Friday arrived soon. A balmy breeze tickled the air as Fratelli stepped outside, tilting his wide-brimmed, scarlet hat against the sun. Father Rodrigo followed plodding happily after him. Fragrance of faint flowers and fresh, tree-sap hung in the air. It was altogether, a fine spring day.
“The wind, it feels so wonderful on my face,” Fratelli said, stopping to close the garden door, “Why don’t we go pick out a fish for dinner?”
Rodrigo nodded but replied, “Won’t Dina get upset?”
“No, she will be delighted I think… She and you both know how fussy I am about my fish.”
The priest nodded again, taking in the fact, and silently walked behind as they crossed the street. Fratelli, as he had grown accustomed to do, protectively glanced back at Michele’s house. He said a silent prayer for her happiness.
Birds sang and flitted from tree to tree and between rooftops while they walked. Fratelli breathed in the warm, Mediterranean air appreciating this day’s beauty. Even when within an urban area, God’s creation never ceased surprising him with its colorfulness and candor. He thought of faraway meadows probably brimming with flowers.
The piazza teamed with people as they entered. Children laughed and ran through gates, several women chatted beneath awnings and men went about their daily work. The sound of nails being hammered rang out and the cries of many voices. Several carriages waited by the roadside as their drivers rested. Smells of bread cooling on window sills, soup stewing, and fresh fruit wafted everywhere. Only one scent went absent: that of cooking meat. A few people came forth, seeing Fratelli and Rodrigo, and heartily hailed.
From between the people, emerged one, small, old lady, her hair silver, her figure bent, who walked with a cane. She approached Cardinal Fratelli and said in hoarse voice, “Your Eminence, pray your blessing.”
Then she bowed slightly, took his hand and kissed his ring. Fratelli smiled widely at her. He granted her request, waving his hand in benediction. The old lady’s lips curled in a kindly smile as she shuffled away.
Reaching Luigi’s shop, they smelled the salty fragrance of fresh fish. Seeing them, Luigi ran out and gave a greeting. He thankfully didn’t comment about his botched outing with Michele earlier that year and instead took Fratelli’s hand leading him inside. The cardinal frowned a little believing his hand would probably smell like fish the entire day.
“I have a finest selection of fish,” Luigi said, “But I picked one especially for you.”
They met Luigi at the back of his shop. He carried something large bundled in white paper. He un-wrapped the bundle and held up a freshly-caught fish. Its fins glittered in the warm sunlight dripping wet. Its pink mouth gaped open.
"This looks wonderful!" Fratelli said leaning close and examining the fish, "How did you get it?"
Luigi answered, "It is Friday…I knew you would be coming here so I got it especially for you."
"Oh, there's no need to give me special treatment," Fratelli replied.
Laughing a little, Luigi answered, "I won't. This is a very expensive fish and I'm charging you full price."
Fratelli wondered why he had been so outspoken. After the fish was weighed, they paid for it, said farewell and left. Rodrigo carried the wrapped bundle as they moved down the street. Fratelli kept looking over his shoulder making sure the priest was careful. Finally Rodrigo handed it to him. He pried the wrapping open somewhat, examined it once more then gave it back.
“The breeze is picking up and I’ve my hat to worry about,” Fratelli told him.
Reaching the villa, Fratelli stopped, touched his face pensively and said, “Perhaps we should invite Ernesto over for dinner tonight? I need to start treating him like a brother.”
“We’ll do whatever you want.” Rodrigo said.
Dina was piling olives in a glass bowl when Fratelli came into the kitchen and laid their fish down. Looking the fish over, she smiled.
“I am happy you found a suitable one…though I could have gotten it for you.”
“No,” Fratelli replied, “You do enough.”
He absentmindedly dipped his fingers in the olive-bowl taking several out and eating them.
“Go on, get out of here!” Dina scolded catching him.
Ernesto came to dinner. He gazed about sheepishly as it was his first time in the cardinal’s house. His eyes fell on two, nice paintings which bedecked the walls and clean floors. Fratelli found him wandering the hallway and welcomed him. Ernesto uneasily sat at the table across from Fratelli who smiled.
“We still have so much to talk about,” he said taking some olives and passing them.
Ernesto ate two then shoved the bowl back. He didn’t wish to ruin his appetite. Rodrigo sat beside Fratelli and after Dina set down the plate of cooked, spiced fish, she seated also. Seeing the bowl of olives had been moved, she gazed at Fratelli who admitted, “I apologize for not blessing the food first.”
He stood, extended his hands over the dining table and prayed a blessing upon the food. Then they ate rather quietly. There were many questions Fratelli wanted to ask but he decided on letting his newfound brother enjoy the meal in peace. He instead paid attention to the fish which tasted very good. After dinner, Rodrigo opened and poured red wine- but very little since it was the season of Lent.
When Rodrigo and Dina finished and left, Fratelli sipped his wine, stared at Ernesto then began, “I would like you to tell me more about your work. When did you become constable?”
“Five years ago. It is a good job for me. I was raised on a farm, given the fear of God and taught respect for the law.”
“Yes, the law flows from fear of God,” Fratelli interrupted then realized he had interrupted and said, “I apologize, do go on and tell me everything.”
“I worked for a long time in the neighboring city then decided to move back here and take the position of constable. Many people believed I would be the best man for it thus. I was elected easily.”
Fratelli waited for Ernesto to continue and seeing as he said no more, replied, “Isn’t it funny the positions we are elected to?”
“Yes it is I guess.”
They shared an uneasy laugh. Some tension settled between them, though they earnestly desired to know one another, it seemed they stayed strangers. Pausing, Ernesto looked aside out the window at darkening skies. Fratelli nervously began toying with his ring and he hid his hands beneath the table so no one noticed. If it took all his power and will- or even drove him mad, Fratelli determined he would break the tension between them.
So, he called Dina to bring back the wine and he poured them each a second glass. Politely, Ernesto accepted this and drank his wine. This time, it tasted sweeter and colder.
“What did you grow on your farm?”
“We raised sheep and some cattle. From a very young age, I learned to ride horses.”
“I had a lamb once,” Fratelli said attempting to relate, “When I was a young boy. I got tired of picking up after him and gave him away. But the lamb made a pleasant companion for some time.”
Ernesto laughed; a hearty, honest laugh. Feeling slightly awkward, Fratelli gulped down his wine careful not to spill any on his nice garb. Surprisingly, Ernesto smiled, finished his drink then continued,
“I always loved the countryside. Green grass, vineyards… even the daily chores seemed nice because after everything got finished, I went to the nearby pond to fish during afternoons. After fattening the calves, we sold all of them but two: One for Easter supper and the other for the Feast of the Nativity…”
“The Feast of Christ’s Nativity is my favorite feast of the entire year!” Fratelli responded.
“Mine too. My mother would make butter squash.”
Fratelli snickered and gestured gladly, ornately as if hearing the greatest news ever. He exclaimed:
“Butter squash is so delicious! See, we like the same foods… and this wine, isn’t it good?”
Agreeing, Ernesto took more olives and ate them. Fratelli grabbed the last two from the bowl before they would be eaten too. In turn, his brother laughed at him. Fratelli didn’t reply but grinned.
“Maybe I should go since dusk has arrived?” Ernesto finally asked.
Happily, Fratelli answered, “Yes, thank you very much for speaking with me. This has been so nice!”
“Yes it is nice.”
Escorting Ernesto to the door, Fratelli laid an arm around his shoulder and said, “Good night, my brother.”
Early in the morning, Cardinal Fratelli reached the piazza carrying a basket of fresh bread. He distributed it among poor people gathered there in ragged clothes. Taking donated clothes from Father Rodrigo, he gave these over also. Hands of all sizes took and handled the soft, colorful cloth, distributing among their families. Fratelli stayed a while and spoke with them, mentally remembering each person’s name for his private prayers. Before leaving, he promised to have Rodrigo return that evening with hot soup.
The weather was not cold thankfully; a cool but not cold breeze blew over them. Fratelli stopped mid-stride and asked, “Rodrigo, do you recall that old feather-blanket I have?”
“Nights can get cold until summertime so why don’t you also bring it back with you?”
The priest paused also, swished his foot in the dirt, pondering idly, then replied, “That is a good idea Your Eminence...”
Fratelli smiled and they continued walking. Apprehensively, as he always did this time of year, he wondered if there wasn’t something more he could give or sacrifice. Maybe he would look through his things, see what he could find?
Once at home and after eating a small breakfast, Fratelli discovered that same silver-handled mirror he had picked up before, on the day he argued against having his portrait. Yes, the ornate and shiny item held great value to him… but valuable things made better sacrifices than something one didn’t care for.
“…I will miss you,” Fratelli said quietly then tucked it away into the feather-blanket which lay in the hallway.
~ ~ ~
Outside the city, birdsong sweetly echoed in trees as Michele leaned against a fence watching two, deep-brown horses graze. She spun around as Ernesto approached. He lifted a clump of blue and white flowers in his hand.
Michele took them, sniffed their enchanting fragrance and sighed. Her smile granted silent thanksgiving.
“Would you like to take a ride?” Ernesto asked.
They saddled up the horses and rode them far down the road. Looking back over her shoulder, Michele took in the beauty of Ernesto’s house sitting on a green square of land, surrounded by dusty hills. Sun shone brightly overhead as Ernesto led carefully beyond a bend. Trees provided ample shade at the thin creek where they stopped.
Ernesto helped Michele down from her mount, spread a blanket on the ground, sat and beckoned her. Surprised and smiling, she sat beside him, close- but not too close. From his black trousers, he pulled a small jar of sun-dried tomatoes offering them. Laughing Michele took a few and ate.
“You always have something planned don’t you?”
When a gust of wind blew Michele’s black curls into her face, Ernesto moved the hair back with his hand, smiling mischievously. She batted his hand away but he then grabbed her hand and kissed it.
“You are something that is for sure,” she giggled.
“Michele, dear, why don’t we ride by the cathedral? Then I can take you home?”
She nodded vigorously and like a child, stood and skipped to the creek. She bent, her hands searching for a small stone and finding one, threw it into the water. Then she turned back ready to depart. Absorbing more of the day’s beauty, breathing in fresh air, Michele rode behind Ernesto. She thought many thoughts and closed eyes savoring the moment.
~ ~ ~
Glancing out a tall window, seeing two horses emerge onto the street, Cardinal Fratelli jumped from his chair. They were Michele and Ernesto, he knew it. Wanting to watch them interact, he scooted his chair beside the window, stood on it and looked closer. Though unable to read their speech, he perceived happiness from their lively gestures.
“Your Eminence!” a voice called out startling him so badly, he almost lost balance and fell, “Get down from there!”
Dina stood there, hands on her hips, as Fratelli climbed down. She watched him dash from the room and downstairs.
Running, panting from exertion, he met Michele in the yard while Ernesto was tying their horses to a tree. He came forth first and greeted Fratelli.
“Hello Ernesto, my brother.”
Michele watched as the men exchange a few pithy words. Then Ernesto spoke more formally, “As you know, Your Eminence, I have taken quite a liking to Michele and she to me.”
“Seeing as her father is not here, I would like to ask your blessing that I may take her hand in marriage.”
“Ernesto!” Michele cried with delight.
Fratelli, feeling weak with excitement, sat down. All of his hard work and prayer had amounted to something wonderful!
“Yes,” he said dizzily, “You have my blessing.”
He watched Michele jump into Ernesto’s arms and embrace him. Seeing their smiles and utmost cheer, the cardinal glanced away, suppressing tears of joy. After all, it wouldn’t be dignified for him to cry…
An Unlikely Occurrence.
Fratelli woke early. Excitedly, he dressed, celebrated Mass, said morning- prayer and ate breakfast. The day seemed to blur by as he sprinted into his office, happily sitting and wrote a letter to Michele’s father and mother about her upcoming wedding. He felt so excited; his hands almost trembled as he penned the wonderful news. Michele was going to be married!! Looking up from his desk, he saw birds outside, one, gray dove bathing in the garden’s fountain. Surely, the Lord rejoiced too!
Walking through the hallway, Fratelli quickly glanced around making sure no one was there and then gleefully spun and leapt into the air. At once, he regained composure, went into the parlor and gently rested. He felt additional excitement for on this day; Monsignor Barolo would visit and have lunch with him. Since Barolo recovered from sickness, the two hadn’t seen eachother. Soon, he found himself unable to rest any longer and went outside. Strolling, pacing back and forth, he saw that Monsignor’s carriage arrived and greeted the older priest just as he stepped out.
“My, you are looking well!” the cardinal exclaimed.
“Yes, the physician said I am completely better.”
Fratelli clapped joyfully then collected himself, silently apologizing with an awkward stare. Barolo didn’t seem to mind but Fratelli automatically resumed dignified stance and silently scolded his own childishness while escorting him inside.
However, as the afternoon grew unusually hot and sunny they moved out onto the veranda. Dina brought flat bread-sticks, a bowl of greens and of course, tea. Tying back her hair against the light breeze, she sat nearby listening as Barolo began:
“I have been invited to this most-splendid party by a friend of the duke’s son, would you like to come with me?”
Fratelli warily scratched his face answering, “A party…during Lent?”
“It’s something small,” Barolo replied.
“But I believe the word you just used was “splendid”…”most splendid” in fact…”
“Oh, Your Eminence! Have some fun. You deserve it after all.”
“I thought you had given up these parties?”
Barolo answered, “That was before I realized how many opportunities and privileges one in my position truly has…and you too. We both deserve better than to sit around here and eat- greens?”
He distastefully picked one leaf from the bowl and his heavy jaws chewed it. Fratelli sighed. He supposed some people never truly changed.
While Dina went back inside, Barolo hesitantly finished his lunch, moving the greens to his plate’s side. Then, he rested pouring another cup of tea, talked with Fratelli for some more time then rose to leave. Watching him go, the cardinal whispered a silent prayer for his safety.
Glad to be left alone, Fratelli turned but he heard another sound at the door. He answered seeing Francine standing with a basket of white paper under her arm. She bustled forth saying, “I wanted you to look over these wedding invitations”
Sitting down across from her, Fratelli took one paper in his hand, examining fine writing and breathing the scent of vanilla which wafted from it. His expression pretended to be knowledgeable, looking for exactly what he should, even though he didn’t altogether know what that was. Finally, he placed it on the armrest of his chair and asked,
“Francine, I know nothing about wedding invitations… why did you really come here?”
The woman glanced aside. Bright sun made her hair vivid-red. It made Fratelli’s red robes more obnoxiously brilliant. Bringing her green eyes to his darker gaze, she replied, “Well, I suppose there is something else…”
Silence ensued. The cardinal waited. His hands instinctively folded lest he begin fidgeting with his ring, which also shined sharply in the sunlight. Francine sat back in her chair sighing then she said:
“The news that Ernesto was your brother, well, changed things for me. I realize now that I have perhaps treated you unfairly…”
Fratelli stopped his jaw from dropping placing a hand beneath his chin as if pensive.
“You must understand, I always wanted someone to carry on the family name…and I put too much the burden on you. Angelo, I really am- let me put it this way, proud of you actually.”
Eyes wide, Fratelli sat not knowing what to do. He felt frozen there even though warm sun blazed through the room. Wiping back a bead of sweat and removing his red cap, he murmured, “Francine…”
She suddenly stood but spoke tenderly, “Well, now that it’s out, I will go now.”
Her face blushed whether from the embarrassment of admitting her fault face-to- face with him or from pressing heat. She took Fratelli’s hand bending to kiss his ring then stopped and instead cupped it in her own. With that, Francine uttered a small farewell.
Fratelli remained seated, staring at her back as she departed. Though her apology had been unspoken, subtle, he knew it was the best coming from her. Even this small admission took a lot on her part. Pure amazement marred his face and finally, he shook flooding thoughts from his mind and stood.
“I really need a stroll now,” he muttered.
~ ~ ~
“Thine, O Lord, is magnificence, and power and glory and victory, and to thee is praise; for all that is in heaven and in earth is thine; thine is the kingdom, (1)”
Cardinal Fratelli spoke from his place upon the chair beside the altar and continued rather loudly:
“On our darkest of days as well as our brightest, this we should know. However much control we think ourselves to exert over our lives, however much we believe to think of what lies ahead, of our plans, He is the one truly sovereign.”
Seeing his still audience that filled up the church, some unable to find a place who rested upon the floor, Fratelli rose. It grew hard to contain his own excitement as he pointed towards one, anonymous person and asked, “Do you know what will happen tomorrow or how you will be provided for? I say do not worry about it! Remember, Lord Christ told us that no one can add a day to their life by worrying.
It should amaze us how, wise and foreseeing, the providence of God acts in our days. Sometimes, we are dread with anxiety, threatened by hardships, surmounted by loss yet we do not see the end which is cast for us. Thus, we must trust; trust and obey and be steadfast in faith. In Him, our joy and sorrow. In Him our past, present and future. While death and sorrow does visit, so do joy and life; the innocence of a newborn child, the adventures of youth, the kindly love between a lady and gentleman, family that extends beyond.
Do not be downcast nor shaken by worry. The lilies of the field and little birds are provided for…how much more shall the Lord care for you, his children?”
The truth of Fratelli’s message struck him as he seated taking a deep breath. It also struck those listening, ringing in their ears even after he stopped speaking. They were sweet words to announce; a profound and vocal thanksgiving offered for the good fortune, the health and happiness, the many blessings which at this time graced his life. He kept in mind the memories of that year and worried not about memories which were to come. Right now, everything was well. Good indeed! Then, he realized that while walking to his chair, the miter had fallen off his head.
~ The End.