A tall, rather handsome man walked through tall grass into his cottage. His muscular shoulders set down a bag of grain. Approaching, a woman with black curls tied back her white skirt and smiled, brown eyes shining in noonday sun.
“Thank you Ernesto dear,” she said sitting at their polished, wooden table.
Ernesto came near, took her hand and kissed it. He walked towards the kitchen, pondered a moment then turned asking, “Michele, did you plant those tomatoes?”
She replied tiredly, “If you went into the backyard, you would see them.”
Michele shook her head at his obliviousness.
They readied and prepared lunch. It was a simple meal rolls, roasted tomatoes and cold pasta. Autumn sun streaked through the windows, few birds chirped and Michele could hear a rabbit scurrying outside. After eating, they drank sweet wine. Ernesto got up and wiped the table clean until its wooden surface shined while Michele put dishes away in a basin.
Things were quiet; neither had much to say but simply went through their household duties. Sudden tension began rising from this silence. At once, a sound came at the door. Ernesto answered and found of all people, Cardinal Fratelli standing there. Behind him, an elaborate carriage circled and parked on the grass yard.
“Your Eminence, it’s unusual for you to be here. Is everything aright?”
Fratelli grinned and said, “Everything is fine. I couldn’t wait for you to visit me this weekend so decided I’d come myself. There is something I wish to share with you.”
The cardinal awkwardly clutched a box under his arm and Ernesto took it from him, carrying it into the front-room. The object didn’t feel too heavy but he wondered what it contained.
“It’s nice to see you,” Ernesto then admitted, removing Fratelli’s flowing, scarlet cloak and hanging this by the door.
His visitor looked about the small house, small but open. A wicker basket, given as a wedding gift, hung on the nearest wall. Pine sap’s sweet scent wafted and smells of fresh bread and boiled stew came out of the kitchen. This was a lived-in house, a family house.
Hearing their voices, Michele entered and exclaimed, “Angelo, you’re here!”
Cardinal Fratelli made himself comfortable in a wide chair then gestured for the box which Ernesto set on his lap.
“Can’t I open it?” Ernesto asked.
“No, I will, there is something here I must show you.”
“Angelo, would you like something to drink?” Michele chimed.
Though his face expressed slight frustration at being addressed so informally,
Fratelli gently spoke, “No I am fine.”
Carefully, Fratelli removed his pristine, white gloves, siting them on the table beside him and pried open the box. Under layers of thin, gauzy paper were revealed two, tiny statuettes: One of Saint Joseph in brown garments, glaze brightening his tan skin, a tiny wooden staff in his hand and the other, a ceramic lamb.
“They are so beautiful!” Michele cried.
Delicately, she took the lamb into her hands examining closer. Fratelli handed Ernesto the Joseph figurine.
“There is a tradition in the Fratelli family,” he began, “Every year, when we meet to celebrate the Feast of the Nativity, each of us brings part of the family crèche and we put it together and display it in the house where we are feasting.”
Michele gasped, delighted.
“Our own family is just beginning and how thoughtful of you to give us a new tradition like this!” she stammered.
Ernesto smiled but said nothing. He didn’t want to break the light mood which settled over them. His wife spoke truly, their new family had just begun and he anticipated this first year together. The cardinal’s voice broke his musing:
“For years, it was my duty to put these two figures up- along with the baby Christ which I now keep. However, you two are now part of the family and so shall have a part in this…”
“Thank you, Your Eminence, I am proud to be in this family,” Ernesto responded.
The cardinal laughed, “Well, you always were actually. Thanks be to God for the wonderful fortune of discovering you are my brother.”
Ernesto glanced down, overcome with humble joy. Sudden emotion swept over Michele and rather than betray her feelings, she unseated and darted into the kitchen pretending to fetch wine. So many thoughts flowed through her mind, thoughts of the recent wedding, her happiness, joy and worry. Looking out a small window, she noticed storm clouds gathering. Distant, city towers grew dark.
Walking back into the living room, she placed an open bottle of wine between them and three glasses. She poured and they sipped listening to faint thunder. As Fratelli stuffed tissue paper back into his box, a little bell rang and he looked at his feet to find Michele’s Siamese kitten pawing and tearing one sheet.
“Bella, no!” Michele cried snatching the paper away.
Fratelli calmly grabbed the kitten and placed her on the chair next to him. Seeing her playful, pale-blue eyes sparkle, he lifted one end of his silk belt, dangling its tassels above the kitten who swatted at them. He laughed in amusement. A rumble sounded outside, growing louder.
“Perhaps I should be on my way?” Fratelli then suggested.
“Yes rain is coming and it sounds fierce,” Ernesto said.
Soon as he spoke, loud thunder clapped and clouds above released a torrent of rain. Through the dripping windows, they watched driver outside quickly move beneath a tree.
“That poor man…” Michele sighed.
Fratelli nodded in agreement, betraying silent remorse and went to the door retrieving his draping, red cloak. Wrapping the fine fabric around him, the cardinal granted farewell then moved to open the door. He froze, peering outside with apprehension.
“You won’t get too wet,” Ernesto remarked, “I’ve been working on the roof, fixing the gutters.”
He smiled proudly and that pride assured Fratelli who opened the door, stepping out. Soon as he fastidiously straightened the red cap on his head, a rush of water trickled upon him. He shrieked, dancing away from the leaky roof as Ernesto hid his face in embarrassment. Apparently, he’d forgotten to fix one spot. Garb dampened and dripping, Fratelli sulked towards the carriage then removed his shoes and wrung them before stepping inside.
“Lord, is this because I coveted the garden?” he dismally asked aloud, “Yes, I have learned my lesson. I see now that it is your creation, which I have only tended- please forgive me and keep me away from more rain!”