More family comes in.
“O God, grant me a restful sleep, free from all evil, and grant me a peaceful death. Hold my family in the palm of your hand, those which are here, and shield them beneath your wings, them that are traveling. Lengthen my expectation of you this Advent… as I have been thinking a lot of myself lately… and I beg your forgiveness for this, and open my heart to receive you.”
Ruckus emerging from downstairs suddenly broke Fratelli’s prayer and slowly, cautiously, he descended to see what happened. Surely enough, Francine’s second eldest daughter, Francesca, stepped into the hallway surrounded by four children. Two older sons- aged 15 and 13, and two young daughters- 11 and 9. Her husband emerged shortly, stopping the youngest, little girl from running into Fratelli.
“Hello there Anna,” the cardinal said bending down to meet her curious, brown eyes that darted about in excitement.
Looking back towards him, she put her arms out and gave a hug. Fratelli hugged in return, smiling and laughed.
“How are you Francesca?” he asked, standing up.
The door swung open again as Francine walked through, saw her daughter and embraced her, kissing her cheeks.
“How I missed you, how I missed you!”
They all convened in the parlor, sipping small glasses of wine, eating roasted breadsticks. Gianni then scampered in, saw Francesca’s 13 year old son and asked to play with him. Fratelli approved and watched them dart off into the hallway. Hearing their loud shouts, he hoped nothing would get broken.
That night, Francesca and her husband would stay at Fratelli’s house, on the ground floor with Iona and hers, while the children roomed with Francine. They skipped off eager to accompany their grandmother, singing songs as the sun set behind hills and tall apartments. Afterward, Francesca and Iona sat speaking and drinking sherry in the parlor. Fratelli overheard giggling as he passed by then walked outside onto the veranda. Cold air brushed his face while he sat down beside the women’s husbands. Seeing one of the two pull a pipe from his pocket and light it against dark night, Fratelli cocked his head confused. He never remembered him smoking…
“Figaro, don’t smoke in front of the good cardinal!” the other blurted.
“I’m fine, leave me alone.”
Fratelli suddenly spoke, “I don’t mind the smoking... but please do not bicker.”
“Yes, Your Eminence,” they chanted simultaneously.
Saying nothing more, Fratelli shivered and retreated inside.
Bright and early, next morning Fratelli returned from morning-prayer and Mass at the cathedral to find Francesca and her sister nibbling on breakfast cakes. At once, he noticed beside the silver teapot, stood a grand, glass vase brimming full with white roses. The sheer number of them had been shoved together and bursted from the vase’s rim like a splatter of green and white. For a second, Fratelli froze then counted each rose: 32. The color suddenly drained from his face.
“My roses!” he cried in lament.
Gianni hid in the doorway but Fratelli sensed his presence standing there and turned around.
“You did this!” he shouted.
Francesca put a calming hand on Fratelli’s shoulder as Dina strode in and asked, “Your Eminence, what are you yelling about?”
“Look,” the cardinal said pointing to the vase, “That hooligan picked every last one of my roses.”
“It seems Gianni tried to do something nice for us,” Dina replied.
“I was,” the boy stuttered, actually intimidated by Fratelli’s angry display, “I thought…a lot of roses…would be nice…”
Fratelli clamped his jaws together. Though his hands trembled somewhat with fury, he folded them behind his back. He didn’t want to scold the boy. Wrath was sinful- it hurt others, he reminded himself… Gianni had attempted after all, to do something courteous and probably didn’t understand. He simply muttered to Dina, “You speak with him” and strolled vigorously away.
Paolo then came in from a side door and tipped his wide hat towards the women. He asked, “Did someone pick all the roses?”
~ ~ ~
While strolling through city streets, Fratelli idly tapped his walking-stick on the paved ground, his mind preoccupied, wandering other places. He decided he’d go visit the musicians he’d scheduled for his party. In fact, Francine scheduled them…yet he wished to meet with them. A block down from the central piazza loomed the tall, palatial opera house. As he entered through the huge, wooden doors, Fratelli’s ears were struck by sweet violin strains and a delicate soprano voice. Sneaking quietly, he moved towards the raised stage then sat until the performance ended. Though music was more Monsignor Barolo’s passion, Fratelli very much appreciated it and stood clapping. Immediately, the woman on stage saw him, blushed and scurried away. The violinist and conductor both turned around.
“Hail, Your Eminence!”
“Hello, God bless you this afternoon.”
Nearing, the violinist proudly exclaimed, “I am so honored to perform at your Christmas event.”
“Yes, and I assume you will bring the other three?”
Silence. Fratelli’s attempt at joking plummeted like a flat note. Realizing this, not wanting to leave the highly-ranked clergyman embarrassed, the violinist suddenly burst into fake laughter.
“You are so witty, Your Eminence,” he said.
Fratelli glared back, arching his dark eyebrows then gave a weak smile.
“Can I hear another song?” he asked hoping to break the awkward tension settling over them.
“Of course you can!” replied the violinist, “Anything in particular.”
“How about Bach’s “Ave Maria”?”
“Swell that is.”
Fratelli sat, leaning the walking stick against his leg, and listened. The tender music eased his tension and he forgot about the anxiety of planning the Christmas party and his squabbling family at home. Melody rose like fine, instrumental chant, arching to that beautiful high place and gently cascading, falling and fading.
“May I also hear “Veni Emmanuel”?” he asked once the sound stopped.
“Of course you can!”
Time passed and Fratelli almost forgot where he was. Late noon sunlight streaked through elegant, high windows and the distant clock-tower chimed. Hearing noise and turning to watch people mill inside, gesturing and chattering, he stood up, said farewell and snuck out a side door, quietly as he first came.
Passing sunlit curbs, carriages and crowds of people, Fratelli longed for the cool peace of his garden. Reaching home, he did not even stop inside for his saturno, a wide-brimmed hat perfect for strolling in the sun, but continued to meander outside. A small network of walking paths surrounded his villa, punctuating the grey city with clusters of greenery. There, he felt peace; him and God’s creation alone, absorbed in eachother, not a thing of the world to disturb them. Though leaves littered the ground, he lightly kicked these aside, more focused on evergreen hedges and shady tree-limbs, which bobbed above his head.
A balmy breeze stirred. Warm autumn daylight tricked down. Stepping into the sun, Fratelli paused and rested.
Suddenly, he sighted something in the bushes. His ears perceived a delicate squeaking sound. Leaning over on his walking-stick, he peered closer and wondered, what is that? He stayed there unmoving, somewhat afraid and worried that should he run, his shoes would get dirty.
Fratelli took a step back just as an ornate, white shape streaked from the bushes. It was an exotic cockatoo. Reaching a tree-branch some feet away, the bird alighted and preened its luxurious, snow-white feathers. Then, in a flash, it flew off.
“That’s odd,” Fratelli mumbled.
Carefully, he trekked back, looking once over his shoulder to be sure it hadn’t returned. Nothing else was there, just him and the silent garden.
Fratelli entered indoors to discover Dina and speaking with a man in the parlor. He was tall, black-mustached, elegantly dressed in khaki-colored, safari attire. Fratelli instantly assumed he was the exotic bird trainer Francine had spoken of before. Gesturing to the window, he told him, “I believe one of your birds may be in my garden…”
“Oh yes, Your good Eminence, I was showing them to your maid…Dina here and they flew out the window!! I don’t know what’s gotten into Fifi, my lead bird…he’s been having a mind of his own lately… He flew away from me and the rest followed!”
Dina added, “Your Eminence, we are so sorry. He said that bird was getting obstinate but I asked him to show me one trick. It’s my fault!”
“No it’s not,” Fratelli said gently.
“I asked too,” spoke Francine stepping from a corner, “I’d come to visit and saw the birds here, so beautiful, so elegant. I begged to see them fly.”
Fratelli said nothing but just stared at his aunt who wore a fine, lace dress and stood there cooling herself with an oriental fan. She appeared rather elegant, as if trying to impress someone. The bird-trainer walked to the window, cupped his hands around his mouth and cawed. No sound came back.
“They aren’t even listening to me…” he muttered then shouted pointing out, “Look! I see Fifi and Prince in that tree…do you have a net or something?”
Drawing close, seeing a splash of color, a snowy cockatoo beside a regal, blue macaw, on a low branch, he answered, “I have a couple butterfly nets…”
He asked Dina to retrieve the nets. She came back with them beneath her arms handing one to Fratelli and another to the bird-trainer. They stepped outside gingerly, quietly, a bright, red-robed cardinal besides this drably dressed man who nearly blended into the greenery.
Fratelli stared at his net, he didn’t know what to do and when asked to stand at the tree’s other side, he did so hesitantly. Finally, he sputtered, “I don’t think I can really help you, I’m no bird-catcher, I’m a clergyman!”
Francine remarked sarcastically, “Yes, why don’t you begin preaching and maybe they’ll come down and perch on your arm?”
“Just stand there and be ready,” the bird-trainer called.
The trainer began scaling the tree, climbing ever so quietly, eyed the cockatoo then lifted his net over its head.
“Fifi!” he chimed softly.
With immense speed, the bird instantly leapt up and flew downwards strait towards Fratelli’s head. He cringed, closed his eyes and swung the net. Opening his eyes, he found nothing in it, turned around and spotted the large cockatoo flying off with a round, red cap in its talons.
“On no!” Fratelli shouted running after, “My zucchetto!”
Francine snickered as the bird-trainer glumly shrugged.
“He’s doing the “hat-steal” trick…however, I doubt he will give the hat back this time…”
Fratelli groaned and stomped inside. The bird-trainer followed him wearily as Dina gave them each a cold glass of water. Sitting in his wide chair, the cardinal watched a blur of white streak past the window, still clutching a red dot, and sighed. Both men drank while staring at eachother for several minutes, the bird-trainer’s face embarrassed and shocked.
“I deeply apologize for this, Your Eminence,” he said, “I will buy you a new zucchetto for your troubles.”
Dina interrupted, smiling pleasantly, “That is okay, he has several more and they all look exactly the same.”
The bird-trainer said farewell, bowing to Fratelli and left hastily trying to keep a dignified look on his face. Gianni, of course, was very amused at hearing exotic birds escaped into the cardinal’s garden. He spent all evening searching for them and came into the dining room while they were eating supper and exclaimed, “I saw a green one!!”
“No,” Fratelli said, “he is blue”
“No, green with a red head.”
How many birds were there?
After dinner, Fratelli rested drinking an extra cup of tea. He listened as Francine and her daughters chatted. Their husbands had gone off to bed. Early in the morning, they were going to help decorate the cathedral for Christmas Eve Mass. All grew very quiet, then Francine jumped up at the sound of horse hooves outside.
“You hear that?” she said, “My father is here!”
Dina sleepily opened the door. In rushed Francine’s third and youngest daughter, Philomena. Her flawless face and silken black hair shimmered in lamplight and her hand led a grey-haired, old man. The man carried a sturdy, brass cane which he held down in front him, and though his eyes saw nothing, he lifted his gaze and smelled the warm air.
“Hello Burt,” Fratelli said.
Burt looked towards Francine and replied, “Hello Angelo!”
The cardinal took his hand and guided him into the parlor, helping him sit. Francine happily sat next to him.
“Papa,” she said, “I am so glad you could make it…”