Saturday, November 3, 2012

Cardinal Fratelli's Christmas, ch 8 and 9

Chapter  8.

           After morning-prayer and Mass, Fratelli strolled into the parlor where a tall but heavyset man waited. His slick, curly, black hair was tied back. Seeing Fratelli he bowed and kissed his ring.
          “I am Chef Tontino and I am honored to cook for your party,” he said in a thick
           “I am pleased to have you. My aunt praises your skill.”
           The man laughed, his belly rippling. He then took Fratelli’s hand leading him into the kitchen. Turning around, he spoke loudly, “What I will prepare for your party I have already decided: tender veal, roasted lamb with spinach and three cheeses, stuffed, bright-red peppers, risotto and fine eggplant pastries. For dessert, I’ll make rich, chocolate cannoli and a butter cake.”
           Fratelli’s head grew dizzy at all this. Francine planned something very splendid indeed. Suddenly, the cardinal said:
         “I would love butter squash casserole also, it is my favorite around Christmastime.”
         “But that is a peasant food!”
          “I don’t care, I like the taste!”
          He agreed to Tontino’s menu- squash casserole included. Dina entered and spoke to him also. She inquired as what number of servers would be needed.
             Finding Fratelli lingered, curiously listening, she turned and scolded him, “Go on now get, we will take care of this all.”
           After working in his office for a few hours, Fratelli strolled in his garden. He almost became startled when Paolo appeared. Though still somewhat disheartened at having a stranger there amongst his prized herbage, he smiled and gave greeting.
           He went back indoors to continue his work. Hearing scampering footsteps behind him, Fratelli turned and saw Gianni dart past his office door, down the hallway. He unseated, caught up with the boy and grabbed his sleeve.
           “What are you still doing here?” he demanded as Gianni squirmed.
           “Your Eminence!”
           Fratelli jumped and released the boy who ran behind Dina’s oncoming figure.
          “How could you be so cruel?”
          “I...I was just surprised,” the cardinal stammered then pointed to the floor that was littered with muddy footprints, “and look, he tracked mud through the house!”
         “I am shocked at this display of lack of charity, Your Eminence,” Dina said as Fratelli now stared aside, feeling embarrassed and ashamed.
         She always had a way of doing that to him even when he was completely right. Dina’s matronly behavior and sharp voice quickly commanded and usually, he obliged. However, Fratelli glanced up, his intelligent, amber-colored eyes shining, and firmly stood ground. Slow, gentle, he addressed her:
         “Alright, since the boy has no parents or home that we know of, he can stay- but I want him civilized and going to Mass every day…and I want him to clean up this mess.”
           Gianni grinned wryly and Dina nudged him.
          “You heard His Eminence. You made that mess- now, let’s clean it up,” she said.
          Gianni moaned plaintively. This time, the cardinal won. Fratelli smiled and hid a laugh.

          Distantly, the clock-tower struck noon. From inside the cathedral, Fratelli heard its brazen gong. Smelling faint odors of melted wax and resinous incense, he waited for people to come forth confessing their sins. As Advent drew near, hearts would open towards God, prepare for his coming in the flesh, and realize need for repentance. Someone neared casting their shadow through the screen beside him and spoke:
          “Bless me father, for I have sinned, it’s been such a long time…”
          He instantly recognized the man’s voice.
          “Ernesto, my brother, you are here! Nothing pleases me more than your good spiritual welfare.”
          Slightly blunt, he asked, “So do you memorize all our voices?”
          Fratelli crossed himself, flustered and said, “How can I not recognize my own brother?”
         “Anyway,” Ernesto continued, “I am upset with my wife. Though I love her dearly, you know, she says I don’t listen to her well enough nor pay attention. When I arrive home from work, it’s very late and I’m tired. However, she wishes I attend her every need. The more exhausted I feel, the more demanding she gets…”
         “Your sin?”
         “I’m getting to that… Last night, I yelled at her and said she was selfish. She started crying. I feel awful.”
         Slight irritation simmered in Fratelli. Yet, he knew Ernesto meant no harm.
           “It is so easy for us to lose our tempers,” the cardinal explained, “I may not know about marriage firsthand but I have seen it is a sacrifice- on both your parts, and sometimes we hurt most easily those we love the most.”
           “What can I do?” Ernesto pleaded, “She’s so upset at me right now.”
          “Go to her Ernesto, just as you went before the Lord today. She can’t be any more frightening than the Lord Almighty.”
          “I wouldn’t be so sure…”
           Fratelli gulped.
           “I’ll make a suggestion, why don’t you both come here for dinner tonight?

            As Ernesto, wearing his police uniform, and Michele, clad in a mint-green dress, sat down to dinner with Cardinal Fratelli, a knock sounded at the door. Opening it Dina saw Monsignor Barolo, face wrinkled, white-haired and leaning on a cane. Surprised at this visit, she led him to the dining room where Fratelli stood and greeted, “Barolo, old friend, come and join us!”
        “I heard you are hosting a fine party on Christmas Day,” Barolo began, “and that you invited me. I came here to discuss it with you.”
        “Go ahead Monsignor, sit down,” Fratelli replied.
        He unseated and helped the old man to walk, pull out a chair and sit. Ernesto and Michele actually felt glad at the priest’s imposition. Now, they didn’t need to discuss their problems. Beneath the table, Ernesto gripped Michele’s hand. He would make amends for upsetting her but didn’t know how right at this moment. He showed her affection and apologized with a sincere gaze.
        Barolo and Fratelli spoke while they ate. However, the cardinal wasn’t about to ignore his other company. He asked, “Monsignor, remember how beautiful Michele looked on her wedding.”
        “Yes, her dress had pearls and lace white as new snow.” Monsignor answered.
        Ernesto laughed, seeing Michele blush. Gently touching his small mustache, he began, softly, as if lost in the memory:
         “It was a beautiful June afternoon, the trees bloomed and birds sang. I remember the strains of “Laudate”, the opening chant, sung sweetly. Most of all, I remember Michele in that shimmering dress, amongst the little flowers… Such beauty- it made me nervous.”
        He then looked at Michele and added, “I felt I was not worthy…and still feel that way.”
        “Oh Ernesto!” she cried.
        Fratelli smiled. Apparently, his brother knew how to make her happy.
       “Seeing this lifts my soul,” Fratelli spoke, “Praise be to God for making his love known to us in the love between a husband and wife.”

Chapter 9.
Family Comes In.

Days later, on Saturday, while Cardinal Fratelli sat scribbling notes for Sunday’s sermon, Dina came in and announced:
“Your Eminence, there is a problem…”
It was one thing he didn’t want to hear. Fratelli unseated and went into the parlor, finding the florist from the week before. His hair, still grey as ice and tied back, glinted off the sunlight. He bowed reverently then spoke:
“Many apologies, your flowers, the poinsettias, I had gathered an order from several florist shops however, most of them died during the storm.”
Pretending to be unfazed, Fratelli simply asked, “How many are left?”
“One dozen.”
Fratelli’s amber eyes widened. His lips quivered while he searched for a response. All efforts to remain dignified melted and he threw up hands, loudly sighed and sat down.
“I am so very sorry,” the florist said bowing profoundly.
“It’s not your fault,” Fratelli muttered, “That storm had been unusual for this time of year. You couldn’t have known…”
“I promise, Your Eminence, that I’ll take your next order without charge.”
Fratelli put one hand beneath his chin and replied, “Maybe next Easter, we will see.”
Left alone, Fratelli frowned and sighed again. Secretly, he never wanted the poinsettias. They were Francine’s idea yet they'd planned the Christmas décor to center on these brilliant, red flowers. Changes will be made. At least, he mused, everything wasn’t ruined…
During Sunday Mass, Fratelli kept his sermon short and then hurried home. While in his room, changing into his ordinary, red cassock, someone knocked. Answering, he saw Gianni.
“What are you doing?” he asked meekly.
“Why are you so nosy?” Fratelli retorted.
Ignoring his question, Gianni continued, “Why do you wear all that red? Don’t you have normal clothes?”
Figuring to satisfy the boy’s curiosity, Fratelli answered, “No Gianni, clergy have sworn themselves to God and so they put on Christ daily.”
As he descended the stairs, Gianni followed him. Finally, Fratelli quickened pace, rushed into his office and shut the door behind him. Backed against the door, Fratelli signed in relief. Then he approached the desk, shuffled though a pile of papers and began reading various documents. No one else disturbed him till noon when Dina knocked lightly on the door and brought him tea.
“Why are you mean to that boy?” she abruptly inquired.
“He keeps following me around, asking silly questions…why are you nice to him?” Fratelli countered.
“Your Eminence…”
Dina sat in the chair across from him and slowly stated, “There perhaps isn’t something I told you. Why I love children so much…because I can’t have any of my own.”
Fratelli stared aside sheepishly, eyeing the faded trees outside his window. Some lost their leaves in late fall however most remained green only turning greyish. The hedges flourished drinking up cold air. However, the scene didn’t distract him from his growing remorse.
“That is why I cherish being with Gianni,” Dina then said breaking the silence, “The child just gladdens my heart.”
“Dina, I am sorry. I didn’t realize keeping Gianni here made you happy,” He stood then added, “I’ll do my best, I suppose.”
That meant teaching Gianni how to do various kinds of housework in exchange for small pay, listening to his endless, pointless questions and not losing one’s temper when he tracked mud on the floor. Not once, did Fratelli demand that he return the candlestick he’d stolen, though it occupied his mind now and then, and tried hard to remain friendly- even when the boy finished off his olives.
Dressed in fine, pressed clothes, Gianni answered the door as Francine’s eldest daughter; the pleasantly smiling, fair skinned, black-haired Iona bustled in. Her arms clutched several bags and set them down in the hallway.
“Angelo, I’m here!”
“Good, good, hello Iona,” Fratelli responded, “Was your travel well?”
“We had some trouble,” her husband suddenly said entering behind.
He placed a leather suit-case onto the floor and took Fratelli’s hand, kissing the cardinal’s golden ring. Iona laughed at Fratelli’s overwhelmed expression. However, he didn’t mind and led them both into the parlor. He moved to lift their bags then told Gianni he should carry these. Groaning, rolling his eyes, the boy obeyed.
Iona wore a fine, deep blue dress which contrasted her husband’s drabber garb. They sat together waiting for Fratelli. At once, he approached with a wide smile on his lips.
“How much I’ve missed you!” he shouted.
“Angelo, Your Eminence, you are looking well and handsome as always,” Iona told him, “We are so happy to stay here for Christmas.”
Fratelli rested, also excitedly speaking with them while Dina came in with a bottle of wine. She clutched many glasses between her fingers. Seeing her struggle to place them down, Fratelli stood. However, soon as he removed one glass from her hand, another fell shattering on the floor. Iona screeched in surprise.
Dina scolded, “Your Eminence, go sit down with your family!”
Frowning, the cardinal resumed sitting and conversing with Iona and her husband. Gianni snuck back into the parlor and listened intently. For a few minutes, he mocked Fratelli’s sweeping gestures then grew bored and left.
Fratelli retired late and rose early, bumbling through morning prayers and gulped two cups of tea during breakfast. Despite this, he fell asleep amidst reading in the office, his head laying atop the desk, on a pillow made of stacked papers. Seeing him, Iona and her husband crept past so as not to wake him and stepped outdoors.
“Such a nice garden,” Iona remarked.
Drawn to the pristine, white roses, she cupped one in her hand and savored its fragrance. Putting an arm around Iona, her husband lightly kissed her. He moved closer for another. She swatted him away.
“Not here!”
He insisted, “No one is watching. Why can’t we share romance in this beautiful garden?”
“It’s just not right. We are guests.”
“Oh Iona, you are too sensitive. Stop behaving like a little girl.”
Upset, she crossed her arms and huffed.
“How dare you!” she cried out loudly, scaring a bird from the trees.
They argued for some short time before a sleepy Cardinal Fratelli poked his head outside and said:
“Well, good afternoon to you too.”

No comments:

Post a Comment