I am holding the knife in my hand, watching its gilded blade play with the light. I do not remember picking it up, but now that it is in my hand, heavy and warm from my skin, it feels as if it were made for me.
“That is the mark of a good knife,” Madonna says. “See how it rests in your hand? There is no fumbling for the grip. One treasures such things as one grows old. There are so many things in life one struggles to make fit when in the end all the effort is in vain.”
A slight grimace crosses her face as she strains to sit taller. I put down the knife and rise to help her, but she lifts her hand to stop me. She takes a breath and pulls herself up with more pride than strength. If pride be a sin may God forgive us both, for I am grateful for her vanity — indeed I pray for it — because I know it is all that keeps her rooted to this Earth.
I adjust the pillow behind her back and this she does not resist. Soft and warm and filled with goose down, its embroidery of flowers and fruits entwined in a vine provides the only color to Madonna’s pure white bed. I wonder if Madonna embroidered it herself or if it was a gift from someone who loved her dearly? My bed is but a small pallet, boasting nothing but a pillow of straw and a thin blanket, but I am happy for it, for it is mine alone. I suspect Madonna’s is the finest bed in the abbey, except perhaps for the newly arrived Novice from Milan. The Anziani say the abbey was once home (or prison as some novices would say) to many wellborn girls from as far away as Venezia. Some took the veil and became brides of Christ while others were kept here, pure and virtuous, until their families could broker a profitable marriage for them. Today, the story is much the same but our numbers are smaller and the devout far outnumber the noble.
“Madonna? Is there anything I can do for you?”
“You are doing it, Elisabetta.”
She smiles and I am struck by how lovely she is. Her face is lined but her eyes shine and her smile is as enchanting as a girl’s. We sit in silence for a few moments before she speaks again.
“This book holds more than prayers,” she says as of the Book of Hours in her hands. “It provides sustenance for the heart that God cannot provide.”
“What do you mean, Madonna?”
“The love of a friend. It can save you when prayer cannot.”
“Forgive me, Madonna, but how can that be so?”
“Do not misunderstand me, Elisabetta. Prayer cleanses our souls and it is prayer that puts us in the loving hands of God. It is through prayer that we are blessed — from our first breath summoned by our mothers’ prayer, to our last that carries us to heaven on a friar’s prayer. But God’s love is often a mystery, and the times we need Him most are often the times when He feels the farthest away. We grasp for the hand of God only to feel forsaken. But Elisabetta,” She says, taking my hand and holding my gaze as though she wants me to remember every word she is about to say. “This is when God gives us the hand of a friend. Do you see?”
“I think so,” and then I venture to add, “A friend is a gift from God.”
“Exactly so, Elisabetta,” She squeezes my hand gently and a look of relief passes over her face as she lies back upon her pillow. “Now, let us enjoy some cake. Just us two.”
We enjoy the cakes with honey and slices of pear and sit contently until I find the nerve to ask, “What happened to the girls after the day in the tree?”
“They became the best of friends. Sisters really. They understood each other — so different and yet they were two peas in a pod. Without Maria Grazia, Caterina would surely have scaled the walls of the abbey and walked back home to Lucca on foot if she had to. Maria Grazia might never have left the apothecary closet.”
“She trained as an apothecary?”
“Yes. She was talented, too. She had a natural gift.” Madonna points to the cassone. “Do you see another book there?”
I look inside and find a book, larger than the Book of Hours and much plainer. Its brown leather cover is worn and stained. A cord holds it together and its pages are yellow with age.
“Open it.” Madonna tells me, “Gently.”
I untie the cord and open the book with great care. On its pages are beautifully detailed drawings of flowers and plants. So many that they fill every inch of the book. Each drawing has a notation next to it … “Camomilla — Chamaemelum nobile: in a tea to encourage sleep and soothe the nerves … as an oil to calm the skin and ease pain … Lavanda — Lavandula stoechas: dried to scent linens and chase away insects and vermin … fresh in a tea to calm the heart and give one a sense of well-being.” There are flowers pressed between some pages, brown with age now, but once they must have made the book fragrant with the scent of lavender, rosemary and pear blossom.
“Is this Maria Grazia’s book?”
Madonna nods and smiles. She reaches out her hand and I give her the book. I watch as she looks through it. She is lost again. She has returned to long ago.
“Maria Grazia! You have been released!” shouted Caterina, as she ran towards the dark-haired girl who had just appeared at the door. The girls embraced, not letting go of each other until they were certain the other was truly there and not just a wish.
“What an ordeal I’ve endured without you!” Caterina continued. “Suora Bruna is determined to starve me to death. There is a fledgling Novice who howls like the devil all night long, and Suora Lucia prowls the halls at all hours, searching for ways to vex me. Oh, and the Anziani talk ceaselessly about a letter that came from the Vatican. It is only an announcement of yet another rule or levy set by the new Pope. I am sure of it, but they act as if it was delivered by the Pope himself!”
“Oh, Caterina, how I have missed you,” smiled Maria Grazia.
“That is the last time you lock yourself away in that cauldron closet for such a length of time! This prison is just unbearable without you. I wrote my Lady Mother and said as much. But now that you are back, we are never to be separated again.”
Maria Grazia smiled. “I brought you something.”
“No.” Before Caterina had time to despair, Maria Grazia added with a smile, “Two cakes.”
Maria Grazia pulled the cakes from the small woolen sack that carried the only things in the world that were hers alone — her Book of Days and a new leather book given to her by Suora Benedetta to record her lessons. Maria Grazia handed the cakes, wrapped in a cloth, to an overjoyed Caterina. She then pulled out a small ceramic jar. “And this…” The jar was sealed with wax and upon it was written, “Miele.”
“Honey!” Caterina exclaimed. “Maria Grazia, how did you manage it? Did your time in the apothecary turn you into a thief? Do not tell me, for I do not want to know. I care only that we have honey for our cakes!”
“They are all gifts from Suora Benedetta,” said Maria Grazia.
“The woman is a saint! I take back every curse I uttered in her name for locking you away. We have time before Sext. Shall we feast?”
“Yes, Under our tree. I won’t mind the chill.”
“Nor will I,” responded Caterina. “The sun is strong and we have each other. Perhaps we shall save some cake for Aede. We owe her a kindness for her loyalty and courage. But let us enjoy the first cake together just us two.”
Maria Grazia nodded and took the cakes and honey and slipped them back into her sack. The girls walked out of their cell, together again at last, and down the shaded cloister path and out into the light-filled garden. The girls took their usual spot under their beloved pear tree, hardly noticing the chill in the air or the hardness of the ground.
They split the first cake, still warm from the hearth, and put their noses close to its heady scent of almonds. They ate it with honey as they told each other of all the things that had happened while they were apart.
“Oh, Maria Grazia, this is what heaven must taste like,” sighed Caterina.
“It could not taste any better, that is certain.” added Maria Grazia.
When they weren’t talking about everything and nothing, the girls sat in silence as only dear friends can — contented and certain that everything was just as it was meant to be and there was no place in the world they would rather be.0