The scent of the holy oil hung heavy in the air, sickeningly sweet. Chiara watched as her mother’s lips, eyes, ears and forehead were anointed, listened to the mumbled prayers, the weak responses. Her heart ached.
"You were right to send for me." Father Adamo Bianchi, ministrations complete, turned to his youngest sibling. "She doesn’t have long."
Chiara lifted adoring eyes to her brother’s face. It had been many years since she had seen him. "I wasn’t sure you would get the message. I wasn’t sure where you were."
There was an uneasy moment. Chiara waited to see if it would be priest or brother who would respond. A stiff arm wrapped momentarily around Chiara’s shoulder, then dropped away – it was the priest in the room. "I have been summoned back here to see the Holy Father. He wishes me to be here now, in Rome."
A shudder of fear ran up her spine. "Here? Now?" He answered with a shrug. Chiara struggled to control her pounding heart, but fear was fast taking control.
Adamo looked back to his mother, frail, pale, wracked with coughs and rattling lungs. He worked the inside of his cheek, chewing it slowly. The subtle reaction did much to comfort his sister; there was still some of her brother in there, buried beneath the holy robes.
At the mention of their sister’s name, Chiara’s heart again began to race. Adamo had finally returned home; it was too early to get into the situation with Livia. She could lie about their in-between sister, but it was ingrained in Chiara that lying was wrong. Lying to a priest, even if he was your brother, was a sure trip to the gates of hell. "She knows. She will get here when she can."
Adamo’s head tilted slightly. He turned, watched with interest as Chiara felt beads of perspiration break on her forehead. Chiara knew her heart read like an open book to this man; that fact would never change. She thought for a fleeting moment that perhaps it was pity in his eyes. "Our mother is dying, has not even hours to live, and her own daughter is too busy to be here? I can’t imagine what could possibly detain her at a moment like this. What could be so important that she cannot see to this one last gift to the woman who gave her life, raised her, nourished her?"
"I... I don’t..."
"Be careful, Little One, lest your soul be damned to hell for lying to a man of God." They were the words of both priest and brother, but the sparkle in his eye was indeed the brother she had grown up with. "You have her confidence, and you wish not to betray it. That’s admirable, Chiara, but I sense in your reaction that she might be in some trouble. An oath asked to conceal wrong is not an oath to be trusted." His hands were on Chiara’s shoulders. He pulled her close in a tight hug. "You have done more than enough already for your family. You have been here for our Mother in her time of need. You always were here for her, and for us. I feel the burden placed on your shoulders by your sister is too heavy. Let me share it. You can trust me." He squeezed tighter.
Months of worry, of fretting, pacing, thinking, ebbed together in a rush of tears, a long overdue release of emotions. The man holding her – could he be trusted? Was he a Bianchi or a priest? The scale tipped towards Bianchi. She had to trust him. "She is with His Holiness. She was summoned to see him."
The hug released as Adamo’s arms dropped. "She is with the Holy Father?"
"And this does not alarm you?"
Chiara nodded again, then shrugged. "The first time, it did. Now, it petrifies me."
Chiara was awakened by the door, the light footsteps, the rustling of Livia’s cape. She opened her eyes. There was no noise coming from their mother’s bed. She turned to look at it, saw Adamo kneeling, his prayers now interrupted by the arrival.
Adamo climbed off his knees, turning a stern face to his sister. "You often come in at this hour of the morning? Your dying mother wasn’t cause enough for you to be here, to comfort her and your little sister? You could not sit vigil here with the rest of us?"
Livia hung her cape on the peg at the door. She sighed before turning around to face her family. "I would have been here if I could." She marched towards the bed, sat on the edge and picked up her mother’s hand. "Now isn’t the time, Adamo."
"Oh, now you have a keen grasp of what time it is, do you? Isn’t that convenient?"
Tears welled in Chiara’s eyes. She rubbed her neck, stiff from falling asleep in the chair, then cradled her head. "Enough. Both of you stop it. Our mother deserves better than this." She looked again at the bed, felt the choke in her throat at the realization her mother was gone. A look out the window was nothing more than a means of searching for time to collect her thoughts. It was only four in the morning, the sky black, moonless, adding to the heartbreak.
Livia ignored Chiara. She stood, moved closer to Adamo. "And just where the hell have you been for the last three years? Where were you when she was sick, needed comforting, needed tending? You weren’t here to hold her hand when she cried out for you, asked about you, prayed for you to come home. Don’t you dare pull that sanctimonious tripe on me."
Chiara watched as her brother’s fingers curled into tight fists, as he worked his cheek even more.
Pulling up the hood of his cloak, he turned towards the door. "I will go out and make the necessary arrangements." He scrutinized Livia once more. "Perhaps you will see fit to find something more appropriate to wear in honor of the memory of your mother." He did not wait for a response.
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