I stepped outside and took a deep breath of the warm and salty air, raising closed eyes to the sunlight and imagining it filling the aching hole in my chest. I glanced backward and saw no one. With only the slightest hesitation, I started in the direction of my house. I didn’t walk quickly, but kept my hands in my pockets and my head down. I didn’t want to speak to anyone.
At the corner, I glanced down my cobbled street. My blue door was closed and I didn’t see anyone guarding the portal. I continued my nonchalant pace and stepped inside quickly to close the door with barely a sound. I waited, listened.
Satisfied I was alone, I took the stairs two at a time and entered my bedroom. The body had been removed but the blood remained. I picked up my discarded chair and righted it against the wall in the farthest corner and stepped onto the frame. My questing fingers found the loose board and I took down the thin leather folder hidden there, knocking the dust off against my leg. I righted the board, replaced the chair where it had been thrown and tucked the folder into the front of my trousers, hidden by my shirt.
I had a few hours before the vigil began. My stomach groaned and I nodded in response. Davide would expect me to return to sleep in his bed. I was tired and hungry and needed to rest.
I let myself into Davide’s home and hid the folder under the mattress. We sat at the table and he served me oshiu and aniu, which he knew I loved. The tomatoes were sweet, the cheeses were fresh, and the chicken was spiced perfectly. I cooled my palate with cucumbers and mango and he let me retire to his bed. Despite the thoughts rolling in my mind, I fell asleep quickly.
“Pietro, it’s time.”
I nodded and heard Davide leave before my eyes opened. I’d been crying in my dreams and my lids were heavy with salt. I rubbed them, wincing at the sharp scratching grains, and sat up. The folder returned to hide in my trousers and I thanked Davide with a handshake. He smiled gently and made a series of quick wardings at me. The sun was approaching the horizon and the breeze was chilly now, cooled from the cold of the sea and no longer held at bay by the sun’s power.
Lorella met me at the door. Vincenzo was asleep in his chair, fingers braided across his stomach. Without speaking, Lorella again guided me into the room where my father lay. It hit me like a hammer in my lungs to see his body so still, exactly as I’d seen it hours before. I rarely knew my father to rest. This didn’t seem like him in any way except on the surface and I didn’t like it. I looked away.
On the sideboard were candles and incense, goat cheese and tomatoes and vinegar, a pitcher of water, and a loaf of wine-bread. Lorella pointed at the broom in the corner and the blankets stacked on the chairs. She nodded at my feet and I removed my shoes. This was my first vigil, but I knew what to do; we’d learned in school and from the elders. Still, I was nervous.
When Lorella closed the door I suddenly felt the darkness cover me like a second skin. I shivered and lit the candles around the room. Incense made me sneeze so I ignored it. I pulled the folder from its hiding place and set it on the table by my father’s elbow. I stared again at his nose, his buttons, the crease in his trousers down to his finely shined shoes. I’d only surpassed him in height within the last few years; he told me my mother had been tall. He’d smiled to remember her. I’d wished I could, but I savored that secret vision that brought a smile to his face.
I took a deep breath and touched the folder with my fingertips. The cover was soft, expensive, and unmarked. I opened it and began to read. Much of the information was plainly stated as Lorella had told me earlier; he listed his accounts, including those he had not confided to the doctors, and how I would find and draw from them. He recommended selling the company to Benedetta Rossi instead of training under her, unless I chose otherwise. She was aware of the arrangement and ready to settle without a fuss. The necessary paperwork was inside and needed only our signatures.
A map was included with small notes in the margins near specially marked manors. I’d never been to the northern continent, but he’d had me study cartography extensively and I had no doubt I could find those homes. It was the rest that would be difficult.
The folder wasn’t thick. My father had neat handwriting, small and tidy. The thought made me glance at his hands, and then back to his writing. I felt I could hear his voice in my head with every word and it was comforting.
I read the last sentences until I had them memorized:
Pietro, my sweetest sprout,
I am proud of whatever path you choose. Live your life as pride would guide you. Trust in yourself and never forget that you are my son. More – you are Pietro, and I have never known him to falter.
I put my forehead on my arms and closed my eyes. I wasn’t tired, not physically, but I knew enough to know that I didn’t know enough. I chuckled to myself at the absurdity. It was fully dark now and my eyes needed a moment to adjust, even with the candles. The flames were steady and the vaguely citrus scent was comforting.
I paced around the room, occasionally glancing at one page or another to be sure I had the information correct in my mind. My path was clear, but I had much to do to reach its end. Each step I took was farther from my home.
The candles flickered.
I glanced at my father.
His eyes were still closed, his chest didn’t move, but something in him had changed.
My heart skipped a beat to see his hand twitch and then extend. It brushed the folder and he smiled thinly.
“I knew you’d remember.”
I fell into a chair, suddenly exhausted, relieved, stunned by turns.
The elders assured us that not everyone returned; we should never expect the dead to come to us. They were beyond the constraints of life and priorities changed in ways we could never know. I only knew of three others who claimed to have a relative return to them, and one was a notorious liar. Still, part of me had known I would hear my father’s voice again.
My fingers twitched, eager to make wards of protection, but I held them still. The last thing I wanted was to banish my father now.
He sat up, fingered his mustache, and then stood in a fluid movement. A twirl on his toes over the stone had me smiling and I remembered every time I’d seen him dance, and the time he spent teaching me.
I stood and went to the sideboard. He waited patiently while I tore the wine-bread in halves. We each used our thumbs to burrow a hole into the bread and filled it with cheese and tomatoes. I uncorked the vinegar to douse both pieces and for a moment, the mechanical chewing was all I thought about. I studied him out of the corner of my eye while he stared at me with an intensity I had rarely seen.
“No incense?” he asked. “I should feel insulted.”
I swallowed my bread and cleared my throat, finally allowed to speak. “It makes me sneeze.”
“I can light it if you want.”
“What will Lorella think if you don’t?”
“She’ll remember it makes me sneeze.”
He smiled and ran a cold finger down my cheek and chin in a movement so familiar I felt the tears well up in my chest again. This was the last night he would comfort me in that way.
We continued to eat; the ritual was all but complete, but there was no reason to waste the food, and Vincenzo was a good cook.
I knew he was waiting for me, so I finally said, “I don’t know if I’m strong enough.”
“What strength you need for the path you choose, you will make available to yourself. Strength is merely aimless determination. Make your plan and see it through.”
“Who was it that murdered you?”
“Be careful, Pietro,” he warned.
I bit the inside of my lip and closed my eyes. “The men who murdered you were not merchants.”
“They meant to kill me as well, which means someone found you, and that someone had resources. But they did not know you well.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because they failed to prepare well enough.”
“You’ll need my knife.”
I looked at him. “Commander Mariani has it I expect. In her evidence.”
“You’ll need it.”
“Any—” I killed the question with my teeth before it lived. I was so used to asking questions of my father. “They destroyed everything they could find.”
He nodded again, sadly. “I had hoped to leave the home to you; I so enjoyed raising you in it, but I expect it holds tainted memories now.”
I licked a drop of vinegar from my hand and thought about the scratches and blood stains on the walls, the shards of pottery and shredded books.
“Our time is nearly ended,” he said softly.
“I want to take friends, but I know I shouldn’t. The road will be hard for me and much harder for them.”
“I expect you’ll meet other allies. And if not, you have yourself. You’re smart, Pietro. I only wish I could have had more time to see the man you are becoming. You make me proud.”
I bowed my head. “Except for when Irene Ricci and Nicoletta Rizzo and I stole your sweet potatoes.”
“Hm. Yes. Except that time. You should still be rotting in your room mending nets; I let you go too easily.”
I grinned up at him and he cupped my cheeks in his hands. I inhaled the scent of him as he pressed our foreheads together.
“Pietro,” he whispered. “You are still a sprout, destined to bloom in your season. You grow in your time and if you constantly question your conditions, challenge what you need to bloom, you never will. Patience, my lovely son. And courage. And peace.”
He kissed both of my eyelids, and was gone.
I looked at the table where he lay as if he’d never moved. His body was a shell once more, his life, soul, ghost, whatever it was, had left for good.
I picked up the broom and swept the floor thoroughly, moving the lightweight furniture. The sun was coming up as I finished and I dumped the gatherings out the window into a burning pit. Lorella and Vincenzo would take care of the rest. I hid the folder again, kissed my father’s cheek, put on my shoes, and stepped out once more.
March 21, 2021