Alchemist's Gift

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A Young Man’s Fortune

Exactly ten days from meeting Conte Emilio d’Benevita, and then his fortunate encounter with Duke Gunter’s party returning from Rome to Adler Lager, Rene Hermes took heart when the large wooden wagon lumbered over the last rise and his hometown finally came into view.

The noon sun illuminated the pale gray city walls made of neatly cut and fitted stones. The walls stood a little over twenty-five feet high. Rene saw the proud campanile that dominated the sawtooth roofline that flowed together under a mantle of dusty pink roof tiles. They stopped at the wooden bridge that spanned the moat. Lily pads floated lazily on top of the still green water. Duke Gunter abandoned the drawbridge and replaced it with a permanent bridge and two massive wooden doors that were open. The wagon started up again, passing between the two great turrets, under the narrow observation bridge that connected them, and onto the cobble stone street that broadened into the flagstone square.

Two-and-three-storey pastel-colored buildings lined the lanes. Their small windows were framed in the geometric designs of the dark, exposed half-timber. Rene drank in the welcoming sights and sounds and smells. He was bursting to get out of the wagon and make his way to Bella.

The wagon stopped. There was a collective sigh from the men and quite a bit of stretching and yawning. They were in that transitional place in time when the novelty, excitement, and risk of travel that frees one from the humdrum and routine was sadly over. Things would return to normal. When the doors were opened, the sunlight washed away the camaraderie and closeness that they shared.

Rene thanked his hosts and the captain and gave smiling nods to the soldiers. Wives, families, and friends greeted the returning travelers. Though the crowd was small, Rene could not get clear of them fast enough. He briskly walked past the baker’s shop, by the chandlers and around the corner. He took his usual shortcut through the Widow Eider’s garden. With his mind only on Bella, he did not even notice the old woman who was stooped over cutting some Swiss chard. He rushed on past startling the widow.

“Who’s that?” she called out in her distinctive shaky voice. Rene had no time for the courtesy of an answer. He reached the lane and headed for the fifth house on the right.

The picket fence in front of the house and the trellis that surrounded the doorway were draped with morning glories. And there she was, the centerpiece of his life framed in this profusion of deep green, heart-shaped leaves and cobalt flowers that danced on the breeze. She had her back to Rene. Bella knelt down, brush in hand, bucket of water next to her, and scrubbed the front steps. The sun deepened the richness of her auburn hair. Rene slowed his pace so he could savor those last delicious moments before he would take her in his arms. He approached her as quietly as he could. She was unaware of his presence, lost in the sounds and rhythm of her work. Rene knelt down next to her and leaned against her shoulder. “Bella, sweetheart, I am home,” he said gently.

He had taken her by surprise. She looked over at him, eyes widened, lips slightly parted in an unsure smile. “Rene, it is you. You have finally come back to me.” She dropped the brush and sat back onto her heels.

Rene took Bella’s hand and they stood. He pulled her close. The longing of so many months and days and hours away from her disappeared into a distant recess of his mind where this moment in their lives would become a sweet memory. She gave an airy sigh and held him tighter. He felt her yielding breasts against his chest, her thighs pressed against his. He felt her shiver in his close embrace. Rene closed his eyes and put his cheek against hers. He smiled when her hair, her beautiful auburn hair with the scent of jonquil, tickled his neck.

They stood in this embrace for as long as they dared. They breathed as one; their hearts beat as one; their individuality flickered and faded only to be reborn and rush to merge into something so inexplicable, so fantastically joyful that again, as they experienced so many months before on the first day of May, time and space melted away and they found themselves on the threshold of eternity. Their long awaited kiss opened that door.

Bella kissed him again and again. His downy beard was a new addition and she welcomed the way it prickled against her face. She was flooded with a thousand sensations at once. She felt that every moment, every action, everything she had ever done or said or planned to do was a step in her life’s journey leading to this moment, to this place, to this embrace. She finally arrived and felt herself opening like a flower under the warm rays of the sun at dawn. Her past was like a veil that slipped off and floated away behind her. There was only the present and the future.

“Who is this man? Get away from my daughter!” Bella’s mother, Gelsomina, stood on the top step, narrowed her eyes, and armed with a broom was ready to swing it at Rene.

The two lovers snapped back into reality and looked at Signora Fiore as if awakening from a stupor. “Mama, he is back,” Bella held up her arm to shield Rene from the threatened blow. Rene turned toward Bella’s mother and offered an intoxicated grin.

La Signora’s brought the broom to her side. “Signore Rene, is that you? You have come back. We did not think for two more weeks.”

Rene and Bella were reluctant to drop their embrace.

“Children, please, come inside, what will the neighbors think?”

The Fiore family welcomed Rene home with an impromptu closing of the shop and killing two young cocks. Soon the aroma of the chickens simmering in white wine, oregano, basil, garlic and olive oil filled the house. Rene and Bella were sitting next to each other on a settee in the front room. They held hands much to the disapproval of Floriano Fiore who used every facial expression that he could to convey to Rene that he did not like, not in the least, how close he was sitting next to Bella.

Bella’s two older sisters, Ornella and Giacinta, and two younger sisters, Giglia and Perlita, crowded into the two remaining chairs and asked Rene question after question that he answered most graciously. Bella’s mother entered the room and saw that her two younger daughters had taken her chair.

Rene looked at Bella’s mother, excused himself, went to the kitchen, and brought out a stool. He offered her his seat next to Bella and sat on the stool, which he placed next to la signora. Il signore smiled, the girls and their mother looked on Rene’s action as nothing short of chivalrous. Signora Fiore sat next to her daughter and took Bella’s hand.

There came a loud knock that echoed in the room. The two younger sisters ran to the front door and threw it open. Rene’s father and mother stood at the threshold.

“Fiore, I am looking for my son. I believe he must be here.” Titus Hermes’s said with a smile. Rene’s mother, Isabella, looked around the front room at the chairs crowded with the Fiore girls. At the sound of Titus’s voice, Floriano stood and greeted the unexpected guest.

Rene went to his mother with opened arms. They hugged. He went to his father and hugged him.

Signore Fiore stood a little back from the reunion. By this time, everyone in the room was standing. Signore and Signora Fiore bowed, “Signore, la signora, welcome to our home.”

“Thank you. What is that glorious aroma?”

Bella’s mother answered, “It is chicken in wine. Will you do us the honor of sharing our table?”

The Hermes made an agreeable nod. “That is very kind of you. This is as good a time as any to get to know each other,” said Titus.

Signore Fiore guided Signore Hermes to his chair, and Gelsomina Fiore did the same for Isabella. The older daughters left the room and returned in minutes with a small serving table that they set out with a tray filled with fruit, cheese, and biscotti. The younger daughters appeared with wine and glasses for Titus, Isabella, Rene, and their father. La Signora did not drink. All of the girls, including Bella, left the room, crowded into the kitchen, and spoke excitedly in hushed voices.

“Well, Fiore, it seems we are to join families. How many daughters?”

“Five living. Two died as babies; one son, Andrea, who is away fighting on the southern front.”

“Tell me something of your business.” Titus took a sip of wine. “I see donkeys, and sometimes wagons come and go.”

It pleased Signore Fiore that Hermes had noticed. Fiore and his wife were sitting on the settee. “It is true, sir. We sell our soap here at market and as far as Italy and Poland. Some we sell to a Jew who is said to take it to France, but I am not sure. Have you never bought our soap?”

“I am not sure. Have we, Isabella?”

Isabella Hermes blushed with embarrassment. She made her own soap and did not think it necessary to buy it. “We shall in the future.”

“Gelsomina, go fetch some and check on the dinner.”

Rene sat silent. He kept looking toward the kitchen door, hoping to get a glimpse of Bella. Whenever she passed by the doorway, she would stop and look out to see Rene and smile.

“My son had quite an adventure on the way home.” Titus looked over at Rene with an expectant look. He heard little pieces from one of the delegates and the monsignor, something about Conte d’Benevita.

Rene relayed what had happened. He didn’t put too much into the meeting with the conte. They were only together for maybe an hour and a half. But for his father’s and mother’s sakes, he went into great detail about how lovely the conte’s carriage was and how both he and the conte attended university at Padua and how generous the conte had been by giving him a basket of food. Rene told them about the conte’s impending marriage. Rene did not mention the more esoteric discussion they had had.

The rest of the trip was uneventful except for two soldiers who hunted down an immature black bear that was a welcome change to their diet, and the heavy rainstorm that muddied the road so much the wagon nearly slid sideways into a fast moving stream. “And by the grace of God, a boulder stopped our wagon.” His audience sat rapt by the adventure, quite thankful that Rene was here to tell his story. Isabella made the sign of the cross. Gelsomina also made the sign of the cross at the same time. Both women smiled.

Gelsomina excused herself. She went to the pantry that was just off the kitchen and selected two lumps of soap for Isabella. One was heavy with the scent of lavender and the other, a favorite with the Fiore girls, was scented with jonquil. She wrapped the soaps in a little scrap of cheese cloth, stood at the kitchen doorway, and surveyed the progress of the dinner.

Giglia and Ornella took the heirloom tablecloth out of the cedar chest and spread it out on the table, along with matching napkins for everyone. Giglia placed the salt cellar to hide a stubborn stain that no one had been able to get out. Bella dragged two high-backed chairs and put them at the head of the table for her mother and father. Ornella set out clay tumblers and a pitcher of lemon water for the girls.

Perlita and Giacinta filled three wooden trenchers with cut up pieces of chicken, carrots, and slices of raw cucumber. She took the lid off the shallow clay pot that was nestled in the coals. A steamy cloud laced with rosemary swirled up around her into the already spiced air. Bella quickly lifted the hot rolls out of the clay pot and placed them in baskets on either end of the table. Giacinta and Perlita followed with the steaming trenchers, placing them within easy reach. Signora Fiore returned to the front room. There was a lull in the conversation. Floriano and guests sampled the dainties on the serving stand.

“Signora Hermes, I have something for you.” Gelsomina bowed and handed the soaps to Isabella.

“Please, call me Isabella.” She closed her eyes and savored the delicate scents. Isabella smiled at Gelsomina, who looked on in anticipation. “Oh, thank you so very much. These are heavenly. If I had only known, Titus, it is as if I were holding a bouquet of lavender. And the other is so sweet.”

“Jonquil,” offered Gelsomina.

“Mama, Papa, the table is set,” called out Bella.

At those welcome words, everyone went to the dining table. Il signore and la signora sat at the head of the table, with Titus at Floriano’s right and Isabella at Gelsomina’s left. Rene sat next to his father and Bella sat next to her future mother-in-law. The rest of the girls took their usual places.

“Papa, we are ready,” said Gelsomina. Everyone held hands around the table and bowed their heads. Floriano cleared his throat and began. “Oh, Heavenly Father, we humbly give thanks for these gifts of food. We give you thanks for safely returning Rene to Bella, and we give thanks that our two families will become one, through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.”

When the blessing ended Titus and Isabella looked on the bright faces of Bella’s sisters. Everyone was so light of heart and spoke so kindly of each other that there wasn’t the slightest hint of envy or jealousy toward Bella, only the satisfied serenity of knowing that someone you love will be happy. Rene and Bella looked across the table at each other. The aura of joy, warmth and love they had for one another spread and embraced the two families. Everyone present knew that Rene and Bella were meant to be together for now and always. A smile, an innocent observation, and a heartfelt compliment made their simple dinner a splendid feast.

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