Alchemist Gift:The bishop, Mayor Renaldi, Monsignor Petri and Father Silva dashed down the few steps of the dais and found shelter under the floorboards. The hail kept falling and began to pile up. Out of breath and quite uncomfortable the bishop rested his back against one of the upright supports and surveyed his parishioners in their panic. Some, who had a grasp of the situation disappeared from the square and beat it back to the church and found refuge.
“I told you that today would not be very good for this thing.” Renaldi whined. “You can never trust these late fall showers. Everyone will surely remember this day.” His voice overflowed with irony. The touchstone for his re-election was now a millstone.
“Don’t waste your time worrying Gino, it’s not worth the effort.” The monsignor covered his mouth as he yawned. He yawned three times in a row, each yawn greater and louder than the last.
Father Silva who was the last one under the dais turned away from the others and went back into the storm.
“Where are you going my son?” asked the bishop.
”I’m going to the church and ring the bell. Hopefully those out in the storm will come in.” He disappeared into the curtain of hail and icy rain.
“What about our witches?” Renaldi’s concern was pragmatic and not sympathetic. “ The witches would burn just as well another day, after all it rains all of the time; a witch burning only comes along every so often.”
The bishop nodded his head in agreement. “Yes, we should do something.”
The monsignor shoved his cold hands deep into the folds of his cassock. “Why do anything, they’ll be there after the rain stops. We might as well just wait.”
“Peshaw, I don’t want those women dying in the dungeon of the black bile or consumption. They should be brought in under cover.”
The monsignor spoke as he pulled his collar up against the cold. “And who of us should do that? Surely not you, nor I, we are the Church. It might seem strange for the prosecutor to also be the savior of witches.”
The bishop grunted. The rain dripped through the cracks and off the floor boards and onto the men. “Renaldi, it must be you, look at it as a show of your compassion. People like a compassionate man, you’ll appear saintly.”
He gave an ironic chuckle. “Patron saint of witches…we should have never done this today. I told you Patriarca wanted us to wait.” he whined.
“Enough, let’s salvage what we can. Have the guards cut them down and get them to cover. Gino, tell the sergeant to give them dry clothes and feed them something hot. I want them alive and healthy.”
“For both of our futures, eh?” Renaldi awkwardly climbed over the monsignor, who did not bother to move a muscle, and into the rain. He dashed to where the sergeant and the guards were huddled in the portico of the town hall and gave them the bishop’s orders.
The guards collected the condemned. As an addition to the order, Sergeant Gagliardi offered his cape to cover Monica Longo. Shortly the wet and shivering women were ushered into the Provost’s office, a large enough room and with a hearth.
The five women were wet to the skin; they were pale and their lips were more blue than pink. Sergeant Gagliardi cut the ropes binding the women’s wrists. The course woolen shifts they wore were heavy with water. As they stood shaking with cold the water ran off the hems of their crude garments in every widening circles that eventually met and found its level in the low spaces between the floor tiles.
Most of the wood had been collected throughout the town and was used for the burning. Vito Rizzo, the youngest of the guards, was ordered to try and find some of the driest wood at the stakes. The rain was still pouring down from the sky and all of the gutters were overflowing and running back onto the square. The young man did as he was told and braved the pounding rain and hail. At the first stake he came to he dug out some sticks, small branches and a few small logs that were protected by the larger ones on top. The wind howled and drove the rain against his face so hard he could barely keep his eyes open. Vito tucked as much of the wood as he could under his cape and ran back to the Provost’s office. He was admitted at first knock. He quickly went to the hearth and let the dripping wood fall onto floor in front of the fireplace.
His cousin Vincenzo already found some kindling and made a nice little nest that would fire quickly. Vito wiped the water off of his face with the underside of his cape and wrung the rain out of his short pony tail. Meanwhile, Vincenzo knelt before the fireplace and scraped the iron striker against the piece of flint until a spark landed in the nest of dry moss and began to smolder. He gently blew, one, twice, thrice on the orange speck until a puff of white smoke lazily drifted away into the draft of the chimney. He added a few pieces of straw and some twigs; he watched the tiny fire consume the tinder and then he added some larger twigs and finally some of the smaller sticks and then a few branches. When the sticks and smaller branches caught fire he added the larger logs that Vito collected from the pyre. Although Signore Mezzi’s wood was quite wet it immediately caught and burned bright and hot much to the amazement the guards who could not get it ignite even after it was drenched with oil.
Gagliardi, sergeant of the guard, a medium built, tan-faced man guided the five shivering women to stand in front of the fire. He told his nephew, Carmen, the most senior guard, to fetch the house keeper Marta. He sent the other men out of the room.
Marta entered from an adjoining room. She was stout; her graying hair was neatly tucked under a red kerchief that was tied at the back. Her face was round and her eyes were deep brown and sincere, she was kind and she liked to laugh. Marta wore a simple gray dress with a wide white collar and a threadbare white apron. She had on heavy woolen socks and wooden clogs.
Her countenance changed from its easy and happy demeanor to a guarded and suspicious one. She turned to Gagliardi. “Why do you put me in a room full of Satan’s brides?” Marta made the sign of the cross and started to back up towards the door.
“Stand fast, woman. On order of the bishop find these women something dry and warm to wear. Get them something hot to eat and drink.” Then, as an afterthought he pointed to Monica Longo, “dry my cape and have it brought to me.”
Marta shook her head in mild disbelief. “Yes your highness.”
“Watch your tongue woman.” Gagliardi pivoted on his heel and left the room.
Marta looked at the exhausted women, their faces were so sad and there was little if any life in their downcast eyes. They looked so small and defenseless, broken and barely alive. She knew or knew of each one of them. Quite often she bought herbs or spices from Maria Cutri’s stall at the market place, Marta would never have expected her to be a witch. As for Aurora Tocini, the poor thing was demented; she was turned out to the streets after her son died. Now she was a harmless shell that scuttled the streets looking for her dead son. With no family left, she lived on the charity of those who knew her when her mind was clear and when she was happy.
Marta knew Monica Longo best of all. As children they played together. They enjoyed each other’s company well enough but neither one considered the other a true friend. They made their first communion together and their confirmation as well. They both vied for Carlo, but Monica won his heart. Marta was heartbroken at first but she was never one to hold a grudge or wish anyone ill. As she looked at Monica, shivering naked under the rough cape of Sergeant Gagliardi, Marta was at a loss for why her old acquaintance should have such an awful fate.
Marta brushed the hair away from Monica’s face with her finger tips, took her cheeks in the palms of her hands and looked into Monica’s eyes. Monica’s cheeks were like ice. Monica managed a tearful smile as she searched her old playmate’s eyes.
“Let me find you something warm to wear.” Though she looked at Monica, Marta addressed all of the women. “Warm yourselves, I’ll be back with some dry things.” Marta left the room and the women edged closer to the fire rubbing their hands together and taking in the heat.
* * * * * * * *
Father Silva entered the church through the sacristy door. He shook the rain from his hair and rubbed his face dry with his hands. The sacristy was dark but warm and cozy. He looked through the little peephole into the nave; people were already crowded into the church everywhere; they sat in the pews, stood in the aisles and even around the altar. They were so close to each other that there was truly no room. The heavy animal scent of wet skin and wet clothing and wet hair was almost intolerable. The only sounds came from a few babies who cried. Most everyone stood quiet and reflective as the rain fell from the heavens and ran like an endless cascade of tears down the stain glass windows. The weather was still raging outside and the thunder sounded like distant cannon fire as it echoed all about the town and in and around every building and through the close alleyways.
Another bolt of lightning streaked down from the black sky and again struck the bell tower, this time ripping the bell loose and tossing it into the square. The bell landed in front the dais not more than two paces from where Bishop DiMars and Monsignor Petri were holed up. Steam poured off of the hot bronze bell. The bell quivered for a few long seconds as if under the force of an invisible hand as it slowly rocked back and forth and came to a stop.
“Dear God in heaven!” croaked the bishop.” Let us away to shelter. This rain will never end.”
Even though the monsignor was fairly soaked from the rain he barely raised his head. “It will end.” He hunkered down.
“Gaspare, what is the matter with you? You would sit here and be soaked to the skin just to wait for the rain to stop? Why? Come now.”
“It can’t last much longer. I walk much better than I run.” Petri slumped back down.
“The witch is right. You’ll be your own undoing.” Then he added under his breath, “Fool!”
DiMars braced himself, pulled his collar up and entered the downpour. He went the forty odd paces as quickly as he could. The water was ankle deep and it seeped into his shoes making his already cold feet wet and now freezing. He climbed the few steps and waited under the covered portico and then crossed the walkway to the soldier’s barracks.
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The Alchemist Gift is a book about the lives of people in the Renaissance and the alchemy that brought them together with its repercussions on our modern-day hero, Roland.
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2013 Mark D. Giglio, www.theartofgiglio.com
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