BE CAREFUL OF THE TRUTH YOU SEEK.
Rome and Imola: November 19 - December 8, 1502
My dearest, most darling Giovanni,
We lived in two rooms in the Trastevere. This district of Rome lies across the Tiber from the old Capitol Hill, on the same side of the river as the Vatican and the Castel Sant' Angelo. Gathered around the Santa Maria church, the Trastevere was a village unto itself, a labyrinth of wineshops, inns, tanneries, dyers' vats, and falling-down houses that were probably old when Titus Flavius returned in triumph after conquering Judea; many of the Jews who lived there claimed to be descended from his captives. But our neighbors came from everywhere: Seville, Corsica, Burgundy, Lombardy, even Arabia. It was a village where everyone was different, so no one stood out.
Our rooms were on the ground floor of an ancient brick house off a narrow, muddy alley, with little shops and houses crowding in on every side, their balconies and galleries so close overhead that we always seemed to go out into the night, even at noon. I kept my books and antique cameos hidden, displaying nothing that might tempt a thief — or reveal who I had formerly been. But we whitewashed the walls once a year and always swept the tiles, and you never slept on a straw mattress but always on good cotton stuffing; there was never a day we didn't have flowers or fresh greens on our tiny table — or wanted for bacon in our beans.
In the evening, before you slept and I went out, I would read Petrarch to you or tell you stories. That was what we were doing on our last night together — 19 November, anno domini 1502. I showed you this bronze medallion stamped with a portrait of Nero Claudius Caesar, about whom I recited tales I had read in Tacitus when I was little more than a girl. Hearing of his crimes, you gave Signor Nero a very stern look and wagged your finger at his engraved visage, telling him, "Even an emperor does not have lice ... lice ..."
"An emperor does not have lice?" I asked, which made you frown like a German banker, so I said, "I think the word you are reaching for is license."
"Si, Mama, license. Even an emperor does not have license to be so evil." Your sweet cricket voice was so grave. "Therefore, we shall punish Signor Nero. No dessert! His sugared almond will be given to Ermes."
Do you remember Ermes, my eternal love? He was our darling Tenerife, who adored you as much as you adored him. When you said his name he wiggled his wooly rump and lapped at your precious hand with his little pink tongue.
Camilla sat on the bed with us, sewing patches on her skirt. She was my dearest friend and most devoted servant, who took you on a journey to the piazza in front of Santa Maria every day, when I could not go out, and slept next to you every night, when darkness freed me to do my business. Your zia Camilla was not your real auntie, but she was my sister in everything but blood, and if one day I did not come home, I trusted her to keep you safe and see that you became a man. Thin as a birch and taller than I am, our sweet Camilla had a pale, grave face, her eyes and mouth dark smudges, which made her seem like a lovely ghost, though she was as strong as a Turk wrestler. She was born in Naples, and nature made her hair as raven-hued as I dye mine now.
I could describe every detail of that tiny room in the Trastevere, my most adored and most precious son, yet I could never describe the love that surrounded you there. And now I have no greater fear, than that we will become separated by an ocean of time, which no words can cross.
Perhaps all you will remember of me is that I did not come back for you.
An old Jew named Obadiah lived next door to us, above a noisy wineshop. He was a divine man, scarcely tall enough to look through a keyhole, who loved to discuss the works of Flavius Josephus and often arranged for me to purchase antiquities from dealers and cavatori — diggers — of his acquaintance. So when I heard the pounding on our ancient oak door, it was not at all remarkable to find Obadiah there, although I was surprised at his urgency. His face was always like a marvelous drawing on old parchment, all the lines carefully marked in sepia ink. Yet as I looked down at him peering around the side of our door, that yellowed parchment seemed to bleach out in an instant.
The three men were in our house even before poor Obadiah could sag and fall to the ground; they made certain we saw their saber and stilettos. But you weren't frightened, nor was Ermes, who rushed at them even before you did, barking like a woman screaming until the man with the saber swatted him with his blade and our precious dog flew against the wall like a bundle of wool. A heartbeat later you collided with this man's legs and at once he clapped his hand to your mouth and directed the tip of his blade at your little belly. The invaders had entered without a word, but now this man, who had only one seeing eye — the other was like a poached egg — said with a coarse Neapolitan accent, "We'll slit the boy like a November hog."
I wanted to say, "I don't believe the man who sent you will permit you to kill his grandson." But if your grandfather had sent these men, he was very shrewd, because they sufficiently resembled common thieves that I could not be certain they weren't. So I had to say, "I'll show you where my things are."
The second man came around behind me and shoved the wooden gag in my mouth; it is a miracle he did not knock out my teeth. He tied the leather cord behind my head so tight that the knot felt like the butt of a knife jammed into my skull. The wood sucked all the moisture from my tongue and I could only watch as the third man gagged Camilla. I will never forget the look in her eyes just before he pushed her down on the mattress.
The one-eyed man had started out the door with you, clutching you to his breast, you kicking and flailing until he said, "Do you want me to kill your Mama?" Though you were not even five years old, you were clever enough to at once cease your protest. And by then you could see the body of dear old Obadiah lying outside our door, his shirt sopping with blood as red as a Cardinal's hat. He had died trying to warn us.
For my part, I bolted to the door, preferring to perish in pursuit of you than share our beloved Camilla's fate. I was not forced back into the room; after the second man grabbed me by the hair, he proceeded to drag me alongside you and his accomplice, pricking his knife into my ribs whenever I struggled. The flock of chickens that roosted on the balcony next door clucked and chortled as we passed beneath them.
From The Malice of Fortune by Michael Ennis. Copyright 2012 by Michael Ennis. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc.