A Death and a Beginning (excerpt)


No one heard Bianca as she moved on her stocking feet to the sickroom where her mother lay dying. She’d practiced walking through her aunts’ palace like a cat, softly, silently. Cats had a good sense of smell, too, and of chemical changes in the air, maybe even of disease. The same way the woody fragrance of the artemisia root she’d been simmering for hours told her what the broth she’d created could do.

Yesterday her aunts had forced Bianca out of the room before she could give her mother the steeping cure. Tonight, she had made herself wait until the clock struck three, then four, before slipping down to the cellar where the women in her family had made alchemic recipes using teas for generations. Once there, Bianca had removed her shoes, leaving the door ajar so it wouldn’t click, placing the copper pot on the iron ring over the fire without making a sound. After adding some of her mother’s wormwood extracts, she crept upstairs. Now, she slid around a corner into the dark hallway, finding her way by pressing a palm against the cold frescoed walls. Her other hand clutched the cup that held her brew. Her aunts mustn’t see the light of a tallow candle or smell its burning fat. If they caught her, they’d stop her. A sickroom is no place for a girl of ten. You’re underfoot, Bianca. A priest was poking his nose in here again. If he sees you and your ‘cures…’

Bianca was closer to being able to cure malaria with her herbs than the aunties had ever been. Her mother had taught her to see the rhythms of plants growing and creating seeds, writing their biographies in the shape and curl of the leaves that opened and closed each day. This herb, artemisia in the deep fall and just at the start of flowering, was the most expressive of all. And it had gestured to her. The bitter roots were the medicine her mother needed. Mama had shown the aunties, too, but they didn’t believe her, or they didn’t care.

Mama practiced science, testing ideas and writing about new cures in her notes. Mama had good ideas about how the plants interacted with each other, and how she could extract their healing substances, one by one, with her new alembic. But she’d gotten sick, and no one would help Mama with her ideas except Bianca. According to the aunties, distilling extracts was men’s work, an insult to the remedies they’d been making for generations. The aunties followed recipes, but didn’t understand the chemistry behind them. Mama did. They’d want to become scientists too, once they saw what Bianca’s cure could do.

Pausing outside her mother’s door, Bianca cracked it open, wide enough for a cat to slip through. The room smelled of acid vomit. Her mother lay in the bed, unmoving, her breathing ragged. Almost all the thick dark hair was gone from her head and shadows made caves of her closed eyes. Bianca set the brew on a small table by the bed so she could raise her mother up on the pillows. Her skin was hot to the touch. When Bianca lifted the bitter broth to her swollen lips, her mother groaned. Was she trying to say her daughter’s name? Bianca hardly breathed. Her mother’s eyelids flickered.

The door behind Bianca slammed open.

No time to hide, let alone run. Bianca’s aunt burst into the room. Just a few years older than Bianca’s mother, she was tall and had the same dark hair. But never had her mother looked this furious. In two strides she reached Bianca, swiping the cup out of her hand. Warm liquid splashed onto the bed and stone floor. “What are you doing, stupid girl?”

Bianca curled her hand into a fist around the root in her pocket, all that was left from her night’s efforts. The woody plant bit into her skin. Good. Its strong oaky fragrance would help her focus. She tried to make her face hard. Her aunts’ were like stone, from years of fighting with each other. Was her mother the only kind one? Maybe they wanted her to die?

Her aunt didn’t wait for Bianca to answer. “So, we’re playing with roots again? What damage have you done now?” 

Bianca shook her head. “I wasn’t hurting her.” Which was more than the aunties could say. Their purges and sulfur poultices that had made her Mama bald left her pale and shaking. But Bianca bit her tongue. “I just thought…” No, she knew. She knew what she was doing because her mama had shown her.

Mama was going to use artemisia to end the heat disease.

Your aunties are clever. Never doubt that, Mama had told her. But they are only as clever as every woman who’s come before them. Anything they see as new is a threat. That’s why they won’t use artemisia extracts the way I do. Someday I’ll take you to Florence and we can learn from the alchemists there how to distill the herbs, separating out their purest essence. For we do what we can with what we have. Mama hadn’t settled on a cure yet, but she said she was close, and close was better than the aunties’ treatments. If her aunties couldn’t see that, they weren’t clever at all.

“You thought?” Her aunt stiffened. “You’re ten, Bianca. Too young to think anything.” The slap hit her on the cheek and Bianca tumbled sideways, her forehead cracking against the wet flagstone floor. The cold stone numbed the pain until Bianca sat up. Whimpering, she pressed her hands to her head. But it was no more than she deserved. She’d gotten caught again, without any hope of getting the tea to her mother. Dabbing the corner of her eye, Bianca blinked back a tear. Couldn’t her aunt hear her mother gasping? Bianca got to her feet, swaying. Mama’s breathing was too fast. She needed Bianca.

“This is not a game, girl.” Her aunt’s fingers gripped her elbow. “You challenge us?”

“My mother would, if she wasn’t sick.” Bianca tugged her sleeve out of her aunt’s bony grasp. She shot a glance at the few sticky black hairs matted together along the side of her mother’s head, and the many sores from the smelly, stinging poultices. “Mama was making a cure. A cure that saves lives. She gave it to the gardener’s son, remember? And he got better…”

Her aunt followed Bianca’s gaze, moving her eyes from her niece to her sick sister. “That boy was barely ill. And what about the man last month? She treated him and he died.” With one arm, she pulled Bianca toward her. “Listen, when your mother was still coherent, she welcomed our treatments. She begged us—not some child—to save her.”

Bianca lifted her chin, “Auntie, no—”

Her aunt touched a cold finger to Bianca’s face. “There, there—golden hair, fair skin, but such an empty look on your face. I can’t see why she entrusted any cure to you, pretty girl.” She brushed Bianca’s cheek with her palm. “She spoiled you, too.”

 Jerking her head away from her aunt, Bianca fell back a step. “Mama loves me whether I’m pretty or not.” The words spilled out of her mouth. Mama had told her to ignore the men who sometimes stared at her on the street, but she couldn’t ignore her cousins, who’d stopped wanting to be seen with her because they said she made them look ugly. “I don’t care about pretty. Once I’m a scientist, I’m going to cut off all my hair.”

 “Hmm. I don’t suppose you can do anything about your face.” Her aunt shook her head. “And I assume that charmed artemisia spilled on the ground was supposed to reverse your mother’s disease?”

Her mother’s breaths were getting quicker. Bianca’s own chest grew tight. “Yes. Artemisia will save her. I’ve brewed the roots as strong as I could, with Mama’s extracts in it.” She swallowed. Her mouth had gone dry. “Mama said it has to be pure.”

“Pure?” Her aunt’s eyes narrowed. “We Cortese blend ingredients that heal, recipes passed down over generations. Over centuries.”

“There’s a different way, Auntie. Mama knows how to use alchemy to unlock the secrets of one plant at a time. Mixing so many teas the way you do weakens the medicine. Strong extracts with the wormwood teas helps the body to heal itself. And so—”

“A different way?” Her aunt leaned in close, her voice a hiss. “Meaning ‘better?’ Better than what we here have studied since the Cortese name graced Venice’s streets?” They stood inches apart, her aunt’s moist breath warm on Bianca’s face. “All this talk of ‘purity.’ That’s a man’s alchemy of metals. Men separate. Women blend.” She stepped back, but spoke again before Bianca could draw a breath. “Listen to me: strong gets noticed. When we make a little noise, we’re seen, then we’re vulnerable. You may be young but you can’t pretend you don’t know what people called her.” She tilted her head toward the woman in the bed. “I know you think Pellegrina had a cure for malaria, and you wanted to use it to save her. But Bianca, you know nothing. People were afraid of your mother and her ideas. If you use her spells to save her, they’ll say the devil brought her back. We must heal her in the ways we’ve used for centuries. If this disease takes her now, after all our treatments, at least she doesn’t burn at the stake. Have you thought of that? We don’t need the alchemy of men, their costly equipment, their forges and distilleries. We have our methods. We work in our own ways.” 

Had her aunt’s chin and cheekbones always jutted so sharply, or had meanness shaped her face? Bianca met her gaze just for a moment, those eyes gray like Mama’s, but so much colder. “What you’re doing isn’t helping, Auntie.” 

“Your mother still lives, doesn’t she?” Barely, Bianca wanted to say. “I suppose next you think you’re going to uncover some laboratory to work in—like your mother?” Her aunt snorted. “To share our recipes with outsiders? Give away our secrets? Studying side by side with men?”

Surely that would be better than keeping silent, or keeping secrets that revealed nothing about cures. Her aunts’ recipes were odd combinations of things, more superstition than anything else. Bianca dug her hand into her pocket, her fingers catching on the scratchy root.

 “Why not just run away to Florence and be done with it?” Bianca’s aunt folded her arms. “Whore yourself out to one of those Medici. Men of science, but what kind of genius needs fancy equipment to create a cure? They call themselves alchemists, with their laboratories and charts of the night stars, but none of them have cured anything, have they?  Men build themselves big workspaces like the Florentine Medici have so the world will think they’re doing something, and your mother, she was always just like them, with her studio in that annex in your father’s palace. Bored of the old ways that actually work. Afraid she’d fail if she followed in our own mother’s footsteps. And she taught you the same. Well, let me save you some time and heartache, Bianca. You’ll fail. We would have taught you here, but you insist on going your own way. Your mother is ours, and there is nothing for you to do. If I catch you in this room again, your father will hear of it. He’ll lock you up in that big house of his, Bianca, and we won’t plead for your release—certainly your mother won’t.”

 Bianca bit her lip. She tasted blood.

Her chest heaving, Bianca’s mother otherwise lay still in the bed. The aunties couldn’t save her. And the puddled tea that might have helped her now stained the bedsheets. It would take Bianca days to make another brew. And even if she could… Your father will hear of it. She couldn’t come back. But how could she leave? 

 “Go.” Her aunt placed her hands on Bianca’s shoulders, forcing her forward step by step until she stumbled out into the hall. The door slammed in Bianca’s face.

“No, please.” She beat on the heavy wood until her hands throbbed. “Open the door.” What if her mother called out and Bianca wasn’t there? And her aunt ignored it? She pressed her ear against the door. Silence.

There hadn’t been silence in that sickroom for days, not since the fluid had entered her mother’s lungs. Something was wrong.

Bianca ran to the stairwell and then up the stairs, up further, into the stuffy attic, through the piles of stale-smelling books and musty canisters. Carefully she climbed out the window onto the dark, narrow ledge, following it step by step. Soon she was peering down into her mother’s room. A crack in the bleached window boards of a small window showed her aunt bent over her mother’s bed. Bianca pounded on the boards, each blow becoming fainter as her hand began to swell. Her aunt’s shoulders stiffened, but she never turned around. Instead she took a cotton flannel and covered her sister’s face. The image before her blurred. Bianca’s eyes stung. Grabbing the artemisia from her pocket, she shredded the failed root till the last earthy flake fell from her fingers.

She had nothing.

Bianca stood rigid in the last place she’d ever stand in a world where her mother had lived. Move, and Mama’s death would be real. Bianca would leave here half an orphan, in a city where the sickness already had killed so many. How did this happen? Her mother knew things, her mother could have cured the heat disease, in time. But she hadn’t been given time, not even another day. She’d been given Bianca, and Bianca hadn’t saved her. No one had.

The reddening sky lit the glass in the window. Bianca remained still. The sun’s reflection caught in one of the frames, brightening the hazy morning. With the back of her hand, she wiped away a tear. It didn’t matter what her aunts said about men’s work or her mother’s brews. The aunties had let Mama die, but Bianca would finish what her mother had begun. Walking back along the ledge, she shook her fist at the brightening sky. She’d find a cure. Her aunties couldn’t stop her, nor her father. Nothing could.

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