A tall, rather handsome man trekked through tall grass and entered into his cottage. His muscular shoulders set down a bag of grain. Approaching, a woman with black curls tied back her white skirt and smiled, brown eyes shining in noonday sun.
“Thank you, Ernesto dear,” she said sitting at their polished, wooden table.
Ernesto came near, took her hand and kissed it. He walked towards the kitchen, pondered a moment then turned asking, “Michele, did you plant those tomatoes?”
She replied tiredly, “If you went into the backyard, you would see them.”
Michele shook her head at his obliviousness.
They readied and prepared lunch. It was a simple meal: rolls, roasted tomatoes and cold pasta. Autumn sun streaked through the windows, few birds chirped and Michele could hear a rabbit scurrying outside. After eating, they drank sweet wine. Ernesto got up and wiped the table clean until its wooden surface shined while Michele put dishes away in a basin.
Things were quiet; neither had much to say but simply went through their household duties. Sudden tension began rising from this silence. At once, a sound came at the door. Ernesto answered and found of all people, Cardinal Fratelli standing there. Behind him, an elaborate carriage circled and parked on the grass yard.
“Your Eminence, it’s unusual for you to be here. Is everything alright?”
Fratelli grinned and said, “Everything is fine. I couldn’t wait for you to visit me this weekend so decided I’d come myself. There is something I wish to share with you.”
The cardinal awkwardly clutched a box under his arm and Ernesto took it from him. He carried it into the front-room. The object didn’t feel too heavy but he wondered what it contained.
“It’s nice to see you,” Ernesto then admitted, removing Fratelli’s flowing, scarlet cloak and hanging this by the door.
His visitor looked about the small house, small but open. A wicker basket, given as a wedding gift, hung on the nearest wall. Pine sap’s sweet scent wafted and smells of fresh bread and boiled stew came out of the kitchen. This was a lived-in house, a family house.
Hearing their voices, Michele entered and exclaimed, “Angelo, you’re here!”
Cardinal Fratelli made himself comfortable in a wide chair then gestured for the box which Ernesto set on his lap.
“Can’t I open it?” Ernesto asked.
“No, I will, there is something here I must show you.”
“Angelo, would you like something to drink?” Michele chimed.
Though his face expressed slight frustration at being addressed so informally, Fratelli gently spoke, “No I am fine.”
Carefully, Fratelli removed his pristine, white gloves, siting them on the table beside him and pried open the box. Under layers of thin, gauzy paper were revealed two, tiny statuettes: One of Saint Joseph in brown garments, glaze brightening his tan skin, a tiny wooden staff in his hand and the other, a ceramic lamb.
“They are so beautiful!” Michele cried.
Delicately, she took the lamb into her hands examining closer. Fratelli handed Ernesto the Joseph figurine.
“There is a tradition in the Fratelli family,” he began, “Every year, when we meet to celebrate the Feast of the Nativity, each of us brings part of the family crèche and we put it together and display it in the house where we are feasting.”
Michele gasped, delighted.
“Our own family is just beginning and how thoughtful of you to give us a new tradition like this!” she stammered.
Ernesto smiled but said nothing. He didn’t want to break the light mood which settled over them. His wife spoke truly, their new family had just begun and he anticipated this first year together. The cardinal’s voice broke his musing:
“For years, it was my duty to place these two figures- along with the baby Christ, which I now keep. However, you two are now part of the family and so shall have a part in this…”
“Thank you, Your Eminence, I am proud to be in this family,” Ernesto responded.
The cardinal laughed, “Well, you always were actually. Thanks be to God for the wonderful fortune of discovering you are my brother.”
Ernesto glanced down, overcome with humble joy. Sudden emotion swept over Michele and rather than betray her feelings, she unseated and darted into the kitchen pretending to fetch wine. So many thoughts flowed through her mind, thoughts of the recent wedding, her happiness, joy and worry. Looking out a small window, she noticed storm clouds gathering. Distant, city towers grew dark.
Walking back into the living room, she placed an open bottle of wine between them and three glasses. She poured and they sipped listening to faint thunder. As Fratelli stuffed tissue paper back into his box, a little bell rang and he looked at his feet to find Michele’s Siamese kitten pawing and tearing one sheet.
“Bella, no!” Michele cried snatching the paper away.
Fratelli calmly grabbed the kitten and placed her on the chair next to him. Seeing her playful, pale-blue eyes sparkle, he lifted one end of his silk belt, dangling its tassels above the kitten who swatted at them. He laughed in amusement. A rumble sounded outside, growing louder.
“Perhaps I should be on my way?” Fratelli then suggested.
“Yes rain is coming and it sounds fierce,” Ernesto said.
Soon as he spoke, loud thunder clapped and clouds above released a torrent of rain. Through the dripping windows, they watched driver outside quickly move beneath a tree.
“That poor man…” Michele sighed.
Fratelli nodded in agreement, betraying silent remorse and went to the door retrieving his draping, red cloak. Wrapping the fine fabric around him, the cardinal granted farewell then moved to open the door. He froze, peering outside with apprehension.
“You won’t get too wet,” Ernesto remarked, “I’ve been working on the roof, fixing the gutters.”
He smiled proudly and that pride assured Fratelli who opened the door, stepping out. Soon as he fastidiously straightened the red cap on his head, a rush of water trickled upon him. He shrieked, dancing away from the leaky roof as Ernesto hid his face in embarrassment. Apparently, he’d forgotten to fix one spot. Garb dampened and dripping, Fratelli sulked towards the carriage then removed his shoes and wrung them before stepping inside.
“Lord, is this because I coveted the garden?” he dismally asked aloud, “Yes, I have learned my lesson. I see now that it is your creation, which I have only tended- please forgive me and shelter me from more rain!”
The Cardinal’s Bible
When Cardinal Fratelli returned home, he removed his cold, wet garments, took a hot bath and went downstairs to eat diner. He felt warm and comfortable in a dry cassock and his dull red house-slippers, almost sleepy, but knew there was some work he had to do yet before resting. After finishing his plate of chicken and roasted potatoes, Fratelli went into his office to read over several documents that arrived that afternoon.
One of these documents a theological treatise, something he had to examine and approve. If the book taught in accordance with church teachings and correct Christian doctrine, it would be granted an “imprimatur”, official approval from the Church. Fratelli sat down reading the book for a few hours then grew tired of it. So he set this down and worked on something else. After a while, he stood up, paced for a bit then considered going into the other room and fetching his Bible. Certainly, reading Scripture would inspire him…
Going into his rather small library, Fratelli carefully took from the nearby shelf an old, tattered, leather-bound bible. He handled the tearing book delicately and brought it back to his office where he rested in a chair and slowly opened it. The weathered, ancient pages slipped through the torn binding, began falling out, and cascaded onto the floor.
“Oh no!” Fratelli cried, trying to catch them.
Hearing his lament, Father Rodrigo entered. Seeing the floor littered with old, yellow pages, he explained, “Your Eminence, perhaps it is time you bought a new bible?”
“But,” the cardinal stammered, “I’ve had this one since seminary. It is so dear to me. I will just pick these up and put them in order so they can be rebound.”
“Your Eminence, that will take days…just get a new one.”
Fratelli furled his brows, pondering and laid one exasperated arm on the desk. Rodrigo bent over scooping up the fragile pages gathering them into a sloppy pile. He said, “I’ll go to the printer tomorrow afternoon…would you like the new bible bound in red leather?
“No, I do not like red.”
“No, it is my least favorite color, you know that.”
Observing the frustrated cardinal, leaning in his chair, bright scarlet robes draping, Rodrigo didn’t mention it. He left as Fratelli sighed and hesitantly continued working. Some days were just difficult…
~ ~ ~
Thin sunlight streamed through windows, delicately brushing Fratelli’s face as he lay sleeping in bed. He lifted the covers over his eyes and groaned.
Fratelli ignored the voice, wanting badly to go back asleep. Father Rodrigo stood by his bedside. At once, he tiptoed closer then shouted:
Crying out, startled, Fratelli jumped throwing the covers off himself and stared back irately.
Ignoring the anger, Rodrigo calmly said, “We are late for morning prayer...”
The cardinal forgot his crankiness knowing that God demanded his utmost attention and efforts. He dressed and rushed downstairs into the chapel, kneeling for prayer, sleepily uttering:
“Lord open my lips…and my mouth shall declare your praise.”
There were not truer words for this moment.
During a light breakfast, Fratelli rested, glancing out the window. Trees faded as the wintry side of autumn finally showed its chill face. Wind howled against the window’s pane blowing a few leaves around. He sipped his steaming tea, glad to be inside. Thoughts of upcoming Christmas swirled in his mind, collecting and settling. This year, he wished to do something gracious for his family and friends- something they would remember.
Immediately, he straightened, drawing Rodrigo’s attention. The priest asked right away:
“What, is the tea too hot?”
“No Father, I just had the most-wonderful idea.”
Placing his teacup down, Rodrigo asked,
Fratelli smiled and replied:
“A great celebration for Christmas. I shall invite all my friends and family and we will feast and sing… I want to host a party they will always remember- with savory food, flower bouquets everywhere and music- oh, a string quartet! It will be splendid!”
“That does sound nice…”
“That’s because it will be!”
Fratelli unseated and walked into another room. He held paper in his hand, setting it on the table and began jotting things down. He smiled, writing more then laughed. Rodrigo felt anxious to see what was written but waited patiently. Finally, Fratelli gave the paper to him and as he read, the cardinal rushed out, his feet scampering boyishly, excitedly shouting something unintelligible.
Later, Rodrigo went out, strolling one mile through the city and visited a printer. He’d ordered the cardinal’s bible that morning and was told to come back for it. When he returned, clutching a shiny, black leather-bound book beneath his shoulder, he found Fratelli busily reading in the office. He looked up at Rodrigo’s footsteps.
“That bible is bigger than my old one,” he commented, all previous excitement gone from his voice.
“That is because I had a few pictures put in it.”
Fratelli took the bible, opened it, smelling fresh ink, and shuffled though. His face still frowned, a bit upset at having to replace his old bible. However, he glanced back and wryly grinned in appreciation. Sitting back down, Fratelli now examined the first chapter of the first book, Genesis. He seemed happier.
“Thank you Father,” he said without looking up.
“Of course, Your Eminence.”
He left the man alone, reading to himself.