Authors: Susan Russo Anderson
Reaching into her satchel, Serafina pulled out two bottles. “It’s Mama’s secret recipe for new mothers.”
“New mothers? That’s a laugh. Nothing new about me, I can tell you.”
Rodolfo, who had disappeared shortly after entering his home, emerged, brushing off his hands.
“Finished?” Graziella asked him.
He nodded. “A little rushed today, Donna Fina. You’ll have to excuse us.” He walked over, put his arm around his wife and gave her head a kiss before ushering Serafina out the door.
Serafina wriggled her toes as she left. They were stiff, cold, like the mood in the shoemaker’s home. She wondered what she could do to brighten Graziella back into her former luster.
offredo rose when Serafina entered his office. “I took a quick look at the corpse and found arsenic around Ugo’s mouth. Traces of the same compound were on the napkin and glass you gave me.”
She shivered. “I know the strega mixes it into her potions.”
“No need for the strega. The arsenic was a simple garden variety, easily obtainable, often sold by an apothecary. Popular rat poison. Giorgio kept it in his store, I’m sure. But he’d have kept a record of all purchases of a dangerous compound like that.”
She felt light-headed, tried to focus on a spot somewhere in middle distance.
He continued. “The autopsy will give me a better idea of just how much arsenic is present in Ugo’s tissues. Wound to his heart was fatal, but as I say, I will have to examine the corpse before I can issue cause of death.”
“I want to be reassured that there was poison in Ugo’s body.”
He stared at her.
What was wrong? Had she offended him?
The room began to spin.
When she woke up, Loffredo was kneeling by her side. Cradling her head, he held a linen with some wretched-smelling substance to her nose.
“You’re working too hard. You must take better care of yourself. I couldn’t bear it if—”
“Nonsense. I haven’t eaten since breakfast. I’ll be fine.” She sat up.
Without warning, he held her in his arms.
She pulled away. Their eyes locked and he drew her to him again.
She smelled his cologne, a powerful manly scent. Their lips almost touched before she regained her compass. “We mustn’t. Giorgio’s—”
“Giorgio’s dead, Fina. He’d want you to be happy. We were happy together once, remember?”
“I sense you still have feelings for me, and mine have never dampened. Never.” He brushed a stray lock from her forehead.
Before she could object, he kissed her full on the lips.
“Not here. Not like this.”
“Elena sailed for Paris last week.” He held her tight. “She and her crowd have discovered a new artist and they prepare his exhibit for a grand showcase. Doesn’t open until April and she won’t return until May or June. Come to me tonight after the others have retired. I’ll be waiting.”
She managed to wrench herself free.
How or when she started for home, she couldn’t say. But on the way, she decided once and for all she couldn’t go to Loffredo. Wouldn’t do. Giorgio lay in his grave not quite a year. She’d never stop loving him. Never. After shutting the gate, she glanced up at the smiling angel over the lintel and opened the door.
She heard Maria’s piano wafting from the parlor. The rest of her family sat at table, laughing and eating their dessert, a cassata heaped with cream and sprinkled with orange rind. Such a welcome sight.
The Duomo’s bells chimed midnight, half-past. She turned, tangled up in sheets. Slept. Woke. Worried about coins. Why would she venture into the Madonie on a hunch? Was she leading Carlo on a wild chase with no hope? What would they find—nothing or Don Tigro’s thugs smoothing over the evidence and ready to pounce? The bells in the campanile gonged two o’clock.
This tryst with Loffredo: she toyed with folly. Well, she’d been foolish before. Why must she weigh everything? She needed to talk to someone who understood. Talk? Who was she fooling?
Throwing off the covers, she pounded out of bed, opened the shutters. Her eyes swept the heavens, gliding over the ether like the rising moon. She leaned against the sash and pictured Giorgio, his body lean, his curls dripping neroli oil. The image vanished. She opened the window. Beyond the chestnut tree in the front garden, she could pick out moving shapes in the piazza next to the statue. Loffredo, waiting for her? Nonsense, he’d be in bed by now, their secret meeting forgotten. She pressed a hand to her cheek. No, not like him to suggest and forget. In the distance, she saw a ship moving in choppy waters. Quaffing the night air, she gave one last look at the stars before closing the shutters. After all, what was the harm—a few hours with an old friend.
She dressed quickly and made her way down the stairs with practiced stealth, grabbed her cape and midwife’s bag. Anyone who saw her would think she visited a woman in her final confinement. The door snicked behind her.
Should she hitch Largo to the trap? Silly, she could walk to his villa in five minutes. She brushed curls from her face, heard faint music coming from beyond the piazza, a flute perhaps. She continued on, hugging her cape and trying to still her pounding heart.
But near the fountain, she stopped. Such a fool. Did she really want Loffredo? She sat on a stone bench, listened to the hiss and spray of the water, and felt emptiness numb her.
“Are you lost?”
The intruder peered down at her, tall and thick, a deserter, perhaps. Wisps of his matted hair blew in the soft sea wind. He wore a jerkin and faded shirt, leather pantaloons. Hadn’t washed in months. She smelled gunpowder and trampled meadows.
“May I help you?” Something wedged in his belt gleamed back the moonlight.
“You startled me! I didn’t expect…”
“Been watching you. Shouldn’t be out alone, even in this good neighborhood.”
She stood. “Yes, well I’ve just come from a birthing. A difficult one, you see. And I was going home, but you can’t imagine the loveliness, the breeze, the moon, the stars. I needed a little night air. And now that I’ve had it, I’ll be off.”
“You’re the midwife. Delivered me, all my mother’s children.”
She squinted up at him as she backed away.
“Abatti’s the name.”
“Of course. Twelve children.”
“Thirteen. One died a few months after birth.”
“Yes, I remember now.” She waved. “I live not far from here. I’ll be fine. Really.” She turned, gazing at him over her shoulder and giving him a quick wave.
But he stood there as if rooted. “Most of us are gone now. A few of the girls and me, we’re all that’s left.” He hesitated. Then, slowly, he lifted his hand in farewell.
Tuesday, February 12, 1867
vidence of spring, the sky was saturated with a blue so deep it could be the Madonna’s cloak. A scouring wind blew Serafina’s cape. Ancient trees bent against its force, but as they rolled and bounced inland, the air grew softer. Their world filled with spring blossoms and Serafina smelled the heavy scent of almond, the tang of citrus.
Carlo drove. She closed her eyes and felt sand underneath her lids. She shouldn’t have indulged her sorrow last night, weeping for hours in her room. She was a fool without conviction. What would her mother have done? Gone to him, of course. Or maybe not. But she’d be quick to give her daughter advice. Serafina could hear her saying something about time to get on with life.
It took hours of searching before they found Ugo’s missing boot. Nearby she saw churning footprints in the soft earth, a red button, nothing more.
“Take the boot?” Carlo asked.
“And the button. I’ve had enough searching for today. I know a little clearing not far from here, a good spot to rest. Bring the food.”
They walked apart, Serafina several meters ahead of Carlo, but she could hear him clomping back and forth, cracking branches, crushing leaves. S
oon I’ll hear the full force of his roar
He called out, his voice ringing in the clear air, “What’s the point? Why can’t we all make love and babies and coins, honor our family and have done with it? Forget the war and the thugs, the poverty of the peasants, the corruption of the government.”
Serafina swiveled around.
Her son didn’t bother to face her. “Why try to change the world? You can’t even keep your daughters at home.”
She stared at him.
“That’s right. They can’t wait to leave. First it was Carmela. Now Renata’s gone.”
Somehow, maybe in the effort to stay calm, she snagged a sleeve. “You’re lucky,” she said, liberating herself from the thorn tree. “You live like a king compared to the peasants. You’ve got a family’s love, a father who left you prosperous, a younger brother who minds the shop so you can go to school, a mother willing to seek the truth. And as for Renata…”
But Serafina didn’t finish. Instead she stumbled on a rock, barely breaking her fall by sitting on a felled tree trunk.
“Most women are spoken for by ten or twelve, married by the time they’re sixteen, but not my sisters. They’re not even betrothed. What will they do, the four of them, wait on your every whim until you die? No wonder they leave! You treat them like slaves! And the few days I have to visit, what do you have me do but search for a chimera.”
She concentrated on the forest before her eyes. “What do you know about being a woman, betrothed to a man you cannot bear to look at?”
“Better than their fate. Oh, you’ve cajoled them into thinking they search for their ‘specialness.’ Specialness? What’s that but a trick to keep them at home—Renata, the cook, Giulia, the seamstress, Carmela, the midwife. Only she didn’t play the game the way you—”
“Enough!” She felt the blood pounding in her temples. Her own son speaking to her like this? What would Giorgio do? Slap him, of course. But no more Giorgio.
Something told her not to reply until her own breathing slowed. She closed her eyes and waited for calm. “I was lucky. When my father promised me to some starry-eyed activist, my mother found Giorgio—with my help, of course.”
Carlo’s right foot pawed the earth. The gesture was as close to an apology as she’d get from him. She wondered if Renata had received the letter she’d written. All that attention from the
and the baron’s household in Bagheria might turn her head.
“As for your sisters, Giorgio and I wouldn’t promise them to just anyone. And they’re all still so young.” She ran a hand through fading ginger curls.
He hung his head. “Ever since Papa died, we don’t know where your mind is. Today, you’re lost in some fruitless chase, a stranger to us. Tomorrow, who knows?”
Serafina rose and hugged her son. She was about to say something, but so far, her words had caused greater harm than good.
There was a faint sound, a trembling in the earth perhaps, or a trampling of the ground. Brushing off her skirts, she said, “Thank you for your honesty. What would I do without you? Now, not another word about your sisters or my mind. The clearing I told you about is over there, just beyond this bush. A lovely spot, no?” She breathed in the smell of the soil.
They sat under a chestnut tree eating artichokes, caponata, and slabs of bread brushed with olive oil. An iridescent light filtered through leaves and warmed their backs. Not far away, boars snorted, birds called. In the distance she heard shouts of peasants working the wheat and beyond, the faint sounds of the sea.
“Something odd about Ugo’s house. No locks picked, no windows broken, no signs of struggle and yet the house seemed violated.” Serafina poured herself another glass of
, held the bottle out to Carlo. A shot rang out.
Carlo yanked her behind the tree. They heard a second shot, a rustle of leaves.
“Got your club?” Serafina hated the tremor in her own voice.
Peeking around, she saw a man emerge from the bushes and stand in a shaft of light. Tall and thick. For a second, he seemed unreal, like those cartoons of twisting soldiers she’d seen plastered on the sides of war-torn buildings. Uncombed, unshaven, unwashed, he wore a faded red shirt. Something gleamed on his vest. In his hand, he held a rusting Garibaldi rifle. For a second, she’d forgotten where she’d seen him. Then she remembered and felt the rush of blood to her face. How would she explain their meeting to her son?
“Look at him, our tattered soldier,” she said softly. Doesn’t he know the war’s over?” Serafina’s heart raced. Trying to steady her voice, she called out, “Italy is one, long live Italy!”
Carlo rolled his eyes.
“Who calls?” the man asked.
“He speaks in dialect,” she whispered. Clearing her throat, she called out again, “Donna Fina, midwife of Oltramari.”
“Ezzo Abatti. We met last night.”
Carlo dropped his jaw and looked at her.
“I’ll explain later,” she whispered.
“What are you doing in these woods?”
“You wear the Marsala Medal pinned to your vest. I salute your bravery, but you just shot at us.”
“And I didn’t shoot at you.” He held up a quivering hare, elongated, dripping blood.
Serafina motioned to Carlo and they stepped into the clearing. “My oldest son, Carlo.”
Abatti nodded in Carlo’s direction. He came closer.
“You live nearby?” Carlo asked.
The soldier shook his head and pointed in the direction of what she imagined was the edge of the forest. “The cart by the road belongs to you?”
She nodded. “We’re here to investigate the death of Ugo Pandolfina. Awarded the Marsala Medal, just like you. You knew him?”
“Him?” He spat.
“He was killed near here,” Serafina said.
He shrugged and turned to Carlo. “Ezzo Abatti at your service. Fought with Garibaldi and the thousand.”
Something about him. She’d seen him before, not just near the fountain last night. Then she noticed his unbuttoned cuff.
A fox with chicken feathers stuck on his snout.
“You didn’t like Ugo,” she said.