The Friar was lost again. Lost in his own thoughts. Like the scattering of seeds across a field, some musings took root and grew into long walks that stretched from daybreak past nightfall. Others were tossed to the wind and forgotten. Often they were of matters of science, the idiosyncrasies of the honeybee was a favorite or the medicinal preparations of the elder flower. There was the making of lists — favorite homilies (his own), subjects to explore (religious and scientific both), letters to write (many) — and, more than all the subjects he pondered, the friar was often lost to simple, inexplicable reverie.
His penchant for casting his mind adrift, to moor wherever it chose, made Fratello Lorenzo a puzzle to his fellow priests. A puzzle they found to be at turns curious, wearisome and invaluable. He often incited ire for missing vespers because he was studying a flower or gazing at stars, and yet many were the blessings he received for saving lives with a tincture or predicting a frost before it lay claim to an orchard. He was routinely sent away by his bishop for the dual purpose of increasing his knowledge of the natural world and lessening the chance that he would insult a visiting nobleman, as he did when he remarked that a Marchese showed signs of Saint Fiacre’s illness. Very few people ever understood what could be so entrancing about tracking the celestial journey of a cloud or distinguishing the markings of birds nesting in the eaves. What everyone understood, without question, was that Fratello Lorenzo had a gift.
Such was his gift that he could see things others could not, like the young woman who crossed the snow-blanketed garden again and again one morning to fetch kindling from the woodshed. While anyone else might have seen a dutiful Oblate fetching wood to tend to the abbey’s fires, Fratello Lorenzo could see that the girl never once brought wood anywhere near a hearth. He also noticed how the girl looked about nervously as she came and went, and that she tried to hide the kindling in her sleeves. There was also the matter of her hem, which was tattered. His curiosity tickled, Fratello Lorenzo followed the girl the next time she emerged from the shed to find out just what she was up to.
He stepped from the warmth of the dispensary into the cold light of day and followed the girl across the snow blanketed garden. He traced her steps along the cloister walk and through the kitchen, where he witnessed her lifting two dried figs from the table and slipping them under her tunic. The girl is a thief! he thought just before he helped himself to one, too. Out of the kitchen and through the refectory, Fratello Lorenzo silently followed the girl until she entered the dorter. This is where Fratello paused. The Dorter was the most cloistered area of the Abbey and men were not allowed to enter, and yet his curiosity bid him continue. He caught sight of the girl just as she entered a cell.
When he stepped in the doorway of the cell he was surprised to see his apprentice, Maria Grazia, and the thief erupting into laughter. He went unnoticed as the girl emptied her sleeves of kindling before handing Maria Grazia one of the stolen figs.
“Look! Figs for our troubles,” whispered the thief.
“What trouble could be greater than thievery?” Fratello Lorenzo announced.
“I am no thief,” said the girl, with a mixture of surprise, defiance and an ever so slight tinge of guilt.
“Fratello Lorenzo,” Maria Grazia gasped.
“Maria Grazia, what is happening here?” He asked.
Maria Grazia paused for a moment and then replied, none too convincingly, “Nothing, Fratello.”
“Maria Grazia, you are a terrible liar. It is one of your best qualities. Do not lose it.” It was then that he noticed something on the pallet in the corner of the cell. “What is that?”
He took a step closer and saw that it was a miniature Christmas crib, fashioned out of twigs, twine and cloth, dyed yellow. This explained at once the stolen kindling and the tattered hem. But what of the paint dye, Fratello wondered. “Ah, yes,” Fratello realized, “Indian saffron.”
Maria Grazia blushed.
It was the sweetest cradle he had ever seen. He picked it up and held it gingerly in his hands.
“It is delightful” he said. “How did you manage it?”
“Maria Grazia is very talented, Fratello Lorenzo.” said Caterina. “And I am very resourceful.”
“I would say so.” he said turning his gaze in full to the thief. “What is your name, my Lady?” For, although she was clad in the same simple garment that clothed all the women in the Abbey, it was obvious from her bearing that she was very well born.
“Caterina Interminelli of Lucca.” Caterina gave the Fratello an elegant curtsy — reaching nearly to the ground. She looked up at the Brother expectantly. Fratello Lorenzo, unaccustomed to such ceremony and unsure of the appropriate response, nodded his head in reply. Then feeling his response insufficient, wondered if he should bow or help the lady rise? He chose to attempt a deep bow whilst fumbling with the crib, nearly dropping the precious object on his way back up. Courtesies now being sufficiently concluded he returned his attention to the cradle.
“Truly marvelous,” he whispered as he turned the crib over in his hands, remarking on the intricate weaving of the twigs, the tiny pillow filled with straw, the little yellow blanket embroidered with flowers.
“Is this for the Abbey’s creche?”
“No, Fratello,” answered Maria Grazia. “It is for our friend, Aede. It is a Christ crib for her devotion.”
“What a lucky girl. Why do you bestow such a gift upon her?”
“She is a loyal and true friend, Fratello,” said Caterina, “and she has no family to speak of.”
Fratello Lorenzo considered the girls for a moment. Maria Grazia could not bear to meet his gaze. Caterina took her friend’s hand and looked Fratello bravely in the eyes.
“A transgression for the benefit of another, remains a transgression.” The Brother began working to fix a firm expression upon his face, concentrating especially upon his brows — hoping to demonstrate concern and sternness. But when the young women looked upon his countenance with such consternation, his heart broke, and he could not stop a smile from being released upon his his lips. “Maria Grazia and Caterina, although your means are less than honest, your desire is earnest and generous. I shan’t disclose your transgressions to the Abbess. This cradle will inspire years of devotion and contrite prayer for Suora Aede. Nothing that results thusly can be construed as a sin.”
He gently returned the crib to its rightful spot on the pallet. “I should not tarry any longer, my presence in your cell would not be welcomed if discovered. I’ll leave you now, and we shan’t speak of this again.”
Caterina in her relief offered the Fratello another deep courtesy to which he bowed, then bowed again, and they all seemed relieved as he exited the cell.
“Memories pull the mind to the past, but the Lord asks us to gaze to the future.”
Elisabetta is surprised to hear the thin voice, after having sat so long in silence.
“Madonna, I thought you were resting.”
“Not resting child, recollecting.”
“We were speaking of Fratello Lorenzo.” Elisabetta prompted, hoping to hear more from the Madonna of the infamous Friar.
“I was recalling a Christmastide when the good Brother was a guest at the Abbey. He made the celebration that much richer with his presence. Suora Bruna certainly worked to make the food more palatable–which was a welcome relief.”
“Were Christmases much the same at Santa Giulia then as now?”
“Yes much the same. Advent’s penury was concluded on Christmas Eve at evening song when the Abbess lit the Christmas candle as the Suore sang “Puer Natus es Nobis”. After Matins, we would break our Advent fast with a feast — baccala cakes, and cioppino. The next morning we would rise for morning mass, having slept through the holy offices of the night which were suspended on this day of celebration. The Christmas candle that burned throughout the night would show that half the first day of Christmas was already passed! We would feast at midday on the finest capeletti in all Brescia, a gift of the noble ladies of the town. And the year Fratello Lorenzo was our guest we were also provided with an entire boar from the forest, by the lords of the city! Even Suora Bruna could not destroy such delicacies! Wine flowed freely and we all slept soundly through the evening offices until at Prime we were awoken to resume our practice of the holy hours of devotion.”
“And so it is with us now.” Elisabetta sighs, before she realizes that she has spoken aloud what she meant only to think.
“And so it shall ever be my child.” The old woman turns to her aid and smiles.
“The days turn to weeks and then to years, and soon we are celebrating Christ’s birth again–another year past. And we…” The Madonna stops.
Elisabetta bites her tongue forcing herself not to speak, not to ask, “ ‘…and we’ what Madonna?” the phrase unspoken and unknown hangs in the room, the last chime of a bell rippling through the air, reverberating and then silent.
“He stayed for the entire winter.”
The winter was ferocious and the snow closed the mountainous passes until spring’s thaw. Fratello Lorenzo homesteaded at the Abbey rather than bunk with the brothers in Brescia. He preferred the company of the sisters of Santa Giulia and he and Suora Benedetta spent much of their time in the Dispensary creating tonics and planning the plantings for the spring. Fratello Lorenzo also took special interest in Maria Grazia’s training as an Apothecary. He saw that she had a natural gift, equal to his own, and he nurtured it.
Even once the snows had melted and spring began to show herself in the buds on the trees and the first green shoots in the garden, Fratello Lorenzo remained at the Abbey. A blight had taken hold of various vines and plants in the medicinal garden the previous fall. The rosemary had fallen prey to this assassin, as had other important plants. In order to save the Abbey’s healing garden the affected plants had to be pulled up, including the roots, the ground cleansed of the pestilence and prepared for replanting. Fratello Lorenzo sent away for clippings from his own famous herbal garden in Verona to replace what had been lost and to enrich the holdings with wolfsbane, mugwort, and Crocus Sativus.
When the winter snows had melted and the passage between Brescia and Verona was safe two of his fellow brothers came to our Abbey with the precious clippings and assisted in the replanting. Maria Grazia was so occupied with the planting, (having received special dispensation to miss the holy offices), rising at dawn to work in the garden all day, falling into the pallet and directly to sleep well after sundown. Only to rise again the next morning to do it all again. Caterina, left to the monotony of devotions felt abandoned by her friend again. She begged Aede to pass notes between the two girls amidst the back and forth of meal plates once more, and Aede, ever a devoted friend, acquiesced.
Eventually the planting was completed and the good Brother Lorenzo and his companions left the Abbey of Santa Giulia and returned to Verona. Only then was Maria Grazia allowed to resume the routine of the Abbey and her life with Caterina, her dearest friend. To celebrate they did what they always did–they shared what small treats they had under their favorite pear tree.
They had just sat down to enjoy some warm bread and butter, when they spied Aede.
“Look, Maria Grazia, our Aede approaches. What luck! Our conspirator makes our celebration complete and our humble picnic becomes a victory feast.”
“She looks very determined. Rarely a good sign in a novice.”
This made Caterina laugh, until she saw Aede’s face. The novice’s brow was furrowed and her breath was quick from running. In her hand was a letter.
“Aede,” Caterina called, “I hope Suora Lucia did not catch you running.”
“No, I went through the cellarium just as you taught me.”
“What a fine pupil you are, Aede. Come have some bread and butter.”
Aede didn’t react with delight, which slightly offended the two girls.
“Caterina, there is news from Lucca,” Aede said worriedly as she handed her the letter. “The messenger waits at the gates.”
“It bears my father’s seal,” Caterina said as she opened the letter and began to read. A pallor soon fell over her face. The letter was short , and like a dagger, cut to the quick.
“I am to leave the abbey.” The words fell like stones. “Mamma’s time approaches, and the babe growing within her makes her weaker by the day. My father has summoned me home to comfort her.”
The other girls were stunned. Caterina stood motionless, the memory of their shared celebration already fading in her mind.
“Caterina was sent home to Lucca that very day,” Madonna said softly, “and Maria Grazia was left behind.”
“And that was that?” said Elisabetta.
“No, that was not even the beginning.”