Late in the afternoon, Fratelli was glad to return home. Before evening, he strolled his garden. He plucked a ripe tomato and bit into it.
Grimacing from tartness, he said to himself, “Needs salt…”
The sound of voices distracted him. He couldn’t help but listen. Inching towards the garden’s iron fence, he leaned against the stone wall and intently eavesdropped.
“Why yes. I did just move here!” Michele’s recognizable voice said.
Then he heard someone else’s familiar reply, “That is good! I am glad to finally meet a nice lady.”
“You are nice yourself Ernesto.”
Ernesto? Fratelli tried to peer through the gate but by then, the two had walked away. Michele and Ernesto met, he thought joyfully; maybe he’s the right man for her.
It was hard for him not to meddle- and he would have gladly meddled.
~ ~ ~
At last, the vigil of Ash Wednesday arrived. Fratelli, anticipating an imminent visit from the duke or one of his kinsmen, saw to it the house was thoroughly cleaned. Finding him in the dining room with a feather-duster in his hand, Dina scolded him first, for engaging in such menial work and secondly, for missing a spot. Being banned from housework, the bored cardinal finally heeded Francine’s nagging and got himself a haircut. Then, he spent most of the night brushing and pressing his violet vestments. This one thing they let him do for himself because he had many particulars about it.
Energetic despite fasting and repetitious prayers, Fratelli saw Ernesto out riding the next morning and raced to catch him. Ernesto’s great brown horse stopped to curiously view the red-clad figure that chased him. Seeing Fratelli, Ernesto circled and greeted, “Morning, Good Eminence!”
“Hello Ernesto,” Fratelli replied reaching for the horse’s snout when snorted and drew back.
“He doesn’t like strangers,” Ernesto explained.
The horse decided to have a second look at Fratelli but then suddenly sneezed on his sleeve. Shaking his slightly wet arm, the cardinal groaned plaintively.
“Sorry about that…” Ernesto said.
Fratelli tried to forget about it and asked, “So, what do you think of Michele?”
“Michele, you know her?”
“I grew up with her.”
Ernesto smiled, the way an enamored man might smile, then replied, “She’s very nice… and quite understanding too.”
“Do you what she likes the most?” Fratelli asked leaning closer but altogether avoiding the horse’s reach.
“Her two favorite things in all the earth are Chinese orchids and purebred kittens.”
Ernesto stroked his chin, deep in thought then he concluded, “Sounds expensive…”
Fratelli stepped in front of him, gave a kind smile and said, “Well, let me help you since you once helped me.”
As he came back inside, Fratelli found Father Arnold approaching with plate of bread in his hand.
“Hurry and eat breakfast,” he said.
Fratelli grew anxious as he ate his small serving of bread, rosemary butter and figs. He knew that one of the duke’s men would be arriving soon and unconsciously wiped a smudge on the table’s surface with his sleeve. In response, Arnold lifted a finger to scold but Fratelli, interrupted him, “I know, I have to change, my sleeve is dirty anyhow…”
He carefully chose not to tell why and unseated going upstairs.
The hour couldn’t come sooner. Fratelli entered the parlor in flowing, scarlet choir-dress to meet the duke’s royal secretary who stood impatiently in full regalia dotted with glittering metals.
“Good afternoon, Your Eminence, The Lord Lamberto I sent me to visit with you.”
They stared at each other a few moments conveying tension concealed by politeness. There was a suggestion that they take a stroll outside. The secretary waited by the door while Fratelli darted in a backroom to grab his red biretta, a squat square-shaped hat worn by clergy. He heard shuffling coming from another entrance, looked up and saw Aunt Francine emerge from the side-door.
“I can’t see you right now,” Fratelli said, “I’m engaged in important business.”
“You doing something important,” Francine remarked, “Since when?”
Fratelli paused for a moment then shoved Francine back through the door with both hands.
Seeing that annoyance dealt with, the cardinal returned to his visitor.
Evening felt fine indeed! Sun setting meekly behind hills stained the city a dim blue. After strolling, Cardinal Fratelli found the duke standing, waiting in his courtyard. They exchanged greetings, bows and more polite talk. Fratelli noticed with a twinge of upset that his son wasn’t there to take part in the penitential procession. Out of courtesy, he didn’t say anything. While preparing for the procession, Fratelli watched several priests and acolytes trek across the lawn in choir dress. Four or so others approached bearing a scarlet, white-lined cape which they started draping around Fratelli’s shoulders. It was so large and volumous that he couldn’t see anything, stepped forward and bumped into someone. Finally, he looked out from beneath the cloth and let them tie it around him.
He ignored his embarrassment, chanted the opening prayer and began to walk across the yard surrounded by others, with plenty more in tow. Townspeople joined as their path curved down a street and circled. Leading back towards the cathedral, he beseeched the Lord for mercy, decrying the sins of that year and the failures to do the right thing. Fratelli knew his failures were included.
He tried hard to think of what he could confess to the Lord: Vanity and sloth? Surely, he was guilty. Irritability? …Certainly. There was probably more on his mind than usual as he walked beneath the cathedral’s looming spires and entered into cool air inside. Flowing, mournful chant greeted him and reminded all of the somber reason they were there.
Reaching the sanctuary, he removed the huge, red cape from his shoulders as to symbolize his relinquishment of the world and bowed to the white altar. He made it clear that this evening belonged to God and to no man- not even one of his lofty status. They were all equal before the Lord, equally human and sinful. Then, a shrill bell rang out from the door. It was time for Mass…time to don the violet vestments and celebrate a ceremony of repentance- and counting on God’s mercy.
Throughout the prayers, Fratelli kept eye on the duke who sat in an honorable place, wearing a fine, dark blue suit and more shiny medals than his secretary sitting beside him. His wife, the duchess, also there in a flowing, coral-colored dress emblazoned with jewels, watched intently. They looked like a lovely family; dark-haired, cleanly-dressed and attentive- but their son, Lamberto II went amiss.
Somewhat pleased, the cardinal gave a wry smile as the duke came forth, bending on one knee to receive ashes upon his forehead. Fratelli’s smile quickly went away as he pronounced the words; “Remember man, thou art dust and to dust you shall return.”
He saw Michele and said nothing betraying no expression as she knelt there next. Although, he felt hidden delight seeing Ernesto approach after her. Were they attending this Mass together? He hoped so.
Then he faced Francine. Forgetting and forgiving her past intrusion into his house, he smiled at her. She did not smile back. So, he just sprinkled the ashes on her and quickly moved his thoughts far away.
Fratelli gathered his musings and focused attention on the Scripture readings and prayer. He wouldn’t allow himself to be distracted any more throughout the Holy Communion and remainder of the Mass lest distracted thoughts become another thing for him to confess before God.
People cleared out. Everyone walked outside with tiny, black ashes littering their heads, dusting their hair grey, reminding all they were marked by Christ and for Christ. They left behind silence, dwindling incense-smoke and Fratelli with the duke.
“I wish to ask you,” he informed Fratelli, “If I could perform penance on behalf of my son so he may be readmitted into the Church.”
Taken aback, Fratelli paused, sat down then answered, “Why can’t he come and do it himself?”
“He is rather occupied.”
“Too occupied for God?”
“Not so,” the duke asserted causing some nervousness on Fratelli’s part, “He has released that priest from prison as you asked.”
Fratelli carefully thought out his reply, wanting to yell in frustration that it shouldn’t have taken this long. But needing to be tactful, he finally said, “That is admirable. Have him come here and complete his repentance.”
They stared at each other awhile, both tense, neither budging. The duke’s cold greyish eyes bore into Fratelli’s warm, amber-colored eyes until the cardinal eventually won out.
“Your Eminence…I trust your judgment,” the duke concluded, “I know my son can be arrogant and pig-headed. I will make sure he comes here and repents before you and God.”
Fratelli smiled weakly. They once again exchanged respectful bows and parted ways. The cardinal made sure he had been left alone then thanked God out loud. He hoped the duke would make good on his word.
Removing the violet vestments and retiring home, Fratelli rested for a long time in the parlor thinking to himself. He wondered about many things including Michele’s welfare and if Francine would ever soften her heart. Arnold came announcing that dinner sat waiting in the dining room however, he felt too restless to eat, more for the fasting and penance he supposed. Dina finally entered and forced him to go eat. He knew better than disobey her.
Following morning prayer and a private Mass, Fratelli snuck outside to his garden. He checked the tomatoes, which were growing well and red with ripeness. Seeing several weeds had cropped up, the cardinal looked over his shoulder, to make sure Dina wasn’t there then began pulling them.
He washed his hands in the garden’s central fountain as Michele approached. She carried a small, brightly-wrapped box in her hands and when she carefully lifted the lid, a kitten’s finely-pointed head peered out.
“Oh look Angelo, what Ernesto brought me,” she cried happily, “a Siamese kitten!”
“That is so nice!” Fratelli said, patting the kitten’s head.
It reached toward his hand with one, brown paw and mewed. When the kitten prepared to leap out of the box, Michele suddenly closed the lid tight. More plaintive mews could be heard from inside.
“I’ll take her back to the house,” Michele explained.
“First, may I ask you a question,” Fratelli said, “How is Ernesto?”
“He is wonderful, strong, handsome, kind… a lot like you actually.”
Fratelli glanced away and then added, “Except for the part about being strong?”
She laughed and sat upon the fountain. He felt glad seeing her happy. Sitting on the edge, a good distance away from her, he asked, “How many times have you seen him?”
“Seven times… He owns two beautiful horses... and a nice piece of land. Although I wonder how he paid for this kitten. Don’t they come from China?”
“Not the same place?”
“See, you’ve become so educated,” she remarked, “It’s almost as if you are a different person since I knew you…and yet the same.”
Fratelli interrupted, “Ernesto seems to me like a good, godly man. You should keep a hold on him.”
“Don’t worry, I’ve already lost one,” Michele said looking at Fratelli who awkwardly glanced away at his reflection in the water, “I won’t lose this other one if I can help it.”
After she left, Fratelli felt more at ease. Things seemed to be going quite well. He just dipped his hand in the water, refreshed by its coolness when a sharp voice called out, “There you are!”
He saw Francine.
“We need to talk,” she began “What business did you have yesterday tossing me out the door and behaving all smug?”
Fratelli stood and answered,
“I had a meeting with the duke’s secretary Francine. I needed to go.”
“Well, you could have been more polite.”
“Maybe so…or maybe you should not barge into my house?”
Francine huffed loudly, crossing her arms. Instead of addressing her wrongness, she changed the subject:
“I saw Michele here. Angelo, do you know how long I wished you would have married that girl?”
Growing impatient, Fratelli snapped back, “First, I am not “Angelo” to you. Second, I am not ever possibly getting married so deal with it!”
He didn’t intend to be so mean, but the words came easily. His face flushed angrily and he took a deep breath. Francine cooled her temper a little. She moved beneath the shade of the fountain, but eventually retorted:
“I just think you are silly and senseless!”
“And I think you should be excommunicated” Fratelli shouted, throwing his hands up then added suddenly, “But I’ve thought of something better…”
He quickly pushed her into the water-fountain and she grabbed onto his arm right before both of them tumbled in! They emerged soaking wet, shouting at each other. They froze at Father Arnold’s approach. Finally, Francine stormed off, dripping water with her every step, leaving Fratelli to explain the commotion. At this, the priest shook his head but said nothing. Fratelli felt a lump forming in his throat as he retreated back indoors to dry himself off.
“Good Lord, come to my aid,” he grumbled in sheer frustration, fastening dry, new garments around himself. Dina had taken his old clothes without asking why they were so wet- and he preferred it that way.
Coming downstairs, he crept into the parlor to be alone for some time. After settling down, he realized that perhaps he hadn’t handled the situation with Francine in the proper manner. However, he needed to let her know he was finished taking disrespect. Fratelli’s life belonged to him. Yet, he slowly realized life belonged to God but more often, he acted as if it were his own.
Having enough of his troubled thoughts, he went outside for a stroll. There still waited an un-weeded patch in the garden that he should deal with before daylight ended. At the last minute, taking account of how easily his last set of clothes got dirty, he decided against it. As sunlight sank, Fratelli recited evening-prayer by himself.
Hearing sounds in the parlor, people moving about and voices conversing, he went inside and found Father Rodrigo had returned!
The short, stocky priest hugged Fratelli then reached for his ring and kissed it.
“Rodrigo, how was your vacation?” Fratelli asked.
“Nice, nice, just wonderful!”
They ate a quick diner while listening as Rodrigo told of his adventures in Sicily to the south. He recounted meeting with his family, brothers and sisters. As Fratelli sat silently and sipped wine, pleasant thoughts occurred that some families did get along well. Arnold soon granted farewell and prepared to leave. Fratelli would honestly miss him. Together with Rodrigo, he watched him go then felt a nudge.
“Was he kind, hardworking and good to you?” the priest asked.
“Yes, of course,” Fratelli said.
More Family Matters.
Birds chirped lightly, tree limbs rustled, casting shimmering shadows through the stained-glass window. Past the warming light, Fratelli strolled, his red cassock whispering behind each step. A glass vase holding roses was in his hand. He approached the high-altar, set the vase down, bowed in reverence then turned around seeking a convenient place to pray. He chose that space beneath the window, soaked with morning light and knelt down, producing a glittering rosary from his pocket.
Glancing up towards the illuminated, colorful glass, he spoke, “Merciful God, you are beauty and you are grace. Bring me your peace. In this season of repentance, I have confessed my sins before your holy priest…as humiliating as that is for me…and now I kneel here asking for your tranquil light to pierce though all my troubles…and you know, O God that I have so many.”
He bowed his head and said some other, inaudible words then after a while, stood. Bowing towards the altar again, he smiled and began walking away.
Ernesto suddenly appeared.
“Your Eminence,” he said, “Rodrigo said I would find you here. I hope I am not disturbing you… just wanted to thank you for buying the kitten. Michele thought it was the perfect gift…”
Fratelli raised his assuring hand and replied, “I am not disturbed at all… and I’m glad you came. Actually, I desire to speak with you.”
“Yes,” Fratelli laughed.
Ernesto rested beside him in a pew and eventually the cardinal sat down also. He asked, “How is Michele?”
“She is very well, Your Eminence.”
“Do you fancy her?”
“Do you fancy her?”
“Um…Your Eminence, I do fancy her. Should you be asking me something like this?”
“Or course!” Fratelli answered, “She is an old friend of mine who I care for very much. Did you know I grew up in the house next to hers? Where did you grow up?”
Ernesto glanced downward for a moment then hesitantly spoke, “Your Eminence, I was adopted. My parents were unwed. I hope this doesn’t ruin your impression of me…”
Fratelli pondered. Should his pondering be perceived wrongly, he quickly answered, “No, you seem to be a very virtuous man Ernesto. The saints of God did not always hail from high places… Do you know your parents’ names?”
“Yes I do. My birth-mother’s name was Maria and my father’s was Francesco.”
The cardinal arched his eyebrows. He felt his heart pounding but calmly replied, “My parents have the same names…”
He recalled when he first met Ernesto and how the first noticeable thing was how much the constable looked like him. Michele once remarked about it too. Before he came to hasty conclusions, he asked:
“Ernesto, did you grow up here in Lucca?”
“Yes I did. Outside the city.”
“I know this may be a painful question, but why did your parents give you away?”
Ernesto said, “They did this to avoid shame... They intended to take me back into their home once they were wed and produced another son- but the family who’d adopted me was so nice, they couldn’t bear separating me from them and causing more hurt.”
“I think it might be possible,” Fratelli began, his voice trembling with astonishment, “That I am your brother.”
~ ~ ~
The next morning, Fratelli anxiously rose. He felt tired and his eyes drooped sleepily after having conversed with Ernesto long hours into the night. In the parlor, he sipped tea, hoping to wake up more. What he learned last night was exciting but made him worried. Should he tell someone? Of course! But when?
Throughout morning prayers and breakfast, he kept unusually silent. Arriving for afternoon Mass, he found the duke’s son at the cathedral and heard his confession. They talked for some time and Fratelli agreed to lift the excommunication. His heart felt so gladdened by this movement to repentance that he almost forgot he had an estranged brother…almost.
Returning indoors from a stroll in the garden, Fratelli summoned Father Rodrigo and told him, “I would like Francine to come here.”
The priest darted off to fetch his aunt. After their fight, he dreaded confronting her but needed to tell her about his parents having a son before him. He didn’t know how she would react and sat nervously the rest of the afternoon.
Suddenly the sound of Francine’s footsteps jolted him, coming through the door, walking across the tile floor. She huffed quietly and sat down. Her green eyes conveyed an irritation hidden by politeness. She waited for him to speak.
“Francine, I have some news that may surprise you- as it very much surprised me...”
The cardinal hesitated, unsure of how to exactly form his words when Francine begged, “What is it?”
“The man who is courting Michele, Ernesto, he told me about his childhood yesterday, some things that I found rather startling. His parents gave him away for adoption- and they have the same name as my own parents… My mother and father had another son before me, before they married. Did you know this?”
“Angelo…Your Eminence- you can’t be serious…is this some revenge-plot of yours because of our fight? If so I don’t like it.”
“No, Francine, I have been forgiven,” Fratelli said, though his next words came difficultly, “and I forgive you and ask your forgiveness. I am surely being serious.”
Francine seemed startled but regained composure and said, “I don’t believe my sister-in-law could hide something like that from me. Francesco, my brother- yes but Maria- never! If Francesco were here right now I’d…”
His red-haired aunt looked straight at him. She expressed concern and profound surprise yet she blinked lightly as if disregarding these feelings.
“Well, I don’t know what to say,” she replied, “May I go speak with Ernesto?”
“I think that would be immanent.”
She stood about to leave then turned back.
“Why don’t you come with me?”
The cardinal crossed his arms and replied softly, “Go, have a private conversation. I’m sure there will be things said that I don’t wish to hear…”