The scent of the holy oil hung heavy in the room, sickeningly sweet. Chiara watched as her mother’s lips, eyes, ears and forehead were anointed. She listened to the mumbled prayers and the weak responses. Her heart ached.
“You were right to send for me.” Father Adamo Bianchi, ministrations complete, turned to his youngest sibling. “She doesn’t have long.”
Chiara lifted adoring eyes to her brother’s face. It had been many years since she had seen him. “I wasn’t sure you would get the message. I wasn’t sure where you were.”
There was an uneasy moment. Chiara waited to see if it would be priest or brother who responded. A stiff arm wrapped momentarily around Chiara’s shoulder, then dropped away – it was the priest in the room. “I have been summoned to see the Holy Father. He wishes me to be here now, in Rome.”
A shudder of fear ran up her spine. “Here? Now?” He answered with a shrug. Chiara struggled to control her pounding heart, but fear was fast taking control.
Adamo looked back to his mother, frail, pale, wracked with coughs and rattling lungs. He worked the inside of his cheek, chewing it slowly. The subtle reaction did much to comfort his sister; there was still some of her brother in there, buried beneath the holy robes.
His gaze slid back to Chiara. “Where’s Livia?”
At the mention of their sister’s name, Chiara’s heart again began to race. Adamo had finally returned home; it was too early to tell him about the situation with Livia. She could lie about their in-between sister, but it was ingrained in Chiara that lying was wrong. Lying to a priest, even if he was your brother, was a sure trip to the gates of hell. “She knows. She will get here when she can.”
Adamo’s head tilted slightly. He turned to watch with interest as Chiara felt beads of perspiration break on her forehead. She knew her heart read like an open book to this man; that fact would never change. She thought for a fleeting moment that perhaps it was pity in his eyes. “Our mother is dying, has not even hours to live, and her own daughter is too busy to be here? I traveled for days to get here. I can’t imagine what could possibly detain Livia at a moment like this. What could be so important that she cannot see to this one last gift to the woman who gave her life, raised her, nourished her...?”
“I... I don’t...”
“Be careful, Little One, lest your soul face eternal damnation for lying to a man of God.” They were the words of both priest and brother, but the sparkle in his eye was indeed the brother she had grown up with. “You have her confidence, and you wish not to betray it. That’s admirable, Chiara, but I sense in your reaction that she might be in some trouble. An oath asked to conceal wrong is not an oath to be honored.” His hands were on Chiara’s shoulders. He pulled her close in a tight hug. “You have done more than enough already for your family. You have been here for our mother in her time of need. You always were here for her, and for us. I feel the burden of this secret placed on your shoulders by your sister is too heavy. Let me share it. You can trust me.” He squeezed tighter.
Months of worry, of fretting, pacing, and thinking, ebbed together in a rush of tears, a long overdue release of emotions. The man holding her – could he be trusted? Was he a Bianchi or did his loyalty lie with the pontiff? The scale tipped toward Bianchi. She had to trust him. “She is with His Holiness. She was summoned to see him.”
The hug released as Adamo’s arms dropped. “She is with the Holy Father?”
“And this does not alarm you?”
Chiara nodded again then shrugged. “The first time, it did. Now, it petrifies me.”
Chiara was awakened by the door followed by light footsteps and the rustling of Livia’s cape. She opened her eyes. There was no noise coming from their mother’s bed. She turned to look at it, saw Adamo kneeling, his prayers now interrupted by the arrival.
Adamo climbed off his knees then turning a stern face to his sister. “Do you often come in at this hour of the morning? Your dying mother wasn’t cause enough for you to be here, to comfort her and your little sister? You could not sit vigil here with the rest of us?”
Livia hung her cape on the peg at the door. She sighed before turning around to face her family. “I would have been here if I could.” She marched toward the bed, sat on the edge and picked up her mother’s hand. “Now isn’t the time, Adamo.”
“Oh, so suddenly you have developed a keen grasp of what time it is, have you? Isn’t that convenient?”
Tears welled in Chiara’s eyes. She rubbed her neck, stiff from falling asleep in the chair. She then cradled her head. “Enough. Both of you, stop it. Our mother deserves better than this.” She looked again at the bed then felt the choke in her throat at the realization her mother was gone. A look out the window was nothing more than a means of searching for time to collect her thoughts. It was four in the morning. The sky was black and moonless, adding to the heartbreak.
Livia ignored Chiara. She stood then moved closer to Adamo. “Just where the hell have you been for the last three years? Where were you when she was sick and needed comforting or needed tending? You weren’t here to hold her hand when she cried out for you, when she asked about you and prayed constantly for you to come home. Don’t you dare pull that sanctimonious tripe on me.”
Chiara watched as her brother’s fingers curled into tight fists. His tongue danced a frantic tango with his cheek. Pulling up the hood of his cloak, he turned toward the door. “I will go out to make the necessary arrangements.” He scrutinized Livia once more. “Perhaps you will see fit to find something more appropriate to wear in honor of the memory of your mother.” He did not wait for a response.
“He’s worried, and he’s scared.” Chiara kept her hands busy preparing food. Adamo would be back soon, expecting a proper breakfast on the table. “This is not the best time for him to be called back to Rome.” She paused, cradling an egg in her palm. “Why would they call him back? I don’t understand that.”
“He’ll find out soon enough.” Livia dropped her skirt on the table then went in search of their mother’s sewing box. “I have to get this skirt repaired before he gets back here or he will not be happy.” She held out her arms, allowing a full appraisal. “What’s wrong with this dress anyways?”
Chiara turned, examined her sister then shook her head. The top of Livia’s breasts peeked out over the lace trim, her neck was almost completely visible, her arms as well, with only the shoulders covered with capped sleeves. “You know what’s wrong with it, especially if we are in mourning. Mother never really liked that you dressed this way, but you know it as well. How can you expect Adamo to react differently, especially being a priest?”
Livia dropped into the chair. She fought with a needle and some thread, one lid closed, her mouth twisted as she tried to force the frayed edge through the eye. “I suppose.” She abandoned the task, dropped her hands to her lap and stared up at her sister. “It was never my choice. You know that, right?”
“Oh, dear Lord in heaven, yes, I know that.” Sitting down on a neighboring chair, Chiara turned up the flame on the lantern, took the needle and thread, quickly slipped one into the other, grabbed the skirt and started to sew. “I don’t know how you survive like this. I still don’t really understand what happened, but I know you were very sincere and very devoted to taking your vows. Why won’t you tell me what happened? I have no idea how things changed to be like this, but I know in my heart, without doubt, you never intended it, especially to catch the eye of ... of...” She could not bring herself to speak the name. The thought horrified her. She turned her attention to the sewing. “I’ll get this done for you... quickly, before Adamo returns. It would not do to have him return to see this.”
The sunrise cast a pink glow into the room. Chiara caught a glimpse of it painting her mother’s cheeks, the first color they had seen for some time, but quickly turned back to the sewing. She could not bear to look at that side of the room.
“What is he going to say when he sees? We don’t have the same life he left. He’s going to notice...”
Chiara tensed at the sound of the masculine voice. Her sister’s spine straightened.
Livia turned to greet their brother, a tight smile on her face. “...Notice that since you left, we became nothing more than trash to this city. The servants are gone, the fancy fixtures are gone... we have none of that left. We had to sell it for food. Without father here, without a man here, we had to make do as best we could.”
Adamo looked around. Chiara tried to focus on the sewing but was distracted by the nature of the food she was cooking, about the floors that had yet to be cleaned, about her mother lying still in the corner.
Her gaze returned to her brother’s face. Adamo had changed. He looked older than she remembered, but she was just a little girl when he left to go to seminary. He had been home only once since then, but she saw very little of him during that visit.
Adamo returned Livia’s smile with one that had no feeling of warmth or kindness to it. “I assume you did your best to help ‘make do’ as well, did you? I can imagine you did. Dressed as you were this morning, I imagine you were more than compensated for your efforts, although I doubt those benefits extended to the rest of the family.” He walked up to his sister then cupped her chin in his hand. “Such a waste. You are an incredibly beautiful woman, and yet you choose to squander what you have, to sell yourself, barter your soul for the sake of some cheap lace and lust-filled looks.” He pulled his hand back, but not before giving her head a twist to the side in the process. “I imagine it was quite a burden for Mother, one son devoting his life to God; one daughter slutting around with the rest of the local tramps.”
Chiara could listen no more. “Stop! Stop it!” She fought the tears as she jumped to her feet, tossing the skirt aside. She hated being so weak, crying in front of them, but it was out of her control now.
“You will not talk like this in front of Mother. Show some respect, both of you.” Unclenching her fists, she picked up the clothes from the floor and set them on the table. “Adamo, we have no more help here so we take care of ourselves. If you aren’t going to contribute, please don’t criticize how we have to do it. I will have some breakfast ready shortly. You can tell us what arrangements you have made for the funeral. What is to happen with Mother now? I have no idea what happens to her.”
aking one last piercing glare at Livia before accepting the tenuous truce, Adamo nodded to Chiara. “She will be taken away shortly to be prepared. I have talked to Father Angeloni this morning. He and I will say the Mass. It will be very small and simple. We will keep vigil at the chapel with her until then. He will let us know when everything is ready so we can go there.”
Chiara tried to absorb the enormity of the words. ‘She will be taken away to be prepared?’ It sounded so final, so empty... so heartless. She went to her mother’s side, sat on the edge of the bed and took the frail, lifeless hand into her own. “She’s so cold.” A blanket was folded at the foot of the bed. Chiara reached for it then spread it out over her mother. “I don’t want you to be cold... ever.”
Tears raced down her cheeks and off the tip of her nose. She wanted to brush them away, but she didn’t want to release the hand again. She never wanted to let go of that hand.
“It’s okay, Little One.” Adamo dropped to his haunches beside her, put his hand around her head and pulled her close to his chest. She didn’t resist. “It’s okay. We’re going to be fine, and Mother... Mother is at peace.”