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A harrowing drama of murder and love, in the early Italian Renaissance! The story of a girl whose father murdered her mother … and the boy who loves her.
A harrowing drama of murder and love, in the early Italian Renaissance!
“What is she to conclude, when she understands what happened? That love leads to ... death? That pain is all she can expect, if she ever cares for someone? .... You look into her eyes and see a wall of fear to keep you out. You would die for her, and that’s why she can never be yours?”
Raphaella di Piero tells of a profound love; but it is not primarily a love story. Its theme is the crucial importance of valuing in human life. It tells of two children, their souls deeply scarred by violence, struggling to make sense of the world around them.
From the author of The Outcasts: the story of a girl whose father murdered her mother … and the boy who loves her.
Prologue — Florence, 1389
The nurse bent down with a groan.
“Dear God, no …”
She thrust a hand under the child’s shoulders, wrapping her arms around the frail body. She pressed the dark brown curls to her breast, then turned to Messer Buonaccorso, who stood in the doorway.
“Is she alive?”
The old woman nodded, noting the warm breath on her skin and the slow flutter of the eyelids. “She’s only half awake,” she whispered, trembling. “Thank God for that. Whatever she’s heard, or guessed … she mustn’t see … this,” she indicated the body lying on the floor.
“She’ll have to know,” Messer Buonaccorso insisted.
The nurse shrugged.
“Was she here when … it happened?”
“I hope not.”
She stepped over Monna Margherita, who sprawled next to the bed like a rag doll, with dark stains on her nightgown. A dagger lay on the floor next to her.
Messer Buonaccorso set down his candle on a chest of wal-nut wood. “Give her to me,” he said. “Let me see my grand-daughter.”
He took the girl, who stirred and gave a feeble cough. He shook his head, then turned to Monna Clarissa who stood behind him, weeping. “The shame to the family is great. That my own son Piero should do this deed.”
They followed him out the door, through the shadows of the hall.
“I curse him. He was ever a fool who took anger too read-ily, who believed foul rumors too quickly … Where is he now?”
“Let no one aid him. No one! Or, I swear before God …” He paused as they went out onto the gallery, hunching his shoulders against the chill night air. “Let them put him to the rack and the hoist … I say it, though he’s my only son. To slay his wife, like a madman … just because her eyes lit up when dancing with another.”
Monna Clarissa wiped her eyes. “You mustn’t say that.”
“‘Judge not, that ye be not judged.’”
They started down the stairs.
“Isn’t that what our Lord taught?”
He bowed his head.
The Minerbetti coat of arms, three daggers on a shield, was worked into the brickwork above his shoulder. Torches at the end of the courtyard gave light but not color to walls of bare stone. “This foul deed makes me forget myself.”
“You spoke in anger.”
He said nothing.
“Didn’t you, brother? … That’s not like you.”
“It isn’t,” he admitted.
The child stirred in his arms.
“Mamma …” came a small, sleepy voice.
The girl’s lashes fluttered. She rubbed her eyes with a fist.
He lowered her bare feet onto the pavement, keeping a hand on each shoulder. She stretched her thin bare arms, then slowly gazed around.
“You can’t see her, Raphaella.”
She came fully awake, and whirled on them.
The girl’s bright curious eyes flashed in the night. She had a high broad forehead and oval face, with thick brown hair spill¬ing over her shoulders, halfway to her waist. She tossed her head, a small fierce animal, alert and wary.
The nurse stooped down.
“What’d you see, dearie?”
“Shouting ... They were shouting ...”
“You went to mamma?”
The girl nodded.
“Father ... why’d he run away?”
The adults glanced at each other.
The girl gave a start, then turned to leap up the stairs.
The nurse caught her arm.
“Come here, girl.”
“Mind what you’re told,” sighed Messer Buonaccorso.
The girl twisted, struggling to escape, pummeling the nurse with her fists. The nurse lifted her and carried her down to the courtyard.
The child’s room was small and dark, under the arches.
“What’s she doing out of the nursery?” snapped Monna Clarissa. “You should have watched—”
“I can’t every minute,” the nurse protested.
They stood the girl in the middle of the floor, and lit can¬dles. She jerked away, retreating to a corner.
“Look,” said the nurse.
There was a spot of red on the girl’s nightgown. Messer Buonaccorso started. There was blood on her bare shoulder, too, where the gown slipped down.
Four years old, he thought.
“Change her clothes,” he ordered. “Wash her.”
He put a hand to his heart, and stumbled out to the court-yard.
“Lord, have mercy on us.”
He sat on the stone bench his grandfather had set between the trellis and the well, so many years ago. He wiped his brow ... Poor child ... and poor mother, he thought, mumbling a prayer for the repose of her soul. Forgive her sins, God ... if You can hear me ... and if she had any sins ... she was a kind, sweet-tempered lady, who loved her daughter ... and I—with all my faults!—never once had a harsh word from her ... not from the day she came to my house.
He closed his eyes.
He saw his son, tall, comely and dull-witted, shallow as the Arno at midsummer, an idler who had never settled down to any purpose in life. He heard the lad’s drunken laughter as he carried his wife across the threshold and kissed her, to the shouts of his companions ...
“Piero,” he whispered.
That had been six years ago.
And since then ... hadn’t he tried to stay out of their affairs? Hadn’t he told her, when she came to him weeping, that it was her task to please her husband, soothe him and make him gentler?
Shouldn’t he have done more, to prevent this?
He bowed his head.
His eyes were weary, under heavy lids. He was short, thick-set, with heavy jowls and coarse features. Often impatient, but seldom angry, he had the weary conviction that life was ruled by men’s foibles, not their minds.
Sons … why are they so different from their fathers?
He shook his head.
He looked up, in the moonlight, to find Monna Clarissa standing over him. Her narrow eyes, pinched features and perennially dour expression seemed even more homely than usual.
“What’s to become of the girl?” she demanded.
“I’ll care for her.”
“An old man like you?”
“I … owe it to her.”
“But … you’ve never even liked the child.”
“It’s my duty,” he frowned.
“Haven’t you told me, brother, that you feel empty, inside ... unable to love anyone?”
“Yet ... you still want to do this?”
He got up, with a shake of the head.
“Don’t argue with me.”
He turned his back on her, feeling the cold in his bones, and slowly climbed the stone steps to the second floor. Taking an oil lamp, he made his way through the dark hall, circling the long dinner table that stood empty now. His breath came heav¬ily, as his heart pounded in his veins. Monna Margherita’s chamber was in the far wing. The curtains were heavy, the bed wreathed in shadow. The dead woman still lay on the floor. Wearily he stooped, to touch her hand. Not yet cold. With a grunt he lifted her to the bed, and folded her arms across her breast. He stared at the crucifix on the wall, then took it down and pressed it into her hands.
“Rest in peace,” he prayed.
I wish I could.
Then he picked up the dagger.
It was long and thin, with a silver handle. His own, once, and his father’s before him. Now it was Piero’s.
He dipped it in a basin, and wiped it. A dark stain remained.
He stumbled back to his room, threw open a chest, lifted out an old cloak, and hid the dagger beneath it. Then he lay on his bed to spend what remained of the night in a fever of grief and shame.
The women rose at dawn to wash Monna Margherita’s body. There was a slash on one forearm, a cut in the left side, and a deep wound to the heart. They dressed her in a silk gown of mulberry brocade, tied a muslin cap around her head, then had servants fetch a coffin and place her in it. Carefully they combed the long dark hair around her shoulders.
“What about the girl?”
“I locked her in.”
“Good. Don’t want her underfoot—”
Messer Buonaccorso sent word to friends and relatives, made arrangements for the Mass, then went to his study to sink heavily into the stout chair behind his desk. Ledgers were piled high in one corner, gathering dust now that he paid others to manage his banks. He pushed aside a stack of papers, to rest his head on his hands. The tall latticed window stood open a crack. He got up after a while and gazed down into the street, brood-ing. The wintry sun came slanting over red tiled roofs, to fall across his face. He roused himself and went down to the nurs-ery.
He unlocked the door, trying to make no sound.
The girl was playing, in her black dress. A dark ribbon con-fined her hair. He watched as she hitched up her dress, intent on her game, then leaped across the floor. No sooner did she land on one tile than she sprang for the next, feet together. The next ... the next ...
He shook his head. “You ... can’t see her.”
“Mamma!” She tried to squeeze past him.
He stooped down to her.
What eyes! ... Not her father’s, but her mother’s ... deep brown … shining so brightly, with such a light in them that he felt a strange urge to talk to her as an equal.
He struggled for words.
“Come with me,” he sighed.
He led her across the courtyard, back upstairs to the hall. Servants had dragged in benches, scrubbing the floor till the red tiles shone. A thick Persian rug lay before the fireplace, brought years ago by camel and ship from the orient. In the morning light, floral designs of green, red and white formed gay patterns across the walls, interspersed with painted birds. But where the dinner table stood last night now stood a pair of trestles, with the coffin resting on them. Two huge wax candles burned at each end, sending twists of smoke up to the rafters. He pulled up a bench, and started to lift the girl.
She shook off his hands, to climb up herself.
Monna Margherita’s features were pale, except for a bruise around one eye.
The girl touched her hand.
“Your father …” How to explain it, he wondered? “He … killed her … with a knife.”
The girl blinked.
“She’s ... gone.”
Several minutes passed. Finally the girl turned, as tears trick-led down her cheeks.
“It’s ... God’s will,” he said.
“No.” Fiercely the girl shook her head.
“He took her to heaven.”
He bowed his head. “I wish I knew.”
“Tell Him to bring her back.”
“I say He can’t.”
She frowned, mistrustfully.
“Are you ready to go?”
He sat on a bench, to ease the pain in his joints. He watched her ... feeling a little affection, in spite of himself ... even a touch of pride. She seemed small, frail, alone ... in a world she didn’t understand. But she was willing to fight. She hadn’t given up ... as he had. She hadn’t resigned herself to hopelessness or despair. That would be her fate, though, in years to come. She would give up ... as all men had to, when life proved too much for even the stoutest heart.
He became lost in thought, slipping as old men do into memories of the past, of days long gone when he had traveled across Italy and beyond the Alps to set up branches of his bank, to finance trading ventures across the Mediterranean, to Cy-prus, Spain, and England. He even recalled his youth ... and his wife, long gone. It had been an arranged marriage that never blossomed into love, but he had cherished a mild affection for her, long ago … I’m a fool, he told himself. I haven’t thought of her in years ...
He heard mourners arriving downstairs.
The nurse bustled in awkwardly, carrying a basket. She was stout, in her forties, missing a few teeth, with bulbous nose and foolish grin. “There you are!” She grabbed the girl by one ear. “Come along ... See! your hair’s messed—”
The nurse tugged at her, but the girl resisted.
“Stop, girl! It ain’t seemly—”
Messer Buonaccorso bent down.
“Will you sit quietly? ... Then I’ll let you stay.”
The girl nodded, falling silent at once.
“It’s no good givin’ in to her whims,” the nurse shook her head.
She shuffled off, muttering, then remembered to come back and make the sign of the cross.
There were footsteps on the stairs. He rose to greet the mourners.
They filed in, nodding solemnly to Messer Buonaccorso and pressing his hand, then pausing to cross themselves before the body before finding a seat. The girl ignored them, as they ignored her. She continued to stare toward the coffin.
Monna Clarissa, eyes red, gray hair arranged under a pearl-studded cap, knelt before the coffin. When she was done praying she reached out to Raphaella’s cheek.
“Don’t!” The girl jerked away.
Monna Clarissa pursed her lips, and sat next to her brother. She was short, thickset, her nose too long, eyes too closely spaced, frowning disapproval of a world that could never live up to her expectations.
There were whispered explanations to be given to relatives and, of course, to Ser Alessandro, to tell him how his daughter had died. Ser Alessandro, a merchant of the older generation, stood in a great black mourning cloak, his time-ravaged face expressionless as a stoic’s. He wrinkled his brow, but said nothing.
When it was time to take up the coffin, Messer Buonaccorso held out a hand.
Ser Alessandro pretended not to see it.
They both advanced, to shoulder the front of the coffin. An uncle and cousin took up the rear.
They carried their burden down to the street and placed it on a wagon. A black-robed priest raised a tall silver crucifix in both hands and led them on foot through the narrow streets, as they recited psalms and prayers. The bells tolling at Santa Maria Novella grew steadily louder as they approached. At length they reached the great square before the church, took up the coffin and climbed the worn steps. Already four generations of the family lay entombed here; and now laborers raised the stone slab of the crypt once more, as a new place was made ready.
The glow of candles filled the chapel, failing to dispel the gloom from air heavy with incense.
They sat on benches as the bishop droned through the Mass in a dull, singsong voice. The women dabbed at their eyes. The girl sat between the nurse and Monna Clarissa. Most of her hair was tucked under a cap, but several strands spilled down her back. Usually she fidgetted and protested against the boredom of church. But today she sat solemnly under the frescoes, the mosaics, the tall columns and striped arches.
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine
Et lux perpetua luceat eis.
(Eternal rest grant to them, Lord,
And may perpetual light shine upon them.)
When she tired of sitting, she drew up her legs to hug her knees. Monna Clarissa noticed, and swatted the girl till she put her legs back down.
Libera nos, quaesumus, Domine,
Ab omnibus malis
Praeteritis, praesentibus, et futuris …
(Deliver us, we pray, Lord,
From all evil
Past, present, and to come …)
They knelt, bowing their heads, as the bishop in dark robes elevated the Host, raising it high above his head. A choir of voices chanted monotonously. As the last echoes died away the bishop approached to offer prayers for the dead woman’s soul, sprinkling the coffin with holy water. Clouds of incense from the deacon’s censer filled the air, as they lowered the coffin into the crypt.
Monna Clarissa handed the girl a bunch of flowers. She had coached her beforehand, to scatter them over the coffin.
Raphaella stared, as though not understanding.
Numbly the girl opened her fingers. The blossoms fell down into the crypt.
They stepped back. With a heavy thud workers fitted the slab back into place.
“It’s over, girl.”
They returned home for the funeral dinner, which the laws of the city limited to two courses. There was a meat pie and a fish soup.
Family and guests sat around the tables, talking in muted tones, careful to speak only of everyday matters. No one wanted to be first to leave. No one ventured to speak of what had happened. Messer Buonaccorso studied the guests, through the noise of their desultory conversation. To dull our minds with the trite and commonplace, he thought, so we won’t have to brood—that’s what this is for ...
At length a cold amber glow fell through the latticed win-dows, as the sun touched the city wall to the west. One by one the mourners bowed and began to take their leave.
Ser Alessandro was last to go. Messer Buonaccorso reached out a hand.
Again the old man pretended not to notice.
“Forgive me,” Messer Buonaccorso sighed, under his breath.
“Nurse, see to the girl,” Monna Clarissa ordered.
The nurse undressed Raphaella and tucked her in her bed, then lay down on her own cot next to it. The girl stirred restlessly, hugging a pair of rag dolls to her side, but in a few minutes was asleep. Presently the nurse nodded off as well, her head sinking down on her ample bosom.
Upstairs in her bedroom Monna Clarissa lay down, ex-hausted, and slept without dreams.
Servants knew, without being told, that they could be lax in their duties. The house was still, the usual hustle and bustle forgotten, as though everyone needed an interval of quiet to come to grips with events.
Messer Buonaccorso sat at his desk all the next day, almost without moving. Occasionally he cast an eye over a stack of papers covered in thin spidery writing—the chronicle he kept, of political and military events that wracked the great world beyond his window. He had started the work several years ago, and had grown sufficiently proud of it to forbid servants to clean his desk, for fear they might disarrange the papers.
Raphaella hid from the adults. She concealed herself in a storeroom behind sacks of grain, burying her tear-streaked face in her arms, not heeding the nurse’s calls. They didn’t find her till nightfall, yet the girl refused food and ran straight to bed, hiding her head under a blanket.
But custom reasserted itself, as the family gradually returned to their normal routine. Messer Buonaccorso still rose early, though he read and wrote less than usual. The nurse, stolid as ever, sat musing, getting up as seldom as she could. Monna Clarissa slept longer than usual, but found fault more often.
Three days later came the feast of the Nativity. As for gen-erations before, peasants who farmed for the Minerbettis brought fattened chickens and capons, bushels of wheat and rice, along with casks of wine.
The house was busy again. Servants were content. Messer Buonaccorso had never been a hard master, Monna Clarissa was easily avoided or misled, and they knew that after the main meal they could enjoy a leisurely day, even share leftovers from the table.
One incident marred the festivities.
Around noon, the servant in charge of the door hurried up-stairs to seek out Messer Buonaccorso. He found him on the loggia overlooking the courtyard. The master stood with velvet cap in hand. A silver cross hung on a chain around his neck. He was gazing toward the red tiled roofs and brick towers that hid the bell tower of Santa Maria Novella. The servant halted behind him.
He cleared his throat.
“Your pardon, Messer Buonaccorso.”
There was no reply.
The silence became unnerving.
“There’s word, my lord.”
The old man didn’t turn. “What is it?”
“Your son … he’s surrendered to the police. An officer from the podestà is downstairs … He says there’s some question. He asks whether your son was wronged ... whether he had reason to act as he did.”
The old man bowed his head, the lines of his face deepening. For a long time he did not speak. “Too much,” he whispered at last. “I expected too much of life ... All men are bad, the phi-losopher said; and I … have sixty years’ bitter experience to prove it.”
“I’ve lived too long, it seems.”
He went down the stairs, past the storerooms. The smell of roast fowl rose from the kitchen. He went under the arches to his granddaughter’s room. The nurse was napping on a chair, snoring. He found Raphaella by herself, kneeling in her night¬gown, bent over with long brown curls brushing the floor.
He put a hand to her shoulder.
She was studying something that crawled in a crack between two tiles. An ant, he saw.
“A question for you.”
She raised her head, expectantly.
“If someone ... hurt you ...”
“Or ... someone you loved—”
He glanced out at the sky, then turned back to her.
“Should we ... forgive?”
She put a finger in the ant’s path, and watched as it turned aside.
“What do you say?”
She looked up, solemnly.
“A bad person?”
“Yes,” he sighed. “Bad.”
“They should be punished.”
“So be it.”
He got up, shakily.
A maid was sweeping the flagstones around the well, gather-ing dried leaves fallen from the trellis. He went down the dark passage to the street. The short walk seemed to take forever; he had aged these past few months. I’m growing old, he thought, useful for nothing, memory fading and strength all gone.
Or almost gone.
There were heavy clouds and little light in the sky. The air smelled damp from the nearby Arno, and he could hear wagons loaded with goods trundling down the Via dei Tornaquinci at the end of the street.
The messenger from the podestà stood waiting, a tall grim-faced man. Behind him a man-at-arms held a banner on a staff, bearing a red fleur-de-lys.
“Well, Messer Buonaccorso?”
“Tell the podestà …” He looked off into the distance. “Tell his Excellency ... don’t send the body here. There’s the potter’s field, when he’s done with it.”
Copyright (c) 2012 by Bill Bucko