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The Shoemaker's Wife
By Adriana Trigiani
HarperCollins Publishers Copyright © 2012 Adriana Trigiani
All rights reserved.
A GOLD RING
Un Anello d'oro
The scalloped hem of Caterina Lazzari's blue velvet coat grazed the fresh fallen snow, leaving a pale pink path on the bricks as she walked across the empty piazza. The only sound was the soft, rhythmic sweep of her footsteps, like hands dusting flour across an old wooden cutting board. All around her, the Italian Alps loomed like silver daggers against a pewter sky. The rising winter sun, a pinprick of gold buried in the expanse of gray, barely flickered. In the first light of morning, dressed in blue, Caterina looked like a bird.
She turned, exhaling a long breath into the cold winter air.
"Ciro?" she called out. "Eduardo!"
She heard her sons' laughter echo across the empty colonnade, but couldn't place them. She surveyed the columns of the open portico. This wasn't a morning for hide and seek, or for playing games. She called to them again. Her mind swam with all she had accomplished, big chores and small errands, attending to a slew of overwhelming details, documents filed and keys returned, all the while stretching the few lire she had left to meet her obligations.
The first stage of widowhood is paperwork.
Caterina had never imagined she would be standing here alone, on the first day of 1905, with nothing before her but the small hope of eventual reinvention. Every single promise made to her had been broken.
Caterina looked up as a window on the second floor of the shoe shop opened and an old woman shook a rag rug out into the cold air. Caterina caught her eye. The woman looked away, pulled the rug back inside, and slammed the window shut.
Her younger son, Ciro, peered around one of the columns. His blue-green eyes were the exact color of his father's, as deep and clear as the water of Sestri Levante. At ten years old, he was a replica of Carlo Lazzari, with big hands and feet and thick sandy brown hair. He was the strongest boy in Vilminore. When the village children went down into the valley to collect sticks bundled to sell for kindling, Ciro always had the heaviest haul strapped to his back because he could carry it.
Caterina felt a pang whenever she looked at him; in Ciro's face was all she had lost and would never recover. "Here." She pointed to the ground beside her black leather boot. "Now."
Ciro picked up his father's leather duffel and, running to his mother, called to his brother, who hid behind the statuary.
Eduardo, at eleven, resembled his mother's people, the Montini family, dark eyed, tall, and willowy. He too picked up his satchel and ran to join them.
At the foot of the mountain, in the city of Bergamo, where Caterina had been born thirty-two years ago, the Montini family had set up a printing press that churned out linen writing paper, engraved calling cards, and small books in a shop on Via Borgo Palazzo. They had a house and a garden. As she closed her eyes, she saw her parents sitting at an alfresco table under their grape arbor, eating ricotta and honey sandwiches on thick, fresh bread. Caterina remembered all they were and all they had.
The boys dropped their suitcases in the snow.
"Sorry, Mama," Ciro said. He looked up at his mother and knew for certain that she was the most beautiful woman in the world. Her skin had the scent of peaches and felt like satin. His mother's long hair fell into soft, romantic waves, and ever since he could remember, as he lay in her arms, he had twisted a lock until it became a single shiny black rope.
"You look pretty," Ciro said earnestly. Whenever Caterina was sad, he tried to cheer her up with compliments.
Caterina smiled. "Every son thinks his mother is beautiful." Her cheeks turned pink in the cold as the tip of her aquiline nose turned bright red. "Even when she isn't."
Caterina fished in her purse for a small mirror and a chamois puff. The tip of red disappeared as she powdered it. She pursed her lips and looked down at her boys with a critical eye. She straightened Eduardo's collar, and pulled Ciro's coat sleeve over his wrist. The coat was too small for him, and no amount of pulling would add the two inches at the cuff to make it fit properly. "You just keep growing, Ciro."
"I'm sorry, Mama."
She remembered when she had their coats made for them, along with pin-cord trousers and white cotton shirts. There had been tufted blankets in their cribs when they were born, a layette of soft cotton gowns with pearl buttons. Wooden toys. Picture books. Her sons had long outgrown the clothes, and there was no replacing them.
Eduardo had one pair of wool pants and a coat given to him by a neighbor. Ciro wore the clean but ill-fitting clothes of his father, the hems on the work pants three inches deep, tacked with ragged stitches because sewing was not one of Caterina's talents. Ciro's belt was tightened on the last grommet, but still too loose to function properly. "Where are we going, Mama?" Ciro asked as he followed his mother. "She told you a hundred times. You don't listen." Eduardo lifted his brother's duffel and carried it.
"You must listen for him," Caterina reminded Eduardo.
"We're going to stay at the convent of San Nicola."
"Why do we have to live with nuns?" Ciro complained.
Caterina turned and faced her sons. They looked up at her, hoping for an explanation that would make sense of all the mysterious goings-on of the past few days. They weren't even sure what questions to ask, or what information they needed to know, but they were certain there must have been some reason behind Mama's strange behavior. She had been anxious. She wept through the night when she thought her sons were asleep. She had written lots of letters, more in the last week than they could ever remember her writing.
Caterina knew that if she shared the truth, she would have failed them. A good mother should never knowingly fail her children, not when she is all they have left in the world. Besides, in the years to come, Ciro would remember only the facts, while Eduardo would paint them with a soft brush. Neither version would be true, so what did it matter? Caterina could not bear the responsibility of making every decision alone. In the fog of grief, she had to be sensible, and think of every possible alternative for her boys. In her mental state, she could not take care of her sons, and she knew it. She made lists of names, recalling every contact in her family's past and her husband's, any name that might be helpful. She scanned the list, knowing many of them probably needed as much help as she did. Years of poverty had depleted the region, and forced many to move down to Bergamo and Milan in search of work.
After much thought, she remembered that her father had printed missals for every parish in the Lombardy region, and as far south as Milan. He had donated his services as an indulgence to the Holy Roman Church, expecting no payment in return. Caterina used the old favor to secure a place for her sons with the sisters of San Nicola.
Caterina placed a hand on each of their shoulders.
"Listen to me. This is the most important thing I will ever tell you. Do as you're told. Do whatever the nuns ask you to do. Do it well. You must also do more than they ask of you. Anticipate. Look around. Do chores before the sisters ask.
"When Sister asks you to gather wood, do it immediately. No complaining! Help one another - make yourselves indispensable. "Chop the wood, carry it inside, and build the fire without asking. Check the damper before lighting the kindling. And when the fire is out, clean the ash pit and close the flue. Sweep up so it looks like a picture. Prepare the hearth for the next fire with dry logs and kindling. Put the broom and the dustpan and the poker away. Don't wait for Sister to remind you.
"Make yourselves useful and stay out of trouble. Be pious and pray. Sit in the front pew during mass and sit at the farthest end of the bench during dinner. Take your portions last, and never seconds. You are there because of their kindness, not because I could pay them to keep you. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Mama," Eduardo said.
Caterina placed her hand on Eduardo's face and smiled. He put his arm around his mother's waist and held on tight. Then she pulled Cairo close. Her soft coat felt good against his face. "I know you can be good." "I can't," Ciro sputtered, as he pulled away from his mother's embrace, "and I won't."
"This is a bad idea, Mama. We don't belong there," Ciro pleaded.
"We have no place to stay," Eduardo said practically. "We belong wherever Mama puts us."
"Listen to your brother. This is the best I can do right now. When summer comes, I will come up the mountain and take you home."
"Back to our house?" Ciro asked.
"No. Somewhere new. Maybe we'll move up the mountain to Endine."
"Papa took us to the lake there."
"Yes, the town with the lake. Remember?"
The boys nodded that they did. Eduardo rubbed his hands together to warm them. They were rough and pink from the cold.
"Here. Take my gloves." Caterina removed her elbow length black gloves.
She helped Eduardo's hands into them, pulling them up and under his short sleeves. "Better?"
Eduardo closed his eyes; the heat from his mother's gloves traveled up his arms and through his entire body until he was enveloped in her warmth. He pushed his hair back with his hand, the scent of the brushed cotton, clean lemon and freesia, reassuring him.
"What do you have for me, Mama?" Ciro asked.
"You have Papa's gloves to keep you warm." She smiled. "But you want something of Mama's too?"
"Give me your hand."
Ciro pulled his father's leather glove off with his teeth.
Caterina slid a gold signet ring off her smallest finger and placed it on Ciro's ring finger. "This was given to me by my papa."
Ciro looked down at the ring. A swirling, artful C in an oval of heavy yellow gold gleamed in the early morning light. He closed his fist, the gold band still warm from his mother's hand.
The stone facade of the convent of San Nicola was forbidding. Grand pilasters topped with statues of saints wearing expressions of hollow grief towered over the walkway. The thick walnut door had a sharp peak like a bishop's hat, Eduardo observed as he pushed the door open. Caterina and Ciro followed him inside into a small vestibule. They stomped the snow off their shoes on a mat made of woven driftwood branches.
Caterina reached up and rang a small brass bell on a chain.
"They're probably praying. That's all they do in here. Pray all day," Ciro said as he peered through a crack in the door.
"How do you know what they do?" Eduardo asked.
The door opened. Sister Domenica looked down at the boys, sizing them up.
She was short and shaped like a dinner bell. Her black and white habit with a full skirt made her seem wider still. She placed her hands on her hips.
"I'm Signora Lazzari," Caterina said. "These are my sons. Eduardo and Ciro." Eduardo bowed to the nun. Ciro ducked his head quickly as if saying a fast prayer. Really, it was the mole on Sister's chin he wished to pray away.
"Follow me," the nun said.
Sister Domenica pointed to a bench, indicating where the boys should sit and wait. Caterina followed Sister into another room behind a thick wooden door, closing it behind her. Eduardo stared straight ahead while Ciro craned his neck, looking around.
"She's signing us away," Ciro whispered. "Just like Papa's saddle."
"That's not true," his brother whispered back.
Ciro inspected the foyer, a round room with two deep alcoves, one holding a shrine to Mary, the Blessed Mother, and the other, to Saint Francis of Assisi. Mary definitely had more votive candles lit at her feet. Ciro figured it meant you could always count on a woman. He took a deep breath. "I'm hungry."
"You're always hungry."
"I can't help it."
"Don't think about it."
"It's all I think about."
"You have a simple mind."
"No, I don't. Just because I'm strong, doesn't mean I'm stupid."
"I didn't say you were stupid. You're simple."
The scent of fresh vanilla and sweet butter filled the convent.
Ciro closed his eyes and inhaled. He really was hungry. "Is this like the story Mama told us about the soldiers who got lost in the desert and saw a waterfall where there was none?" Ciro stood to follow the scent. He peered around the wall. "Or is there a cake baking somewhere?"
"Sit down," Eduardo ordered.
Ciro ignored him and walked down the long corridor.
"Get back here!" Eduardo whispered.
The walnut doors along the arcade were closed, and streams of faint light came through the overhead transoms. At the far end of the hallway, through a glass door, Ciro saw a cloister connecting the main convent to the workhouses. He ran down the arcade toward the light. When he made it to the door, he looked through the glass and saw a barren patch of earth, probably a garden, hemmed by a dense gnarl of gray fig trees dusted with snow.
Excerpted from The Shoemaker's Wife by Adriana Trigiani. Copyright © 2012 by Adriana Trigiani. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
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