept her eyes on Marcella, made the sign of the cross, and put her rosary in the pocket of her dress. “Tell me… have you seen it too?” Amelia nodded all the time she spoke.

Marcella leaned a little toward her mother. “Mama, I saw something, I think I was blessed with a vision. I think it was a sign from the Holy Ghost.”

Amelia smiled at the thought. She arose, went to her daughter’s side, and sat next to her on the bed. “Tell me, Marcella.”

“Mama, I went to my favorite place, by the pond on the Longo farm. I ate my lunch under the walnut tree. It was so peaceful that I dozed off. Then I heard soft voices whispering. I opened my eyes and I was in the clouds. Below me, there was a big city by the seashore. There were so many houses and roads. Then I went up higher in the sky, above the clouds where the sky was so blue. I saw you and many other people. The people behind you were all white like smoke. You called to me and I was suddenly next to you. You told me to only look ahead. I could see so many people. It was like looking down on a field of flowers. Some people would flicker like a candle flame, some glowed, and others turned into sparkly dust and disappeared. A man appeared before me. He looked lost, but he smiled when he saw me. It was like I knew him, but I know I have never seen him before. He reached out his arms to embrace me. Then I woke up. Do you think it was the Holy Ghost?”

Amelia pulled Marcella close and hugged her. She could feel the excitement bubbling in her daughter as Marcella fidgeted and wiggled in her embrace. Amelia let go of her daughter, held her at arms’ length, and looked into her eyes. “Tell me more about the city.”

Marcella sighed. “Mama, I saw so little of it and it was so far away.”

“Did it have a long curving bridge?”

Marcella thought for a moment. “Yes, I do remember seeing a bridge, and it did curve over the water. It was so far below me. I remember seeing you and the strange man who reached out to me. Was it a sign from the Holy Ghost?”

“Our Lord works in mysterious ways, Marcella. You should not ask a sinner like me about the Lord. I am unworthy to even speak His name.”

This reply confused Marcella. She could not remember even once her mother do something so wrong that she should consider herself so low in the eyes of the all-forgiving Lord.

“Should I tell the Monsignor Petri?”

Amelia pursed her lips and then spoke quite deliberately. “I would not mention this to anyone. What you think is a sign from our Holy Father others may think is a sign from the Dark One.”

“But it is not. It was so beautiful and peaceful where I was. I did not want the dream to end.”

“It will always live in you. I think that is where it must stay.”

Marcella did not understand why her mother did not celebrate the notion that she might have been chosen to receive a sign from God. “You mean that I am not to tell anyone?”

“No.” Amelia had a note of finality in her voice.

“But why?”

“Girls and women who have heard the words of the Lord can be thought possessed by Satan. Sometimes these girls and women, who are good and devout people, are called witches by those who are jealous.”

“A witch?” Marcella told no one but her mama; still, she was scared.

“Dear girl, I have heard stories of witch burning from a young traveler who has just purchased a hat yesterday. His name is Rene Hermes. He came from Padua, and he is returning to his home in Bavaria.”

“Yes, Mama, I did pass a young man. He wore one of our hats. It must have been him.”

“He told your father and me that in some towns and villages near where he is from there are no women left. They have all been burned, some with their children, too.”

“That will not happen here, will it?” Marcella’s was shocked.

“Let us hope it will not. You have told me, and I promise on the blood that flowed from our Savior’s wounds never to tell a soul. And you should not either, not even in confession.”

Marcella reached up haltingly to her mother. Amelia hugged her. Marcella came to realize that her mother was right. Her spiritual awakening was a sign only for her. Marcella went about her young life with its dramas and discoveries, but now, having had this experience, and for this first time in her life she was spoken to as an adult by her mother, she felt self-satisfied and secure in who she was.

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