Alchemist's Gift

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Steps Taken

After their visit to Cesare, Pietro and Prunella returned to the Andano household by mid-afternoon. Prunella must have told Pietro a dozen times this would be her last excursion beyond the walls of Terra Sanctus. Marcella was in the kitchen sitting at the work table. She looked at the flask of vinegar and the few papery garlic skins that did not get tidied up after making the midday meal.

Marcella just returned from the market not more than a few minutes before and had a most unpleasant experience. No one except Maria Cutri the herb and potion seller would have anything to do with her. She was shunned at every stall and the most unnerving incident occurred when the butcher’s wife spit on her. Marcella said nothing. She just returned home with an empty basket and tried to make some sense of what happened.

“Hello, hello…” called Prunella, “are you here Marcella?”

Marcella called back, “I am here in the kitchen.” Prunella asked Pietro to go to the workshop and tell Farintino they had returned safely. When he was out of the room, Prunella went to her niece and put her hand on her shoulder. She saw Marcella was upset. “What is it, dear, you look sad.”

Marcella took her aunt’s hand and held it against her cheek. “Zietta Prunella, today was awful. No one except Maria the herb seller would talk to me, and Signora Carbone, she spit on me.” Marcella looked down at her blouse and touched the spot.

“Carbone? All the tough and stale meat they have sold to all of us over the years, they are the ones who should be spat on.” Prunella patted Marcella on the top of her head. “He can take you in tonight. You have not told anyone?”

“No, I have not told anyone.” Marcella became sullen. She asked herself how something as a simple bath and blessing could turn into something so awful and ugly. She knew she had to leave Terra Sanctus for a while anyway. Her aunt was right. Everyone spoke of the witch burnings in Germany, France and Rome. Some had happened not more than a few days on foot from Terra Sanctus. Marcella had mixed feelings about leaving. Terra Sanctus was her home. She had grown up there, but she was never a good fit, not with her family or the townsfolk. With her mother gone, she would only perpetuate Fausto’s lie by staying.

Farintino wanted her gone. Although he did not say so, he thought Amelia’s death was more supernatural than not. Prunella was wise enough not to tell him where Marcella might be going, just that she needed some funds. Farintino made the decision almost instantly. He did not care where Marcella went as long as she was gone.

That night Marcella prepared to leave. She dressed herself in dark clothing. She put on one of Fausto’s old shirts and a pair of Fausto’s black trousers. Marcella spent the time after supper packing. She had her three dresses, one dark brown and the other two were black, a pair of open-back slippers, and a pair of wooden clogs. She wore her one pair of “decent leather shoes” as she called them. She had two bodices, both plain white and cut high on the chest, three plain white underskirts, and four pairs of linen stockings. She also took two pairs of Fausto’s trousers and two more of his shirts. She opened a small trinket box that contained her mother’s wedding ring, a fine gold chain with a small gold cross that had been a gift from her aunt, and a crucifix fashioned from the scraps of palm fronds that were passed out after mass on Passion Sunday. She gathered her meager art supplies: the lead pencil she had found as a girl, a few twigs of charcoal, and a few scraps of paper with her enthusiastic but amateurish drawings.

Marcella put all of these things in her large leather bag along with a little piece of mirror, her sewing things, and her Holy Communion veil that was worn by her three sisters and had somehow made its way back to her.

The sun set, but the moon washed the town and the countryside with a milky glow. The only light in the house came from the stub of a candle that was burning in her room. She blew the candle out. Put a slouch hat on her head and picked up the bag. Marcella heard Farintino snoring as she passed by his room on her way to the front door. She opened the door as quietly as she could, but the latch still made that loud hollow click and a low moan as it moved on its hinges. She went out and closed the door behind her.

Marcella passed through the front gate and quickly headed across the street to the alley that passed behind the stables. Halfway down the alley, she stopped short and held her breath when she saw a moonlit couple leaning against the wall, locked in a feverish embrace. The two ardently kissed. The woman’s back was against the stable wall and she was suspended off the ground. She clung to her lover’s shoulders; her dress was pulled up in the front and Marcella could see the woman’s naked white legs wrapped low around the man’s waist. He drove himself against her. Each movement spawned a passionate groan from deep in their throats. As the lovers reached the throes of climax, Marcella lowered her head, closed her eyes, and rushed past them as quietly and quickly as possible.

“Who’s there?” called the man, half-laughing and out of breath.

Marcella kept running toward the end of the alley. She heard the woman ask her lover, “Who was he?”

“He is gone. Do not worry. He did not want to see us,” answered the man.

Marcella ran to the town’s western wall that lay thirty paces ahead. She discovered a small forgotten door at the base of the city wall. The door was hidden by dense shrubbery that had been planted years before. Behind the door was a narrow and almost impassible breach. From outside town, the jagged opening was impossible to see. It was draped over with vines from above, and hidden by thick weeds that grew up from below.

Marcella found out about the wall’s secret in that brief year and a half she had to herself. She enjoyed skulking about behind the buildings and through the dark narrow alleyways. She wouldn’t have even noticed the door if it weren’t for two seedy men who burst around the corner and into the alley. Marcella hid behind a rain barrel. One man clutched something draped in a cloth under his arm. The other held back the shrubbery. “Which one, which one?” asked one of them with some urgency.

“The fourth one. Push the fourth one,” said the other. Marcella heard a click, and they pulled the small door open. With some difficulty, the men slipped behind the shrubbery and through the door, and closed it behind them. In less than a minute, a little fat red-faced man, Signore Figaro Turinni, the barber, ran into the alleyway. He held a walking stick in one hand like a sword. He was quite out of breath and panting. He slumped against the wall for a moment to rest, looked up and down the empty alleyway, muttered something--though inaudible to Marcella--that was certainly a curse and left.

Now, on this desperate night, in the pale moonlight, she ran her hand along the wall behind the shrubs until she found the upper corner of the doorframe. Marcella blindly felt the rough, weathered wood; her fingers made out the iron bar padlocked in its saddle. She did not understand how she could open a door that was so secure.

Marcella harbored no anger toward the Holy Virgin, so she prayed to her to guide her hands and to give her strength. She felt along the horizontal row of large clavos at the center of the door. She hoped the door would work tonight the same way it had when she first found it those several years ago. She tried wiggling each clavo until she found the loose one. She closed her eyes and pushed. It moved. She pressed harder. She heard a click and felt the door give. She reached into the shrubs with her other hand and found that everything moved as one. What appeared to be the wooden doorframe, along with the iron bar and the padlock, all made up the door. Marcella pulled hard, and the door groaned. She pulled again with all of her strength and it finally opened enough for her to pass through. She struggled with the shrubbery and held it out of the way with one hand, picked up her bag with the other, and ducked into the opening. She could see the outlines of the vines that hung over the jagged opening against the moonlit sky. As she struggled and squeezed through to the other side of the wall, a spiderweb brushed her face and made her shudder. She finally broke through the vines and weeds, pulling on the handle of her leather bag until it finally came through with one last yank.

Marcella walked close to the wall. She did not want to be noticed by any guards who sometimes could be seen on the parapet. The going was sometimes difficult. Marcella had to negotiate granite outcrops and a few dark gullies. She had a long walk to the north wall, and then just as long of a walk along the base of the north wall to the country lane that led to Cesare’s cottage.

When Marcella turned the corner, she saw a gypsy encampment, not more than fifty paces ahead. She could hear the soulful music they played and their children laughing. She smelled sweet smoke. A column of sparkling embers rushed high above the bonfire and disappeared into a spiraling shower.

A man stepped out of the shadows. Marcella felt her heart leap into her throat. She stopped, stunned and afraid.

“Where might you be going, boy?” He spoke in a thick Romany accent.

Marcella stood there speechless.

The man turned into the moonlight, and she could see his handsome, square face. He was tall, and even in the moonlight she could see that he had a dark complexion. He wore a striped kerchief on his head. He had long black hair and a trimmed beard and moustache. She saw the glint of the round gold earring in his left ear, and his opened shirt showed off his muscular chest. He wore a dark sash and baggy pants, and he was barefoot.

“Well, boy, where might you be going?” he asked again.

“I am leaving,” was all Marcella could think to say.

“Yes, we are always leaving too. Come join us. We can always take in a new man.”

“Join you? Who are you, sir?”

“Sir, is it? I am Mika… prince of the gypsies.” He stood up straighter and crossed his arms high on his chest. “And you? Who are you known as?”

Marcella saw his teeth flash when he smiled. She looked away and lowered her head.

“Come now, lad, do not be afraid. Do not believe all those things they say about gypsies.”

Marcella held on to her bag that much tighter.

Mika put his hand on Marcella’s shoulder; more precisely, on the strap of her leather bag. In an instant he pulled her slouch hat down over her face, pushed her back, and slipped the bag off her shoulder when she threw out her arms for balance. Marcella stumbled backward and almost fell. By the time she felt her feet firmly on the ground and pulled the hat up off of her face, she saw Mika holding her bag up in one hand, half-running to the colorful gypsy tents that formed a circle around their bonfire.

Even though she was afraid, she did not want to lose everything she owned, especially her mother’s wedding ring and the gold cross that Aunt Prunella had given her. Marcella ran after Mika and when she entered the circle of tents, she stopped and stood motionless.

Gypsy men and women and their children sat around the bonfire. They stopped their quiet chatter and lullabies and curiously looked up at the intruder. They all wore some kind of headscarves. The women wore colorful blouses and heavily embroidered skirts. Most of the children were asleep, cradled in their mother’s arms. A few women modestly suckled their babies.

With some effort, a white-haired woman slowly got to her feet. She wore a black headscarf, a black blouse, and an ankle-length skirt. Around her neck hung several necklaces made of gold coins. She wore several belly chains of the same design. Her tanned face was careworn but ageless, her dark eyes penetrating and intense. She leaned on a gnarled walking stick. Two young women stood, one on each side of the matriarch.

“Tell Mother Vadoma, why do you come here, boy? This is not a place for you.” Her voice was clear and strong.

Marcella cleared her throat and forced herself to speak. “I… I need my things.”

“You need your things,” the old woman repeated.

“Yes, ma’am. The prince took them and I need them back. Please.” Marcella could feel everyone’s eyes on her. More gypsy men and boys stopped their music and singing and slowly gathered around. They stood with their arms crossed, whispering to each other as they looked on.

“The prince? Well, perhaps you should seek an audience with King Wenceslaus and tell him his son is a thief.” Both the men and women broke into hearty laughs and echoed the name Wenceslaus between chuckles and guffaws.

Marcella was on the verge of tears. “Please, ma’am, his name is Mika. He took everything I own in the world.”

“And what do we have?” A surly murmur swelled behind her words.

Marcella looked into the dancing shadows and the fiery brown eyes that glared at her. “You have your people, your families, and your horses.”

“Yes, that is true, but nowhere safe to live.” Mother Vadoma cocked her head to one side, trying to get a better look at Marcella in the firelight. She searched the crowd for her son, Mika.

“Nor do I.” Marcella tried to control herself, but tears filled her eyes.

The old woman spotted her son. “Prince Mika, come to your mama.” Some laughed. A few men playfully repeated the title “prince.” The handsome young man strutted out from the crowd and knelt on one knee before Mother Vadoma. She looked at Marcella. “You, boy. Come before me.”

Marcella approached and stopped at arms’ length from the aged matriarch. One of the Mother Vadoma’s aides placed her hand on Marcella’s shoulder and bid her kneel. Mika glanced at Marcella, and then took a closer look.

“Is this the prince who took your things?”

Marcella meekly nodded yes, met Mika’s inquiring eyes, and looked down on the ground.

“Is this true? Did you take this boy’s things?”

“Mama, he thrust them into my hand as he was falling backward. I thought he was giving them to me.”

Some in the crowd snickered, and others moaned at the outrageous reply.

“Do not bring shame on our family.”

Mika turned to the crowd and spotted his younger brother, Boldo, who held Marcella’s valise behind his back. Mika nodded, and the smiling youngster brought the valise to Mother Vadoma. Marcella involuntarily reached for it but held herself back.

“Prove to me this is yours. Tell me what is inside.”

“My clothes and my shoes,” said Marcella.

Mother Vadoma painfully undid the leather straps and folded the cover out of the way. She pulled out one of the three overskirts, held it up to view and handed it to her aide. Everyone looked at the piece of clothing with curiosity and then at Marcella. Next came one of Marcella’s simple overblouses, the sight of which garnered the same confused looks from the clan. When Mother Vadoma pulled out the white stockings, she looked at them and held them to her side. She gave Mika a concerned nod. “Both of you stand. Mika, take off the boy’s hat.”

Once on her feet, Marcella reached up and gripped the brim of her hat with both hands. Mika did not try very hard to remove it, although he easily could have. Mother Vadoma nodded, and Mika stepped away and joined the other men and boys on the far side of the bonfire. Mother Vadoma looked deep into Marcella’s eyes. “Tell me your name, dear,” she said gently.

Marcella thought about Aunt Prunella’s warning and held her tongue.

“Is it Maria, or perhaps Luciana, or maybe Rosa?”

Marcella thought for a second before she answered. “Please, ma’am, I dare not tell you my name.”

Mother Vadoma saw the anxious and frightened look on Marcella’s face. “I see. You are a young woman who dresses and acts like a boy, but claims the dresses and blouses and stocking in this valise belong to you. You are escaping from something, yes?”

“Please, ma’am. May I have my things? I must go away, or they will burn me for a witch.”

The entire clan came to life and quickly gathered around Mother Vadoma with the men making a human shield between her and Marcella. Anyone who had a crucifix, whether it was on the end of a chain around their neck or a rosary, held it up for protection.

Marcella took off her hat. Her hair fell over her ears, and her delicate features announced her femininity. “You are right. If I tell you my name will you give me back my things? Please?”

Mother Vadoma approached Marcella and put her hand on her shoulder. “To know your name is not important. You are no witch. I can feel that in my soul. We gypsies know what it is like to be hunted and chased and made to feel unwelcome. Our hearts beat with yours.” The gypsy men and women moved aside and Mother Vadoma handed the valise to Marcella. Marcella put the strap over her shoulder and pressed her arm tight against her side.

“Thank you.” Marcella put her hat on and tucked her hair up under the band.

“Until we meet again--for I know we shall--blessings on you, and may God protect you.” The gypsies repeated their leader’s words like a prayer and bowed. The old woman released Marcella with a smile and a nod.

Marcella took one long, last look at the shadowy gypsy men, women, and children who stood in the wavering firelight. She gave an unsure wave and quickly returned to the spot where she had encountered Mika. Marcella hadn’t taken more than ten steps when the gypsy prince came up alongside her. Without a word he took her hand, opened it, and returned her mother’s wedding ring and the little gold cross that Aunt Prunella had given her so many years ago.

“Until we meet again, blessings on you,” the gypsy said. He turned and headed back to the enclosure of tents, the warmth of the bonfire, and his people.

Marcella passed by the last gypsy tent and headed away from Terra Sanctus. She followed the moonlit lane up the first gentle hill, and she descended into the wide rolling meadow below. Marcella glanced over her shoulder. The roofline and walls of Terra Sanctus faded into the night. She could still hear the strains of gypsy lyres and rebecs, but they soon faded.

The cool night air and the walking calmed Marcella. The lane stretched in front of her. Marcella had never been out in the dark like this before. She started when an owl passed within a few feet over her head. She heard the hissing wing beats and felt the air pulse against her hat.

Thing looked so different in the dark. The trees and their leaves lay flat against the sky like black filigree. The natural details of the plants and trees and hills that she used to gauge distance and direction were hidden by the night. Marcella finally recognized a stand of trees. The twisted little trees were dead, but the way their branches lifted up above them reminded her of an engraving she had once seen at the printer’s shop of Pagan maidens doing a wild ritual dance. Marcella was relieved to find this landmark. She began to look sharp for the pathway leading to Cesare’s cottage. After a few unsuccessful forays through openings in the brush that looked like they might be the way, only to end after five or six paces in, she found it.

Marcella recited the Hail Mary while she trudged up the path. If she hadn’t been there before, she would never have found it. The cottage was not visible from the lane, and the path wound through the trees, making it nearly invisible. When she reached the top of the path, she saw there was no light on in the house. Marcella stood in front of the door and knocked fairly hard. She knocked again. The last time she saw Cesare was the day she and Miranda bought Fausto’s coffin. She remembered the thrill she had felt, be it for just an instant, when she placed the coins in his strong hand. She didn’t want to leave.

Cesare remembered that day as well. He was just as reluctant for her to leave the shop as she was. He wondered if that feeling would still be there tonight. He opened the door. “You are here tonight? Come in, come in. For some reason, I thought you would come tomorrow. Welcome. Come in.” Marcella stood on the threshold. Both hoped the connection they had felt on that certain day a month earlier might still be there. “Come in and sit.”

Cesare lit an oil lamp. The little clay lamp gave off just enough light to make shadows and not much more. Marcella happily put her bag down and looked for a place to sit. Cesare pulled on his shirt and offered her one of the two chairs at a small round table.

Marcella sat and let out a sigh of relief.

Cesare looked at the young woman who sat before him. He was surprised that she wore men’s clothing. “Who came with you?” Cesare poured some diluted wine. Marcella was thirsty and drank it down.

“I came alone. I had to leave tonight. Zietta Prunella thought it best.”

“You came alone. That was a brave thing.” Cesare was impressed. He raked his fingers through his hair to give it some order.

“You are doing a brave thing allowing me to stay here. Everyone thinks me a witch because of the way Mama died. They think I caused it, that I belong to Satan. Zietta Prunella thinks they will want to burn me at the stake.”

“Very ugly business, that. You will be safe here. Let us hope these burnings will come to an end soon.”

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