I hear the whispers. She did not finish her broth. She missed vespers again. She grows weaker.
The voices carry to the top of the stairs. These whispers heard through walls of stone. I close the door so Madonna cannot hear them, but she can sense them. I know she can, for I can, too. That is the nature of whispers. They hang still and heavy in the air like a fog that seeps into your bones.
It is only a matter of time. We should send for Fratello Pietro.
The words quicken my heart. The tray in my hands will betray her — the bread and broth, untouched. A plot seizes me. I sit on the stairs and eat, not from hunger but from duty. I swallow the dry bread and finish the bland broth to quell the rumors and silence the silent, even if it is only for a little while.
I hear Suora Zeta shuffling below me as she stokes the fire beneath her soup pot. From the smell, I guess she is making onion broth again. They wonder why Madonna does not eat?
Where is that girl? She tires Madonna with her hovering. Suora Valentina, go fetch her.
I bolt to my feet and the tray slips from my lap and crashes to the steps below. Suora Zeta, her face red with anger, appears at the bottom of the stairs.
“Elizabetta!” She bellows in a loud whisper. “You clumsy fool. Pick up the tray and…” She sees no evidence of food scattered on the floor. “Madonna finished her meal?”
“Yes, Suora,” I lie, my eyes fixed on the floor as I pick up the tray.
“How did you find her?” She whispers.
“Very well,” I reply and add, “She said the bread was a bit dry.”
I gather too much joy from the second lie and say a silent prayer for forgiveness. Suora Zeta scowls at me, unable to disagree with the word of the Madonna. I enter the kitchen under the gaze of the other suore working busily over pots, kneading dough, chopping vegetables. One brave suora asks, “How is Madonna?” But I know what they are all thinking, “Thank God it is you that must walk so close to death.” They do not realize I have never felt more alive.
“Go fetch the eggs, Elizabetta,” Suora Zeta orders, “We must start the crescie before Pasqua has come and gone.”
She hands me the basket and as I venture outside, she calls to me.
“Stop swinging the basket, Elizabetta. If you do that when it is filled we will have crushed eggs and nothing but broth and bread for Pasqua.”
“Yes, Suora,” and off I go.
It is cold for spring, so the reward of venturing outside is more of a smite than a reward but I do not mind. I prefer the company of the wind to the skulking of whispers. The root cellar lies below the small barn, home to the abbey’s small menagerie of cows, pigs, chickens and a plump old cat, well-fed on mice and rats. To anyone it would seem that the animals live a more comfortable life than the suore who care for them. The animals sleep in warmth, eat as they like, and never have to set their knees on cold, hard stone.
My mission is clear: retrieve 40 eggs from the root cellar so that Suora Zeta can begin making the crescie for our Easter meal. It could not be more plain, and yet something else calls to me.
I want to see what they saw. I want to feel what they felt.
The pear tree stands bright in the cool sun. The tree, reborn every year, is in the first blush of youth. Tender new leaves bask in the light with only the promise of the fruit it will bear. It is such a simple tree and yet here it stands apart from the others. Alone in its own patch of the world.
I stretch out beneath it and feel the damp, cold ground against my skin. It is the same ground, is it not? A different blanket laid out across it, year after year, but the ground itself, the one that felt their presence and heard their laughter, is the same. It is the same sun. The same sky. Only the flotilla of passing clouds has changed. I am in the tree’s embrace and yet I feel so very alone.
“How did they find friendship in such a place?”
Suddenly a little bird alights on a branch above me. It’s a finch, perhaps, or maybe a sparrow. So small, a collection of feathers and air, nothing more, really, and yet here it is. It is here. It does not merely exist alongside life. It catches the wind in its wings. Outsmarts the hawk, snatches the worm, or falls prey to the cat. What a magnificent, marvelous, tiny little creature, and here I lie, awash in tears. A fool. A lost fool, or maybe one that is finally seeing a path home and it frightens me. The bird flies off, back to the sky. My eyes follow him across the garden and up toward the abbey wall, and I see her. Standing in her window, Madonna is watching me as if she knew I would be here.