Coming to a rugged road, the coach halted. Gianni sprinted from the door, hurrying towards dense shrubbery as Fratelli leaned outside and called:
“Do your improper deed quickly- we must be on our way!”
Philomena giggled behind him. Then she stepped out, stretched her legs and paced over the dusty ground. Rodrigo figured he would get some exercise as well. Strolling beneath a scraggly tree, he produced a small, leather-bound book from his pocket. Its old pages rustled in protest as Rodrigo opened them, loosened the blue, silk ribbon which marked his place and began to read aloud:
“O God, come to my aid…”
Automatically, Fratelli replied, “O Lord, make haste to help me.”
Philomena gazed cock-eyed, but wasn’t offended when Fratelli beckoned her participation in the evening-prayer. She spoke coarsely, reluctantly. But she needed to be compliant, she mused. After all, their attending this marvelous celebration was because of him.
Gianni expressed confusion, his little forehead wrinkling, when he joined back with them. Yet, taking ready advantage of that awkwardness, Gianni assumed priestly posture, spread his arms wide then waved a blessing in the air. Fratelli scowled. He didn’t say anything. Tired by the day’s long journey, he climbed aboard the stagecoach. The others soon followed.
Two hours later, they had passed the border of Florence. While Lamberto II resided in Eastern Lucca, his father’s palace stood on a hilltop in central Florence. Tuscany’s great capitol was unlike Lucca, which bustled at a steady pace. Here, crowds, horses and carriages jammed the streets. Fortunately, the traffic loosened. Most people, by now, were preparing for Easter’s Solemn Vigil. As the sloping hilltop came into sight, Fratelli clasped his hands anxiously together. A sharp incline jolted them, Gianni shouted with excitement and Philomena stirred from her nap.
“Can’t they be more careful?” she grumbled.
Taking his cousin’s arm, Fratelli replied, “There is no other way to scale the hill- unless you wish to walk.”
When her small purse hit the floor, Philomena hissed in frustration. Soon, bumps and jostles ended. Quickly, they moved over smooth terrain then gradually slowed. Out the small windows, a high, stone gate became visible and four scarlet-clad, armed guards allowed them through.
At last, everything stopped. Gianni jumped outside first. Throwing his fists up, he whooped with joy and began to run. Immediately, Rodrigo bounded after him and clutched the collar of his suit. Wrestling away, Gianni exclaimed, “Father, if you tear my suit- I’ll look terrible for my first communion!”
Rodrigo let go. Fratelli sprinted, lifting his long cloak above the grass, and paused beside him.
“Your Eminence,” Rodrigo said, “I fear the boy may act out, seeing how he’s been cooped up so long.”
“Don’t worry yourself. I’ll get him. Please accompany Philomena,” Fratelli panted.
Rodrigo then asked, “Are you alright?”
“Yes, fine, fine,” Fratelli replied as he started towards Gianni who had already reached the palace door.
Timidly brushing aside his golden-brown hair, Gianni met eyes with another guard. Tall-statured, towering over him, the man casually stared back. Though he rested one hand on the hilt of his silver sword, the guard’s stance did not threaten. Suddenly, Gianni pointed at Fratelli, flashed a toothy smile and bluntly declared:
“I’m with him. We’re important…”
Fratelli grabbed Gianni’s arm in order to hush him, apologized for the annoyance and led him inside. At once, a great foyer engulfed them. Golden lamplight greeted them, gilded walls and distant violin music. Gianni gaped. He had never seen such opulence in his life. Several noble ladies, all wearing fine emerald-colored dresses, conversed nearby. One by one, they turned to greet Fratelli.
“Your Eminence!” said the eldest, tucking a stubborn, black curl behind her ear, “I’d ask you to dance with me but alas, you’re not allowed.”
Tightening his grip on Gianni, who tried to squirm away, Fratelli uneasily gazed aside at a large painting. When the woman burst into coyish laughter, he swiftly departed. Entering a spacious corridor, he finally released Gianni. Spinning around, Gianni stated, “I bet they have very good food here. I’m so hungry… Can we get something to eat?”
“Yes but only a little. You shall not eat supper until after Mass and Holy Communion,” Fratelli answered.
Rodrigo then appeared. Noticing, Fratelli’s mounting exasperation, he offered to take Gianni and find the boy some food. Eagerly, Fratelli paced back into the great foyer. Philomena waited.
“I know how badly Francine wanted to be here,” she began.
Thinking of Michele, wondering if she was well, Fratelli nervously folded his hands. He removed his golden ring and held it for a while. Just as he started putting it back on, someone yelled loudly:
“You are here!”
Alarmed, Fratelli dropped the ring. It clinked on the floor, rolled about a foot away and was stopped by Lamberto II’s black boot. Clad in medallioned finery, scarlet and black, Lamberto withdrew. His unblemished face tensed, fair lips bent in a frown. Fratelli just stood there adamant, unwilling to move. Neither of them acted. Neither of them wanted to stoop in front of the other and show submission…
Eventually, a blue-vested servant paused amidst household cleaning, seeing their dilemma. He approached and knelt down to fetch the ring. Moreso, he placed the ring onto Fratelli’s finger then reverently kissed it. Glancing back at Lamberto, the servant dashed away like a frightened mouse.
Feeling weak, Fratelli watched Lamberto proceed towards Philomena, introduce himself and offer her a glass of wine. Sighing under his breath, Fratelli concluded that only a beautiful young woman afforded Lamberto’s politeness. Everyone else seemed inferior. Suppressing hot anger, Fratelli ventured outside. Somehow, he sensed his trials had only begun.
This is the Night.
In mere minutes, a troupe of clergy entered the foyer, clustered together and milled outside. They numbered around thirty. Ten, white-robed deacons, fifteen priests wearing black cassocks and birettas, three monsignors swaddled in purple, one elderly, grey-bearded bishop and lastly, a resplendent cardinal. His silvery, powdered wig curled like a lion’s mane. Obviously dyed to match, his bushy eyebrows arched while he peered with shrewd, blue eyes. Fratelli vaguely recognized him… Looking to and fro, seeking refuge from the clamorous throng, he desperately ducked behind a huge, ornamental fern.
Unfortunately, the silver-haired cardinal stared right at Fratelli and in boisterous voice, announced:
“Now I know, the Lord Lamberto doesn’t have red roses trimmed with ermine- come out from there…you look silly.”
Fratelli remained still. He finally gave up and emerged. The older cardinal gave a satisfied look. Then he paused, thought a minute and asked:
“I am Cardinal Montillo. You don’t remember me?”
No answer. Before Montillo addressed Fratelli again, someone called him back inside.
“Thanks be to you, O Lord…” Fratelli muttered.
In short time, everyone was summoned into the neighboring, royal chapel. For a chapel, the space was huge, with gilded walls and vaulted ceilings. White lilies clustered everywhere, sweetly scenting the air. Hastened clamor ensued. A select-audience gathered. Altar servers scurried and chattered like white-clad sea-gulls. Priests gathered as a greater flock, rushing to the chapel’s front. Beside the ancient, bearded bishop, Fratelli fidgeted with his own clothing. He wore choir dress beneath a scarlet cape, which was what cardinals wore when not presiding. However, he lost his thoughts when all grew dark. In that primordial dark, they recollected the first dark… before creation.
“In the beginning God created heaven, and earth. And the earth was void and empty, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God moved over the waters…”
On this night, they relived creation and the fall of man. They learned how from his sinfulness, emerged the perfect plan of hope.
“And I will pour upon you clean water, and you shall be cleansed from all your filthiness, and I will cleanse you from all your idols. And I will give you a new heart, and put a new spirit within you.”
Time blurred. Minutes ran together. While sitting, overhearing Cardinal Montillo’s rather dull, prolonged sermon, Fratelli struggled to stay awake. At last, he sharply pinched his arm and almost shouted from the abrupt pain. Hearing Fratelli’s stifled squeak, the priest beside him grew stiff, his eyes fearfully bulging and frantically searched for a rodent beneath his feet.
The baptisms, which initiated Christians into new life, followed. Women holding babes draped in white lace, lined behind several pink-cheeked youths around the baptismal font. Montillo administered the life-giving sacrament, his face rather indifferent from doing this so many years. Next, came that long-awaited moment- confirmation. In ancient days, Christians would receive this sacrament on Easter night which called the Holy Spirit upon them. Lord Christ promised it and so they did it, Fratelli reminded himself.
When Gianni’s suited figure rose, Fratelli fixed eyes on the boy who devoutly marched to the altar, halted, glanced back and in one, quick gesture, picked his nose. Fratelli winced. He dearly hoped no one had seen this. With a delicate, gloved hand, Montilo gestured for Fratelli to approach. He, stood, went forth proudly and met Gianni upon the altar’s marble steps.
Looking down at Gianni’s overwhelmed and confused expression, Fratelli ginned. He really admired the boy right now who had expected a smaller ceremony, in Lucca’s cathedral, with more townspeople and minus the leering royalty. A young server advanced, holding a crystal bowl of sacred oil in his pale hands. Ignoring Montillo’s domineering stare, Fratelli dabbed his thumb into the shimmering oil.
Soft strains filled the air, joyously chanting:
“Alleluia, resurrexit sicut dixit… (1.)”
Fratelli honestly lost himself in the moment. His thoughts floated off somewhere below the vaulted ceiling. A sudden hiss brought him back to earth:
Seeing Gianni, Fratelli shook his head and anointed Gianni’s forehead, quietly speaking:
“Be ye sealed with the Holy Ghost.”
Gianni smiled. Glad to be over with; he turned and hastily retreated down the altar-steps. Fratelli himself remained by the other clergy, fidgeting somewhat as he found it hard to contain his joy. This joy grew considerably during the consecration of the Holy body and blood of Christ. They used only the newest, finest bread and wine, rendered a best offering to the Lord. It was now time:
Nervously, Gianni again approached the altar, knelt- as he was instructed and allowed Montillo to place a white, round host on his tongue. Fratelli watched the boy chew, worried he would grimace, horrified if he would dare spit it out. Luckily, all went well and Gianni returned to his place and remembered to thank God.
Gladness erupted in Fratelli’s very soul. This was the night when Christ rose from the grave, when everything was made anew. On this night, Christ opened the gates of heaven, undid the fault of Adam and delivered mankind from certain death.
~ ~ ~
Finally, the Mass ended. Bells rang, casting a brazen echo. In response, another church-bell sang far off in the distance. Darkness shrouded the hillside. People walked, holding lit candles, forming a stream of light as they tread back towards the palace.
Fratelli sighed with great relief when he reached his guest room. He glanced at two beds. Since Rodrigo wasn’t yet there, he eagerly chose the larger one. Despite Fratelli’s worrying, nothing went wrong. Easter’s solemn Vigil had been splendid, beauteous, pleasing to God. Gianni fully entered Christian faith; he was so different from the raggedy menace he met two years ago. And also, Philomena seemed happy. Resting on a soft, silk pillow, he smiled and said:“Thank you, O Lord, for your plentiful grace. You spared me from trouble tonight and
lifted my heart. Please be there for Gianni- as I have nothing to worry about.