Alchemist's Gift

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Rene and Bella Hermes lived outside the town of Adler Lager in his ancestral home. Only his mother Isabelle survived. His father Titus died not long after the wedding. Rene’s mother now lived with his sister Giesella and her husband, Rudiger, and their five children. They were glad to take her in and keep her occupied with the living and not the dead.

Rene and Bella enjoyed a good life. The only thing that would make it complete would be a child. Their first two children were stillborn. Four months prior, Bella again found herself with child. Rene ordered Bella to do no housework. Her sisters helped.

Rene figured their baby would come on Mayday. “It is fitting, do not you think my love that our child may always remind us of that first time we met?” They sat in front of the fire.

“Yes my dear, most fitting.” Bella looked up from her tatting, “This house is so big. I hope we will finally hear the sound of a child in it.”

“As do I,” Rene did not want to consider any other possibility and the child would arrive in just a few more months.

December and January of that year were terribly cold and dark months. The stinging winter wind blew down from the Alps. Across northern Italy, southern Germany, and Bavaria, a terrible sickness came with the unforgiving cold.

Those unfortunates who became sick were the very old and the very young. So many people died; some families lost half of their members. Rene tended to the sick. He was very thankful that he did not contract the sickness. His bachelor brother Alfeo was not so lucky. Alfeo was Second Steward at Adler Kralle Castle and was asked to live elsewhere and to stay away until he became well.

Rene had a sick room prepared. Shortly after his arrival, Alfeo took to his bed with a painfully sore throat and a high fever that lasted three days. Alfeo went into coughing fits that convulsed his entire body. He was weak and barely able to stand. After three days, Alfeo’s fingernails and lips had a blue tinge to them.

Bella was quite fond of Alfeo. She looked on him as the little brother she never had. Even though Rene told her several times to stay away from her brother-in-law, she yielded to the soft spot in her heart and had a chair brought in to be near him so they could talk or pray.

Toward the end of the first week, Alfeo’s condition worsened. His coughing became deeper and longer. He could barely breathe. Rene placed his ear on his brother’s chest and could hear fluid surging with each labored breath. Rene ordered a brazier brought in heaped with coals. The room became blistering in a very short time. The heat caused his brother to gasp. Rene had the brazier removed and opened the windows. The cold air rolled in. Rene felt Alfeo’s forehead. His brother was burning with fever. Rene went to the flower box on the window and scooped some snow in each hand and pressed it against Alfeo’s cheeks and forehead. This had a negative effect too. Alfeo began to shiver and only stopped when he went into a fit of coughing.

Rene closed the window and bundled his brother up. The extreme changes sent Alfeo into shock. His breathing became even more labored as his lungs slowly filled. He died right before midnight.

Rene closed Alfeo’s eyes, sat in the chair next to the bed and held his younger brother’s hand. Bella came in and patted Rene’s shoulder. She knelt down at the side of the bed and silently prayed for Alfeo’s soul. It was past one o’clock and with a subtle tug on Rene’s hand he stood. Bella kissed Alfeo on the lips and made a final sign of the cross. Rene pulled the sheet up and covered him. He took his wife’s hand, and they went to bed.

Bella died three weeks later. She contracted the sickness. No matter what Rene tried or did, he had to watch his beautiful Bella’s life slowly, day by agonizing day, slipping away. After she passed, he quietly and slowly washed Bella and dressed her in her best clothing. With the help of Floriano Fiore and his daughters, they wrapped Bella in a shroud and placed her in her favorite place: the potting shed in her flower garden. There would be no burials. The ground was frozen. The dead were prepared and stored in outbuildings where they would be preserved by the cold until spring and the thaw.

The burden of such a great sorrow broke Rene. He barely slept or ate or spoke for a week. Rene refused to go to the castle or see visitors. Every morning was the same. He would eat a small piece of bread and drink some red wine. He walked the twelve measured steps it took to cross the garden, and he would unlock the door, kiss the key, and put it into his pocket. He entered his makeshift mausoleum that was ill-lit with the frosted light of the winter sun. Surrounded by a heavy halo of cold, Rene would gently pull the shroud away and arrange it carefully the same way every day. He looked on Bella’s beautiful sleeping face. Every morning he kissed her lips, sat in the folding chair, and held her hand, imparting his warmth into her until his hand was numb from the cold. Rene closed his eyes and thought of his beautiful Bella and the first day they met. He talked to her in a low, serious voice about their baby and how happy they would both be when the child was born. He heard Bella’s sweet voice answer and the echoes of his never-to-be child’s laughter in the warm and happy halls of their home.

For twenty-eight days, Rene continued his vigil. During that time, he did not wash his face or comb his hair. He hadn’t changed out of the clothing he had worn the day Bella died. At the end of the day, Rene would come in shivering. He forbade Ornella to make a fire. He would then eat a few bites and retire to a cold bed and a dreamless, restless sleep. On the twenty-ninth day, Rene went to the potting shed. When he opened the door, Bella stood before him. Her radiance filled the room with warm, white light.

He walked toward her with extended arms.

Bella shook her head and held up her hand. “No, my love, we must not touch.”

“You have come back to me. Let me hold you.” Rene was ecstatic.

“I have never left.” Bella’s voice was gentle, sympathetic and loving.

“You are right here. You are right before me.”

Bella turned toward the table and pointed at her shrouded corpse. “You must let me go, my love.”

Rene could not resist, and as his hand reached to touch her, Bella gave him a sad, loving smile and vanished. The light dimmed, and the bitter cold crept in. Rene knelt before the table where Bella’s body lay. He closed his eyes and, try as he might, he could not see her face or hear her voice. It wasn’t long before he noticed how achingly cold he was and how hungry; how he hurt all over, and how exhausted he was. He painfully got to his feet and stood before Bella. Rene pulled back the shroud, looked on her calm, lifeless face and took her hand. He was startled by how cold it was. He released her hand and felt revulsion, not toward Bella but himself. He covered her up in the shroud, entered his house, ordered a fire, went to his bed, and slept.

On the last morning of March, when Rene came to breakfast his hair was combed and his face washed clean, his beard trimmed and neat. He wore clean clothes and sat down to the breakfast that Ornella had made for him: four eggs, cheese, bread, and stewed fruit. He ate heartily for the first time since Bella’s death. He drank two cups of hard cider.

“Ornella, thank you.” He stood and gave his sister-in-law a heartfelt hug. “Bless you for your patience and the efforts you made to be here for me. I thank you again.” Rene went to the window that looked out onto the garden and the potting shed. A wisp of a smile crossed his lips. “Tomorrow I will return to Adler Kralle. I must make sure the carriage is in good repair.”

“Yes, Rene,” she nodded. “That would make Bella very happy.”

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