We hold each other’s gaze and share a smile that is filled with knowing. The sunlight flickers with the flutter of tiny wings and steals my attention. I look away for a moment, but it is long enough for her to disappear. When I turn back to her window, she is gone.
“Elizabetta!” Suora Zeta’s cry pierces the air.
I am pulled from the soft sunlight into the glare of an angry suora. She is standing outside the kitchen door, hands on hips, wimple flapping in the wind. If God ever knew fear it would surely be in the guise of an impatient holy woman.
I lift myself from the soft blanket of earth and pick up the basket of eggs. Then something catches my eye. Carved into the tree, ever so lovingly, are the letters CMG. Why have I not seen them before? I touch the C, the M, the G, smoothed by age.
“Elizabetta! Where are my eggs!”
I look back at her window for a sign, but I am alone. There is a rush in my heart followed by a wave of sadness. Madonna once told me that only one thing can make the two — joy and grief — occupy one’s heart. Love. No longer a stranger.
Running back to the kitchen, I feel a catch in my throat.
“Why are you crying, silly child?” Suora chides me as I hand her the basket.
I did not realize I was crying but now that I am, I do not know how to stop.
“Caterina, do you think it makes a difference whether one truly believes in God, or is it enough that one simply knows it is in one’s best interest to believe?’
“Makes a difference to whom, Maria Grazia?”
Caterina, lying in the grass beneath the tree, closed her eyes to the bright sunshine and shrugged. “I do not know. He is a mystery to me.”
“And to me. Do you think God will always be a mystery?”
“That is what they would have us believe. I suppose it’s easier that way.”
Maria Grazia wondered what she meant. “Easier?”
“Why, yes,” Caterina explained. “As long as God and everything unto heaven is a mystery then they don’t have to explain why we must wear these horrid clothes or kneel until our legs are black and blue. And they certainly do not have to explain why Suora Bruna smells of stewed carrots all the time.” Caterina was quite serious about her theory, but as the girls looked at each other they burst out laughing.
Maria Grazia always marveled at Caterina’s laugh. It was not the shy, little titter of a novitiate, but the round, full bellied laugh of a child. Sometimes, when she laughed hard enough tears would fill her eyes. Nothing made Maria Grazia happier than making her friend laugh, so it was not easy to deliver news that she knew would snuff it out.
“I am going away.”
Caterina fell silent as Maria Grazia continued.
“I shall be accompanying Suora Benedetta to the Monastery of Sant’Antimo. Fratello Lorenzo requires our assistance in planting his new gardens.”
Caterina eyes darkened. Maria Grazia so wanted to make her laugh again.
“He says our gentle hands and hearts are needed because his fellow brothers bruise the seedlings as if they were grabbing cups of wine.”
There was only silence. Maria Grazia continued.
“Frankly, I think Suora desires to take some of Fratello’s new seedlings home with us. Especially some calendula and mallow. We have not had much luck with ours. Fratello has also promised to show us how to make a new respiratory tonic that he has had much success with. I imagine—, ”
Caterina interrupted and said, almost convincingly, “That’s wonderful, Maria Grazia. You are becoming indispensable to her, as I said you would.”
“And you are indispensable to me.”
They smiled and yet the light had left both their faces.
Caterina broke the silence. “The time will rush by. You will see. I will be quite busy. I am almost done with the tablecloth I am embroidering for father and his new wife. Really, I might not have the chance to notice you are gone, at all.”
A moment passed. “When do you leave?”
“Tomorrow at first light.”
“Oh,” Caterina said quietly. “When do you return?”
“When the garden is done, I suppose.”
“You shan’t be here for Easter?”
“I do not know.”
“You will be back, though?”
“Of course. The fratelli will want to be rid of us as soon as the garden is planted. I am sure of it. You know how uncomfortable the suore make the fratelli, with their unrelenting religion.”
She was sure that would make Caterina laugh, but no.
Finally, Caterina spoke again. “Work quickly, won’t you?”
“As quickly as I can,” assured Maria Grazia.
The girls watched the wind playing among the bright young leaves of the tree.
“This was such a perfect day,” sighed Caterina.
“It still is, dear friend,” replied Maria Grazia. Caterina did not look at her. Maria Grazia searched around for something, and came up with a small rock. “In fact, it is so perfect that we shall commemorate it.” She began to scratch the tree with the rock.
Caterina looked up. “What are you doing?”
“You’ll see.” Maria Grazia finished then stood back, revealing her handiwork: the letters CMG carved into the tree.
Caterina looked at it closely, then ran her fingers along the letters. “CMG.”
“Yes, for always. Us two.”
“Us two,” Caterina smiled.
Maria Grazia was about to speak when the sound of bells rang out, calling them to Vespers.
The words burst from Caterina, “Again!? Surely not so soon!?”
“It is Lent. Time moves at a different pace.”
“I shan’t go.”
“Oh, Caterina, you say that every time.” Maria Grazia stood and wiped the dirt from her sheath.
“What if we climbed the tree? No one would find us.”
“It’s the first place they’d look. We are not so mysterious, you and I.”
“Fine. I’ll go to chapel. But I shan’t hurry.”
“Of course not,” Maria Grazia sighed, “but that means I shall get there before you!” And off she took like the wind.
“Maria Grazia!” Caterina cried as she scrambled to her feet and chased after her friend. They could not help but laugh as they ran to chapel, their spirits finally lifted. Their laughter ended only when they were at the heavy chapel doors. They could hear the suore already beginning to sing in worship. Caterina and Maria Grazia did not move. They listened for a moment and exchanged a look that saw into a future. A future that started with them leaving the abbey at that very moment. While everyone else was kneeling in reverence, they would walk away. Together. To see what life held for them: friendship, freedom, the unknown, their own. Never having to be silent again. The look held a million emotions, but the strongest of these — fear, duty, doubt — shared but unspoken — cast a shadow about the girls that made them open the chapel doors and take their places with the others.
The next morning, Maria Grazia left before Caterina awoke. She could not bear a tearful goodbye. Even more, she was afraid of one without tears. She and Suora Benedetta walked to the village where they were met by carriage. Sour Benedetta insisted that they walk instead of being met at the abbey because she said she liked to stretch her legs before a long ride. Maria Grazia knew it was because she liked to pick flowers along the path. Maria Grazia welcomed the chance to walk, too. Somehow leaving under one’s own power was less painful than being carried away.
For Caterina, the days at the abbey crawled along a constant cycle of prayer, silence, and sewing. For Maria Grazia, the days at the monastery sped by in a joyous turn of planting, pruning, mixing and learning. Caterina thought of Maria Grazia often, mindful of the cold space in their half-empty bed. Whenever Maria Grazia thought of Caterina it was with a pang of guilt for not thinking about her more often. Her thoughts were so filled with newfound knowledge and the excitement of finding oneself to be useful.
Easter showed itself in two vastly different worlds. The monastery of Sant’Antimo celebrated the holiest day with all the pageantry the fratelli could muster. The church was festooned with swaths of purple and white silk, and blooms of wild flowers. A chorus sang with joy and a hundred parishioners filled the benches. After mass, the fratelli’s table was filled with platters of roasted lamb, Easter cakes, and mugs spilling over with wine. Family and friends joined them for the joyous meal and afterwards, Fratello Luigi played the organetto as everyone sang.
At the Abbey Santa Giulia, things were quite different. The suore awoke in darkness, as they always did, and made their way to their simple chapel. They prayed and sung with joy. Quietly. Old Fratello Romolo from the village parish delivered the Eucharist. Suora Bruno prepared a meal of lamb and potatoes, followed by her famous crescie, which the suore washed down with mead, their one indulgence. Fratello Romolo did not join them, for his family was expecting him for dinner in the next village. Afterwards, the novitiates, younger suore, and some of the older ones who had not outlived all their relatives, repaired to the rectory to receive visitors. They walked the gardens, sat in the shade, laughed and talked, almost remembering who they had been before they took the veil. All but one. Caterina, alone, did not receive anyone that day. Her father had sent word that they would miss her at the family’s Easter celebration. He thought it best that she remain at the abbey. Caterina reminded herself that she had never cared for Easter.
Reborn or not, Christ was gone.