Marcella awoke. It was dark and still. She heard the steady rhythm of Cesare’s gentle snoring. She had a little bit of a headache from the wine she had drank the night before, and needed something in her stomach. Marcella threw the covers off and sat on the edge of her bed. The cool floor felt good against her warm feet. She was glad Cesare had shared his story; she felt closer to him. She was excited and nervous at the thought of learning how to read.
Marcella put on her slippers, folded the screen back, and leaned it against the wall. Cesare stirred, made a funny little whimper, and settled back into his quiet snoring.
Marcella knelt before the hearth and stirred in the ashes until she found a little orange ember. She teased it to the surface with a twig and added some wood shavings and dried moss. The small bundle of combustibles smoldered and smoked and after a few well-delivered breaths flashed into flame. She added more wood until the fire grew and shed a soft golden glow into the room.
Marcella took her shawl from the wooden peg next to the back door and put it over her head and shoulders, picked up the clay pitcher, and headed to the spring. The February morning air was crisp and exhilarating. When Marcella looked up to the heavens, she felt her mother looking down from the brilliant black sky that spread out overhead with its myriad of twinkling stars.
Marcella bent down and plunged the pitcher into the natural basin formed in the soft sandstone over the millennia by the bubbling waters. She laid the full pitcher aside and put both hands into the cold water. The chilling surge that traveled up her arms took her breath away. She cupped her hands, brought the water up, and splashed her face. Marcella liked the shock of the icy water against her skin.
Since she had moved away from Terra Sanctus and out of the Andano house, all of her senses were heightened; not only physical senses, but her emotional sensibility as well. More than once tears came to her eyes when she thought about her mother. She only now realized that it was not a luxury to be able to cry. Marcella did not have to be strong for anyone else’s sake. She felt a little lost not being so absorbed by someone else’s needs and wants. She thought of her sisters, their husbands, and their babies. She thought of her mother and Farintino. All of them gave something of themselves to another person and that other person gave something back to them. She wondered what that would be like, to get something in return.
Marcella sat on the mossy rocks by the spring and looked into the colorful face of Aurora, who streaked the sky with pink and gray. She rubbed her cold hands together. With no ill will toward them, she thought of all the time she had given to her sisters, literally raising them until they were old enough to tend to themselves. Then she had given all of those years of care to Fausto, only to receive the shock of her disgraceful parentage as a reward. She felt loss for those years. She did not look for someone to blame, for that would truly be a waste of time, and time for Marcella had now became very important, very precious, something not to be squandered.
Her thoughts wandered to the night she had run away from Terra Sanctus, and she revisited the scene in the alley where she had seen the two lovers in the height of passion, and could only wonder what it was like. Once when she was sixteen she had stood in front of the looking-glass, wrapped her arms around herself, and gave an open-mouthed kiss to her image in the glass. It made her sad that she felt nothing, even kissing herself. She took care to clean the smudge of her lips and cheek off the glass and knew she would never do that again.
Still a virgin at age twenty-three, Marcella figured her life was most likely half-over. It seemed so easy and natural for her sisters as, one by one, the young men had come, courted them, married them, and took them away. Marcella was happy for her sisters but could only pretend to share in their excitement. She wondered what that giddiness and irrational distraction, the excitement and all the smiling and fretting that each of her sisters went through was all about. She couldn’t understand how a person could be complete one day and then allow themselves to be conquered by someone whom they found so singularly appealing, someone they all of a sudden could not live without.
Marcella just could not understand the attraction. Her sisters’ husbands were strong and kind and in a way could even be considered handsome. Marcella could not see what all the fuss was. She loved her sisters as much as they allowed her, and God knew that her sisters were no saints. What these young men saw in any of them was beyond her. She accepted her fate and felt her life unfolded as it did to free her from that silly state. But Venus, in her cunning way, would pull the veil away from Marcella and open that precious and thirsty heart.
The cock crowed. Cesare would be waking up. She fetched the pitcher and headed to the chicken coop. She disturbed a few sleeping hens as she collected four eggs. Marcella gathered up a bit of her blouse and made a little pouch to hold the eggs. She felt the warmth of the eggs as they gently bounced against her midriff when she walked back to the kitchen.
Once inside, Marcella lit a few candles and stoked up the fire. When the kitchen was cheery and warm, Marcella did something she never did. She sang, first in a low, barely audible way, just a little louder than a whisper, loud enough to have her voice sketch out the tune. She forgot the words, so she substituted “la” for the lyrics. She did remember a line or two from the refrain and when appropriate sang, “…Do not pity me, for love comes on silent wings…do not pity me, for love is sweet but stings…”
Cesare awoke and heard Marcella. It was the first time he had heard her sing and it made him smile. He stretched, sighed, and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. Cesare lay on his chaise with his blanket pulled under his chin. He thought of the day ahead and remembered a few details from the dream he had had, something to do with a character like Pan who had hooves and bent-up legs and a wooden lady whose face was like a black sun.
He kept his eyes closed as he listened. “Tell me, little bird, why do you all of a sudden sing?”
Cesare’s question startled Marcella. When he called her “little bird,” the ease and innocence of the endearment made her blush and made her heart swell. Only Zietta Prunella called her nieces by a pet name. Marcella became self-conscious and stopped singing.
“Do not stop. You have a very nice voice, from what I can hear of it.”
Marcella could feel her face flush hot for a second or two. “Thank you.” She smiled and took the heavy copper skillet off the wall and placed it on the crackling orange coals.
“Do not stop.” Cesare pulled on his trousers and his overshirt. He neatly folded his blanket and sheet and put it at the head of the chaise.
“Please, sir, I am shy when it comes to things like that.”
“There are only the two of us. Sing for yourself, not for me.”
Marcella broke the eggs in a bowl, whisked them, and added some cut up morels she had gathered the day before, and some finely cut up leeks. She poured all of this onto the hot oiled skillet and turned the edges in toward the center with a wooden spoon until the eggs were cooked.
Marcella liked the idea there were only the two of them living in such a natural and familiar harmony. She felt as if they had always lived together, but as comfortable and safe as this refuge was, Marcella did have a longing to see the town where she had grown up. Even if the people thought her the odd bird, they were still a part of her life. It was going on two months since she had found her way to Cesare’s cottage. She missed her Aunt Prunella. She missed the twins and even Farintino a little bit. She wanted to put flowers on her mother’s grave. She wanted to attend mass. Marcella wanted to see a different face, hear some different words, and smell the smells at the market place.
She served the scrambled eggs along with a piece of bread and a little chunk of soft cheese to Cesare, who was already sitting at the table with a wooden spoon in hand.
It was Marcella’s habit to eat standing in the kitchen next to the hearth. It was something her mother always did, and she saw no reason not to follow in her mother’s footsteps.
“Very nice breakfast, Marcella.” Cesare licked both sides of the spoon.
“Thank you, sir.” She inwardly smiled.
“Why do you never share the table with me? I know I am a sight in the morning, but it cannot be that bad, can it?”
“Oh, no, sir.” Marcella felt herself shrink a little. “It is that my mother never sat at the table with Fausto or Farintino.”
“You are not your mother and I am not Fausto or Farintino. Do you not feel welcome and comfortable here?”
Marcella could not argue. “Yes, I am comfortable here and you truly are most kind to me.” She looked down away from Cesare and spoke in an almost apologetic way. “I do miss my auntie, and Terra Sanctus.”
“Come sit with me. You sat with me last night. Now sit with me this morning. We will make a plan for you to return to town.” He beckoned with a quick flick of his hand.
Marcella sat at the table across from Cesare. His hair was a little disheveled, and he had some stubble on his cheeks and chin. From her first adult meeting with him, when she and Miranda had bought the coffin, she instantly liked him very, very much in a way that was new and a little confusing to her. He was so unlike Fausto and Farintino. Cesare took her into his house without motive or agenda. He made her feel at home.
Cesare thought for a few seconds and then spoke up. “What we must do is find out the mood in town. You were the talk of the gossips. Your Aunt Prunella is right. Some people delight in the suffering of others. I do not want to see you suffer. We can see the lane from up here. When you see a traveler going to town, tell me. I will ask to have Giovanni Bellini come visit. He likes to talk and seek out a good story. I will ask for him to come here and tell us how the people in town feel. For now it is best you stay away. Yes?”
“Yes, sir.” Marcella was touched.
“And please, call me Cesare. If we are to enter into a secret scheme, we must be equals.”
Marcella knitted her brow.
Cesare laughed. “Come, now, do not be so serious. Enjoy your breakfast. I know for certain the person who made it is a good cook.”
Marcella smiled. “Yes, Cesare, I will call you Cesare.”
Cesare finished up the cheese. He put his bowl on the table after wiping the sides and bottom clean with his bread that he ate with a satisfied smack of his lips. He returned to the chaise and slipped on a pair of woolen socks and his wooden clogs.
Marcella was swept up by the amazing story Cesare had shared the night before, the prospect of learning to read, the invitation to call him by his Christian name, and Cesare’s offer to help her see her aunt. All of these things swirled around in her mind. Her possibilities changed direction in the same capricious manner as a flock of birds in the open blue sky. She was feeling something she never felt before. She did not know what it was, but it was something that flowed from the center of her chest and warmed her entire being. She felt happy about something. She felt excitement bubbling up in her heart.
Marcella sang the rest of the morning. She made her peace with God, forgave her mama for dying, and forgave Fausto as best as she could.