s t o r y 

c y n t h i a  t e d e s c o 



hat night, between courses of fine Bolognese cuisine, Lella and I played in the kitchen of her family’s restaurant, running in and out, through the swinging oak doors. All I remember when the doors swung open that last time was Cook’s horrified face, and water, boiling water endlessly pouring over me out of the big, black cauldron Cook and his assistants were carrying from the hearth.

As I lay waiting in his arms for the car to be brought around to take me to the hospital, I thought, “I must tell Cook not to worry, I don’t feel any pain, none at all,” but I could not catch my breath to form the words.

My mother screamed at the doctors. My father held her back, keeping her red-painted nails from scratching the black-bearded faces of the white-coated doctors.

She yelled, “Life is hard enough for a woman with two legs, even if she is beautiful! Imagine having only one! I’d rather have a dead daughter than a daughter with one leg, she will live or she will die with her two legs!”

“Yes Mama, please Mama, don’t let them cut off my leg!” I cried.

My parents took me to our home, which was on the grounds of the minimal security prison of Bologna where my father served as warden. I knew then I was dying.

“Please Mama come to Heaven with me, don’t make me go all alone,” I implored.

My mother said she would come. To prove she really meant to make the journey with me she took out her suitcase and before my eyes she packed a sweater; a skirt, her lace night-gown, her best pearls, and I reminded her to bring the amber comb set so I could brush her beautiful hair as I always do.

Yesterday, before going to the restaurant, we visited Mt. Rosa at Varalla Sesia in the Navarra Province. Mama took me to see the Stations of the Cross. Poor Jesus. How I wept for Him in His stone robes.

Now as I toss and turn in bed, I dream terra cotta wings flutter over my cities of Bologna, London and the Borough of Queens. Three Angels come for me. Their robes are of alabaster with coral tips at the outskirts of their feathers. They shine so luminously that I bow my head before them. One of the Angels holds a cup just like the one Jesus took. It’s gold with studs of amethyst embedded in its curves. The Angel who holds the cup begs me to drink from it, but I’m afraid and do not drink. I have insulted Him, and oh I’m so ashamed! Yet this Angel approaches me and gently pushes the bangs away from my eyes. I can tell He is warning me. I see a spiral of light. I feel a great warmth emanating from Him when suddenly all is absorbed into the vortex of my dream. The Chalice once full, is now empty, and is drained with or without me.

I tell Mama about the Angels and the Chalice but it is her warrior’s hands I see before me keeping me safe and whole.

My parents decide to send for Alemanno, my father’s most trusted and favorite prisoner, to keep me company. The hours become days and my fever rises. Papa can no longer stay away from his duties at the Prison. My mother can no longer resist the urge to fall asleep. Her body is so very swollen with that pesky baby brother yet to come.

Alemanno tells me that he has been in the prison so long that he and no one else can remember his crime. When Papa offered him an “Official Prison Pardon,” Alemanno said he refused. Laughing and with a wink of an eye, he said he’s too old for such drastic changes, that his world had vanished.

“So they think the prison’s garden can make do without me! So they think the prison’s cook actually orders the groceries! So they think the laundress will iron if I’m not around to tell her what to do!” Alemanno certainly grumbles a lot.

Yet for now, Alemanno makes dolls of great beauty out of bread for me. He makes flowers: roses. The prisoners are not allowed any knives or scissors or paint-brushes so he must wet red tissue paper and rub the finger-molded dough forms with the run-off dye. I play with my bread-dolls and wear the flowers strung up as necklaces about my neck. Alemanno does all that I ask as I order him around relentlessly.

Though talented in telling fortunes and interpreting dreams, Alemanno refuses to read my palm or cards. My tea-leaves hold no interest for him. My death is final; until one day while playing with my dolls during my long hours of dying, Alemanno whispers into my ear, “A very important visitor is going to come here soon. Be a good girl and do not boss me around in his presence. Pretend I am a Government Official as grand as your own Papa. You will have to call me Rabbi Alemanno, and the visitor, Rabbi Patista. Or if you wish, and I would prefer you do so, you can call your visitor ‘Great-grandpapa’.”

“Is he my real Great-grandpapa?” I ask wide-eyed, “and if he is, where is my Grandfather?”

Alemanno, I mean Rabbi Alemanno, tells me, “It is no use trying to understand the ways of the grown-old heart.” He uses words like, “Sitting Shiva” and says, “Your Papa’s dead to Rabbi Patista because your Papa’s father married out of his faith, married a girl of a different religion.”

I ask, “What exactly is faith and why are there so many religions?”

Rabbi Alemanno says, “Faith is the one way to trust and love G-d.”

“Why is there only one way?” There are many more questions I want to ask but I am becoming exhausted. Rabbi Alemanno seems to read my mind and tells me, “You must not worry about that which is a pure gift.”

I hear noise. I hear greetings. I hear my parents crying and laughing. I hear a much deeper voice. It is muffled but strangely familiar. I hear many feet running up the marble staircase as they approach my room. I can no longer sit up in bed for the fever will not break and as it rises and rises my scalded leg begins to fester as the surgeons swore it would.

Great-grandpapa now sits beside me wearing a long black coat and a small, black, round cap upon his head. A basket of figs is next to him and he begins to eat them. I see a white light glow from the center of his forehead. The light grows brighter with each bite of fig he takes until my room is totally engulfed in white light. My parents sit near my cherrywood canopied bed. Above the bed is a chandelier, its crystals chiming to what my mother assures me are the loud eruptions of near-by Mt. Rosa. My bed moves as a ship at sea. No one pays any attention to the chandelier keeping time to the voices of my new Great-grandpapa, Rabbi Patista, and Rabbi Alemanno who are chanting “The Story of the Golems” to me.

All the bread dolls Rabbi Alemanno made when he was “Alemanno” are now on the floor in a circle. As the Rabbis begin to chant once again, my parents stand and join them in the circle. Amazed, I see them all dance around the dolls, moving and whirling faster and faster until there is a pause and I can see them again. Then faster and faster they whirl, madly, in the other direction. I hear a chorus of voices chanting what Great-grandpapa says are The Sacred Combinations to create An Influx of Wisdom that will grow with the speed of The Dance.

Great-grandpapa opens a suitcase and removes a silk sack of Pure Virgin Soil and a Vial of Living Water. He sprinkles both earth and water over my dolls. They dance again and when they’ve circled the dolls seven times, the dolls glow red as burning coals and the voices grow louder while The Dance creates a wind so strong it raises the Doll-Golems to their feet.

Great-grandpapa orders me to say, “And G-d blew the soul of life into his nostrils and man became a living thing.”

Rabbi Alemanno tells me, “Do not be afraid. You must do and say what Rabbi Patista commands.”

But I am terrified and I do not speak. Rabbi Alemanno lifts me into his arms and turns and whirls, slowly whispering each word. He waits for me to whisper back to him. We turn. We turn in circles as I say the great words from Genesis. My dolls stand before me breathing as living men and women.

They bow to Great-grandpapa and to Rabbi Alemanno who tells the Golems – once dolls – “Go and bring back the fruit from the Garden of the Ancient Two Trees. It must be the one that will cure this child.” Into each Golem’s mouth he places a tiny scroll of paper with the secret name of G-d written on it. The Golems vanish.

My mother is on her knees with her rosary beads, carved from walnut shells, in her hands. My breath is fast and shallow. My flat little chest is covered with the crocheted blanket that the nuns of San Genesius made for my family.

The Golems return dragging bushels and bushels of cabbages. Great-grandpapa tells Mama to undress me and leaf by leaf they all help to make a poultice of cabbage leaves to place on my scalded leg. The cabbage leaves begin to cook from the heat of my burning body. The room fills with the odor of cooked cabbage and meat. When the leaves wilt they remove them, replacing each one. The cabbage leaves lie on the floor like a wreath of daisies, pure white with a bright yellow center of my flesh and pus. All night the Rabbis, the Golems, and my parents work on my leg.

In my delirium I see my three children: Daniel, Edward and Charles emerge from the future like photo negatives or delayed echoes that hover in ether. They shout at me and demand, “Mother you must not die, you must live, do not fail those who love you from what is yet to be!” Their bodies were as transparent as the nuns’ embroidery lit by the candles of the chandelier.

In the morning when I awaken I find my leg does not pain me. My fever is gone along with the Golems and Great-grandpapa. I can stand and move about freely. I creep silently out of bed without waking my parents or Rabbi Alemanno. They are asleep and scattered around the room like gigantic unstrung puppets. From the suitcase beside my bed I take out and put on my mother’s lace nightgown, her white sweater and brown skirt. I slip her pearls over my head.

Silently I tip-toe out of my bedroom in my bare feet, holding the hems of the nightgown and skirt above my knees so I do not trip. Passing through the corridors of the Villa I make my way to the front door. Once outside I run, still gripping my mother’s hems, to the prison’s kitchen because I am hungry and want to show off my grownup clothes.

The kitchen staff weeps when they see me. Everyone hugs and kisses each other. I sit on the lap of the chief cook. Biscuits and espresso are served to all.

“She has experienced a great miracle because of her father’s goodness,” one cook whispers. Another speaks of the terrible bombing that took place this past week during my illness. Still another says, “Few know her parents are secretly protecting our Italian Jews and Resistance Workers within the walls of the Prison.” I am confused by all I hear but I remember every word. When I finish eating the biscuits I slip off the lap of the chief cook. The staff is so busy talking amongst themselves that I manage to hoist the hems up and quietly slip away unobserved.

I run back to our house, still alert to the danger of letting go of Mama’s skirts. To the side of the front door, on the branches of a lilac bush, a rosary and the small round black silk cap I saw Great-grandpapa wear glimmer in the morning sun with more life than the purple blossoms. I put the rosary around my neck along with the pearls. On my head I place the black cap. Quietly I sneak back to my room. I remove the cap and rosary and hide them in the lining of the suitcase.

Hoping to wake up my parents and Rabbi Alemanno I begin to speak in a loud voice, pretending to read from the Book of the Golems, which Great-grandpapa had also left behind.

When they arise, they find me standing on my two legs atop the closed suitcase beside my bed, wearing my mother’s clothes.

Rabbi Alemanno points to the suitcase upon which I stand. I step off. Mama undresses me and puts me back into my own nightgown and robe. Into the suitcase go my mother’s beautiful clothes and her pearls. My parents are silent. Even I am silent.

Papa nods his head to Rabbi Alemanno who takes the huge Book, the vial of Living Water, the silk sack of Virgin Soil, and puts them into the suitcase as well. He closes the suitcase with reverence. He turns to me and lifts me up and onto my bed. He gently pulls the covers over me.

“We will never speak of this to a living soul. Do you understand what a promise is?” Unsure, I nod my head as Papa did. “You must swear before G-d who hears and sees all we do that you will never break our silence.” I did not know of what I should or should not speak, for what is a secret and what is a promise? I am thinking of what I overheard in the kitchen and I tell my parents and Rabbi Alemanno what I remember. My father leaves the bedroom, running. Mama has her hands over her mouth to stifle a scream. Rabbi Alemanno puts the suitcase down and goes to cradle and comfort her. I sit in my bed watching them rock back and forth in each others arms.

My father finally returns. His face is pale and sweating but he is smiling. “All is well, the others are waiting,” he says softly as he opens the suitcase and puts several small rectangles of gold along with many papers and a small stone into it. Words are whispered: blackmarket, ghetto, safety, passports, borders, prison, cornerstone and the name of a ship, The Rose of the Sea.

Rabbi Alemanno stands up and retrieves the suitcase. He kisses my mother and hugs my father. He pulls himself up to full height and turns to me. At that moment he appears a giant of a man. I tremble as he points his finger at me, “Remember what happened! Always remember what happened to you here!” Then he put the suitcase down, swept me out of my bed into his arms, and we held fast to one another, not willing to let go, but having to let go. Several months later my father told me The Rose of the Sea safely reached England. “Silence Papa!” I whispered.

© Cynthia Tedesco



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