A Cavernous Mind

A fisherman in Sicily_by Aurelio MerendaExcerpt from Death In Bagheria, a work in progress

Thursday, March 24, 1870

After a brief walk in the conservatory to admire its exotic plants, Serafina and Rosa made their way through an outside oven room with massive stone hearth for baking bread and roasting pit, down several steps through a grilled entryway to the kitchen and servants’ area on the villa’s ground floor. They walked through a small foyer with round table and chairs, the trim painted shiny white like the rest of the rooms below stairs, the walls tiled or newly washed with pale ochre and hung with prints and paintings of country kitchen scenes. They passed through the refectory with two long tables and enough chairs to seat the full complement of servants. A door on the far wall led into the main room, a high-ceilinged cavernous space tiled from floor to tin ceiling and containing the kitchen hearth and spit and several ovens. Copper pots hung from hooks suspended over a main working table. Two scullery maids were busy polishing brass bowls and pots and a kitchen boy was blacking the ovens. On a near wall stood a slate sink with running water, and at the workbench, another maid, with Renata’s supervision, added the finishing touches to a cassata while the fourth prepared a silver tray for afternoon collation.

In the corner sat a white-haired woman with close to sixty years but well kept, Serafina judged by her sunken eyes and soft lines around the jaw. She sat at a chestnut desk peering through lorgnettes at a piece of vellum and wore a pinstriped dress with a slight bustle, long white apron and cap. Her face was intelligent, her figure, slight; her dress was fresh, her apron starched, and she scratched something on linen paper with manicured hands, her quill dipping from time to time into a silver inkwell, her mouth twisting this way and that, working all the while. After blotting the ink, she held her nose a little too high in the air, it seemed to Serafina, and rose as she and Rosa approached, and straightened her shoulders. “Umbrello told me that a detective would want to speak with me about the baroness’s death,” she said, and offered a slight smile.

“He explained why we’re here?”

She nodded and her mouth twisted.

Serafina introduced Rosa, and said, “Is this a good time?”

The woman’s lips pursed. Looking from Renata to Serafina, Mima smiled and wrapped Serafina’s hands in hers. “Renata’s mother! I didn’t know! And you must be Rosa. Forgive me. The connection escaped me, you see. What a talent you have in the home, your Renata. We met this winter over cups of tea and bowls of laughter at the goings on above stairs in all the big houses up and down the shore. Please call me Mima. Mima Scarpanello, married to Pietro, the gardener. You may have seen him if you’ve been given a tour of the park,” the woman said.

“Not yet. Della Trabia started to give us a walk around, but we were interrupted.”

Shadows crossed Mima’s face at the mention of the gabelloto’s name and Serafina wasn’t sure of the expression in her eyes. Was it a fleeting moment of mistrust or anger, of sorrow and regret, of promises made and broken—or perhaps a more complex emotion, combined and diluted and layered like the fashions of the day? Or could it be a hate so primal it was hidden from Mima herself? For after all, Serafina reflected, who knows what we conceal from our very selves? She glanced at Rosa and forced her mind to resurface. In any case, she liked this woman with her sensitive hands, her expressive mouth, and inquisitive face.

 Photo: A fisherman in Sicily. Credit: Aurelio Merenda (Flickr), Creative Commons

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