Alchemist's Gift

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Rite and Ritual

Rosalba lay on her bed with a cool, damp cloth across her forehead. It was late afternoon, and she had suffered from an awful headache since her morning prayers. Benedetta sat next to the bed, her back to the window, doing needlepoint.

Rosalba stirred and the cloth fell off her head. Benedetta put her hoop down and leaned over her cousin. “Rosie, are you feeling any better? Has your headache gone away?”

“Somewhat. Please close the shutters. The sun hurts my eyes.” Rosalba turned on her side and looked away from the window. Since she returned from the witch burning, her belly was tight and tender.

Benedetta closed the tall shutters. “Would you like water and wine, cousin?”

“Please, and bring a dainty, those little biscotti with the dates.” Rosalba closed her eyes and rested the back of her hand on her forehead. As soon as Benedetta left the room, Rosalba had a painful cramp.

Eight weeks earlier, on the night before Emilio left, they had made love. The morning after, Rosalba felt different, as if her body was more alive but confused. By midmorning, after the rush of worry and commotion connected with bidding farewell to the conte and his entourage eased, Rosalba knew why she felt the way she did; she was with child. She did not have to mention her suspicions to Benedetta or her mother. Ursula saw it right away.

The witch burning would be Rosalba’s last public appearance until after the baby came. That was fine with her. Being contessa was exciting and confidence-building for her younger self. Now, when Conte Emilio was away, she had to take on responsibilities for which she was not prepared and did not want. As soon as Emilio left with his troops, Bishop DiMars and Mayor Renaldi came to visit. They suggested she make them her proxy. Rosalba gladly did so. She would not be much good to anybody with a legal dispute.

For the next seven months, Rosalba was the center of attention. It was a difficult confinement. The first two months went well. The severe cramps, headaches, and dizziness started the morning after the witch burning. Rosalba had Benedetta sleep with her because of the recurring dream of the convicted witch Maria Lillo repeating the icy words, “Pretty contessa, a flower so pure and so white, what grows in your belly is as dark as night.” The prick on her finger from the needle hidden in the little straw doll made her finger slightly swollen, sore, and pink.

Rosalba awoke with a start from her dream, afraid that Maria Lillo’s words were true. That morning the pain was so bad that Rosalba considered calling in a wise woman to take away the curse. She could not make herself do it. Instead, she called for Father Eduardo to come out, to hear her confession and give her the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.

“Bless me father, for I have sinned. My last confession was three weeks ago.”

Father Eduardo sat in a chair next to Rosalba’s bed. He held her hand. “Yes, my child, tell me your sins.”

“I have doubted our Lord.”

Eduardo moved uncomfortably in the chair. “We all have our doubts. Tell me, what made you doubt the Lord?”

“Father, I know that a child is a gift from God, and all that God does is good. But sometimes the pain is so unbearable that I ask myself, why does our Lord make me suffer so? I pray, but the pain does not go away.”

“Our Lord suffered for his children; perhaps you should follow Christ’s example.”

“Our Lord was sent by God for that reason to save mankind. I just want to have my baby.”

“You must not lose faith.”

Rosalba looked into Eduardo’s eyes. “You were there when Maria Lillo cursed me.”

“Contessa, that wretch said something to the bishop and the monsignor as well. She was desperate and frightened,” he explained gently.

“It always hurts so much. Father, I almost asked my servants to seek out a white witch to lift the curse.” Rosalba dropped her head in shame and held on to the priest’s hand a little harder.

“Dear Contessa, the Holy Mother Church holds the answer, not a witch. It was best to call on me to help you.” He wondered how much help he could be to anyone. Father Eduardo still shuddered at the image of Amelia Andano underwater in that dying vat with her last breath streaming out from the corners of her nose. He remembered how limp and heavy her dead body had been when he pulled her up out of the water and laid her next to the tub.

“Tell me what to do,” ventured a contrite Rosalba.

“Have faith in Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.” Father Eduardo placed his hand on top of Rosalba’s head, “Ego te absolvo peccatis tuis in nomine Patris et filii et spiritus sancti. Now for your penance I would like you to pray the rosary and make a good act of contrition. And contessa, let us have no more thoughts of witches with their silly spells and signs.” He raised his hand over Rosabla’s head and made the sign of the cross.

“Thank you, Father.” Rosalba felt relieved. The pain inside her remained, but now she found it more bearable. “You will say mass tonight in the chapel?”

“Yes, I will. Your papa has already instructed me. I will stay and say mass, and I will give you Holy Communion. Now you must rest. If there is no more contessa, there are some sick among the peasants I would like to visit.”

“Yes, please, go and visit them. Thank you, Father.”

As Father Eduardo left the room, Benedetta entered, curtsied to the priest, and looked at her cousin propped up in bed. Rosalba took the rosary from around her neck, kissed the crucifix, and made the sign of the cross. She said her prayers out loud. Benedetta sat, took her rosary from her dress pocket, and joined her cousin.

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