The darkening sky weighed on the mantle of soft lavender and golden light that spread over the hilltops, down into the valleys, and between the trees that surrounded Cesare Lippo’s cottage as dusk surrendered to night. Marcella was in the kitchen. She stirred the pot of vegetable stew, gave it a quick taste, and put the wooden spoon down. She went out the door, walked by the brooding chickens in their coop, and crossed the yard to Cesare’s workshop to tell him that their dinner was ready.
Marcella looked forward to her reading lesson. She made quick and steady progress. She easily learned the alphabet. It made sense: a symbol for a sound. Marcella entered the workshop. “Cesare, our meal is ready.”
Cesare already stopped carving on an elaborate sunburst. Marcella approached the carving table and ran her fingertips over the stern expression on the sun’s face. “That is beautiful, Cesare.”
“I thank you. I hope it will be more so when I finish.”
“How did you learn such things? How do you know how to make these things?” Marcella brushed some wood chips into her hand and added them to the pile on the floor.
Cesare hung the broom on the hook, and they headed for the door. “My uncle was a furniture and cabinet maker. As a boy, I spent a lot of time in his workshop. When I returned from seminary he took me in.” Cesare’s eyes brightened. “Marcella, I engaged a young man headed to Terra Sanctus to give a message for Giovanni Bellini to come visit. With any luck, he will be here in the next day or two with some news.”
“Thank you, Cesare.” She wanted to hug him, but she settled for patting his shoulder. Cesare opened the cottage door to the savory aroma of Marcella’s stew. Marcella already lit some candles, and the fire cast a flickering orange glow against the walls and the ceiling.
“Smells great.” He took a discerning sniff. “You made the rosemary rolls too? I was hoping you would. There is a place for you in my heaven.”
Marcella tingled at his words. “Yes, they should be ready.” She knelt down at the hearth and used a piece of kindling to push the hot coals off the lid and away from the shallow clay pot into the surrounding embers. She slid the pot out of the coals with a long iron hook. Using her apron as a hot pad, Marcella picked up the clay pot, set it on the worktable, and opened the lid. The rolls had a hard golden brown crust and were steaming and ready.
Cesare stood behind his chair and watched Marcella working in the soft halo of the firelight. Her being there made him realized how alone he had been before she came to live with him. She was the spark that had reignited his interest in life beyond his own. He was grateful for Marcella’s presence more and more each day.
He sat. Marcella placed the small basket of rolls in front of him. She put out the bowls and ladled out the vegetable stew. Marcella ate with Cesare now with a pleasant familiarity and, at times, an unspoken intimacy that was just below the surface of a casual word or unexpected smile.
Cesare broke a roll in half and dipped it in the stew. “Did you check the snares between the two big pine trees?” He savored the tasty stew.
Marcella smiled. “Yes. One was tripped, and the other was empty, but I reset the tripped one like you showed me. Maybe tomorrow we will have some rabbit in our stew.”
“That would be nice.” He ate a few more bites. “I have a surprise for you: a book written in our dialect called ‘The Decameron.’ The book is of stories told by different people to amuse each other while they take refuge in a villa to avoid the Black Death.”
Marcella looked up from her stew. “Like us?” She smiled.
Cesare caught Marcella’s humor. “If you consider some people of Terra Sanctus a plague and our cottage a villa.”
“What are the stories like?”
“Some are droll, and some are sad. Some are quite bawdy, and some make sport of the clergy.” He shared a few of his favorite titles.
“Who are the people? Do you know them?” Marcella’s wanted to read those same stories and be able to share them with Cesare.
“No, the people are not real like us. Some were real people, but most the author, Boccaccio, made up. They are like real people, though.” Cesare took Marcella’s sensibilities into account. Tales from the first four days made sport of the church. “Maybe a tale from their fifth day, they are stories of love.”
Marcella filled two glasses with wine. “Love stories,” she repeated. Marcella asked timidly, “Do you have a love story?”
“Have I ever been in love?” Cesare smiled as he remembered those heady days of his youth. “Oh yes. I have a love story or two, and you?”
“Me? No, not me. Love is for other people…” Marcella’s voice trailed off.
“Why do you say that, Little Bird?” Cesare sat back in his seat and took a sip of wine. “Everyone can love and be loved.”
“I love our Savior and my mama.” Marcella could not look at Cesare when she spoke. More and more each day something stirred in her whenever she was around him. She did not know why she felt self-conscious and vulnerable and excited in his presence, but she did.
“You mean a pretty woman like you has never been in love?”
“Cesare, please.” Marcella blushed and wished she could hide, but there was something both delicious and tormenting about the moment. “Am I so pretty that any man would fall in love with me?” She wanted him to say yes so very much.
Cesare was surprised by Marcella’s remarks. He always thought of her as being so self-determined and strong. “Of course you are.”
Marcella clasped her hands together painfully tight. “Do you think I am?” Her eyes were filled with uncertainty.
“I think you are most pretty and modest and pious and kind,” Cesare assured her.
Marcella stifled a sigh of relief, relaxed her hands, and busied herself clearing the bowls and the stew pot off the table. She swept the crumbs into her hand and tossed them out for the nightingales that frequented the back steps.
Marcella lit two candles and placed them in the center of the table. “I am ready for my lesson,” she said softly.
“I must fetch our book,” Cesare said cheerfully.
Marcella dragged her stool from the other side of the table and set it next to Cesare’s. He sat and thumbed through until he found the story he wanted to read. “Ah yes. Day five, story four. Filostrato tells this story. He is one of the three men who are part of the group.”
Marcella moved their chairs so close they touched. Cesare read and pointed out each word with his index finger while Marcella silently followed along. Tonight, the words on the page were overtaken by the sound of Cesare’s voice and Boccaccio’s talent for telling a tale.
Cesare stopped after the first passage. He savored the gentle pressure and the warmth of Marcella’s shoulder on his. He pressed back ever so lightly. “Do you see how the letters make the sounds for the words?”
The night was very still. “Yes. Please just read to me.” Marcella closed her eyes. “Read me the story,” she whispered. The world beyond the halo of light that cradled and warmed them disappeared.
Cesare read the story of two young lovers, Riccardio and Caterina, who had known each other since childhood. Caterina grew to be a beautiful young woman. Riccardio, who was from a good and wealthy family, fell in love with her. Caterina felt the same way about Riccardio. Neither knew how the other felt until Riccardio could no longer help himself and confessed his love for Caterina, who in turn happily declared her love for Riccardio.
“How did they know?” Marcella nudged Cesare until he looked at her. Their faces were so close; she gazed deep into Cesare’s eyes.
“They just knew.” Cesare looked over at Marcella, at her radiant face, at her anxious expression. He placed the book on the table and shifted in his seat so he could look at her better. Cesare hesitantly extended his hand to her face and with his finger wiped away the tear at the outer corner of her eye. Marcella shuddered at his touch. Cesare started to pull his hand away. Marcella gently took it in hers, brought it to her lips, and kissed his fingertip. She closed her eyes and held his hand against her cheek.
Until this moment, Cesare had checked his feelings, and had convinced himself their relationship must remain platonic. He could not deny that he felt a deeper and deeper bond with her as each day passed. The encouraging words he had shared with Marcella, that each one of us can love and be loved, came back to him. “Come Little Bird.” Cesare gently pulled Marcella toward him. She left her seat and sat on his lap like a child might, slipped her arms around him, and rested her cheek against his. He felt the full weight of her being against his thighs and against his chest. Cesare’s left hand lay lightly on her elbow, and his right hand gently caressed her hair. They sat lost in the depths of each other’s warmth, each able to finally quench their thirst for love.