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Dure Amour

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Naturally my first instinct, afterward, was to burn his diary, out of respect and affection. Not toward Spiridion Trepka, the young Signor Professore – he was a fool, as all men are – but for the lady, my poor lady, who was as maligned by his besotted imaginings as by history. But history, of course, is written by men.

This is why I saved it from the flames. This is why, when you told me of the stories you planned to write, I decided to show it to you. There it is on the desk; the very journal in which he wrote. History may be written by men, but perhaps our sex may have an influence as well. In that diary is the truth as he saw it, and I shall tell you the truth as I knew it. The story I hope you will write, Signorina Autrice, will contain a little of both.

It was the Professore's obsession with Medea da Carpi that changed everything, though he did not speak of it to us. We were only the aged maiden sisters of his landlord, women of no consequence. We washed his linens and put food on the table before him, and if he had matters to discuss, he discussed them with our brother, not with us.

Yet I, at least, listened. I had learned long ago, as the youngest of many children, that it was always to my benefit to listen. And so I paid attention to his bantering with my brother his landlord, and I heard his conversation with the son of the Vice-Prefect, and I noted the ridiculous verses he sang sotto voce as he worked on his research. Medea, mia dea – I wanted to laugh at him, and at the same time I wanted to twine my fingers around his throat and choke him until the words came to a standstill.

For Medea was mine. She was me.

It had begun in September, shortly after the Professore came to stay with us. I woke in the night, disoriented, with strands of dream-memories fluttering in my head like the thinnest of gauze window-curtains, so that for a moment I was not sure what was real and what had been dream. It was a hot late-summer's night, with only a breath of breeze coming across the dry hillsides, carrying the scent of basil and ripening olives. And yet for a moment I thought I smelled lavender, and springtime, and the sharp tang of blood; I shook my head, and the phantom scent was gone.

But echoes of the dream remained. I had been in a castle, in a room with rushes on the stone floors and tapestries on the walls, and a single window looking out upon green fields which I knew, somehow, were far from my home. A handsome youth entered the room. He wore a fine white linen shirt under a waistcoat of embroidered damask, and he smiled broadly as he pulled me into an embrace.

In the waking world I should have been delighted, for I have never in my own life been embraced by any young man, handsome or no. But I had forgotten that I was Sora Adalgisa, stooped and wrinkled. In my dream I was young and beautiful, and I knew this man, knew him and disliked him, and his advances were unwelcome. I struggled; I fought. I bit him and he laughed.

"Do not treat your poor husband in such a manner, my lady," he admonished me as I twisted away from him.

"I am no man's wife! Certainly not yours!"

"You wound me, my lady. As surely as if you plunged a dagger into my heart, you wound me." He took his dagger from his belt and held it before his own breast. "You would not cut out the heart from your dear Giovanfrancesco, would you? This heart that loves you above all things?"

"I would," I declared, and set my own hand over his, on the dagger's hilt, just as he reached for me with his other hand and pulled me toward him again. Unbalanced, I fell against him, clutching at his hand, at his dagger, at his shoulders as we staggered to the floor.

He groaned in my ear, a strange and liquid sound. Suddenly frightened, I fought free of the tangle of his embrace and climbed to my feet, looked down at my would-be lover, my "dear Giovanfrancesco." Red flowers had blossomed on his white linen shirt.

His lips formed a word, a soundless whisper. His eyes sought mine, blinked, then went empty. I gasped, dropping the dagger I had not realized I was holding from fingers that were as red as his shirt, red with his blood. And I woke, smelling lavender and death, stifling a cry.

My sisters grumbled and shifted in our bed. "Go back to sleep," muttered Lodovica. "And try not to snore so loudly."

"I do not –"

"Sssht," came her sharp whisper, and she rolled away from me, burying her face into her pillow.

I tried to hold on to the fragments of my dream, to the edges of the fluttering gauze curtains, but the more I tried to recall them, the more they crumbled to dust, and eventually I slept again. If I dreamed of anything else, I forgot it before waking.

I might have forgotten this dream of Giovanfrancesco, had it not been for another dream that came to me a few weeks later. Another castle; another handsome young man. This one's clothes were not as fine, and he threw himself at my feet rather than into my arms. "I have done it, my lady, as you wished."

I frowned down at him. "As I wished?"

"You said that you were unhappy, my lady. That you could not bear his attentions." He looked up at me slyly. "That he was an old man, and you needed younger blood."

It was true, I thought. I had been unfairly shackled. And I had seen the way this groom looked at me when he thought I wasn't looking; when he knew my husband the Duke wasn't looking. I had known this groom was listening when I mused aloud on my fate and my condition. But deliberately I formed my mouth into an O of surprise before backing away, stumbling, pushing his hands from where they clutched at my skirts.

"You lie! Cesare, Antonio, he lies! Stop his mouth so he will tell no more lies about me!" I turned away, rushed to the window to look out, closed my ears to the cries and horrible wet noises behind me. Once before, I remembered, I escaped a room such as this by climbing out the window. But the ground was so far below, and suddenly I was frightened. How could I escape carrying my dear infant son, who slept quietly in his cradle despite the hubbub? I looked down at my hands where they gripped the sill. The veins stood out from my skin; they were the hands of an old woman. I was an old woman. I was too old to think of climbing out a window! It was hard enough to carry the basket of linens from the upper rooms down to the courtyard for washing. But I had done it before…. I blinked my eyes, and woke in my bed. Lodovica and Serafina snored on.

September gave way to October. The dreams faded from my thoughts. The blue of the sky turned deeper as the air turned cooler, and I laid the fires in the rooms earlier each evening. One afternoon, I was in the young Signore Professore's room – it is this same one, Signorina, this very room in which you stay now – and my eye fell upon the papers which lay scattered on his desk, on the leather-bound journal which lay open, his bold handwriting looping across the page.

Where discover nowadays (I confess she haunts me) another Medea da Carpi?

And the dreams came back to me, in a sudden rush of beating wings as though they were a flock of clamoring birds. They had been only dimly-remembered and hazy recollections, like the memories of my girlhood, seen from a great distance through a smudged and dirty window. But at that moment, seeing her name written by the hand of one she held in thrall, I knew them for what they were. I knew that I, too, was haunted by Medea da Carpi.

I was not surprised to dream of her again that night. And the next, and the next. Every night I closed my old-woman eyes in my wrinkled old-woman face, and in my dreams I was Medea, young and beautiful. A succession of dreams, a succession of strong and handsome men, all vying to serve me, to love me. All but Robert of Montemurlo, who sent my sweet son away, took my husband's Duchy, and had me put to death.

I woke gasping and crying from that last nightmare, my hands flying to my neck where I still felt the silken cord. Her body had been broken then, but her soul had remained. And it thirsted for revenge.

The young Professore's ardor fed her tethered soul, giving it power. That power she used to reach out to me, so that I might help to ensnare him further.

Who do you think was the woman who stopped to listen, when he sang her praises by this very window? Who was it that wrote the letter telling him to visit the Church of San Giovanni Decollato? Who was the lady in the church wearing an embroidered red dress under a black mantle, carrying a blood-red rose?

It is true that I am old now, and that even in the dimmest, kindest lights I could not be mistaken for a beauty. But my lady had enough beauty for many women, and for her purposes she gave, on occasion, a small portion to me. After all, beauty is the weapon of our sex. For Medea da Carpi, born into a world which favored men even more than it does now, it was her only weapon. During her short lifetime she honed it, and used it well against the men who would enslave her body and crush her soul.

If I had been young and strong, I could have wreaked the revenge she sought. I would have opened the bronze statue and destroyed the silver effigy, releasing Duke Robert's soul to answer for the crimes he committed against my lady. I would have loved her; I would have helped her, alone. But the days when I was young are long past. So I let her use me as her instrument, to help her prevail.

I entered the church as she bade me. Hers was not a voice in my ear but a knowledge in my heart, solemn and sure, and so I put my hand on the disused door and it swung open for me. My hair was bound as usual under its black veil, my dress the black I always wear – that you see me wearing now. Its hem dragged through the dust and the cobwebs.

And yet for one moment I saw the Church of San Giovanni Decollato through the eyes of the boy Professore, as it must have been in her day: gleaming with polished wood and jewels winking on every velvet breast. The brilliant candles on every surface filled the church with light that dazzled the eye. I could not help but look down to see the fresh blossom held in my firm, unlined hand. An illusion of life, a false image.

Medea da Carpi could create these illusions from her power and the desire for revenge which ran hot in her like blood. She could not create a rose that the boy could hold in his hand, or write a letter in ink on parchment he could unfold. But she could turn a dead flower taken from a dusty store-room to a perfumed, crimson bloom in midwinter, and put words for him to read on the blank page I dropped on the church steps. And she guided the knife, taken from the kitchen and held in my outstretched hand, as I opened the door of this chamber just after midnight on Christmas Eve.

I felt her power, and I did her bidding. And I was not afraid; no, what I felt was pride. You see, until my lady spoke to me, I too had believed what had been written, what had been told to me and to my sisters when we were children. We had heard tales of Medea da Carpi, the conniving one, the cursed one, who wielded her beauty like a sword to cut down those who might stand in her way. We were made to feel ashamed for what she had done, though our old grandmother grudgingly admitted: "But as you have not inherited her great beauty, my poor children, it is possible that you have also not inherited her great capacity for evil, and will be obedient girls and kind women, and perhaps, one day, dutiful wives."

Yes, inherited. Did I not tell you that my mother's mother's father was descended from Bartolommeo Orsini, the child Medea bore from her marriage to Pierluigi, the duke of Stimigliano? Ah, my mistake, Signorina Autrice, perhaps I did not.

But you understand, now, why I am telling you this; why I have shown you the Professore's diary. You asked for ghost stories, to amuse your English friends. Well, here is a ghost, that of my infamous many-times-great-grandmama. You must tell her story to the world!