...“Only God knows. But if Giovanni does recover and you’re still around, it could mean worse trouble. If he decides to kill you, no one will stop him. The law will look the other way. Leave now and come back when some other scandal takes the place of this one. By then, if Giovanni is still alive, he may even forgive you.”
While Isabella spoke, Pietro paced. When his turn came, he kept on pacing, his hand rolled into a fist as it punctuated each word. “Time. I need time. Time to think. Time to make a plan.”
“Time for Serina to play you the fool,” Isabella said. “Time for Serina to destroy what’s left of our family.”
She issued another directive, one posing as a suggestion. “What about your father’s cousin, the one who works at the Fiat factory. Maybe he could get you a job in Torino. Think of the money you could save in two years.”
“What about you and the children?” He waited for her face to soften, waited for her to bend, just a little.
But her eyes didn’t meet his. “We managed when you broke your leg. We’ll manage with you in Torino.”
Thursday morning, six o’clock, Isabella was traveling the gravel road to Pont, again—after Aldo had stopped a fourth time to punish her for the additional weight. She yanked on his reins and continued her trek down the winding route. Snuggled under covers in the back of cart were the twins and Maria, all fast asleep. In the passenger seat Serina slept too, with Allegra sucking greedily at her breast. From a wooded area the red eyes of nocturnal creatures watched. The undergrowth rustled, a snake slithering back to its haven. Chirping birds welcomed Isabella like old friends—except her old friends didn’t come around anymore, and not because of Pietro. At the end of the day, she had nothing left to give. Between Giovanni and Serina, they sucked the very life from her.
The moon giving way to the rising sun allowed her to spot a tempting clump of mushrooms. Another time, she might have stopped. But not this morning, she was running late. First Giovanni needed help with the toilet. Then Aldo wouldn’t budge after Serina climbed aboard. Coaxing and sugar cubes spurred him some of the way, until Isabella ran out of the cubes.
As the mule rounded the last hairpin curve, Isabella looked down to Pont, already coming alive with her competitors. A line of carts and basket-laden donkeys waited to enter the village, its only access a bridge spanning the swift waters of the Orco that flowed down from the Gran Paradiso and would eventually spill into the River Po east of Torino. There would be no prime market spot for Isabella today, but it would be a good day. After releasing Aldo’s rein, she ran her hand along his back, gave a gentle pat to his rump, and climbed back in the wagon. With a single crack of the whip, Aldo took over her burden.
The market came to life as soon as Isabella settled on one of the few remaining sites, an obscure corner near the live poultry. After twins scampered from the cart, they watched Maria slide down with a plop, thank God, with no accompanying tears.
“Can we take Maria for a walk?” Riccardo asked.
“Only if you promise not to let go of her hand,” said Serina, still perched on the passenger seat, with Allegra feeding again. “I’ll help you as soon as the baby gets her fill,” she told Isabella. “Would you mind fixing a place for me out of the sun? Allegra’s so fair-skinned. I think we might have another red head.”
“Where is her bonnet?”
“On my shopping list, please don’t lecture me, not today.”
Isabella set her only chair under the shade of a nearby tree. She held her arms out for the baby, cradled her while Serina stepped down and made her throne comfortable with the pillow that cushioned her morning journey. Allegra stretched her fat cheeks into a yawn. Tiny fingers wrapped around one of Isabella’s. The infant opened her eyes, not the blue of Serina’s but as dark as Pietro’s. Not a single hair sprung from her scalp.
“Do you mind if I walk around?” Serina asked. “My legs are so-o stiff from the ride.”
“I’m sure Allegra would enjoy the sights from her sling.”
Serina slapped the heel of one hand to her forehead. “The sling, oh, no, I forgot it.”
“And I must set up my produce. My customers don’t like to wait.”
“Nor do I,” Serina said as she stepped back in the cart. After creating a bassinet from a blanket folded into her shopping basket, she reached down and wiggled her fingers at Allegra. “Naptime, Baby. Come to Mama.”
Indeed, the baby slept—in the cart while her mama swished around in her blue dress and the twins roamed the aisles with Maria in tow. Isabella managed to generate new business without inconveniencing her regular customers. Among the first to stop by were Editta Sasso and her son Lucca, who lived down the hill from Faiallo.
“I might as well get my cheese while I’m here,” Signora Sasso said. “I don’t like to bother you at home.”
“For you, Editta, it’s never a bother.”
“No one makes tomino as good as yours, Isabella. And two dozen of your best eggs, please. You still hold them to a candle, right?”
“I guarantee every one of them.” Isabella gathered the eggs, added an extra one for good measure. She wrapped three rings of cheese and placed the order in Signora Sasso’s basket.
“When is Pietro coming back from Torino?” Lucca asked. “Everyone at Il Sole è la Luna wants to know.”
Signora Sasso whacked Lucca on the shoulder. “Pietro will come home when the time is right.” She counted her lire into Isabella’s open hand, closed it with an affectionate squeeze. “God be with you, Isabella. ’Til next week, ciao.”
For the next two hours Isabella kept busy with her customers. Not once did Allegra cry out, nor did anyone even know what treasure the shopping basket held. Serina returned with a new basket filled with items for Maria and Allegra. She held up a truck and a doll. “For Riccardo and Gina to play with on their way home,” she said. “They’re so good to Maria. I bought her a cuddly bear, to take the place of my breast. By the way, where is Maria?”
“One aisle away, playing with the twins.”
“And the baby?”
“Right where you left her.”
“See, I told you they wouldn’t be any trouble.” She held up two nursing bottles. “For when Allegra gets home, in case she ever needs more than I can give. If you don’t mind, I’d like to—”
“Go, while you’re baby still sleeps.”
“But first I’ll bring the chair over here. You look so tired.”
As soon as Serina left, the old woman with the caged chickens came from the other direction. “Zingare, Zingare everywhere,” she yelled. “Hold tight to your children, your pets, and your money.” She stopped at Isabella’s cart. “Buon giorno, Isabella, did you not hear my warning? Those little demons of yours, where are they?”
“These gypsies, you saw them?”
“Yesterday the lying cheats camped at the edge of our village. Today they moved in closer. Even as I speak they walk among us.” She crossed herself. “May I burn in hell if you don’t believe me.”
“Riccardo, Gina, Maria, now!”
Two curly heads popped out from under an olive vendor’s cart.
“We’re right here, Mama,” said Riccardo. “Maria too.”
“We made a new amico,” said Gina. A dirty face appeared next to hers.
They scrambled out, bringing with them a young boy, about nine years old. His wild hair was black as onyx, his skin as dark as a Mezzogiorno. His pants fell above his ankles; his red shirt was tattered at the cuffs. He bowed from the waist, and when he looked up, it was with one blue eye and one brown.
The vecchia made the sign of the cross again. “Sweet Mother of Jesus, those fiendish eyes have cast a curse on us all.” She held out her arm, forefinger and pinkie pointed at the boy. “Va via. Va via.”
To Isabella he smiled with even, white teeth, and spoke Piemontese but with a slight accent. “I am Cato. Do not be afraid, Signora Rocca.”
“You know my name?”
The vecchia’s chickens started fluttering their wings. “He is possessed Isabella, turn your back. You must not talk to the Cimbri.” She hobbled away, clutching the cage of squawking birds. “Zingare, Zingare.”
Riccardo put his arm around the boy’s shoulder. “Cato comes from Verona.”
“That’s a long way from Piemonte,” Isabella said.
“But too hot in the summer,” Cato replied. “So we travel.”
“He knows Serina,” Gina said.
“He what?” Isabella plopped in the chair. Maria climbed on her lap.
Cato showed his dirty palms, smiled again. “Only since this morning, Signora, the bella donna was admiring my
Papa’s fine jewelry.” With a flourish he swept his arm toward a scattering of trees beyond the marketplace.
Blessed Mother! Isabella couldn’t believe her eyes. How could she have been so busy not to notice the row of painted wagons, or the villagers mingling around the wagons.
“Would you like to see? It’s not too far. We make our own gold and silver pieces, more beautiful and at better prices than the shops, or even the market.”
“Oh, Mama, please can we go?”
“Not today, Gina.”
“But I want some earrings.”
“Your ears aren’t pierced yet.”
“Lift up your curls,” Cato said and Gina obeyed. Arms folded, he circled around her, viewing her exposed ear lobes from every angle. “Not to worry. My zia can make the holes, with her special needle.”
“Basta, I’ll pierce them myself when I get time. You can wear the earrings I wore as a girl.”
“We also make pots, all sizes and shapes,” Cato said. “Perhaps a new one for your polenta?”
Isabella shook her head.
“Can we take Cato home with us?” Riccardo asked. “He’s never slept in a real house.”