Excerpt from The Mandrake Broom
Luccia Alimenti, an old woman oozing so much grief that her legs were too sodden to stand, lay stretched out on a promontory over an ocean cliff. She gripped the precipice that crumbled in her gnarled hands, her sharp nose filling with the smell of salt water and kelp, the wind slapping her face in mockery over the sea's possession of her lover laying broken on the rocks below. His body rolled in the waves, a hand catching on kelp and twisting him sideways, a foot lodging among the rocks and dancing him rudely, then the bulk of him rolling back as the tide played with him, as if he weren't Paracelsus, the great chemist, the father of modern pharmaceuticals, the man who had learned medicine from her, who had watched her hands spark and light and invent within the glow of their togetherness. The water tossed him as if he were a bag of unwanted cats, and his sword, carried here from Asia and kept by his side at all times, secret container of a secret campaign, was just another twig tossed aside by a tree that had many. Two books were lodged under her belly, secreted like a miser facing down a cutpurse. Books of simple mysteries involving honest leaves, barks, roots; books that had enlisted entire armies to burn them, a fitful struggle to save them, and Luccia Alimenti to divide her life between the eras in which she copied them, hid them, fought for them, tossed them like seeds in the wind. This is a story of smuggling and flight, of women who slipped through a net of death and lived to rise again. Who are rising still, slow triumph at great cost. This is Luccia's story, the tale of a hero in very troubled times.
Salerno, Italy, 1465
With a gentle, lemony sun on her shoulders and her own skirts too short to make a sound, Luccia hurried to cross the piazza after her mother and the glory of her noisy skirts as Giovanna strode ahead to catch up with a friend. Fiona, a wild-haired Irish woman, hurried across the square to meet Giovanna, letting her walking stick thud insistently on the stones and her cape flare out, displaying its deep blue lining. The women met without speaking, and Giovanna studied Fiona's eyes for some good news, but sighed over the anger on Fiona's face and looked back for her daughter. Fiona put her walking stick under her arm and tried to smooth her hair into its knot. Fiona had a new gash on her arm and Giovanna reached for it, letting herbs in a flat basket she was carrying slip unnoticed onto the flagstones. Luccia gathered them as she approached -- chamomile, St. John's Wort and tansy -- clasped them like a bouquet in her fist, feeling their oils dampening her hand, their aroma filling her nostrils, and she crushed all but the tansy between her fingers, rubbed the heads of their flowers together until they coalesced into a gel that shone in the citrus sun. Luccia, nine years old and lanky for her age, threw her shoulders back and smeared the salve on Fiona's arm. The women turned to Luccia, surprised. Her mother opened the girl's fist, inspected the basket, the stems that lay abandoned at her feet.
"How'd she know?" Fiona asked incredulously, her thick Irish brogue like birds on Sunday.
"More to the point, how did it gel without boiling?" Giovanna asked quietly.
"They know," Luccia said firmly.
"Who knows?" Fiona questioned.
"The plants," Luccia said incredulously, "knew they were needed."
Giovanna brightened with pride, standing tall behind her daughter and putting her hands on the girl's shoulders, but Fiona scoffed, looked stealthily around them, then turned the clan by their shoulders and marched them quickly out of the square, leaving the scraps of the herbs on the cobblestones. As a priest crossed their path, Giovanna and Fiona averted their eyes and Luccia was gathered deeper into the folds of her mother's melodic skirt.
Luccia stomped across the square with irritation. Neither Fiona, nor even her mother, understood what she was saying; they thought herbs and plants were just objects that were at the beck and call of the healer, but Luccia knew it was the other way around. Plants had will. They communicated. They didn't just grow together in each other's shadow by mistake, they chose each other to build community, they spoke on the wind, the breeze. They signaled their compatibility through color and smell. The plants in her mother's basket had made it clear that they had cast out the tansy and they knew a salve was needed. They knew.
She knew. Not because she had heard Fiona's discomfort from across the square. Even when she was inches away from Fiona's arm with the salve in the palm of her hand, she didn't hear the pain of the torn skin. She heard the plants working together toward the salve. She had heard the cry of the rejected tansy, just as now that they were nearing their home, she heard the contented murmur of the moss growing thick and lazy on the fountain.
Fiona shut the door to their building as if they'd reached shore.
Luccia and her mother lived for a thin sinew of rosemary smoke, the aroma of hawthorn in the sun, the thick warm smell of marigolds being boiled for ointment. They were fleeting smells that caught Luccia as she walked around a corner, a thread of smoke that escaped out a window and quickly disappeared, experiments that wafted through a doorframe as a woman slipped out with the smoke clinging to her skirts. Everywhere Luccia walked she smelled the ardent labor of people trying to unlock the mysteries of the herb. Next to shops filled with ropes and pulleys, buckets and nets for the ships, were windows filled with herbs drying upside down in little bouquets -- Irish moss, witch hazel, stinging nettle, valerian, pellitory of the wall, comfrey, angelica, chervil. Barks were piled on the shelves, roots sent her their odor of rich dirt, twigs held their last clinging leaves, and -- sitting in baskets prepared by the shopkeeper -- hop pillows and vinegars for the bath. Bottles of blue liquid shimmered in front of her, and inside glass jars pickled animals showed their protruding teeth and their claws. Buckets of fetid smelling ooze made her hide her nose inside her sleeve while she studied the bird's nests and pickled eggs, vines that looked like nightmare spiders, the drying ears of unknown animals, little vials with tiny corks wrapped in tissue paper scratched with unknown languages. She was a little girl in a town of big smells, using her nose to navigate, too young to see the countertop, but listening to the scraping sound of the mortar and pestle, the hiss of powders being poured into little linen bags.
Herbs and the ocean, they defined Luccia's Salerno, and as she walked with her hand safe within her mother's, comforted by the rustle of Giovanna's skirts, Luccia's mother recited the names of the plants they passed, each cluster in the window, each aroma that found them.
The herbs became street markers to Luccia, since one narrow, twisting street housed the school for studies of the skin and the marigold and garlic to treat it. Winding away from the piazza in the lane behind the church was the avenue of the scholars of the bone smelling of comfrey and eggshells. The alley that held the butcher shop gave off an iron stench of blood, rosemary and dill.
Fiona, however, kept her eyes on Luccia's safety, then hit upon a special plan that would direct the young girl's life. In this age, it made sense to teach a girl the finer points of stealth. Luccia's tactic would be to belong through invisibility, to be safe by not being seen.
After Giovanna had gone off to the classroom to teach, Fiona gave Luccia a small vial and told her to hide it on herself, to go through the city and deliver it to one of Fiona's friends, undetected. A secret game, she told Luccia. Luccia hid it in her waistband and encountered Fiona's friends along the way who tried to ferret out the object. When she returned home without her package being found, Luccia was given hot buns, and the sugar on her teeth was the taste of Fiona's pride.
"You're a good little shadow, my sweet," Fiona said, drawing Luccia to her.
Small leather pouches, tiny vials, bits of paper -- Luccia learned to hide them in her hair, in her shoes. She became adept at disguises, developed a keen ability to disappear through the back alleys, the hidden portals, the empty barrels big enough to hide in, the ways to double-back and vanish. To drop the item, elude the imaginary interceptor, then return, collect and deliver. Fiona told stories of the complexity of Luccia's plans and her friends laughed with her as they pulled up the girl's collars and dug into her pockets, tried to guess the treasure's whereabouts, applauded her skill. A wily messenger was a valuable asset.
Fiona's friends trusted Luccia with money, and without Giovanna's or Fiona's knowledge, women asked her to ferry opiates for child-births that would land them on the pyre if found. Even in tolerant Salerno, pain killers were suspicious items, and more than one midwife had been apprehended and burnt when they ventured outside of town with opiates in their pockets.
The items grew larger as Luccia's skill increased, until she could run through the city in a summer slip, concealing a book in her clothes. She was a shape-shifter, an amorphous person, dressed like a boy, or a farmer with stinking bales. In a gunny-sack shawl and a filthy face, she moved about the city, now ten years old but walking stooped like an old man, delivering multiple bundles in an increasingly complex web of pick-ups, deliveries, triple-switch backs and evasion. Hot buns. Sweets. Smiling women with grateful hands.
One hot summer day later that year, Fiona gave her a wooden box to carry that was wider than her chest and very heavy. Luccia was hot, thirsty, and sick of the game so she hastily wrapped it in a shawl to pretend to be lumbering through the city with a baby. She was half way to her destination when Fiona pulled her by the arm into a dark corner of a lane that smelled of dead mice and melon rinds.
"Don't be fooled by the fun, child," she hissed into Luccia's face. "You must develop a shield, little girl, a haystack to hide behind." Her whisper was like an icy cold spring pouring into Luccia's ears. "It's dangerous times for women like us, lil' girl and I want you ta know how to keep yourself safe. Your mother and me, we'll be there as much as we can but sometimes... the world is big, Luccia, and there's no opportunity to let down y'r guard. Remember: at nine and a half you're old enough to be burned as a witch."