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The Secret Dead
S. J. Parris The Secret Dead
I was eighteen years old and had justtaken holy orders the summer Fra Gennaro found the girl. It was not the firsttime I had seen a naked woman. I had entered the Dominican order as a novice atfifteen, old enough by then to have tasted first love, the sweet warmth of agirl’s pliant body in the shade of the olive trees above the village of Nola. Adistant cousin, as it turned out; her family was livid. Perhaps that was why myfather had been so ready to pay out for my education, though God knows he couldill afford it. Sending me away to the Dominicans in the city was cheaper than ascandal. We were given new names on taking our final vows, to symbolize theshedding of our old selves. I took the name Giordano, though most people justcalled me Bruno.
Naples in the summer of 1566 was an inferno of heat andnoise, dust and crowds; a city of heart-stopping beauty and casual violence. Twohundred and fifty thousand souls seething inside ancient walls built to house one-tenththat number, the tenements growing higher and higher, until their shadowsalmost shut out the sun because land was scarce, so much of it taken up by thevast gardens and courtyards of the palazzos and the religious houses. Tensionsin the city streets brewed and boiled like the forces of the great volcano thatovershadowed them. Even walking from one side of a piazza to the other felt likefighting through the front line of an advancing army: elbows and fists,baskets, barrows, and hot, angry bodies jostling and shoving, trampling orcrushing one another. Horses and carts plowed through the heaving marketplaces whilethe sun hammered down without pity and blazed back from walls of yellow tufastone or from the flashing blades of knives drawn in exchanges of rich,inventive cursing. The Neapolitans discharged the tension by fighting orfucking, often at the same time. Soldiers of the Spanish viceroy patrolled thestreets, though whether their presence imposed order or fueled the general airof aggression depended on your view of our Spanish overlords. It was a city stinkingof hypocrisy: Kissing in public was illegal, but courtesans were permitted towalk the streets openly, looking for business even in the churches (especiallyin the churches). Blasphemy was also punishable by law, but beggars, vagrants,and those without work were allowed to starve in the streets, their bodiesrounded up each night on carts and thrown into a charnel-house outside thewalls before they could spread contagion. Thieves, assassins, and whoresthrived and prospered there and, naturally, so did the Church.
In the midst of this simmering human soup stood themagnificent basilica of San Domenico Maggiore, where the faithful could worshipthe wooden crucifix that had once spoken aloud to St. Thomas Aquinas. San Domenicowas one of the wealthiest religious houses in the city; the local barons allsent their superfluous younger sons there as a bribe to God, and many of mybrothers dressed and strutted like the young lords they still felt themselvesto be, keen to preserve the distinction of degree despite their vows. Thedeprivations of religious life were interpreted here with considerable lassitude;it must have been well known to the prior and his officials that a number ofthe novices had copied keys to a side gate and often slipped out into the heatof the city streets at night, but I never saw anyone punished for it, providedthey were back in time for Matins. Drinking, dicing, whoring — sins such asthese were straightforward, easy to overlook in young noblemen with highspirits. It was sins of thought that the authorities could not countenance. Inits favor, I should say that San Domenico prized other qualities than birth: Itwas famed as the intellectual heart of Naples, and a mere soldier’s son like memight be admitted at the Order’s expense if he showed enough promise as ascholar.
By early September, the city had grown heavy and slow,exhausted by the ferocity of the long summer’s heat; people barely made theeffort to curse as you pushed past them. There was a sense of apprehension,too; the previous autumn had brought a season of thick fogs off the sea carryingthe contagion of fever, and the epidemic had infected half the city. I hadtaken my final vows and been admitted to the Order in the spring, despite somemisgivings on the part of the novice master, who confided to the prior that FraGiordano Bruno had trouble submitting to authority and a taste for difficultquestions. During my novitiate, I had shown aptitude for my studies in thenatural sciences, and the prior had set me to work for a while as assistant toFra Gennaro, the brother infirmarian, in the belief that vigorous practicaltasks — measuring, chopping, and distilling remedies, helping to cultivate andharvest the plants used to make them, as well as tending to the ailments ofthose brothers confined to the infirmary — would occupy my mind and curb my willfulness.In this, he was mistaken; the more I learned about the natural world, itscorrespondences and hidden properties, the more my questions multiplied, for itseemed to me that our understanding of Creation, handed down from antiquitythrough the Scriptures and the Church Fathers, did not stand up to the mostelementary scrutiny and observation. Fra Gennaro regarded my questions withforbearance and a hint of dry humor; for the most part he proved an attentiveaudience, if noncommittal, while I formulated my doubts and theories aloud. Onlyrarely did he reprimand me when I overstepped the bounds of what he judged aGod-given hunger for knowledge. Few of the other friars would have shown suchtolerance.
Fra Gennaro had studied medicine and anatomy at the famousmedical school in Salerno. He had wished to become a doctor and eventually aprofessor, but some years earlier his family’s fortunes had shifted for theworse, obliging him to leave the university and offer his skills in God’sservice. It was not the worst blow Fate could have dealt him — he was grantedconsiderable freedom to further his medical knowledge in his new role, though Iunderstood there was some dispute with the prior over the morality of usingcertain Arabic texts — but it was not the life he had aspired to and, though henever voiced this, I sensed in him a restlessness, a wistful longing for hisold world. He was barely forty, but to me, at eighteen, he appeared to possessa wealth of knowledge and wisdom that I yearned toward — and not all of itsanctioned. In his heart, he was a man of science, and a Dominican onlyincidentally, as I felt myself to be; perhaps this accounted for theinstinctive affinity that quickly grew between us.
I was skulking through the darkened cloister one starlessnight in the first week of September, clouds sagging overhead like wet plasterand a warm, sickly wind sighing in off the bay, when I glimpsed him on the farside of the courtyard, his arms bundled full of linen. He was heading not to theinfirmary but toward the gardens, in the direction of the outbuildings andstorehouses at the furthest extremity of the compound, where the high enclosingwall backed on to a busy thoroughfare. Something in his bearing caught myattention — his unusual haste, perhaps, or the way he walked with his head down,leaning forward, as if into a gale. Though I risked punishment for being out ofmy cell at that hour, I called out to him, curious to know what he was about.If he heard me, he gave no sign of it, though I knew my voice must havecarried. Instead, he kept his eyes fixed on the ground ahead as he hurriedthrough an archway and disappeared.
I hesitated in the shadows, hoping I would not run into thewatch brothers. They made a tour of the cloisters shortly after Compline toconfirm that everyone was tucked up in his cell and observing silence duringthe few hours of sleep, then retired somewhere more comfortable until theirsecond circuit just before the bell chimed for Matins at two o’clock. If theyknew of the nightly exodus through the side gate in the garden wall, they werepracticed at looking the other way. But for a friar like me, with no familyinfluence to consider and a growing reputation for disobedience, it would be amistake to be caught. I could easily find myself a scapegoat for those they didnot dare to discipline too harshly.
The air hung close, heavy with the scent of night blooms anda faint aroma of roasting meat from beyond the walls. Through the silence, Icaught the soft murmur of conversation drifting from the dormitory behind me,the occasional burst of laughter, the chink of Murano goblets. Fra Donatoentertaining his fellow aristocrats, I supposed. The wealthier friars — thosefor whom the Church was a political career built on contacts and greased palmslike any other — often held private suppers at night in their richly furnishedrooms. As with the nocturnal excursions, the watch brothers remained tactfullydeaf and blind to this.
Footsteps echoed behind me on the flagstones across thecloisters, over the low whisper of voices. There was no time to determinewhether they were friend or foe; I slipped quickly along the corridor andthrough the archway where I had seen Fra Gennaro disappear. Here, behind theconvent’s grand courtyards, the grounds were laid out to gardens with anextensive grove of lemon trees. A path followed the line of the boundary wall,toward the side gate. If you continued past the gate to the far side of thetrees, you reached a scattering of low buildings: grain houses, storerooms, thesaddlery and stables. Beyond these lay a whitewashed dormitory of two stories,where the convent servants slept.
Without a moon, there was no hope of seeing which directionFra Gennaro had taken, though if I strained my ears hard, I thought I couldmake out a distant rustling ahead among the lemon trees. The obviousexplanation was that he must be attending to one of the servants who had fallensick — but my curiosity was still piqued by his furtive manner and his pretenseof not having heard my call.
Like every other novice, I had learned to navigate the pathfrom the outer cloister to the gate in pitch darkness, feeling my way andcalculating distance from the scents of the garden and the recognition offamiliar landmarks under my feet and fingers: the twisted stalk of the vinethat grew up the wall at the point where the lemon grove began; the slightdownward incline as the path neared the gate. The footsteps persisted at myback, crunching on the hard earth. I moved off the path and into the shelter ofthe trees as two figures approached, fearing I had been discovered by thewatch. But they paused a short distance away, and I retreated further into thedark as I caught the wavering light of a taper hovering between them. Urgentwhispers followed the scraping of metal against metal; I heard the creak of thegate and a gentle click as it closed again behind them. Novices or young friarsheading out to the Cerriglio, the tavern two streets away, for a brief gulp ofthe city air before the Matins bell called them back to piety. I craned my neckand looked up through the leaves, wishing I could see the moon; I had no ideahow late it was.
The gardens were unfamiliar to me beyond the side gate, andI stumbled my way through the lemon trees, unsure if I was even moving in theright direction, my arms held up to protect my eyes from the scratchingbranches. After some while I emerged into open ground and could just make outthe bulk of a row of buildings ahead. A horse whinnied softly out of the darkand I tensed; grooms slept above the stables and would be awakened by anydisturbance. Holding my breath, I edged my way toward the storehouses and stoodstupidly, looking around. Had Fra Gennaro come this way? Most likely he wasalready in the servants’ dormitory, tending to some ordinary sprain or burn.How foolish I would look, lurking here in the shadows as if I were spying onhim.
Minutes passed, and I was debating whether to knock at theservants’ quarters when I heard the muted creak of a door from one of theoutbuildings behind me. A hooded figure slipped out and set down a pail at hisfeet. I heard the jangle of a key in a padlock, though it was clear he wastrying to make as little noise as possible. A cone of light slid back and forthacross the ground from the lantern in his hand. From his height I was certainit was the infirmarian, though I waited until he was almost upon me beforestepping into his path.
“Dio porco!” He jumped back as if he had beenassaulted, stifling his cry with his fingers as the pail clattered to theground.
“I’m sorry — I didn’t mean to startle you.” I moved closer,pulling back the hood of my cloak.
“Fra Giordano?” He peered at me through the darkness, hisbreathing ragged in the still air. “What in God’s name are you doing here?”
“I wanted to offer my help.”
“With what?” Now that he had recovered from the shock, Inoted the hard edge to his voice. He was not pleased to have been intercepted.
“Whatever you are doing. I saw you in the cloister and you seemed…” I searched for the right word “… burdened. I thought, perhaps-”
His mouth twitched to one side in a sharp noise ofdisapproval. “You should not have been in the cloister. By rights, I shouldreport you to the prior.”
I lowered my eyes. We both knew it was an empty threat: Ihad given him better cause to report me before this and he had not done so. Buthe wanted me to know that he was angry.
“Forgive me, Brother,” I murmured. “I was restless andneeded a walk. When I saw you, I thought only to offer my assistance. I wantevery chance to learn. Is one of the servants ill? I could fetch and carry for you,if you let me observe the treatment.”
He did not reply immediately, only watched me with anunreadable expression, narrowed eyes glinting in the flame of the lantern. “Youwish to learn, huh?” He appeared to be weighing something. After a moment, hestepped forward and gripped my upper arm so hard that I flinched away. His faceloomed inches from mine, oddly intent; I could smell on his breath the gingerroot he chewed to settle his stomach. “There is much you might learn tonight,and I could use another pair of hands. But listen to me, Fra Giordano. I havebeen good to you, have I not?”
I nodded eagerly, unsure where this was heading.
“There are words you have spoken in my dispensary thatanyone else would have reported instantly to the prior. Words that would leadyou straight before the Father Inquisitor. I have let them pass, because Irecognize in you a spirit of enquiry that, while yet undisciplined, is born notof rebellion, but of a true desire for knowledge.” He paused and sighed,passing the flat of his hand over his cropped hair. “In that you remind me ofmyself. That is why I have not reported you for voicing opinions that to otherswould fall barely short of heresy.”
I bowed my head. “And I am grateful for it. But-”
He held up a hand to pre-empt me and lowered his voice. “Thenwe are both agreed you owe me a debt of confidence. You could assist metonight, but you must first swear that you will never speak of what you see toanyone, inside or outside these walls.”
My gut tightened with excitement as my thoughts racedahead, trying to imagine what kind of medical emergency would demand such alevel of secrecy. I stared at him.
“I swear it. On my life.”
He peered into my face with that same fierce scrutiny,still holding my arm so tight that the next morning I would find a ring ofviolet bruises. Eventually, it seemed he was satisfied. He gave a single curtnod and released his grip.
“Wait here, then. I must go to the dispensary to collect myinstruments and heat some water. If anyone should come by, make sure they don’tsee you.”
“Why don’t I come with you?” I offered. “We could carrytwice as much between us. Or, better still, they will surely have a fire in theservants’ dormitory — could we not heat a pail of water there? It would makesense to be closer to the patient.”
He made an aggressive gesture for me to be quiet. “Thepatient is not in there,” he said, dropping his voice until I had to strainforward to catch his words. “If you are to work with me tonight, Bruno, thereare two rules. You obey my every instruction, to the letter. And you ask noquestions. Is that clear?”
I nodded. “But why can’t I come with you?”
“Madonna santa!” He threw up his hands and stoopedto gather his pail. “Because, as far as anyone knows, you are tucked up in yourbed dreaming of saints and angels. Now do as I ask.”
He disappeared into the dark, until all I could see was thesmall spark of his lantern bobbing across the garden in the direction of theconvent buildings. Silence fell around me, punctuated only by familiar nightsounds: the snort and stamp of a sleeping horse, the drawn-out cry of an owl,the relentless, one-note song of the cicadas. Farther off, a whoop, followed bya gale of raucous laughter from the streets beyond the wall. I pressed myself intothe shadows of the outbuildings and waited. Where was this mysterious patient,then, if not in the servants’ quarters? I glanced across to the door FraGennaro had locked behind him. In the storehouse? Why could he not be treatedin the infirmary, like any other …
A sudden understanding flashed through me, flooding myveins with cold. This man must be an enemy of the state, someone it would notbe politic for us to be seen helping. San Domenico had a reputation forfomenting resistance against the kingdom’s Spanish rulers; it was well knownthat the more rebellious among the Neapolitan barons met regularly in theconvent’s great hall to discuss the form of that resistance, with the readyinvolvement of some eminent Dominicans. Perhaps this secret patient was aconspirator who had been wounded in the course of action against the Spanish.That would explain Fra Gennaro’s insistence that I ask no questions. Pleased bymy own reasoning, I bunched my hands into fists beneath my robe and slid downagainst the wall of the storehouse to squat on my heels, bouncing withanticipation.
I recited psalms and sonnets to measure the time; anothertwenty minutes passed before Gennaro returned, with a bundle tied over hisshoulder and carrying the full pail of water, steam rising from the cracks inits lid. I leapt up and hurried to take it from him; he nodded and paused tocheck all around before fitting the key to the padlock. As soon as we wereinside, he secured the door again behind us.
He held up the lantern and turned slowly to reveal only anunremarkable room with stone walls and a paved floor. Wooden crates lined onewall; barrels were stacked against the back. A sound of scurrying overhead mademe jump; I looked up, and a fine dust filtered through between the planks thathad been laid over the roof beams to partition the eaves into a loft space. Aladder led up to a closed hatch.
“Only rats,” Gennaro muttered. “Keep that light over herewhere I can see it.”
He gestured toward the furthest end of the room. At first Icould not make out what he meant to show me, but as I drew closer with thelantern, I saw a wooden hatch set into the floor, the stones at the edges scrapedclean where the crates concealing it had been moved away. The hatch was alsoheld fast with a padlock. Gennaro selected another key from his belt, knelt,and unfastened it. He paused with one hand on the iron ring and looked up atme, his eyes large and earnest in the flickering light.
“Your oath, Bruno, that whatever you witness here willremain sealed in your heart as long as you breathe.”
I could have taken offense that my oath was not good enoughthe first time; instead I was too impatient to see what lay beneath the door.Goosebumps prickled along my arms. I swore again, on my life and all I heldsacred, my right hand pressed over my heart. Fra Gennaro studied me for a longmoment, then lifted the hatch and led the way down a flight of stone steps intoan underground chamber.
The air was cooler here, with a taint of damp. Though I couldsee little at first, on peering harder I made out an arched ceiling and wallslined with stone. No sound came from the dense shadows further in, none of thejagged breathing you would expect from an injured man. A cold dread touched me: Suppose the patient had died while Gennaro was fetching his instruments and Iwas waiting uselessly outside? But the infirmarian showed no sign of panic. Heclosed the hatch and slid a bolt across so that we could not be disturbed. Next,he unwrapped an oil lamp from the pack he had brought and lit it carefully fromthe lantern. In the brighter glow, I saw that the chamber was dominated by asturdy table draped with a thick shroud, under which was laid the unmistakableoutline of a human figure.
A strange fear took hold of me, somewhere under my ribs,constricting my breath. Gennaro removed his cloak and hung it on the back ofthe door, indicating that I should do the same. In its place, he shrugged on arough hessian smock, such as the servants wear, and over this a wide leatherapron. Then he rolled up his sleeves, dipped his hands into the steaming water,and rubbed them clean before opening the bag he had brought with him. In the lamplight,I caught the flash of silver blades. The last item he extracted was a largehourglass, which he set upright on a box beside the table to allow the sand tosettle. When he had assembled all the equipment to his satisfaction, he tookone corner of the shroud in his hand and glanced at me.
I tried to swallow, but my throat had dried. I managed anod, and he pulled back the sheet covering the body.
In the stillness, I heard myself gasp aloud, though I hadthe presence of mind not to cry out. Stretched out on the table was the body ofa young woman, about my own age, unmoving as a marble tomb. Her flesh was sounblemished that it seemed at first she might be merely sleeping; indeed, Idared to hope as much for the space of a heartbeat, until I looked more closelyand saw in her face the unmistakable contortions of strangulation. It wasclear, despite the bulging eyes, the protruding tongue, and the discoloration ofthe face, that she must have been unusually beautiful, not very long ago. Herskin was pale and smooth, her dark hair flowed around her shoulders, and herwaist was small and neat, her hips narrow, and her breasts full. Ripe bruises likeshadow fingers formed a ring around her white throat.
“By my reckoning,” Gennaro said, turning over the hourglass,now brusque and businesslike, “we have about two and a half hours until Matins.There is no time to waste.”
So saying, he took a broad-bladed knife and slit the girl’sshift lengthwise in one swift movement, from hem to neck, leaving the fabric tofall away either side. I tried to avert my eyes from the dark thatch of hair onher pubis, but it was difficult; I had not seen a woman’s body in three years.If Gennaro noticed my confusion and the color rising to my cheeks, he wasdiscreet enough not to mention it.
“Who is she?” I whispered, fixing my gaze on her feet. The soleswere bare and dirty.
“Beggar. Homeless. Come, hold that lantern closer.” His replycame just a fraction too quick.
“But — how does she come to be here?” I blurted, forgettingmy earlier promise.
“She was found in the street by one of the night patrolsand brought to me. They thought they might be in time to save her. Alas, theyarrived too late.”
He could see that I did not believe this version of events.I was not convinced that he did either. No Spanish soldier in the city wouldtrouble himself to help a vagrant girl. They were more likely to be the oneswho had abused and killed her. At least he had the grace to look away as hesaid it.
“But she has clearly met with a violent death, and quiterecently-”
He laid the back of his fingers on the girl’s neck, hisexpression speculative. “An hour or so, I would say.”
“Then surely we should report it?”
“Fra Giordano, I thought we had agreed no questions?”
I bit my lip. He paused and straightened, his hand hoveringover a selection of knives. I could not miss the impatience in his face, thoughhis voice was softer. “Listen. You told me you have read the work of Vesalius.”
“I have, but-”
“And how did Vesalius come by his knowledge of the humanbody? Where did he find his raw materials?”
“He stole corpses from the gallows at night.” I felt as ifan invisible hand were squeezing my own throat.
“Exactly. And you know he also robbed graves? In thepursuit of understanding, it is sometimes necessary to interpret the law in one’sown way.”
“But this girl has been murdered! He may not have got far — someone might have seen something-”
“That is not our concern, Brother.” The sharpness in histone took me by surprise. He sighed. “In the medical schools of Europe,professors of anatomy are allocated the bodies of felons for public dissectionunder the law — as many as four a year in some places.” His jaw tightened. “Iwill never be a professor of anatomy now. God in His wisdom saw fit to call meto His service in another way. But that does not mean my desire to learn is anythe less.” His tone suggested a degree of skepticism about the divine wisdom inthis instance. He planted both hands flat on the table and leaned across thegirl to nail me with a fierce stare. “Listen to me, Fra Giordano. I see in youthe makings of a man of science. I mean it. For such as us, pushing the boundariesof what is known, shining the light of true learning into the dark corners ofCreation — there can be no higher good. I know you agree.” He jabbed aforefinger into the air between us. “And do not let anyone make you afraid ofGod’s judgment. All of Nature is a great book in which the Creator has writtenthe secrets of the universe. Would He have given us the gifts of reason andenquiry if He did not wish us to read that book?”
In the soft light, his face was avid as a boy’s. Ihesitated. Fra Eugenio, my novice master, had taken great pains to impress uponhis flock of intellectually ambitious youths that the first and greatest sin ofour forefather Adam was the desire for forbidden knowledge. He held firmly tothe view that the Almighty intended much of His creation to remain beyond our meagerhuman understanding. I was of Fra Gennaro’s mind, but I was still afraid.
“You mean to anatomize her.” My voice emerged as a croak.This time I did not frame it as a question.
He picked up a long knife and studied the tip of its blade.“You know as well as I that this city is overrun with indigents.” He gesturedwith the knife toward the figure on the table. “She was a street girl, a whore.No one will mourn her, poor creature. If she were not lying here now, she wouldbe on a cart full of corpses heading for Fontanelle. At least this way somegood will come of her sad existence before she ends up there. In life, she gaveher body up to rogues and lechers. In death, she will give it up to the serviceof anatomy.” He fixed me with a long look, tilting his head to one side as hepressed the knife’s point into the pad of his finger. “You are not obliged to stay,if your conscience advises you otherwise. But think of the opportunity. You arethe only one here I would trust to assist me.”
I looked at him. How could I resist such flattery? Even so,in my gut I was deeply troubled by his proposition. In the first place, I didnot believe his story about how he had come by the body. There could be nodoubt that the girl had been murdered, barely an hour ago, and I feared that indisposing of her corpse — to say nothing of illegally dissecting it — we would beimplicated in her death. More than this, though, it was the brutality of whathe was proposing that disturbed me. I had read Vesalius’s work on anatomy andunderstood the value of practical experimentation. But this girl had alreadysuffered violence at the hands of a man; whatever she may have been in life,our cutting and probing in the name of scientific enquiry seemed like a furtherviolation. I did not voice any of this. Instead, I said:
“Does the prior know?”
He allowed a long pause. His gaze slid back to the girl onthe table.
“The prior has, on occasion, given me permission to examinecorpses where it is clear that there would be some greater benefit in doing so.When old Fra Teofilo died last year in Holy Week — you recall? — I waspermitted to cut him open in order to study the tumor in his gut. And whatcould be more beneficial than furthering our knowledge of the female form? Youcannot know how rare it is to find such an ideal specimen.”
The gleam in his eyes as he said this verged on lascivious,though not for the girl, or at least, not in the usual way. His desire was allfor her interior, for the secrets she might yield up to his knife. From hisstudied evasion of my question, I took it that the answer was no. He tapped thehourglass with a fingernail. The sand was already piling into a small hill inthe lower half.
“Time will not wait for us, Bruno. Go or stay, but makeyour mind up now.”
“I will stay,” I said, sounding steadier than I felt.
“Good.” Relief rippled over his face. “And if you think youare going to faint or vomit, give me plenty of warning. We will have enough to cleanup without that.”
He dipped a cloth in the hot water and wiped it almosttenderly around the girl’s chest, along the declivities of her clavicle, thesharp ridges of her collarbones and into the valley between her breasts. “Notethe fullness of the breasts,” he observed, as if he were addressing students inan anatomy theater, as he marked the place of the first incision in a Y-shapeacross each side of her breastbone, “and the enlargement of the areola. If I amright in my speculation, we may find something of unparalleled interest here.”
I concentrated on holding the lantern steady over the table.As if I could have failed to notice the girl’s full breasts or large, darknipples. Perhaps he had forgotten what it was to be eighteen. In his eyes, shewas simply a specimen, material for experimentation. To me she was too recentlyliving, breathing, warm, with a head full of thoughts and dreams, for me to regardher as anything other than a young woman. I did not dare touch her skin; Ialmost believed it would still hold some pulse of life. Nor could I look at herface; the terror in those wild, staring eyes was too vivid. I had heard it saidthat when a person was murdered, the image of the killer was fixed in theirdeath stare. I did not mention this to Fra Gennaro; I did not want him to laughat me or take me for a village simpleton.
Any unbidden lustful thoughts shriveled in an instant as hepushed the blade into her flesh. He made two careful incisions along thebreastbone and joined them in a vertical cut that ran the length of her torsoto her pubis. The sound of the knife tearing through meat was unspeakable, thesmell more so. I recoiled, shocked, at the amount of blood that pooled out.Gennaro calmly placed containers under the table at strategic points, and I sawthat, like a butcher’s block, the surface had channels cut into it thatdiverted the blood into tidy streams of runoff that could be collectedunderneath. He folded back the skin on each side of the chest cavity, exposingthe white bones of the ribcage. I clamped my teeth together, fighting therising tide of bile churning in my stomach, reminding myself that I was a manof science. A wave of cold washed over my head and a sudden sunburst explodedin my vision; the cone of light from the lantern slid queasily up and down thewall. Gennaro stopped to look at me.
“You’ve gone green.” He didn’t sound greatly sympathetic. “Hangthe lantern on that hook above me and sit down with your head between yourknees. We can do without you passing out on her.”
I did as I was told. I sank to the cold floor at the farend of the room with my back pressed against the wall, clasped my hands behindmy head, and buried my face in shame. The terrible slicing noises continued,the determined sawing through resistant muscle and tendon, the sucking sound oforgans being displaced. I closed my eyes and bent the whole force of my willtoward maintaining consciousness and keeping my supper down. I could not tellhow much sand had slipped through the glass by the time I felt able to standagain, but when I opened my eyes and levered myself to my feet, Fra Gennaro wasbending over the girl’s exposed abdomen with an ardent expression. His eyesflickered upward to me.
“You’re back with us, are you? Come and look at this.” Heprodded with the tip of his knife. He was indicating a swollen organ about thesize of a small grapefruit, mottled crimson. “The greatest anatomy theaters inEurope would pay dearly to get their hands on this. It is an opportunitygranted to very few anatomists. Providence has smiled on us tonight. Do youknow what it is?”
I considered replying that Providence had been less kind tothe girl, but I merely shook my head.
“This is the womb, Bruno. The cradle of life. Locus of themystery of generation. The source, it is believed, of all female irrationality.”He reached in with bloody fingers and tugged, frowning. “Hippocrates said ithad the power to detach itself and wander about the body, but I do not see howthat could occur. This one seems firmly attached to the birth canal.”
He parted the girl’s legs and quite perfunctorily insertedtwo fingers into her vagina, pushing up until he could feel the pressure withhis other hand. “Interesting,” he murmured. “It seems to me that Vesalius’sdrawing of the female reproductive organs is seriously flawed …”
“And now,” he continued, lifting the girl’s womb toward himas if he were a street conjurer about to reveal his greatest trick, “watchclosely and learn. For if my guess is correct, you are about to witness asecret that some of the most renowned anatomists in Leiden or Paris have yet tosee in the flesh.”
He took a smaller knife and made a precise cut in the outerskin. As it ruptured, a clear, viscous fluid spilled out over his hands along withthe blood. Gennaro peeled back the skin and extracted from within the womb atiny homunculus, no bigger than the span of my hand, but already recognizablyhuman. He laid it in his palm, his eyes bright with wonder.
“Is it alive?” I breathed.
“Not now. You see this?” He nudged with the knifepoint tothe twisted white tube that still connected its abdomen with the interior ofthe womb. “It can’t live without the mother. This is very early gestation, see?A matter of weeks, I would say. But note how you can already make out thefingers and toes.”
The creature had the translucent sheen of an amphibiousanimal, its half-formed limbs and curved spine so delicate as to seeminsubstantial. Perhaps it was his casual use of the word “mother,” but I felt asudden terrible emptiness, a hollowing-out, as if it were my insides that had beentorn away. This homunculus would have grown into a child, if the girl’s lifehad not been cut short by those hands around her throat. I wished ferventlythat I had never followed Gennaro. I began to fear I lacked the detachment tomake a man of science.
Fra Gennaro carefully excised the womb and the tiny fetus,severed the cord that bound them, and placed each into a large glass jar he hadbrought in his bag. “But where does it come from?” he muttered, as hesealed the jars.
“From the man’s seed.” I was unsure if he was addressingthe question to me, nor even if my answer was correct, but I needed thedistraction.
“Ah, but does it?” He looked at me, seemingly pleased. Hischeek was streaked with blood where he had touched it. “Opinion is divided.There are those who say the womb is merely the field of Nature in which theseed is planted, and others who think there is some additional elementcontributed by the woman, without which the seed cannot germinate. What thinkyou?”
“I imagine these elements are so small as to be invisible.So that we can only study the effects and must work backward to infer thecause.”
He nodded and wiped his hands on his apron. “It may be thatwe will never unravel the mystery of conception. But that does not mean weshould not try, eh? I shall study this further.” He patted the sealed lid ofthe jar containing the fetus. I had to look away.
From somewhere beyond the thick stone walls of ourunderground mortuary came the distant tolling of a bell. My head snapped round,and I met Fra Gennaro’s eye. Neither of us had noticed how long ago the sandhad run through the hourglass. I glanced down at myself; my habit was daubed withthe girl’s blood and God knows what else.
Gennaro pulled his apron over his head. “I need fresh waterand new candles,” he said, decisive. “I will tell the prior you are taken sickand unable to attend Matins. Close the hatch and draw the bolt after me and donot open the door to anyone until I return. I will give three sharp knocks.”
Before I could object, he was gone. I climbed the stairs andslid the bolt across, shutting myself in with the girl. She lay splayed outlike a carcass at the butcher’s, yellow fat and livid red organs bright againsther pale skin. I drew closer to the table, torn between fascination and fear.In Gennaro’s absence, I felt emboldened to test the theory of the killer’simage by looking into her eyes, but all I saw was naked terror and my ownreflection. It seemed apt, in a twisted way; I could not escape the feelingthat we were as guilty of her destruction as the man whose fingers wereimprinted around her slender neck. I backed away, chilled by an irrational fearthat she might suddenly turn her head and fix me with those eyes. I tried tointone the psalms, but the words stuck in my throat. Instead, I turned over thehourglass and watched the sand drain through in a fine dust. The minutes thatpassed until I heard Gennaro’s knock were some of the longest of my life.
“We need to dispose of her before first light,” he said,brisk again. “I will need your help.”
“We must take her to Fontanelle.”
“But the city gates will be locked until dawn.”
He slid me a sidelong look. “They can be opened.”
He crossed to the far side of the room and unlocked awooden door in the back wall. I had been so intent on the girl I had notnoticed it before. A breath of cleaner air filtered through, and I saw that thedoor opened on to an underground passageway.
“Part of the network of tunnels and cisterns belonging tothe old Roman aqueduct,” Gennaro explained. “It links to another tunnel beyondthe boundary wall and comes out on the other side of Via Toledo. Here — help mewith this.”
From the passageway Gennaro dragged a cheap wooden casketinto the room. I grabbed the other end and helped him position it alongside thetable. When he opened the lid, I saw that it was lined in oilcloth, and theinside was already bloodstained. He drew out a coarsely woven cloak frombeneath the lining, such as the poorest wear in winter. It smelled thickly ofdecay.
“There is one thing I need to do before we transport her,”he said, draping the cloak over the casket and turning to face me with a sternlook. “You may prefer not to watch this, Bruno. I have to skin her.” He turnedback to the table and selected a knife with a thin, cruel blade.
Again, that strange lurch in my gut, as if I had missed astair. “Why?”
“So that she cannot be recognized. People may be lookingfor her.”
“You said there was no one to mourn her.” I heard theaccusation in my voice.
“Mourn her, no. But if she was a whore in this neighborhood,her face will be known. The remains we send to Fontanelle must not beidentifiable.”
He made an impatient noise with his tongue. “Perhaps. Butit is also prudent. What we have done here tonight would be hard to explain tothe city authorities. I think you see that.”
I bowed my head. “Then no one will ever be brought tojustice for her murder.”
He laid down his knife and looked at me with an air ofincomprehension. “You think they would otherwise? A street whore?” He shook hishead. “I admire your fervor for justice on behalf of the weak. It is, afterall, part of our Christian duty,” he added, as if he had only just remembered. “Butit is not our concern here, Bruno. There will be no justice for her in thislife. Pray God grant her mercy, and retribution to those who wronged her in thenext.”
With this, he grasped a hank of her lush hair and sliced itthrough cleanly at the roots, as I turned my face away.
* * *
All through the long journey to the Fontanelle cavern, hedid not say a word to me, except once, to ask if I carried a dagger. When Isaid yes, he gave a dry laugh. “Of course you do. This is Naples. Even novicenuns carry a blade beneath their habits.” I wondered if he was afraid the girl’skiller might still be lurking nearby. I tried to shut out the thought that Gennaroknew more about the murderer than he was letting on.
We took turns pushing the cart with the makeshift coffin,the two of us wearing old servants’ cloaks with the hoods pulled up closearound our faces, despite the warm night, so that we would not be recognized asfriars. I could not tell if Gennaro was angry with me for questioning him, orfor my squeamishness, or if he was just tired. Reducing the girl to hunks ofbloodied meat had not been an easy task. The human body is tougher than itlooks; limbs need to be wrenched from sockets, bones sawed through, jointsseparated with a hammer. Gennaro must have been exhausted, but he did it allalone, while I sat with my back against the wall and my head in my hands,trying to shut out the sounds. What he packed into that box, wrapped carefullyin oilcloth to stop the blood from dripping through the wood, was no longerhuman. I stole glances at the casket as he led us through the twisting backstreets in the dark, his face dogged and clenched in the light of my lantern.
A couple of times we turned a corner to find a group ofyoung men staggering home from the taverns, arms slung around one another’sshoulders, half-empty bottles dangling from their hands. Each time I bracedmyself, my hand twitching to my knife in case they should decide to have somesport with us, but they looked at the cart and steered a wide berth around it,their raucous songs faltering away to nothing as they eyed the box. No one wantsto be reminded of death in the midst of their revels. I suppose they took usfor those men who clear the beggars off the streets. At the Porto San Gennaro,I saw the glint in the darkness of coins changing hands as the infirmarian exchangeda few words with the guards, who seemed unsurprised to see him. One of themnodded, before unlocking a small side gate and gesturing us through.
The road began to slope steeply upward into the Capodimontehillside. With the incline and the stony track, the cart became harder to move,as if it were resisting its destination; we had to put our backs into the work,and within minutes I was soaked with sweat beneath my cloak. I had no idea howfar it was to Fontanelle — it was not a place I had ever thought to visit — andI did not like to risk Gennaro’s anger by asking him. I knew only that it was agreat cavern up in the hills, left behind by the excavation of tufa forbuilding. In the early years of the century, the Spanish authorities had begunclearing the city’s churchyards to make room for more bodies, and the oldremains had been taken to the Fontanelle cave. Since then it had become adumping ground for the city’s outcast dead: those who could not afford or had beendenied burial in consecrated ground. Lepers. Sodomites. Suicides. The lazzaroni- the nameless poor who died in the streets. Plague victims were thrown in,whenever there was an outbreak. Fontanelle had become a great charnel-house ofthe unwanted; people said you could smell it from the north gate if the wind wasin the wrong direction.
I caught the stench as the incline grew steeper and thetrack widened out into a plateau; rotting flesh and stale smoke, the kind ofbitter ash that hung in the air and worked its way into your nose and mouth asyou breathed. A man lurched forward out of the shadows to greet us; again, thechink and flash of money from somewhere inside Fra Gennaro’s cloak. A smallbrazier burned by the entrance to the cavern. In its orange glow, I saw thatthe man’s face was badly deformed, though his body looked strong; his browbulged low over one side like an ape’s and he had been born with a harelip.Perhaps this was the only place he could find work. At least the dead would notthrow stones at him in the street, or shout insults. He and Gennaro spoke inlow voices; I had the sense that they too were familiar with each another. Iwatched as the man took the cart and wheeled it toward the mouth of the cave, amaw of deeper shadows that swallowed him until he disappeared from view.
I turned to see Gennaro studying me.
“Are you all right?” he said.
Beneath my robe, my legs were trembling as if with cold. Itold myself it was the climb. I gestured toward the cave.
“What if he tells someone?”
“How do you know? Surely you can’t see a body in that stateand not ask questions?”
“Part of his job is knowing not to ask questions.” Gennarosquinted into the darkness and pulled his cloak tighter. “Besides, he won’tbite the hand that feeds him.”
I did not immediately grasp his meaning, until I thought ofthe coins chinking quietly into the man’s hand, their familiarity. Of course: Thiswould not be the first time Gennaro had brought a dismembered body here fordisposal under cover of darkness, no explanations required. I wondered how manyother illegal anatomizations he had carried out in that little mortuary underthe storehouse, with its convenient tunnel for ferrying bodies out unseen.
The man returned with the cart and the empty box.
“I’ll let you know if I find anything suitable,” hemuttered, darting a wary glance at me. Gennaro gave him a curt nod and turned againtoward the road.
A pale glimmer of dawn light showed along the eastern horizonas we walked back down the track, the city a dark stain below us.
“Does he sell you bodies?” I asked bluntly.
Gennaro looked sideways at me. “Remember your oath,Brother.”
We walked the rest of the way in silence. Under the cloak Icould feel stiff patches on my robe where the girl’s blood had dried. Iwondered how I would explain that to the servant who came to take my laundry.
“I prescribe a hot bath for this fever that has kept youfrom tonight’s services, Bruno,” Gennaro said, as if he had heard my thoughts. “Iwill instruct the servants to fill the tub in the infirmary. Clean yourselfwell. I will see to your clothes.”
“Will you write about this?” I asked him, as we approachedthe gate.
He smiled, for the first time since we had set out. “Ofcourse. This is one of the most important anatomizations I have ever performed.To study a child in utero is a rare piece of luck, as I told you.”
Not for the child, I thought. “But you cannot publish youraccount, surely?”
“True. At least, not in Naples, and not under my own name. Eventually,however, who knows …” His voice tailed off and his eyes grew distant. Perhapshe was dreaming of a book full of his experiments and discoveries.
“But in the meantime — are you not afraid someone will findyour notes?”
He smiled again, like a child holding a secret. “I keepthem very safe. And I trust you, as I said.”
I forced myself to return his smile, though he meant that Iwas now as deeply implicated as he was. In ways I could not yet fullycomprehend, I felt irreversibly altered by what we had done that night. Despitescrubbing myself with scalding water and a bristle brush until my skin grewraw, I could not erase the smell of blood, nor the memory of the girl’s wilddeath stare. Fra Gennaro made me up a bed in the infirmary, so that I wasexcused the office of Lauds on account of my supposed fever, but I could notrest. If I closed my eyes I saw her walking toward me with her handsoutstretched, pleading, before she reached up and tore the skin from her ownface until it hung in tatters from the bloodied pulp beneath.
The following night, I barely waited until the sun had setbefore slipping out of the side gate and through the alleys to the Cerriglio. Ineeded company, drink, the easy conversation of my friends. Pushing open the door,I was assaulted by its familiar heat and noise, the animated shouting of adozen different arguments, its odor of charred pig fat and young red wine andsweat. In the back, someone was strumming a lute and singing a love song; hisfriends were filling in bawdy lyrics, howling with laughter. I stood still fora moment on the threshold, allowing the tavern’s chaos to crash over me,pulling me back to the world I knew. I had not been able to eat all day, andnow the smell of hot bread and meat tickled my throat, filling my mouth withsalt and liquid.
At least half the Cerriglio’s customers were young friars fromSan Domenico and their companions. Gaudy women moved among the tables, strokinga forearm or sliding a finger under someone’s chin as they passed, gauging theresponse. One caught my gaze as I stood there and I blinked quickly away; whenI looked at their painted faces, all I could see was the bone and gristlebeneath the skin.
I scanned the room, looking for my friend Paolo. Laughterblasted across from the large table in the center, where Fra Donato was holdingcourt, as usual. He glanced up and saw me standing alone; his eyes narrowed andhe leaned across and muttered something to Fra Agostino beside him, whose liptwisted into a sneer. Neither of them troubled to hide the fact that they weretalking about me. I had barely spoken to Fra Donato, but I knew his reputation.His father was one of those Neapolitan barons who had managed to cling to hisland and titles under the Spanish, which led people to speculate about what heoffered them in return. But he was a valuable benefactor to San Domenico, andhis son was regarded as a prior in the making, despite the boy’s obviousdistaste for the privations of religious life. Fra Donato was tall and unusuallyhandsome, with the blond looks of a northerner; it was said he was a bastardand his mother a courtesan from Venice, or Milan, or even, in some versions,France or England. Whatever the truth, his father indulged him generously andDonato had certainly learned the trick of buying influence. He was a few yearsolder than me; I had not expected to attract his attention, but recently I hadbeen aware of his scrutiny in services and at chapter meetings. I guessed that Ihad been pointed out to him as a potential troublemaker, and that this hadpiqued his interest. Now, though, hot with the fear that people could smell thegirl’s blood on my skin, I could not help but interpret any suspicious glancesas proof that someone had seen me last night and knew my dreadful secret. Ifelt the color rising in my face as Donato and his friend continued to whisper,their eyes still fixed lazily on me.
I whipped around at the sound of my name and saw Paolo at acorner table with a couple of his cousins, a jug of wine between them. Heraised a cup and I hurried over, grateful to be rescued.
“I thought you had a fever?” He poured me a drink andhanded it over.
“It broke in the night. I’m fine now.”
He grinned. “Well you look fucking awful. Are you sure youshould be out of bed?”
I gulped down the wine, feeling its warmth curl through mylimbs. I was about to make some lighthearted comment to fend off any furtherquestioning, when I was prevented by a commotion from behind us. Voices raisedin anger; glass shattering, the crash of furniture hitting the floor. I turned,and I swear that, just for an instant, my heart stopped beating.
The dead girl stood in the center of the tavern, in frontof Donato’s table. She had knocked over a chair, it seemed, and dashed theglass from his hand. A blood-red puddle spread across the table and drippedslowly to the floor. She was shaking with rage, her right hand extended,pointing at him. The hubbub of music and conversation died away inanticipation; people always enjoyed a good fight at the Cerriglio.
It was her; there was no question about it. The same glossyfall of black hair, the marble skin, the delicate features and wide-spaced eyesas unspoiled as they would have been in life. The same slender throat, unmarkednow. But she had knocked over the chair; how could that be, if she was aspirit? I held myself rigid with fear, my hand so tight around the cup I fearedit would crack, though I could not will myself to move. I did not believe inspirits of the dead and yet, buried deep, I had not shaken off the childhoodmemories of my grandmother’s tales, of revenants and unhallowed souls returningto be revenged on the living.
The girl balled her fists on her hips and cast a defiantglance around the room. I froze as her eyes swept over me, but there was noflicker of recognition. If she had come for vengeance, surely I would be herfirst target? But she turned her blistering gaze once more to Donato, threw herhead back, and spat in his face.
A cheer went up from the onlookers, all except Donato’scomrades. He wiped his cheek with a sleeve, but his movements were those of asleepwalker. He was staring at the girl with a mixture of horror and disbelief.
“Where is she?”
“You know who!” The girl quivered with rage.
Donato rose to his feet and attempted to recover somedignity. “You have me confused with someone, puttana. I do not think Iknow you. Unless I was more drunk than I remember last night.”
This won him a smattering of laughter from the crowd. Thegirl tossed her hair and her eyes flashed.
“Oh, you know me, sir. And I know who you are.”
“So do most of your sex in Naples.” More laughter.
“Have you killed her?” Her voice was clear and strong; shemade sure everyone could hear.
Donato paused, as if catching his breath. The mood in theroom shifted; you could feel it like the charge in the air before a storm. Heleaned across the table.
“I have no idea what you are talking about. But if youaccuse me of anything in public again, I will see you before the magistratesfor slander. Now get out.” He allowed a pause for effect, before adding, coldand deliberate: “Jewess.”
The word hung between them like the smoke that follows ashot. The girl stared at him as if she had been struck. A sharp intake of breathwhistled through the crowd, followed by a startled cry; in a heartbeat, thegirl was up on the table, silver flashing in her hand. Fra Agostino pushed Donatoout of her reach, a lamp rolled to the floor and smashed, someone screamed, andthen the doorkeeper they called L’Orso Maggiore (for obvious reasons)shouldered his way into the fray and wrenched the girl’s right arm behind herback, sending her knife clattering to the ground. She carried on, yelling andspitting curses as he dragged her off the table and toward the threshold, aseasily as a bear would pick up a rabbit.
“Where is her locket?” she roared, at the door. Sherepeated the same question, louder, as L’Orso hurled her out into the street.You could still hear her cries, even when the door slammed after her. Gradually,the hubbub of conversation resumed until it drowned her out.
“Donato really should learn to take more care where he putsit,” remarked Paolo, shaking his head as he reached for the wine. “He’ll ruinhis father with paternity suits one of these days.”
“Paternity suits?” I turned to look at him.
“Some neighborhood girl accused him a couple of years ago,threatened to make a fuss. His father had to pay the family off. Sounds like he’sat it again.” He gestured toward the door, then glanced at me. His brow creasedand he laid a hand on my arm. “Madonna porca — are you sure you’re all right,Bruno? You’re white as a corpse.”
“I need some air,” I said, pushing the table away.
Donato was bleeding from a surface cut on his forearm wherethe girl had made contact before she was hauled off. His hangers-on fussedaround him while the rest of the tavern stared as they exchanged animatedwhispers. Signora Rosaria, who owned the Cerriglio, was berating L’Orso for notstopping the assault sooner; the crowd pressed in for a better view of thedrama. No one had noticed the girl’s knife lying on the tiles under aneighboring table. I ducked down and slipped it into my sleeve on the way tothe door.
There was no sign of her in the street. I walked a littleway along between the tall houses, toward the corner of the next alley, thinkingI had lost her, when I caught the sound of muffled sobs. She was crouched in a doorway,her right arm cradled against her chest. After the initial shock of seeing herin the tavern, my frantic thoughts of vengeful spirits had given way to a morelogical explanation, but I was still afraid to speak to her.
Alerted by my footsteps, her head snapped up and she sprangback, her hands held out as if to ward me off. The street was sunk in darkness,except for the dim glow from a high window opposite and the streaks ofmoonlight between clouds. The girl’s face was hidden in shadow.
“I think this is yours.” I offered the knife to her, hiltfirst. Her eyes flicked to it and back to me; for a long time she didn’t move,but I stayed still and eventually she began to approach, wary as a wild dog,until she was close enough to snatch it. She leveled it at me; I raised myempty hands to show that I was now unarmed.
“Who are you looking for?”
“What is it to you?” She bared her teeth. “I know you areone of them. I have seen you here before.”
“Dominicans.” She spat on the ground at my feet. “God’sdogs.”
“You know Latin?” I said, surprised. It was an old nicknamefor the Order, a pun on Domini canes, the Hounds of the Lord, but I hadnot expected to hear it from a woman, especially one who was clearly nothigh-born.
“Yes. You think a woman cannot read? Hypocrites.” I thoughtshe was going to spit at me again, but she restrained herself. “Look atyourselves. You take vows of poverty and chastity, and yet there you are, nightafter night, dicing and whoring like soldiers. And they made you the city’s Inquisitors,the ones who decide whether others are practicing their religion to the letter,and if they should die for it.” She let out a short, bitter laugh. “God wouldspit you out of His mouth.” She was lit up by her fury, illuminated fromwithin, every inch of her taut and quivering. She wanted only the slightestprovocation to stick that knife in me, I was sure of it.
“That man you attacked,” I said, keeping my voice steady. “Whathas he done?”
Her lip curled; she reminded me again of a dog that knowsit is cornered and is readying itself to fight. “I suppose he is your friend?Did he ask you to make me repeat it, so he could accuse me of slander?”
“He is no friend of mine. I only wanted to help you.”
“Why?” The word shot back, quicker than a blow. She took astep closer, holding the knife out as if I had threatened her.
I shrugged. “Because we are not all hypocrites.”
Her eyes narrowed; she did not believe me. She was rightnot to, I reminded myself: I was the biggest hypocrite of all.
“My sister,” she said, in a subdued voice, just as I had assumedshe was about to walk away.
“Your twin?” The words were spoken before I could stopthem; she stared at me, her mouth open.
“Why do you say that? Do you know her?”
“No … I …” I blushed in confusion. “I don’t know why I thoughtthat.”
“Yes, my twin,” she said, lowering the knife, as if thefight had gone out of her. “That friar” — she nodded past me in the directionof the tavern — “he saw me in the street one day and followed me to our shop.”
“My father keeps a shop on Strada dell’Anticaglia, off Seggiodi Nilo. He is a master goldsmith. That man started coming into the shop tocourt me. I refused him. I would not be the mistress of a monk, for all hismoney. I have no respect for your kind.”
“So you have said.”
A muscle tightened in her jaw. “He would not take no for ananswer. Then one day he came into the shop when my father and I were out andfound my sister instead.”
“He took her for you?”
“I don’t think he cared either way. But Anna was alwaysflattered by the attention of men.”
Anna. I thought of a flayed leg thrown into amakeshift coffin like an animal carcass, stripped to the crimson muscle andwhite bone. She had had a name. Her name had been Anna.
In this girl’s face I saw again the lines of her dead twin.A whore, Fra Gennaro had said. Was that his lie, or Donato’s? My skin feltcold, despite the warm wind.
“And she went with him?”
“She started sneaking out after dark to meet him. She nevertold me where she was going, but I followed her one night. She made me swear tosecrecy. She knew it would break our father’s heart.”
“He would have been angry?”
“He would have killed her.” As soon as she had spoken thewords, her hand flew to her mouth. I felt something lurch in the hollow undermy ribs, some pulse of hope. The girl’s father found out, he killed her in afit of rage, perhaps by accident; so Fra Gennaro’s story could be true. Even asthe idea formed, I knew it was absurd.
“I meant only …” she faltered, through her fingers. “He hasnever lifted a hand to either of us in our lives. But the shame would havedestroyed him.”
“Back there, you accused the friar of killing her,” I said.“Was that a figure of speech too?”
She drew her hand slowly away from her face and took a deepbreath. It escaped jaggedly, like a sob. “My sister is missing. She went to himlast night, and she has not returned. I know she has come to harm.”
“Perhaps she has run away.” As I spoke, I felt as if therewas a ball of sawdust lodged in my throat. My voice sounded strange to me.
The girl shook her head. “She would never have done that.In any case, I followed her last night too. I was afraid for her.”
The ball in my throat threatened to choke me. I feared shecould hear the thudding of my heart in the silence.
“To the Cerriglio?”
“No. She went to San Domenico and waited for him by thegate. I saw her go in, and she never came out.”
A warm breath of air lifted my hair from my forehead andcooled the sweat on my face. Beneath my feet, the ground felt queasy,uncertain, as if I were standing on a floating jetty instead of a city street.
“You must have missed her,” I said, but the words barelymade a sound.
“I waited until first light. I could not have our fatherwake and find us both gone. I would swear she did not leave. Unless there isanother entrance. But then, why did she not come home?”
I felt my palms grow slick with sweat at her mention ofanother entrance. I should have let her go then, but I had to be sure of howmuch she knew. “Why do you think he meant her harm, if they were … involved?”
“Because she-” Her face darkened and she turned away. “Hersituation had changed. She was going to ask him for something he could notgive.”
The slap came out of nowhere; she moved so fast I barelyhad time to register that she had raised her hand. Rubbing my burning cheek, I reflectedthat at least she had not used the hand that held the knife. I stretched my jawto assess the damage, but she was already stalking away around the corner.
“Wait!” I ran after her, into another, narrower alley. Sheturned, eyes blazing out of the darkness.
“My sister was no whore, whatever he says.” She paused, andI saw that she was fighting back tears. “She believed herself in love with him.”She swiped at her eyes with her knuckles. “What is any of this to you? Why areyou following me?”
“If your sister was inside the walls of San Domenico lastnight, someone must know something.” I was surprised at how level my voicesounded, how carefully I controlled my expression. Only a few months since myvows, and already I had acquired the Dominican talent for dissembling. Thoughit was a skill that was to serve me well in later years, in that moment Idespised myself to the core. “What is your name?”
“Maria.” Most of the women in this city were called Maria,but she hesitated just long enough for me to wonder if she was lying “Yours?”
“Well then, Bruno. You know where I can be found. But Iwill not hold my breath — I know your kind always stick together. Whatever hashappened to my sister, he will not face justice for it. Not in this city. Afamily like mine, against a man of his name?”
I wondered what she meant by that, and recalled the quiet,deliberate cruelty of Donato’s last insult to her. “Why did he call you — that?”I asked.
Her expression closed up immediately. “I expect it was theworst abuse he could think of.”
We looked at one another in silence for a moment, her eyesdaring me to question further.
“What about the locket?”
Her mouth dropped open, the fury in her eyes displaced byfear.
“What do you know of that?”
“Nothing. Only that I heard you accuse Fra Donato of takingit.”
Her hand strayed to her throat; an involuntary gesture, Isupposed, as she thought of her sister wearing the locket. I could think only ofthe bruises around the dead girl’s neck.
“If he has taken it …” She faltered. I sensed that she wasweighing up how much to say. “It has little value for its own sake. But itbelonged to our mother. I must have it back.” The note of desperation inher voice told me she was withholding something. She feared that locket’sfalling into the wrong hands — but why?
I stood foolishly staring at her, wishing I could offersome consolation, cursing the weight of what I knew — the truth she would spendthe rest of her life raking over and not knowing. Or so I had to hope.
“You know where to find me if you hear anything,” she saidagain, with a shrug. I was about to reply when, silent as a cat, she turned anddisappeared into the blackness between the buildings.
I crashed through the door of the infirmary, careless ofthe hour, careless of the noise I made. Fra Gennaro was bent over the bed ofold Fra Francesco by the light of a candle, applying a poultice to his sunkenchest to ease the fluid on his lungs. Gennaro started at the sound of the door,but as soon as he realized it was me, his expression told me he had beenexpecting this.
I glanced along the length of the infirmary, my ribsheaving with the effort of running through the back streets. Four beds in therow were occupied by elderly friars who wheezed and grunted in concert; theymight have been asleep, but they might also have been quite capable of hearingand understanding. It was all I could do not to blurt out my accusations;Gennaro saw the urgency in my face and gestured me toward the dispensary,whispering words of reassurance to Fra Francesco as he stood to follow me.
“She was not a whore, was she?”
He closed the door behind us and set his candle down on thedispensary bench, signaling for me to lower my voice.
“I told you only what was told to me,” he said. His tonewas clipped and cold, tight with suppressed anger.
“And you chose not to question it.”
He was across to me in one stride, his hand clamping myarm, face inches from mine.
“As I recall, Fra Giordano, you also swore an oath to askno questions. Who have you been talking to?”
“I didn’t have to talk to anyone.” I dropped my voice to anurgent whisper. “Tonight her mirror image walked into the Cerriglio and accusedone of our brothers of murdering her twin.”
He stared at me, his grip slackening.
“She was never found in the street by soldiers. She diedinside these walls, didn’t she? That’s why you would not speculate on whokilled her. Because you already knew.”
He breathed out hard through his nose, his eyes fixed on mefor a long pause, as if I were a favorite son who had disappointed him. Eventually,he let go of me and rubbed his hands quickly over his face, like an animalwashing.
“Where would we be, you and I, if we were not here?” hesaid, looking up.
I blinked at him, unsure whether it was a rhetoricalquestion. He raised his brow, and I realized he wanted an answer. “If you hadnot come to San Domenico, Fra Giordano, what would you have done with yourlife?”
“I would have tried to obtain a place at the royaluniversity,” I mumbled.
“Would you? The son of a mercenary soldier? With whosemoney?”
I looked at my feet.
“My father was well born, but he died desperately in debtto a Genoan banker,” he continued. “If I had not come to San Domenico, I wouldmost likely have had to beg for a position as a tutor to idle rich boys. Andyou, Bruno — I doubt you would by now be the most promising young theologian inNaples, whatever you claim.”
I said nothing, because I knew he was right.
“We are alike, you and I.” His voice softened. “Neither oneof us, in our hearts, desired the constraints of a religious life. But it was theonly door open to us. You acknowledge that, surely?”
I gave the briefest nod.
“Then you also understand that it is not the likes of uswho keep San Domenico afloat. Our scholarship may contribute to its reputation,but it is men like Fra Donato, with his name and his father’s vast endowments,who ensure its continued prestige and wealth. We are the beneficiaries, and wewould do well to remember that.”
“So he must be protected, at any cost. Whatever he does.This man who might be prior one day.”
I turned away in disgust.
“What else would you do?” he continued. “Call in themagistrates? Destroy the whole convent and college with a scandal, for the sakeof one foolish girl?” He rubbed the flat of his hand across his cropped hair. “Iadmire your sense of justice, Bruno, I have already told you that. But you areyoung. If you want to make your way in this city, you must learn to be arealist.”
I wanted to tell him that folly did not deserve death, thather name was Anna, and she did have people to mourn her. I wanted to protestthat a rich and well-connected young man was not entitled to snuff out a lifemerely because it had become inconvenient to him. But I could say nothingwithout revealing that I had been asking questions. My gaze shifted away to therows of glass bottles and earthenware jars ranged along the shelves. Thedispensary always smelled clean, of freshly crushed herbs and the boiling waterwith lemon juice that he used to scrub down his table and instruments, acontrast to the pall of sickness and old bodies that hung over the infirmary.Somewhere in here a tiny, half-formed child was suspended in alcohol, in a jar.Donato’s child.
“Suppose someone knew she came here last night, and comes insearch of her?”
Gennaro’s brow lowered; he fixed me with such a penetratingstare that I almost feared he could see my deception.
“Why should you imagine that?”
“Her clothes did not look like those of a whore. Perhaps,”I added, as if I had just thought of it, “when you first found her, she was wearingsome jewelry that might identify her? If we knew who she was, we might bebetter prepared to defend ourselves against any accusations.”
He sighed, as if the conversation were keeping him fromsomething pressing. “The girl came here alone last night. Donato took her intothe lemon grove — they argued, and he grabbed her by the neck to frighten herinto silence, he said, for he feared she threatened to make a scene and rousethe whole convent. She resisted, and he held her harder than he intended. Herdeath was an accident.”
“You know that is a lie,” I said, quietly. “He meant tosilence her all right. She must have told him she was with child.”
He brought his hand down hard on the table. “The businessis done now, Bruno. There is no evidence that she was ever here.”
“Did he ask you to help dispose of her?” My voice soundedsmall and uncertain in the thick silence of the dispensary. “Did he know whatyou were going to do?” With every question, I was unpicking the fine thread oftrust that existed between me and Gennaro, but I could not stop myself. Iwanted the truth. He had brought me into that room with her corpse last night;I felt it was the least he owed me. A sigh rattled through him, and he leanedback against the workbench as if he needed support.
“Donato came to me in a blind panic last night, shaking allover. He told me what I just told you — that this young woman had come to thegate, demanding to talk to him. He had taken her into the lemon grove, awayfrom prying eyes, and they had argued, he grabbed her by the throat, she fellto the ground. He claimed he thought she had merely passed out — he wanted meto go with him to see if I could revive her.”
I made a scornful noise. “He must have known she was dead.”
“Well, he was in no doubt as soon as I saw her. He was onthe verge of hysteria — he was begging for my help. She could not be discoveredinside the walls, obviously. Our only option was to move the body as far fromSan Domenico as possible before anyone noticed her missing.”
“But you decided to cut her up first.”
His eyes slid coldly over me. “It was not my firstintention — though I knew it would greatly lessen any chance of the conventbeing implicated if her body were made unrecognizable. It was only when hementioned that they had argued over her threat of a paternity suit …” Hetrailed off, tracing one finger along the grain of the table’s surface.
“You saw an opportunity that some of the leading anatomistsin Europe would sell their own souls for.” I thought of the embryo, silent andtransparent in its jar.
That cold sheen in his eyes intensified; he pointed afinger toward me. “Do not be so quick to judge, Giordano Bruno. The advance ofknowledge demands a certain ruthlessness. It is a quality I do not doubt youpossess yourself, though you have not yet fully discovered it. I told Donato thatif he would help me move the body to the storeroom, I would see to it that she wasnot found anywhere near San Domenico. He was greatly relieved, I think, to haveshifted the problem on to someone else’s shoulders.”
I said nothing, but I could not look at him. Gennaro foldedhis arms across his chest. When he spoke again, his voice was kinder.
“The only accusations that can harm us now are coming fromyour own conscience, which you must learn to silence, or you will put us all injeopardy. She is no longer your business. Do not give me cause to repent of mybelief in you, Bruno.”
I lifted my head and met his gaze. In his stern expression,I saw anger tempered by a fatherly concern. I had thought I was being tested,to see how much I was prepared to risk in the pursuit of knowledge. Now I feltdeceived; this had not been about the advance of science at all. What we haddone was all in the service of protecting a murderer and the name of SanDomenico. A murderer who might one day be the head of the most powerfulreligious house in Naples. I wished bitterly that I had never thought to followFra Gennaro last night. Not that my ignorance would have changed anything, butI would have been spared the weight of this guilt.
From beyond the window, the chapel bell struck a long, lownote.
“You had better get yourself to Matins,” he said. Hereached a jar down from a cabinet to his right, unstoppered it, and pulled outone of the ginger and honey balls he kept for throat complaints in winter. “Here.Take one of these — I can smell the tavern on your breath. And Bruno …” hecalled, softly, as I opened the door. I turned, expectant.
“Remember your oath.”
I nodded. But I also remembered my promise to Maria.
At first light, shortly after Lauds, I crept out of my cellagain and crossed the gardens to the lemon grove. I scoured the ground,fancying I could see here or there in the parched earth and scrubby grass somesign of a struggle, but there was nothing conclusive. Nothing to say that thegirl had ever set foot here. I searched among the trees for almost half an hour,in vain. Gennaro had deftly ignored my question about jewelry; perhaps he haddisposed of the girl’s locket in case it should identify her, or perhaps he hadnever seen it. A necklace chain could easily be broken if you were fighting offa pair of strong hands around your throat.
The bells had just rung for Prime when the sun slipped outfrom behind its veil of cloud and I caught a metallic glint at the foot of atwisted trunk. I knelt and fished out from among the dried stalks a chain witha gold pendant. An oval, about the size of a large olive, faced with exquisitefiligree work and a finely wrought figure of the crucified Christ on the front.I wondered if the girl’s father had made it. The chapel bell sounded itssonorous note again, and I glanced up to see Fra Donato crossing thegrove toward me in rapid strides. With his bright hair lit by the early morningsun, he looked like a painting of the newly risen Christ, if Christ had everglared at someone as if he wanted to burn them alive with his eyes. I barelyhad time to slip the locket inside my habit and stand, hands folded demurelyinto my sleeves, to greet him.
“Brother. Pax vobiscum.”
“What are you doing here, Fra Giordano? Shouldn’t you be atprayer?” He had no authority over me, except that afforded by seniority andbirth, though he addressed me as if he were the prior himself. His cold blue gazeswept over the lemon trees and seemed to comprehend the scene in a glance. Hehad come in search of the locket too, I was certain.
“I am praying, Brother. I felt moved to speak to Godhere among the trees, where I can meditate on the wonders of Creation.”
“Perhaps you should have joined the Franciscans.” He left apause. “Do you know, they say you are the most promising scholar San Domenicohas seen in a generation.”
I shrugged. “They do not say so in my hearing.”
“Well, of course not,” he said. “They would not want toprovoke you to the sin of pride.” He tilted his head to one side. There was anintensity in the way he held my eye that made me understand why a woman mightfall under his spell. That and the remarkably fine features, the bones thatlooked as if they had emerged from a sculptor’s vision of an archangel. “I hearyou have a prodigious memory too.”
I made a noncommittal movement with my head. “It serves.”
“That is a great gift,” he said, as if he were granting mea rare concession. “But even with your powers of memory, Brother, certainthings are best forgotten. That scene in the tavern, for instance. A woman whobelieves I slighted her sister or some such thing. Women do not take well tofeeling scorned, you know. It can quite turn their wits. They will say terriblethings in their fury.”
“I barely recall it,” I said.
He gave me a sliver of a smile. “Good. It’s just that Ithought you went out after her.”
“No, Brother,” I said, composing my expression into one ofperfect sincerity. “I had been unwell. I went out because I felt sick andneeded air.”
He was watching me carefully, I knew. “Well, I hope yourhealth is improved,” he said, in a lighter tone. “We had better not be late forPrime. They also say you show a particular aptitude for your Hebrew studies,”he added, as I turned toward the path. I stopped, remembering his insult toMaria. Was he insinuating something? “A surprising aptitude,” he repeated. “Almosta natural fluency, apparently. Is there Hebrew blood in your family, FraGiordano?”
“No.” I regarded him with a steady eye. “My family haslived in Nola for generations. You may make any enquiries you wish.”
“Oh, I have,” he said, with a pleasant smile. “Your fatheris a soldier, is he not? And a soldier for hire at that — not even an officer.”He sounded regretful. “Still — with the right patronage, a young man with yourrare abilities might achieve great things in the Dominican order. You werefortunate to be admitted to San Domenico. Without your place here, I fear yourexceptional talents would go to waste.” His eyes skated over me from head tofoot as he spoke, as if he were trying to detect whether I was concealinganything.
“I do consider myself fortunate, Brother.” I lowered mygaze to demonstrate deference.
“You might prove it by showing a little less disregard forthe rules,” he said. I jerked my head up and stared at him, indignant. He laughedand stretched his arm out to pull down a branch of the tree above us. “No doubtyou think me a hypocrite for saying so. But here one has to earn the right to adegree of flexibility. You are very cocksure for a friar who has barely takenhis vows. Not my words, Brother, but those of others who have noted yourtendency to pick and choose when to honor the vow of obedience. And I do notbelieve you have the learning to challenge the authority of Holy Scripture inthe way you do. I offer this as a friendly warning. But you should be awarethat they are keeping a close eye on you.” He snapped off the twig in his handsand stood there, twirling it between his fingers.
I walked away. I did not know if there was any truth in hiswords, but the warning itself was not to be ignored. Donato was certainlywatching me, and he wanted to be sure I knew he could break my future as easilyas that branch. When I reached the far side of the gardens I glanced back tosee him under the trees, searching the ground and kicking at the grass with thetoe of his calf-leather shoes.
As soon as I was alone in my cell for silent prayer, Iopened the locket. The clasp sprung with a satisfying click, to reveal aminiature portrait of a dark-haired woman. It was cheaply rendered; the paintblurred in places so that it was hard to make out her features, though Iassumed it must be the girls’ mother. I turned the locket over in my hand,perplexed as to why Maria should have been so afraid of losing it. I picturedagain the flash of panic in her eyes, the desperate catch in her voice. Perhapsit was more valuable than she admitted, or it was all the sisters had toremember their mother. But I could see that the back of the golden oval wasdeep and rounded, though the portrait it contained was flat. It looked as if ithad been designed to contain something more substantial than a picture. Somethingconcealed behind it, perhaps. Such things were used for smuggling secretcommunications, I had heard. With this sudden understanding, my skin prickledinto goosebumps. Of course a master goldsmith would know how to work a hiddencompartment into a pendant like this. The question was how to find the openingwithout damaging the mechanism. I worked at the clasp with the tip of my knifewith no success, before trying the same trick with the hinge on the other side.I nicked my fingertips so many times that the surface and the blade grewslippery with blood, until at last I heard a catch give and the back of thelocket opened smoothly. I licked the blood from my fingers, wiped them on myhabit, and drew out a folded square of parchment.
The writing on it was tiny and densely packed, though neatand precise as if it had been written with a quill as fine as a needle. But myheart was hammering as fiercely as the moment I first saw the girl’s body, forthe characters written there were Hebrew. I mouthed the first words — ShemaYisrael — and realized I was holding a text more dangerous than anything Ihad read in my life. This was a copy of the Shema, from the Jewishprayer service. Anyone found to possess this would be immediately summonedbefore the Inquisition, with little hope of a pardon. No wonder Maria was soterrified of its falling into the wrong hands.
Officially, there were no Jews left in Naples. They had beenexpelled in 1541, though a few had chosen to convert and stay. Maria’s fathermust be one such convertito, if he was permitted to trade here as aNeapolitan. I had heard that their houses were raided occasionally to ensurethat they had truly renounced the faith, but it was rumored that some hadmanaged to cling to their traditions in secret. I recalled the deliberate crueltyof Donato’s insult to Maria; the way she had flinched as if he had struck her. Theinsinuations he had made to me — that he could taint me with the same slur ifhe wished. What did he know of Maria’s family history? If the girl Anna hadbelieved herself in love with him, how much might she have confided? To hidethe Shema in the locket suggested that, however tentatively, she had chosento hold on to her identity. Surely she would not have given up such a dangeroussecret to a man who belonged among the city’s Inquisitors, no matter how stronglyshe felt for him?
I folded the parchment and replaced it in the locket withtrembling fingers. As I closed the secret compartment, I saw that a drop ofblood from my finger had stained the edge of the prayer crimson. I could notthink what to do. In my heart I knew I had no choice but to return the locketto Maria; I understood its value now, not least as a memory of her dead motherand her sister. But to return it was as good as confirming that I knewsomething about the girl’s fate, and the bloodstain on the parchment would surelyfuel their fears; they would take it for hers. I could not keep it. Fra Gennarowould no doubt see it as more evidence to be erased, so I could not ask for hishelp. I hid it again inside my undershirt and prayed earnestly for guidance.
Despite Fra Donato’s warning that I was being watched, I decidedto miss my theology class after the midday meal, asking Paolo to say I wasstill feverish, and slipped out into the tired heat of the city. With my hoodpulled up around my face, I cut along Via Tribunali in the direction of theDuomo. Strada dell’Anticaglia stood steeped in shadow from the high buildings closingin on both sides. Lines hung with washing dripped on me from above as I passedunder the ancient arches of the Roman theater that spanned the street, seemingto hold up the houses. I walked quickly, my head down, scanning the doorways andbarred windows for the sign of a goldsmith’s. After walking the length of thestreet, I returned to the only shop that seemed likely, though it had no markeroutside, and peered through the small window. Inside, a man stood canted over aworkbench with two lamps lit beside him; though it was the brightest hour ofthe day, the sun would never penetrate to the interior of this little shop inits canyon of a street. He held a thick lens to one eye to magnify his visionas he worked with a delicate, tweezer-like tool. I could see only the top ofhis head: graying curly hair and the beginnings of a bald patch the size of acommunion wafer.
A bell chimed as I entered the shop. The man looked up witha smile that froze on his lips as he registered my habit. He lowered the lensand straightened his back with an air of resignation.
“Have you come to search my home again, Brother? It isbarely two months since they were last here.” He sounded as if the prospectmade him weary rather than angry. “We are true Catholics, as we have been fortwenty-five years.”
Twenty-five years. He could not be much over fifty; thatwould mean he had been little more than my age when he had been asked to choosebetween his history and his home.
“No, sir,” I said, quickly, appalled to have caused himalarm. “I hoped I might speak to your daughter. Maria.”
His face hardened. “Neither of my daughters is home atpresent.” As if to betray him, the ceiling creaked with the footsteps ofsomeone walking in the room above. My eyes flickered upward; his remained fixedcalmly on me. In the light of the oil lamp I saw that his face was drawn, hisdark eyes ringed with shadow. One of his daughters had not come home for twodays; he must already fear the worst. I wondered if Maria had confided in himabout her sister’s lover, the pregnancy, or where she had last seen Anna. Idoubted it; she had said the knowledge of her sister’s affair would break theirfather’s heart. She would want to protect him from the truth.
There was nothing more I could do. Inside my habit, thelocket pressed against my ribs in its hidden pocket, but to hand it over wouldbe as good as announcing that his daughter was dead, and implicating myself.
“No matter. Perhaps one day I will come back and buy a giftfor my mother.” I turned to leave.
“I should be honored, sir.” He gave me a slight bow and ahalf-smile; despite his understandable dislike of Dominicans, he knew that heneeded our continued favor.
I felt a pang of empathy; though I could not imagine theconstant threat that hung over this man and his family, no matter how sincerelydevout he tried to appear, I already knew what it meant to harbor secretbeliefs in your heart, beliefs that could lead you into the flames before the Inquisitors’signatures had even dried on your trial papers. The more I studied, the lessconvinced I was that the Catholic Church or her Pope were the sole custodiansof divine wisdom. I could not tell if it was fear or arrogance that led theHoly Office to ban books that might open a man’s mind to the teachings of theJews, the Arabs, the Protestants, or the ancients, but I felt increasingly surethat God, whatever form He took, had not created us to kill and torture oneanother over the name we give Him. Tolerance and curiosity: a dangerouscombination for a young Dominican at a time when the Church was growing lessand less tolerant. I nursed my doubts like a secret passion, relishing theshiver of fear they brought. I wanted to tell the goldsmith we had more incommon than he realized. Instead, I returned his bow and left the shop, thebright chime of the bell ringing behind me.
A few paces down the street, I stopped under the Roman archand tried to think what I might do with the locket. I could wait until the shopwas closed and try to push it under the door or through a window, in the hopethat Maria would find it. But someone else might see it first, and think tolook inside its secret compartment. I could not risk that. I could walk down tothe harbor and throw it into the sea, where it could not incriminate anyone.Though I hated the idea of destroying something so precious, this seemed theonly safe course, for all of us. I had almost reached the end of the streetwhen I heard quick footsteps behind me, and turned to see Maria runningbarefoot through the dust.
“I went to Fontanelle,” she announced, pinning me with herfrank gaze. I stopped absolutely still. I dared not even breathe for fear ofwhat my face might betray. Every muscle in my body was held rigid. She let outa long, shuddering sigh and her shoulders slumped. “Nothing. No bodies of youngwomen found in the past two days.”
“Then perhaps she has run away after all,” I managed tosay, hating myself for it, though relief had made me lightheaded and my legsweak. I leaned one hand on the wall for support.
Maria shook her head. “I will never believe that. I thoughtyou might have come to bring me some news?”
I hesitated, then reached inside my habit and brought outthe twist of paper I had wrapped it in. “I came to bring you this.”
She tore it open and stared at the locket, her face tightwith grief. “There is blood on it.”
“Mine. I cut my finger on the clasp.” I held it up asproof.
She raised the locket slowly to her lips and closed hereyes, as if in silent prayer. A tear rolled down her cheek. “Did he take itfrom her? How did you get it?”
“I found it on the ground.”
Again, I hesitated just a breath too long. “In the street,outside the gate. She must have dropped it there.”
She shook her head.
“That cannot be true. I have searched the streets aroundthe walls of your convent for the past two days for any sign of what happenedto her. I would have seen it. And the chain is broken, as if it was torn fromher.” When she saw that I was not going to respond, she rubbed at the tearswith the back of her hand and drew herself upright. “Well. I should not expecttruth from a Dominican. But at least I know now that my sister is dead. Shewould never have willingly let this out of her sight.”
“Very wise. It is a beautiful piece of work. Your fathermust be a highly skilled craftsman, to have made something so complex.”
She looked at me with a hunted expression as she tried todiscern my meaning. “Did you open it?”
The question was barely a whisper. She knew the answer. Sheclenched her hands to stop their trembling and her face was tight with fear — the same fear I had felt only a moment before at her mention of Fontanelle. Thenaked terror of being found out.
“Yes. Is it your mother?”
She nodded, a tense little jerk of her head, her eyes stillboring into me.
“She must have been beautiful,” I said. “But something asvaluable as that should be carefully guarded. Others might not be sounderstanding of your desire to honor your family memory.”
She gave a gulping sob and wrapped both hands over thelocket. “Thank you.” She swallowed. “Did you show it to anyone? What is inside,I mean?” She glanced over her shoulder, as if I might have brought an army ofInquisitors to hide around the corner.
“No one but me. And I will say nothing.”
“Why?” That sharpness again; the muscles twitching in herjaw. “Why should I trust you?”
“Because …” Because my own secret is far worse, I thought,and it is the very least I owe you for the fact that you will never truly knowwhat happened to your sister. I could not say that. But the answer I gave herwas also true. “Because I believe God is bigger than the rules we impose on oneanother. I think He does not mind if we find different paths to Him.”
“That is heresy,” she whispered.
“So is that.” I nodded to the locket in her hand.
“You are a good man, Bruno,” she said. Unexpectedly, sheleaned forward and placed a soft kiss on my cheek, at the edge of my mouth. Shestood back and almost smiled. “For a Dominican.” I could not look her in theeye.
“Wait,” she called, as I began to walk away. “That man. Thefriar. Donato, is that his name? Where can he be found?”
“At San Domenico. Or at the Cerriglio, where you found himlast night.”
“But he is always surrounded by people. I want to speak tohim alone.”
“He would never allow it. Not after your last encounter.”
She shrugged. “Still, I have to try. For my sister’s sake.I just want to know.”
I considered this. “He is rarely alone, except in his cell.Or perhaps when he takes one of the upstairs rooms at the tavern, to meet awoman.”
She nodded, tucking the information away. “The cruelestpart,” she said, with some difficulty, pausing to master her emotions, “is thathe has stolen from us even the chance to bury and mourn her properly. Whateverhe has done with her, I can never forgive him for that.” I watched her teethclench. She took a deep breath. “Thank you,” she said, her voice harder thistime, determined. “For what you have done for my family. Perhaps we will meet again.”
“Perhaps.” I bowed and turned away. She would never know mypart in what happened to her sister, but I would carry the weight of thatknowledge with me always.
September rolled into October, apples ripened in theorchard, and mists drifted in from the bay, though without a repeat of theprevious year’s fever epidemic. Fra Gennaro relaxed around me as he realizedthat I appeared to have suppressed my qualms and was not going to endanger himwith a sudden eruption of conscience. He requested my assistance morefrequently in the dispensary, and on occasion confided in me his notes anddrawings from previous experiments, as if to demonstrate his trust. He promisedto introduce me to a friend of his in the city, an aristocrat and a man ofconsiderable influence as a patron of the sciences. As the weeks passed, I evenmanaged to sleep through the night untroubled by dreams of the dead girl,though not every night.
But in other ways, my fortunes took a turn for the worse. Itbecame clear that I had put myself on the wrong side of Donato, and that was adangerous place to be. Perhaps he thought I knew too much, or perhaps he justwanted to remind me of his threat. I was summoned before the prior, chargedwith a series of minor infractions of the rules that he could not have knownabout unless someone was spying on me. I was given penance and a stern warningnot to repeat the offenses, as there would be no leniency in future. I lost thesmall freedoms taken for granted by the wealthier young friars, and foundmyself reduced to a life of prayer, worship, and study — which was, I supposed,no more or less than the life I had signed up to in the first place, but itstill chafed. The watch brothers were told to confirm that I was in my cellevery night between Compline and Matins. My reading material and mycorrespondence were subject to unannounced inspections. Everywhere I felt Donato’seyes on me — in the refectory, in chapel, in chapter meetings — and I could donothing but watch and wait for him to strike. All this petty needling, I felt,was just a prelude. Donato was afraid of what he thought I knew, and he hadsomething planned for me. The worst was not knowing what or when, so that I waspermanently on my guard.
Over a month had passed since the night ofthe girl’s death. The season was growing cooler; at night, when we troopedreluctantly to Matins as the bells struck two, the air was tinged with wood smoke.I shuffled to my place in the chapel one night in October, stifling a yawn(there was a penance for that, if you did it too often), when I glanced acrossthe choir and noticed the empty seats. Donato, Agostino, Paolo, and at leasttwo of the other younger friars had not returned in time for the service. Thisin itself was unusual; for all his swagger, Donato was careful to make anoutward show of obedience. He reasoned that, as long as he was present at eachappointed office, no one would question what he did in between. I could seethat the prior, too, had noted the absences, though he made no mention of it.
Ten minutes into the service, I heard a disturbance at theback and turned to see Agostino rush in, his face blanched and stricken, thedoor clanging behind him. With no regard for propriety, he pushed through toFra Gennaro and whispered in his ear; Gennaro immediately snatched up hiscandle and followed Agostino out of the chapel. The prior was furious at theinterruption, his face slowly turning the color of ripe grapes, but he masteredhimself, exchanged a few words with the sub-prior, and disappeared after thetroublemakers. The younger novices were almost bursting with excitement at theunknown drama and the sub-prior had to call us back to order several times. Itwas a small miracle that we managed to complete the office as if nothing were amiss.
Paolo was waiting for me in the cloister when I returnedfrom Matins. I had never seen him look so shaken.
“Did you hear? Donato is dead.”
“What?” I stared at him. “When?”
“An hour ago. At the Cerriglio.”
Heedless now of the watch brothers, I followed him to his celland made him tell me everything.
Donato had taken a room upstairs at the tavern and engagedthe services of one of the girls. After she left, he had called for hot waterand towels to wash himself before returning to the convent. When the servanttook the basin of water up to him there was no answer from the room. Sheknocked louder and then opened the door, to find him lying on the bed, naked,with his throat cut. You could have heard her screams at the top of Vesuvius,Paolo said. No one had noticed any disturbance from Donato’s room earlier,though one of the other customers thought he had seen a new serving girl, onehe did not recognize, loitering on the stairs by the back door shortly beforethe body was found. But Signora Rosaria had not hired any new serving girlsrecently, and this man was quite far gone in his cups, so his word was notworth much.
“They brought in the whore Donato was with, of course,”Paolo said, his voice still uncertain, “though she swears blind he was aliveand well when she left him a half-hour earlier. What’s more, she didn’t have aspeck of blood on her, and you couldn’t cut a man’s throat like that withoutbeing drenched in it. I suppose that will not count for much, if they decide toaccuse her.”
The strangest thing, he added, was that Donato’s purse hadbeen sitting there on top of his habit on a chair by the bed, in full view, andhad not been touched. He shuddered. “Think of it, Bruno. Naked and defenseless.Throat cut right across. It could have been any one of us.”
“Donato went out of his way to make enemies,” I said,carefully. “I don’t think you need to worry.”
“All the same,” he said, rubbing his neck with feeling, “Ithink I might give the Cerriglio a miss for a while. Wouldn’t hurt me to stayin and pray more often. I could learn from your example.”
“I would be glad of the company,” I said, forcing a smile.
The furor took a long time to die down. Fra Donato’s father,Don Giacomo, was almost felled by grief; Naples had not seen such anextravagant and public display of mourning in decades. In return for hushing upthe ignominious circumstances of Donato’s death, the prior of San Domenico receiveda handsome donation, for which he was grateful, particularly since he knew itwould be the last. Don Giacomo had intended his money to ensure his son’ssmooth ascent to election as prior one day; now there was no longer any purposeto his bequests. The whore Donato had been with before he died was arrested andquietly spirited away. Some days after the murder, they had found thebloodstained dress of a serving girl stuffed into a well a few streets from theinn, which was considered good enough evidence against the word of a whore. Inever learned what became of her; I suppose she was hanged. No one else wasever found guilty of the crime.
The following spring, not long after the Feast of Candelora,as I was crossing Strada del Seggio di Nilo, I saw a young woman moving towardme through the mass of people, and for a moment my breath stopped in my throat.She carried a leather satchel across her body; a fall of glossy dark hairrippled around her shoulders, burnished in the sun, and she walked gracefully,with an air of self-possession. I withdrew into my hood and turned my faceaside as she approached; I did not want to be recognized. If she saw me, shegave no sign of it, but as she passed, a splinter of sunlight caught the goldencrucifix locket she wore around her neck, blinding me with a flash ofbrilliance. When I looked up again, she had vanished into the dust and crowdsof Naples.