Alchemist's Gift

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Marcella’s curiosity brought her to every shop, some she entered and others she just peered in through the open door or the windows. She loved the different spicy scents and distinctive aromas of the market place. She loved the colorful people with their funny rhyming chants that they would sing-song to attract buyers. One man had linnets that sang beautiful songs from behind the bars of their little gold-colored cages. Marcella wished she had the money to buy all of them and set them free.

Marcella saw everything in a new and thirsty light. The buildings and the town itself that had never been more than a backdrop became a wonder of organization and a testament to human ingenuity. Marcella had seen the church almost every day of her life. In the midpoint of her thirteenth year, she realized what a truly breathtaking achievement it was.

One morning on the way to the fountain she saw a lead pencil in a crack between the time-worn paving stones. She snatched up her find and thanked Saint Anthony. Then she ran to the bookbinder and begged a few scraps of paper. That evening she sat out at the garden table, and by the light of an old sputtering oil lamp, she drew her own fanciful versions of buildings and towers and castles.

A few months after her vision, she had her first period. Marcella became a family concern. One morning she was told by Fausto to leave the shop because she dropped three spools of thread and as they rolled across the floor they became tangled. The more she tried to separate them, the tighter the tangle became. Fausto yelled at her to leave.

Marcella headed for the kitchen to see if she could help with the midday meal. When she heard her name mentioned, she stopped outside the kitchen door unnoticed and listened.

“Good husband, I feel Marcella is too young for such a thing.” The two sat at the old gray work table. They drank lemon water. Amelia sent the three little ones out to spend the blustery afternoon with their Great-Aunt Prunella.

“She is ready. Any man with half a brain would snatch up such a clever and fresh young thing.”

“Good husband, she is still no more than a girl.” Amelia idly ran her fingertip over one of the many long slice marks that crisscrossed the tabletop. The wind caused the bare branches of the orange tree to squeak on the window.

“Father thinks it is time. You know he has never taken to her.”

In a rare show of impatience, she repeated her husband’s words. “Yes, I know. I know he has never taken to her--or taken to you, or to me, for that matter.” Amelia looked up. “She is a good girl and has always done what she was told and never complained. Farintino, she is still a girl. Look at her. She is so skinny. She has not even the beginnings of a curve to her body.”

“You were a girl when you came here,” Farintino said gently.

“Yes, I was. So young, and such a silly child, even at seventeen.” Amelia felt a shiver stir in her. “Let us not rush her out of the house. She is my daughter. The girls and I would miss her.”

After a pause, Farintino finally agreed. “Yes, she would be missed.”

Marcella backed away from the kitchen door. She was stunned. Panic drove her out the back door and through the garden to the back gate and into the alley. She ran across the piazza. She could see nothing but her feet, hear nothing but her footfalls against the paving stones, and feel nothing but the strong cool breeze against her face and bare arms. Marcella ran toward the east gate. She dodged around the busy people and wooden carts, past a barefoot country girl who used a long crook to usher a flock of shirking geese, and past a dozen or so gray and brown donkeys laden with colorful crockery or bolts of fabric or firewood. Marcella passed a few idle laborers who lounged in the shade of the gate’s arch and laughed and mocked some beggars who were arguing about who was to sit where and who was there first.

She finally ran outside the town’s walls. When she was a good hundred paces past the gate, she slowed and stopped, bent forward, put her hands on her knees, and tried to catch her breath. Her heart raced in her chest. Her blood surged and pounded in her veins. She could not seem to get enough air in her lungs. The autumn breeze cooled her flushed and sweaty face.

Marcella slowly caught her breath. Her heart beat less fast and she regained her calm and composure. She continued to walk along the path away from the town. “I do not want to get married,” she said out loud. “I am not going to get married, no matter what any of them says.” Hearing the words made her feel better. She was both hungry and thirsty and wished she had eaten something or least drank something before she ran off.

Marcella followed the lane to the foot path that led to her beloved pond. She descended into a wide golden pasture bordered by low hillocks studded with large granite rocks and boulders. She looked ahead and saw a number of rust-colored, shaggy cattle under the walnut tree. Some were sitting, some standing in the pond, and some drinking from the now-muddied brown pond. She slowed and stopped at the sight of the cattle.

Before long Marcella saw the farm’s owner, Carlo Longo, crossing the meadow, headed for his cattle. Nero--his very energetic black-and-white dog-- raced ahead of him, barking the entire time. Carlo waved when he saw Marcella. She waved back and left Carlo and Nero to drive the cattle away. Disappointed, Marcella decided to head back home.

Marcella hadn’t gone fifty paces on the lane when she looked up and saw her sisters and Great-Aunt Prunella. Marcella was never so glad to see her aunt and sisters. She ran up to them and threw her arms around the surprised and smiling woman.

“Hello sweetheart, have you come to greet us?” She gently pushed Marcella’s hair out of her eyes and laid the longer strands over her ears. “You are a sight, all sweaty and red. Have you been running?”

Before Marcella could answer, Maria spoke up. “We just got some honey. I am carrying it.” With some effort, she held up a small crock that was tied with a cloth over its mouth.

Marcella’s other two sisters, Miranda, and the youngest, Rini, were eating chunks of honeycomb. Marcella offered to carry the crock so Maria could eat her honeycomb, but only on Maria’s condition that she would be the one to carry the crock into the kitchen and give it to their mother.

Marcella ached to tell her aunt the awful plans that her mother and father had for her, but she decided to wait until they were back home and alone.

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