two falcons with gold rings

13. I Await Your Word — Caterina, Part I

Tuesday April 23, 1286

Dearest and Most Virtuous Sister, Maria Grazia,

I commend my wretchedness onto you and beseech you to pray for my poor soul! Maria Grazia, the tears that flood from mine eyes veil the parchment that I write upon, making my words unintelligible to me. I pray they are intelligible to you, dear sister, for I am in dire need of direction! I write you, in confidence, a tale of woe — of all that has transpired in the intervening days since my last letter to you was written. A lifetime of sadness has come to pass! I barely know where to begin or how to convey it. I am so grateful that you and I devised this artful cipher when we were but girls in the Abbey, exchanging notes within our book of hours. What was crafted so that we might exchange our girlish thoughts without being discovered by our stern over-mistresses, is now a much needed idiom for my conveying to you my pitiful state. Gratefully, I correspond freely without fear of meddlesome eyes reading and comprehending all that I write you.

In short, Maria Grazia, I am lost! I am a motherless child and have been corrupted all within the same day! There is no way for me to apprise you of my state without shocking your modest nature. So, I will not attempt to dissemble. I will merely deliver the progress of my sadness directly.

My dearest mother died just before Easter, having been delivered of a son. Since my return home to Lucca her condition had alarmed me. I am sure I remarked upon this in my last correspondence. She was slow and bloated, unable to sit for meals or attend her younger children in her last weeks. This was shocking and did foretell a bad outcome, but I was blind to it. My father was not, and I now understand that is why he sent for me to attend her in her waiting chamber. She went into her labors suddenly and, although she was delivered of her son, quickly she did not regain her senses postpartum. Instead, she screamed out at visions frightening to her. She called for her own mother. When she looked upon me she did not know me as her first born daughter but spoke to me as her own sister! I know not what foul creatures she saw abiding in her chamber but she clamored for a priest to defend her soul against beasts from hell. But then, in another instant, she looked at me in complete stillness, piercing my very soul with the fire in her eyes. “Keep thee safe and true, Caterina,” she spoke to me in her lucidity. And then, as if the humors of her body waged war against each other, she became rigid as the dead, then arched her back. Her body shuddered with such force, I feared she was breaking from within. Then the foam began to seep from her mouth, and she sputtered for breath. Marcella, the midwife and I called to the chamber maid and the three of us held my poor mother’s convulsing body in place. Oh, Maria Grazia, it was as if she was possessed by an evil spirit. She thrashed and had such strength that she threw me off the bed. I struggled to regain my hold and her body began to slow. The shudders becoming weaker, and then I saw the blood. I’ve never seen so much of it. In an instant she was white as this parchment and still. My mother was dead.

I would not believe it, and beseeched Marcella to offer some poultice or physical movement which might reanimate her dear body. But instead I was lead away from my mother and made to sit with my new baby brother, Aluysio, whose hungry mouth sought sustenance on my bodice. I gave the babe my little finger to suck, as I had been taught to do with my younger sisters, and that did content him for a time until a wet nurse was found. He is a cherub, poor motherless boy. He is bald as a monk but his eyes are a true blue that I believe will not change. He has a sweet mouth of pink and good color in his cheeks. His gaze is strong as his grip.

But that is not the end of it Maria Grazia. You will recall that I wrote to tell you that we were entertaining a guest from Verona, Bartolomeo della Scala to be exact. As my mother was close to her delivery and my Father was very occupied with his work (or so I believed) I was charged with Bartolomeo’s happiness and comfort. His visit to Lucca was of a medicinal purpose: he suffered from stones that caused him great pain in passing and was his physician advised that he take the healing waters in Lucca. And so, for the first week of his visit I was responsible for ensuring that he made his way twice daily to the spa to rest and take the waters. At first we traveled by carriage but in time he was able to make the journey on foot. I continued to accompany him on his travels, as it was pleasant for him to have someone to speak with and he was very interested in the sights of the town. My Father had his man, Silvestri, accompany us always on our treks to act as chaperone. In time, Bartolomeo (for he has directed me to call him thus) was advised that he need only take the waters once a day, and so we made use of the afternoons (after our lunch and rest) to venture about the sights of the city. Bartolomeo and I visited all of our important districts, including the Duomo San Martino, San Michele in Foro, the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro.

Maria Grazia, I have never spent as much time in the company of a man as I have these past weeks with Bartolomeo in Lucca. I came to know him and he me. I know that he likes soft boiled eggs in the morning. That he cannot abide marmalata, preferring honey on his bread. I know that he walks quickly. I know that his scent, which is amber (and I suspect he lays it upon his shirts for it is stronger when he first changes). I know what his hands feels like holding mine. They are not as soft as you would expect for a Lord of Verona, they are scarred from learning the sword and from horse riding.

In short, Maria Grazia, I became quite enamored of della Scala during our time together. I believed he was quite enamored of me, as well. He remarked of my beauty and whispered sweet words into my ear when Silvestri was otherwise occupied. He often plucked flowers (from the first spring buds on the trees that lined our walk) and fashioned bouquets for me, presenting them to me with great flourish and deep bows.In time, Bartolomeo was fully recovered and bid to return to Verona by his father. My heart quaked at the thought of his departure, and he seemed sorry for it as well. The status of our relationship went undiscussed by us. But I hoped that in the intervening days before his departure he would approach my father to ask for my hand (that much of a fool was I) . . .


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