Notwithstanding the heat of summer, a sudden draft, caused by the abrupt opening of a door, made me shudder. We found ourselves face to face with the Mother Superior, a stocky, authoritarian woman.
“Greetings, my children, may the lord bless you and your dynasties. Please step into my chambers,” she said, leading the way into her semi-dark office. She begged us to sit down, but remained upright herself. Hovering over us, she watched us intently for a few moments before starting to speak.
”Sister Felicia tells me you wish to visit poor Sister Lauredana. Are you ladies family?” she inquired with a piercing look.
Catharina seemed relaxed as she answered, “It’s as if we were, being good friends of her sister. Signora Brunella Colonna has serious concerns about the well-being of Lauredana, and we pledged to look her up and establish she wants for nothing.”
Taking in Catharina’s words with a wary look, the Mother Superior took a deep breath before responding.
“Oh, dear,” she sighed, sounding annoyed.
“I suppose I should tell you what I told her sister last week, when she paid our convent an unexpected visit. Sister Lauredana has been suffering from bipolar disorder that only recently propelled her into a perilous catatonic state. Even though her condition improved slightly, and we have a good faith that with our medical and spiritual care she will become approachable sometime soon, there is almost no way to communicate with her at the present time. She will continue to receive all the attention she needs, and she is in our prayers every day. But for the time being, having visitors is considered detrimental to her recovery, even from family or close friends.”
Catharina closed her eyes for a short moment, as if she was forcing herself to stay calm and collected. I could imagine her thinking feverishly of an approach that might dissuade Mother Ferocia.
“We simply cannot take this news back to Signora Colonna and expect her to wait patiently for your progress reports,” she said with a cutting tone.
“Well, Signorina, I’m utterly mortified, but her sister has accepted the specialists’ prognosis as well as their recommended treatment of Lauredana, albeit in the knowledge that this may prove to be a lengthy process, if indeed complete recovery will be attained.”
I observed how Catharina made a last attempt to break the vicious circle we found ourselves in by saying, “It would really help if you would let us see her for just a very short moment and…”
Looking exasperated, Mother Ferocia raised her hand in a gesture that was unmistakably indicating she had no intention to repeat herself, and considered the matter closed. Although she had spoken with evident clout, I couldn’t help noticing that our talk did not leave her completely unperturbed, and I somehow expected a final remark. But when she spoke it was only to say, “I wish you ladies a safe passage back home, go with God…”
Hesitantly we got up and left Mother Ferocia’s office in silence.
Sister Felicia was waiting for us in the hallway, and started to lead us back to the main gate.
As soon as we were clear of the main building, she looked around nervously, visibly afraid to be overheard, and spoke hurriedly, out of breath from apprehension, “Last week, I tried to express my thoughts to Signora Colonna before her departure, but there was no opportunity to speak privately then. I felt miserable all week, as I realized I missed the only chance to express my fears for her sister. But when you ladies came along, I felt as if the Lord, in his compassion, had given me a second chance to do well!”
“Speak your mind, dear, don’t stall,” Catharina said.
“No, no, I’m too afraid, but I wrote you a letter.”
Shaking hands with her at the convent’s gate, Sister Felicia slipped Catharina her hastily prepared note. We witnessed grimly how she turned and walked away.
Subdued, and frustrated, conscious of not having accomplished anything of value to report to Brunella Colonna, we started to follow the steep and narrow mountain road back to the bus station.
About ten feet in front of me, and treading somewhat unsteadily, Catharina appeared absorbed in reading the note that was handed to us a few minutes ago. Seemingly originating out of nowhere, a black van came up from behind us, driving much too fast for this snaking mountain road. As I watched its rapid approach, looking over my shoulder, I abruptly had the sense of imminent danger. The van was already close enough for me to see the driver’s mirrored sunglasses, and as he showed no sign of slowing down, I had the acute certainty he was going to run us down.
“Catia, watch out!” I hollered…
Panic-stricken, I jumped forward to push Catharina off the road, just before the van passed us by, feeling its air suction for having been so close to it. It continued its way with high speed. Before being able to stop we stumbled and fell down the hill for several yards, only just clear of a deep gorge.
Checking her bruised elbow, Catharina sat down on a rock with a chalk-white number 56* painted on its side. She seemed to have grasped the situation instantly, and with a worried look she asked, “You OK?”
“It looks like our popularity is on the rise,” she said, smiling the crooked smile that I started to know so well.
Shaken, we decided to avoid the road from there on, and followed a trail in the same general direction of the road. After an hour, we reached the station without further ado.
Waiting for the bus, Catharina made an effort to translate Sister Felicia’s note to me:
Some twenty years ago, when they brought in Lauredana, injured from a car accident, and in the last stages of her pregnancy, I overheard a conversation between our Mother Superior and Bishop Tarantino, who was still Father Tarantino at the time. The phrase that particularly haunted me for all these years was then voiced by him,
“No, woman, I will make no exception. The child will never know her natural mother and will be placed, just like all the others, in a family prearranged by our associates. Stop meddling in affairs that do not concern you, and obey your superiors!”
Initially, I was perplexed by these words, but over the years that followed, their meaning became clear. Sadly I lack the time to write about other incidents that seem to support my conviction that the Bishop has a hand in affairs that shy the light of day.
Please burn this note instantly.
While my mind was digesting the significance of these words, Catharina resolutely walked over to the nearest phone booth, slipped in a couple of ‘Gettoni,’ and dialed a number.
A Fiat 130 limousine pulled up smoothly at the curb in front of us. The driver got out to open the door for a slender, well-dressed man in his late forties. Stepping out of the car, his agile movements spoke of resolution and vigor.
“Uncle Salvatore!” Catharina shrieked, hurling herself at him, then hugging him ardently.
“Ciao, tesorina,” he said in a low baritone, smiling a handsome smile.
“Che piacere vederti!”
Uncle Salvatore’s gaze then rested on me, waiting patiently for Catharina to make introductions.
“This is my dearest friend, Angelica,” Catharina said, taking my hands into hers and smiling radiantly at her uncle.
Approaching him somewhat timidly, I couldn’t help noticing a distinct family resemblance between them. Uncle Salvatore, sensing my hesitation, stepped forward and took my hand, then bowed to kiss it, his lips never actually touching.
“It’s a titanic delight to make your acquaintance, Signorina Angelica,” he said smiling, never taking his eyes of me.
Latin charm, I contemplated, but also aware there might be much more to this man than meets the eye.
Minutes later we sped through the Tuscan countryside, while Catharina, sitting between me and her uncle, chatted merrily. No reference was made to our near-fatal experience that afternoon; the smiling eyes of her uncle’s driver looking at us from time to time in his rear-view mirror.
“Aunt Claudia will be delighted to have you over,” her uncle spoke in an earnest tone. “Since the death of her sister, three months ago, she’s had almost no social life, so I’m sure your visit will help her break out of this melancholy she finds herself in.”
As the excitement from the occurrences of the day seemed to dissipate slowly, Catharina shifted into a cheeky mood and settled herself against me, her head on my shoulder. Unsure whether Uncle Salvatore had noticed, or would frown upon such signs of affection, I blushingly looked outside the car window.
Aunt Claudia could easily have been Sofia Loren’s sister. Noticeably pleased to have us over, she prepared us an astonishing “Linguine alle Vongole,” followed by “Salmone al Forno.” Now, many years later, I still remember vividly all of its glorious flavors.
In our lavish guest room, I woke up to the crowing of an overzealous rooster, and opening my eyes, I found Catharina seated on the edge of my bed, smiling at me. The previous night we spent in, what the Italians would call, “Una serata in Famiglia” (an evening with the family.) Unfamiliar with such a warm and stirring environment, it was an entirely moving experience to me.
Breakfast at the pool terrace was another thing I could get used to quickly, I reminisced. After breakfast Aunt Claudia left for the market, and we were alone with her uncle reading his ‘Corriere Della Sera.’
Without averting his eyes from the newspaper, he said,
“Ten years ago I would not have waited so long to hear what you are obviously dying to tell me, Catia,” he said mildly, turning his head slowly to look her in the eye.
“But I have learned to be patient, and the fact that you were willing to wait made me presume it might be something serious.”
After Catharina had given her uncle a detailed account of what took place since the day we met Brunella Colonna in the train to Livorno, he said,
“I suggest you let me make some inquiries, while you girls stay over at the house for the weekend. Try to relax and be suitable company to your aunt.”
In an effort to be affable, I tried to make some small talk, but as he obviously had no intention to change his morning routine, he stoically continued to read his newspaper.
Lauredana pretended to take her ‘medicine,’ which was nothing less than a heavy sedative, for two days in a row now. After having used this drug for several months, she was able to simulate the effect it had on her, without raising suspicion.
That night, in a desperate attempt to flee from the convent, she got out of bed, and explored whether the corridor connected to her room had an exit which she might be able to force open, and manage to escape. Unfortunately, her frantic effort set off an alarm that seemed to wake up the entire convent. Two strong orderlies took her back to her cell, only this time in a straitjacket. Alone and restricted to her room, the only living soul that was allowed in, only to bathe her once a week, was Sister Felicia.
With the passing of time, convinced to be trapped forever, Lauredana’s perception of what took place over the past year became entirely blurred. She even started to doubt whether she had actually given birth to a child at all, and prayed passionately for an end to her misery…
(Continued in Chapter Six – The Counselor)
(Continued in Chapter Six – The Counselor)