Alchemist's Gift

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The Bud

Country life agreed with Marcella. Cesare reaped the benefits of Marcella’s tidiness and cooking skills. She tended to the garden. She dried garden vegetables and fruit from the wild fruit trees that dotted the surrounding hills. She gathered nuts and stored them in earthen jars and crocks for the winter months.

Cesare made her a bed frame and a dressing chest. He also gave her something much greater. He taught her to read.

One day, out of boredom, Marcella moved a very heavy trunk away from a back wall to clean behind it. She noticed the hasp hung knot secured. She felt close to and comfortable enough with Cesare to know that he would not care if she opened it. On top was the black robe of the seminarian. She took it out, unfolded it, and laid it out on the chaise. Under the robe was a layer of writings and papers. She carefully removed scrolls and parchment pages covered with very close and small letters. Some of the pages were loosely bound together with a leather cord; others lay free. She placed the writings on top of the robe in a neat stack. The rest of the trunk held books. There were small books, large books with little golden designs pressed into the leather; some were old and fragile.

She lifted out a volume bound in blood red leather entitled “Alchimista Beneficium.” An Uroborus--the serpent in the shape of a circle with its tail in its mouth, the symbol for oneness--was tooled into the leather. The frontispiece was an intricate woodcut, and the symbols for Aer, Ignus, Aquas, and Terra graced the corners of each page.

Marcella looked up when Cesare opened the door. He grimaced and pinched his index fingertip. He picked at a good-sized sliver just under his fingernail that went down halfway to the quick.

“Marcella, find me the tweezers, please.” He did not see her until she moved.

“Yes, the tweezers. I will get them for you.” She kept them on the shelf with the basin, the pitcher, Cesare’s razor, and a wooden comb. He shook his hand and sat at the dining table. Marcella sat, took his work-hardened hand, and turned it in the light. She saw the tiny end of the splinter sticking out just at the end of the nail. “Now, get ready.” Before he could gird himself for the pain, she deftly plucked the sliver out in one quick, strong tug.

Cesare drew his hand out of hers and shook it. “You rascal, I was not ready.”

Marcella smiled and wiggled the tweezers with its prize for Cesare to see. “One never is.” She held out her hand and dropped the ridiculously tiny piece of wood into her palm. Cesare wetted his fingertip and picked up the sliver, studied it for a second, and then flicked it on the floor.

“I see you have found the books.”

“Oh yes. They look wonderful. Where did you get so many?”

It was late afternoon. Cesare’s project was ahead of schedule, and his work could wait until tomorrow. “Pour some wine, girl, and I will tell you.”

Marcella poured out two glasses of wine and sat.

“Being the third son, I would become a priest. When I was old enough, the priests taught me to read and write Latin. I was accepted into seminary after I made my confirmation. I was to spend the next four years in religious study to prepare myself for ordination.

“I found I had a gift for rhetoric. I could make an equally compelling argument on both sides of a point. I was called ‘Little Cicero.’ My lively arguments set me apart from the other aspirants, and my arguments became more convincing and reason-driven.

“The abbot saw my inquisitiveness and enthusiasm as disrespectful, even heretical. One of my fellow seminarians was named Valentino Carpone. He was a decent sort, kind and polite and generous. Valentino enjoyed our philosophical discussions. The more I got to know Valentino, the more I could see that we two were not cut out for the clergy.

“After one exceptionally fine argument that left the instructor fuming, I was called before the abbot. He told me, ‘heretics might lose their heads, or hands, or feet. Are you a heretic, young Lippo?’ The abbot looked into my eyes and then stroked the base of his neck with his fingertips. He frightened me.

“No, I am no heretic, your eminence.”

“Then stop these prideful displays. Pride is one of the cardinal sins. Sins must be punished. You are capable of following my simple logic, yes? The abbot’s tone was sarcastic. ’I believe your pride has earned you at least ten lashes with the scourge. I expect to see you tomorrow before dawn, outside in the middle of the courtyard, on your knees praying to our Savior for forgiveness. Understood? I believe you should fast beforehand, so stay away from the refractory table, and the backdoor of the scullery.

“I bowed. The abbot waved me away.”

Marcella took a sip of wine. “Did they whip you?” She could not disguise her horror of the impending answer.

Cesare smiled. “No. Valentino was outside the abbot’s chambers waiting for me. I told him I was to be whipped at dawn. He laughed and said, ‘Come, my friend. I tire of this dreary place. Let us lose these dull togs. What do you say to a fine dinner, some wine, some fun? Come home with me.’

“He reached into his robe and took out a purse. He shook it up and down, and the coins jingle jangled like the bells on a harlequin’s slippers.

“Once outside the abbey grounds Valentino outfitted us with some clothing and hired a carriage and four. We headed north and stopped at the first reputable roadhouse. We ate roast meat and fish, and drank the finest wine the innkeeper had.

“Valentino told me his father, Valentino the Elder, was a very educated man, a man of sciences. His wanted to put order to the chaos in the world. His mother sent him away to remove him from his father’s influence, and Valentino never had any intention of taking the vows for the priesthood.

“The journey took five days. We arrived in the late morning. The carriage turned into a broad drive bordered by neatly trimmed shrubs. This wasn’t some manor house. It was an estate, complete with fountain, flower gardens, and a stable, all supported by a vast vineyard and winery.

“The homecoming was happy. Valentino’s mother tried to stay upset but gave in when he approached her with open arms. Valentino the Elder just stood back out of the way at the bottom of the staircase and beamed. Valentino’s two sisters heard their brother’s voice and ran in from the rear terrace, abandoning some giggly game. They threw themselves so hard on Valentino that they almost knocked him over. His father came over to Valentino and gave him a hug and kissed him on both cheeks. ’Ah, my kindred soul has returned to me. He tried it your way, Mama, did he not? Valentino the Elder pulled his son in and gave him a hearty hug, and patted him on the back. He then looked over at me and smiled. ‘And you must be Little Cicero. Val has mentioned you in his letters.’

“I was welcomed like an old friend. Valentino’s twelve-year-old sister Lydia was very proper in her manners. Upon being introduced she put her right foot forward, toe down, heel slightly elevated, pinched up a little bit of her dress between her thumbs and forefingers, pulled the dress away from her body, and curtsied, just the way she had practiced in front of the looking-glass. Ten-year-old Valentina stood next to her sister, watched carefully, and curtsied too. By dinnertime, I felt like part of the family.”

Cesare’s stomach grumbled. “Marcella, fetch us a little bite of cheese, please. Maybe an apple.”

“No apples, but there are some plums.”

“I saw apples there yesterday, the ones from the tree by the spring.”

Marcella chuckled softly. “I cut into a few, they were just too wormy,” she said as she busied herself with a knife.

Cesare grunted a reply and inspected his fingertip. It still hurt and he pressed it with his thumb until a pin prick’s worth of blood came out. Marcella put out a wooden platter with some cheese, some cut-up bread, some olives, and a half a dozen small purple plums on the table.

“Tell me about the books.” Marcella sat down and pushed the tray toward Cesare.

“I spent the first month I was there in Valentino the Elder’s library. He had over five hundred books. I was in Heaven. Valentino must have read every book there, because no matter which one I was reading, he could look at the title and we could talk about even the finest points I might bring up.

“One morning I heard horses outside. I went to the library window and saw three gentlemen and a boy alight from a coach. The top of the coach was completely filled with all kinds of boxes and crates. Valentino the Elder and Valentino went to meet the men, and by the way they embraced and showed such free and easy humor, I guessed they knew each other quite well.

“Valentino the Elder escorted his friends into the house. I stood by the library door, which was ajar, and looked on. Valentino the Elder’s wife, Josephina, was visibly upset. She paced in front of her husband and his friends several times, so they had to stop and were about to greet her when she addressed her husband as if the others were not present. With an awfully stern but sad look on her face she said, ‘I will be in the chapel praying for all of our souls until these… men are gone from my house.’ She made the sign of the cross, went into the chapel, and closed the door.

“Valentino the Elder shrugged his shoulders and gave his guests an apologetic look. They nodded in sympathy and took up their conversations with each other where they had left off before Josephina’s little drama.

“Valentino caught a glimpse of me looking through the opened door. He came up to me and said, ‘Ah, Plato was right; women are a different species. Poor Mama. For her, anything new or different is bad or wrong. She will hide in the chapel for the rest of the day, and then sulk until father’s guests leave.’

“Valentino leaned in and spoke with excitement. ‘By and by, we have a very wise man come to us. He is a professor at the University of Bologna, Dominco Novara da Farrara. He has along with him a very bright student named Nicolaus Copernicus.’

“I had no idea who these men might be, but I was excited all the same.

“‘Come, help supervise the unloading of the equipment,’ said Valentino.

“Valentino instructed the workers to carefully pass the crates and boxes down from the roof of the coach into the bed of a four wheel cart. When the last piece was loaded, Valentino paid the coachman and told him to return in eight days. We led the donkey cart to the ‘castle.’”

“A real castle?” asked Marcella.

“No. The ‘castle’ was a large stone building built ages ago, probably during the reign of Justinian, and Valentino’s family guessed it to be a silo or maybe a granary, although no one was quite sure. The ‘castle’ was perhaps twenty paces square with a turret in the center of its arched roof. The turret was maybe two paces across and ten feet tall.

“Valentino unlocked the massive door. The hinges let out a terrible screech when he pulled it open. I was startled and threw my hands up in front of my face when a number of pigeons noisily flew out of the doorway into the daylight.

“The inside was open. There were alcoves and niches and shelves filled with books. The worktables were crowded with all sorts of paraphernalia.

“I asked why there was no roof on the turret. Valentino told me that no one was sure. It was then that he shared that the visitors and his father were going to carry out an experiment.

“Valentino the Elder had come across an ancient clay jar from Baghdad that held a mysterious power within it. If you touched the two metal wires that came out of its top together, it would cause a spark. They were making a larger version of it, using the turret as the vessel. I found that most exciting.

“Workmen put a bottom on the turret and sealed the insides with pitch. Valentino the Elder instructed the workmen to lower a copper vessel made by the estate’s metal smiths into the turret, and to hold it in place with a rope sling. They had to make sure it did not touch the sides and bottom on the sealed turret. Next they lowered an iron cast pillar, round as a small tree and as tall as me, and held it place at the vessel’s center by building a roof around it.”

“What was all this for?” asked Marcella.

“Patience, Marcella.” Cesare felt foolish for all of his prattle when he saw her yawn. “I see I am boring you.”

Marcella sat upright and shook her head no as she spoke. “Boring? Heavens no, I find the story fascinating. It is the wine that makes me sleepy, not you. Please, sir, continue.” Marcella shifted in her chair and leaned in a little closer to Cesare.

“Valentino the Elder called for all of the spoiled wine to be brought to the ‘castle.’ Over a hundred large barrels were poured to fill the space between the walls of the turret and the copper vessel.” Casere felt the same excitement relating the story to Marcella that he had on the day it happened.

“Val and I climbed up onto the roof of the ‘castle,’ and then onto a ladder to the top of the turret. Everything was ready. The end of the iron casting stood proud in the center of the rooftop. A much smaller copper rod that was part of the copper vessel also stuck out above the roofline.”

Marcella filled their glasses. The look on his face sparked the same feeling she had had when she and her sister approached him about the coffin.

“One of the guests, Signore Antonio Turigli, sent his servant out. The boy’s name was Stefano. He was a fine-looking boy of maybe ten years with large, expressive eyes. Stefano returned and handed a cloth sack to his master. The signore brought out a solid gold goblet. It was engraved with strange signs and symbols. Everyone admired its beauty and craftsmanship.

“Il Signore Turigli took out another object from the sack. He unwrapped the largest, clearest crystal that I had ever seen. The six-sided crystal was the size of an apple. It had a hole bored in it from top to bottom. That, too, was marveled over. The strangest and most dear object was a hollow glass wand, maybe as long as your forearm and as round as a man’s thumb.”

Cesare held up his glass. The wine glowed in the candlelight. “Do you see this color, Marcella? This deep ruby red? Signore Turigli had the glass tube filled with rubies that had been crushed to a powder and mixed with a resin made from the sap of the apple tree and his own blood. He filled the glass tube with the liquid rubies and melted the ends over to seal it.”

“Rubies?” Marcella looked at the wine in her glass and back to Cesare.

“Yes, rubies! I know the story sounds so fantastic, but it is true.”

“Oh, sir, I believe you.” Marcella hung onto every word. Never in her life did she feel so confident and privileged to hear what only men might discuss among themselves.

“Signore Turigli placed the crystal in the gold goblet. Then he inserted the ruby wand into the crystal and the wand and the ether around the wand took on a red cast. We were awestruck. He took the wand out of the crystal and the glow immediately faded. He put the wand into the crystal and it glowed until he removed the crystal from the goblet.

“The carpenters finished the roof on the turret and were sent away. Turigli’s boy Stefano carried the sack containing the goblet and crystal. Il Signore carried the ruby wand himself. Valentino the Elder was the first onto the newly built turret roof. He knelt down where the end of the iron casting was exposed. Stefano followed, knelt next to Valentino the Elder, and handed him the gold goblet. By this time, Val and I were on the roof too. Turigli was afraid of heights and stayed behind. He handed the wand to Val to carry.

“The metal workers cast the iron rod with a round socket a hair’s breadth larger than the bottom of the goblet so it could be pressed in quite snug. Valentino the Elder called to me and asked for the gold wire, some beeswax, and a mallet I brought with me. I tapped the goblet into the socket and it held fast. On instruction from Turigli, Val took the crystal from Stefano and secured it in the goblet with the beeswax. Valentino the Elder wrapped the gold wire around the stem of the goblet. I remember he was very exact in the number of times. It was thirteen.”

“Thirteen,” repeated Marcella. “A wire made out of gold?”

“It was thick too. The wire was long enough to reach the copper rod that was part of the copper vessel. Stefano was to touch the gold wire to the copper rod and complete the energy path. Val fitted the glass wand in the crystal and secured it with more beeswax. Our experiment was ready. We went back to the library, talked, drank good brandy, and ate our fill until twilight. “

“What did they talk about?”

“How we hoped the experiment might open the door or a portal to a different metaphysical plane of existence. Da Farrara was convinced such a portal had to have a certain resonance to attract metaphysical energies to our physical world. Valentino the Elder read us his treatise on his study of time.”

“Time? What does that have to do with the gold goblet and the ruby rod? Time passes, and it is gone,” volunteered Marcella. She wanted to hear about the experiment.

“Valentino pointed out that time passes in different ways for different people. When we wait for something we want to happen, time cannot pass quickly enough. If we are doing something we enjoy, why does time seem to slip away so quickly?”

“That is the same for everybody, is it not?” Marcella picked up one of the plums and bit into it.

“True, but the bit of time spent waiting or doing whatever it is you might enjoy could be the same, could it not?”

“Yes, I suppose it could be.”

“We all feel time differently: the baker waiting for the bread to rise, the nun saying her prayers, the little baby sleeping, the soldier in battle… everyone in the world is living at that exact instant, and for each one of us, time is stretched or compressed. The moment passes and time changes for all of us again.”

Marcella was out of her depth, but she was enthralled. Cesare too enjoyed the moment. He was living his past, his present, and--he foresaw--his future self, sitting at this very table teaching Marcella to read.

“Many of us think that time passes and it is something behind us. Time ripples away from us the same as water ripples when you toss a pebble into a pond. Time is all around us like a great ocean, and we are no more than a bubble floating along, sometimes under the waves and sometimes on the surface. Who knows where we might pop up?”

Marcella pondered this different viewpoint. “What we did yesterday happened then, and it cannot happen again.”

“In our memories it can.”

“Yes, we can remember what happened but it already happened, and it happened then, at that time.”

Marcella’s intelligence and inquisitiveness pleased him. She became even more attractive to him.

“That is not the argument, when something first happened. Let us say, you do a kind deed for someone and they are ungrateful or disparage you because they feel your good deed is done for your self-aggrandizement, not out of love or concern as you meant it. You feel the sting of their words. You feel hurt and unappreciated and disappointed. For the rest of the day, you wish the person had received your kindness as you meant it.”

Marcella leaned back on the stool and crossed her arms. She could think of many times Fausto had made her feel that way when she took care of him.

“That night, lying in your bed, you are living in the present. You feel the pillow under your head, the bedclothes pulled up under your chin. You see the shadows of the firelight on the ceiling, but you are also living in the past at the same time when you hear the ungrateful remarks. Your muscles stiffen, your heart beats fast; sometimes you may even speak the words out loud that you wish you would have said. You are living in two times at once.”

Marcella could not hide the skeptical look in her eyes. Cesare thought of another example and asked, “You do dream?”

“Of course. Everyone dreams.”

“When you dream, where are you?”

“In my bed.”

“Have you ever had such a vivid dream that you could feel the wind on your face or an emotion to make your heart beat fast?”

“Yes, I have dreamt of being chased. That was frightening. I have also dreamt I was flying a few times,” she said with a smile.

“Yes, they are wonderful. The things you do and the people you meet in dreams are real. You are living in two realities at once. You are asleep in your bed, but you are also flying high above the earth. Your dream self can enter into a world of familiar things, or you can go to a world that does not yet exist and live there too at the same time.”

“What do mean, ‘go to a world that does not yet exist’?”

“I am sure you know what I mean. You have never imagined doing something you have not done yet? I do. I imagine a stool I am going to make. I see my hands cutting and shaping the legs. I see myself scraping the seat to the shape I want it to be. I see the auger boring the holes to accept the legs, and I see myself pounding the wedges in to hold the legs fast to the seat. I am experiencing the future before it happens, am I not?”

“Maybe, but the stool is not made.”

“It is made. It exists and only needs to take on solid form. It needs to be something that we can touch and see or hear because that is what our fingers and eyes and ears are capable of. If we can find that portal to the metaphysical plane where the thought of that stool physically exists, we can we can send our imagined self there as well and be in both times and places at once.”

“Do you think people who die are able to go back to when they were young?”

“Dear Marcella, how do we know they do not? A man or woman may return to the prime of his or her life or decide to live a new life. Just because the body wearies and dies does not mean our soul has to die with it.”

“But when we die we go to Heaven or Purgatory or Hell.” Marcella clung to something she knew was unarguable.

“If we choose to believe that is where we will go. How does either of us know if we have already passed through death’s door and come to this time and place? Both of us could be here from the past or the future. We could be the imaginings of you, well on in age, wanting to return to your young self. Or we could be here at my wish, or at the wish of anyone who has been able to combine both the physical and metaphysical.” Cesare sat back and savored his wine and his theory.

“Master Lippo, I am sorry but I do not understand.”

“You have kept on with me longer then some of the most educated and wisest men I know.” Cesare drank the last bit of his wine and smiled at Marcella. “Now I am to bed.”

“No, no, you cannot go to bed. You must tell me about the experiment!” Marcella sat up straight and was ready to hear the story.

Cesare smiled. “Twilight came and the clouds were quite low. Val and his father and Stefano and I went onto the roof of the turret. The other scholars waited below. The ruby wand was a magnificent sight with its faint red glow. Our task was to connect the gold wire wrapped around the stem of the goblet to the copper rod that stuck up through the roof. Val made sure the crystal was still set firm in the beeswax. When he was satisfied, Valentino the Elder signaled to Stefano, who picked up the gold wire and touched it to the copper rod.

“It was a wonder to see. The crystal vibrated in the goblet and a thin ribbon of ruby light went straight up out of the top of the wand, spread out, and colored the underside of the clouds red. That by itself would have been extraordinary; what followed was beyond belief. Images appeared on the underside of the clouds and came to life. The things we saw were unbelievable. We saw a black road with yellow designs painted on it. We saw people, and carriages that moved without horses. We saw a young man in his blue carriage looking back at us. I will never forget the astonishment in his eyes. And there were so many lights, red, yellow, and green that shone from boxes on poles.”

“People in the clouds…” Marcella thought of her vision.

“The living images only lasted for a few seconds and faded when we took the gold wire from the copper rod and the ribbon of red light ceased. The clouds returned to their gray color. It was fantastic.”

“What happened next?”

“Everyone was amazed. Valentino the Elder was giddy. He told Stefano to touch the gold wire to the copper rod again. He did. The ruby light shot up faster than an arrow and the clouds turned red again. We saw the face of a beautiful woman. She had a strawberry birthmark on her neck. Her head was thrown back and she had a look of pleasure about her. The image lasted for only an instant. We took the gold wire away and the clouds faded to gray.

“Antonio Turigli called up and begged Valentino the Elder to stop. He said, ‘Stop, in the name of God, or we will all be cast into Hell!’”

“Did you stop?” Marcella drank a little more wine.

“No. Valentino the Elder took the wire and touched it to the rod again. This time the ruby ribbon flashed into the sky and lit the clouds red and I saw the picture of a place not far from here. It is the path just past Longo’s farm. A girl came upon a young man who took off his hat and showed it to her. Then the image faded.

“Turigli angrily yelled at Stefano to fetch the glass wand and come down. Valentino the Elder told the boy to stand fast, that he needed to use it one more time. He himself pressed the gold wire against the copper rod. The ruby ribbon of light shot through an opening in the clouds and disappeared into the sky. We were so busy looking up we did not notice the goblet was glowing or the crystal was vibrating or the liquid rubies boiled in the glass rod. Val pulled at his father’s hand but his father insisted he keep it pressed against the rod. The tar on the roof began to bubble and run. We heard the sound of thunder and looked up to see a black whirlpool in the sky directly above us. There was such a great shaking. The roof quickly became unstable. Stefano scurried across the roof to the ladder. He passed too close to the glowing ruby wand. He was snared in a web of tiny red strands that wove themselves around his body. I remember the terrified look in his eyes. In a heartbeat the boy’s body became impossibly stretched out of shape. It was drawn around the pulsing ribbon of light and he disappeared. He was gone. The glass wand shattered and we were showered with hot liquid rubies and slivers of glass. Val pulled the wire away and we helped each other off the roof just before it caught fire.

“All we could do was watch the roof burn and fall into itself.

“Turigli held his hands to the sides of his face and silently paced back and forth. Da Farrara and Nicholaus looked over the notes and drawings they had made. All of us tried to make sense out of what just happened. We could not.

“Finally Turigli spoke. ‘May God forgive us. Poor Stefano. He was a good boy.’ Turigli made the sign of the cross and said, ‘Thank God everything is destroyed by the fire. We had no right to do what we did. Valentino and Farrara, we must destroy all records of this.’ All of us took a vow never to mention the experiment or talk about it again.”

“But you told me,” Marcella smiled.

“You are the only one. To tell anyone else…why, people would think you mad or worse--possessed by the devil.”

Marcella reflected on how insistent her mother was to keep her dream vision to herself. “As you must sleep, so must I. There is so much to think about, so much to learn. Sir, when will you teach me to read?”

“We can start tomorrow after dinner.”

Marcella stood and lingered for a moment. She felt very close to Cesare just then but did not know how or dare express her feelings. The best she could do was say, “Goodnight, sir.”

“Goodnight, Marcella.”

Marcella took the little oil lamp from the table and adjourned to her corner behind the four-panel screen. She undressed to her underskirt and camisole and slipped under the blanket. Her head was swimming with wine and the most amazing story she had ever heard.

The dream she had had nearly ten years earlier revisited her. She saw it just as clearly and felt just as excited now as she did then. She remembered that day very clearly, the gray dress and white blouse with the little lilies embroidered on the borders of the collar and cuffs her mama wore. It rained in the morning. The air was fragrant and warm.

That day floated in her subconscious like a golden leaf along a lazy clear stream, turning this way and that to expose another sparkling detail that made her that thirteen-year-old girl eagerly leaving the pond and rushing home to tell her mother about the wonderful dream. In her pre-sleep reverie she saw the shadows dancing on the path in front of her as the breeze pushed through the treetops. She passed a smiling young man who nodded to her. He carried a pack on his back and a walking stick with a natural crook on the end. He nodded to her. She thought it odd that his clothes were dusty and worn, but his hat was new. The young man doffed his hat and as she looked closer she recognized it as one of their hats.

Marcella nodded to the young man. “I see you wear an Andano hat,” she said with a smile.

“Yes, I do.” The young man took the hat off, turned it around in his hand admiring the fine stitching, tipped it to Marcella, and put it back on his head.

“My grandfather’s shop,” she said proudly.

“Very nice. Safe journey to you.”

“And to you too, sir.”

As Marcella found her way back home, the young man she passed, Rene Hermes, was also heading to his home. He left the University of Padua after having earned his doctorate in medicine. He was twenty-five and as thin as any student who had been away for so many years. Rene was headed to his ancestral home outside of the town of Adler Lager.

Rene reckoned he had another month of travel. He did not like to travel alone and happenstance was kind enough to bring him company in a timely manner. When one traveling partner turned down another path, he would encounter someone or some group to walk with. Rene heeded his father’s warning of the dangers on the lawless roads he would travel.

On this morning, Rene was accompanied by only the warm sun on his shoulders and a hunger in his belly. He had a quarter loaf of bread and a piece of cheese smaller than his fist. Rene considered stopping at the first farmhouse to offer chores for food when he heard horses and the unmistakable rumble of a carriage on the road. He turned and watched the pale blue carriage with gilded trim slow down as it approached. Rene stepped off the road into the knee-high grass and nodded to the coachman. He saw the leather curtain open slightly. Rene looked up at the carriage window but was unable to see who might be inside. The carriage passed by but slowed and stopped less than fifty paces ahead.

Rene continued on his way. When he was less than ten paces away, the door opened and a gentleman stepped out. The gentleman stretched, went to the side of the road, and made water on the trunk of a nearby tree.

Rene stopped and looked away. When the gentleman finished, he put his hands on his hips and bent the trunk of his body from side to side and from front to back. He arched his back, relaxed, and in an exaggerated way stretched his arms and legs as he walked around the carriage once. Upon seeing Rene approach, Conte Emilio d’Benevita stopped his little constitution and beckoned for Rene to come to him.

Rene stopped before the man and bowed. The conte stood as tall as Rene. His dark brown hair was long and hung down in relaxed curls that framed his boyish face. The conte’s forehead was tall, and his eyes were hazel in color. His face was graced with high angular cheekbones, a well-formed, longish nose, pale pink lips, and a clean-shaven chin. His physique was athletic, and he was three years Rene’s senior.

Conte Emilio wore a low-crowned, wide-brimmed hat that was dove gray and decorated with a white feather that curled at the end; a comfortable, full sleeved, white shirt with an open V-neck; baggy gray trousers and flat-soled shoes that were well ventilated with decorative slashes.

“State your business on this road, young man.” His tone was friendly enough.

“I am traveling on my way home, sir.”

“From whence do you come?” The conte continued his stretching as he waited for an answer.

“From university, Padua.”

“With a degree?”

“Yes, sir. I earned my doctorate in medicine.”

“No doubt. Now tell me, my young medico, your name.”

“Rene Hermes of Adler Lager.”

“Ah yes. Adler Kralle Castle, the seat of Duke Gunter the Just.”

“You are correct, sir.”

“I too attended Padua. I took my doctorate in philosophy, a discipline not quite as useful as yours.” The conte crossed his arms and rocked back and forth from toe to heel.

“Yes, sir.”

Emilio d’Benevita smiled. “Ah, those were the days, at university.” Conte Emilio smiled, “Travel well and safely.”

“Thank you, sir.” Rene bowed and continued his journey.

Emilio d’Benevita opened the door to the carriage and on second thought called out, “Rene Hermes, accompany me. We are heading in the same direction. I would do well to have someone with whom to chat.”

Rene was surprised and pleased. The conte entered his carriage. Rene followed after handing his pack and walking stick up to the coachman. The interior of the carriage was appointed with soft tan leather upholstery and had a heavy scent of lavender. The conte sat, crossed his legs, and stretched his arms over the seat back, putting the palms of his hands flat on the sides of the carriage.

Rene sat across from the conte. He tried not to look directly at this kind gentleman with the great good fortune to have such a lovely carriage. An opened book lay on the seat next to his benefactor and a basket on the other. Rene saw the neck of a wine bottle, some grapes, and the end of a loaf of bread peeking out. “Are the girls still as pretty in Padua?” The conte could see that Rene was a bit uncomfortable. “I remember one at the Singing Swan, Clairessa…beautiful girl. Did you frequent the Singing Swan?”

Rene smiled. “Why, yes. Many of the students went there, myself included. I do not remember one named Clairessa. I do remember Annalisa. We were all in love with her.” For an instant, Rene’s eyes fell on the basket but he quickly looked back at the conte.

“Help yourself. Tell me, how is it you were able to go to university?”

Rene reached out and took the basket. “Duke Gunter the Just employs my father in his court. As a reward for his services, the court offered to fund my education, and I will someday be the court physician.”

“Quite a responsibility for an inexperienced fellow.”

“I have had the same thoughts, sir.” Rene pulled a leg from the cold duck at the bottom of the basket. He took a bite. It was good.

“Surely Gunter has his doctor.”

“Oh yes, sir, I will be his underling.”

“I am Conte Emilio d’Benevita, as you must have surmised.”

“Your servant, sir,” Rene again bowed his head.

“Yes, yes, all well and good. Now tell me about your school days. I do miss the wonderful discussions and arguments we used to have.”

“Sir, my time was spent in lectures, in the dissecting of corpses, and the study of Rhazes’ writings, of course, along with Galen and Hippocrates.”

“It is said Rhazes thought a doctor should study not only the humors but the afflicted one’s soul, as well.”

“Yes, sir. A difficult task. One cannot be divorced from the other. We are bound to both and controlled by both, and when there is an imbalance between the two…well, that opens the way to ill humors and sickness.”

“That is an interesting theory. If there is such a thing as a soul and it is freed by death the body is left behind, is it not?” Emilio d’Benevita invited Rene to answer with a raise of his eyebrows.

Rene nodded.

“Does not that cause the greatest imbalance? One cannot exist without the other.”

“The soul goes to its eternal reward, Heaven or Hell, and the body will be resurrected and united with its soul on Judgment Day,” said Rene.

“If one cannot exist without the other, would not the soul die away too?” Emilio was having a little fun with his serious companion.

“The soul goes to its eternal reward or punishment.” Rene was confused why the conte did not take his answer as a truth that could not be refuted.

“That again, is it? Do you think it is possible to capture or lure or somehow enable the soul to reenter the body and reanimate it?”

Rene wrinkled his brow and sat back in his seat. He chose his words carefully and said them in a most deferential way, “Are you speaking of necromancy, sir?”

“Heavens no, and so what if we are discussing necromancy? These are only words, no more than a diversion, parlor chat.”

The mood in the carriage changed. The conte kept his smile, pulled back the curtain, and looked out at the countryside. Rene felt this was more serious than “parlor chat,” as the conte put it. He absently ate a few grapes and now wished the conte had not offered him his hospitality.

Conte Emilio spoke again in a gay and friendly manner. “Ah, my young friend, please do not take everything you hear to heart. I was hoping for nothing more than a spirited discussion on the subject, especially from a medical man.”

“I am sorry, sir. Perhaps after I practice my art I will be able to discuss such things. But now my thoughts are on returning home.”

“I too am going to my future home. I am to meet my fiancée.”

Rene was glad for the change of subject. Love and marriage were things he could grasp.

The conte added wistfully, “An arranged affair.”

“There may be the spark of love between you two. You have never met. It is possible.”

“She is thirteen years old, most likely a spoiled child. The only thing I know about her is her name, Rosalba. A pretty enough name. I suppose I should practice my own philosophy and keep an open mind.”

The carriage slowed and the coachman called out to the horses. They stopped at a crossroad. The carriage squeaked and bobbed as the coachman jumped down and alit with Rene’s pack and a walking stick. He opened the door.

The conte looked at Rene. “Best of luck to you, Doctor Hermes. I am away to survey Casa Bella and meet with my bride and the Famiglia Testaoro. Travel well.”

Rene smiled. “Thank you sir, very much, and may you find what your heart is looking for.”

“Well said. Take the basket and give Duke Gunter my greetings.”

Rene left the carriage. He put his pack on his back, the basket on his arm and with his walking stick in hand continued on his way. The coachman cracked his whip over the horses’ heads. Rene gave a quick glance as the carriage headed away down the dusty, tree-shaded road.

Rene traveled another six days on the road, sometimes in the company of others and sometimes alone. He still had two silver pieces and a handful of coppers. If he was frugal and the weather permitted him to sleep under the stars and moon, he might even have enough to keep himself for a few weeks after his return.

Fortuna smiled on him when he came upon Duke Gunter’s envoy that was returning from Rome. He introduced himself to the captain, who was leading the expedition of ten mounted soldiers along, to protect the familiar faces from Adler Kralle Castle. The vice chancellor and monsignor along with a cook and a few servants were nestled inside the large, closed wagon. The vice chancellor cordially invited Rene to join them and partake of the meals and the comforts such as they were.

With his way home secure, Rene shared his opinions and experiences and interesting and not so interesting little stories with the travelers. When the novelty of his presence wore off, the men, as men do, continued on with little more to say. Rene’s mind wandered to Conte Emilio d’Benevita and wondered how the conte’s meeting with his wife-to-be, little Rosalba went. He thought of the love of his life, Bella Fiore.

The first time he met Bella, Rene was home visiting from Padua for two months during the spring. It was a beautiful May Day. The vibrant blue sky pulsed overhead and burst with sunlight and lush white clouds. The soft warm breeze carried the scent of spring blossoms and the new green grass grew sweet and succulent. The malaise of winter was replaced by the primal forces that poured forth from Maia onto her children, especially to a certain young man who shared her son’s name.

Rene was there with his fourteen-year-old sister, Giesella, so pretty and pert, and his excited, wide-eyed, ten-year-old brother Alfeo. The younger two wandered off together to see their friends, watch the jugglers, attend the marionette theater and see the trained bear. Rene heard the singing and the music. He found the other young men and greeted friends and acquaintances. The young men and boys joined in groups of three or four and stood back in a loose circle around the May Pole.

The pole was in the center of a green field that adjoined the town square. The Maypole stood sixteen feet tall with a knot of red, white and yellow streamers attached to the very top. The streamers fluttered in the breeze. Suspended below the streamers on four red colored cords hung a horizontal hoop woven with bright spring flowers and myrtle boughs. The long ribbons were attached to the hoop and followed a gentle curve into the hands of the young maidens who ringed the pole.

The girls were pretty-faced, with rosy cheeks and hair either plaited or in a rush of bouncing waves and curls. They wore embroidered blouses and brightly colored full overskirts. They were about to dance around the May Pole, as their distant Babylonian sisters had, to celebrate the fecundity of spring. Each girl faced the pole and held a ribbon. Then every other girl stepped in a few paces toward the pole and turned to the left. The outer ring of girls faced the right. All bowed and stepped to the beat of the tabor and the aching cry of the Rausch Pfeifer. The girls in the outer circle moved in and around their stationary counterparts and began to intertwine their ribbons around the maypole.

For no clear reason, Rene was captivated by one of the girls. He could not stop looking at her. Her hair was long and curly with an auburn tinge. He had never seen anyone move their body so gracefully. The object of his attention was Bella Fiore. Her playful blue eyes sparkled. The deep glow of her skin and her smile, that serene and gentle smile that lay lightly on her full soft lips…

He loved the way her shoulders moved, the concentration she showed as she repeated the steps in a circle around each new girl. Her swirling skirt that swayed back and forth, and the way her bare feet stepped lightly on the path in the grass, entranced Rene and left him breathless. He stepped closer to the dancing maidens and waited for this beautiful girl to come into his sight again.

When the girls completed the first circle and the first course of ribbons were woven into a delicate sheath at the head of the erect pole, Bella passed by Rene, who had stationed himself so she could not miss him. She could not help looking into his eyes. In that timeless instant, she became transfixed by the handsome young man who looked at her with such a sincere and inviting smile. She involuntarily followed Rene with her gaze, turning her head away from the dance as she passed, and almost lost the rhythm of her steps as she barely avoided running into the next girl she was to circle.

Each waited with impatience for the other to be within sight. Bella’s heart raced. She was swept up in a transcendental moment as she joined with the blue sky, the white clouds, the shimmering sun, and the gentle breeze that rippled the grass. For a few expanding seconds, she lost herself in the vastness of eternity, found herself again, and understood her place in that vastness as she returned to the here and now. She sensed her future could not be lived without the young man who had somehow filled her soul and opened her heart to this magic possibility.

Rene followed Bella’s every graceful movement as she disappeared and reappeared, hid away and then was released into his sight as she passed around the other girls. And even though he knew she would come into view, he still was anxious to see her again. The dance became an agony for both of them as the ribbons slowly wrapped tighter against the maypole. Each time she passed, both could feel their auras join and be pulled apart until finally the pole was snugly encased in the ribbons’ silky membrane.

When the dance ended, Bella left her dance mates as if walking out of a cloud and went straight to Rene, who was already headed toward her. With each step they took, the world around them faded into a mist of indefinable shapes and watery colors. The sky, the clouds, the breeze, and the people all disappeared. Neither could see beyond the other. Theirs was a world of him being the sun and her being the moon, the alpha and the omega. Without a word they embraced, and their fates were sealed forever.

Rene and Bella spent part of everyday together before he returned to the university. They announced their plan to marry. His parents had no great objections. They only wished she had some kind of dowry except a wedding chest with linens and a pair of matching candlesticks.

Bella was the third daughter of Floriano Fiore, the soap maker. She was a good girl, always respectful, kind, and helpful. The Fiores were a respected and industrious family. In the spring when the blossoms perfumed the air and the wild flowers formed a palette of yellow or red or purple or blue over the countryside, Floriano had work for anyone who wanted it. His cauldrons bubbled and boiled from dawn to dusk and through the night to unlock the delicate fragrance of each petal to scent his soap.

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