Alchemist's Gift

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All the World is a Stage

On the crisp morning of the autumnal equinox, Adamo Lucci was instructed by the Patrona Mezzi to clear away the splintered remnants of the dead tree that some said was as old as time itself. The tree, of the apple variety, was some fifty feet tall and grew outside the vine-covered walls of her courtyard, just beyond a broad footpath that passed by the front gates. The tree was already mature when the villa was built.

Some one hundred and seventy years before, a stranger returning from the East carried with him a sack of apples to sustain himself on his journey. He absently spat out a seed from the apple he ate. The seed fell onto the wet and warm soil on that particular spring day. In time, the seed split and sent out a cautious root that deliberatively pushed its way down and entwined itself around a heart-shaped stone. The seed also sent out a hopeful leaf upward, and then another and another and another. Time passed, and the apple tree grew to be the largest and fullest apple tree of any of its ancestors. The tree held within its rings the knowledge of rains both gentle and harsh, soft breezes, scorching summer days, and crystal winter nights.

Its gnarled branches spread heavenward and welcomed the honey rays of the morning sun, tempered the heat of midday, and embraced the shifting hues of twilight’s lavender to gold to burnt orange and finally the cobalt velvet of night.

The tree gave life and home to many generations of wrens, owls, sparrows, ravens, chickadees, and doves. The occasional falcon might alight at the very top branches for a good viewing of the surrounding fields. In spring bees were drawn to its fragrant blossoms that lay lightly on the russet twigs of new growth. The tree hummed as the troupes of bees preformed their delicate husbandry from blossom to blossom.

When the apples formed and ripened, they were so very sweet and succulent that travelers made a new roundabout path, and abandoned the one made by the Roman armies on their way to Gaul, just to pass by the tree to enjoy its shade and to eat its fruit. The shade beneath the tree was inviting and had an earthy scent, especially after it rained.

In the summer, its leaves afforded a shady retreat and trysting place for lovers young and old. A parade of eager students, tired laborers, pretty young maidens, wandering philosophers, religious zealots, pious pilgrims, soldiers, minstrels, orphans, peddlers, thieves, and beggars all found a place to rest, refresh, and reflect.

Under that leafy canopy, a subtle exchange took place between the tree and this stream of humanity. As it did with the rain and the sun, the tree also absorbed the passions and secrets, hopes and wisdom, desires and depravities of its many visitors as they sat and ate, schemed and dreamed. These flitting emanations were captured in the web work of the tree’s leaves, and flowed into its branches and downward deep into its roots. The communion gave the tree a soul and a simple notion of good and evil. This knowledge coursed through every cell of the tree and burst forth, giving its fruit curative and thought-provoking qualities. Those who ate the apples were inclined to follow their bent.

Il Signore Mezzi was pleased to have this tree on his property. Since the Villa Mezzi was remote, all pilgrims were given a Christian welcome. He and La Signora had a kind word for anyone who brought news or an interesting story to share. Il Signore would chat with those select pilgrims he knew to be landed or of noble blood. The iron entrance gates were locked and only noblemen or clergymen--excluding monks and friars--were welcome inside the villa’s walls.

Word spread of the Sacred Tree. There was the story of the little lame girl who regained the use of her leg after just one bite of an apple, or the blind soldier whose sight was restored when he splashed apple juice into his eyes. Some accounts had a kernel of truth; others were fanciful fabrications. The people listened and the people came. Along with those who sought a cure for their ailments, or looked for spiritual renewal or confidence to follow their dreams, also came those who found advantage in the hopes and weaknesses of others.

At the end of harvest time, when most of the apples were picked and the remaining few were bird-pecked or more bruised than not, the path was lined with tents and stalls and folding tables. There were honest sellers who offered the simple necessities: bread, wine, cheese and honey. The clever and crafty ones offered apples they bought at market for a copper or two, claiming that the fruit was from the Sacred Tree. They sold them for as much as they could.

A smug competition grew amongst the members of this dishonest brotherhood. They agreed not to sell any apple for under a half silver florin. The high mark to beat was six gold pieces for a single apple bought by a merchant from Padua hoping to regain his youth and virility. If a customer complained, he or she was told that one apple may not be enough to affect a cure or a change, and a cure depended on the faith the pilgrim had in the fruit and in God.

One fine morning La Signora Mezzi, accompanied by her seven-year-old daughter Nina, cut roses for the house. The rose garden was a compact diamond-shaped area in the center of the courtyard, a few paces from the front gates. Nina was a happy little girl. She had on a light blue apron over her dress and her brand new green slippers just like her mama’s. A hummingbird flitted between the mother and daughter and hovered so close that each could feel the subtle stir of air made by the iridescent bird’s wings. It delighted them both. Nina took great care and pride in her task. She smiled at her mama as she held the basket up for the next rose. There were already six fragrant, deep red roses nestled in the basket.

From where La Signora and her daughter stood they could watch the goings-on under the apple tree. Their delicate sensibilities were disturbed by a loud and crass argument between an angry pilgrim, who wanted his money back, and one of the schemers selling the false fruit. After some cursing and shoving, La Signora and Nina caught the glint of an ivory-handled dagger as it wheeled through the air and plunged into the pilgrim’s chest. The man grabbed at his bleeding wound. Blood trickled from between his fingers and down the front of his shirt. He fell to his knees, then back onto his heels and to an ungainly position onto his back with his legs tucked under him. He lay there and clumsily tried to sit up. With great effort, he rolled to his side. His legs pulled to his chest until his knees were under his chin. He closed his eyes, whimpered, let out a death rattle, and died.

La Signora was horrified. Nina dropped the basket of roses fell and put her arms around her mother’s waist and buried her face in her mother’s stomach. The murderer ran, only to be stopped by other pilgrims who severely beat him. He was tied by the wrists behind an oxcart and led back down the pathway to the town. He was hanged a month later.

Il Signore Mezzi needed to protect his family. He was angry with himself for not doing something sooner. He hated confrontation, and more than once had overlooked the base behavior of some of the pilgrims to maintain the peaceful status quo. Now, this terrible murder had happened right in front of his wife and darling daughter. Nina, though not overtly affected by what she witnessed, could never, from that day on, look at a rose and not think of death.

Mezzi understood the value and importance of the Sacred Tree, but more so his family. On his orders, a tall mud and wattle wall was built around the Tree. The eight-foot-high circular wall covered a large area. It had a small heavy door that a grown man would have to stoop to pass through. Il Signore had the only key. Il Signore’s arborist trimmed the branches to confine the fruit to his most singular orchard. He sent away the vendors and charlatans.

Pilgrims would only be able to visit after the summer solstice until the end of harvest time. La Famiglia Mezzi would be the sole stewards of the Tree. Il Signore or La Signora would distribute the fruit as they saw fit. On a strong suggestion from La Signora, they would collect what she thought a fair price, of course giving a tenth share to the church. They would also cater to the visitors by offering the same fare that the food vendors did. La Famiglia Mezzi looked forward to the next groups of pilgrims and the coins they would bring.

Then on a terrible afternoon in October, a stinging wind twisted and tormented the tree. The howling gusts stripped its branches naked of the few remaining leaves. The wind bullied the tree, tugged at its very soul. The roots held fast, clinging to the heart-shaped stone as if for dear life. Along with the wind came rain--not the gentle rains of March or April, but torrents of chilled rain interspersed with hail. All of this was in the dark company of crashing thunder. The unthinkable happened. A bolt of lightning struck like a silver serpent from the blackness above and made a searing wound down the tree’s side and deep into its roots. In minutes, the rain turned to a drizzle. The wind faded to a breeze, and the breeze pushed the clouds off to the west.

Half the tree lived, and in time the other half withered and died. The half that lived bore very little fruit, and it was small and knotted and pitted with little black dots. This bitter fruit grew on the very highest branches, making it irretrievable.

Word spread and the path made by so many travelers now was seldom used. The grasses and wild flowers grew, and all but a foot path crisscrossed with animal trails remained. The mud and wattle wall fell to ruin as Signore Mezzi had never had it whitewashed, and the woven wattle was scavenged for firewood. Only the short door and its casing stood upright.

One morning a soldier rode down that overgrown path, arrived at the villa and called out Signore Mezzi. The order was for firewood. Six witches were to be burned in the piazza.

Signore Mezzi took it as a great honor. He ordered Franco Lucci the father of Adamo to cut down the dead apple tree, and deliver the wood to the mayor and the monsignor for the burning.

Franco’s axe did not stop from sunrise to sunset. Adamo, a strong boy of twelve armed with a bow saw, cut the larger branches into manageable pieces. After two days, the wood was loaded and delivered. The mayor sent his clerk to accept the gift from the Mezzi family. The parish priest, Father Eduardo, came out, sprinkled the wood with holy water, and gave the two woodsmen his blessing. Franco and Adamo bowed, thanked the priest many times, and headed back to Signor Mezzi.

Franco related to Signore Mezzi that the mayor sent his thanks and hoped the Mezzi family was in good health, that he was looking forward to their attendance, and that Father Eduardo had blessed the wood with holy water.

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