Early in morning, Fratelli rose, before dawn even cracked the sky, to recite lauds then prepare for Mass. It would still be a week before Lent’s beginning. Yes Lent, the 40 days during which all Catholics commemorated Jesus’s 40 days in the desert by fasting and penance. He eyed the silken, violet vestments that hung nearby. They were a likeable color but he couldn’t wear them…not yet.
Returning home from the cathedral still clad in the green robes of Ordinary Time. Fratelli clutched his garb tighter against chill, morning air. Walking inside, he found Father Arnold conversing vigorously with a dark-skinned man who held a canvas, one smudge of green paint across his left cheek.
Arnold retrieved Fratelli’s miter and the painter set his blank canvas down to bestow greetings. When Fratelli’s face grew confused, Arnold whispered, “He is here to make your portrait…”
Gesturing, Fratelli whisked the priest into another room and made sure the door was shut before he spoke, “Who said I wanted a portrait?”
“Your Eminence, it is proper for you to have a portrait and you do not yet have one…”
“I think it’s silly,” Fratelli responded.
He snatched a small, silver-handled mirror of the nearby table.
“If I wanted to stare at myself all day, I could just as easily do this” he said glancing into the mirror at his image, “And it looks exactly like me.”
Arnold blushed then caught his attention by raising a finger in the air.
“But Your Eminence, this man came all the way from Florence!”
“Have him paint something else then…”
“How about the garden? You know how I love the garden.”
The priest murmured to himself but obeyed.
After saying noonday prayers, the cardinal went out for a stroll, this time in the garden lest some other mishap visited him. He found the painter there sitting on a bench dabbing red paint in a sea of various greens. The roses had bloomed and they were now being immortalized on that canvas. Fratelli decided not to bother him but rather to check the ripeness of his tomatoes.
“Hello Dina,” he said seeing the kitchen-maid who picked a few of the tomatoes, a clump of fresh basil in her other hand.
“Good afternoon,” she responded.
Fratelli took a woven basket which sat on the ground nearby lifting it so Dina could easily put the plump tomatoes down. He offered to carry this back to the kitchen but Dina insisted,
“That is my work.”
“Then may I have one tomato…to nibble on?”
Smiling she handed him one then scurried off.
In the parlor, Fratelli rested, sprinkling salt on the tomato-halves he cut, savoring their tart, sun-sweetened flavor. He just stood when Arnold came forth holding a fine scroll of parchment.
“It has the seal of Lord Lamberto Di’Costanza I, Duke of Tuscany.”
Fratelli instantly grabbed it but did not break the seal. He seemed worried.
“I will read it when I’m alone,” the cardinal said much to Arnold’s disappointment.
Father Arnold turned moving back to leave but then stopped, musing for a moment, and added, “Didn’t you declare the duke’s son anathema?”
“Yes,” Fratelli said tension choking his voice, “Can we talk about it later?”
That night, Fratelli slept poorly. After tossing and turning for about an hour, he got up and paced the hallway. His white night-robes glowed in luminous moonlight streaming through the window. He’d read the duke’s letter and while it contained nothing threatening or disheartening, he was still nervous.
True, Fratelli excommunicated the sovereign’s son two years ago…but he needed to do it. He had defied the cardinal’s authority by imprisoning a priest unjustly and refusing to let him go. Silently, he prayed hoping this man would appear among the penitents at Ash Wednesday Mass. He figured he would go back upstairs and fully dress since he felt anything but sleepy and dawn-light waited three hours away.
Sun streamed faintly over tress and dewy grass when the cardinal departed from morning Mass rubbing his eyes sleepily and sorely wished to lie down. Breakfast came ever so slowly.
“You don’t look so good,” Arnold said pouring the cardinal’s tea.
“I’m fine,” Fratelli answered.
He forlornly chewed on dry toast.
Sunlight seemed to pick up and grow warm, heating the house and the office where Fratelli worked. He was lifting a window when Father Arnold brought a letter.
“It’s for you,” he said.
“Well who else would it be for?” Fratelli remarked taking the envelope and tearing it open. The scent of lavender hit his face, he turned aside snorting then read:
Dear, Most Reverend Angelo Fratelli,
On Thursday, February the 9th, I am coming to visit you. I promise not to bother you too much nor stay long. I can’t wait to see you after all these years. Hope you are doing well. Stay healthy and happy for me because we have much to talk about and reminisce over.
He whirled catching Arnold’s surprised expression.
“You remember my old friend Michele, whom I was speaking about the other day?”
The priest nodded.
“She says she is coming to visit me!”
Arnold smiled then his grin faded awkwardly.
“This is a happy occasion right?”
The cardinal waved joyfully and said, “Of course it is, I haven’t seen her in 16 years- since I left for seminary… We shall make her feel very welcome.”
~ ~ ~
Late evening arrived as Fratelli set a candle on the dining-room table and made sure the linen table-cloth was flat. Dina suddenly came from behind and lightly slapped his hand.
“Your Eminence, sit down,” she chided.
Wordlessly, Fratelli rested but when Arnold came into the room, he stood. From behind the priest approached a young woman. Clad in a pastel dress, light-brown hair tied back, she smiled radiantly once seeing Fratelli there.
“Oh my, you have grown up!” she cried extending a hand.
Fratelli didn’t react at first and she grabbed his own hand firmly. Finally backing away, Fratelli sat. Dina brought in food; roasted tomato soup, bread, olives and cold ham. Michele stared at their surroundings more than she ate; taking in the spacious, clean house with her sparkling, green eyes. She giggled and asked, “Angelo, how has life treated you since we last met?”
“The Lord is good,” Fratelli said.
“Do you remember when we last saw eachother?” Michele continued, “I had a red bow in my hair…”
“Yes, I remember.”
“Oh by the way, thank you for this wonderful meal, I knew you would make me feel welcome… Angelo, I’m still not married.”
He winced at being called his name for the second time but didn’t say anything. For desert, sweet wine was poured but only a tiny amount in each of their glasses. Michele broke the silence again,
“Maybe, Angelo we could take a stroll in the park tomorrow?”
“Please don’t call me that,” he eventually replied, “and no, that would be very improper.”
“What’s improper about visiting with a dear friend?”
“It is written: You shall not give the appearance of evil.”
Instead of becoming silenced by Fratelli’s grave tone and somber expression, Michele laughed. Embarrassed, frustrated, he looked aside trying not to meet eyes with her. She glanced kindly at Arnold wearing a kind-hearted smile wondering if he would catch Fratelli’s attention on her behalf. Feeling ignored, she blurted out, “Do you know that little house across from the cathedral.”
Hesitantly, Fratelli answered, “Yes, the yard is horribly unkempt.”
“It won’t be that way much longer,” Michele said, “I purchased that house this morning. Now we will be neighbors- just like back in old days and I can see you often.”
Fratelli’s jaw almost dropped then he covered his face in exasperation. This sounded like trouble.
A Labor of Love
Friday started off difficult. Fratelli arrived late for Mass but gratefully preached a good sermon about how labor out of love was never wasted and how God loved each and every person. His breakfast came cold and he peacefully ate it rather than bother Dina. At noon, he received an ecclesiastical document for examination and henceforth, focused all his attention on this.
Figuring to get some air, Fratelli carried these hefty writings outside and sat there reading. Bright sun beamed down and it became warm despite shade offered by the trees. Birds whistled their sweet melodies distracting him by beauty. Reclining in his wicker chair, Fratelli struggled to keep reading and eventually set the document aside. In hot sun, he slowly dozed off.
He woke up minutes later on the ground. Rubbing dirt from his face, squinting, he said aloud, “Yes, Lord I understand…back to work.”
Though the document’s remainder tried him, laden with difficult words and expressions, he triumphed, reading the last lines by 3-o’-clock.
A figure crossed into the courtyard and Fratelli glanced up seeing Arnold approach, his black cassock billowing in wind, holding a cluster of purple flowers in his hand.
“I think you know who these are from…” he muttered.
Fratelli smiled momentarily then frowned.
“We have got to find that young lady a suitor,” the cardinal declared.
“What are you going to do, Your Eminence, play matchmaker? You know that’s out of your hands.”
“No- it’s a perfect idea!” Fratelli cried sitting up and standing.
“Michele will be married and living happy-ever-after and most importantly, she’ll stop doting on me!”
“Ugh, never mind,” groaned the priest, “No matter what I say, you’ll do what you want…”
“You are right, I will,” shouted Fratelli excitedly moving to sit back down on the recliner and not looking, missed and fell again on the ground.
Arnold smirked shaking his head.
“And you’re going to fix a lady up….”
~ ~ ~
Night encroached. The cathedral filled with yellow candle-light as Fratelli sat quietly waiting to hear confessions. As the Lenten season drew near, he was certain people would come, hoping to cleanse their souls from burdens, sins and worries. After an hour, he peered out seeing no one but then withdrew behind the curtain as footsteps approached.
“Bless me Father for I have sinned…” a woman’s voice said.
She paused then continued, “I must admit I am feeling upset with a member of my family. I wanted him to marry this wonderful girl next door, between her looks and his, they would have had such beautiful children- but no, he did what he wanted...not thinking of us.”
Fratelli recognized the voice’s sharp tone and somewhat cringed, his hands tense and clammy. Yet he said nothing, letting her add, “And between you and me, not only is he selfish, he’s rather dull-witted.”
“Francine, it’s me,” Fratelli hissed.
“Oh,” she said startled, “I thought Father Arnold heard confessions today…”
“He isn’t feeling well.”
“Are you even sorry?” Fratelli pressed.
“Well, I’m here aren’t I?”
“You don’t sound very contrite…”
“I shouldn’t have said anything to him…I mean to you, but I did.”
Fratelli said rather loudly, “You’re right, you shouldn’t have said anything.”
“But I am so upset, when are you going to realize how much you’ve hurt me?”
“Wait a minute- this is about you, not me!”
“Oh dear,” Francine sighed, “I suppose I have another thing to confess.”
In a growl, Fratelli prayed for patience. After absolving the woman, whose voice grated his nerves even when apologizing, he watched her leave and sighed with relief. He never wanted to go through that again. Some days, his ministry felt like a labor of love indeed, and sometimes, more labor than love…
Clouds were overcast as afternoon sun peeked through the gray haze shining in little white spots over the land. Cardinal Fratelli decided to stroll, dally around town and perhaps bring back some meat from the market. Dina was upset that he took such work upon himself but realized his desire to reflect and get outside.
“His poor Eminence is all cooped up,” she whispered passing Arnold in the hallway.
Arnold shrugged saying nothing back as Fratelli left stepping into the sun, a light wind stirring his red robes and cloak behind him. He smiled and quickly disappeared onto the street behind a passing carriage.
While walking past the trees and tall apartments, Fratelli felt urged to whistle or maybe sing but restrained his voice. This merriness simply did not portray the dignity befitting of a clergyman. He glanced over his shoulder at the little house Michele had bought, found the yard was made tidy then increased pace.
He reached a bend in the street and watched several birds soar overhead, no shadow being cast underneath their long figures. The cardinal suddenly looked down at his cross and wiped a smudge of dirt off it.
“How did that get there?” he mused.
Fratelli walked into the town’s piazza where groups of children, some small and babyish and others, tall and older, played. While he passed, their bell-like chorus rang, “Eminenza! Eminenza! Eminenza!”
He waved inciting more cheers as a few followed him down the road then left off distracted by something else. Nearby a silvery lake glittered and as Fratelli approached, he felt a trickle of rain in the air. However cold and cloudy the sky became, he perceived peacefulness.
Ducks quacked, songbirds trilled and flowers hung their colorful heads. Suddenly, a powerful gust of wind swept against him, lifting the red cap from his head and carrying it two feet away. At once, Fratelli tried to snatch it back but failed. He walked forward, bending to pick the cap off the ground when another gust of wind took it up.
The cardinal huffed in frustration. Then, he saw a little boy holding the red cap.
“Oh thank you, may I have it?”
With a giggle and devilish smirk, the boy threw it into the lake. Fratelli ran after. Seeing the circle of red float atop the waters, he dismally watched it bob up and down getting carried further and further away.
“Why you nasty imp!” he shouted whirling around.
The boy was no longer there. Fuming, Fratelli stomped off while light rain began to fall. He looked up; brown eyes wide and sad.
“Lord why are you testing me?”
Hearing the clock-tower strike, he trudged onward knowing the market would close soon. In fact, many crowds streamed past him anxious to get home. Luigi, a short man who had thick, black hair and a thick mustache, was just closing up when he saw Fratelli hurrying there.
“I know you are ready to go home,” Fratelli gasped, “But I need sausage and a quart of olive-oil.”
“Sure, I have anything you need,” Luigi replied his stocky arms grabbing a coil of sausage then reaching for a glass bottle filled with golden liquid. He handed the items to Fratelli who nodded and paid him. Then remembering an important matter, the cardinal anxiously asked, “You have no wife Luigi, do you?”
“Well, a pretty, young girl moved right across the street from me, you should stop by and welcome her…”
“Yes, her name is Michele- she is very nice!”
“Thank you for telling me...”
They noticed raindrops grew heavier. Luigi gave Fratelli a bow of profound reverence whereas Fratelli said goodbye and rushed away. He felt glad some people had sense enough to show respect. Halfway home, rain started pouring. His garments soaked, once scarlet now a soggy, pink color, Fratelli trudged to his door. Dina answered.
“Your Eminence, don’t come inside like that- I told you to let me go to the market…this is what happens when you don’t listen,” she told him while also showing a pitiful expression.
Fratelli scowled and sulked to the back door. He changed into dry robes, came downstairs and ate dinner. From across the table, Father Arnold looked at him, opened his lips to speak yet said nothing. Fratelli concentrated on finishing his ham and spinach soup, gladly left alone.
Before retiring, he snuck into the moonlit chapel, ignited one candle, knelt down and said quietly against the dark,
“Father in heaven, protect me from evil…help me in my trials oh- and grant Michele a blessed husband, one who will take care of her.”