As the second week of Advent passed, Fratelli's injured toe felt less painful though it displayed an odd range of colors. He began putting in action plans for his party. Wednesday morning, he began writing letters to his family, inviting them all to his house. Usually, they feasted at Francine’s house on Christmas Day even though there was more room in Fratelli’s villa. His aunt always had been an exceptional hostess. Also, they would be meeting later in the day. All this information, he included in each letter.
After writing these letters, Fratelli forced himself to finish overlooking the theological book which sat on his desk, gathering grey dust. He blew the dust off it and continued reading as afternoon sun glowed through the windows. At a quarter after two, he finally finished the book, scribbled a few notes then went in his chapel to pray.
Kneeling before the linen covered, candle-lit altar, staring at the ruby-red sanctuary lamp, which glowed above, and golden tabernacle which housed the Body of Christ, Fratelli mouthed a silent prayer. Lastly, he concluded aloud,
“Lord, please guide me in my daily actions…as you know, this book, which awaits my approval, has been driving me mad. Yet, there is nothing in it contradictory to your Gospel. Direct my heart and my words also for you alone are righteous and the source of all righteousness…”
He stood up, bowed before the sacred tabernacle and departed. Donning his draping, red cloak, he grabbed his wide-brimmed hat and walking stick and walked outside. Despite dry weather, the garden was fully green. Roses bowed their heads slowly telling the season’s passage. Beneath their withered leaves waited swollen, new buds. Paolo indeed did a nice job keeping the plants healthy and vibrant.
Feeling a light wind stir his brown locks, Fratelli decided it was best to stroll and make the necessary appointments for his party before the air grew too cold. First, he visited a florist down the street. Entering into the small, roadside shop for a first time ever, since all the flowers he needed came from his garden, Fratelli looked about at bouquets of lilies, various fragrant grasses and tiny, white flowers. Reaching out one hand, he touched a flower and sniffed its sweet fragrance. Suddenly, he jumped hearing a voice,
Fratelli gazed down as delicate petals crumbled in his startled fingers swishing to the floor.
“I…I’m sorry,” he stuttered.
The man approaching had sparse, grey hair tied back, a white frock and dirt beneath his fingernails. He saw the crumbled flower but said nothing. Arching his bushy brows, he replied, “Your Eminence, it is a surprise to see you here.”
“Yes, I know.”
An awkward pause ensued. Finally, Fratelli asked, “Can you acquire for me red poinsettias? Six dozen?”
“That is a lot…you may have to order them from a couple other stores. But don’t bother yourself, I will contact them.”
“That is fine. Thank you.”
Next, Fratelli went to Luigi, telling him he would need a whole lamb and a whole calf. He spoke with several cooks from the nearby “Ristorante” and then tiredly headed home. Reaching his doorway, he checked Francine’s notes and realized he’d forgotten to inquire at the opera house, which had closed by now, about the musicians. I can’t do everything in one day, he mused; it will have to wait. Soon as he came in the door, he faced Father Rodrigo who nervously licked his lips and said, “Your Eminence, why didn’t you have me make all these appointments? I’m your secretary.”
“I couldn’t find you Rodrigo…”
“That’s because I was fetching your mail…you couldn’t wait?”
“I was too excited,” Fratelli replied then scowled, adding, “Why are you scolding me? Be quiet and obedient.”
Huffing, Rodrigo pursed his mouth and withdrew. He wondered how Dina got away with being bold…
At dinner, two assistant priests and a deacon joined them. Fratelli happily shared his table, inviting Dina to sit with them.
“You should take a rest,” he explained.
Everything was well until Fratelli and one of the young priests reached simultaneously towards the last two olives. They froze their arms and stared at eachother. Tension engulfed the room.
“Ummm, Your Eminence,” the priest murmured timidly, “You can have them.”
Fratelli then snapped his arm back.
“What am I thinking?” he asked aloud, “The first shall be the last. They’re yours Father Adreo.”
Hesitantly, lest the cardinal should change his mind and get upset, Adreo scooped up the last two olives and ate them quickly- as if getting away with something.
It happened that Francine was just as excited as Fratelli about the Christmas feast. Early next morning, she met him in the hallway and inquired about his appointments.
“I ordered the flowers,” he said sleepily.
“…and the ones I suggested?”
“Oh, I spoke with my friend who is a great chef and he offered to run the kitchen on Christmas. Isn’t that wonderful!”
“Yes, that is fine but can I meet him?”
“Of course Angelo…I mean, Your Eminence.”
Smiling, Fratelli said goodbye and proceeded to his office. While sun poured in and warmed the entire room, Fratelli drew up a note and penned his approval, granting the imprimatur for that theological book. Then, he blew dust off it once more and gladly gave it to Rodrigo. Sitting back, he wiped sweat from his forehead and imagined the glee and wonder that waited on Christmas Day. Thirst slowly caked his mouth and he unseated going towards the kitchen. Dina blocked his way saying, “No, Your Eminence, sit down, I will get you water.”
“How did you know I wanted water?”
She grinned impatiently and retorted, “I have been working here for three years and I just know. Now go.”
He sat in the parlor when she came bearing two tall glasses of water. Confused Fratelli eyed them.
“Why are there two?”
Dina laughed, sitting across the room, resting and closing her eyes against flooding sunlight. She then eyed him back and answered:
“It will be very warm in the cathedral and I supposed you might want something cool to drink while overhearing confessions this evening.”
Fratelli felt stricken by her thoughtfulness. He also felt awkward showing any endearment towards her. Now standing, facing the window, he spoke,
“Why thank you very much, bless you.”
Cold winds rushed over the city of Lucca, beating stucco buildings and window panes. Rain began to fall, turning skies grey. Stormy torrents howled while Fratelli glanced out the window. He worried for Dina had left earlier that day and hadn’t yet returned. He was also supposed to meet with the head chef for his Christmas party. Seeing the inclement weather, he supposed this meeting wasn’t going to happen. However, he felt lingering concern about Dina.
Finally, unable to wait anymore, Fratelli donned shoes, wrapped his supple, scarlet cloak around himself and trudged through the yard squinting against cold winds. He removed his red cap and shoved it in a pocket, lest it blow away, and walked onto the street. Reaching an intersection, Fratelli paused, letting a carriage bustle by. The horse in front snorted lightly visible breath.
Where is Dina? Coming around a corner, Fratelli suddenly saw Dina’s cloaked figure kneeling and speaking with a young, golden-haired boy: Gianni. The cardinal rushed forth, his red cape billowing behind him and exclaimed, “Dina, I’m sure glad to find you. The storm is getting worse.”
Immediately, Gianni looked up, eyed bright and said, “That is the man who was mean to me!”
Dina now stared at Fratelli. Her arms folded as he stuttered, “No, I wasn’t.”
“Yes he was” Gianni argued, “He chased me out of the church…”
“No…no, he stole a candlestick,” Fratelli asserted.
“I can’t believe you would accuse this innocent little boy of such a thing!”
Fratelli blushed horribly and groaned. Teeth clenched together, he stood silent. The old woman’s words came to mind: a nasty street-urchin, indeed. At Dina’s next words, he stirred, jaw hanging ajar:
“Come home with us and we’ll get you a warm meal.”
The cardinal opened his mouth to protest but no words came out. Dina already took Gianni’s small hand, a pitying look on her face, leading him down the street. Huffing and rather upset, Cardinal Fratelli tried to eat supper in the parlor but Dina nicely asked he join her and Gianni in the dining room. Hiding his frustration, wearing a pleasant smile, Fratelli entered the dining room and blessed the food. He sat down then quietly helped himself to fish, olives and bruschetta, a type of toast covered with roasted tomatoes. Gianni glared from across the table and he ignored the boy, paying more attention to the winds and rain that beat upon the windows.
Dina spoke, “What is your name, dear boy?”
“No last name?”
“Would you like a pastry for desert?” Dina then asked.
He smiled back and ever-politely replied, “Yes ma’am.”
When Dina unseated, taking their dirty plates and going into the kitchen, Fratelli leaned over whispering to Gianni, “You may believe you have tricked her by acting so sweet and innocuous, but I know what you did…”
The boy grinned, looking downwards in a faint display of shame.
“I am sorry,” he said.
“What did you say?”
Reluctantly, the boy repeated, “I am sorry.”
“Well…” Fratelli said sitting back, expressing delight but unsure if this show of remorse was genuine.
Returning, Dina, set a pastry before Gianni, its crust golden brown as the boy’s hair.
“Where is mine?” Fratelli inquired.
“That one was the last one, Your Eminence,” she responded, “And you said it yourself that guests should always have the last of what’s left.”
Gianni suppressed a laugh. As the cardinal stated hotly at him, he once again adopted that shameful, apologetic face. Then he readily gobbled up the dessert. A clap of thunder instantly startled them all, Fratelli almost jumping from his chair. Gianni excitedly ran to the window, pressing his face against the glass as rain pummeled down.
“What a horrid storm!” Dina exclaimed, “Your Eminence, can you let the boy stay here…he has no home, nowhere to go.”
Charity always came first for clergymen- even grumpy, irate clergymen; it was unbefitting to say no. How could he?
All fell quiet in the house. The only sounds heard were from winds and rain outside. With a lamp in his hand, Fratelli snuck downstairs and into his chapel. There, in relative darkness, he lit four candles that had blown out and knelt, basking prayerfully in their yellow glow.
“What are you doing?” a voice interrupted.
Close beside him, Gianni stood; his fair face angelic in candlelight. However, he wasn’t fooling the cardinal.
“I am praying,” he answered flatly, “Well, I was praying.”
“Oh,” Gianni said and still stood there, lips pursed, hovering at his side.
Fratelli ignored him and resumed praying. Facing the altar, he uttered, “Pater noster qui es in caelis (1).”
“What are you saying?”
Irritated, Fratelli kept speaking in fluent Latin.
Gianni now shouted:
“What do you want!” Fratelli shouted back.
Startled, the boy laughed a bit then scurried off.
Now alone, Fratelli sighed, “Lord Christ, is this another test? Grant me patience and mercy, O God, should I fail, for I am near losing my temper with this lad. I don’t want to be angry… I am not pleasant when I’m angry. Keep me from sin.”
Next morning, dawn light flooded brightly through the villa’s tall windows. Cardinal Fratelli reluctantly came for breakfast. He feared Gianni would still be there, eating his food and behaving in his sly, obnoxious manner- and those fears were confirmed. Gianni sat at the dining room table, kicking his feet and munching on a handful of figs. He smiled at Fratelli who yawned, reaching for the tea.
“Can I have some?” Gianni suddenly asked.
“No, you seem awake enough,” Fratelli grumbled.
“Your Eminence, be nice,” Dina remarked coming from behind with a cup of milk, “Here, Gianni, you can have this.”
Sighing softly, Fratelli leaned back, eyeing drops of rain which fell from tree branches, the clean, vivid green grass and a lone sparrow flying upward. Sun fell warmly upon the storm-wearied earth. Anxious, he took his teacup outside on the veranda and sat, thinking quietly to himself. Yes, he acknowledged his robes were getting wet from the soaked, wicker chair and residual mists, yes, he may be shivering slightly- but he felt finally at peace.