Nearing the weekend, the weather grew colder. Autumn swept over Lucca in one, great burst. Leaves danced in wind as farmers harvested crops and vintners pressed their wine. The whole city broke from summer’s laziness. Men and women crowded the streets going about daily work, sounds and smells cluttered the air.
On Saturday, after evening prayer, as he did during winter’s approach, Cardinal Fratelli left the cathedral open for any homeless people wishing to escape the cold. Clutching his red cape to his chest, he braved the coming winds and walked to the cathedral, carrying bread and butter. Father Rodrigo ambled behind with fruit and hot tea. The cathedral’s warm, candle-lit glow greeted them. A statue of Mother Mary held out her benevolent hands in prayer. There, they set out a clandestine dinner for their less fortunate guests, allowing them to eat in the church aisle or on makeshift tables.
While they dined, Fratelli blessed them saying, “And you shall eat there in the sight of the Lord your God: and you shall rejoice in all things, whereunto you shall put your hand, you and your houses wherein the Lord your God hath blessed you. (1)”
One of the old women beseeched Fratelli and he stooped, conversing with her as they ate. Suddenly standing up, he caught a boy’s dark eyes leering at him. Sitting under a graceful, stone arch, the boy had light, golden-brown hair that fell in a mess and ragged, grey clothes. His eyes stayed steadily upon the cardinal who neared.
“Did you eat?” Fratelli asked.
Strait-faced, the boy replied, “Go away.”
Fratelli blushed; his lips stumbled for a response. Instead, he just whispered a blessing and left. Halfway down the aisle, he looked back and saw the boy still staring at him. Maybe, he will be glad if I give him some clean clothes? Fratelli thought. He went into his house and searched though some items which were donated to the church. Grabbing a nicely folded shirt, some pantaloons and a cloth bag, he walked back.
Given these items, the boy expressed slight gratitude then paced towards the marble altar. Fratelli was moved by this seeming piety. All of sudden, the boy scrambled up the sanctuary steps, snatched a golden candlestick, hid it in the bag he was just given and darted out a side-door. Fratelli cried out, instantly pursuing after. He ran out the door, jumped down the steps and chased the thief’s departing shadow through the courtyard. However, stopping at the iron fence, heaving and leaning on the grate, he didn’t see anyone anymore.
Rodrigo came forth.
“Your Eminence, why are you like that? All out of breath?”
“You didn’t see him…” Fratelli panted, “That little hooligan stole a candlestick….right from the altar!”
Helping Fratelli stand and walk over the grass, Rodrigo pointed east then asked, “He went that way?”
“Well perhaps you can describe him to Ernesto, your brother?”
Fratelli waved his hand vainly.
“Never mind… He’s just a child- and anyone who steals something that intently, must have need of it.”
Once inside, the cardinal excused himself and rested in the parlor. Rodrigo followed discovering him sitting in his favorite chair, thinking, periodically scribbling something on a piece of paper. His plans for Christmas- no doubt. Knowing he was being watched, Fratelli gazed up and beckoned.
“Do you think we should have a baker to make fine cakes?”
“You don’t seem interested Rodrigo.”
“No I am,” the priest said sitting in the chair across him, “I am just tired.”
“I see. Advent can be a time of busy preparation… preparing for the Lord. We are all so excited and expectant…and yes, busy.”
He paused, glancing out the window at dark trees pierced by dingy street-lamps. Cold settled over the sky, whistling on wind.
“Did you bring blankets to the cathedral?”
Rodrigo froze, color draining from his face.
“Oh yes, I must do that!” he gasped, “Please forgive my absentmindedness.”
“Well, we may have to ask their forgiveness,” Fratelli said standing holding out one hand to stop Rodrigo from leaving; “I will go. Maybe that boy will have returned there.”
With blankets bundled over his arms, Fratelli strolled to the cathedral. Many people were glad to see him and gave fond greetings. He distributed the blankets and remained for some time talking with those gathered. One of them, an old woman, sat in a pew and reminisced about bygone years when her family was more fortunate. Fratelli stayed, listening, feeling that the world could sometimes be very unfair. He consoled the women and told her she was always welcome to the church. Then, he thought to ask:
“Do any of you know a boy, about 13 years old, with blondish hair? He had been here earlier…maybe some of you even saw him run out of the church?”
“Oh yes,” the old woman replied, “That’s Gianni. He’s a no-good street-urchin!”
“Oh,” Fratelli muttered.
He had a feeling this wasn’t the last he’d hear of Gianni. In fact, his heart stirred with pity. Surely, the boy behaved badly for a reason? Maybe had no parents? He tried not to worry himself too much about it and said farewell. Rushing home through the cold courtyard, he once again hugged his cloak tightly.
Autumn harvest-season meant one main thing to Fratelli- olives and new wine. He was anxious to have both in the household, a perfect condiment for himself and for guests. Monday came slowly but at dawn, Fratelli eagerly rose, dressed and said morning-prayer. He hurriedly went to the cathedral and celebrated Mass. Much of his audience consisted of the poor and homeless people from last night. Wearing a tall, plain, white miter and violet vestments, Fratelli kindly spoke:
“Blessed are you who suffer in this life, for in your pain and trial, you are united to Christ. Your cries will be heard, gentle children. Jesus Christ came on earth in the vesture of one poor and lowly, who being in very nature, God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. (1). The King of kings was once poor and lonely just like you... most blessed children.
Let me admit, that you should not be pitied, for the likes of you shall judge princes and kings! I could only aspire for the holiness, which you possess simply in your daily lives… You are more akin to Christ than me... O blessed ones!”
After Mass, he met Dina in the kitchen to go over what they needed from the market.
“Would you like me to come with you?” Fratelli offered once she had drawn up a list.
“No, I don’t need help,” she replied.
Fratelli didn’t object as she strolled out, carrying a handbag over her shoulder and a large basket. He knew that theological document still sat on his desk, still beckoned his attention. Entering the office, he grabbed the book, sat and read where he’d left off. Halfway through…
~ ~ ~
Bright sun beamed down on Dina’s brown curls as she walked city streets, coming to the piazza which sprawled with people tending various wares. The food market also stood there. Fresh smells hit her nose and she breathed deeply with delight. Amidst the crowds and clamor, she felt at peace by simply doing her work.
After buying a large bag of olives, some oil and flour, Dina found Luigi and picked out a nice cut of meat for dinner. The thick-shouldered, black-haired man smiled as he handed her two pork-chops and a roll of cured prosciutto over the counter. Leaving Luigi’s shop, Dina almost bumped into Francine’s oncoming figure.
“Oh, hello Dina!” the woman said, her auburn tinted hair glimmering in sunlight, “Why isn’t my nephew, the cardinal, here helping you?”
Dina shifted the items in her arms and responded, “I told him to stay home.”
“Well, let me help you,” Francine offered, “I’m going that way.”
Before Dina could answer, Francine already took several things from her then began walking. Sighing, Dina followed. They came to the villa, entering through a side door and Francine helped Dina put her newly-purchased items on the kitchen counter.
“Oh, while I am here,” Francine began, “I will visit my nephew. Where is he?”
“Probably in his office.”
“Thank you dear!” Francine said and rushed out.
Indeed, Cardinal Fratelli sat in his office, back turned to the sunny window, reading the theological book. Francine knocked on the wall startling him.
“Oh, it’s you…hello,” Fratelli said.
“What have you there?”
Fratelli’s brows arched somewhat surprised Francine would take any interest in what he worked on. For the longest time, the two of them fought and now, she made earnest efforts to behave friendly.
“It is a theological treatise, submitted this month for an imprimatur,” Fratelli explained, “Though there seems to be nothing doctrinally incorrect, it is very boring!”
He tossed the book onto his desk letting it land with a heavy thud. Francine snickered then covered her mouth.
“Actually Francine, I did wish to speak with you…” Fratelli then said.
The cardinal stood, removing his red cap, placing it atop the desk and gestured for her to follow as he moved into the hallway.
“I want to host a very nice party for the Feast of the Nativity,” he started, “…however, I know next to nothing about planning good events, but you do.”
Francine clasped a hand to her chest and spoke joyfully, “Oh, you thought of me! Come, come into the parlor and we’ll discuss it. I have so many great ideas!”
They sat conversing as Francine took Fratelli’s notes, crossed them out and started penning her own ideas on a separate paper. While Fratelli conceived of a splendid party, Francine thought it should be spectacularly splendid.
“Here is what you’ll do: Hire pastry chefs and cooks, have them make all the food. I know someone I can talk with on this matter,” Francine rambled as Fratelli’s mind swirled trying to collect it all, “You want three violinists and one cellist for music, that way the sound will be rich and deep. Oh, and for flowers you don’t want daisies, why did you write down daisies? No, we want poinsettias, brilliant and red!”
But I don’t like…” he began only to get interrupted.
“Oh and we need an entertainer- maybe a magician…”
“No magicians, they are irreligious!” Fratelli finally shouted.
“How about some exotic birds, they’re God’s creatures…”
He crossed his arms, quietly huffing. Thinking a moment, he then spoke, “Also I want to have brightly wrapped presents for the poor children.”
“They deserve gifts too Francine…”
“Oh, you are so silly Angelo!”
He cringed, hearing his name. Francine ignored his displeasure and continued her boisterous speech. This was going to be harder than he imagined.
After Francine left, handing Fratelli quite a stack of notes, he exhaled deeply and closed the door. Everything fell silent. He set the notes down on his desk, listened to a bird distantly singing and delicately crossed himself.
“Lord, help me,” he said.
Suddenly, Dina stepped into the hallway, her face glad but now frowning as she looked upon the tired cardinal. She hesitated then announced, “The new wine is here.”
Fratelli walked to the side door and went outside. There a tall, muscular man unloaded barrels from a cart. Carmel-colored hides glistening in sunset, four draft-horses cranked their necks at Fratelli’s approach and snorted.
“Thank you so much Carlo,” he said to the man who set one barrel by the door and looked up, dark eyes shining with vigor.
Carlo bowed in greeting, kissed the cardinal’s ring then turned back to his work. Fratelli smelled fragrant, old wood as another barrel was placed down. He curiously moved closer. When Carlo unloaded the third barrel, Fratelli swerved aside, believing he’d moved out of the way, but felt a horrible pain as it was shoved right onto his toe. He hollered loudly, startling Carlo who gaped and swiftly rolled the barrel aside.
Fratelli hopped, grabbing his hurt foot while Dina helped him stand and scolded him for getting in the way. Carlo profusely apologized, “I am so, so sorry Your Eminence! Please forgive me!”
“It’s fine, it’s fine…” Fratelli muttered, “All is forgiven.”
“Go inside,” Dina told him.
He obeyed, limping into the kitchen where he removed his shoe then poured cold water on his swollen, red toe. Wincing, he prayed a silent prayer for strength and anticipated a glass of that new wine.