The days following Easter welcomed a soft, steady rain. The newly planted garden of Sant’Antimo drank in the water like a thirsty child. It was on one of these days, during the morning hour devoted to solitary reading, that Maria Grazia found her thoughts straying from her book of hours. She tried instead to write a letter to Caterina, but the words would not come. She usually loved this time for its particular silence but with so much life coming into evidence beyond her window, her small, dark room could not hold her.
Maria Grazia walked out into the gray morning, careful not to be seen by Suora Benedetta. The good sister would surely tell her to go back to her reading, lest she risk damnation or worse, catching a cold. Maria Grazia ignored the echo of the suora’s voice in her mind and went on. The rain never bothered Maria Grazia. She loved the feel of it, being touched by nature. She went to the garden and sat on the low stone wall beneath a makeshift shelter that Fratello Lorenzo had fashioned from a waxed cloth and some fallen branches. It did a fine enough job keeping her dry. She had her wimple, too, such as it was. She smiled as she remembered how Caterina once said the wimple’s only practical purpose was to keep one’s hair dry on a rainy day.
Maria Grazia missed her friend dearly, but she was happy. Happy and proud of the work she was doing. She was tired, too, from long days spent toiling in the garden, followed by late nights of study in the apothecary. She had learned so much at the side of Fratello Lorenzo that she felt like a another person somehow. Her mind filled with so many new recipes, methods and stories, each one leading to another and another like an endless thread. She was exhilarated by knowledge and wanted more.
This was one of her favorite times in a garden. It was quiet and still, with so much yet to be revealed. She watched the first seedlings tremble at the touch of rain. She watched a pattern of raindrops grow like little paw prints on the rich black soil. But it was what she could not see that thrilled her most. Beneath the ground, in dark, dank spaces, were the seeds waiting to be born. The whole power of a plant, its flower and fruit, season after season, year after year, were contained in each one. So small and silent, yet each seed held inestimable power, unbeknownst to the world. But Maria Grazia knew.
Her face lifted to the darkening clouds and she contemplated the earth and sky, inextricably linked. She welcomed the touch of gentle rain on her face then heard a familiar voice that she had come to love.
“You’re going to catch a frightful cold,” called Fratello Lorenzo.
She looked up to see the gentle brother walking towards her in his usual gate, as if his mind were two steps ahead of his feet. He held two cups containing, she could guess, hot water, lemon and honey. She also knew that he carried biscuits in his pockets. It was their daily allowance of luxury. Their secret.
“It’s a warm rain,” she answered with a smile.
“For now, but the wind is picking up,” he replied. His look was filled with consternation but his tone was less than convincing.
She smiled and took the cup he offered her. “The tea shall keep us warm, and we wouldn’t want the biscuits to go to waste.”
“That would be a sin.” He winked and dug into his pockets for the biscuits. He pulled them out and brushed off bits of leaves and brambles, evidence of samplings he had gathered on his walks, and handed her one.
“As grave a sin as stealing?” Maria Grazia teased the friar, for she knew well that he had taken them when the cook’s back was turned.
“I forgive us.” He said, sitting down beside her.
They shared a perfect silence, looking out at the garden slowly fading into the gathering mist. After a few moments, the friar spoke. “You have done fine work, Maria Grazia.” She smiled at him, her eyes shining with the clear, bright happiness only youth can muster, and it made his heart glad. “The garden will offer sustenance and comfort to Sant’Antimo, not to mention the souls we serve. I — we — shall miss you.”
“I owe you a world of gratitude, Fratello. You have taught me more in a few weeks than I have learned in all my time at Santa Giulia. If the garden gives you half as much as it has given me, I shall feel that I have begun, in a very small way, to repay your kindness.”
“You have repaid whatever kindness given tenfold.” He had hoped that his words would offer comfort and yet her smile slipped away.
“Have I said something wrong?”
Her eyes filled with tears.
“Oh, I have done. Forgive me, Maria Grazia. It is never my intention to cause you sadness.”
“I have done it to myself.” She tried to regain herself, but failed miserably.
“What do you mean?” He asked, but she was silent. Not knowing what else to do or say, the friar stood. “Let us walk. That always cheers you.”
“What of the rain?” she asked.
“It is a warm rain,” he replied, echoing her words and bringing the glimmer of a smile back to her lips. They set off down the path toward the orchard. After a few moments, he braved a question.
“What plagues your heart, Maria Grazia?” When she did not answer, he stopped and took her hand. “What burdens you so?”
His hand felt as she imagined it would. Warm and weathered from work. Strong enough to turn the earth. Gentle enough to calm a sick child. She had watched him do both so many times and now his hand brought both strength and comfort to her. His touch filled her with joy shadowed by a faraway sadness that loomed in the distance like a storm. She guessed he felt the same, for he held her hand for a moment before letting it slip away. They did not move a muscle, almost as if they expected the ground to shift beneath them if they did. The friar was without words, and so, to break the unbearable silence, Maria Grazia spoke the words she feared most. “My heart is torn.”
“A heart as pure as yours could never be so.” His words seemed to sting instead of soothe. “Please, Maria Grazia, tell me. What is it?”
She saw that her silence pained him so she dared to say, “I do not wish to return to Santa Giulia. I wish to stay here.”
His eyes widened and Maria Grazia searched them for meaning, but they revealed only a flurry of confusion.
“I am to leave in two days and the thought of it,” she stopped herself, then continued, “That is what plagues me heart.”
A thousand words flooded his mind, yet he could share only two. “I see.”
“Do you wish me to leave?” She asked.
His eyes, which had been fixed on her lovely face, now stared at the ground. He so desperately wanted to meet her gaze but he was not brave enough.
He said simply, “No. But you must.”
“Am I not useful here?” She countered.
“You will be of even more use at Santa Giulia.”
A moment passed before he dared bring up a subject he knew would strike at her heart.
“What of Caterina? Will you not be pleased to see her again?”
“That is what rips at my heart,” She answered, pounding her breast. “All the time I have been here I have barely had a thought that has not been answered by her voice in my head. When I left Santa Giulia it was if my heart was split in two. Now, when I leave here, Sant’Antimo shall hold the other half.”
He thought of his own heart. Then, what must have been an act of divine grace, he was compelled to speak the only truth Maria Grazia needed to hear.
“One’s heart, especially yours, is stronger than you can imagine,” he said.
“Why must it be tested so? Will it be tried again and again until it shatters?”
“Maria Grazia,” he said gently, “Your heart is invincible.”
“No, Fratello, it is only human.”
He felt the catch of breath in his throat before speaking, endeavoring to ease her mind, if not mend her heart.
“Think of all that you have learned and what that means to the suore and the people they serve. We do not know how long you will be at Santa Giulia, so it is important you learn all you can.” He realized then that they had never spoke of what path Maria Grazia’s life had been set upon. He dared to ask, “Do you know of your father’s plan?”
She looked as if she had been stung.
“As my father has a name but no fortune, suitors are either too poor or too costly. I suppose I might have more chance of wearing a suora’s veil than that of a bride.”
The thought of Maria Grazia staying in the fold, where they could work side by side for all the years ahead brought him a flush of happiness chased by a flood of shame. He gave the staid response of a cleric to pull himself from his troubled reverie, “You must have faith that whatever path your father sets forth, it will in fact be forged by God. Thus, it will be the right one. After all, it has led you to be an apothecary.”
“Apothecary,” she repeated the word and the light returned to her eyes. “Do you see me as an apothecary, Fratello?”
“That is what you are,” he answered.
The wind grew stronger and the soft rain turned cold. Maria Grazia felt the chill reach through her tunic. Her wimple failed its purpose and her hair was soon soaked through.
“Maria Grazia, we must go back.” He warned, reaching for her arm but she was farther from him than he thought.
“What is to become of me?”
“I am certain only that you are catching cold,” he said it jokingly, but he meant every word. “You must have faith,” he added, reaching for her again but she walked away, deeper into the orchard.
“I will become the wife of a man I do not love. Or I will take the veil without having been called by God. Those are the only paths available to me.”
He hurried to keep pace with her. Finally, she stopped and Fratello Lorenzo saw that her tears flowed freely with the rain falling upon her face.
“Your knowledge is a blessing, Maria Grazia. A worthy man will be grateful for it. And if you are to take the veil, your worth is already known, and valued.” He wanted to say more, of how he cherished it most of all, but he held his tongue.
“But I do not hear God’s voice calling to me. I listen and I pray but I do not hear it. He is silent.”
“What do you hear?”
“The rain. The wind. The birds. Caterina’s voice. Your voice.”
“God very rarely uses words, Maria Grazia. We can most often hear Him in the sounds we love. Or in a feeling, a tug at the heart, if you will, that has no voice and yet resonates within you. As if your own soul is calling to you.”
This next part was difficult for her to say but as she began talking, it felt as if a vision of her life began to take form. “I do not wish to marry anyone. I long to be an apothecary. Not as a suora but as myself. I can bear the wimple, but not the veil.”
“Do not worry about what lies ahead. Right now, we are in this orchard, surrounded by God’s creation. Just two apothecaries. We sow. We reap. We learn. But we will never know what the future holds. Trust that God has given you a gift so that you may use it.”
“I hope you are right, Fratello, but hope can be quite terrible when you know it can be so easily vanquished.”
“Perhaps, but God’s love never can be.”
Maria Grazia began to sob with relief, her head in her hands. In his heart Fratello wondered if fate would prove him a liar.
He walked towards her and she did not pull away. Instead, she let him cover her in his cloak and she leaned into him. He smelled of grass and fresh earth, a scent that would return to her unexpectedly all the days of her life. He held her close and lead her down the path, back towards the Abbey. She shivered and coughed, and he realized how ill she might be when she did not seem to notice the wet garment’s weight nor the weight of the impropriety.
He led her back to the monastery, straight to the kitchen where he sat her in a chair by the fire. Suddenly, all his training left him and he did not know what else to do. He finally thought to look for Suora Benedetta but she found him as she walked into the kitchen. Her eyes went straight to Maria Grazia, huddled and silent by the hearth.
“Have you been making this child work in the rain, Fratello!?” she chided him.
He fumbled for a response and Maria Grazia tried to speak in his defense but she gave a deep, rattling cough.
“Come with me,” Suora Benedetta said to Maria Grazia as she lifted her from the chair and walked her to the infirmary. She shot Fratello Lorenzo a look filled with disdain and disappointment. He started to follow them when Suora Benedetta shot back, “You have done quite enough,” as she led Maria Grazia away.
Soura Benedetta helped Maria Grazia out of her damp clothes and dressed her in a fresh gown and covered her head in a warm cloth. Maria Grazia would not remember anything beyond being put into the soft, clean bed and hearing Suora comfort and reprimand her at the same time, as only a nun can do.
For the next five days, Suora Benedetta cared for Maria Grazia, never leaving her side. She wiped her brow, watched over her fitful sleep and sighed with relief when the sickly pallor faded and the rose returned to her cheeks. All the while, Fratello Lorenzo prayed and sought forgiveness from God as well as the nun. Suora Benedetta was not doling any out to the friar, but a few sugared figs did weaken her resolve to stay cross with him. She allowed him to sit by Maria Grazia’s bed for an hour each day, at which time he read to her from his herbal, which he had hidden in the pages of his bible. (Maria Grazia had taught him that trick.) It was on the day that her fever broke that he had to plague her with distressing news.
That morning he appeared at the infirmary’s door and beamed at the sight of Maria Grazia sitting up in bed. Suora Benedetta was standing beside her, filling a cup with fresh water.
“Good morning!” he exclaimed.
“Shhh!” scolded Suora Benedetta. “We mustn’t have any excitement. Her fever has barely broken.”
“Yes, of course, Suora. Right you are,” he whispered.
Maria Grazia muffled a laugh and rolled her eyes behind the suora’s back. As she left the room, Suora Benedetta gave Fratello Lorenzo a stern look, which softened only slightly when he handed her two freshly baked biscuits.
“Hmph,” she snorted and out she went out.
“What shall we eat?” Maria Grazia said. “Now that you have given our biscuits away?”
“I am just so happy that you would care for one. I have had to eat two biscuits every day that you have been sick,” he said, patting his belly.
“Your sacrifice is truly noble, sir.” Maria Grazia laughed a wonderful laugh. He felt the darkness ebb from his heart, which only made it harder to tell her the news.
“I am leaving today,” he said quietly.
“Oh,” she replied, her face falling. “Where are you going?”
“I have been summoned,” he began, “by a friend.” He struggled on. “To perform a wedding.”
“You will be back,” she said in her sweet way.
He had never told her that the parish of Verona was where his roots lay, and that he was being called home for a very long time, if not for good. When he did not speak, she searched his eyes. “What is it?” She asked.
He would reflect on this moment many times over the course of his life, and wonder what would have happened if he had told her what was in his heart. Instead, he fixed the image of her face in his mind and spoke as he thought God would have him speak. “I am just so very grateful to God that you are well.”
She placed her hand on his. “He is not the only one who heard your prayers.”
Suora Benedetta approached and they pulled their hands away.
“No reading from the herbal today?” Soura asked to their surprise.
They could not help but laugh, and Fratello Lorenzo tried very hard to remember the sound of Maria Grazia’s laugh so he could recall it all the days of his life.
Back in Santa Giulia, Caterina sensed that something was wrong. She had dreamed of a storm and then Maria Grazia and Suora Benedetta had not returned when expected. There were rumors among the novitiates that Suora Benedetta and Maria Grazia might be required to stay on permanently at Sant’Antimo. Caterina felt an ache of fear that she would never see her friend again. Caterina also felt a new and troubling emotion: the seeds of anger of being left behind.
Then the morning came when Aede rushed into her room with news. A carriage was approaching. Caterina jumped from her bed, certain that it was Maria Grazia at last. The two girls ran through the cloister and across to the abbey gates. They watched the carriage approaching in a cloud of dust. Suddenly the joy drained from Caterina. She recognized the carriage immediately. It was her father’s. Fear, not joy, overtook her heart. A sense of foreboding washed over her, rather than run to greet her Lord and Father she ran to the refuge of her cell. She cursed Maria Grazia for not being there. In her confusion she began to cry. The panic rising within her was so strong that she wondered if she could run or hide.
It was Aede who came to collect her.
“Your Father awaits you in the Madonna’s chambers.” Her face was tight with effort at not crying.
“Why has he come? What is his desire?” Caterina cried out.
“I know not, Caterina. I am to bring you to Madonna’s chambers.” This came out shakily and Caterina wondered if Aede was speaking the truth.
Caterina washed her face with the water in her basin and straightened her wimple. She took a deep breath and exited her cell.
As she tread down the long stone march to the Madonna’s meeting chamber her legs felt hollow and soft. Her Father had last written that he was weighing the options for her future: a bride of Christ or a bride of man? Her future hung in the balance on her father’s scales, as if he were measuring a gold florin for proper heft. Now she would find out what his reckoning had concluded.
Aede opened the door to the chamber, which was dim with the light one taper and the brazier. Caterina’s father, attired in his traveling vestments, sat next to the Madonna. He looked tired from his journey. He appraised Caterina as she entered, not as a loving father but as a merchant eyeing his goods.
“You are thin, Caterina.” He said as a matter of fact, no concern in his voice.
Caterina did not know how to respond to this greeting, choosing to ignore it she said, “Good morrow, Father. I hope your journey was not too arduous.” Ending with a quick kiss on his cheek and a small curtsy.
“The Madonna and I have been discussing your future, child. I am come to bring you home. You are to be wed in a month’s time. Gather your things, we leave today.”
Relief followed quickly by sadness and fear, ran through Caterina’s body. So many questions raced through her mind that she was unable to form a response.
“Have you nothing to say, daughter?” Her father prompted, a look of irritation spreading across his face.
“I have so many questions I know not where to begin.” She replied.
“We will have time enough to discuss everything on our journey. Pack your belongings. We leave after midday mass.”
Caterina went back to her cell and gathered her things. She was surprised by how little she had.
After mass, Aede accompanied Caterina to the gates of the Abbey where Lord Interminelli awaited at the carriage. The Madonna embraced her and the novitiates pretended to cry.
Aede and Caterina looked upon each other, trying not to cry. They kissed and hugged, knowing not if this was their last time together on this earth.
Caterina pulled away and said, “Be good, dear sister,” then added, as brightly as she could, “But not too good.” Aede laughed and Caterina was happy that the image of her friend laughing would be the one she would be left with.
“Can I help you in some way?” asked Aede.
Caterina thought a moment. “Yes, there is one thing.”
Caterina left Santa Giulia as she had arrived; in a sort of dream state. As the carriage pulled away from the Abbey, Caterina looked back and waved to her friend and watched her grow smaller and smaller until she disappeared into dust.
When Maria Grazia returned to the abbey a week later, she was greeted by an empty room. She wondered if it was a joke, Caterina’s way of telling her that she had been gone too long. But then Aede appeared at the door and as the two hugged, Aede told Maria Grazia what had happened. Perhaps Aede told her as she held her because she could not bare to see the look in her eyes, or perhaps she feared her friend would collapse from grief. Whatever the reason, Maria Grazia was grateful for the arms that held her as she felt the ground fall from under her feet.
Aede stayed with her until the bell rang for Nones prayer. Maria Grazia could not bring herself to go. She was alone. Everything that said, “Caterina” had disappeared. And then she found, tucked beneath her blanket, the pillow Caterina had sewn for her brother, but upon it now, perfectly stitched, were the letters: CMG.0