Anna Tambour presents 


The virtuous medlar circle
thoroughly bletted
The Apprenticeship of
Isabetta di Pietro Cavazzi
L. Timmel Duchamp


But, yes it is true, that I, Isabetta Cavazzi, daughter of Pietro, have this twenty-third day of March, in the year of our Lord 1626, been received here in the Via del Galliera, into the Casa del Soccorso di San Paolo, which some call the “Malmaritate,” though most here have been dishonored rather by their lack of husbands than by the unhappiness of their unions.

(Io, Isabetta di Pietro Cavazzi. . . .)

Never did I imagine that I would find myself in such a place. It is like a convent, only none of us are nuns. (Though they say that sometimes women who come here do indeed become nuns.) Through Mona Gentile’s benevolence, I enjoy the privilege of a private room, for which she has agreed to pay an extra sixteen lire a month. The poorest here, with the least connections, toil day and night performing the dirtiest and most arduous of chores, and sleep in a common dormitory. I must, Mona Gentile told me, be very quiet and mannerly and docile. In that way I will help achieve the end toward which we together strive.

In fact, most of the women here are prostitutes who have fallen on hard times, unable even to pay the Ufficio delle Bollette the fee for being licensed.

I write these words in secret, in accordance with the counsel given me by Mona Gentile last night when she furnished me with this little notebook. If it becomes too difficult to keep all that is in my mind and heart from passing my lips, it is better that I write it down, because concealing words written on paper is easier than stopping up the flow of a confidence once made. “Trust no one to keep unspoken anything that you tell them. You know how easily gossip flows from one to the next. And above all, neither confide nor confess anything about our affairs to any priest there you might see, since most priests lack the wisdom and sympathy of our own Don Tomaso.”

(E sopra tutto. . . .)

Here in this place where I am subject to the rigors of the Congregation’s rule and sharing a roof with those who have fallen so low, Ser Achille’s laugh rings again and again in my ears. “You fool,” he said to me after he struck me so hard that I fell to my knees, his voice so cruel and scornful, “Signor Alberto has given you the trick. How could you believe that such a one as you could be worthy of marrying a signore of such a magnificent family? And you,” he said to Mona Gentile, shaking his finger at her as Lucia often does with Giuseppe, when he has been naughty, “how could you encourage her to imagine herself so grand? She has squandered her honor for illusions and vanity, like the poor country fool that she is. But you, my wife, knew better.”

Ser Achille is wrong. My honor will be regained, and my love, too, with Mona Gentile’s skillful help, God willing. Ser Achille knows nothing of the binding powers of love, or of the hammers that strengthen it where it falters (as I fear has happened with Berto). But Ser Achille knows little of his wife. And if he did, who then would be the poor country fool, eh?

Rising for chapel well before dawn is no easier than rising in the cold dark to fetch in wood and water and get the fires going. Truly, it sounded to me so easy— to lead the devout life, with my only chores a bit of spinning and needlework. But when the matron woke me from my sleep in the cold, still darkness of a night not yet finished, I could think only of the emptiness of my stomach. It growled so loudly that I could hear it even through the ugly racket of our voices singing the liturgy (without so much as an organ to help guide our pitch). Oh the chapel is a dismal one, with just the crucifix above the altar and only the one painting, of the Magdalene washing Christ’s feet, which cannot be seen at all before dawn, and only poorly when the light seeps in through the one window, which is behind the altar. Kneeling, it seemed to me the cold had settled into my bones for good. I could not stop shivering. Perhaps it is best, working straightaway on rising, for then even in the bitterest cold the blood heats quickly. And breakfast seems that much nearer when you are the one preparing it yourself and when you can filch a crust of bread between trips to the well.

When Mona Gentile comes, I will tell her I need more food than they allow us. Perhaps they will give us meat when Lent is over, but though we observed Lent as Christians in Mona Gentile’s house, I never felt hungry on leaving the table, as I do here. I had to bite my tongue this morning, for I wanted to insist to the matron that I should be given more because of the child. (Francesca— whom we are supposed to address as “Mona Francesca,” a travesty since she has never been married— is only an old prostitute, who has been on “good behavior” for the nine months she’s been here. I have already learned that she and the other two warders have their favorites. But, “Make no fuss,” Mona Gentile told me.) Perhaps Mona Gentile will bring me extra food, or bribe the matron.

Many priests think fasting and hunger is good for the soul. Yet this morning in chapel I could not keep my mind on the devotions, but only thought of how much I’d like to be building the fire in Mona Gentile’s kitchen, and how good it would feel to be putting a cup of broth into my stomach. Somehow this kind of hunger is different from the hunger of a fast undertaken to do the powerful things Mona Gentile has been teaching me. It is, perhaps, because then I can feel the power inside myself, being drawn upon, and fashioned, whereas going before breakfast to sing lauds seems a gesture wasted. There is holy water, and a holy candle or two, but the bareness of the chapel makes it feel as though God would never deign to set foot in the place.

Perhaps it will be different when a priest is present, saying the Mass. . .

When I took out this little book just now and looked at the pages I had already written, the ugliness of my scrawl made me think of how Ser Achille would mock it if he were to see it. In truth, I don’t believe anyone but me could even read it. (Even I have trouble making out all of the words, because I have written them so closely together, with each word pressing on the last, with each line right up against the one above it.) Yet, that I can write, and read, too— and not just my name, as is the case with those of my brothers who did learn to make their names— this gives me an advantage, because it means that not only can I write down my thoughts instead of foolishly speaking them to get them out of my head, but I can also make power-writing, which is in many things better than making a hammer. . . 

There are birds nesting in the roof of this house. I hear them now, flapping and billing and cooing. Doves, perhaps. Which make me think of my love, my own dear Berto, and the little bird of his that I have pleased so much. . . 

(Le columbe, forse. . . .)

Oh yesterday was wonderful! Mona Gentile came to see me— accompanied by her sister-in-law, the Signora Consolini, whose husband is a member of the Congregation and so is held in the highest esteem in this house. Last night before sleeping— lying in sheets warm from the bricks I heated in the kitchen hearth, as the Signora Consolini insisted on my behalf that I be allowed to do— I went over and over in my mind all that had passed between us, enjoying the repetition with almost as much exaltation as I felt during her visit. She walked with her sister through the entire house before drawing me aside, asking that I show her my room. And though I had vowed to myself never to complain to her of my place here, the first thing I said when we were alone was how, if it was on account of my pregnancy that I was here, I wish I had chosen rather to abort it than to tell Berto of it and demand he restore my honor.

“Foolish child!” she said. And she remonstrated with me and said that in the eyes of all my value had risen with my pregnancy, and that if I safely delivered a healthy child it would be proof of my fertility, and that the fact that I was pregnant made the suitor Ser Achille had selected for me more eager than before to wed me, once I have had my honor repaired by staying here and living piously and chastely under the Congregation’s supervision. This she said here, in this room, which is where she gave me a store of sugared almonds. (She and the Signora Consolini brought also a barrel of salted fish, which I and the others who are pregnant are to be given every morning in addition to gruel.)

And then, it being mild and midday, we went out into the courtyard and walked to and fro in the sun, our arms linked as if we were indeed mother and daughter. (And truly Mona Gentile always set herself to teach me the things mothers teach their daughters, since I left my own mother at such a tender age. And besides, that time Ser Achille exploded in wrath when it seemed to him that Berto had given me the trick, he said that this stained his own honor, because my having served in his house from the time I was eleven years put him in the place of a father to me, for that he had made a contract with my father that he would provide me with a dowry and an honorable marriage.)

“Tell me,” Mona Gentile said as we walked, “do you remember the first time we talked about the special powers of the body?” And of course I remembered, so clearly, the beginning of my secret apprenticeship with her, when she began by asking me if I knew any spells, and if I had ever employed them. At which I told her of how when I was seven, and the caterpillars infested the cabbages, my mother had put the yoke on her shoulders and had me ride on it, as she walked through the fields, calling out to the caterpillars a spell she said she had called out for her mother, as her mother had before her. And that the spell was in words brought from the land her great-grandmother had lived in, Fui, fui ruie et il mio con ti mangiuie, which means “Flee, flee, furry caterpillars, or my cunt will eat you.” The words were strange to my ears, and felt strange in my mouth, but I have never forgotten them. And after I told Mona Gentile of this spell that I knew and had made, riding on the yoke, she asked me if I understood that the power of the spell came from my being a woman— or going to be a woman. And she asked me if my mother had said why a young girl, and not herself, must make the spell. And I remembered, then, my mother saying the spell did not work if it wasn’t made by a girl before she had begun issuing her flowers.

So I remembered all this yesterday when Mona Gentile asked, and when I said yes, I did remember, she then stopped and laid her hand over my womb, which isn’t very big yet, and said that all the power that is mine as a woman is working now to make a human being, and she touched my breasts and said that the power was working in my breasts now, too. (I felt foolish at Mona Gentile’s mention of my breasts. It was when I went to her, saying that I thought I needed the spell for madrazza, that she discovered I was pregnant, which I hadn’t known. “And how,” she said then, “would a woman who has never given birth, come to suffer madrazza, which is caused by an excess of milk?”) “And so it is true,” I asked her, “what they say about breast milk, that it is flowers stored up and cooked in the breasts?” And she said yes, which was why husbands who could afford to pay a wet-nurse would not allow their wives to suckle. (Besides, of course, their not wishing to abstain from the pleasures of the marital bed for all that time.)

In the countryside we are poor, and all women suckle. But then the rich women in the city always do send their babies away from the moment of their birth, or bring women in from the country to do that work.

My hand is too cramped to write more. And the light is getting thinner. And we will soon be called to supper, and then compline, anyway.

I woke early this morning, well before they summoned us to lauds, in the cold, still darkness. Though I had great need to relieve myself, I lingered in bed, where some of my body’s warmth, at least, remained. And yet the cold did not seem that terrible to me, because I felt a great warmth kindled in my heart as I remembered Mona Gentile’s visit, still fresh in my thoughts. “And why,” Mona Gentile had said to me when I told her how I loathed rising for lauds, “do you think nuns and monks are obliged to do this? While it is true that all the Signori wish masses to be said for the souls of all their dead fathers and brothers and grandfathers, you may believe me that they all rest easier knowing that thousands of nuns and monks rise in the night to say matins and lauds, during the hours in which all the powers of heaven and earth are nearly extinguished, particularly in the two hours before dawn, when the earth has lost its heat, and finally even the birds become alarmed and cry frantically and pathetically their most doleful plaints, a time when even demons and spirits and angels flee the utter coldness and stillness of a dying world. And then the nuns and monks rise for lauds, seeking to touch the heart of God, lest he not let heat and life and vitality return to the earth, and lo, as the end of lauds comes, the sun rises, and life has been saved, again, from the risk of endless night. And then there is power enough to say Mass, and all living things whether incarnate or only spiritual revive, in the daily resurrection of what we call the ‘new day’. . .”

Mona Gentile is so wise, understands so much! And yet is so beautiful, her eyes the most radiant blue, her hair a fiery gold that compares with the sun itself. . . It almost seems a scandal for a miserable prostitute like that little Anna Laura Spighi to whisper in my ear, “Your lady is so very beautiful,” and yet it is true, and it makes the others here look at me differently, to see that such a beautiful and respectable lady as Mona Gentile takes so great an interest in me.

(È tanta bellissima, tua donna. . . .)

Of course I do not tell anyone here how Mona Gentile came to bestow her trust and affection on me. After all, when I first came to Ser Achille’s house, I was just another miserable girl from the country hired to do the drudgery that must be done in every household, even those in the city. And I was laughably ignorant and required much scolding before I learned how to give good service. Mona Gentile had scant patience with me and seemed beyond pleasing. And my weeping with homesickness increased her displeasure. But one day she caught sight of the caule my mother had placed around my neck. (“Never, never, never part yourself from it,” my mother told me. “It is what makes you special, it holds all the power of my womb when it was making you.”) I was frightened, for I thought, being a fine city lady, she might make me throw it in the fire (which is what, my mother says, some priests make people do when they discover them wearing their caules, because the priests know the caules hold power and can’t abide anyone else having power besides themselves). But in fact Mona Gentile spoke gently to me, and called me “sister,” because she said she too had been born with a caule, and wore it next to her skin, though she never let anyone see it, especially not any man. And from then on she began to instruct me in the ways of magic, and the powers of the body and hearth. And I became then not just her servant, but her pupil, and her “sister of the caule.”

But I have yet to write down (as if I could forget anything that Mona Gentile has said to me!) the rest of our conversation. It concerned Berto, and my pregnancy, and Ser Achille’s plans for my future. Mona Gentile says that Berto is very pleased that I am pregnant. (And yet he will not keep his word to me! Which I do not understand!) He is concerned, she said, that I look on only beautiful things, and that I eat well, so that the child will be born healthy. (To this end, he has pledged to make a donation to this house.) If it is a boy, he will give it to a wet-nurse he will hire, and when it is weaned raise it in his house. If it is a girl— I had to prompt Mona Gentile to tell me— he will have the child taken to the foundling home. Alas, poor thing! And how many survive to live after having been taken to that place? I have heard, I had no need to ask Mona Gentile about it, because it is so well known and talked of in the city, how foundling homes were first established to take the infants of slaves, because their milk was wanted by their masters for renting out, and would dry up if they were to watch their own children die before their eyes, or else would be given them illicitly, as a theft from their masters. While there are few if any slaves in the city now, yet there are still children born for whom there is no milk, their own mothers’ milk being needed for other children.

It is bitter indeed. For whether I give birth to a boy or a girl, Ser Achille will arrange a contract for me to go as balia to a good family in the city, for wages that will enlarge my dowry greatly (particularly since some of the portion coming to me— as well as the sheets I had sewn and laid aside— will be spent on my maintenance here). And when the child I am contracted to nurse has been weaned, I will return here briefly, and then marry.

Wet-nursing is an honorable profession, Mona Gentile said to me. But I was so upset that Berto is eager for the child, yet still refuses to publicly acknowledge me as his wife, that I said again that I wished I had taken the sage-leaf medicine, for then I would still be Berto’s wife, and that besides, I would probably die in childbed. But Mona Gentile promised me she would deliver me herself and asked me did I not have faith in her powers? And of course it is true, if Mona Gentile is with me, I must be delivered safely. As for Berto, she did not need to remind me that Ser Achille owes much to Berto’s father, who is the magistrate for whom Ser Achille has been a notary for many years. These city ways! I always believed in my heart that if Berto broke his word to me, that he would be made to keep it, as when I was eight years I witnessed my uncles, the priest, and the mayor besides make another who would break his word to his pledged wife, marry her as he had promised.

But “Do not despair,” Mona Gentile said to me. “Pretend to agree to any arrangements Ser Achille makes for you. There is time, and opportunity, for making Signor Alberto change his mind. Do not forget the power of the hammer, my child. I promise you, Signor Alberto will be struck. We will make him come back to you, begging you to marry him. Trust me.”

(Mi credi.)

I do, Mona Gentile, I do trust you. But how to make a hammer in a place like this? Teach me, my lady, teach me how. And if it hurts Berto— though of course not mortally. . . if it causes him pain. . .let him think then how he has caused me pain.

Yesterday when Mona Gentile visited she brought me lemon verbena, mint, and camomile, for steeping in hot water and drinking with honey (which she also brought me), the lemon verbena in the morning, the mint in the afternoon, and the camomile in the evening, before compline. Though I keep these herbs and the honey in my room, I still need to use the kitchen hearth, for getting the water. But that is part of the point! Not only are these drinks good for pregnant women, but I need access to the kitchen hearth if I am to make the hammer that will bring Berto back to me. As Mona Gentile observed yesterday, though she can prepare some of it, and place it for me, there are certain things that I must do myself. For all that my powers are diminished, because they are needed for the growing of the child, they are not entirely lost.

And so I made an appearance in the kitchen yesterday evening, not just to fetch the bricks that I heat there, but to steep the camomile leaves in hot water. Mona Elissa was there, of course. (She has a bed in the alcove to the side of the hearth, where it is nearly always warm, just as I do in Mona Gentile’s house. That arrangement, plus the fact that it is she whom the Congregation entrusts with the key to the cellar, where all the food staples and wine are kept, makes her behave as if she is lady of the house. Of course it is true that she is a widow, and more respectable than any of us here, since it is only because her children are dead and her husband misused her dowry that she is in this place, which she prefers to a convent.) Mona Elissa stood with her hands on her hips, like a great black crow shrilling warnings at me, only instead of cawing, she held her lips pressed tightly together, as though to let me know that it was only because I am the Signora Consolini’s protégée that she would allow me the use of her hearth.

“Accustom all who work in the kitchen to seeing you there often,” Mona Gentile said. I know, without doubt, what enrages Mona Elissa. It is not that I am Signora Consolini’s protégée, which is the reason the matron hates me, since she owes her position to the Signora’s rival, Donna Masserenti, also the wife of a member of the Congregation. No, Mona Elissa dislikes anyone she cannot order about as a servant; and those who enter the kitchen are mostly the residents who are obliged to work for their maintenance. And so it vexes her that she lacks authority over me. She is foolish, though, for thinking herself above the factional rivalry. Coming from a mere village, I know that it is always necessary to choose sides. Even in the great city of Bologna, it is necessary. And here in this small house, it is even more necessary. Mona Elissa has not been here above two years. That is not long enough to judge the situation.

This is how foolish Mona Elissa is: “She is the Signora Consolini’s little pet,” that one hissed at the miserable little Catarina, who was scrubbing the enormous kettle that had been used to make the soup we ate at supper. And did she notice, that the little Catarina sent me a friendly, respectful look, as if to say that though she is a partisan of the matron, she might change sides if it were expedient?

Mona Elissa’s voice is the loudest at lauds and compline, and the ugliest, too. It is a sort of nasal drone, that takes no pleasure in its own use. It’s no wonder she snapped at me for humming while I waited for the little kettle Mona Gentile brought me to boil!

I woke this morning in tears, brimming with a grief I have carried with me all day. I dreamed a thing unbearable, I dreamed the one thing I haven’t allowed myself to think might be really true, however carelessly my Berto may have behaved (and thus unthinkingly brought me to this place). I dreamed that Berto betrayed me as Ser Achille has tried to make me believe, that he deliberately gave me the trick, all the while laughing at me behind my back. In the dream it was the night of carnival in which I did that so daring thing— emboldened, perhaps, by the assurance Berto’s love had brought me— that is, dressing in Rico’s clothes (which because they were so large on me exposed no more than my legs, which many have seen anyway in the ordinary course of accidents life holds for girls like me). In the dream, as happened that night, Berto was amused and applauded my boldness— until Francesca appeared, and said loudly, for Berto, Rico, and all of our friends who were making beautiful dances with us: “That one will end up at the baths, she looks like one of us already.” And hearing that, from one who for several years worked at the baths (and according to the portress dressed often in male clothing, and even allowed herself to be used for every kind of sodomy, including the kind that is done by men to boys), the other girls there spoke disapprovingly to me (as they did that night of the carnival), and Rico and Berto sneered, and Berto said for all to hear: “Yes, she will do well at the baths, for I have given her the trick, as she must very well know!”

Mona Gentile says that dreams are not always what they seem at first sight. But the heaviness in my heart is so sorrowful that if I dared I would have spent the day in my room, weeping. Only the thought of Francesca coming in here, playing the matron over me, taunting me for my foolishness, made me go through the motions of all that is expected of me here.

“Fear is the first great enemy of love,” Mona Gentile once said to me, when she explained to me why we must never let those we are binding to us with the magical arts know of our labors for them. “Fear,” Mona Gentile said, “and coldness. Hot anger is always better for love than cold. Cold anger will kill love more surely than anything else. Cold anger makes contempt.” Surely I must not let fear poison my love for Berto, for that love is greater than anything I can think of, greater than my life itself. I must think of his eyes, and his hands, and his mouth, which have been so tender with me, and are unto themselves grace incarnate. I must try to remember his delight on that night of carnival when I wore boy’s clothing, I must try to remember the fierce joy of our dancing, and how everyone remarked about it how perfectly we are matched. That was the reality, the dream is false, a warning against despair— and against the evil machinations of the matron.

My fear is that locked up here, I will be forgotten by Berto. Men forget the things of the body so quickly— I have heard Mona Gentile remark on this again and again. But they are written on our bodies, so that we never forget any of it, neither the pain nor the pleasure, neither the sorrow nor the joy. Which is the reason, Mona Gentile says, that magical arts are needed to bind men.

As for the question of “giving me the trick,” what matters is how Berto feels about me, not that I have given him my honor, and am now without any at all. “Honor is determined by men, who manage everything to do with its arrangements,” Mona Gentile said when we first talked about this. “Women are powerless in such matters, except when defaming one of their own number, since men will believe the evil one woman speaks of another, but dismiss the good; and so questions of honor do not concern us. We have other ways of making arrangements, ways in which men are in turn powerless. Let Ser Achille and Signor Alberto worry about honor; we, my child, will arrange things in our own way, and when we have done, they will make their arrangements to suit ours.”

As with love, the magical arts require confidence without arrogance, in order to work. And yet, I am in despair.

Blessed Madonna, help me!

How clever of me, is it not, that I’ve invented my own abbreviations, to make writing so much easier! Because my fingers grow cramped so quickly, I have been reluctant to bother with writing, especially now that I seem to want to sleep all the time. But because some of us now sit outside, in the courtyard, the weather being so pleasant, with our spindles and flax, and because of the great scandal, the very details of which are yet held secret from us here, I find my tongue making too free with its desire for speaking the many things in my mind. And so, remembering how Ser Achille and other notaries use abbreviations when they write (because many times they are required to write down, at great speed, everything that is said, particularly in criminal cases, and also because many of the same expressions and phrases are used repeatedly in legal documents, and are less tedious to the hand when noted by a single mark or letter with a mark distinguishing it), it seemed to me a clever thing to invent my own set of marks. (And I note, too, that it is not a bad thing that only I know what they signify!)

The scandal— ah, that is an enigma. Three of us were out in the courtyard this afternoon, working our spindles diligently and singing pretty little ditties with only the most innocent of words, since we are forbidden to sing “love songs.” (We are also forbidden to “chatter and gossip,” which is why we choose to sing, since it is obvious when our voices are lifted in song that we are obeying the rules of the Congregation.) Suddenly the little Catarina came rushing out to us, sputtering with so much excitement that at first she could not get the words out. “It is impossible!” she said. “But it is true! I cannot believe it, but the Signora Messina Vignola, whom we all know, because she is the wife of Signor Flaminio Segnelli, and has often come here with other ladies, has been brought here to live! I was in the hall, scrubbing the tiles, when Mona Antonia gave entry to her and several signori, one of them the dottore, her husband!”

All of us in the courtyard believed that Catarina had misunderstood. The Signora Vignola has been here several times since I arrived. Not only does she come often with other ladies, bringing provisions and inspecting and questioning us as is usual with many of the wives of Congregation members, but it is not long since she attended the service held in our chapel on Holy Saturday, and attended the Easter feast with her husband and other Congregation members and their wives, that was given for us here in this house. But Catarina was not mistaken! It seems that the Signor Segnelli has, with the approval of other Congregation members, chosen to confine his wife here, with us! I do not understand it. For a Signor to send his own wife, a fine lady, to such a place. . .it is, as I say, a great enigma. Francesca, however, tells us we are not to speak about it, that it is none of our affair.

The lady will, of course, keep to herself. We are to treat her with the great respect we always pay the wives of Congregation members. . .

I have often heard Ser Achille, joking with Mona Gentile, call the Florentines “wise” for keeping their wives always locked up at home, with their only freedom that of peering out the smallest slits of windows, or occasionally standing on their loggias, to witness holy processions. (In that place, men as old as Ser Achille need not worry when they take wives as young as Mona Gentile!) But of course, as Mona Gentile says, everyone knows that all business and even political affairs would be thrown into confusion here in Bologna if the women were locked up. And besides, she says, a woman locked up is a prisoner, and as such an enemy to her keeper. “But Florentine women are silent as mutes,” Ser Achille always retorts. “What bliss that must be, to escape the constant natterings of women!”

Many are the women who have come to this place to flee abusive husbands. (It is for that that it came to be called the “Malmaritate.”) If it hadn’t been that Signor Segnelli accompanied Signora Vignola here, it would be easier to believe she had fled for safety, than that he was locking her up for punishment.

I have such fine news to tell Mona Gentile, that I am more eager than ever she visit me again soon. Today, for the first time, I saw the Devil’s eyes behind the flames in the kitchen hearth. I have been following, with the greatest care and diligence, her instructions that I feed a little pinch of salt to the fire daily, when Mona Elissa’s back is turned, so that the Devil will consider that hearth a good place to lurk. But to tell the truth, it frightens me a little to be coaxing the Devil here, on my own, without Mona Gentile’s strength to guide and protect me. If I am to be successful in making the hammer that will re-bind Berto to me, I must, Mona Gentile says, have recourse not only to the powers of the saints and the holy things of the Church, but also to a very little of the power of hell, as well. The hammer I will make will be like the one Mona Gentile made three years ago, to bind Signor Paolo Suffrageneo’s passions the more closely to her lest her pregnancy cause him to recoil. Of course I will not be able to walk through the streets along the path they lead criminals to their execution, nor afterwards walk with my hands tied behind my back through the house, with all the doors and windows open, speaking the Our Father for the meanest souls that have been executed, thirty-three times. But there are other things that will serve to make my hammer strong, and Mona Gentile tells me she has a piece of hangman’s rope and some blood that dropped from the arm of a thief when his hand was being severed.

It is not dangerous, Mona Gentile says, to have limited contact with the Devil. We acknowledge him, so that he can be made to work for us whenever we wish. The little bit of salt we give him in the fire is as nothing, like the merest drop of water in the sea. It encourages him to think that if he helps us he might eventually snare us, as sometimes happens with the most foolish or unhappy of women. And to treat the Devil so is not a sin, for God could not possibly be offended by our making use of the Devil without giving him anything but trifles in return. Mona Gentile has discussed these things with Don Tomaso, who told her only to be careful when having any dealings with the Devil, and to do no harm to others, including not forcing them truly against their will.

I cannot believe my hammer could harm Berto. It might cause him pain, for as long as it takes him to remember me and his promises to me (which he surely did mean at the time he made them), but I do not believe it truly against his will, in that his will in the first place intended to do all the right things by me, and not hurt or betray me (which giving me the trick would indeed do). Are hammers necessarily implements of harm?

Certainly not!

(Certo che non!)

It is a question of aligning the sympathetic forces of nature to the ends to which they are meant to go. Berto was drawn to me from the beginning, as was I to him, in the most natural way possible. I could feel the power of Fortune in the warmth of that first moment, even before his beautiful smile penetrated his face, when his eyes recognized me. My face, neck, and belly suffused with a fiery blush, and such was my condition that I almost forgot that I was to give him the wine I had poured out for him and Ser Achille.

I knew, yes I knew in that moment. And though our passion has always been fierce, let no one deny that we knew we were meant for one another, body and soul, from the start. It was this, and not mere lust, that made me tremble through the night, sleepless, my mind burning with the memory of eyes I knew, of eyes that knew me. . .

Today, it being Sunday, we went to Mass in the chapel. A certain Don Alessandro, of whom it is said he is from Venice, preached a sermon about how the lust of women threatens the souls of both women and men, and continuously makes chaos and unleashes havoc on the good order of society. And because he talked about how women give themselves to the Devil because of their lust, I at first thought he knew that I had been throwing salt to the Devil in the kitchen hearth, and was warning me against doing any business with the Devil at all. But as it happened he spoke of witches only a little and instead, almost all of the rest of his sermon, spoke about how women who do not strive to control their terrible lust willfully and scandalously destroy their own homes and the honor of their families. And everyone sitting in the chapel knew then that the priest meant his remarks to be taken to heart by the Signora Messina Vignola. And because the Signora has brought so much trouble and acrimony into this house, making demands on every woman living here, whom she treats as her servants, and complaining constantly, which makes an assault on my ears especially, her room being next to mine, many were the smiles only barely hidden from the priest and Congregation’s scrutiny.

The Signor Dottore Flaminio Segnelli, the lady’s husband, was not among the Congregation members present today at Mass. (But who would choose our chapel for attending Mass, if they had a free say?)

But of course, as became clear to me later, when I heard the matron joking with the portress, whores do not put much store by female lust, since it is the lust of males that benefits their pocketbooks, and female lust, as they believe, though attractive to men when it is simulated, often drives men who are not already lustful away.

And this day Mona Gentile came here, to attend the Signora Messina! Since we had heard that the Congregation had ruled when it permitted the Signora Messina to stay here that it would be forbidden the wives of the members to hold any conversation with her whatsoever, this was surprising indeed! But the president of the Congregation made a special dispensation for the visit, because Mona Gentile is a healer of women’s diseases. To my great joy and gratification, Mona Gentile requested that I assist her, and then she sent away the little Catarina, who has attached herself to the Signora as mud does to the feet, ankles, and fingernails of any who work in the fields.

The Signora Messina suffers from the whites— which is a thick white discharge issuing from her womb, like a continual flow of white flowers. It stains her linen, which has constantly to be changed and washed. The smell, when her skirts are lifted, is strong, not only of the odor that habitually issues from that place, but of something like the stink of hops fermenting. Mona Gentile has made a pessary for her; and because it must be changed often, it means that Mona Gentile will be visiting often, too.

It is good fortune for me— though not for Signora Messina— that her husband has made her to be locked up here. It is an ill wind that blows no good, my father was always saying to my mother.

After Mona Gentile finished attending the Signora, we came into my room— bringing the basin with the water she had used to wash the Signora Messina’s privates. The basin was the one Mona Gentile often uses for far-seeing, especially when its water has been penetrated with vital, potent fluids. Mona Gentile stood in the patch of sunlight streaming in through the unshuttered window, holding this basin. After she had me compose myself, she bade me sign myself with the cross, to draw God’s power into me, and then instructed me to look at the surface of the water only. And there was a shine on the water, which I knew would hold the images I wanted to see, but at first I had trouble concentrating on it only, for I kept seeing traces of the ropy white curds that had been left in the water. But after a little while it was as though the dazzle of the sun had showered gold into my eyes, for the shining surface suddenly rose up, like a liquid, radiant cloud, in the image of Berto! “My love!” I cried out. And Berto’s eyes turned to me, as though he could hear me calling him, then dimmed suddenly and unaccountably. My throat closed when Berto turned his head away, as though he could not bear to see me, and the image vanished, and though my eyes were still a little blinded, when I blinked several times I saw just the basin, half-full of water in which drifted nasty bits of debris.

Mona Gentile assured me that my power to hold the image will grow stronger each time I summon it. I remembered, then, to tell her that I had felt the baby moving in my womb. She expressed joy, and said that she would tell Berto, because she knew it would please him.

When Mona Gentile came today to refresh the Signora Messina’s pessary, she whispered to me that the lady’s husband had been able to persuade the Congregation to keep her here only by promising them an enormous sum of money. She says that the Signora Consolini says that very few members of the Congregation know the reason Signor Segnelli wishes her to be kept here, and that those who know are telling no one, not even their own wives. When I remarked on how much quieter the Signora has become since Mona Gentile began ministering to her, how she no longer screams and screeches the whole day long, how she has even begun to treat Catarina as her special pet, rather than her slave, Mona Gentile said that the whites often turn even the most pleasant of women into raving shrews, for they cause great burning and itching in the private places, and also deprive the sufferer of sleep. The remedy in the pessaries is working, and the whites are lessening more each day. And also, Mona Gentile has been providing the lady with sleeping draughts. Lack of sleep alone makes people irritable and easily vexed, even when they lack the Signora’s other afflictions.

And then Mona Gentile took the opportunity to praise the Signora’s persistence and resolve. “We don’t know what her husband, the fine dottore, who is good only for casting horoscopes and spouting Latin, which do nothing for afflictions like the whites, wishes to accomplish by keeping her here. But by making war against her, he has miscalculated. Men say always, with the utmost confidence, that women lack virtù. But whatever drives that lady, she has more virtù and forza in her than the most relentless condottiere. She is recovering and consolidating her strength now, the Signora. Observe, my Isabetta, that she does not weep, nor pity herself. For that reason, she will prevail.” As Mona Gentile spoke thus, her eyes shone, with that blue fire that makes me feel her words deep inside, where they kindle a blaze within me, that makes me more determined than ever to please her.

“The dottore has never attended a childbed,” Mona Gentile said, scoffing. “Or he would know that the women who successfully bring children into the world require as great strength, determination, and fortitude, as any knight battling a thousand Turks.”

And when Mona Gentile had gone, and I was down again in the courtyard spinning, I went over and over her words, and knew she meant me to take them deep into my heart. And though I had to get up often to visit the privy under the stairs, which is one of the afflictions of pregnancy, my heart sang a proud, fierce song. I, too, will prevail!

This morning the matron discovered me feeding the birds a little of the grain Mona Gentile brings me for that purpose. It was at that very moment, when the birds were descending to me with their great clatter and clack of wings, when I was throwing out the first handful from the knotted bit of cloth in which I keep it, that she screeched at me, “What are you doing, are you crazy?” And she confronted me, as though I were a great malefactor. It was bad enough, she said, that the birds lived in the eaves, and that we had to hear them night and day, cooing and crying and scrabbling about on the roof. It was bad enough that they bothered us from time to time in the courtyard, and made a nuisance of themselves in the kitchen garden. But that I encouraged them to it! That was a sin, and wasting grain that could be used for food, of which we never can get enough in this house!

In my startlement (and if truth be given, with intention), I dropped the cloth so that the grain spilled out all around me, and the birds feasted royally.

After several minutes of scolding, in which I pleaded that even the blessed holy Francis had fed the birds from his own begging bowl, the matron thought to demand of me where I had gotten the grain. Surely, she said, I must have stolen it from the pantry, and how had I done that, when Mona Elissa and the president of the Congregation are the only ones with keys to that place?

If she had asked me that question first, instead of scolding at such length, I would probably not have been quick enough to answer as I did. “Mona Francesca,” I said respectfully, “I got the grain from here.” And I showed her the paving stone lying loose and out of place, beneath which I usually keep my cache.

“And how did it get there?”

I did not answer, only shrugged.

She looked shrewdly at me, and then said that it would serve me right if she made me dig up all the paving stones, in case there was more grain put away there.

I am certain she will not search my room. And since she can’t know why I feed the birds, she cannot threaten to have the Congregation throw me out for it. If the Signora Consolini were not providing so generously for our table, I believe she would have cut my portions, in retaliation, for the imagined theft. “Sometimes saints can be fools, and as wrong as any other sinner!” she said in the rage of the moment. Imagine, a fallen whore passing judgment on such an honored, holy saint!

Somehow, though that old biddy will be watching me with the greatest vigilance, I must find a way to keep feeding the birds. It is not enough that they live in the eaves. They must be trustful of me, and come to my hand when I tempt them. Just as I must keep feeding the fire with salt, to keep the Devil tamely by me, for when I need him. It is not enough, as Mona Gentile says, to wear the caule. One must make one’s preparations, thoroughly, carefully, and with the best order possible.

It being the first new moon since the Midsummer Day, Mona Gentile brought me the wax doll and other items needed to begin preparing the hammer. Most important of these are the hairs she acquired from Berto, and a shirt of his with his blood on it, and a few strands from a hangman’s rope. She said that she arranged for Berto to have a nosebleed while visiting Ser Achille, one so heavy that he soiled his shirt, and could thus be persuaded to part with it. It would have been fine enough to get the shirt, but the blood on it will of course make the hammer that much more powerful. Also, Mona Gentile managed to get a doll with a male member, which is not always possible, since one cannot then claim to be buying the doll to make into an image of a saint, or even Christ.

Oh, such a beautiful shirt, of such fine cotton! I savored the pleasure of burying my head in the cloth still redolent of Berto’s scent, which conjured up memories of pleasure and delight, making it difficult for me to tear strips from the shirt, as I needed to do.

And yet, I recalled to myself very clearly and carefully how Mona Gentile prepared the hammer to bind Signor Paolo and then did everything as she had done, first pounding the paste of blood not yet whitened that I took from my left breast, holy oil, rosemary, dove feather, and the coals I took from the fire that burned in the hearth on Good Friday, then slathering half of it over the doll, around which I wrapped first Berto’s hairs, some strands of the hangman’s rope, and a few of my own pubic hairs, and around all that bloodstained pieces of the shirt, then piercing pins into the doll, both to secure the shirt and to bind the powers. And all the while I repeated the chant Mona Gentile had taught me, using Berto’s name instead of Signor Paolo Suffrageneo’s. And then I made a dough with the rest of the hairs and the paste, and wrapped the shirt around it, in reserve.

And now as I sleep with this doll each night while the moon grows to its fullness, as I stroke and speak to and instruct this doll, more and more of Berto’s spirit will be drawn to it, and my own power over it will grow proportionately. I like lying with it between my breasts. It is as though it draws the swollen tenderness out, into itself. Perhaps it even draws some of the power from the milk that is cooking in them. And I like pressing the remains of that beautiful shirt against my cheek, so that I may breathe in Berto’s essence, all the night long.

I will ask Mona Gentile when I next see her. If she thinks it will draw power from the child, I will not sleep with my little bird there. Flutter and clatter and clack, little bird. You are indeed mine now!

As the moon grows big, I am becoming most attached to my little toy. I feel less lonely, lying with it pressed tight against my breast. But by the holy tears of Jesus, I know it is no substitute for the real thing. It is an instrument, which contains some of Berto, as much of Berto as I can make it hold. It cannot steal my strength, Mona Gentile says, but rather it adds to it. The doll attracts power, and because the doll is mine in creation and possession, the power accrues to me, not to itself, since it is not, properly speaking, an independent entity. If it is stealing power from anyone, that is Berto.

Still, though the doll comforts me, I woke this morning very early, long before lauds, with a terrible fear stalking me, tightening my belly with cramps so overpowering that I feared the birth was coming too early. I remembered my mother speaking to a neighbor, just before my father brought me to the city. She said that “he”— meaning, I think, my father— had decided it was time that Lucia be weaned. And my mother complained that it was too soon, that the baby had only just begun to walk, and that she still could not chew very well. “He wants to get at me again, and then there will be that to go through, yet again, and God alone knows whether I’ll live through it.” And then the women talked about all those they knew who had died in childbed.

Ser Achille’s first two wives both died in childbed. But I am not to think of this at all. When Mona Gentile brought me the doll she said that Berto asked after my health. Now is no time for doubt and despair!

What a timid creature I am, to be sure! Last night, because the moon was full, I had to take my courage in my hands and finish making the hammer. Mona Gentile gave me a draught to put in Mona Elissa’s wine. Thank the Blessed Mary, it worked! Even so, I could hardly breathe for the trepidation causing my legs to tremble and my breath to strangle in my throat. It is one thing to do magic in Mona Gentile’s kitchen, under her direction and auspices, and quite another to do it alone, in a place where I am forbidden by authority to be.

Earlier in the evening, before compline, while it was still light, I went out to the courtyard and softly whistled the birds to me. I was frightened of doing this because some of the shutters facing the courtyard were open. Still, I reminded myself of my determination and did what I needed to do. I chose the bird that looked to me as though it had the bravest, most Berto-like heart, and coaxed it to me with grain, and then imprisoned it in my hands. How frightened it was! More so than I (and for better reason, too). It tried, naturally, to escape, and even pecked my fingers before I managed to close the remainder of Berto’s shirt around it. “Little bird,” I crooned to it as I carried it to my room, held closely, under my skirts, to my swelling belly.

“Dear little bird, be mine.”

(Caro ucellino. . . .)

I waited until the house fell into the depths of sleep. Before I did anything, I made sure that Mona Elissa lay sleeping soundly. (Talk about snoring! It is worse even than her singing, which is already the harshest, most grating sound imaginable.) In the kitchen the coals were still warm enough for me to use the new pot Mona Gentile had purchased “in the name of the Devil” for melting the holy candle bought “for Isabetta’s love of Signor Alberto.” Though the coals had been banked, I kept fearing that the Devil himself might appear, though I had not called him. I think I feared that more than that Mona Elissa would awaken and find me at work. While the wax melted, I removed the heart of the bird, spread it with the dough I had already used on the doll, twined a number of my own pubic hairs around it, then poured the wax over it, to seal it. All the while I chanted the spell Mona Gentile had taught me. And when it was finished, I carried the doll and the heart, now wrapped in the remains of the bloodstained shirt, to my room, and kneeling at my prie-dieu, prayed to the Madonna di San Luca that Berto’s love be strong enough to make him keep his promise to me.

Mona Gentile took the doll away today. She will place it under the high altar of San Petronio, so that thirty-three masses will be said over it. After that she will give it to Angelica, a servant employed by Berto’s father, whom Mona Gentile has bribed. She will secure it within Berto’s bed, where it will be most potent.

Holy Madonna, grant me success!

I am overflowing with a great beauty— which I, having taken into my heart and mind, now take part in its radiance! And this is, indeed, the way of beauty and good, that all that is touched by them reflect them back, as a mirror reflects back light. For several days now— which seem to pass so slowly, as I wait for the hammer to be fully empowered and placed in Berto’s bed— for several days the Signora Messina has begun attending not only compline, but lauds as well, and sits with us when there is shade in the courtyard. Though we are forbidden to speak with her except when absolutely necessary, this is the rule applying to all residents of the house among themselves, and so though the Signora’s magnificence strikes us with a consciousness of our lowliness, her presence does not really disturb us. When she sits with us in the courtyard, she reads, silently, from a book she holds in her lap, while the rest of us spin or sew or weave, and some of us sing hymns or other songs to which the matron can find no objection. The day before yesterday the matron, annoyed by our singing (though I do not understand it, except that I think she believes it is her duty to be sure we are all miserable and sober and gloomy, so that our punishment in being here is as oppressive as possible), requested Signora Messina to read aloud to us from her book. The Signora looked at the matron, lifted one of her very fine, silken brows, and then smiled slightly. “It is in Latin,” she said. “Will anyone understand it if I read it aloud?”

Did the dottore teach her Latin, or choose her as his wife because she had been schooled in it in her father’s house?

The Signora said also, “But if you like, I will read to you tomorrow, from a book in the vernacular.” And I remembered observing when I assisted Mona Gentile in curing the Signora’s whites, that she had a number of books in her possession.

So yesterday morning the Signora opened her book, saying, “This was written by the famous cardinal of Pope Leo X, Pietro Bembo.” And then she read and read and read, even when her throat grew dry and she required water, and in the late afternoon read again, and came to the passage of such great beauty that even thinking about it now makes my eyes fill with tears of joy and pleasure. The subject of the reading was love, of all things (which greatly embarrassed the prostitutes, who profess a great cynicism about love between men and women). “Surely, if our parents had not loved one another, we would not be here or anywhere else,” the Signora read. “Nor, ladies, does love merely bring human beings into existence, but it gives a second life as well— or should I rather call it their principle life— that is the life of virtue, without which it would perhaps be better not to have been born or better to have died at birth.” This is beautiful and wise, but the next part is astonishing! “For men would still be wandering up and down the mountains and the woods, as naked, wild and hairy as the beasts, without roofs or human converse or domestic customs, had love not persuaded them to meet together in a common life. Then abandoning their cries and bending their glad tongues to speech, they came to utter their first words. Little by little, as men lived in this new way, love gathered strength, and with love grew the arts. For the first time fathers knew their own children from those of other men. Villages were newly filled with houses, and cities girt themselves with walls for defense, and laws were made to guard praiseworthy customs. Then friendship, which clearly is a form of love, began to sow its hallowed name through lands already civilized.”

When the Signora finished reading, I begged her to lend me the book, for though I did not say so, I wanted to learn that passage by heart, so that I would always have that beauty within me, forever. The Signora at first looked surprised, then murmured, “But you are Mona Gentile’s apprentice, are you not. Naturally she has taught you to read.”

Because some made sly comments about that beautiful passage, the matron coarsely reminded us that not long ago Don Alessandro preached a sermon to us about the Fall, about how God gave Adam and Eve everything, and for her insatiable curiosity and lust, Eve ruined it all— yes, lust, for why else must we learn shame after her sin, which compelled our first parents to put on fig leaves afterwards.

But we could all see, so clearly before us, the nobility and worth of the Signora Messina, whose hands are as delicate and white as her face, whose collar and coif-cloth, even on this ordinary day, were of fine spotlessly white lace, and whose dress was so exquisitely stitched with bands of silk, her skirts and petticoats so richly full and stiff. And this lady looked utterly calm and unperturbed at Francesca’s aspersions, knowing as she did that such a one could never offer any kind of reproach to her. She responded firmly, yet easily: “Pope Leo X thought highly of Cardinal Bembo, who wrote those words.” And Adriana tittered, and said maybe so, but her first lover, at thirteen, had been the priest she made her confessions to. At which the matron imposed silence on us, so that the Signora was able to resume reading aloud.

Mona Gentile yesterday sent the message by the portress that she earlier told me would indicate that the hammer had been fully empowered and placed under Berto’s bed. And so last night, very late, I undertook the most dangerous part of my mission. I took the sealed heart of the bird wrapped in the remains of Berto’s shirt and lay with it pressed to my breast, and then withdrew my spirit from my body. It frightened me a little, abandoning my body defenseless, knowing that if anyone were to come in and move it that I should perish. All previous times I had done it with Mona Gentile watching over it, as I have done for her. Yet I felt a great exhilaration to find myself flying out into the Via del Galliera, and from thence to the Via Asse and into the house of Berto’s father. It has been so long since I’ve been out of this house, so long since I have seen anything but plain gray walls! Yet suddenly I could go where I wanted, without hindrance, knowing that I would meet only other spirits, that no one embodied could see me! Of course I did not want to meet other spirits, for often they get themselves into mischief, or engage in terrible battle, as the Benandanti, wielding fennel stalks, do against witches. Happily, though, I met no other spirits, and though I enjoyed lingering in the rooms of Berto’s father’s house, which are filled with fine furniture, tapestries, and many books more than Ser Achille himself owns, the desire to see Berto filled me with an urgency to fly to him with all speed and dispatch.

Berto was lying on his side, sleeping. After I made sure the hammer was placed as Mona Gentile had said it would be, I summoned his spirit, which regarded me in great surprise and confusion. Since Berto had been born without the caule, his spirit lacked the power to rise apart from his body, and so was only the faintest bit evident, trapped as it was in flesh.

“My love,” I addressed the spirit, as though it were Berto himself. “You will not remember my visit when you awaken, but you will know, deep within your soul, that I have come to you to urge you to keep your promise to me, to make public your having taken me for your wife. I forbid you to take your flesh to any other, I forbid you any pleasure in your member until you have kept your word to me. A promise is a promise, and no one could make you a better wife than I, who adore and know how to please you, and who will soon be bearing your child. Until you keep your promise to me, you will take no refreshment from your sleep, and will dream only of me, and how you now deny the one you once called wife. Sleep now, Berto. But remember, in the morning, that I am your wife.”

So great was my delight in seeing my beloved that I remained for some time to look on his face and form, which in sleep resemble those of an angel, until I recalled how defenseless my own sleeping body truly was, lying in my bed in the Casa del Soccorso. Today I can think of nothing but how much I would have loved to have stroked his face with my carnal hand, as I could not, visiting him only in the spirit.

But he will come to me, of that I am certain. It cannot be long now!

We are all in an uproar in this house. The president of the Congregation and Don Anselmo and several members, including the Signor Dottore Segnelli, have been here, to question all of us, and to send the matron and portress away altogether! They have named Mona Elissa as the new matron and appointed Silvestra Leli to be portress.

It happened this morning, after breakfast, that the Signora Messina and I were both coming down the stairs at the same time, I carrying my work basket, she three books and a silk, gold thread-embroidered pouch. When we reached the foot of the stairs, she hesitated, and I thought at first she intended to use the privy, but then she said to me that she wished to have a word with the portress. This surprised me, for usually she did not deign to notice that woman. And so I supposed that the Signora intended to bribe her to carry a message outside. Shamelessly I lingered, out of curiosity (though I did not tell the signori that!), to see if Mona Antonia could be bribed. But what happened was this: when the Signora had almost reached the portress’s bench, she dropped her books. While the Signora exclaimed loudly, the portress bent over, to pick them up. And quickly, to my astonishment, the Signora raised the pouch high over her head and then brought it down with great force and violence on the portress’s head! The portress gasped, and collapsed. The Signora then unbarred and unbolted the door, and glancing over her shoulder, saw me standing there, and so called softly to me to escape with her, if I liked!

Oh the tightness in my chest at that moment! Oh the tears choking my throat and prickling my eyelids! The thought of freedom was sweet— but even without a moment’s reflection I knew that the cost would be too high. I would lose everything if I fled, I would lose Berto, I would lose Mona Gentile, I would lose all chance of restoring my honor. If I fled, I would either end up in the Casa della Probazione, or as the meanest whore on the streets— and so far advanced in my pregnancy, too! So I shook my head, to let her know that I would not go. And then the doorway stood empty.

I knelt by Mona Antonia, who was groaning. Her eyelids fluttered, and then opened, and then closed again as a great moan issued from her. I lingered at her side, so as to delay going to the matron, who I knew would set up a great hue and cry.  But when I saw a trickle of blood coming out of Mona Antonia’s nose, I knew that I must get help for her at once, and ceased to delay.

I do not know if they will apprehend the Signora. If she has money and people who will help her despite her husband’s wishes, she will probably escape. Everyone here is both excited and gloomy. It will be dull again here without the Signora’s beauty and finery to lighten our days. And we can all guess that Mona Elissa will be harsh in enforcing her piety on us. Catarina whispered to me as we were entering the chapel for compline that we will be lucky if she doesn’t start making us get up in the middle of night for matins!

I have been so dull, and have been so oppressed with the burden of pregnancy, that I haven’t felt any desire to chatter, much less write in this little book. Mona Gentile says that Berto is suffering greatly— that he seems to be literally wasting away. He has no appetite. A doctor was called and said that he lacked sufficient heat (which he said was probably caused by dissipated living). The doctor bled him, and purged him, and gave him an emetic, and put him on a strict regimen.

Every now and then I send my spirit to Berto, to bid him to keep his promise. How can he be so stubborn? I do not understand it, since to keep his word to me will bring him everything that is good, while resistance is making him ill, and less than a man.

It is sad. But my love will prevail and be justified.

You must decide how far you want to go,” Mona Gentile told me this morning. Angelica, the servant she bribed, came to her, deeply distressed by Berto’s debilitation. She wishes the hammer removed because she thinks Berto may die of it.

These words, when Mona Gentile conveyed them to me, struck terror deep into my heart. Surely he will not die! I said to her, begging her reassurance. But Mona Gentile said, “He has indeed become ill. His spirit is resisting the hammer, and may even resist it unto death. It may be that the love, or even desire, that you wished to bind no longer existed at the time you made the hammer. If there is no love, nor even desire, the spirit cannot be compelled, though it dies resisting your will to bind it.”

Do I wish Berto to die? No, a thousand times no! Though I am sometimes angry at him for having abandoned me, his promised wife, I am a woman, not a man who would rather see his beloved dead than leave him. Unwomanly revenge could never be my way.

And so, Mona Gentile says, I must either decide to release him, or go to the Devil, that he may be inspired with the love that he no longer feels. But if I go to the Devil for such a purpose, it will cost me dearly. It will cost me, no doubt, my soul. For the Devil never performs such arduous feats but for the ultimate price.

I ponder these things. A few months ago, before I began to contemplate the risks of childbed, I might have cast my soul to the winds, to win Berto to me. I can think of nothing more important to me! And yet— when I think of how I may well perish in the struggle to be delivered of this child, I feel fearful for my immortal soul.

Don Tomaso has warned that in the practice of magic one must be careful not to endanger her soul. When I threw the pinch of salt into the fire today, not only the Devil’s eyes, but most of his face manifested itself to my sight. My heart almost failed when I saw it, and I trembled so violently I collapsed right there in the kitchen and had to be assisted by Catarina, who being a silly fearful thing, believed I was beginning my pains. Fear has become my shadow. For I do not know what I will do. I cannot face losing Berto, either to death, or to his indifference. But do I wish to lose my soul to regain him? Alas! I must be the most unhappy woman alive!

If Mona Elissa was a disagreeable old scold before, she is now an insufferable tyrant. Daily she rages at all of us— and lately I’ve become the favorite target of her fury. Yesterday when I nodded over my spindle, she shrieked at me that I should not be sitting about idle, that a “strapping great girl like me” ought to be doing all the hardest work in the house, instead of none at all. And it especially annoys her that I have become so large and clumsy that I need help getting up from my knees in chapel. “Putting on airs, as though noble and delicate blood flows through your veins, when you and I both know your mother worked in the fields through all her pregnancies. You are nothing but a concubine who got herself dismissed for getting pregnant. Idleness is not for such as you!” And though Ser Achille pays the full “extraordinary” board for me, and the Signora Consolini would be angry to hear of it, Mona Elissa persists in trying to put me to work with the residents too poor to pay maintenance. But it’s obvious she hates the Signora Consolini— and since the Signora Messina’s escape has loudly proclaimed that the Congregation put her in charge, that members’ wives have no authority in the house, and that many of them are no better than they should be.

Other examples of her officiousness: last week when Anna and Angela quarreled over whose turn it was to clean out the chamber pots in the dormitory, and not only screamed invectives at one another but began hair-pulling and other sorts of disorderly behavior typical of whores, Mona Elissa went and fetched the cudgel the Congregation gave to the new portress so as to prevent any further escapes, and beat both women about the shoulders and haunches, in a rage at their creating disorder in this house, which she called “honest.”

And then today she came in here to inspect my room, to see that it was “in order.” When she saw the one book that I own, a gift from Don Tomaso, she demanded to know what it was. When I told her it was Il Legendario de Santi, she was suspicious, as though she thought I might be lying to her, and opened it at random and ordered me to read from it. The page she opened to was a description of the martyrdom of Saint Perpetua. Talk about fury! That one, it turns out, was enraged that a book should praise that saint, who Mona Elissa said was a shameful example to all decent women, for having deserted her husband and child and disobeyed her parents for the glory of martyrdom, because she was so full of herself. Clearly Mona Elissa can have no respect for any of the women saints, since no woman, other than Mary, was ever sainted for bearing children and being a good wife and daughter!

And then she saw this little book, and seeing that it had script in it asked me what it was. I said that it was a book Don Tomaso had given me for making observations on my devotional progress. (That is what such little notebooks are usually used for, and since Mona Elissa cannot read, I did not fear my lie being exposed.) Mona Elissa snorted, and said that it was a bad thing, making women too full of their own importance, there being so many women these days writing at their confessors’ request, and taking their souls so seriously, which had previously not been necessary, when simply going to Mass and confession and saying one’s prayers sufficed.

Soon Mona Gentile will come, and I will have to give her my decision. Time is running out— both for Berto, and for me, since my labor will begin any day now. I fear it is not a good thing to send my spirit out from my body when the baby is so active and lively within me. And yet, before I can make my decision, I must speak with Berto’s spirit. I must know why he has spurned me. Perhaps it is because his father has forbidden him, or his mother has made him promise to break his word to me.

I wish for a sign, to tell me what I must do. No method of divination I have tried yet has given me one. I pray that this night will show me the way.

I would not have believed it was possible to be more unhappy than I have been these past months that I have been living in this house. Nor would I ever have believed it possible that the spirit of vengeance and outrage, such as that motivates men to kill their own wives and other men when their honor is threatened, could move me. And yet both these things have come to pass. Oh miserable girl, who thinks now of the Devil, lurking in the hearth, eager to become her lord, though he is such a low, mean creature, who must skulk in out of the way places, such a miserable power who has never had even one altar raised to him, much less a church. . .

The pain in my breast is a coldness, that makes all of my body ache with the most forsaken emptiness. And this though my breasts and womb are full past belief!

I parted my spirit from my body last night and flew to the Via Asse to see Berto. An old woman sat at his bedside, continually replacing wet cloths on his head which, his head whipping constantly about, were again and again dislodged. His breathing was harsh and difficult, full of hoarse cries and whimpers such as I have never heard. His face was pale and wasted, and his eyes, which were open, stared wildly about, without apparently seeing anything. My heart was wrung with pity and remorse for what I had brought on him.

I almost left his bedside then, determined to free him from the power of my hammer. But I could not refrain from speaking to his spirit, certain, as I was, that it would be the last time we met, face to face. So I summoned his spirit, and bidding it speak truthfully— which it could not help but do, since it was obeying my summons— I demanded of him whether any trace of love for me remained in his heart.

The spirit laughed raucously and shrilly, as though untouched by the weakness of the body it inhabits. “Love!” it scoffed. “I set out to give you the trick, and I succeeded. I even made a wager with Rico, that I would. I possessed you for months— and now will even get a child from you! What a fool you were, thinking you could snare the son of a high magistrate with your body, thinking that the man whose mother is the daughter of a long line of noted bankers would throw his family’s magnificent honor away on you, you with generations of mud under your fingernails, your father and his father before him bred like oxen for the fields. You! You are nothing! Nothing!”

(Sei niente! Niente!)

Though my body lay some distance away, it was as though Berto had plunged a knife into my heart. But even more than the pain, I burned with a sudden frigid anger, like a piece of smoking ice within my belly, for never even in my darkest moments had I believed Ser Achille, or the truth of the terrible dream, that my beloved had deliberately set out to give me the trick. Nothing, he called me. And the word reverberated in me, and it seemed to me that I was indeed nothing, a hollow being, whose spirit would blow away now that her heart had been stolen from her.

I do not know what happened then. A kind of red mist obscures my memory, I only remember later, lying in my bed, plotting Berto’s destruction, plotting his father’s destruction, plotting even the destruction of his mother’s so-magnificent kinsmen. The Devil could be summoned, he was nearby. This thought rang through my mind, like a bell that will not be silenced. Like a bell tolling a death. Like the bell of doom.

I dozed a little. Later, during lauds, I thought about the consequences of doing such great business with the Devil. In that little chapel, our Lord Jesus looks pathetic hanging on his cross. And so as I knelt, facing the crucifix, the words of Antonio, the journeyman of the baker in the Via Sarogozza, came to me, arguing that Jesus was too powerless to have been a real lord, or he would not have been crucified, but was just the illegitimate son of a cuckolded carpenter, and that there is no hell, for there is no heaven, because there is only death, and then nothing. And yet— I kept thinking, in argument with myself— the Devil is even less impressive, and commands no respect at all, anywhere. What truly powerful lord lurks about, waiting for even the meanest of servants to summons him, to do business?

The initial fierceness of my rage has cooled, leaving me doubtful that I want to exchange my soul for vengeance. Still, what joy it would bring me to triumph over Berto, to command his every obedience, even if it meant incurring his eternal hatred! I was willing to do anything to please him— and I did— but that for love, for which he now scorns me, as though love were worthless.

Per dio. I wish Mona Gentile had come today. I am tired, and sick, of the tolling of that bell in my head. I could die in childbed tonight, or tomorrow, or the next day. And if I pledge my soul to the devil, I could be in hell before I even saw my vengeance carried out.

By the blessed tears of Jesus, this book of mine is a near ruin. A great storm came in the night and because I had left the shutters open on account of the terrible close heat, the rain poured into the room, soaking my little book, as well as my Legendario de Santi. The printed book is not nearly as soaked, because the leather of its covers protected it; and though some of its pages are damp, and far more costly than the cheap paper of my little book, they will dry unscathed. My little book, though, is a disgrace. The soot I have been using for ink smeared over the pages horribly, blurring my already ugly hand. Even as I write now with such difficulty because of the dampness of the paper, I see my writing as Ser Achille himself would see it: ugly, misshapen, a blur of soot marring what was once good (if cheap) clean paper.

It strikes me, like a sign: if writing is the mirror of the soul, then mine is misshapen and deformed, a veritable blot on Creation.

Love— yes, today, it is on my mind. I was reminded of the passage I learned by heart, read to us by the Signora Messina. To think of it redoubles my pain. We made a child, Berto and I, a child he will own. And yet— what of love? The only love was mine, and that was a delusion, conceived, birthed, and nursed by him.

And still— I feel in my heart, which is otherwise a cold hollow thing, the beauty of the love there described. I am nothing, my love simply derisory, according to Berto. Perhaps. But perhaps, too, it is simply that Berto’s soul is too small, or I wholly unworthy of inspiring love in anyone. Is my soul truly so deformed as this little book now tells me? Is it as good as given to the Devil, whatever I decide? What is the meaning of the sign that this little book has given me? What does it mean that even as I scrawl on these damp pages, the writing blurs into stains and lumps of soot?

And now I write one last time in this book, to make it complete, before burning it in the fire, to make pure what has been vile and ugly.

When Mona Gentile came to me today I related to her all that Berto’s spirit had said to me, and told her how I had thrown the bird’s heart into the kitchen fire and released Berto from the hammer. Mona Gentile then embraced me as tenderly as I have ever known her to do and kissed my cheeks many times, saying that she was gratified, and happy at my decision. Her eyes became bright, and shone with emotion, and even filled with tears of wonderful sincerity. I was surprised, because she had never said that releasing Berto would please her, and asked her why she hadn’t. “There are some lessons that cannot be taught, but only learned through experience,” she said. “Many are the women who become so possessed by the desire to be desired, that they lose the whole world in their effort to achieve it. There is nothing to be done for those so possessed. Nothing else can matter to them, and indeed the world is lost to them. You have learned now for yourself that sometimes our spells to bind have the effect of binding us, who cast them, just as closely and relentlessly as those we seek to bind. Magic is strong and powerful. And now we know that you are strong enough and powerful enough to become a master of it.”

And though my heart did not cease to be bitterly grieved and bruised, yet Mona Gentile’s rejoicing, and her teaching me a lesson I had not known I was learning, filled up the emptiness that Berto’s spirit had hollowed out when he said that I was nothing.

I am ready to become a healer, Mona Gentile says. And there is nothing more powerful that any woman can be, except for queens and consorts of dukes and princes. That is, I know, true. Only what of love, I wonder? What of the great thing called love which has civilized man?

When I asked Mona Gentile, she smiled, and patted my hand, and said “Child, this is not a question for a girl of seventeen years to ask. Be patient. And perhaps, when you are twice your years, you will be able to tell me.”

And so goodbye, little book, goodbye. Our time together is over.


The Apprenticeship of Isabetta di Pietro Cavazzi appears in L. Timmel Duchamp's critically acclaimed Love's Body, Dancing in Time, published by
Aqueduct Press.
Read some reviews



L. Timmel Duchamp has been publishing short fiction in Asimov's Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and numerous other magazines and anthologies since 1989. She has been a finalist for the Sturgeon, Sidewise, and Nebula awards and has been short-listed several times for the James Tiptree, Jr. Memorial Award. She is the author of a collection of short fiction, Love's Body, Dancing in Time (2004), a novel, Alanya to Alanya (2005), and The Grand Conversation: Essays (2004). A selection of her fiction and essays can be found at her website.

She will be teaching at the Clarion West Writers Workshop in July 2005.

Read advance praise for L. Timmel Duchamp's new novel,
Alanya to Alanya

Read the first chapter of Alanya to Alanya
L. Timmel Duchamp can be contacted at
ltimmel (at)

The virtuous medlar circle

is part of
Anna Tambour and Others

"The Apprenticeship of Isabetta di Pietro Cavazzi" copyright © 2004-2005 by L. Timmel Duchamp, first appeared in Love's Body, Dencing in Time, 
published by Aqueduct Press 2004
This short story appears here with thanks to L. Timmel Duchamp, whose payment was less than a brass razoo.
This story is part of a series of invited pieces by people I find deliciously inspiring, always a hoot, and who write like a bletted medlar tastes. A.T.
The Virtuous Medlar Circle © 2005