Alchemist Gift – Wood that will not burn
Alchemist Gift continued: Two days had passed since the “miracle”. Outwardly things returned to normal. The stakes were pulled down by the townsfolk that very evening. The dais disassembled and stowed and the bell, with some difficulty, was loaded into a wagon and taken to the black smiths.
The air of mystery and joyful awe of the miracle was tempered by a collective self-reflection that caused many feelings of shame and guilt for what could have happened. The bishop quietly rescinded the execution orders; he waited for the papal legate and the inquisitor to arrive from Rome and begin their investigation. The small convent of Santa Dorotea, twenty miles to the south, agreed to take in and care for the women. Monica Longo and Maria Lillo decided to forgo convent life. Monica returned to her farm and Maria, after packing up her scant belongings, headed off to an uncertain future.
Dawn unfolded its golden wings over the awakening town. Silvery fog hung heavily in the surrounding hollows causing the hill tops to appear as islands. Father Eduardo awoke at his usual time. He finished his morning prayers before the four bells. He was sitting on the edge of his cot eating his breakfast of a boiled egg, an orange, and three of the crucifix-shaped biscotti graciously contributed to the church by the Bakers Guild. His small garret had a large window affording a view of the town’s southern roof line. He liked to see the shops and houses come to life as candles were lit behind curtained windows and white smoke swirled out of chimneys. Just before six o’clock every morning he watched with mild fascination as fifteen year old Christina DeLucia, bucket in hand, scurry across the empty square to the fountain where, for just a few un-chaperoned minutes she and Francesco Turro, the tanner’s son, would meet and steal a kiss.
“Father Eduardo” it was Annamarie outside his door.
“Father Eduardo, it is Cesare Lippo, he is the furniture maker. He must talk to you.”
“What brings him to the church so early?” Eduardo slipped a wedge of the sweet juicy orange into his mouth.
“He wouldn’t say.” after a moment of silence Annamarie asked “what should I tell him?”
“Tell him to wait by the front door and I’ll be down shortly.”
Father Silva finished eating the orange and put on his house robe and his open back slippers. He put a heavy shawl over his shoulders. The hemisphere of the sun sat on the horizon and sent its warm rays into a grateful sky. The air was still cool, crisp and damp.
Earlier that morning, when the cock crowed three times, Cesare Lippo, as was his custom, quit his bed and started the day. Cesare was not a particularly religious man although he considered himself of a spiritual nature. He felt the entire world his church, the sun and moon his god and goddess and the planets his saints. His heaven was here on earth; his heaven was the sunrise, the birdsong, smell of roses and the taste of honey. His daily actions toward his fellow men and women were the true test of his soul.
The story of the miracle started him thinking. He was intrigued by the strange qualities of the wood that was used for the witches’ pyres.
Each person he listened to told how the wood came from Signor Mezzi, and to be more exact according to Adamo Lucci, the wood was the remains of the Sacred Apple Tree. Cesare found it curious the wood would not burn, though it was seasoned and quite dry and, at one point, even soaked with oil. He learned how the same wood, after being drenched in that terrible downpour for a good hour and a half, caught on fire immediately and burned hot and bright when it was used to warm the room where the five women were kept and the miracle took place.
Cesare knew in his excited heart that the wood was unlike any wood he had ever heard of or seen. He hoped it possessed, or even more, he knew it must possess some rare mystical quality. He wanted that wood and he came to ask Father Eduardo for it.
Father Eduardo opened the door. Cesare bowed, removed his cap and held it in his hands. “Good day to you father.”
“And to you, Cesare, Annamarie said you wanted to talk with me.” The young priest looked at the older man in front of him. Cesare was in his early forties. His youngish face belied his age and he still had most of his youthful strength hidden in an unassuming body. His face was quite regular and his features though not too remarkable, were pleasing enough. He had a warm smile and he could express himself quite plainly be it pleasure or distain with the subtle flash of his eyes.
“Yes father, it’s the wood.” Cesare, of course, was expecting Father Eduardo to understand immediately.
“Wood? What wood?” Eduardo was slightly puzzled.
“From the burning.”
“The fire wood? Is that what you are looking for?” Cesare nodded eagerly. “There are some pieces here and there. Most of it was collected by who ever wanted it.” Cesare slumped with disappointment. Father Eduardo thought for a moment, “As I recall, there were quite a few larger pieces, some a tall as a man, which were dragged behind the blacksmiths shop. Go ask Antonio, tell him I gave you permission to take what you need. And Cesare, I would like to see you at mass now and again.”
Cesare bowed and smiled. “Yes father, thank you father.”
“Is there anything else?”
“No, Father Eduardo, nothing more, and thank you again.”
Father Eduardo stepped back inside the rectory and closed out the cold morning air. “We men have such peculiar desires.” he thought to himself as he tightened his robe, pulled the shawl a little closer onto his shoulders and made his way back to his garret.
Cesare headed for the blacksmith’s shop. He took long strides. He wanted to get there as quickly as possible. The door to the shop was slightly ajar. Cesare entered the dark cavern of a building. At the center, Antonio Delatorre, a short, stocky, red faced man, stood in the glow of the orange fire. The black backdrop of the wall behind him and the ceiling above was brought to life by the surreal, elongated shadows of his movements as he worked the bellows. He worked so intently that he did not see or hear Cesare enter.
Cesare watched Antonio for a moment and then spoke. “Brother Antonio, are you well?”
The black smith gave a start when he realized he was not alone. “Who’s there? Come forward and show yourself.” He picked up a hot poker and held it a little in front of him.
Cesare took a step closer and the stood in the orange halo that now engulfed both of them. “It is I, Cesare Lippo.”
“Cesare Lippo, yes, I am well, and you?” Antonio put the poker back into the fire.
“Well enough, and your wife? Well, I hope.” Cesare could never understand how a beautiful woman such as Antonio’s wife could ever be attracted to such a dark, homely man who smelled of smoke and soot and sweat.
“She is well enough to do whatever she wants, it seems. Why do you ask?” Antonio’s tone rang with resentment. More than once he suspected her of cheating on him. Had it not been for his bad limp he surely would have caught his wife, or someone who from the back greatly resembled her, on the arm of a young man. Because of his hobbling gait he lost sight of them in the crowded square the same day of the burning. He took out his anger of her many suspected affairs on the white hot metal by beating it so hard that sparks would take frenzied flight and fill the seething air around him.
“Just extending a courtesy my friend, that’s all.” She was beautiful, and tall, and well-formed and her voice and manners were naturally alluring. Men, old and young alike, were drawn to her. When she saw someone she liked it was hard for her to refuse their company, much to the jealous blacksmith’s consternation.
“Well, keep your courtesy to yourself.”
“And so I shall.” Cesare remembered why he was there and he did not want to queer things over something he might say or unknowingly insinuate.
“How can I help you? Iron straps? Hinges? Do you need steel tempered?”
“No, none of those things, I came about the wood, the fire wood from the burning.”
“The wood? “He thought for a moment, “You know, there are some large branches behind the shop. Big ones, and part of the trunk, that stands as tall as a man, taller than me for sure.” He chuckled. Antonio warmed the chill that came from his unfounded suspicion over such a simple and polite question. Cesare smiled.
“You can have at it. I tried using that cursed wood in the forge and it just won’t burn. All it does is smolder, even when I pile white hot coals on it and work the bellows. I have never seen anything like it. Did you bring a wagon?”
“No, but I shall get one.”
Antonio nodded and Cesare followed. The two men went to the back door of the shop. With some effort Antonio dragged it open. They entered the yard. The place was strewn with different pieces of iron, brass, bronze, and copper all this laying on the bare earth and mostly covered with vines, some like tan twine from years past and others still green. A rusted section of ornate iron fence was propped up against the back wall of the shop and looked to be used as a ladder. Cesare looked up and saw more scraps of metal stacked on the sagging roof. There was a jumble of broken tools and broken weapons and even pieces of outdated armor thrown into a pile. The bronze bell was on a pallet and covered with a canvas tarpaulin at the left side of the yard. The wood was next to the bell.
“There it is.” Antonio pointed to the stack of wood. “Are you going to try to burn it?”
Cesare shook his head “no”. He went to the stack and ran his hand over the course bark. At his touch he felt a delicate tingle in his fingertips. The sensation grew and slowly went up his arm, circled his neck and then flooded his mind with a wonderful feeling of peace and happiness. He took his hand away and caught his breath. “No, I am not going to burn the wood. I am going to make something with it.”
“No doubt you will, no doubt you will.” Antonio smiled at his acquaintance. Cesare Lippo was a master furniture maker and his pieces graced many a salon in some of the oldest and riches villas and estates for a hundred miles around.
“Have at it Cesare Lippo.”
Cesare smiled and looked over at the bell. “The bell, is it cracked?”
“No, it’s a miracle it isn’t. It was struck twice by lightning and then for the bell to fall from the top of the church and hit the ground as hard as it did and not crack, it truly is a miracle. The problem is that the striker is fused on its pivot. No more than heat and a hammer to free it up.”
Both nodded to each other. Antonio went back inside, forced the door shut and hobbled back to his forge.
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