The door of Mother Ferocia’s chambers swung open, revealing a stocky, authoritarian woman, while creating a sudden draft that, even in this heat of summer, made me shiver.
“Greetings, my children, may the lord bless you and your loved ones. Please step into my chambers,” she said, leading the way into the semi-dark office. She begged us to sit down, but remained standing herself. Hovering over us, she watched us intently for a few moments before she started to speak again.
”Sister Felicia tells me you come 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, we’re good friends of Lauredana’s sister, Signora Brunella Colonna. There is some concern about the well-being of Lauredana, and we promised to look her up, and establish that she’s all right and well taken care of.”
Warily taking in Catharina’s words, the Mother Superior took a deep breath before responding.
“Oh, dear,” she sighed, looking annoyed.
“I suppose I have no choice but to give you the same answer as I gave her sister last week, when she came to visit the convent unexpectedly. Sister Lauredana has been suffering from a bipolar affliction that propelled her into a catatonic state. Even though there is a slight improvement in her condition, there is almost no way to communicate with her at the present time. Of course she is monitored closely by specialists, and our competent medical nurses. She gets all the care she needs, and she is in our prayers every day. But for the time being it’s considered detrimental to her condition to have visitors, even from family or close friends.”
Catharina closed her eyes for a short moment, as if she was forcing herself to stay calm and composed, while thinking feverishly of an approach that might dissuade the Mother Superior.
“We simply cannot go back to the family with this news, and expect them to remain patient and await notice concerning the progress of her recovery,” she said in a decisive manner.
“Well, Signorina, I’m mortified, but the only living family Sister Lauredana has is her sister, and Signora Colonna has accepted our prognosis and the treatment of Lauredana, and also on how we hope to cure her, in the knowledge that this may prove to be a lengthy process, if indeed recovery will be achieved.”
Catharina made a last attempt to break the vicious circle we were in by saying, “It would really help if you would allow us just to see her for a very short moment, and…”
In exasperation 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 obvious 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 journey back home, go with God…”
Silently, without saying another word, we got up, and left Mother Ferocia’s office. Sister Felicia was waiting for us in the hallway, and started to lead the way back to the main gate.
As we were out of sight of the main building, she looked around nervously, as if afraid to be overheard, and said, “I wanted to say something to Signora Colonna, last week when she left the convent, but I couldn’t speak freely. All week I’ve been desperate, feeling I missed the only chance to say something important about her sister. But then you ladies came along. It was as if I’ve been given a second chance!”
“Speak your mind, dear,” Catharina said intently.
“No, I’m too afraid, but I wrote you a note.”
Shaking hands with Sister Felicia at the gate of the convent, she slipped Catharina a crumpled note, after which she turned, and walked away.
Feeling subdued and frustrated from not having accomplished anything of value to report to Brunella Colonna, we started to follow the steep and narrow mountain road back to the station. Walking in front of me, Catharina was absorbed in reading the note that was handed to her a few minutes ago, when a black van seemed to come out of nowhere on the road behind us, driving way too fast for this mountain road. Looking over my shoulder, I abruptly had the sense there was something wrong. The van was already close enough for me to see the driver’s mirrored sunglasses, and showing no sign of slowing down, I felt certain he was going to run us over.
“Catia, watch out,” I hollered… Panic-stricken I pushed 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. We staggered down the hill for a few yards, before we were able to stop, only just clear from falling into a deep gorge.
Checking her bruised elbow Catharina was sitting on a rock with a chalk-white number 56* painted on its side. She had grasped the situation instantly, and with a worried look she asked, “You OK?”
“It looks like somebody is getting nervous having us around,” she said, smiling her crooked smile that I started to know so well.
Shaken, avoiding the road from here on, we took a trail in the same general direction, and reached the station without further ado.
Waiting for the bus, Catharina started translating Sister Felicia’s note to me:
Some twenty years ago, when they brought in Sister 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 underline my conviction that the Bishop has a hand in affairs that cannot stand the light of day.
Please burn this note now.
I was quite puzzled, but resolutely Catharina walked over to the nearest phone booth, slipped in a couple of ‘gettoni,’ and dialed Uncle Salvatore’s number.
A Fiat 130 limousine smoothly pulled up 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, 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 Cataharina to make introductions.
“This is my dearest friend, Angelica,” Catharina said huskily from emotion, while taking my hands into hers, 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, without his lips actually touching my hand.
“It’s an immense delight to make your acquaintance, Signorina Angelica,” he said, smiling with an intense look.
Latin charm, I contemplated, but also convinced there was 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, eying us from time to time in his rear-view mirror.
“Aunt Claudia will be delighted to have you over,” her uncle spoke earnestly, in his warm voice.
“Since the death of her sister, three months ago, she’s had practically no social life. I’m sure your visit could help her break out of this obscurity.”
With her emotions from that day slowly dissipating, 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 looked outside the car window, blushing.
Aunt Claudia could easily have been Sofia Loren’s sister. Visibly pleased to have us over, she prepared us an extraordinary “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 evening we spent in, what the Italians would call, “Una serata in famiglia” (an evening with the family.) But to me, unfamiliar with such warm and exciting surroundings, it was a moving experience.
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 the ‘Corriere Della Sera.’
With his eyes still on 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, now looking Catharina in the eye.
“But I have learned to be patient, and the fact that you were willing to wait until now made me presume it might be something serious.”
After Catharina gave 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 two stay over for the weekend at the house, and try to relax.”
I tried to make some small talk, in an effort to be affable, but he continued reading his newspaper. It would seem that he had no intention to change his morning routine.
Lauredana managed to pretend taking 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 the drug 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 she could force open, and escape. Unfortunately, her desperate action set off an alarm that seemed to wake up the whole building. Two strong orderlies took her back to her cell, only this time in a straight-jacket. Alone and restrained to her room, the only living soul that would treat her with love and respect was Sister Felicia, but she was allowed in to bathe her only once a week.
After a period of time, convinced she was trapped forever, Lauredana’s perception of what took place over the past year became completely hazy. She started to doubt whether she had given birth to a child at all, and prayed for an end to her misery…
(Continued in Chapter Six – The Counselor)
(Continued in Chapter Six – The Counselor)