After a short spell of extremely cold weather and even a few days with snow, early spring settles in, unusually rainy and drab.
Rowan is getting annoyingly conscious of his own importance, even succeeding in bothering Ellen who decides it is finally time to move on. Rowan is going to “scuola materna”, pre-school, anyway, and doesn’t need her around as much as before.
Shasta has her own problems. She is worried about being pregnant for the third time. She has to tell Leonardo about her condition, but she is not sure about how he will react to another child. Especially as they had mutely decided on one child only after her perilous pregnancy. She almost died, after all.
She paces the bedroom, throwing glances at the little white paper bag on the bed. What if she isn’t pregnant? Maybe she is just nervous and stressed out. That would explain why she is overdue… She snatches up the bag and heads for the bathroom. Better be certain…
She follows the instructions and poses the pregnancy test on the brink of the sink for the required minutes. Then she returns to her pacing in the bedroom, now throwing furtive glances at the alarm on the bedside table. After the requested amount of time she heads back into the master bathroom and picks it up.
There are two distinct pink ribbons on the little display.
She stares at it, willing the faint lines to go away. Suddenly she jumps with nerves at the sound of a motorcycle approaching. She quickly throws the test in the bin and hurries downstairs.
‘Ellen! Don’t forget you must pick Rowan up after school! James, don’t let her-’
When Ellen hears the sound of her boyfriend’s powerful motorcycle she hurries to beat the Butler to the door. She quickly steps outside and into the warm embrace of Gabriele who fumbles behind him to place his helmet on the seat.
‘Mi sei mancato, tesoro.’
‘I’ve missed you, too,’ she says a little out of breath.
Ellen is engaged to Gabriele, the handsome pizzaiolo, and they are planning to get married sometime in the future. Gabriele has decided to try his luck overseas and has been pestering her to come with him. She has already handed in her resignation, but Shasta has not mentioned it and it worries her. So she has asked Gabriele to help her out, knowing her employer has a soft spot for the handsome chef.
Shasta stops in the living room and smoothes out her perfectly fitted Etro dress. The door is closed but she can see Ellen in Gabriele’s arms through the window. She hesitates, not because she is feeling guilty about watching them, but because she wants to look perfect when she opens the door.
A few moments later Shasta is sitting dumbstruck in one of the lowslung designer sofas, facing Ellen and Gabriele.
‘I’m sorry, I didn’t quite get that.’ Shasta frowns.
‘She wants to-‘
‘I’d like to-‘
‘Mi dispiace, carina. Go ahead.’ Gabriele squeezes Ellen’s hand in encouragement.
She clears her throat. ‘I just wanted to ask, as I leave this Friday, I’d-‘
‘Leave?’ Shasta blinks, trying to stay calm in front of such insolence. ‘But you can’t just leave like that. Not now! Not when-‘ She stops abruptly. She can’t tell them about her pregnancy yet. Not before she has talked it over with Leonardo. Anyway, she is sure there are procedures that protect the employers from their employees running out on them.
Ellen speaks up again, holding on tight to Gabriele’s hand. ‘But I’m not just leaving, Contessa. I have already sent a letter-‘
Ellen has expected something like this, Shasta has often acted in bad faith and she knew her employer wouldn’t let her go easily. ‘I have the receipt. You received it a month ago.’
Shasta puckers at her skirt. She vaguely recalls signing a recorded delivery their butler brought her, but hadn’t thought twice about it since. When she saw it was from Ellen she had thrown it away, thining it was a demand for a raise. ‘But what about Rowan?’ she tries.
‘He is at school every day, now. He doesn’t need me around full time.’
‘We could keep you on a half-time basis, but that would mean half the actual salary, too.’
‘Signorina Di Grisogno – Contessa,’ Gabriele leans forward and looks at Shasta with smoldering dark eyes. ‘We are not asking for your autorizzazione. I am leaving on Sunday for America and Ellen is coming with me. Ci stiamo sposando – we are getting married on Saturday, a little ceremony nella chiesa del villaggio – the village church, and we would be happy if you cared to join us. Si?’
Ellen insists on Shasta coming with her to pick Rowan up, just to make sure she knows where it is. The rest of the afternoon is spent at the beauty parlor, having her nails and toenails done. Shasta is exhausted when she gets back and promptly falls asleep in an armchair over the last Marie-Claire magazine.
When she wakes up it is dark outside. She checks her watch. Leonardo should be home already. But at the same time she knows that he is not. If he had found her asleep in the boudoir, he would have woken her up for some playtime. She stretches and walks into to master bathroom where she quickly freshens up before going downstairs. She stops at the entrance of the dining room, admiring her decorating skills. The old stone walls contrast nicely with the square, modern mahogany table that easily seats eight people. The brown iron chairs from a bankrupt restaurant are assorted to the huge handmade chandelier, the false candles reflecting the warm color of the thick mustard carpet. Huge terracotta pots in light blue contrast nicely with the earth colors of the rest of the room. She has decided against curtains, letting the light into the old room unobstructed. The only drawback is the ugly head of a wild boar mounted on the wall. It is a trophy from when Leonardo used to hunt and he obstinately refuses to let her move it somewhere more appropriate. Like the attic.
She checks the table setting, again. It is still perfect. What is taking Leonardo so long? He should have been back long ago. What if he has had an accident? Or what if he’s with a new mistress? His assistant would not hesitate…
The butler has put a bouquet of fresh calla lilies in a high vase and the subtle perfume tickles her nose.
‘James!’ she calls, an annoying tinge to her voice.
James comes hurrying as fast as he can without losing his composure.
‘You know perfectly well that I am allergic to Calla lilies, James. And still you have brought a whole bouquet of the wretched flowers,’ she says accusingly.
‘But I have cut off the pistils, Contessa. They are not supposed to harm you now.’
‘Hmpff…’ She starts on a litany of complaints, but Leonardo’s voice stops her in midsentence.
‘What is the problem, cara mia?’
‘Nothing, darling.’ She accepts his chaste kiss on the cheek. ‘You are late? Traffic again?’
‘Amongst other things. What about you? Have you had an interesting day? Something worth telling me over dinner?’ He pulls out her chair waiting for her to take a seat.
She looks away. It’s now or never. ‘Thank you. No, my day has been rather uneventful.’ She’ll wait until dessert to announce Ellen’s departure. And then she will tell him about her condition. Or maybe she will talk about Ellen afterwards…
Leonardo chats about his day but Shasta doesn’t really listen. She fiddles absentmindedly with the silverware while wondering how to best announce her pregnancy. And Ellen’s imminent departure.
‘I will have to go on a short business trip this week… Maybe you should come with me?’
She blinks in consternation. What did he say now again? ‘Err… Where to?’
‘I didn’t know we had business so far north?’ she says, a little puzzled.
‘We have. Trust me, we have…’ He reaches out and puts his hand over hers.
Shasta breathes in a little sharply, and tries to calm down. Maybe she should wait a few days to tell him. It will be perfect in Lombardy, wherever that is. She leans her chin seductively against her hand and asks Leonardo to tell her more.
Leonardo looks at her reflectively, as if he is about to say something but is weighing the pros and cons. Little does Shasta know about a dark pact from long ago.
Neither does she know what Leonardo found next to the waste basket in the master bathroom when he freshened up.
Since their return from Lombardy, Shasta has recurrent nightmares about dark demons, human sacrifices and witches burnt at the stake. The main event is always her own sacrifice. She is lying naked on the cold surface of a stone altar, surrounded by thirteen chanting warlocks in dark monk habits. She tries to make out their traits in the flickering light of the torches but their faces are not only obscured by hoods, but also by black masks.
The High Priest approaches. Dressed in red she recognizes her husband. He mutters something in Latin, but in her drugged state she can’t make out the words. With a soft rustle the circle divides and she can see someone, something, approaching. Leathery wings flap and what she though were dry branches on a dead tree are sharp horns. Red eyes glimmer in the midst of darkness blacker than the night. A dark demon has raised from the underground, pagan symbols written in blood all over his body.
Shasta fights to wake up, but she can’t move. Terrified she shivers and passes out… only to wake up trembling in a cold sweat, the cold and fright still tangible. And she is unusually hungry.
Her constant nausea is accompanied by strange cravings. She consumes her meat almost raw – something she had always abhorred – and she discovers how tasty goat milk is. She wakes up in the middle of the night, her stomach churning with hunger, and is unable to resist preparing a consistent snack.
The nightmares and late night binging on strange food tire her, and she, who has never taken a voluntary siesta, sleeps for hours every afternoon.
When she finally tells Leonardo about her pregnancy, he withdraws from her, moving out from their shared bedroom. She is somewhat relieved to finally sleep alone, but his cool distant manners make her uneasy. His reaction, or rather his lack thereof, astonishes her. He doesn’t get angry as she had first dreaded. Nor does he seem overjoyed.
She surprises him looking at her when he thinks she doesn’t see it. He has a thoughtful glint in his eyes and a strange look on his face, a mixture of sadness and regret.
He must conduct his business, though, and discreetly asks their butler to keep an eye on her when he’s away.
Shasta spends her time in their spacious mansion reading and watching TV. She is bored and decides to have a look in her husband’s drawer to see if she can find any trace of him having a mistress.
Hmm… What is this? Hidden under neatly folded underwear, she finds a book. “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Shasta sits down and starts reading, getting more and more upset as she turns the pages…
“… human fat, especially of non-baptized children, is used to make an unguent that enables the witches to fly…”
She closes the book with trembling hands.
She has too much time to think during her uneventful day. She tries to remember details of her dream, knowing they must be of significance as the same things are happening over and over again. Like a warning. A circle of stones in a dark wood faintly lit by flickering torches. The thirteen warlocks. The slab of stone acting as an altar. Her total exposure to the dreadful thing about to happen to her…
But what dreadful thing?
She can feel the terror seize her chest in a tight claw, making her heart race and her breathing shallow and labored at the sight of the sordid shape materializing out of the darkness and-.
And nothing. She can’t recall anything else. She rubs her temples, desperately trying to remember what happened, but the dream escapes her, evaporating into nothingness. Is it a reminder of an earlier life? A warning about the future? Or worse – a reminder of something that has happened to her, recently. In San Colombano al Lambro.
And now the book. What if Leonardo will use the baby to make him fly? The thought of it makes her nauseous, again.
She tries to fight the nausea by thinking of something else. She decides she has to ask her husband about the book. Or at least tell him about her nightmares. Just to get his opinion. She thinks about their few days in Lombardy. The never ending vineyards, the boring, but excellent, business dinners.
The thought of food gets her on her feet in a haste. She runs to the nearest bathroom and falls on her knees in front of the toilet, her body shaken by spasms as she empties what is left in her stomach. She hugs the cool porcelain, gasping for air. She can’t remember having been so sick when she was pregnant with Rowan. Nor with Taïga, for that matter. But every pregnancy is different, yada yada.
The nausea overcomes her at all times without warning, and it effectively stops her from going about her usual business with her friends. It feels safer to stay at home, in the reassuring vicinity of the bathroom.
She returns to the den where she turns on the big flat screen TV and slumps down next to their grey Persan cat, Egon, who is sleeping peacefully on the rich golden brocade of the antique sofa. He immediately starts purring as she distractedly pets him. James is discreetly mopping the floor, humming to himself. She throws him an irritated glance and marks her point by raising the sound with the remote.
Another consequence of her nightmares, and what she considers her memory loss, is a growing feeling of being watched. Their butler, James, seems to be in her vicinity at all times, even more than he is obliged to by his functions. She starts to think it is Leonardo who keeps her from having a social life. Maybe he doesn’t want anyone to notice that she is pregnant. Then he can take the baby as soon as it is born and… and…
She shakes her head, willing the unwelcome thoughts away.
The only place she feels safe from prying eyes is in the bathroom. After throwing up, she runs a hot bath and after adding some fragrant bath salts, she applies nourishing oils to her hair and drapes a towel around her head.
What is happening to her? She looks at her still slender body in the mirror. Is that a baby bump? Already? She passes her hand over her almost flat stomach and sighs. She will soon be swollen and misshapen. God, how she hates what a baby does to her perfect body…
She dozes off in the hot bath, but is awakened by Rowan hammering on the door.
‘Mamma! Come out! It’s starting!’
Shasta straightens in her bath, raking sweet smelling bubbles from her arms. ‘I’ll be right down. Give me five minutes.’
She can hear her son’s retreating steps, and she sinks down again into the warm embrace of her bath. Watching the kid programs every night is so boring, but apparently Ellen used to do it, so now she has to.
A half hour later she is installed downstairs in one of the designer sofas, reading a fashion magazine. But she can’t concentrate on the article about some actress or other who had bought a fantastic old mansion in Normandy only to see it burn down a few weeks later.
Rowan comes barging in, barefoot and dressed in his favorite blue pajamas.
‘Mom, you missed it!’ he says with reproach in his voice. ‘But I can tell you all about what happened!’ He doesn’t wait for her answer but throws himself into a vivid summary of the episode.
Shasta stifles a yawn trying to look interested. She scrutinizes her not so perfect nails, wondering if she will feel well enough to venture to the beauty parlor tomorrow and have the color changed.
Rowan is an intelligent little boy, and he immediately notices his mother’s disinterest.
‘You don’t even listen,’ he bursts out accusingly.
‘Did not. You never listen to me. Ellen said so!’
‘Well, maybe it was time for Ellen to leave – before she had the time to turn you against your own mother,’ Shasta replies, getting up from the couch. It is time to put her tiresome son to bed.
‘How do I know you’re really my mother?’
What now? Shasta stares at her son. She has heard somewhere most children ask that question sometime.
‘Maybe it was Ellen! She was so much kinder and funnier to be with! I want her back!’
‘Rowan! Of course I’m your mother. I carried you in my womb just like I do now, with the baby.’ She touches her flat stomach, suddenly regretting the way she announced her pregnancy to him. ‘And Ellen is in America with that pizzaiolo of hers, probably starting a family of her own,’ she says, hoping to steer the conversation away from the hot topic.
‘The baby?’ He looks at her with unbelief written all over his face.
‘Err… yes. A little sister. Probably,’ she says hesitantly.
‘Luca is going to have a little brother.’ He looks accusingly at her.
‘But it could be a little brother, too. Of course.’ She adds, hoping to see a smile on his face.
‘I don’t believe you. Luca’s mother is huge, like she will explode one of these days.’
Shasta chuckles, ‘The baby stays in the womb for nine months. It’s just tiny like a little pea at first.’
‘So you’ll be huge, too. And explode? Will it hurt much?’
‘Err… Not exactly explode-’ She is saved from explaining by Rowan interrupting.
‘Can he hear me? Does he have ears? I have never seen a pea with ears.’
‘His ears are so tiny, but if you approach he might hear you. And it is not exactly a pea, it is just tiny like a pea. Or a bean.’
Rowan approaches. ‘Hi there! I’m your brother, Rowan!’ Then he looks up at her with a worried frown. ‘What if he doesn’t speak English? Maybe he only speaks Italian?’
‘I think he will speak both, just like you.’
‘Cool.’ He scratches his head. ‘Do think he heard me?’
‘I’m sure he did.’
‘I didn’t hear him answer.’
‘He can’t speak yet.’
‘Why not? He has a mouth, hasn’t he?’
‘It’s because it must be so tiny his voice is tiny, too.’ Abruptly he leans close, gluing his ear to her belly.
Shasta takes his hands to try to wrench free before he totally ruins her dress, but it is Rowan who backs off with a strangled sound.
Involuntarily she takes a step backwards, gasping at the sight of her son.
Something happened to him when he touched her belly and he stands in front of her as if in a trance, his eyes rolling backwards into his head.
‘Rowan! What’s happening!?! Talk to me! ROWAN!’
Shasta doesn’t know what to do. She backs off from her son, who suddenly scares her, right into her husband’s arms. Rowan turns on his heels and flees.
‘Cosa sta succedendo? What’s going on? Did you argue again?’
He holds her close to his chest, his left hand lightly on her still flat belly and his right caressing her shoulder. She shudders against her will. He always seems to creep up on her nowadays. As if he were spying on her.
‘What did you say to him?’
Shasta doesn’t answer. She watches her son run towards his room, the door closing behind him with a loud crash.
‘Did you tell him about the bambino?’
‘No! He was upset because I didn’t watch the kiddie program with him.’
‘Bene. I don’t think he is ready to know about the bambino just yet. Lui è così sensibile – he is so sensitive. And we mustn’t forget what he is.’
Shasta nods in agreement, thankful that he can’t see the culpability written on her face. Rowan was initiated a warlock as a baby and that heightens his senses. So what happened to him when he touched her stomach? Is there something wrong with the baby?
‘Maybe it is best if we find a new nanny as soon as possible. So you don’t have to tire yourself with him…’ Leonardo continues, but Shasta doesn’t listen anymore. Her mind races and she doesn’t like where it takes her. Images of the demon, warlocks and her naked self, flash before her eyes and she almost passes out when she realizes what must have happened to her.
‘Careful… I will call my good friend Dr. Dilorenzo for an appointment to make sure your pregnancy advances as it should. Maybe you need some special vitamins…’ Leonardo kisses her shoulder. ‘Now you must think about your health and continue doing as you’re told…’
Part I – End of Chapter 53