Alchemist Gift – Marcella discovers the books
Alchemist Gift continued: Now on this adventurous night, in the pale moonlight she saw the faint outline of the upper corner of the door frame. She ran her hand along the wall behind the shrubs. Marcella blindly felt the details of the door and the rough weathered wood. Her fingers made out the iron bar that was pad locked in its saddle. She did not understand how she could open a door that was so secure.
Marcella harbored no anger toward the Holy Virgin so she prayed to her to guide her hands and to give her strength. She felt along the horizontal row of large clavos that ran across the center of the door. She hoped the door would work tonight the same way it did when she first found it ten years ago. She wiggled each clavo until she found the loose one. She closed her eyes and pushed on the head of the clavo; it moved. She pressed harder and then she heard a click and felt the door move. She reached into the shrubs with her other hand and found that everything moved as one. What appeared to be the wooden door frame, along with the iron bar, and the pad lock all made up the door. Marcella pulled hard and the door moved, she pulled again and it finally opened enough for her to pass through. She struggled with the shrubbery and held it out of the way with one hand, picked up her bag with the other and ducked into the opening. She could see the outlines of the vines in the moonlight, hanging over the jagged opening. As she squeezed through to the other side of the wall a spider web brushed her face and made her shudder. She finally broke through the vines and weeds, pulled on the handle of her leather bag until it finally came free with one last yank.
Marcella was now outside of the town. She walked along close to the wall. She did not want to be noticed by the guards who sometimes could be seen on the parapet. She had a long walk to the north wall, and then just as long of a walk across the base of the north wall to the beginning of the country lane that led to Cesare’s house. There was no real path at the base of the wall so the going was sometimes difficult. Marcella had to negotiate granite outcrops and a few dark gullies.
Marcella turned the corner and saw a gypsy encampment fifty paces from the spot where the west wall ended and the north wall began. She could hear the soulful music they played and their children laughing. She smelled sweet smoke. A column of sparkling embers climbed high above the bon fire and disappeared as they fell in a spiraling shower.
She passed by the gypsies and headed away from Terra Sanctus to the country lane. She followed the lane up the first gentle hill and when she descended into the wide rolling meadow below the roofline and walls of Terra Sanctus were lost to her view. She could hear the strains of gypsy lyras and rebecs but they soon faded.
The moon lit lane stretched in front of her. Marcella had never been out in the dark like this before. She was sensitive to any sound or movement. She started when an owl passed within a few feet over her head. She heard the hissing wing beats and felt the air pulse against her hat. It almost made her run but she took a deep breath and continued on her way.
Everything looked so different in the dark. The trees and their leaves lay flat against the sky like black filigree. The natural details of the plants and trees and hills she used to gauge distance and direction were hidden by the night. Marcella finally recognized a stand of trees. The twisted little trees were dead but the way their branches lifted up above them reminded her of maidens from Pagan times doing a wild ritual dance. Marcella was relieved to find this land mark. She began to look sharp for the pathway leading to Cesare’s house and after a few unsuccessful forays through openings in the brush that looked like they might be the way in only to end after five or six paces, she found it.
A weight was lifted and Marcella thanked the Holy Virgin by reciting the Hail Mary while she trudged up the path. There was no light on in the house. Marcella stood in front of the door and knocked fairly hard. She knocked again and went to the one small window and looked in. She saw some movement, it was Cesare stumbling around almost naked except for a loin cloth trying to put on his trousers. He had one leg in and his other leg cocked over the other opening and hopping on his one foot as if he were chasing after his pants. Marcella smiled, looked away and returned to the door.
Cesare opened the door. “You’re here tonight? Come in, come in. For some reason I thought you’d come tomorrow. Welcome, come in.” The only light came from the moon. Cesare lit an oil lamp. The little clay lamp gave off just enough light to make shadows and not much more. Marcella happily put her bag down and looked for a place to sit. Cesare pulled on his shirt and offered her one of the two chairs at a small round table.
“Who came with you?” Cesare poured some water. Marcella was thirsty and drank her water down.
“I came alone. I had to leave tonight. Zietta Prunella thought it best.”
“You came alone. That was a brave thing.” Cesare raked his fingers through his hair trying to get it in some kind of order.
“You’re doing a brave thing allowing me to stay here. Everyone thinks I’m evil because of the way mama died; they think I caused it, that I’m under Satan’s influence. I love my mama. Zietta Prunella thinks they will want to burn me for a witch.”
“Very ugly business that. You will be safe here. Pray that this burning will come to an end soon.”
A week passed in town before Marcella was missed. At first there was suspicion put on Farintino, then on Prunella that they were hiding her.
“Be glad she’s gone, to whereever.” was Farintino’s bland reply to anyone who asked. Prunella would only say “pray for your soul and the souls of all those you judge.” which usually gave the busy body pause. After a month Marcella was forgotten. New tidbits concerning how the rich merchant Lucius Conino was caught having coitus with a tavern tart in the alley behind the stable tumbled off the ends of the gossips’ tongues. Conino’s equals thought him stupid for not being discreet and the women in his circle gushed with catty compassion for his long suffering wife hoping deep down their men were not doing the same behind their backs.
* * * * * * *
Country life agreed with Marcella. For all intents and purposes she may as well have been on some tiny Greek isle in the Adriatic. Cesare reaped the benefit of Marcella’s tidiness and cooking skills. She tended to the garden. She dried garden vegetables and fruit from the wild fruit trees that dotted the surrounding hills. She gathered nuts and stored them in earthen jars and crocks for the winter months.
Cesare made her a bed frame and a dressing chest. He also gave her something much greater. He taught her to read. One day, out of boredom, Marcella moved a very heavy trunk away from a back wall to clean behind it. She noticed the hasp hung loose. She was comfortable enough with Cesare to know he would not care if she opened it and so she did. On top was the black robe of the seminarian. She took it out and unfolded it and laid it out on the chaise. Under the robe was a layer of writings and papers. She carefully removed scrolls and parchment pages covered with very close and small letters. Some of the pages were loosely bound together with a leather cord, others lay free. She placed the writings on top of the robe in a neat stack. The entire bottom of the trunk was filled with books. There were small books, large books with little golden designs pressed into the leather, and some old and fragile.
She lifted up a large, heavy tome out and opened it. It was bound in blood red leather and had the image of a serpent in the shape of a circle with its own tail in its mouth, tooled into the leather. She opened it. The frontispiece was a beautiful woodcut of the globe with all of its meridian lines and latitudes and longitudes. A symbol for each of the elements occupied the corners with their names, Aer, Ignus, Aquas, and Terra printed beneath.
While Marcella sat on the floor engrossed, Cesare came in the back door. He kept grimacing and pinching his index fingertip. He picked up a good sized sliver under his finger nail that went down halfway to the quick.
“Marcella, find me the tweezers, please.” He did not see her until she moved.
“Yes, the tweezers, I will get them for you.” She kept them on the shelf with the basin, pitcher, Cesare’s razor and his wooden comb. She motioned that he should sit at the little round table. She sat across from him, took his work worn hand in hers and turned it in the light so she could see the tiny end of the splinter sticking out just above the end of the nail. “Now, get ready.” Before he could gird himself for the pain she deftly plucked the sliver out in one quick, strong tug.
Cesare drew his hand out of hers and shook it. “You rascal, I wasn’t ready.”
Marcella smiled and wiggled the tweezers with its prize for Cesare’s to see. “One never is.” She held out her hand and dropped the ridiculously tiny piece of wood into her palm. Cesare wetted his finger tip and picked it up, studied it for a second then flicked it on the floor.
“I see you’ve found the books.”
“Oh yes. They look wonderful. Where did you get so many?”
It was late afternoon, Cesare’s project was ahead of schedule and his work could wait until tomorrow. “Pour out some wine girl and I’ll tell you.”
“Being the third son, I was expected to become a priest. I fulfilled my early obligations. When I was old enough the priests taught me to read and write Latin and I was accepted into seminary after I made my confirmation. I was to spend the next four years in deep study.
I found I had a gift for rhetoric. I could make an equally compelling argument on both sides of a point. I was called “little Cicero” because of this ability. I found that the basis for most arguments was the “either, or” platform. I came to the conclusion that the arguments the church made were always the same with faith as the final rebuttal to reason.
My lively arguments set me apart from the other aspirants and my arguments became more convincing and reason driven. I fell under the scrutiny of the priests who considered my inquisitiveness and enthusiasm as disrespect and impertinence. One of my fellow seminarians was a man named Valentino Carpone. He was a bit older than the others, in his mid- twenties. His family lived close to the Swiss border. Valentino enjoyed our philosophical discussions. The more I got to know Valentino the more I could see that my friend and I were not cut out for the clergy; neither of us had yet taken our vows.
After one exceptionally fine argument that left the instructor fuming I was called before the bishop later that day. The bishop was a stern man. He told me that “heretics might lose their heads, or hands, or feet. Are you a heretic, my young friend?” The bishop looked into my eyes then stroked the base of his neck with his fingertips.
“No, I am no heretic, your eminence.”
“Then stop these prideful displays. Pride is one of the cardinal sins. Sin must be punished. You are capable of following my simple logic, yes?” The bishop’s tone was sarcastic. “I believe your pride is worth at least ten lashes with the scourge. I expect to see you tomorrow before dawn, outside in the middle of the courtyard, on your knees praying to Our Savior for forgiveness. Understood? I believe you should fast beforehand, so stay away from the refractory table, and the back door of the scullery.”
I bowed. The bishop waved me away.
Marcella took a sip of wine. “Did they whip you?” Her eyes were wide open and she could not disguise her horror of the impending answer.
Cesare smiled. “No. It happened that Valentino was outside waiting for me. I told him what I was supposed to do on the morrow. He laughed.”
“Come my friend, I am tired of this place. Let us lose these dull black togs. What do you say to a fine dinner, some wine, some fun? Come home with me.” Valentino reached into his robe and pulled out a purse. He shook it up and down and the coins jingled jangled like the bells on a harlequin’s slippers.
Once outside the church grounds, Valentino outfitted us with some clothing and hired a coach and four. We headed north and stopped at the first reputable roadhouse which was two leagues out of town. We ate roast meat, fish and drank the finest wine the inn keeper had. Valentino looked at the symbol burned into the small cask that the girl filled the pitcher from and smiled.
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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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