by Elen Essem
A short love story about a plain girl and mysterious suitor in Naples, Renaissance Italy.
La più bella donna
The glass coffin was adorned with lilies that perfumed the air with a sickly, sweet aroma. A woman sat, head bowed, her dark hair highlighted with gray, her fresh beauty long faded. Her thin frame shook; her hands, clothed in long black gloves, quivered with unspoken fatigue. The dim candle-lit room was silent, save for the pelting of rain against the stained-glass windows and the quick breathing of the woman. She could not cry anymore. The rain made up for her unshed tears.
The door creaked as it opened. Two young people stood there, a woman and a younger man. Like the first woman, they were draped in black.
"Mother," said the girl hesitantly, "can we--?"
Mother shook her head. "We can do nothing, Bambi. Your father is gone." She tore her eyes away from the face of the man in the coffin, and as she did so felt all the years she had spent with him fade away. The empty space in her heart grieved openly with mournful cries. She rose slowly, and the young man stepped forward to steady her.
"He is safe, Mother," he said softly. Amedeo's long, dark lashes framed gentle eyes, like his wavy hair framed his angelic face of angles and smooth marble. But unlike his sister, he was quick to anger and hastened in making foolish decisions.
Bambi felt her mother's hand. "Think back to that day," she whispered, "where the water reflected the sunlight like glass..."
It was a normal day, the sky blue and the sun hanging suspended in the sky by invisible strings. Annalisa strolled along the canal, a basket on one arm. Her faded skirt billowed about her ankles as she walked, and a cloth was draped over her head to cover her dark hair. She was the daughter of a poor merchant and a girl of great dreams.
Gondolas drifted lazily on the canal water, which was always murky with pollution. She pranced around a puddle, lifting her skirt so it would not get wet. The bazaar swarmed with activity and the summer heat. Sweat dripped off her small nose as she pushed her way through the crowd.
The sound of excited conversation and cheering reached her ears. Curious, she forgot her errand to pick up bread and hastened towards the source of amusement. She found herself at the stall of a glass vendor. Luca, the glass-blower's son, was tall and handsome. His hair was thick and dark, like hers, except it was uncovered by cloth and borne to the eyes that feasted on him. The people crowded around the stall clapped as he withdrew from the furnace, holding a beautiful glass vase on a long stick.
"Let us see it!" "Show it to us, Liberatore!" the people cried.
But Luca's eyes had fallen on Annalisa. She blushed and began to pull away as the urgent thrum of her heartstrings reminded her of her duty.
However, Luca called in a cheerful voice, "Please, let me present this vase to the belladonna over there!"
Beautiful lady. Surely Luca couldn't mean her? After all, the Liberatore family hailed from Florence and thrived in business. They were wealthy where she was not, and, as she peered around, she was the only girl not adorned with jewelry. She looked at him; he was grinning and holding the now cooled-off vase out to her.
She shyly made her way over. As he handed her the beautiful vase, he put his mouth to her ear and whispered, "What is your name, mia luce?" A shudder of hope ran through her. "Annalisa," she said, staring at the ground.
He took her hand. "Annalisa, my love," he murmured graciously, "do look me in the eye and tell me you are the fairest lady I've laid eyes upon."
She allowed her eyes to raise, and found herself gazing deeply into dark eyes that shown with affection and elegance. He has a charming character, she thought, and does not care that I am poor.
"I cannot tell you that," she said in a soft, humble voice. "I come from a family of low ranking. I am nothing compared to you."
He suddenly seemed quite disturbed, and a frown descended on his features. "Do not tell yourself that."
I am poor. I am ugly. How could she think otherwise? It was true, after all. "I have nothing to repay you," she said shamefully. "I cannot accept this vase. I have no money."
"Take it. It is a gift, Annalisa." He enclosed her delicate fingers over the glass. She felt the calluses on his sturdy hands and the eyes of the onlookers.
Annalisa closed her eyes so he couldn't see her tears of thanks. She had never held something so fine in her life. "Thank you, Luca." Then she hurried off as fast she could, in pursuit of the bread.
The following days, she found every excuse possible to visit the glassmaker's stall. Some days it was Luca's father, the owner of the business. He did not know Annalisa, and so she would avoid the stall. But when it was Luca, she walked over and they two became engaged in speech. He was a talented flirt, but she noticed he did not flirt around her. His ego was stripped away and she was left with a simple, refined young man.
One day, as they were speaking, Luca drew out a series of paints and brushes. "Would you like to paint some glass?" he asked, smiling.
"Oh, no..." She became flustered, fearing she would look quite foolish painting glass.
"But yes, mia dolce. You are the fairest lady I've laid eyes upon." He took up her hand and firmly but carefully pressed a paintbrush into her hand. "Now tell me, Annalisa."
But she could not utter those words that wrapped around her heart. She said so, and lowered her head as she concentrated on painting little roses on the glass. Within minutes, she had painted a scene of rosebushes. Each brushstroke was painstaking, streaks of pink and crimson.
Luca was greatly impressed. "Beautiful!" he exclaimed. "Bravo!"
That evening, Annalisa helped her mother prepare the meal. The bread was stale, but it had been the best of the baker's leftovers. The leftovers were reserved for the poorest, and she had to scramble to the bakery in order to collect a decent loaf of bread.
"Mama," Annalisa said timidly, "can I tell you something?"
Mama nodded as she set down the plates.
"I have met the friendliest young man at the bazaar. He is ever the gentleman and so..." She broke off, overcome by emotion and unable to finish. Her heart swelled as she thought of Luca.
Mama raised her eyebrows. "Oh? What is this young man's name?"
"Luca," her daughter gushed.
Mama nearly dropped the bread dish. "The glassmaker's son?"
"Si, si, Mama!" Annalisa played with a lock of her hair, which was momentarily uncovered.
Her mother clucked her tongue, shaking her head. "My daughter, the ardent young woman! I have no doubt your father will be impressed."
Papa, however, had his doubts. "There is a great possibility he is simply playing with you," he said. A large, firm man, he was hard to sway.
Annalisa had feared this. "I am sure I will win him over--" she began.
"But you shall not." Papa wiped at his mouth with his sleeve, rising. "You are not beautiful, and you lack talent. The only thing you are good for is housekeeping: the role of a poor man's wife."
He left the room. Annalisa was stricken. She glanced helplessly at her younger brother. "Giorgi..."
Giorgi shrugged helplessly. "Papa will not listen to a boy of twelve," he answered sadly. "He is a stubborn man."
Annalisa gave a heartfelt sigh.
That night, she clasped her hands and prayed. The vase Luca had given her stood on the washstand, shimmering.
The next morning, she rose and washed her face. Then she carefully plaited her hair and covered it once more with the cloth. Papa had left early, Giorgi was at the boy's school, and Mama was tending the house as she always did.
As she left, she told Mama, "I shall prove to Papa that Luca is a match for me."
As she reached the bazaar, however, the din seemed tamer. People bustled about normally, and no real excitement seemed to be happening. Curious, she edged her way in and made a beeline for the glassmaker's stall.
It was gone.
In its place was a vendor selling thread. She gaped at it, unsure if she was dreaming, before approaching the stall. "Scusi," she said, "but there was a glassmaker's stall here before. Where has it gone?"
A woman with brown hair and a pinched face stared at her. "Moved back to Florence, I think. Why?"
Unwillingly, tears sprung to her eyes. "I knew the son."
The woman's eyes grew large. "My dear, are you Annalisa?"
Surprised, she nodded.
"Why," the woman said gently, "the son left a message for you. Here." She reached underneath the stall and emerged holding a scroll. It was tied off with a scarlet, silk ribbon.
Annalisa took it, trembling. "Grazie," she managed to choke out. Her throat was so tight it made breathing difficult.
In her room, she gingerly opened the scroll. My dear Annalisa, it read, My father has decided for my family to return to Florence. It was a quick decision, one my mother nor my siblings saw coming. I apologize for having to leave so soon. But look at the vase I gave you, when I first met, and remember that you are, indeed, the fairest lady I've laid eyes upon.
He had signed it with a flourished scrawl, Luca di la Liberatore. She sniffed the parchment and picked up the scent of burnt, finished glass. And she thought of him.
Each day, she walked to and from the bazaar, scanning the gondolas for a familiar face. In her heart, she sensed he would return. Her eyes skimmed over the murky canal water, maddened slightly, as though she would find him swimming with long, powerful strokes towards her.
But the daydreams ended, along with her hopes. She retired home and never again returned to the stall that had once housed Luca and his father's business. Her hair grew frizzy and straggly, and her plain beauty lessened. Mama grew worried; Father ignored it altogether. Giorgi tried to comfort her by reciting Greek and Roman poetry. Nothing comforted her, and in the end she hid in her room. The vase would stare back at her. She planned to shatter it against the wall, but she could not bring herself to do it.
Giorgi came to her room on a Sunday. "You missed Mass, my sister," he said anxiously. "Must I drag you there and back?"
"Worshipping the Lord should not be a material thing," his sister replied haughtily. "I should not have to move to a certain building in order to pray. A prayer or a Latin chorus is just as effective here as it is there."
"Of late, you have not been praying," Giorgi scolded. She glanced up at him through her lashes. He had grown into a young teenager of fourteen, and examined her with an annoyed expression. "Papa wants you to have a husband," he said. "He suspects it shall help raise the family income."
Annalisa sniffed. "Family income. Is marriage a thing of glory or love?"
"For us, it is deliverance. We are deep in debt, Annalisa." Giorgi exited the room.
My brother has grown into a strong young man, she thought, troubled. And here I am, still deep in mourning after two years. Had she grown at all in mentality? Or was she simply holding herself back?
To get a fresh breath of air, she headed to the bazaar. I must clear my head to think, she had decided. But now, she crossed over a bridge and inhaled the smell of the water. She heard the soft lapping of water at the sides of the buildings and the buzzing of conversation, but her mind was elsewhere.
She stared down as she paused on the bridge. Gondolas passed to and fro, steered with precision and agility atop the water. The sun shone with dapple light upon the water, and she felt herself leaning against the bridge's railing, drifting off to sleep...
An hour had passed when she suddenly jolted awake. Perhaps she had been in a half-slumber, but she was certain she had recognized the persons in a certain gondola. She had not said his name in two years, had not even breathed it. But now she shouted it as it ripped the bondages from her aching heart, "Luca!"
The young man did not look up, and neither did the other people in the gondola. For a fleeting moment, she feared they were not actually the family Liberatore. But she did not want to ever doubt again. She would risk breaking her heart in two, just to glimpse her beloved's look-alike...
She raced down the bridge, wound through the crowd, jumped over crates that lay thrown in the street. The cloth flew off her head; she did not stop to pick it up. Her hair flew behind her, thriving in the light. Adrenaline pumped through her veins, urging her legs to move faster. Her heart beat fit to burst. Two years, two long hard years of stale bread and wanting had passed.
Like a sparrow, she darted out from between two people. They yelled indignantly, but she ignored them. Her heat pounded out his name: Lu-ca...Lu-ca...until it was all she heard. Like harp music, it filled her head and wove about her limbs. Her heartstrings were harp strings, playing a melody she had not heard for months.
"Luca!" she shouted, as she skidded to a halt at the edge of the canal. The gondolier looked up and, seeing it was no one he knew, shook his head. But the young man seated on the bench turned, as did his father and family. It was Luca.
Luca failed to recognize her at first, for her hair was uncovered and her face plainer. But as she stepped closer, his eyes met hers, and the two were whisked back to that day when he gave her the vase. He stood, and the gondola swayed dangerously. His family gave a warning cry.
"All is well," he told them, but his eyes were only for Annalisa. With careful aim, he leapt from the gondola and landed safely on the walkway.
"Mia luce e dolce," he murmured, gathering her in his arms. "At last, I can gaze upon your face again! You, who are the fairest lady I've laid eyes upon."
And with her spirit soaring free, she kissed him and replied, "I am the fairest lady you've laid eyes upon. I love you, Luca."
"And I you, my Annalisa," he answered.
They married to the tolling of church bells. Annalisa wore a dress of streaming white, one Luca's family had wholeheartedly made for her. Papa beamed, glad that the family would no longer suffer, and Mama and Giorgi's smiles lit up the entire church. Catherina herself resumed her prayers and her goings to Mass, and together, hand in hand, she and Luca lived a happy, peaceful life as husband and wife.
The lilies reminded Annalisa of the flowers painted on the glass. She would remember Luca for the rest of her life. After all, she had borne him two blessed children and given him all her love.
Annalisa studied both Bambi and Amadeo's faces. "I shall remember that day," she promised. "I shall."