Excerpt from the short story, “A Message from the Monzù”
“Unspeakable rudeness! Just because he trained in Paris, Monzù Alonzo thinks he can order you about like some kind of kitchen wench.”
“We talked about this,” Renata said. “You knew I was leaving. I’ll be back in two months.”
Carlo looked at Carmela who winked at Renata. “Don’t give us another thought. Go, make those delicious pastries for Prince what’s his name.”
Serafina said nothing. Funny how her mind played tricks: they were gathered around the table, Giorgio pouring wine into her glass, his laughter tumbling over them like a benediction. Carmela and Carlo must have been what, five or six? Vicenzu and Renata were toddlers, Maria and Totò not yet born—the days of plenty. The reverie faded.
Leaving the room, Renata said to the messenger, “I won’t be long. Assunta, get this man some café while he waits.”
The messenger rocked back and forth, holding a Phrygian cap in his hands.
Serafina heard a distant bell chime the hour. Giulia sewed on. Totò played with his wooden soldiers. Vicenzu’s abacus whirred. Thank God for Vicenzu. After the accident, he became interested only in the shop and conserving coins. And Maria? Well, Maria was different. When she was two, we hummed a melody and she’d play it back on the piano. Since then she knows nothing but the notes on her score. Eight years old, going on thirty-eight.
But must not let tomorrow spoil today. How she loved to sit among her children. A year almost since Giorgio died. Still she saw the scars his death had left. Her toes were frozen. “Carlo, light a fire. The caretaker’s day off.”
“Can’t spare the log. After all, it’s almost spring. Put on another shawl,” Vicenzu said, but Carlo flapped his hand. Blowing away a cloud of ash, he stabbed at half-charred splinters of wood and struck a match.
Excerpt from “The Ride to Rosa’s,” Death of a Serpent
Monday October 8, 1866
Tilting her head she turned into Villa Rosa and signaled the guard to unlock the gate. Serafina remembered their hotel on the Via Sistina which had a similar grill and a merry footman who doffed his cap, and beckoned to them with white gloves. Mustn’t let the head wander, Giorgio warned her. In a blink, something might happen. Her eyes moistened at the memory. Oh, she knew his words by heart, pictured him, tall, spangled, scratching one ear, his finest frock coat stretched across his chest. ‘And you’re a woman traveling the streets alone. Even driving a trap in broad daylight, you must be wary. Keep the eyes fixed on your surroundings. Dreaming, bad for the bones.’
Rosa’s front lawn was packed with men pruning palms, tending to her flowers and pools and conservatories. A high-class house on the outskirts of Oltramari, Villa Rosa backed onto the Tyrrhenian Sea. It was shielded by cypress trees from its neighbors, the estates of British merchants who came to Sicily in the eighteenth century for a vacation and wound up staying for good. Inherited from her ancestors, Rosa’s business had remained untouched for centuries by war and economic blight.
Like her mother and grandmother, Rosa had an eye for the main chance. During the war she devised a scheme to remain open, charging Garibaldi’s soldiers a special fee—five minutes, five grani. After the war, she redecorated, hung paintings, raised fees. Velvet draped the windows. When the town installed gaslights around the train station and the promenade, Rosa had lines run into the villa and the nasty-smelling jets fastened to the walls in every room. Water ran in closets discreetly situated on all four floors. Unconventional, Rosa. She didn’t keep a full complement of servants, but she had upstairs maids, downstairs maids, a cook, a laundress, a driver, stable hands, gardeners, and now, guards.
Oltramari, March 1867
In the morning, her eyes still full of sleep, Serafina looks out her bedroom window and glimpses in the distance a steamer with unfurled sails. So small it seems, a speck of dust upon the glass. She wonders where it’s bound—for Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo, New York or New Orleans—and struggles to picture those strange-sounding places.
These days, she thinks the ship must carry passengers from Oltramari, countrymen and women she knows by name, or simply as familiar faces in the piazza. I’ll never see them again. “You’ll never realize they’ve gone,” she hears the ghost of her Giorgio murmur.
And for a moment she feels a tremor in the earth. Will her children be on such a ship someday? Will they, too, journey to distances with exotic names? Gone to treacherous lands without me? She closes the shutters.
from Death in Bagheria
March 21, 1867
“Your mother died some time ago,” Serafina said, rummaging in her pocket for her notebook. “Why wait until now to investigate her death?”
Sister Genoveffa ran a hand down her beads and held the crucifix like a revolver. “I understand your investigation will be more difficult because of the delay, but … I had to be sure in my own mind that her death was not accidental before I asked for your help. It took me long enough to realize that she’d been murdered. Should have discovered it before she died. If I had, she’d still be alive.” The nun slammed the cross into her thigh.
Serafina’s heart jumped.
“If you can’t take my word, if you need to exhume her body to prove poisoning, by all means, do so,” Genoveffa said. “Doubtless my grandfather will give his permission.”
As she wrote, Serafina could hear footsteps in the sacristy. “Why do you suggest exhumation? To quell my disbelief? Or perhaps you still harbor a vestige of doubt.”
Serafina saw emotions cross the nun’s face like fast-moving clouds—anger, exasperation, regret, sorrow. Tears welled in her eyes. This woman, she thought, is so alone, no shoulder to cry on, no one to share her pent-up feelings. Locked in a dungeon of her own making. She reached out and squeezed Genoveffa’s hand and was rewarded with a smile. “I believe you. My task is to find the killer. Digging up the dead is a job for lawyers.”