Alchemist's Gift

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The Miracle of the Witches

The day of the burning was crisp and cloudy. The clouds were bilious and silver gray and filled the heavens. Small patches of blue sky and rays of golden sunlight occasioned through. Unseen in the distance, veils of rain gently trailed from the clouds. In some places, the first of the raindrops were big and scattered and they pocked the tawny dust. In other places, a fine mist barely wetted the pathways leaving behind a fragile crust.

Father Eduardo Silva said mass. The small church, Our Lady of Divine Mercy, was completed in 1146. Its vaulted ceiling seemed held on high by the delicate gilded tracery that knotted into itself forming the capitals atop the smooth marble columns. The tracery exploded into a fantasy of sweeping arcs and impossible curves that lead to the next column and the next from the back of the church to the altar. High narrow windows, each a station of the cross, told of the sad and painful journey Jesus took his last day on earth. The stained glass artists crudely captured the grotesque and the sublime. The sun shone through these brilliant shards and fell upon the faithful in colors of amber and scarlet and cerulean.

A swirling haze of myrrh hung above the churchgoers and lazily drifted throughout the nave into the alcoves and apse and up to the choir loft. Father Eduardo, clad in his heavily brocaded green and gold vestments, faced the parishioners. He stood under the large cross with its painted wooden Jesus, frozen in the ecstatic pain of eternal crucifixion. As the last of the faithful returned to their seats from the communion rail, Father Eduardo held the gold chalice above his head, lowered it, and placed it on the alter. He wiped it clean with a linen handkerchief, folded the handkerchief and set it on top of the chalice. With the last sweeping sign of the cross the priest uttered, “Dominus vobiscum.” The parishioners answered with “Et cum spiritu tuo.”

An altar boy snuffed out the six ivory-colored candles and the tendrils of blue smoke drifted into eternity. When the doors were opened, sunlight flooded into the vestibule and unrolled like a golden carpet down the center aisle. The richest and oldest families sat in the first three pews closest to the altar and exited first. They were followed by the not-so-rich and the poorest, who stood just inside the church door.

A dozen or so ragged beggars, some missing a hand or a leg, sat on the outer borders of the church steps. Today they were all but ignored. The burning occupied everyone’s minds. Some shuddered with inexplicable excitement and anticipation, others with fear and horror.

Six stakes were arranged in a semicircle, with the open end facing the dais that was erected for the occasion in front of the fountain. Signore Mezzi’s wood was stacked neatly around each stake in a conical fashion. Lengths of coarse rope were secured chest-high on the stakes.

The dais was appointed with a red carpet bordered with gold fringe. In the center of the dais was a gilded platform with a high-backed armchair upholstered in plush burgundy-colored velvet that was reserved for the Countessa Rosalba. On the dais, in front of the contessa’s chair, were four shorter high-backed chairs without arms. Bishop DiMars had already taken his seat, his hands resting comfortably on his fat little belly as he twiddled his thumbs, a calming habit he had formed as a young man. The bishop smiled inwardly as he watched the crowd slowly swell. The other chairs were for Mayor Renaldi, Monsignor Petri, and the parish priest, Father Eduardo Silva.

Monsignor Petri climbed the three steps and crossed the dais. He bowed to the bishop, kissed the bishop’s ring, and sat in the chair next to him. The two men were friends from childhood and had been ordained together. Petri, who was much less political and ambitious than his contemporary DiMars, enjoyed his simple station. DiMars, who was ambitious and political, had had his eyes on the red togs of the cardinal since ordination.

The bishop took advantage of the conte’s absence and convinced the mayor to sign the execution orders for the six hapless women. Being quite devout, the bishop felt each heretic he brought to judgment put him a step closer to God and his own goal of becoming a cardinal.

While these two churchmen chatted, Father Eduardo was in the sacristy carefully putting away his vestments. The serious young priest had never witnessed a burning. He did not know what to feel: mercy or righteousness. He tarried, not wanting to leave the haven of the cozy little room. He peered out the window and thoughtfully watched the people enter the piazza.

Bleary-eyed young men, fresh from a night of whoring and drink, straggled in from the narrow alleys. They nursed their hangovers and regretted their near-empty purses. On the fringe, leaning against walls or half-hidden in the shadows, were society’s necessary undesirables: the drunks, the petty thieves, the fools, and the fallen. These examples of sin and degradation could be pointed to by decent people to affirm their own goodness, and to scare their sons and daughters into being good Christians just like themselves.

The prostitutes, made to wear red or stripes, sat in the bed of a hay wagon. The Bruni twins, comely girls of eighteen, lie side by side on their backs holding hands. Their legs dangled over the side of the wagon as they watched the lazy clouds. The youngest, a girl of twelve with curly red hair tied with a pink ribbon, sat upright, and childishly swung her crossed legs to and fro while she said her rosary. The other three women were older, silent and sullen. They sadly looked to the past or to the future. Their pimps and patrons, never too far away, joked or argued as they stood around an iron brazier and warmed themselves. The flames were small and the orange coals gave off little puffs of white smoke now and then. The pickpockets also warmed their hands by the brazier and went over handoff strategies, plotted escape routes, and eyed naïve rubes and strangers who came for the burning.

Simple families--the farmers, the semi-skilled, and the day laborers--formed a ragged arc furthest from the center of the piazza. These country folk were the buffer between the decent townspeople and the collection of riff-raff, ruffians, and rascals who had their blood thirst quenched by the acute cruelty of public humiliations, floggings, and hangings.

The peasants were dressed in homespun as dull and drab as the earth they tilled. The men chatted about the harvest or a sick donkey or the weather. Women shared gossip, recipes, and remedies. The little children ran in and out between their older brothers and sisters, shrieking and laughing and generally enjoying themselves immensely.

Still closer to the semicircle of stakes stood the shopkeepers, tradesmen, and guild craftsmen with their families and apprentices. They were better-behaved and better-dressed. The tanners and dyers stood together. Their stained fingers fluttered like colorful birds when they spoke. The shoemakers, though washed and perfumed, still had the faint odor of urine about them. The Bakers Guild was enterprising. They sent out their daughters with baskets of crucifix-shaped biscotti--two coppers for one, or three for five. The girls did a brisk business. They were especially popular with those who fasted in order to take Holy Communion.

The inner circle was reserved for the land owners and the richest merchants. Their servants arranged folding chairs for the patron and the missus. The Famiglia Patriarca not only had chairs, but also a canopy that ruined the view for those behind them.

The gentlemen were dressed in dark satins and rich brocades. They wore fine leather boots and carried walking sticks surmounted with heavy gold handles in the shapes of eagles and lions. Their serene wives and beautiful daughters draped themselves in silks and satins the colors of apricot, creamy lemon, cinnamon, or dusty rose. They wore fine white stockings and the most fashionable shoes of French design. Their dresses shimmered at the slightest turn, bow, or curtsy. The ladies made a wonderful sight in their ribbons and lace. They twirled their parasols or flicked their fans, chit-chatted and bestowed catty compliments on each other.

The graybeards engaged in serious conversations concerning the Turks, the safety of trade routes, and the like. These men were ever furthering their wealth and power. Their sons’ topics were a bit less somber: women, hunting, and merriment. There was little jealousy amongst the young men, only competition that would serve them well after they inherited their family estates or businesses.

It was noon. The vibration of the great bronze bell tolled and resonated in the hearts of those present and brought the reality of what was coming. As if planned, perhaps by the hand of God, Contessa Rosalba’s carriage and four rumbled through the western gate. Her sky blue and gold-trimmed carriage was under the skillful hand of the driver, Alfredo Amalfi.

The contessa was ready to go into her confinement, and reluctantly and resignedly attended. Her husband, Conte Emilio d’Benevita, was escorting his small army to do battle with the Turks. If he had been here, she could have stayed at Casa Bella and spared herself this terrible afternoon.

Conte Emilio would not have allowed such a thing to happen. He would have kept the bishop and mayor in check and heard the cases with impartiality. He would have made humane and thoughtful decisions; nothing more severe than a public humiliation or whipping or, at worst, banishment.

Rosalba could have stopped everything until her husband returned, but she did not. She acquiesced. She was tired, and her usually caring countenance was in shambles because of her pregnancy. She felt guilty for allowing the mayor and bishop to usurp her husband’s authority in signing the death warrants. She was always a little afraid of the bishop. Rosalba pulled the curtain back and looked out on the strange arena.

Her footman, Armando, descended from his seat at the rear of the carriage, opened the door, and offered his arm in support as she ascended the three steps of the dais. The young man gave a smart bow and returned to his perch. Alfredo drove the carriage out of view.

The bishop and Monsignor Petri met the contessa at the end of the dais and escorted her to her seat. All the time Bishop DiMars exchanged pandering courtesies and compliments. One of her cousins and a great-uncle were members of the College of Cardinals.

Rosalba was a most handsome figure. Her long black hair, interlaced with golden ribbons, fell in a series of long coils on either side of her face. Her complexion was as luminescent as the Tuscan dawn. Her forehead was smooth and topped with a subtle widow’s peak. Her eyebrows were fine and slightly arched. Her brown eyes could be penetrating, but her gaze was always gentle. Her cheeks carried a faint blush and her nose, slightly aquiline, was a defining sign of nobility. Her lips were full and the color of cherry wine, her neck long and slender, her breasts high and well-proportioned, her lower torso and hips pleasing, and her limbs quite regular. Her hands were soft. She was draped in a full-length dress made with many clever folds of dark green velvet and a bodice of snow white satin encased in a golden lattice. Where the lattice intersected, a pearl was held fast with golden thread. The bodice was cut to amply expose her bosom. Rosalba wore an emerald necklace, along with a few heavy gold chains. She had on emerald earrings also set in gold. She wore a ring with a square-cut emerald of good size, a family treasure handed down for at least seven generations. Her shoes were dark green patent leather, tied with gold-colored ribbons.

She caused a hush of pride in both rich and poor. Rosalba was well loved for her kindness, generosity, and piety. Because of these very qualities she dreaded what would happen that afternoon.

Rosalba let her mind drift to Casa Bella. The estate was a beautiful world unto itself. As her dowry was more than ample, Casa Bella was kept in her name when she wed as demanded by her father. The estate and lands covered a small valley. Over the years, from the work of many hands, the hillsides were planted with grapes and olive, fig, lemon, almond, pear, and hazelnut trees. A wide stream and two springs produced plenty of water. Where the hills met level ground, golden meadows rolled forth and eventually transformed into a smaller line of hills, a natural border that ended the valley as well as the estate.

A number of cottages and outbuildings were scattered throughout the hillsides and orchards. Many families lived in the same homes their grandparents did for the beauty of Casa Bella and the love of the land.

Rosalba gladly lost herself in her thoughts. Bishop DiMars constantly invaded her refuge in clumsily veiled attempts to garner favor, or at least a mention Rosalba might make to “her cardinals,” as the bishop called them. The entire time the bishop spoke, a large black fly pestered him. He would wave it off and it would return, landing on his ears, his eyes, and even his upper lip. Rosalba finally told Bishop DiMars that she would mention him the next time she wrote. The bishop smiled, sat back in his chair, and returned to twiddling his thumbs.

A flock of pigeons noisily flew around the piazza a few times and flew out of sight. There was a faint rumble of distant thunder. A black mongrel dog howled. The mayor cleared his throat to get the bishop’s attention and leaned forward with an expectant look on his face.

“Did you hear that? It is thunder. I told you today might not be a good day for this. Remember, Patriarca wanted to wait until next month.”

The bishop answered with a bit of impatience. “Renaldi, please, have faith. The fires will burn hot enough to turn any rain to harmless mist, and it is God’s will what we do.”

“God’s will,” repeated the mayor blandly, barely hiding the incredulous tone in his voice. “We both have something to gain from today, let us hope you are right. It is not too late…”

“It is time, Arturo. It is time.” The bishop nodded and, with a quick gesture of his hand, signaled the bailiff to send for the guilty. He snapped his fingers at the guards waiting just inside the portico of the town hall. The guards disappeared into the shadows and returned with the convicted witches. One woman was so weak that two guards had to support her, one on each side. Her gray head bobbed as she shuffled along behind the others.

The women’s hands were tied in front of them. They wore dull-colored, coarse garments that were no more than old blankets slit in the middle and worn over one’s head like a loose shift. The women’s hair was mussed and matted, faces and feet filthy. They were pale and underfed. One’s legs and arms were covered with sores.

The bishop stood and raised his hand. The people became quiet and gave him their full attention. The bishop stood a little straighter, took a deep breath, and began. “Faithful members of the most holy Catholic Church, today we rid ourselves of a despicable evil.” The mayor, a student of rhetoric, gave the crowd an encouraging gesture. A few hurrahs turned into a lively, unanimous response. “These sinners, these weak women, these daughters of Lilith who now stand before us have forsaken our Lord Jesus Christ and have become the consorts of Satan. You will hear them admit their guilt.” Primed by the first round of cheering, the crowd again raised their voices. The bishop allowed the display to run its course. He reached into his cassock and produced a list of the women’s names and their crimes.

“Maria Cutri,” the bishop said in a loud voice. The second woman in line raised her head. She was not more than twenty, with a very pale face and dirty black hair hanging in strands. She looked up at the men on the dais. “You are guilty of casting a love spell on Lucius Conino. You caused him to be unfaithful to his wife. You used your will, which caused him to be caught in the act of unwanted adultery with an unnamed woman of good birth, both of whom were known to visit your herb stall in the marketplace, and both of whom were smitten because of your spell. I know Lucius Conino. He is a good husband and a generous friend to our Holy Mother Church. Do you, Maria Cutri, renounce Satan and ask forgiveness for your sins? This is the only way to save yourself.”

Maria looked up at the bishop with tears in her eyes. “Yes, your holiness. I renounce Satan. I have always loved our Lord Jesus Christ. If I have sinned in His eyes, I beg to be forgiven and saved.”

“My child, you are saved; you are forgiven your sins. You will not burn in Hell for eternity if you are truly sorry.”

“Oh yes, I am truly sorry.” Then she asked in a timid but hopeful voice, “May I go to my mother? She is ill. She needs me.”

“My child, it is in my power to grant you absolution for your sins and save your immortal soul, but you must be punished here on earth for your confessed witchcraft. Rejoice! You will soon be with our Lord.” The youngest guard Vito, a lad of sixteen, put his hand on Maria’s shoulder. The crowd silently watched as the condemned sobbed and slowly shuffled her way to the stake. Vito felt a pang of sympathy. Maria looked very much like his favorite aunt. As he tied the ropes tight he whispered, “Breathe the smoke in as deep, and you will feel no pain.” Maria lowered her head, closed her eyes, and prayed.

“Aurora Tocini! You are guilty of consorting with Satan through one of his familiars known to be a large black cat. You have also been seen summoning spirits, speaking and answering when no one could be seen.”

All the time the bishop was reading off the offenses, Aurora Tocini, a woman in her early sixties, stood with her head nodding involuntarily. She mumbled under her breath, and then called out some gibberish.

“Do you wish to be forgiven before you are punished?”

Aurora Tocini was oblivious. She fixated on the toes on the contessa’s patent leather shoes and watched them sparkle. A guard shook the old woman. Aurora looked at the mole on his cheek and giggled.

The bishop spoke with impatience. “As we all can see, this witch is so captivated by the devil that she has no will of her own. Her soul is lost forever.” With a raise of his finger, he summoned the next guard, Vincenzo, to take her away. Aurora Tocini resisted at every step. Vito had to help. All the while the two men bound her to the stake she kicked at them and let out an eerie groan.

The bishop looked at his list. “Monica Longo, you are guilty of casting spells that caused your neighbor Luigi Castigilone’s dairy cows to give sour milk. Do you seek forgiveness for casting spells?”

Unlike the other two women, Monica Longo was strong-willed and outspoken. Longo, a widow, used her strong will and wits to keep her farm going. She had more success at farming than her late husband and her neighbors to the left and right of her. Castiglione was one of those neighbors, and Sandro Petri, a third cousin of the monsignor, was her other neighbor.

Monica Longo spoke in a firm, loud voice. “Bishop DiMars, I can no more cast a spell than you can. I am no witch, nor do I consort with the devil or any of his demons.”

The bishop was taken aback. Even after administering the Strapado six times Longo would not admit to her guilt. “So, even though you were found guilty of your evil acts, you proclaim your innocence?”

Monica Longo turned toward the crowd. “Yes, I am innocent. They just want my land. I have two springs and fifty level acres for grazing or planting, not like that collection of stony hillocks that make up their farms. When Carlo died, both came to me and offered a pittance for my land. A pittance!”

“You will address me! It is you who were found guilty, not Luigi or Sandro. You were seen near Luigi’s pasture waving a willow wand in the direction of his dairy cows. For the next six weeks, the cows could only give sour milk. Luigi was almost ruined. He could make no cheese or butter. You were seen not only by Luigi and two of his workers, but also by Sandro.”

“When is it the work of the devil to dowse for water? Further, if you feed your cattle nothing but scallion and garlic, the milk they give will smell rancid, will it not?”

“Clever answer, very clever; it seems that Satan guides your tongue. It is your soul that will burn in everlasting Hell if you do not admit your guilt and seek forgiveness.”

“I am at peace with our Lord and I owe you no explanation.”

Monica Longo quickly turned to the crowd and added in a loud voice, “Be very careful. Any of you could be next.” For this warning, she received a blow from her guard that knocked her senseless.

“As this witch came into the world so shall she leave it. Take away her coverings,” boomed the bishop.

Vincenzo slit the blanket from the shoulder to the neck hole, pulled it away, and flung it to the ground. Her guard rushed Monica Longo to the next stake and roughly tied her to it.

The bishop’s house servants, Annamarie and her little brother Oswaldo, climbed the stairs onto the dais. Oswaldo carried a tray with goblets. Annamarie carried a jug of water and a jug of wine. The contessa took water. The three men took wine. Father Eduardo abstained. The servants took their seats on the platform behind the contessa’s chair and waited to be called on again.

Oswaldo yawned and closed his eyes. Annamarie settled in and took out a small embroidery hoop from her apron pocket. She was working on a rose. Annamarie took thimble and needle from a pouch. Both were made of gold and were her most valuable possessions. They had been a gift from the bishop on her tenth birthday.

Mayor Renaldi leaned close to the monsignor. “This is bad business. Carlo Longo was a friend of mine. I never would have thought his wife to be a witch, someone who casts spells.”

“Dear friend, I know you were away during the trials. After the most dire persuasion, she had to be suspended at the end of a rope six times before this witch would admit her guilt. It is as the Bishop DiMars said, Satan speaks through his vessel here on earth.”

The contessa held the goblet of water and took a sip now and then. None of this made any sense to her. She did not want to be a witness to the horror of seeing them burn alive. How could these three clergymen and the mayor be so comfortable and sure of themselves? Rosalba wept inwardly for these six women.

After he felt refreshed, the bishop stood and held up his arms. Of the three witches in front of the dais, two stood with their heads lowered. The third, the weakest one, the one who needed help from the dungeon, had already sunk to her knees and was slumped forward in the prayer position of a good Mohammedan. “Bianca Molina, you are guilty of casting spells and performing Pagan rites. Admit your guilt and ask for forgiveness.”

Bianca Molina was thought to be leprous. Due to the damp and filthy dungeon, she had developed very painful red running sores up and down her body. She raised her head and looked at the bishop with dull eyes. Her spirit was gone, and the way she flinched when the coarse garment rubbed against her body was telling that she suffered greatly. She spoke in a monotone. “I am guilty of casting spells and performing Pagan rites, just as you say. I am sorry for my sins and await my punishment.”

The bishop turned his palms up and made a lifting motion and nodded to Bianca’s guard. Carmen pulled Bianca’s shift away from her body and exposed the raw red lesions that pocked her legs and torso.

“These are the marks of Satan, your lover and master. Each sore is where he has kissed or caressed you. Everyone look upon her!” The bishop pointed at the tearful woman. The crowd whispered in eager agreement with the bishop.

“Do you renounce the devil? Are you truly sorry for your sins? Do you recognize our Lord Jesus Christ as your savior?” The bishop spoke with ease already knowing the answers.

“Yes, yes, all of those things you said. I renounce the devil. I am truly sorry, and I have always recognized the Lord Jesus Christ.”

The bishop corrected her, “You mean you will recognize Jesus Christ as your savior. Only the hand of God can make you clean and worthy of his kingdom.”

“Yes. I will recognize Our Lord Jesus Christ.” She was so tired and in so much pain.

The bishop made a small and careless sign of the cross. “You are forgiven, my child, but of course you must be punished for those earthly sins you confessed to.”

Bianca nodded and, without being told, turned away from the dais and took a step toward the guard standing closest to her. The guard, Carmen Testo, stopped short of taking her arm. The running sores repulsed him. The guard was very careful not to touch Bianca. He put his hands as close as he dared in a guiding gesture. They walked slowly. Bianca needed to stop and catch her breath, even though the stake was less than twenty paces away. When they stood before the stake, Bianca noticed the guard’s reluctance to touch her. She clumsily mounted the stacked wood. Losing her balance, she fell and had to crawl the last little bit. She pulled herself up and faced the crowd as the guard tied her fast but rather loosely.

“God bless you,” she whispered.

“And may He welcome you,” he whispered back.

When the bishop saw that Bianca was secured, he read the next name. “Angelina Rotelli, you are guilty of worshipping Satan and sorcery. Stand up and admit your guilt.” The old, white-haired woman was prostrate in front of the dais. The sergeant approached and gave Angelina Rotelli a nudge with his toe. The accused fell to her side and remained there motionless. “Stand the witch up,” barked the bishop.

The sergeant grabbed Angelina and stood her up. Angelina’s head lolled back and forth, and each time the guard lifted the sparrow of a woman to her feet, her legs would buckle. After three attempts, the sergeant laid the woman on her back, knelt down, and felt her neck for a pulse. He looked up at the clergymen, the mayor, and the contessa and mouthed the word, “Dead.” The bishop gave a nod and hand gesture for the body to be removed, but just as quickly rescinded it. He thought for a second and shared his epiphany. “May our Heavenly Father forgive this poor creature, as that coward Satan has snatched away her soul before I could grant her Absolution. At her trial, she admitted her guilt, and I know she was repentant and eager to be forgiven. As Satan snared her soul and made her his slave, if any of you fall to your weaknesses, Satan will be there waiting. It is all of our duties to be vigilant, to be on the lookout for the signs of the devil.”

The crowd awoke to the words. They cast suspicious glances. Family members stood a little closer to each other. Children were picked up by anxious mothers. Many people just looked down at the ground. Rosaries appeared, and people lost themselves in the murmur of prayers.

Contessa Rosalba watched the mayor give the bishop a nod of appreciation for using the dead woman to his advantage. In her heart she felt these women who stood accused were no more than helpless victims of someone else’s ambition, greed or guilt. She prayed for their souls, both the accused and the accusers.

Sergeant at arms, Enrico Gagliardi, looked to the bishop. DiMars nodded. Angelina Rotelli was placed on a cart and wheeled from sight.

“Maria Lillo, you are guilty of worshiping Satan, invisibility, casting love spells, and corrupting young girls. Are you sorry for your sins? Do you renounce Satan and do you accept our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ?”

Maria Lillo looked up and gave each clergyman, the mayor, and the contessa a strange nod and a cold smile. She cleared her throat and spoke in a rasping whisper that was difficult to hear. “Holy bishop, may I please have a swallow of water? I am so parched, and I want to be heard.”

“If you must,” the bishop nodded at Father Eduardo. The priest rose to fetch the jug from Annamarie. The girl was entranced by a strange and unfamiliar straw doll, somehow in her hand. Maria Lillo stroked her palm with the index finger of her left hand. Annamarie mirrored Lillo and stroked the doll’s stomach with her finger. Father Eduardo had to tap her shoulder to break her reverie. Annamarie started at his touch. She met him with a blank stare that quickly turned into a look of puzzlement when she saw the unfamiliar little doll she held. She closed her hand around it and covered her fist with her other hand to hide it. Father Eduardo smiled and patted the girl on the head. Without a word, the girl picked up the jug, crossed the dais, and handed it to the guard. Annamarie was mesmerized by Maria Lillo. Maria Lillo smiled at the girl who, of all things, curtsied to the condemned woman. In a fright, Annamarie quickly returned to her seat and hid her face in her hands. Father Eduardo took his seat. He felt ill at ease but did not know why.

The guard held the jug to Lillo’s lips. She took three swallows but kept the fourth generous swig in her mouth. She nodded that she was finished. Lillo took a step closer to the bishop and the contessa. She looked up, and with all of her might sprayed the bishop, the contessa, and the monsignor. The guard pulled her back and held her from behind. The bishop, whose face was dripping with water, was aghast. The contessa wiped her cheek and hands in a way that bordered on being obsessive.

Maria Lillo addressed those who sat before her with a firm and mocking voice. “Since, as you say, I am a consort of Satan, I baptize you all in his name. And I curse you all. You, holy bishop:

Like a bird,

You will never change your color,

Black, it is now

And black it shall be forever.

Never shall you fly with those of a red feather.


You have cursed yourself already with indolence.

A life half-lived is your earthly penance.

Pretty Contessa,

A flower so pure and so white,

What grows in your belly is as dark as night.

Your words may have spared this doubtful coven.

Your comfort and fear

Sends us to the devil’s oven.”

Before Maria Lillo could continue, the guard had his arm around her neck and his hand over her mouth. He forced her to the ground and onto her back. He put his boot heel on her throat. Maria looked up at him with a serene, almost dreamy expression on her face. The guard looked to the bishop for direction. The bishop, who was still drying his face, looked at the guard and then down at Maria Lillo with an intense and cruel stare. Bishop DiMars gave a chilling nod. The guard slowly brought the weight of his body down until he felt the delicate cartilage of her throat collapse with a hollow crack. He kept his foot there until the bishop gave a wave of his hand. When he took his boot away, Maria painfully gasped for air. Two guards jerked her to her feet and took turns beating her with their fists to an approving murmur from the crowd.

The guards dragged the bloodied and barely conscious prisoner to the stake. They tied her so tight she could hardly breathe. Eventually, her head slumped forward as she passed.

The bishop turned to the contessa. “I am so sorry, contessa. You can see how depraved and possessed these terrible women are.” He dabbed at his face with his hanky even though it was dry.

The contessa collected her thoughts. She was frightened by Maria Lillo’s curse. Her baser self wanted Lillo punished, but the better and greater part of Rosalba wanted to set her free along with the others. She looked at the bishop coolly. “Terrible? I would think more desperate, and bitter at their fates. All they have left are words. Would you go to your death without calling out your accusers?”

The bishop answered thoughtfully, “Dear contessa, these women have sealed their fates by their confessions – confessions that had to be painfully extracted, ’tis true, but given nonetheless. Confessions that were duly recorded by Father Eduardo, in front of witnesses and a legate from Rome.”

“I am sure everything is most legal and proper. But now I must leave. I am not feeling very well. I must leave.”

The bishop’s brow furrowed with sympathy. “Yes, yes, of course.” He looked beyond the contessa and called out to his servant girl, “Annamarie! Annamarie, come quickly.”

The young girl peeked around the corner of the contessa’s chair.

“Come, my dear. Run and fetch the coachman for the contessa.”

The girl curtsied and hesitated for a second in front of the contessa. Annamarie held out the straw doll that, moments earlier, had mysteriously appeared in her hand and so captivated her attention. “For you and your baby.” She hurried off to find Alfredo Amalfi.

Rosalba gave the girl a quizzical smile. How could the little girl know she was pregnant? But the kind gesture was a flicker of light on this very dark day. In a few moments, the carriage appeared. Armando jumped down from his perch and waited at the bottom of the steps.

The men crowded around Rosalba. The mayor looked ready to give a long and flowery goodbye. The contessa cut him short. “Thank you for your hospitality, and goodbye.” The mayor nodded and gave the contessa a disappointed little smile. Monsignor Petri bowed, as did Father Eduardo. Rosalba gave a half-hearted wave to the crowd, who gave her a muted but affectionate send-off.

Rosalba quickly descended the few steps and waited what seemed a lifetime for Armando to open the door. With one step up, she escaped. The inside of the carriage was warm. Rosalba hadn’t noticed how cold she was. The warmth felt good. The familiar scent of the carriage’s leather interior was soothing. She pulled the curtains closed. They subdued the midday sun to a pale yellow glow. She felt the carriage rock as Armando climbed to his perch and was gladdened when the carriage headed away from the crowd, the clergy and the condemned.

Rosalba sat back in the seat. She remembered the little straw doll. She smiled at its simplicity. As she turned it over in her hand, she felt a prick. Rosalba pressed her thumb against the tip of her index finger and forced out a drop of blood to cleanse the tiny hurt. The crimson dot fell on the doll’s belly. On closer inspection, Rosalba found a fine golden needle in the straw. She put the doll into a basket on the seat next to her and closed her eyes.

The bishop, mayor, monsignor and Father Eduardo watched the carriage until it was out of sight.

Mayor Renaldi spoke quietly, “It is not good that the contessa left. She should have stayed. The people have not seen her for a long time.”

“She made her appearance. Who could blame such a beautiful woman wanting to leave after being spat on by a condemned hag?”

“You make a good point monsignor,” agreed the bishop.

“It is all so sordid,” added the priest. His comment was benign enough to be interpreted by the others to suit their needs. Father Eduardo referred to the selfish and dualistic acts that were given a veil of righteousness and legality by his superiors. All those accusations and lies that spawned this inhuman spectacle sickened him.

The people started to chatter and move about. A young man hollered across the square to get his friend’s attention. A baby began to cry which was an invitation for other babies to join in. A fight broke out between a peasant, Vito Carlucci, and one of the town ruffians who went by only Nino. Nino, a big, slow-witted man was in league with the pickpockets. The fight was to be a diversion. Vito’s friends and family immediately came to his aid and ran Nino off. Everything happened so quickly the pickpockets lost their chance.

The sky darkened, and a chilly breeze swept through the square. On direction from the bishop, the priest, and the monsignor sat. Mayor Renaldi raised his arms and loudly cleared his throat. He called out to the crowd. “Citizens! Countrymen look to me, hear me.” The mayor’s plea along with the cold breeze caught the everyone’s attention. “We are here to witness God’s work through his servant Bishop DiMars. For too long, the threat of Satan has gone unchecked. The devil and his army of demons have invaded our city and our very lives. Satan and his fiends are everywhere sowing their seeds of hate and mistrust. We must defend ourselves. We must root out this evil. We must be ever vigilant to the wiles and tricks of the devil.”

The people in the square nodded in agreement with the mayor and each other. They all pressed in a little closer.

With another flourish of his hands, Mayor Renaldi continued, “It is not enough to merely pray for God’s protection and salvation. We must act! We must fight for our very souls and the souls of those we love.” The mayor’s voice became louder and slightly higher. “That is why we must turn to our Holy Mother the Church. With its blessing and through its instrument, Bishop DiMars, we can find that protection and succor. We can root out those sinners, those weak pawns of the devil. Without this divine help, we may not know whom to trust. Your friends, neighbors, even members or your family could be under the spell of that foul fallen angel! “

The crowd answered in a low agreeable tone.

“We have before us five confessed witches. Are we ready to punish them? Are we ready to send them to their final judgment?”

Fists were held up along with staffs and cudgels. The crowd responded with a loud “Yes!”

Mayor Renaldi posed the question again, this time a bit louder. The crowd responded even louder than before. Renaldi called out for the last time. All was ready.

“Let it be known that Bishop DiMars will rid our city of this threat and that only our dear Savior can change what has been put into motion.” The mayor took the bishop’s hand and held it up in victory. A few men started chanting, “Burn them! Burn them! Burn them!” until the others joined in.

The bishop and mayor sat back and savored their people’s chanting. DiMars nodded to the guard. Carman reached into an open cask and pulled out an unlit torch. He passed the resin-soaked rag that was wrapped around the end of the wooden handle over the flame in a nearby brazier. The rag caught immediately and sent a sooty black stream into the air. In a dark epiphany, Carman realized what he was about to do as he held the flame to the wood. He looked away from the woman tied to the stake. His soul froze, and he felt a jolt of revulsion rock his being. He forced himself to carry out the order, knowing this act would be branded on his soul for all time.

Vito and Vincenzo reached into the cask, lit their torches, and followed the order to walk the circumference of the stakes and put fire to the wood. The kindling smoldered, and tiny yellow flames leapt from the straw, twigs, and small sticks.

La Famiglia Mezzi sat back in their folding chairs, proud of their contribution to the cleansing. The small fires consumed the kindling and eventually went out. Mezzi’s wood, which was so perfectly stacked, did not ignite. Sergeant Gagliardi turned to the closest man. “Get some pitch or oil.” Vito hurried through the portico of the town hall, went to the store room, snatched up a demijohn of oil, and returned quickly. Without further instructions, he went from pyre to pyre, generously sprinkling oil onto the dry wood. Again the torches were set to the wood. A dark anticipation gripped the onlookers. The oil burned, bright and hot. The watchful crowd waited in silence for the wood to crackle with heat and burst into a consuming flame. The flames were tall and yellow and bright. In minutes, the oil was consumed. The proud flames faltered and became smaller and weaker, and again failed to ignite Signore Mezzi’s wood.

The bishop looked over to the mayor. “What is going on here?”

Mayor Renaldi shrugged his shoulders. “Is the wood yet green?”

Monsignor Petri added, “I daresay no. I looked at the wood myself. It was dry as stale bread. It is from Mezzi’s cursed apple tree. The tree has been dead for three years--plenty of time to season.”

The mayor did not like to see such public plans go awry. He wanted the burning to be a feather in his cap and a memorable rallying point for his re-election. Renaldi stood and held up his arms. “Dear citizens, patience. Ask God for patience, as you see His will be done.” Then, turning to the bishop and pointing, he said, “Through his most holy instrument here on earth.” Renaldi looked at Father Silva and bid him stand. The young priest stood. He wrinkled his brow.

“Father, please lead us in the Lord’s Prayer.”

A flock of starlings noisily squawked and chirped as they flew overhead off to the west. The starlings were followed by a half a dozen ducks racing closely behind. A strong and icy wind blew through the square, catching the crowd off guard. A pearl-gray silk parasol took flight and landed on the other side of the dais in the fountain. The chilling breeze dragged in distant dark clouds that cast a cold gray shadow over the piazza and people.

The bishop made an impatient gesture for the young priest to begin. Father Silva made the sign of the cross and began, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy Kingdom come, thy will be done…” and with the utterance of the word “will,” a bolt of lightning hit the bell tower, causing the clapper to fly back and forth on its pivot, making the bell ring. Everyone was shocked, even the most irreverent.

Then the rain came. Gossamer towers of water descended and swayed, following the erratic paths blazed by the wind. Each drop of driven rain was like a pinprick against any exposed skin. The paving stones glistened dark red and became slick and slippery. Patriarca’s canopy took flight and left the family scrambling for shelter. The people scurried about. Families became separated. Some fell as they ran. Clothing was rain-darkened and drenched. The pretty young ladies’ elaborate hairdos wilted and fell under the force of the icy rain. Then came hail the size of a clenched fist. Rich and poor were thrust into a panic. Family members ran here and there. The wind and hail ripped parasols. The people covered their heads with hands. Everyone felt the sting of the icy bombardment.

The burning attracted such a huge crowd that only a lucky few were able to find shelter immediately. Lighting hit again just outside the city walls and seared the image of the heavy iron gates into the frightened eyes of the parishioners. The prostitutes and pimps and pickpockets scrambled under the hay wagon. Others jammed themselves under any overhang, be it nothing more than eaves.

The bishop, Mayor Renaldi, Monsignor Petri, and Father Silva found shelter under the floorboards of the dais. The hail began to pile up. Out of breath, and quite uncomfortable, the bishop rested his back against one of the upright supports and surveyed his parishioners in their dashing panic. Some found refuge in the church.

“I told you that today would not be very good for this thing,” Renaldi whined. “Everyone will now surely remember this day.” The touchstone for his re-election became a millstone.

“Do not waste your time worrying, Gino. It is not worth the effort.” The monsignor covered his mouth as he yawned. He yawned three times in a row, each yawn greater and louder than the last.

Father Silva turned away from the others and went back into the storm.

“Where are you going, my son?” asked the bishop.

“I am going to unlock the church. Hopefully, those out in the storm will come in.” He disappeared into the curtain of hail and icy rain.

“What about our witches?” Renaldi’s concern was pragmatic and not sympathetic. He shruggerd and continued, “I suppose they will keep for another day. After all, it rains all of the time, but a witch burning only comes along every so often.”

The bishop nodded his head in agreement. “Pshaw. I do not want those women dying in the dungeon of the black bile or consumption. They should be brought in under cover.”

The monsignor shoved his cold hands deep into the folds of his cassock. “Why do anything? They will be there after the rain stops. We might as well just wait. And surely neither you nor I should be the ones to offer them cover. We are the Church. It might seem strange for the prosecutor also to be the savior of witches.”

The bishop grunted. The rain dripped through the cracks and off the floorboards onto the men. “Renaldi, it must be you. People vote for a compassionate man. You will appear saintly.”

He chuckled. “Patron saint of witches… we should have never done this today. I told you Patriarca wanted us to wait.”

“Enough! Let us salvage what we can. Have the guards get them to cover. Gino, tell the sergeant to give them dry clothes and feed them so-mething hot. I want them alive and healthy.”

Renaldi awkwardly climbed over the monsignor, who did not bother to move a muscle, and into the rain. He dashed to where the sergeant and the guards were huddled in the portico of the town hall and gave them the bishop’s orders.

The hail fell and formed a halo around each stake. None of the women were struck. The guards cut the women loose. Gagliardi put his cape over the naked Monica Longo and ushered them into the Provost’s office, a large enough room with a hearth.

The five shivering women were wet to the skin. They were pale, and their lips were more blue than pink. The rain ran off the hems of their crude garments in ever-widening circles that eventually met and found their level in the low spaces between the floor tiles.

Vito was ordered to find some of the driest of Mezzi’s firewood. The rain was still pouring down, and all of the gutters were overflowing and running back into the piazza. Vito braved the pounding rain. At the first stake, he dug out some sticks, small branches, and a few small logs that were relatively dry. The wind howled and drove the rain against his face so hard he could barely keep his eyes open. Vito tucked the wood under his cloak and ran back to the Provost’s office. Once inside, he let the dripping wood fall onto the floor in front of the fireplace.

His cousin Vincenzo already found some kindling and made a nice little nest that would fire quickly. Vito dried his face and wrung the rain out of his short ponytail. Vincenzo knelt before the fireplace and scraped the iron striker against the piece of flint until a spark landed in the nest of dry moss and began to smolder. He gently blew--once, twice, thrice--on the orange speck until a puff of white smoke lazily drifted away into the draft of the chimney. He added a few pieces of straw and some twigs. He watched the tiny fire consume the tinder. He added sticks and smaller branches and, as the fire grew, the small logs from the pyre. To everyone’s amazement, the wood caught and burned bright and hot.

Sergeant Gagliardi sent Carmen to fetch Marta, the housekeeper. She was stout, and she neatly tucked her graying hair under a red kerchief tied at the back. Her face was round, and her eyes were deep brown and sincere. She was kind and she liked to laugh. Marta wore a simple gray dress with a wide white collar and a bib-style white apron. She had on heavy woolen socks and wooden clogs.

Her countenance changed from its easy and happy demeanor to a guarded and suspicious one. She turned to Gagliardi. “Why do you put me in a room full of Satan’s brides?” Marta made the sign of the cross and started to back up toward the door.

“Stand fast, woman. On the order of the bishop, find these women something dry and warm to wear. Get them something hot to eat and drink.” Then, as an afterthought, he pointed to Monica Longo. “Dry my cape and have it brought to me.”

Marta shook her head in mild disbelief. “Yes, your highness.”

“Watch your tongue, woman.” Gagliardi and his men left for the barracks.

Marta looked at the exhausted women; they all seemed so small and defenseless, broken and barely alive. She knew each one of them. Quite often, she bought herbs or spices from Maria Cutri. Marta would never have expected her to be a witch. As for Aurora Tocini, the poor thing was demented. She was turned out on the streets after her son died. Now, she was a harmless shell that scuttled the alleyways and back lanes looking for her dead boy. With no family left, she lived on the charity of those who knew her when her mind was clear and she was happy.

Marta knew Monica Longo best of all. As children, they had been playmates. They made their first communion together and their confirmation. They enjoyed each other’s company well enough, but neither one considered the other a true friend. Both had vied for the handsome young farmer Carlo Longo, but Monica won his love. Marta was heartbroken, but she was never one to hold a grudge or wish anyone ill. Marta was at a loss why her old acquaintance should have such an awful fate.

Marta brushed the hair away from Monica’s face. She took her old playmate’s icy cheeks in the palms of her hands. Monica managed a tearful smile as she searched Marta’s eyes.

“Let me find you something warm to wear,” she whispered. Marta then addressed all of the women. “Warm yourselves. I will be back with some dry things.” When she left the room, the women edged closer to the fire.

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