Monday, February 11, 1867
Perched near the water’s edge, the gunnysack tilted toward the sea. Fingers curled out of a hole near the top. Serafina Florio picked her way over stones still wet from the tide to take a closer look. Bloated eyes gaped back at her. “Poor man,” she muttered.
Something moved behind her? She shivered, turned this way and that. No one. She looked up at the sky. It was grey, decidedly so, like the color of stale body parts strewn over fields during Garibaldi’s campaign and mixed into the soil these past seven years. Were the crops better for the mulching?
Life was full of death in Sicily. Last year, a wave of cholera created a sea of makeshift coffins. They lined the piazza like battered ships. But that wasn’t all. In the fall, peasants stormed the city’s gates, scything humans and animals alike. The streets were slicked with blood. Artisans joined in the uprising, railing against taxes, conscription, the price of bread. Serafina was grateful that Giorgio hadn’t lived to see it.
This chaos must have been the reason that the commissioner summoned her to his office last week. He stood before her in sash and frock coat. “Dear lady, you caught the Ambrosi murderer before he could slash more women. You stunned us with the cleverness of your plan, the deftness of its execution.” His arms flailed like broken windmills. “We teeter on the edge of anarchy. Police and soldiers fill the streets, yet no one quells the riots. A pity, but we need your detecting skills. Say yes, you must. We’ll double your stipend.”
About time, too. The government paid her a pittance for all her backbreaking midwifery. And with Carlo in medical school and customers using wheat instead of coins to pay for their medicinals, Serafina needed the extra money her sleuthing would fetch. Besides, someone had to stop this butchery. Who better than she?
Someone hiding behind the prickly pear? She bit her lip, forcing herself to remain calm. Something familiar about the corpse—his flat face—but she couldn’t quite recall where she’d seen the man. Staring out to sea, she let its vastness mesmerize her, and in the letting go, remembered his name. She felt a surge of pity as she recalled his friendly presence in the piazza. A coincidence, she was just talking about him the other day with Loffredo. What had he said? Something about shady dealings. Serafina wrestled with herself until she was interrupted by the sound of retching.
Photo: Sea and Sky. Credit: sicilian mama (Flickr), Creative Commons.