Alchemist's Gift

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Tabula Rasa

A blackbird sang in an aspen tree just outside Lady Rosanera’s bedroom window. Inside she sat with Catharina, next to her bed where Roland lay unconscious for two days. The room had a high ceiling and wide, tall windows. It was beautifully appointed, with gilded crown and panel moldings. The walls were painted a creamy yellow, with narrow light blue borders. Several tall candle stands were placed about, and a shiny brass chandelier hung in the middle of the ceiling. Tapestries decorated one wall, and a huge dark portrait of Duke Gunter dominated the wall above the massive fireplace.

A white bombe chest with fancy ormolu decoration along with a massive matching wardrobe and an equally large bed of the same motif dominated the room. Rosanera’s cherry wood with ebony inlayed writing desk and chair were delicate and very highly polished. By the window was a full-length mirror in a plain gilded frame, and next to that was her washstand with a cut crystal pitcher and bowl.

Catharina noticed a slight movement. Roland made the softest of moans.

“He may awaken. Thank God.” She made the sign of the cross.

“Yes, thank God,” Rosanera spoke softly. She stroked Roland’s forehead and played with a wisp of his hair.

Roland opened his eyes and looked up into Rosanera’s welcoming smile.

“Can you hear me?” she asked.

Roland blinked few times and looked closer. “I think you are the lady from the shadows.” He looked over at Catharina. Her expression was inquisitive. “I do not know you.” Roland propped himself up on his elbow. He felt something on his cheek. He followed the cloth tie up to the bandage and gently patted it.

“Oh no, sir, please do not touch.” Catharina guided Roland’s hand away from the bandage and back down to his side. She helped Roland sit up and put a pillow behind his head.

“I am Lady Rosanera. This is Catharina, my cousin.”

Roland felt the linen nightshirt and looked around. “Where am I?”

“Adler Kralle castle, in my quarters--and more so in my bed.” Rosanera gave a subtle smile. She looked over to Catharina. “Bring this good man something to drink.”

Roland took in the richness of the room, the furnishings, and the elaborate clothing that both Rosanera and Catharina wore.

Catharina handed a glass of diluted wine to Roland.

“Cousin, go tell Hilda to prepare something for my guest to eat.” Catharina nodded and left the room. “I do not even know who to thank for saving me from those terrible men.”

“My name… my name is Roland Hughes.”

“Englishman? Are you with title?” Rosanera leaned in closer.

Roland drank in Rosanera’s beauty. “Only my name.”

“I hoped you might be nobility. You certainly act nobler than anyone at Adler Kralle. I thank you, my dear Roland Hughes.” She put her hand on his and left it there.

“You are more than welcome,” said Roland. Rosanera was radiant.

“You needed help. I do not think I did that much.” Roland remembered that he had stood in front of the doorway to hide Rosanera. He was a little less sure of what happened next. “There was a little girl on a horse with a man. I remember that much, and I think I was going to help her… I do not remember anything after that.”

“The man struck you down.” She pointed at the wound. “Thankfully he did not see me before he rode off.”

“Was he after you too?”

There was a knock on the door. “Come,” said Rosanera in a loud voice.

A girl of fifteen with braided black hair and nervous eyes entered the room. She carried a tray with a small soup tureen, bowls and spoons, a loaf of bread, three different kinds of cheese, and some cut up pears and apples in a bowl.

“Put it there, Clotilda.” Rosanera’s tone was flat, almost impatient.

The girl put the tray of food on the writing desk and set the bowls out. She took a ladle and filled the bowls with the soup. She looked to her mistress.

“That will be all.”

Clotilda hurried out of the room. Rosanera sat for a moment, rose, quickly went to the door, flung it open, and looked down the hallway in both directions. She slowly closed the door and returned to the bed.

“Do you know anything about me?” she asked.

“You told me your name. I think your mother was the duchess, but she died of the plague. You do good things, but the people do not appreciate you.”

Her smile faded at the last bit of information, but she was duly impressed with Roland. “It is all so very true about me and my mother. As for the people, that seems to be the cross I must bear.” She sighed. “You certainly know more about me than I do about you. Whence do you come?”

“From far away. How did I get here?”

“Luis and Angelo helped you onto my horse and we rode back to Adler Kralle. That is how you got here.”

“When was that?”

“Two days past. Catharina or I sat with you all that time. You were in and out of wakefulness. Though you never opened your eyes, you would say a few words, or call a name. Who is Sofia?”

Roland gave a start at the mention of her name. He tried to get out of bed. When he exerted himself, he felt an acute pain across the top of his head followed by a throbbing headache. “I have got to find out if she is all right. “ He grimaced and sank back down.

“You must rest and you must eat.” Rosanera offered Roland her arm, and he slowly got from beneath the covers and stood. Rosanera helped him to the desk, and he lowered himself into the chair.

“I guess I am weaker than I thought.” The soup smelled and tasted delicious. The bread was warm, and the cheese was unlike anything Roland had ever tasted. He found it strange, his inability to remember his home or family or what he had been doing two weeks ago or anything before the last few days. He did know what foods he liked; he recognized that his sensibilities included an appreciation and knowledge of the beautiful furnishings and architecture.

He looked at his hostess. Rosanera was beautiful. Her dark eyes were deep and intense. Her features were like those of a classical goddess. And her complexion was almost flawless, except for a small strawberry birthmark she had on her neck. He knew he had seen her face before, her face very close to his, and he knew that he felt her heated breath on his cheek. She was in his memory from sometime before now. Roland could not place her.

Roland was glad that Lady Rosanera had made sure he was cared for. He seemed to know about this world around him, but in a strangely removed way, as if it was a memory within a dream. Everything around him seemed familiar but also curious and new.

“Do you enjoy the soup?” Rosanera asked as she pulled a slipper chair upholstered in gold damask, over to the desk and sat.

“Yes, it is very good. You were going to tell me about the men who were after you. I heard the little boy run across the square and warn everyone the duke’s men were coming.”

“The little boy was right. The duke’s men came.”

Roland used his spoon to smear some soft white cheese on his bread. “Why would you be afraid? Don’t they have to do what you tell them?”

“No, I am in… limbo. Sometimes it feels more like Purgatory. I have no more power over those men than my handmaid, Clotilda. My little court and I visit the orphanage and the hospital as often as we can. We bring them those things they need. It is our obligation to help those less fortunate.”

“I do not understand. Why would there be a problem?” Roland felt better and less shaky after eating something.

“For now, let us just say that the duke does not want me to be anything other than his bothersome stepdaughter, shut up in this fortress called Adler Kralle. That is why we go in disguise, such as it is. The people know it is me; I know they do. They could give us away for coin, but they do not. Their needs are greater than their resentment for me, which makes them resent me more. I might as well be a prisoner here, but a prisoner with no chance of ransom.” Rosanera shrugged her shoulders and sighed.

“I was told that the duke was a good leader. At least until the duchess died.”

“He was. He was a different man when I was little and mother was alive. He was thoughtful, even cheerful. Duke Gunter was sick the first time the Black Death came. Two years passed before it returned and took my mother, and so many others died.”

“But he survived.”

“Yes, he recovered. Catharina, the court physician Rene Hermes, and I were the only ones who knew. During the sickness, he suffered from a fever for six days and nights. The demons inside made him scream and yell. He would call for my mother, speak and make no sense. Sometimes his whole body would shiver or shake until finally he fell into a stupor and slept for three days. He awoke possessed. He is still possessed. He became this strange man, melancholy and dark. He was in such ill humor--sad one moment, laughing the next. When he first left his sickbed, he needed two lads to help him. In time, he became well, and he grew even stronger than he was before he became ill. When he is lost in his cup, he does not laugh like before. He becomes mean and cruel. He is always angry.”

Roland remembered that Sofia had told him the same story. “High fevers can change a person.”

“God called him to his side and he did not go. The devil keeps him here on Earth, and now we all must pay.”

“The devil,” Roland repeated. “What were the duke’s men doing with the orphans?”

“May the Lamb of God show his mercy on their poor souls. Their fate is beyond our help.” Rosanera sadly shook her head.

“What do you mean?”

Rosanera looked away from Roland. Her eyes flashed, and her continence stiffened. “That band of filth will use those girls and boys for whatever perverse sport they wish, and then who knows? If the children are lucky, they might find their way to some almshouse or convent, but they will be despoiled. Their lives will be broken.”

“That little girl on the horse was so scared.”

Rosanera looked past Roland. She gave an icy and hateful glare at the portrait of the duke. The memory of the day they laid her mother to rest rushed into her mind. She was a grief-stricken thirteen-year-old girl again, trying to accept her mother’s death, quite unprepared for the heinous actions of her plague-addled and angry stepfather.

It was late afternoon. After the crypt was locked, and people left, Gunter, Rosanera, Catharina, and Monsignor DeDeo returned to the castle’s great room. Gunter sat heavily in a chair at the long table and cradled his head in his hands. Rosanera stood near him. She was numb and felt so very alone, even though Catharina held her hand.

Monsignor DeDeo placed his hand on Gunter’s shoulder. “Remember, it is God’s will to call the duchess to his side. Have faith, my son.”

Gunter’s eyes flashed as he roughly pushed the monsignor’s hand away. “Oh yes, monsignor, all in God’s plan. God’s plan was to make my wife suffer and die horribly, make me suffer, make all those around me suffer… and for what purpose?”

Catharina flinched at his hateful words and squeezed Rosanera’s hand. Gunter grabbed at the decanter of brandy on the table and filled the crystal tumbler to overflowing with a trembling hand. Gunter drank down the brandy in three gulps. He filled the tumbler again. This time he drank slowly. His eyes were dull. He spoke from a distant and dark place. “For what purpose? Have we not suffered enough?” His words were angry and slurred. “Get out of my sight, and take that girl with you.” He gestured with his hand toward Catharina.

Monsignor DeDeo shook his head and approached Catharina and Rosanera. He took Catharina’s hand. He pulled until Catharina’s arm was outstretched, and she reluctantly let go of Rosanera’s hand. The monsignor guided the anxious girl away. Duke Gunter’s head involuntarily jerked as the two passed on their way to the door.

Rosanera stood a few paces away. She closed her eyes, took her own hand and held it tight. She wished she were invisible. Gunter drank down the last of the brandy in his glass. He rapped on the table with his knuckles. Rosanera opened her eyes. She knew he wanted her next to him. She took a deep breath and did what he bid.

“Tell me, what am I supposed to do now?” His upper body was unsteady. “I said, what am I supposed to do now? We just put your mother in the crypt, so now what do we do? Huh?” His breathing was labored. He looked upon Rosanera’s sad face. Gunter’s tone turned gentle. “You look so much like your mother. So beautiful.” With that besotted declaration, he put his arm around Rosanera’s waist and pulled her to his side. She stiffly let herself be guided. Gunter filled his glass. “Here, drink to your mother.”

Rosanera shook her head no. Gunter was insistent and held the glass to her lips. “To your mother, my dear wife, and duchess.”

Tears were in both of their eyes, and Rosanera took a sip. The brandy burned her lips and mouth. Gunter finished off the brandy and carelessly brought the glass down hard on the tabletop. He looked at Rosanera again. “God, you look like her. You even act like her. But she is dead and gone. But not you. You are here with me. Now it is you and me.”

Gunter pulled Rosanera onto his lap. She was confused, but needed to share her grief with someone, and took Gunter’s actions at face value. He put his arm around her shoulder and took her clasped hands in his and pressed them against her upper thigh. “We will be together now?” Gunter tightened his arm around her shoulder and gently pressed their locked hands into her lap. Rosanera did not answer. Gunter could see only Rosalba when he looked at his stepdaughter. He let go of her hands and turned her unwilling face toward his. Tears silently rolled down her cheeks as Gunter tried to kiss her on the lips. She moved her head from side to side until Gunter grabbed a fistful of hair and held her fast. Gunter kissed Rosanera on her tight, stiff lips. He kissed her again and again and felt no response from the girl.

Angered, Gunter clumsily stood up. He picked her up and laid her on the table with her legs hanging over the edge. Gunter stepped in between her legs and bent close to her face. Rosanera struggled and turned her head from side to side and closed her eyes.

They heard a loud metallic click and the moan of the hinges as the door opened. He put his hand over Rosanera’s mouth, looked up and stayed as still as a cat in mid stalk. A washerwoman with a bucket in one hand and a handful of rags in the other entered the room to do her work. She saw the two of them, looked a little closer with squinted eyes, then immediately looked away. She quickly turned, held her hand up to hide her face, hurried out of the room, and quietly closed the door behind her.

“You will take your mother’s place and cleave unto me. He took his hand from Rosanera’s mouth. She gasped for breath and tried to fight him off as he pulled her dress up over her face. He pressed his left forearm just under her chin and pushed her head back onto the table. Rosanera froze in disbelief when she felt his clumsy right hand explore the delicate places of her young body.

Gunter was good to his word. He sent Catharina back to Casa Bella. Rosanera’s correspondences were cut off. He told her the priest or the monsignor or the bishop could not help her. Gunter’s loyalty and his willingness to fight for the church eclipsed the “ridiculous stories” of a spoiled and depressed teenage girl. Her long time servant Betina was replaced by an efficient and morose, mute woman named Droga, who never smiled. Gunter instructed the staff to tend to her needs but not to engage in any conversation as it might throw her into hysteria. Those who spoke to her about anything other than the domestic subject at hand were given five lashes and sent to work in the fields. Rosanera felt ashamed. She became quiet and withdrawn and could not look anyone in the eye when she spoke. The only one in her life now was Gunter. He only spoke and listened to her if they were alone. Rosanera’s loneliness and hunger for company overshadowed her resentment. She had no choice but to accept Gunter as her confidant.

It became their habit for Gunter to send his servants away and call her into his study for “prayers” when the bell rang for nones on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays. She was to be washed clean and to come to him in one of her mother’s white dresses. Inside the study, Gunter gave her a white headdress with a white veil to wear. She was to sit on the edge of the desk, lay back on it, raise her dress up to under her chin, and spread her legs. She had to remain silent. The veil had to cover her face.

The first few times Gunter had her, she fought. He was rough and terrible. She quickly learned to be passive and receptive. It was the same every time. When she was on the desk with the dress pulled up under her chin he would step in between her legs and lay on top of her. He would kiss her through the veil. He called her “my dear, my Rosalba.”

It wasn’t until their ninth or tenth meeting that something changed, that something awoke in her. The thought of their meeting no longer made Rosanera’s heart beat with fear. She was distracted on the days she would be with Gunter. She would sit at her needlework unable to stitch, and if she did she would make mistakes or prick herself with the needle. Her reading and music lessons suffered. At matins, she would look over at Gunter with calling eyes. He might or might not acknowledge her with a subtle nod and all but ignore her in the presence of the others.

Gunter could do things with the daughter that he could never do with the mother. He would start by lightly lying on top of Rosanera, kiss her through the white veil and whisper niceties in her ear. He wetted his lips and kissed her budding breasts, slowly and softly, circling each nipple with his tongue. He then kissed her midriff and playfully wiggled his nose in her navel. He would kiss her lower and lower into the upper regions of her pubic hair and then slide his wet warm tongue against the focus of her sex. When he felt her body rock against his lips, they would quit their play, enter into coitus, and almost always come to a united conclusion.

Rosanera entered this strange world and played her part in the masquerade thinking it the most natural behavior of adults. She eagerly and naively took Gunter’s attentions for love. Outside of the room their relationship was quiet and staid, suitable for a father and stepdaughter. Inside the dark paneled walls of his den, she saw him as her lover.

In her fifteenth year, Rosanera became pregnant. She was frightened. When she told Gunter, he said nothing, only nodded his head as if he had expected it. He told her not to worry.

“Ready yourself. In two days, I will take you out to hunt. We will leave early. Everything will be taken care of.”

Rosanera felt a wave of relief and gratitude toward Gunter. She hugged him and kissed his lips, the first time ever without the veil. He reared his head back and pushed her off. She tried to cling to him. He pushed her and held up his arm and showed her the back of his hand. She didn’t care if he was going to hit her. She would welcome it as she did his kisses.

“You must never do that again.” He lowered his hand.

The two days passed, and Gunter and Rosanera rode out early into a brisk March morning. The green grass sparkled with dew. The cold air reddened their cheeks and made their eyes water. Off in the distance across the spreading meadow where the forest started, Gunter saw the thatched roof of a small hovel.

Gunter pointed to the white smoke that seeped through the thatch.

“We are going there. Shall we race?” He suggested with a smile.

This idea delighted her. She nudged her horse and broke into a gallop. Rosanera was excited to be out of the castle, in the brisk morning air, racing her lover over the broad emerald meadow with the golden sun on her back and her red cape fluttering behind her. She felt as if she had wings.

Gunter gave Rosanera a decent lead. He took the bow out of the case on his back and an arrow from the quiver that hung from a strap around the horse’s neck. He held the reins in his teeth, put the arrow to the bow string, pulled it back, and let it fly. The arrow was just wide and passed by Rosanera’s head. Smiling, she quickly looked back over the opposite shoulder at the lead she had, barely noticing Gunter. Gunter tried again. He pulled the bow string back, and it snapped and unraveled. In disgust, he threw the bow on the ground and spurred his horse on to catch up with Rosanera. They reached the edge of the meadow together.

“You win this time,” said Gunter. The outing he planned for Rosanera had two possible outcomes. The first one failed with the broken bow string. The doubts he had about himself were allayed. He now knew that he had the resolve to attempt its execution. The second outcome awaited behind the door of the mud hovel nestled under the massive oak tree.

They dismounted, tied the horses to a low-hanging branch, and followed a poppy-lined path to the arched front door. Gunter gave the door a good rap. “Lillo. Maria Lillo, open for Lady Rosanera.”

They heard movement and the door opened slightly. They could see only a shape that blocked the light that came from inside. “It is you, is it?” came an old woman’s scratchy and broken voice. “Come in. I have been expecting you.” A hunched over, white-haired woman swaddled in an array of different, dull-colored hanks of cloth opened the door.

A sickeningly sweet smell hung in the dingy, low room. The rafters and thatch above the fire pit were soot-blackened. Bunches of dried flowers and herbs festooned the yellowed, crumbling walls. Light, along with the cold morning air poured through the one, large, unshuttered window. Lillo’s workbench was covered with little baskets and clay vessels, some open to the air and others sealed with a piece of cloth held on by a string. The only other pieces of furniture were a bedstead with a straw filled mattress, a crudely built table, and a three-legged stool.

The fire burned to orange coals in the pit, and a clay pot hung from a tripod. Steam rolled up and formed wispy little clouds that blew about and disappeared into the air.

Gunter and Rosanera had to bow their heads to get through the door. “Come, dear one, take my seat. You look so cold. I have a nice tonic here. It will warm you up.” Rosanera was ill at ease. She looked to Gunter. He nodded. Rosanera sat. Gunter stood silently.

“And you, sir… may I get you something hot to drink?” Her voice was raspy and the words so airy and labored.

“No, nothing for me.” He smiled at Rosanera and bade her drink. Rosanera was heartened to see Gunter’s smile, and she obediently drank the slightly bitter brew.

“Drink. It will warm you.” She waited for Rosanera to finish the cup. “You look so much like your mother.” She glanced at Gunter and continued. “I would say the very image.” She gave a little cackle.

Rosanera suddenly felt very relaxed and sleepy. “You knew my mother?” Rosanera asked dreamily.

“Oh yes, I knew her when she was married to the conte. I knew her when she was carrying you. Think of me as your secret godmother.”

Rosanera’s head jerked as she tried to pull herself back from the hold of Morpheus, but the sleeping draught did its work. Gunter went to her side and caught her before she fell off the stool. He laid her on her back on the table. The old woman pulled Rosanera’s skirt up and exposed her belly.

Lillo brought out a wooden box from under the bed. She placed it next to the slumbering girl, reached in, and brought out a piece of charcoal. With a deft hand, she traced an upside down pentacle on Rosanera belly with the tip of the lowest point of the pentacle pointing to the flower of Rosanera’s womanhood.

She reached into the box and brought out two very long, solid gold needles. Lillo went to the fire pit, knelt down, and ran them through the shimmering heat given off by the glowing coals. She returned to the table, pulled up the little stool and sat before the unconscious girl. The old woman closed her eyes, swayed her head, and chanted in dark meditation. She used one of the gold needles to prick the fingertip of her left index finger several times. She pushed with her thumb until three tiny droplets of blood rose up and sat on the end of her finger. The old woman held her hand over Rosanera’s belly and flicked her finger twice with her thumb. Five tiny crimson dots appeared within the black borders of the pentacle.

Gunter watched the old woman go to her worktable and remove a gray wooden lid from a crock. She lifted out a large tan and black toad and held it up in her gnarled hands. The toad wrapped its claws around her fingers. It looked at her with eyes the color of a blood moon. She held the toad up and bowed her head. “I give my life to your master,” she whispered.

Lillo returned to the table and carefully placed the toad in the center of the pentacle, facing its head toward Rosanera’s sex. The old woman positioned the stool and sat. She found one of the tiny red dots. She worked and wiggled the golden needle through the skin and muscle into the girl’s womb, being careful not to pass entirely through it. She took the other needle and did the same using an adjacent red dot as her guide. With each penetration into Rosanera’s womb, she moved the two needles in a knitting motion until she felt them touch. She repeated the practice until she entered through each red dot.

The old woman cleaned the blood from the needles by running them through her thumb and forefinger, greedily licked her fingertips, and put the needles back into the box. She picked up the toad, Satan’s tabernacle, the new dwelling place for the soul of the unborn dead. She kissed the toad and returned it to its crock.

Lillo wetted a rag it in some warm water and carefully washed the pentacle off of Rosanera’s belly. She inspected each tiny puncture, applied a salve, and pulled the girl’s dress back down.

“It is done.”

“What do I owe you, Lillo?”

“Good duke, you owe me nothing. It is I who owe you. My circle can finally close. Thank you. The girl will return to her blood curse this month, and your problem will be solved.” She handed him a small bunch of leaves. “Give her this in tea. It will stop any bleeding.”

Gunter put the semiconscious Rosanera in front of him on his saddle and in a roundabout way headed back to Adler Kralle. The effects of the sleeping potion wore off by midmorning. Rosanera awoke cradled in Gunter’s arms. She was confused and nauseous. She felt a stinging pain in her belly. She had a succession of severe cramps that made her body jerk forward. Rosanera grimaced and put her hand just below her stomach and held it there.

“What happened?” she asked. “It hurts so much.”

“You fell asleep. In a few days, all will be fine.”

She continued to press her hand against her stomach. Rosanera was overtaken with anger when she surmised what happened. “You had her take my baby away, did you not? How could you?” She tried to turn toward Gunter. He would not let her. “You had that witch take it away, did you not?” She again tried to turn toward Gunter. She hit at his hands and arms with her clenched fists until he tightened his grasp on her. Tears ran down her cheeks.

“There, there, everything will be just fine, just like before.” He held onto Rosanera even tighter and dug his spurs into his horse’s side. She rode the rest of the way in silent sorrow.

From then on, Gunter’s attitude toward Rosanera changed. He invited Catharina back to Adler Kralle. Rosanera was given liberty to do whatever she pleased. She could talk to anyone she wished. Gunter was affable and cool at the same time. Three weeks after their “hunting” expedition, Rosanera impatiently asked the duke when they could be together again.

“Daughter, what do you mean? We are together all the time.” He gave her a dismissive pat on the head.

That following Tuesday after the bell tolled for nones a resolute Rosanera dressed in white and headed to Gunter’s study. When she reached the head of the stairs, she saw a girl in a white dress standing at Gunter’s door. Rosanera recognized her as one of the scullery girls named Lida. Lida turned when she heard Rosanera’s footsteps and frantically knocked on the door until Duke Gunter opened it. He smiled at the unsure young thing in his doorway and ushered her in. Gunter looked up at Rosanera and wrinkled his brow as if to ask a question. “Yes, daughter, what is it? Should you not be going to prayers in the chapel? You heard the bells, yes?”

Rosanera tried to look past him at Lida. Gunter moved slightly to block Rosanera’s view and gently closed the door.

Roland saw the distressed look on Rosanera’s face. “Lady Rosanera? Are you all right?”

His words brought Rosanera back from her dark reverie. “Yes, yes, I am all right. All those poor orphan girls despoiled for a lifetime,” she said softly. Rosanera poured more wine into both of their glasses, broke off some bread for herself, and offered some to Roland. They drank the wine and ate the bread together. The deep sadness in Rosanera’s eyes touched Roland.

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