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  • Writer's pictureSusan Russo Anderson

Barco’s Circus

Updated: Aug 21, 2021

Serafina Florio is the main character of my historical mystery series. She lives in Sicily in the nineteenth century. She’s a widow with seven children. She’s a midwife. And she’s a sleuth with the mind of a wizard.

Her first mystery begins in 1866. I chose to start her stories that year because Serafina was at a point of no return in her life.

In 1865 the year before Death of a Serpent begins, she lost her mother, her aunts and uncles, her sisters, her cousins, in a devastating epidemic of cholera that swept her town killing half the population in a day. Two months later, her husband died suddenly. (While Serafina’s town is fictitious, it reflects Sicily in the nineteenth century where there were several waves of cholera in the 1860s.)

Serafina says of her state of mind then, “I entered that flat, dead landscape we call grief.”

After her pain lifts somewhat, she has a choice—she can either sit back or fight. In the end, she chooses to fight. It’s her hallmark—she never gives up. She remains committed to supporting her children, committed to her quest for justice.

That doesn’t mean she’s perfect, not by a long chalk. She doesn’t want me to use the word faults, says it’s too judgmental, and I agree. But she does have unique mannerisms. For instance, she eats olives and cookies at the same time, stuffing her mouth with them. Her curls frizz the moment there’s a hint of rain. Her toes are usually cold, even in her climate where it’s hot enough to fry snakes on the streets.

As far as peccadillos go, many times Serafina’s first response during a conversation is to try to control, especially if she doesn’t like or understand the general drift. In other words, she’s afraid of being left behind. And she’s got a healthy jealous streak, although most of the time she doesn’t admit it. At one point she calls Inspector Colonna, “a no nothing lout.”

Life wasn’t easy for Serafina. In Sicily, the times were horrendous. It was a society barely functioning. So, in Death of a Serpent, in addition to dealing with the mystery of who killed three women, Serafina deals with the times, which in Sicily in the 1860s were filled with external conflict.

But beyond this external conflict, Serafina has a gnawing inner conflict. It’s her core conflict—She is torn: Is a woman more than a wife and mother? Does a woman deserve to enjoy the fullness of humanity the same as a man? In the end, this internal to-ing and fro-ing informs all of her decisions and revisions and accounts for much of the tumult in her head.

Here’s a scene from Death of a Serpent. Serafina is riding home in her friend, Rosa’s carriage. They’ve been to Palermo to break the news of a prostitute’s death to her parents. Along the road, a circus blocks their way, forcing their carriage to stop.

“Off the highway!” someone yelled. “Let us pass!”

“Can’t our guards do something?” Serafina asked.

“The guards are thick,” Rosa said. “A show for bandits.”

“Stay here.” Serafina opened the door and climbed out of the carriage.

Barco was a ball of a man, short and round, clothed in the only garb she’d ever seen him wear—overalls, a tattered shirt stained with sweat, red tails, a balding top hat. He rolled over to Serafina.

“Eh, Donna Fina, haven’t seen you since you was a tyke. Heard you married the apothecary. And you, a midwife, same as your mama, popping out babies like a hocus-pocus lady.”

They hugged. She told him about Giorgio’s death and the recent killings at Villa Rosa.

“I heard about the trouble at Rosa’s. Word is, the red fox is in the coop.” He leaned over, spat.

“Another woman killed today,” she told him. “We come from Palermo where we broke the news to her poor parents.”

He chewed the butt of his cigar. “We might as well camp here as anywheres,” he said, pointing to the nearby emptiness. “In a few minutes, you’ll be able to pass.”

Barco motioned to his foreman. Mules began towing the wagons out of the way. Performers and animal cages and trailers flooded the field. A group of knife throwers crowded around a tree where they had set up a target. Acrobats tumbled. The cook began building a fire.

As their carriage jerked forward, Serafina spied a clown in whiteface with a tuft of ginger hair staring at her from the side of the road, the butt of a knife sticking out of his belt.

She felt a shiver course down her spine. Running splayed fingers through her red curls, Serafina looked away. She heard the ghost of her mother whisper, “Remember the clown with hair like ours.”

Photo: A Baglio in Sicily. Antonio Llardo, Flickr

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