Thursday, March 21, 1867
Serafina Florio entered the sacristy. She smelled beeswax, citrus, the must of centuries. After her eyes adjusted to the dimness, she saw a sacristan stuffing lemon blossoms into vases. The nun’s heavy skirts were hiked, revealing a homespun underskirt above fine leather boots.
“Took you long enough, but now that you’re here, follow me.” The sacristan released her hems, wiped her forehead with a sleeve, and turned to the custodian, a toothless sack of a man rattling his keys in the corner. “Ask cook to bring us caffè and biscotti, will you? And be quick—I haven’t much time.”
Just as imperious in stuff cloth as she was in silk. Serafina followed the nun’s flowing veil into her office.
When they were seated with the door closed, Sister Genoveffa adjusted her wimple and began. “My mother’s been poisoned.”
“But she’s been dead for, how long now, since before my husband died—we attended her funeral together in Oltramari. Buried near Prizzi, isn’t she?”
She nodded. “In her family’s crypt on my grandfather’s estate. And she’s been dead for over eighteen months.”
Serafina said nothing.
“Two years ago my father summoned me, demanding that I come home and care for her. They were staying in Bagheria at the time, the villa my mother preferred, where they did most of their socializing. When I arrived, I could see that Mother was deathly ill. Stomach inflamed, the doctor said. He called her illness acute dyspepsia. ‘Give her nothing for twenty-four hours. After that, only water, no food for two days. The fast will purge the system and the illness will subside,’ he told us. I didn’t think much of his direction, but we had no other course.”
She gave Serafina a curious look. “Family doctor, you know, and my father’s rigid about some things. We shuddered to think her illness might have been a form of—”
Serafina closed her eyes, remembering her own mother’s death from that disease in the epidemic of 1865. Why did the aristocracy imagine themselves exempt from devastation? She shook her head. “Couldn’t have been. Cholera is swift: ‘merry in the morning, dead by noon,’ they say.”
Sister Genoveffa hunched her shoulders. “Oh, that fool of a doctor did his best, I suppose, and we followed his instructions to the letter, such as they were. Father should have hired an enlightened physician. But, well, useless to speculate now.”
Photo: Fishermen in Mondello. Credit: tegoblue (Flickr)