Alchemist's Gift

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So Foul and Fair a Day

The five reprieved witches waited for Marta and her daughter to return to the Provost’s Office. The room was warm and lit by many candles. Marta carried some warm and simple dresses, clothing donated for the poor. Rosina had heavy woolen socks and open-back slippers for everyone, plus an armload of towels and small blankets.

Marta was struck by the irony. The shivering women stood quiet and sullen in a semi-circle around the raging fire. Marta felt ambivalent. She knew these people and did business with some of them. She saw them in church and at the marketplace. As far as she could tell, they were faithful wives, good mothers, and honest traders. But they confessed to being witches. The Word of the Church is true and sacred and to be obeyed. Marta had to consider her own immortal soul, but for now they were her concern, and she would treat them with true Christian charity.

Rosina and Marta went to each woman and helped them out of their rain-soaked shifts. They gave the shivering women towels and helped dry their hair, shoulders, and backs. The kind and gentle treatment changed the somber mood. When Rosina helped Bianca Molina step out of her wet shift, Bianca looked down at her chest, arms, and legs. To her amazement, the sores were gone. The pain was gone. Her skin was healthy and clear again. She fell to her knees and sobbed for joy as she thanked God over and over.

Marta put a warm blanket over the Bianca’s shoulders. Marta bid Rosina to, “Go fetch the bishop! Hurry, girl. Hurry! Tell him it is a miracle!”

Rosina was on her way. The rain had stopped. The sky, though still dark, was much less overcast and beginning to clear as the last of the cold wind was replaced with an unseasonably warm, westerly breeze. The afternoon sun tinted the bilious clouds brilliant gold. Sunlight poured down in grand, wide beams, illuminating and warming the piazza. Steam began to rise from the paving stones. Birds returned from under the eaves and the belfry; they alit at puddles and drank and bathed and sang glorious little songs.

The townsfolk and visitors reappeared. Parents reunited with their children. Some boys and Sergeant Gagliardi circled the church bell that was lying on the ground in front of the dais. Monsignor Petri finally climbed out from his den under the dais and lumbered like a large black bear toward the sacristy. He thought how good the wine would taste and how it would warm and refresh him.

The rich and poor, sinners and saints, who milled about looked at each other differently, more thoughtfully. Although class still divided them, they shared in a deep communion that they were to be punished by God for their shameful and bloodthirsty nature. The six naked stakes stood like the ruins of a pagan temple.

“Where is the bishop?” Rosina asked the first few people she saw. They did not know. Rosina answered their curious looks with, “Mama says it is a miracle. I saw it with my own eyes! It is Bianca Molina. Go look. They are in the Provost’s office.”

Rosina shouted to everyone in earshot that a miracle had taken place. The word “miracle” crossed everyone’s lips. When Rosina saw Mayor Renaldi, Doctor Gallo, Father Eduardo, and Lorenzo Patriarca, she immediately headed for the front porch of the rectory.

“Mayor Renaldi, sir, sir, Father Eduardo, there is a miracle.” Rosina was excited and happy to be the bearer of such good news. As an afterthought, Rosina remembered to curtsy.

“Rosina, is it? A miracle you say?” The others smiled and looked at the red-cheeked girl, whose eyes were glowing. Renaldi tried not to be too patronizing. “Tell us, child. What miracle is this?”

“Bianca, Bianca Molina--she is cured. Her sores are gone; her skin is clear. In the Provost’s office, I saw it with my own eyes. When I left the room, she was kneeling down and crying and thanking our Savior. Mama says it is a miracle, yes?”

Renaldi’s arrogant smile faded, and his brow furrowed. “Those terrible oozing sores are gone? Is that possible?” The mayor addressed the question to Doctor Gallo.

The doctor cocked his head to the side and looked past the mayor as he lost himself in thought for a few seconds, “Not in my experience. I have never seen or come across a spontaneous healing such as this--if that is what it is. But that is not to say it is not possible.”

“It cannot be a miracle,” said Lorenzo Patriarca bluntly. “Our Lord Jesus would not heal a confessed witch and then strike down my daughter, would He?”

“Signore Patriarca, it is the hail that struck down your daughter, not our dear Lord,” said Father Silva gently.

Before Lorenzo could speak, Gallo took the reins of the conversation.

“We must examine the woman. This talk of a miracle is just that: talk!”

Renaldi spoke to the girl. “Fetch the bishop. Go to the kitchen door and knock loud.”

Rosina dashed off toward the rear of the rectory, over the stone path that ran through the little garden, and then up the steps to the back door. She knocked and waited. Rosina heard the shrill sound of a chair leg being moved over the stone floor. Then she heard footsteps and Annamarie’s voice.

“Who’s there?”

“Rosina.”

Annamarie opened the door for her friend. “Rosina, come in, come in. What is it?”

The girl burst into the room. She took her friend by the hands. “I must get the bishop. Mayor Renaldi told me to. It is a miracle! “

Annamarie met Rosina’s joyful news with a confused stare. “Miracle?” she finally said.

“Yes. I must get the bishop.” Rosina wriggled her friend’s hands as she spoke.

“Bishop DiMars said he was not to be bothered.” A look of concern crossed the girl’s brow. After a few seconds of deliberation Annamarie spoke. “Let me ask him.”

“I will go with you.” Rosina took Annamarie’s hand, and they mounted the stairs. Annamarie lightly knocked and waited for a reply. When she heard no answer, she looked over to her friend. Rosina, who needed to deliver her message, had no problem pounding on the door. “Bishop DiMars, Bishop DiMars, Mayor Renaldi sent me. There has been a miracle.”

Annamarie, though shocked at Rosina’s actions, could not help an impish smile as she held back her friend’s hand as Rosina was about to knock again. “No, no,” Annamarie whispered.

“Mayor Renaldi sent me, and so did Doctor Gallo and Signore Patriarca,” called Rosina.

DiMars finished his penance. He sat in the dark on his bed. He wore a shawl around his shoulders. His back hurt, but he was at peace. He had to digest the news before he answered. Since Patriarca’s name had been mentioned, the miracle might involve Gina, his daughter. With Renaldi involved, it could have something to do with either one of their futures, and with Gallo, it might be of either a celestial or mundane nature. One never knew with that man. “Have them wait in the parlor. I will be down shortly.”

Rosina and Annamarie scampered down the stairs. Rosina left for the Provost’s office. Annamarie ran through the rectory to the foyer and opened the front door. The four men entered, followed Annamarie into the parlor, and sat. “Bishop DiMars will be down shortly.” Annamarie left the men and returned to the kitchen, put the big copper kettle on the fire, and prepared a tray with five cups and a pitcher for hot cider.

The bishop entered the kitchen. His face was pale against the black cassock and gray shawl he wore. He had on warm wool socks and his comfortable slippers. Annamarie was putting the spices in a small woven brewing basket. He spoke in a familiar and lively tone Annamarie was used to. “No… no, cider… be a good girl and set out glasses and fetch the brandy.” He stopped her before she left the room. “The miracle--what do you know?”

“Only that Bianca Molina is cured. Her sores are gone. That is what Rosina said. She said she saw it with her own eyes.”

“Bianca Molina?” the bishop repeated. “Cured?” He let out a sigh. “Find some biscotti or some cheese and bread and set it out for us.”

“Yes, sir.” Annamarie left the room and headed for the pantry.

Bishop DiMars stood there for a moment and twiddled his thumbs. “Perhaps that is what this day needs. A miracle,” he thought to himself.

He left the kitchen. The parlor was awash with light that poured through the tall windows. Renaldi, Gallo, and Father Silva stood when the bishop entered. Lorenzo crossed his arms, remained seated, and frowned.

“Signore Patriarca, your daughter--any change?”

Lorenzo Patriarca did not answer directly, so Doctor Gallo spoke up. “She is still asleep. She has been taken home, and I will look in on her tomorrow.” After a slight pause and a quick glance at Patriarca, and then back to the bishop, he continued, “It is good of you to ask.”

“And well he should. If it were not for him, Gina would be well and happy,” Lorenzo said sarcastically.

Renaldi took his turn. “Lorenzo, the good bishop is no more responsible for the weather than anyone else. Please, your daughter is in all of our hearts and our prayers. We must deal with this miracle, if that is what it is.”

Bishop DiMars looked at Father Silva. “Eduardo, go to the Provost’s Office and look in on the Molina woman and the others. Remember, they are confessed witches. Do not be fooled by any of them. Come back and tell us what you think.”

“Go alone? Do you not want to see the miracle for yourselves?”

“There will be plenty of time to see Bianca Molina. We trust your judgment.” All nodded in agreement with the bishop.

Father Silva checked his feelings of pride by biting the inside of his lip. “As you wish.” He nodded to each of the men and left them.

“He is a good boy,” said Renaldi with a wistful smile on his lips. “Now, good sirs, now we can discuss this puzzle we have on our hands.”

“What puzzle are you talking about?” demanded Patriarca. Jacopo Gallo leaned in and nodded in agreement with Il Signore.

“How are we going to look? This morning we were condemning these women to death, and this afternoon God bestows a miracle on undoubtedly the most docile of them.” Renaldi and the bishop nodded in agreement.

“I do not give a fig for what these peasants think, or for that matter, your schemes. You, DiMars, all you can think of is getting out of here and going to Rome and eventually the Vatican. Your future does not ride on the apron strings of a witch; it rides with me. If I were you, I would be on my knees right now praying for my daughter. Gina’s outcome is your outcome. You, Renaldi… all you can think of is the next election. Remember where your votes come from.” Lorenzo laid his finger on the side of his nose and gave it a few soft taps.

“Yes, Signore, our concerns are certainly not your concerns,” Renaldi agreed. “The people will believe what we tell them. I see no need for you to be bothered with our petty lives.” Renaldi used his best self-effacing tone.

“Please. That is enough.” Patriarca was exasperated.

Annamarie entered. She carried a silver tray with glasses and a decanter of brandy, and placed the tray on a side table.

“Thank you, dear girl. You will find my wet clothes by my door. Be a good girl and tend to them. Now, away with you,” said the bishop.

Annamarie curtsied and smiled at the bishop.

Lorenzo Patriarca gave a disgusted shake of his head and sighed as he spoke. “You treat that little wench like a daughter, not a servant.”

Renaldi shot a wide-eyed glance at the bishop. The bishop looked at his old friend as he checked a flinch and remained as expressionless as he could. Doctor Gallo studied the looks on both men’s faces and immediately surmised the secret.

“You must forgive me, Signore Patriarca, if I aspire to be as gentle as the Lamb of Christ.”

“Yes, as gentle as a lamb. Believe me, there are no lambs at the Vatican.” Lorenzo Patriarca addressed his doctor. “Jacopo, I am in need of your carriage.” Then, to the bishop and mayor: “I must leave, and I leave you to your fortunes or follies. Good day to you two.”

After Patriarca and Gallo left, Renaldi poured two glasses of brandy. DiMars looked into the glass given to him, swirled the amber liquid around, held the glass under his nose, and drew in the heady bouquet.

“Do not fret, my friend. Lorenzo’s anger will soften as soon as Gina gets better,” reassured Renaldi.

“If she does.” The bishop took a sip, trapped the brandy between his tongue and the roof of his mouth, held it there for a few seconds, and then swallowed. “You did not see her,” he said thoughtfully.

“A few little bumps on her head. She is probably sitting at home before a nice fire and eating custard as we speak.”

“Let us hope.”

Father Silva was caught up in a swirl of excited parishioners pushing their way across the piazza to the Provost Office. The unruly crowd already blocked the portico that led into the courtyard of the civic buildings. He heard the word “miracle” several times.

Father Silva broke free when he saw Monsignor Petri, Sergeant Gagliardi, Vito, and Vincenzo Rizzo, along with a half a dozen youngsters, all standing in a circle looking down. Silva walked briskly toward the men. He felt it proper to have the monsignor with him when he witnessed the miracle.

Petri greeted the young priest, “Look, Eduardo. There lies the voice of the church.” One of the boys tried to move the bell with his foot. “It seems lightning does strike the same place twice,” the monsignor added with a twinkle in his eye.

“Our bell! This is awful.” Silva knelt and placed his hand on the bell. It was still warm. He pushed the boy’s foot away and then sternly added, “You children go back to your families, now.” Father Eduardo shooed them away with both arms. The oldest, a lad of eleven, clapped his hands and took the lead. The boys laughed and shouted as they held out their arms like wings and zigzagged across the square, running through every puddle they could.

“You know, the bell nearly struck the bishop and me. A few feet to the left… well, I hate to think. Praise be our Lord watches over his servants. Speaking of whom, have you seen the bishop?”

“Yes. He, the mayor, Patriarca, and his doctor are in the rectory. I am to go to the Provost’s Office and see the miracle. Bianca Molina… she is cured.”

“No longer a witch? I will walk with you. The Provost’s office is much closer than the rectory.”

Father Silva didn’t quite know how to take the monsignor’s flip comment about Bianca Molina no longer being a witch. There was just enough playfulness in his tone to cause the young priest to pause. This was a sacred business that dealt not only with the lives of the five women, but with their immortal souls. Eduardo always carried self-doubt about his fitness, or for that matter, the fitness of any mere man to pass judgment on another human being. Of course, he understood there must be penalties for breaking any of the commandments. After all, those are the words of God.

In the seminary, he held back sharing his doubting thoughts during lectures, or to even admit to having them. Is it a sin not to heed one’s calling? Were not these women called to become witches as he was called to become a priest? And since God has created everything, and everything God has created is good, how can one who follows the path given to them by our Lord be bad or evil? Who is more to blame--the person who claims to practice witchcraft, or the person who seeks out the witch’s cunning and craft?

The two men walked with their hands clasped behind their backs, their gazes on the ground just ahead of them. Silva had to check his pace not to get ahead of the lumbering monsignor. The young priest mulled these pestering questions over as he walked. Petri’s concerns were quite venial. He hoped there would be a nice fire and some brandy in the Provost’s office.

A boisterous crowd surged against the barred door that opened onto the small courtyard of the civic buildings. Sergeant Gagliardi, along with Vito and Vincenzo Rizzo, vigorously cleared a path through the curious men and women, who called to, and reached out to, and tried to get the attention of the two clergymen. The opening immediately closed behind them as the men pushed all the way to the Provost’s office door that was protected by two guards with halberds.

Gagliardi pounded on the door. “Open for the Monsignor and Father Silva!” Carmen opened the door and the surge of the crowd pushed the clergymen inside. Those at the forefront tried to steal glimpses of the women, and the more rowdy tried to gain entrance.

Secure behind the thick door, Petri and Silva hardly recognized the witches. The rain had washed their faces clean, and their hair was dry and neatly combed. Their clothing was fresh, and their faces were no longer so pale and careworn. They barely resembled the hated heretics who were going to be burnt to death. The women sat on a bench in front of the hearth and ate hot porridge.

Monsignor Petri and Father Silva stood in front of the hearth to warm themselves. The monsignor’s lips parted, and his eyes opened wider. Father Silva felt a shiver of joy fill his entire being when they saw the faint luminescence surrounding the women. The glow was exceptionally strong and bright around Bianca Molina, who sat at the center of the bench. The two men eagerly looked into the faces of each woman who looked back with expressions of calm and serene love.

The monsignor finally broke the spell by clearing his throat. He nodded to Eduardo, and they headed off to an adjoining office and closed the door. The young priest could not contain his excitement. “You saw it, yes? You saw the halos?”

“I saw something,” the monsignor replied. “We should send for the bishop. He knows so much better what to do.”

“Monsignor, can we really wait for him? We must do something to protect these blessed women.”

Before the monsignor could answer, the Provost’s Office resonated with the sound of breaking glass, shouts, and other chaotic noises. Father Silva headed for the door.

The monsignor grabbed onto the young man’s sleeve. “Do not be foolish, nothing good can come if we interfere with such a crowd. I am going to remain here. I suggest you do the same. We must be very quiet.” For once the monsignor’s words had gravity.

“Stay if you like. We may be the only authority here. Who knows what has happened to Gagliardi and his guards? We must do something!” Eduardo Silva broke the rather loose hold Petri had on his arm and opened the door. The women and anything that was lying loose was gone, even the bench.

“Nothing to fear, everyone is gone. You may come out now.”

The monsignor looked past Eduardo into the empty room. He entered and surveyed the damage. “They took the candlesticks, the inkwell, even the quill, and the drapes from the windows. Oh my, oh my,” his casual tone returned, “It looks to be out of our hands now.”

Father Silva shook his head slightly and once outside he saw Gagliardi and his guards standing off to one side conferring. Each man was injured. Carmen was the worst with a few loosened teeth and a swollen jaw.

“What has happened?” Silva asked Gagliardi.

Gagliardi shook his head and let out a very uncharacteristic chuckle. “I have seen many things over the years, but I have never seen anything like this. The Provost’s Office emptied out. This mob of idiots hoisted the bench up above them with one of the witches on it, who they think are now saints.” Silva and Petri and the guards looked past the broken down gate and watched a now reverent and sober procession. Bianca Molina sat alone on the bench that was held up above a host of the faithful and carried to the dais. The other four women who shared Bianca’s fate followed behind.

When the procession reached the steps of the dais, a number of men and women fought for the honor of having their cloaks or shawls used to cover the rain soaked armchair and side chairs so recently reserved for the contessa and the churchmen. With great respect, Bianca Molina was placed in the center, flanked by Monica Longo and Aurora Tocini on the right, and Maria Cutri and Lillo on the left.

Rich and poor crowded before the women and spoke in hushed tones. Silva, Gagliardi, his guards, and the monsignor also came forth. Renaldi and DiMars finally appeared.

“Show us, show us the miracle,” called out Alberto Superchi, a dealer in perfumes. The gathering gently echoed his request.

Bianca stood up. “In the name of God, I show His divine gift to me. I am no longer unclean.” She untied the straps and let her dress fall to her feet. She turned her face to the heavens and lifted her arms in prayer. Bianca’s sores were gone. Her pain was gone. Her skin was free of scars.

A white dove flew down from the belfry and circled her three times, and then flew straight up into the sky and out of sight. People dropped to their knees. Prayers were said, and offerings of coins were tossed onto the dais. Even the coins that rolled off were tossed back.

Carmen Testo, the guard who had escorted Bianca to the stake, balanced on the bell and turned to the crowd. “It is true! I had not the courage to even touch her when I took her to the stake, and now she is clean. It is true!” He pointed to Bianca, and the crowd broke into applause and hurrahs. Bianca looked down on the people before her as if it was the first time she saw them. In a fit of modesty, she let out a surprised whimper, covered herself with her hands and quickly turned her back to those watching. The other women on the dais sprang from their places, excepting Aurora Tocino as God did not feel the need to restore her reason, and stood in front of Bianca Molina. They helped her dress and calmed her fear of immodesty. All concluded, she was in the state of grace and therefore unable to commit a sin. Bianca sat and, with an open heart and humility, accepted the reverence given her.

Bishop DiMars and Mayor Renaldi pushed their way through the crowd and onto the dais. They were met with catcalls and “boo!”’s. Bianca held up her hand, and the crowd stopped.

Before the bishop could say a word, Bianca spoke. “Let us thank Almighty God for this miracle. Let there be a new order for those saved by Jesus.” She looked over her shoulder up at the bishop. “Will you give us your blessing, your eminence?”

DiMars thought of many ways to discredit her and many things to say to justify his actions. He bowed to the wishes of the many and gave Bianca and her four sisters his blessing. The people in the square cheered and called out, “Bi-an-ca, Bi-an-ca, Bi-an-ca…”

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