Alchemist's Gift

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Wills and Fates

Marcella’s worries were moot. Shortly after she ran out the back door, Fausto, who was in the main room looking over the ledgers, felt a sharp pain in his right temple. He heard a crackling noise in his right ear and his vision was crowded out by a storm of red and black flotsam. He fell, hit his head on the corner of his desk, and lay there unconscious until Farintino went looking for him. Amelia hurried out of the house and asked the first doctor she found to come with her.

The doctor happened to be a certain Jacopo Gallo, an army surgeon who had just bought his release from military duty. He sat outside on a bench in front of the barber shop, and was just finishing his lunch of soft cheese and some garlic biscuits that he had bought from a pretty young girl. He still wore his uniform and the caduceus insignia was in plain sight. He left the carnival of mangled bodies and gangrenous limbs that always led to pointless amputations that would nine times out of ten become septic and just prolong the soldier’s misery on his eventual march to eternity. Amelia’s urgency was quelled as Gallo raised his hand to calm the excited woman. To his surprise, it worked.

“It is my father-in-law. Master Fausto Andano has fallen and is unconscious.”

Gallo looked at the biscuit in his hand took a bite and looked up at Amelia. “And why do you tell me this?”

Amelia was annoyed by the doctor’s indifferent manner and that he spoke with his mouth full. “I see on your breast that you wear the caduceus. Are you not a doctor?”

Gallo slipped the last bite of biscuit into his mouth and gave the impression of deep thought as he slowly chewed and swallowed the morsel. “You are correct. I am a trained doctor and surgeon.”

After a pause Amelia said, “We have money.”

Gallo nodded, stood, and followed Amelia back to the house.

Gallo’s diagnosis was that Fausto had had a stroke and hit his head when he fell to the floor. There was nothing Gallo could do for him. “Keep him warm and he may wake up or he may not. Pray for his soul and recovery.” He stood tight-lipped, craned his neck, and leaned in a little toward Farintino. Gallo raised his eyebrows and cleared his throat.

Farintino thought for a second, and then took his purse from the desk drawer and handed Gallo a silver piece. Jacopo looked at the coin in his palm. “Call on me again,” he said as he left the house. The moment he was clear of the front door, he turned his hand over, looked down at the silver piece, and smiled. Then he chuckled. “That was too easy. Much too easy.”

Marcella sat curled up in the chair next to the bed. She had a blanket over her lap and leaned to the side with a pillow behind her head. The room was dark and still, except for Fausto’s slow and regular breathing that was accompanied by a wet rasping sound every fourth or fifth exhalation. Marcella was given the task to sit with Fausto and awaken Farintino and her mother if Fausto should wake up. She tried her best to stay awake, but nodded off several times.

When the sun was just beyond the horizon and the dew drops dripped from the leaves and eaves outside the window in a steady, gentle rhythm, both Marcella and Fausto opened their eyes.

Fausto was confused. He was unable to sit up. He let out something of a gasp.

“Sir, sir, you are awake.” Marcella uncurled her stiff legs and arms, stood, and with a timid smile touched Fausto’s shoulder. She opened the shutters to let in the light, and then quickly left the room to fetch her mother.

Fausto was flat on his back. He looked up. The ceiling beams twisted and straightened. The walls grew and shrunk in height and width. He did not know where he was. He tried to prop himself up on his right elbow, but it was no good. He fell back onto the bed. Fausto did not understand why he could not move. He did not understand why everything was so strange. The room was alive with twisting, ghastly grey shadows.

Fausto tried to call out, but his words were trapped inside his head. He was afraid, and he went into a panic. He frantically felt his face with his right hand. His left cheek was as hard as stone. He felt the warm wet spittle at the corner of his mouth. He patted his left shoulder and ran his hand down his arm. His left arm was bent at the elbow and wrist, held crooked by tightened sinew and rock-hard muscles. He tried to call out again, but his speech was reduced to gurgling slurs.

Marcella led Farintino, Amelia, Maria, Miranda, and Rini into the room. The three girls stood at the foot of the bed. Their curly hair was uncombed; their eyes were laden with sleep. Rini, more asleep than awake, held her rag doll in her hands and leaned her head against Maria’s shoulder.

Farintino and Amelia stood on the right side of the bed and Marcella on the left.

“Papa, thank God you are awake.” Farintino leaned in closely and looked into his father’s eyes. Fausto’s left eye drooped and the lid was outlined in red. He looked blankly at his son. With a few forced jerks of his head, he was able to look at his granddaughters. They looked back with sad and puzzled expressions. The three little girls could not understand why their grandfather’s face was contorted into something that resembled half of a shocked smile, or why his eye looked so funny and why his left hand was in a constant palsy.

Sunlight streamed through the window and the room became unbearably warm. Everyone felt uneasy, impatient, and helpless. Amelia backed away from Fausto and stood a little behind Farintino. A sick feeling crept from the center of her stomach into her lungs and into her head. She had to look away. “I must leave,” she whispered into Farintino’s ear as she slipped past him. She gave a nod to Maria. Maria understood, and gently nudged her sisters to follow her and their mother out of the room.

Fausto noticed them leave and looked at Farintino with the same frightened look he had given his son those so many years ago when Farintino finally confronted him.

“Do you need water?” Farintino asked.

Fausto looked away from his son and grabbed Marcella’s wrist. He held on so tight that it began to hurt. He looked up at her and tried to speak. Even though he hurt her wrist, she bore the pain and gently placed her other hand on top of his. Fausto relaxed his grip. He took her small hand in his and guided it to his heart. He closed his eyes and slipped back into a stupor. Marcella left her hand in Fausto’s for a good while and looked to Farintino, who quietly watched. He picked up the chair that Marcella slept in and placed it behind. She sat, still holding Fausto’s hand. She looked curiously at this man who had shunned her for her entire life.

By pointing and mustering whatever expressions with the half of his face that still responded to his will, and whatever guttural croaks he could produce with his tortured throat, Fausto conveyed to Farintino that he wanted Marcella to be the one to take care of him. He took to heart those words that Amelia had said those dozen-plus years ago, that morning he had raped her. He could still see her as she calmly straightened her clothing and spoke in a sure and unnerving voice, “What is done can never be undone, nor should it be.” Fausto understood now that Marcella was obviously born to tend to his needs at this time in his life.

And so she did. Marcella dutifully spent the last bit of her childhood and lost the next eight years of her youth taking care of Fausto. She watched over him, cleaned and washed him, wiped away his drool. She fed him, turned him at least once or twice a day, recited verse from memory and sang to him. She put up with his tantrums and frustrations. Marcella watched him cry. His broad chest and muscular arms shrunk to the bone. In time, his hair fell out, and each tooth, one by one, became loose and slipped from its socket.

Early on, when Fausto could still hobble about with the help of Marcella under one arm and a cane in his other hand, there came word of a man who, through the power of the Holy Ghost, was able to heal those whom God thought worthy. Marcella broached the subject to her mama. Amelia gave her some money, and she hired Giovanni Bellini and his cart to take Fausto and her to see this man. The healer went only by Pietro, wore a white shift tied at the waist with a coarse hank of rope and crude sandals, and he would never perform his “miracles” in the sight of any church.

On the morning of the excursion, Giovanni arrived at the appointed time. Marcella told Fausto that she had a surprise for him, and they waited on a stone bench by the back gate that opened into the alley behind the garden. When Giovanni pulled up at the gate, Fausto became agitated. Marcella stood and took Fausto’s left hand to help him to his feet. He did not cooperate. “Giovanni, please help me,” she called out. Giovanni went to Fausto’s left side and offered his shoulder for him to lean on. Fausto made a feeble attempt to hit Giovanni with his right hand.

“There, there, we will have none of that.” Giovanni spoke to Fausto as if he were a spoiled child.

“Sir, sir, please,” Marcella coaxed. Fausto grabbed onto the bench with his right hand and would not let go. He threw a frightened glance at Giovanni and tried to speak. Angry and frustrated, Fausto finally bowed his head and began to shudder and whimper.

“There, there, old fellow, calm yourself. All is well.” Giovanni tried to pat Fausto on the shoulder in a friendly gesture, but Fausto shrunk away from him as if the man’s touch was poisonous.

Giovanni shrugged and smiled. “Well, signorina perhaps today is not a day for miracles.”

Marcella took care of Fausto. Her sisters grew into industrious, clever, down to earth and vivacious young women. They were referred to as the Three Andano Angels. They were robust and fiery and the picture of classical Mediterranean beauty with their thick dark curly hair and olive complexions that captured the glow of the summer afternoon sun. They were well proportioned and beautiful. They were always together, and the boys, and young men would flirt with them constantly.

Marcella also matured. Unlike her sisters, Marcella’s bosom was modest and her hips narrow. When she was with the Three Andano Angels, she felt plain and unattractive. She knew she would never be sought after like them.

Marcella did not spend every waking moment at Fausto’s side. Occasionally one of her sisters would take over the duties and Marcella would join the others in the workshop. As for the trade, she tried very hard, but her stitching was never as straight and precise as her sisters’. The pieces she sewed might bulge or pucker and the needle hurt her fingers.

Marcella did have a flair for design but that wellspring was tainted by her lack of practical skill. Farintino, who could have shown some regard and encouragement for her artistic tendencies, didn’t. “People buy what they know,” was his dull reply.

When her sisters came of age, they were courted and wooed. One by one they married young men who were as vigorous as themselves with bright and certain futures. They moved away and started their new lives. Trade slowed in the shop when Rini, the last of the Andano Angels married. The young men no longer came into the shop or loitered outside waiting to get a glimpse of the sisters. Farintino and Amelia were tired and getting old. The family work force was gone. Marcella was never considered as an heir.

Prunella’s oldest son Anselmo and his wife Cianina and the eleven year old twin boys Paulo and Pietro returned from Sicily. Anselmo had his army pension and Cianina came from a well-connected family who left her financially secure. Hints were dropped and overtures were made. Anselmo had many ties to the military and thought it a good idea to start his sons in a business that would always be in demand. The armies would always need caps and gloves and capes.

For a lump sum and eight percent of the yearly gross, Farintino and Amelia could live comfortably. Marcella’s life did not change much. The bloom of her youth opened and closed, and at the age of twenty-one she was left with tending to Fausto. That would end in less than a fortnight. After the papers were signed and the greater amount of the gold was buried under a paving stone in the garden with some kept on hand in the locked desk, Farintino broke the news to his father.

Fausto heard what his son had to say and at first did not understand. He had inherited the business from his father, and his father from his father, and on and on; the lineage went back to the eleven-hundreds. Even before the church and the piazza were built, Andano hats graced the heads of many a rich signore or signora. Farintino could see the frustration and horror in his father’s eyes. “Papa, it is still in the family. Calm yourself, calm yourself. Prunella’s son, Anselmo, he and his wife are the new owners. It is still in the family.”

Marcella looked on as Farintino delivered the bad news. Fausto was pale; his face twitched and his eyes glistened with tears. His jaw quivered and his lips squirmed but he was unable to speak.

“There, there, Papa. Things will be just fine. Nothing is really going to change.” Farintino leaned in and extended his hand as a sign of reassurance but Fausto slapped it away and, with all of his strength, turned himself ever so slightly on his side so that he did not have to look at his son. Farintino looked at his father with impatience. He shook his head and left the room.

Marcella felt bad for Fausto. “Sir, please relax. He is gone.” At hearing her words, Fausto rolled onto his back. His face was wet with sweat. Marcella went to the dressing chest. She soaked a small towel in cool water and ran it over his brow and cheeks. He closed his eyes and sighed. “Things will be fine, sir,” she said softly.

From that morning, Fausto refused his diet of thin gruel, or runny soft-boiled eggs, or bread soaked in milk and honey, and took nothing but water. He kept Marcella by his side all through the day. Whenever she tried to leave, he would whimper or grab at her wrist with his right hand. Marcella would acquiesce and sit back down. She understood and kept his secret.

Before he became too weak Fausto, through pantomime, communicated the idea that he wanted Marcella to shave off his whiskers. Marcella was so used to catering to his whims that she gave it little thought as she collected some small scissors, a hot damp towel, warm olive oil, and Fausto’s long idle razor that was in the top drawer of his dressing chest. The razor was in a narrow wooden box with a sliding top. It was wrapped in a transparent, oily flannel cloth and was still remarkably sharp, as Marcella discovered when she easily nicked herself on the keen edge.

Marcella knelt down next to the bed. She pinched up a little tuft of whiskers between her thumb, index, and middle fingers and clipped the whiskers away. It was slow work, and she was very careful not to pull too hard or cut his parchment-like skin. The only thing that remained was the white stubble that now covered his jaws and chin.

Marcella returned from the kitchen with a hot damp towel. Fausto flinched when she carefully arranged the towel on his face. After a few moments, she pulled the towel away.

Marcella opened a small vial of olive oil and poured some on her fingertips. She rubbed it in until the stubble felt silky. She held the razor the same way Farintino held his. Marcella did very well; she left only one tiny nick under his left ear.

Even though she had seen his face every day of her life, now shaved, she could study its contours, the angles, the shape of the eyes and nose and mouth. The most dominant detail was the deep dimple in his chin, the Parma dimple.

She touched the dimple on her chin. Fausto bid her come closer. He reached up and took her hand and guided it to his chin. He took her index finger and placed it on his dimple and then onto hers. He repeated that motion several times and then he took her hand and patted his heart, and then he patted hers.

Marcella was touched by Fausto’s attempt to bond. “Yes, sir, I see we have the same dimple.”

Fausto snorted in frustration. He took her hand again, this time with more passion, and guided her fingertips to his dimple, then to hers; to his lips, then hers. He touched his nose, then her nose; his eyes, her eyes; and finally, he traced the circle of his face and compared it to the roundness of hers. He touched his forehead and then hers and, to leave no doubt as to the message, he flung her hand away, patted his sex, then his heart, and finally laid his open palm on hers.

Marcella wrinkled her brow at Fausto. She had not guessed what it was. Fausto was still agitated. Marcella repeated his motions. She touched the dimple on her chin, her lips, her nose, her eyes; she traced the roundness of her face. She patted her sex and then she patted her heart, and extended her open hand and placed it on Fausto’s heart.

Fausto mustered what he hoped was a smile and with all his strength cupped his hand behind his daughter’s neck, pulled her close, and pressed his lips to her forehead. Exhausted, he let her go and fell back onto the pillows.

Marcella sat back on her heels. She summoned the strength to ask, “Father?”

Fausto nodded and closed his eyes. A thousand questions were answered, and a thousand questions arose from this mongrel of a Greek tragedy. There was only one question that needed to be answered and only one person who could answer it. Marcella took her frustrations out on the shaving gear, throwing it all in the basin and slamming it down on the dressing chest. With an angry heart, she went to find her mother.

Amelia had just returned from the marketplace. She sat at the garden table and looked over her purchase of almonds, a salty slab of bacalao, and a small package of risotto. Marcella saw her through the kitchen window.

She stormed out the back door and roughly opened the garden gate open. The gate bounced back on its hinges. She caught it with her hand right before it hit her. Marcella took that as a sign to calm herself. She went to her mother and was momentarily speechless as she tried to form the terrible question.

Amelia pointed. “Look at the size of the fish, and I got it cheap today.”

“Mama, tell me the truth. Who is my father?”

Amelia’s heart raced. “Of course you know who your father is,” she said as calmly as she could.

“No, I do not!” Marcella insisted. “Tell me. Is it Fausto?” Amelia remained silent. “He is, is he not? Tell me.”

“I have never been unfaithful to Farintino, never.”

“Is my father Fausto?” Marcella insisted.

“Where did you get such a notion?” Amelia looked away.

“Mama, I have a right to know. Fausto all but told me.”

“The man can only grunt. How could he tell you?”

“He told me. He wanted me to shave him this morning. I thought it strange. He has always worn a beard ever since I can remember, but that is what he wanted, so I shaved him. I could finally see his face. I could see how we look so much alike. He touched my face and embraced me. He kissed my forehead. He accepted me. I know what he was trying to tell me in his own way. It was quite clear. Now I know why Farintino always hated me, and you always hated me.” Marcella shook with anger and sorrow.

Amelia hugged her daughter. “I have never hated you. I could never hate you. I love you. You are my flesh and my blood. You are my daughter. I am so sorry, I am so sorry that I could not tell you. I could never tell you.”

Marcella relaxed her embrace and pulled away from Amelia. “So, this is the sin that could never be forgiven? You lay with your husband’s father. How could you?”

Amelia could not look at Marcella. “I did not lay with him. He took me when Farintino was away. He took me right there next to the hearth. Every time I make a fire I feel sick at my stomach having to be at that spot. That very day, that very moment while he was raping me, I had my vision. I saw you. I knew you would be growing in me. I knew you would be my daughter. I had to think of you.”

“But why did you keep this a secret?”

“I was young. I was afraid. I needed a place for you to grow up. I was just married for less than a year. I had nowhere to go, no one to help me. I could not go home to my mama. She had not enough food for herself.”

“What could Fausto possibly have over you?” Marcella’s tone was conciliatory and curious now that she knew the truth.

“Love letters that some silly boys had slipped under the door. Fausto found them and convinced himself I had lovers. Now that I think of it, he probably saw me as someone nonvirtuous, someone he could take and not worry about me telling.”

“But Mama, why did you not tell? Why keep such a secret?”

“It would hurt you. I dared not say something when it first happened. Who would believe me now? People might think I was to blame.”

“And the praying?”

“To give me strength. I prayed for strength to live the life I chose. I prayed that God might forgive me for keeping silent. I prayed for my soul because I could never forgive Fausto for making all of our lives as black as his. And I prayed for the strength to not wish him ill. But I failed at all of those things. I did wish ill of him. I think Satan heard my desires too and caused Fausto to fall and hit his head. That was my fault. That was my wish.”

“Only a saint could show so much forgiveness.”

“But still, I committed a sin, and a sin is a sin whether in thought or deed. God will judge me for my evil wishes.” Marcella watched her mother Amelia sink back into her dismal depression.

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