Excerpt from Death of a Serpent
Monday October 8, 1866
Serafina decided to drive the long way to Rosa’s, not wanting to navigate the Via Serpentina alone. The neighborhoods through which it snaked teemed with alleyways and crumbling fountains, infants wailing in one-room homes, young boys tossing knucklebones, the smell of garbage in the throat.
She flicked the reins but Largo kept his own pace, skirting the piazza with its fountain and suppliant statue of St. Benedict.
Without warning a begging monk stepped in front of her, his cart blocking her trap. He caught her eye, looked away. Fair-haired and gloved, he wore a frayed cassock. Next to him white-haired women gathered around a street vendor preventing the monk’s rapid movement. Or was it his swaybacked beast, moving with the rapidity of a snail, that delayed him?
“Whoa, Largo. This won’t take long,” she said, hitching the trap to a post. She stepped into the throng. Largo’s ears twitched.
Serafina clanked money into the mendicant’s cup, knowing as she did so that she shouldn’t have. ‘Can’t afford to help others, or we won’t be able to help ourselves,’ she heard Vicenzu’s words.
“We don’t see many begging monks around here, not since the new government shackled us with more taxes,” she said. “Did you have to wait long for your permit?”
He hunched a shoulder.
“You’re from what abbey? Not in Sicily, I take it.” Something familiar about him. He wore crusty boots instead of sandals. She sniffed the air. Unusual odors assaulted her nose—a little seaweed, salt, the dung of foreign animals. Hadn’t washed in a month or two.
“Your centesimi will help many of the poor, dear lady. Grateful thanks to you. May your family prosper. Don Roberto’s my name. Remember me in your prayers.” He brushed dust from his sleeve and turned to go, but was wedged between another cart and a woman carrying a basket of vegetables.
Serafina persisted. “Where’s your monastery?”
His eyes were ancient coins. “In one of God’s neighborhoods far to the north of Naples, lady. But the people are too poor to buy our bread, so a number of us travel to raise funds. And now, good day to you.”
She pursed her lips. Begging from Sicilians?—like squeezing wine from a stone. Took her centesimi, but didn’t answer her questions. And what sort of monk wore boots instead of sandals? Shadows in his face she didn’t trust.