olive branches

7. I remain your steadfast friend — Maria Grazia

Cara Mia Caterina,

Your note was brought to me on the wings of an angel! Sweet Aede took a great risk in bringing it to me but how I thank God that she did. Who knew our little friend had such courage? And dare I say we two are quite clever for creating a cipher. It was your brilliant idea, beloved sister, and I am forever grateful for it. I hope I do not tempt fate when I say that the suore would have an easier time understanding the language of songbirds. And yet, you were wise to conceal it. Rousing even a glimmer of suspicion in Suora Benedetta and we risk being separated for good. And that I could not bear!

These days in the dispensary have been the longest of my life, and I fear that I shall not be released for another two days, at least. The harvest brings much work with it and Suora is determined to make use of the bounty from our precious cloister gardens. Every day is spent picking, plucking and digging. (I have been pricked by so many thorns I almost believe the plants know they are to be chopped, crushed and boiled in a pot!) Every evening is spent sketching the plants and fruits (this part I quite enjoy) and memorizing their names (this part I am less fond of). Last night we stayed up to greet the sun, stirring and straining one of Suora’s tonics, reciting the Pater Noster exactly fifty times. Suora says timing is as important as the ingredients themselves. Make a mistake and a tonic is rendered useless or even poisonous. Oh, how rancid was its odor, but Suora insists it will save many of us from going to our graves when winter comes over the mountains. I confess that I fell asleep once, mid-stir, wooden spoon in my hand. Suora Benedetta woke me with a rap on my hand (I bear the mark of it still) and reminded me that we are doing God’s work not brewing mead for a feast. Lack of sleep makes Suora quite irritable. She did put a salve on my hand so she is not without some pity!

I am doing my best to make Suora proud of me — but there is so much to learn! Each herb, fruit, flower and root has its own usefulness and danger. Suora says that no one shall ever know everything about God’s creation. But, she says, I must at least know enough to tell verbena from mandrake. That is, I must know enough not to kill someone. How I am glad for Suora’s humor (such as it is!) for each time I begin to despair that I will never be of any use in the dispensary, Suora makes me laugh. Oh, Caterina, how I do want to be of use someday.

My heart aches to know that you shiver at night. I am lucky to sleep on a pallet by the fire. My father once said that a benefit of being an apothecary is that there is always a brewing fire nearby to warm you. But, oh, how Suora snores! Like a boar in his den! I wish with all my heart that we were together again, Caterina, whispering to each other and laughing when we should be sleeping. I miss the sound of your voice and the smell of lavender that fills our cell.

We must be patient, for we will see each other again, soon. To help pass the time, I have drawn a labyrinth for you. I dare you to solve it before I see you again. The winner shall do the other’s chores for a week. (As long as we are not found out!) Please accept the challenge, Caterina. It will give me great joy knowing that I vanquished your loneliness, even for just a little while. Know that I miss you as you miss me. I will give Aede a convent cake to sneak back to you. Suora treats me from time to time, but I will enjoy it more knowing that you and Aede will share it instead. I pray it will make Suora Bruna’s “porridge” easier to swallow.

Be strong, Caterina. Perish not, for without my dearest friend, life would be lost for me, too. Listen for my words each night, Caterina. I will speak them as if you were next to me. They will calm you, for they will be filled with love.

I remain your steadfast friend,
Maria Grazia


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