Excerpt from Death In Bagheria, a work in progress
Wednesday, March 23, 1870
Serafina Florio ran up a winding staircase and entered the sacristy. Breathless, she fished in her pockets for a linen, smelling beeswax, citrus, the must of centuries. After her eyes adjusted to the dimness, she saw Sister Genoveffa, the Duomo’s sacristan, standing at the worktable, arranging lemon blossoms in a vase. Her homespun skirts were hiked, revealing fine leather boots. Serafina looked down at her own pair, scuffed in spots and worn at the heel.
“Took you long enough, but now that you’re here, follow me.” The nun released her hems and turned to the custodian, a toothless sack of a man rattling his keys in the corner. “Ask cook to bring us caffè and biscotti, will you? And be quick—I haven’t much time.”
As imperious in stuff cloth as she was in silk. Serafina followed the nun’s flowing veil into her office.
When they were seated with the door closed, Sister Genoveffa adjusted her wimple and began. “My mother’s been poisoned.”
“But she’s been dead at least six months!” Serafina cast her mind back to Lady Caterina’s requiem. “My husband hadn’t long been in his grave when I heard of her demise.” Despite the warmth of the morning, she felt clammy. Images of Giorgio’s body lying in state, his waxen face familiar yet so strange, crowded her mind. “Buried near Prizzi, isn’t she?” Serafina asked, dabbing her face with the linen.
Genoveffa nodded. “In the family crypt on my grandfather’s estate. And she’s been dead for eighteen months.”
Serafina was silent.
“Two years ago my father summoned me, demanding that I come home and care for her. They were staying in Bagheria at the time, the villa my mother preferred, where they did most of their socializing. When I arrived, I could see that she was deathly ill. Her stomach was inflamed, the doctor said—acute dyspepsia, he called it. ‘Give her nothing for twenty-four hours. After that, only water and no food for two days. The fast will purge the system and the illness will subside,’ he told us. I didn’t think much of his directive, but we had no other course.”
She gave Serafina a pinched look. “Family doctor, you know, and my father’s rigid about some things. We shuddered to think her illness might have been a form of—”
The nun hesitated before nodding.
Serafina closed her eyes, remembering her own mother’s death from that horrid disease. Why did the aristocracy imagine themselves exempt from devastation? She shook her head. “Couldn’t have been. Cholera is swift; strikes before you know it. ‘Merry in the morning, dead by noon,’ they say.”
Photo: Procession in Palermo. Credit: flydime (Flickr), Creative Commons.