Before dawn peeked into the windows, Cardinal Fratelli awoke with a sore throat. He shivered a bit from night air then closed the window and laid back down, trying to fall asleep again. No success.
Irritated, he got up and softly moved downstairs. From the kitchen, he smelled the delicate odor of brewing tea and baking bread. Dina was awake and setting the table. Remembering a more important task, Fratelli went into the chapel. Six lit candles greeted him, flickering somberly.
Crossing himself, he said hoarsely:
“Thank you, O Lord, for your providence and care. Please help me to feel fit enough for your service as I am not feeling too well. Give Gianni the grace to receive your holy communion tomorrow night, watch over Michele. I apologize, my God for rambling on like this, asking all these things. What matters most is you are here and that you sent your Son to save us… however, granting me a nice day would also be very pleasant.”
He smiled against the dim lights.
“In the name of Father, Son and Holy Ghost, uphold me.”
Thankfully, when Fratelli joined Rodrigo and Adreo for breakfast, the hot tea soothed his throat. After another cup, he now spoke clearly and without any pain. He didn’t even mind that for this day of fasting, all they each ate was two slices of bread and three figs. Excitedly, the cardinal suggested that all the leftover bread in their house be distributed to the poor.
“But what else will we eat?” Adreo inquired.
“We have figs and olives and hard breadsticks,” Fratelli replied, “Let’s remember those who often fast more from necessity than from choice.”
This zealous excitement dwindled soon, as he approached the cathedral and found a man sitting forlorn on the steps. Moving aside his messy, greyish hair, the man looked up.
“Your Eminence!” he cried.
He scrambled afoot, bowed and kissed the cardinal’s ring. Then he continued, “I really need to talk with a man of God.”
Fratelli’s forehead wrinkled as he tried to remember the man’s name. Indeed, he regularly attended Mass at the cathedral, always sitting towards the front and responding devoutly. Something like “Fred” or “Fido”…It bothered him he couldn’t remember.
“You don’t know me, do you Your Eminence?” he asked, catching on.
Embarrassed, Fratelli stammered, “I do, I do…Just wait for a minute…”
“Alfred! I’m Alfred!” the man said, concealing some annoyance.
Fratelli frowned and inwardly scolded himself. Returning attention to the man, he asked, “What do you wish to speak about, my son- Alfred?”
Alfred gestured that they step inside where no one could hear. They walked towards the altar then stopped before an ornate, stained-glass window. Faint sunlight cast a reddish glow upon Alfred’s face as he began:
“Your Eminence, I am so overcome by temptation and anger- I am ready to leave my wife.”
The gravity of his words struck Fratelli and feeling weak, he leaned on a near wall.
“Why?” was his only response.
“I am not a bad man, Your Eminence, I just grow tired of working so hard every day and coming home to an unappreciative woman. She yells at me and won’t cook for me…and also, there is someone else I would rather be with,” Alfred said.
Fratelli calmly listened while Alfred went on and on about how dissatisfying his married life had become. Finally, he raised one finger to quiet him then asserted, “No, no surely there is some other way…”
Fratelli spent the next hour talking with Alfred, convincing him to resist his emotions, stay home and for both he and his spouse to seek regular counsel from another priest. Fratelli’s mind spun by the time Alfred left. Now, he had a headache.
Leaving the cathedral’s side door, walking across the green, shady courtyard, Fratelli spotted Ernesto speaking with Francine beneath a tree. Francine furiously fanned herself with a silk, oriental fan and gazed at Ernesto. Back turned to Fratelli, he wore a deep blue, constable’s uniform and a black cape. Creeping closer, Fratelli overheard him say:
“Michele’s baby is likely going to be born this week. She is so weary and having great pain. I’m so glad for your help.”
“Well you know how dearly I was looking forward to hosting the Easter Feast but Philomena told me she was invited elsewhere…and Michele’s baby is a far more important matter.”
Francine then stared past Ernesto, easily seeing Fratelli, and exclaimed, “Angelo, you are dressed in bright scarlet-red, how can I not see you behind that bush?”
Ernesto turned around.
“Well, hello,” the cardinal said to his brother, nervously waving.
“Eminence,” Ernesto lazily replied with a small nod.
Ernesto’s amber eyes glimmered tiredly, apparently deprived of sleep.
“I have been so worried about Michele,” he explained, “Then your aunt Francine here told me she would be glad to care for her as a midwife.”
“I am skilled at comforting and tending to new mothers,” Francine interrupted, “Just ask Angelo how well I cared for my eldest daughter after her first child.”
Fratelli nodded. He rubbed his right temple. The painful headache would not go away. Taking Ernesto’s hand, he assured, “My brother, if you need anything, don’t hesitate to summon me.”
“Even if it is in the middle of night?”
Afternoon arrived. Uneasily, still rubbing his head and now drinking cool water, Fratelli examined the blood-red vestments which were to be used for Good Friday’s service. He placed his glass of water down, walked over to where the vestments hung and carefully put them on.
Then the people of Lucca gathered inside the cathedral to commemorate Jesus’s passion and ultimate death on the cross. Gianni was given the task of bearing a golden crucifix before the procession. The tall, heavy cross almost faltered in his small hands but determinedly, he kept grip on it.
Somber chant rose overhead:
“We adore you O Christ, and we bless you, for by your holy cross and resurrection, you have redeemed the world.”
Fratelli austerely lead prayers and songs but the dull throbbing in his head felt worse. He pretended not to feel it but the pain became sharper and sharper. After his sermon, the words “Ouch, this hurts” suddenly slipped from his mouth! Noticing everyone heard him, he frantically pointed back to the crucifix as if implying that is exactly what Jesus felt.
Laying down, holding a cold rag to his head, Cardinal Fratelli closed his eyes and tried to rest. Hearing footsteps, he sluggishly opened one eye then the other. Rodrigo stood over him.
“I just wanted to tell you they are stripping the cathedral, covering the statues and making the altar bare,” he told him.
“I already know that,” Fratelli remarked, “Please leave me alone.”
“Well I brought you something to eat…”
“Oh, thank you.”
Mumbling something, Rodrigo set a plate of hard bread and figs on a nearby table and walked away. Fratelli himself sunk into a restful sleep.
Waking up, he noticed the pain in his head was absent. At a leisurely pace, he began packing his things. Early next morning, he would be leaving with Rodrigo, Philomena and Gianni for the duke’s palace. It was an entire day’s journey. There, they’d celebrate the Mass of Easter Vigil. Though Fratelli felt unsure about not presiding over the worship, regretting that the eloquent homily he wrote would go unheard; he said nothing as he folded a red cassock.
After a few items and garments were packed, Fratelli went downstairs and into the parlor. Philomena sat there, musing over the letter received from Lamberto II. A while ago, she’d taken it with Fratelli’s permission and kept reading it over. Imaging her and the duke’s son dancing on a beautiful, moonlit porch before a great palace, she shuddered with anticipation.
Then, she saw Fratelli’s obvious frown. He took the letter saying, “You have looked at that enough. Stop obsessing.”
Irritated she replied, “What do you care?”
Fratelli walked to a chair and sat across from her. Summoning patience, he said, “Philomena, I know the duke’s son better than you. He is a reveler and pleasure-seeker, not a good man to court.”
Philomena seemed to listen for a moment then she snorted, feeling again encroached upon, and stood.
“Let me make my own decisions,” she stated flatly.
As she left, the cardinal rested his chin on his hands and pondered. How was he ever going to convince her? Maybe she was right: she had to make her own decision…and learn from it.
~ ~ ~
“Where is my ring?” Cardinal Fratelli asked no one in particular as he fumbled around his night-stand in near darkness.
A small lamp aided his sight. Outside the skies were still inky black as dawn waited hours away.
“I can’t find it, I can’t find it!” he cried.
Dina heard his lamenting and came into the room, holding her bright lamp against the dark.
“What’s wrong, Your Eminence?”
“I cannot find my ring… We have to leave very shortly, the coach is already here and it’s nowhere to be seen!” he moaned.
Dina crossed her arms then suggested, “Alright, alright, I’m sure if you calm down, you’ll find the ring.”
Fratelli stuttered, “I already tried being calm and didn’t find it.”
“Your Eminence, have you looked on the floor?”
“The floor? I’m not getting on the floor.”
“Well then…” Dina muttered as she left.
Grumbling, Fratelli got on his hands and knees and began peering underneath the furniture. He searched vigorously until in the corner of his eye, he saw something shiny beneath the bed. The ring! Scooping it into his hands, he smiled and climbed afoot. He then saw Gianni standing impatiently by the door. Wearing a fine, black suit with pearly buttons, he fidgeted and eventually said, “They’re waiting for you.”
Fratelli beckoned and told Gianni to fetch his gloves, carry them downstairs and wait. Feeling tired yet excited, the boy obeyed and disappeared. Before blowing out the lamp beside him, Fratelli grabbed a draping, scarlet cloak trimmed with white ermine fur and gently slung it over his shoulder.
Reaching the bottom of the stairs, Fratelli blundered into Father Rodrigo and slipped. Both cardinal and cloak tumbled downwards. Rodrigo caught the precious cloth, letting the cardinal fall! Glancing up angrily, Fratelli said nothing. It was too early to become upset. He only stood, nonchalantly dusted himself off and followed Rodrigo outside.
Cold air enveloped them. Rodrigo hugged his own black cloak tighter and Fratelli shivered. Gianni silently waited for them, sitting across from Philomena who nodded back to sleep. Growing antsy, the boy watched as Rodrigo helped Fratelli don his cloak. Finally, Fratelli lifted the long cape off the ground and boarded the coach with Rodrigo right behind. In quite a hurry, they closed the door. Quickly under dark skies, the coach took off and a small piece of red cloth hung out of its side, flapping in the wind.
Despite bumps and jolts in the road, everyone fell asleep. It was early morning when Fratelli awoke. Bright sun shone over them causing the jeweled collar of Philomena’s dress to glitter. Blinking tiredly, Fratelli removed his gloves, lowered the curtains, turned over and went back to sleep. However, by now, Gianni stirred awake. For several minutes he sat still then quickly grew bored. He twiddled his thumbs then toyed with the curtains and at last spoke:
“How long is it till we’re there?”
Fratelli kept his eyes shut and ignored him, hoping he would cease speaking and just leave him alone. He felt a persistent finger poking his arm.
“What do you want” the cardinal asked irately.
“How long is it till we’re there?” Gianni repeated.
Fratelli answered, “Not until nightfall now please be quiet.”
Gianni frowned, huffed and scrunched tightly in his seat. He couldn’t sleep and began softly humming.
“Gianni!” Fratelli hissed.
“Sorry, Sir, I mean-Your Eminence.”
Later, they ate a small meal of bread with thick slices of mozzarella cheese and cured salami. Fratelli gladly noticed that Dina also packed some olives in their lunch-basket. Rodrigo uncorked a bottle of wine and they drank peacefully. Amidst the silence, Philomena started feeling nervous. She couldn’t imagine the luxury and excitement that would greet her at the duke’s palace. Looking forward to meeting Lamberto II, she folded her hands together and glanced out the window. Scrubby fields and green vineyards blurred past. Tall hills shrank in the distance. She then met eyes with Fratelli, who stopped munching on his bread and stared back. The struggle of wills again reemerged.
This time, Philomena looked away first. She fixed her attention on the rolling scenery outside. Fratelli quietly ruminated, allowing no one else to perceive his apprehensive, circling thoughts. What did await them?