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  • Susan Russo Anderson

Breakfast at Serafina’s

Here’s a scene from Death of a Serpent, the first standalone in the Serafina Florio mystery series. It’s full of characters and family dynamic. The star of the show, Serafina is a midwife-turned sleuth who lives with her family in a fictitious town near Palermo, Sicily in the 1860s.

Wednesday, October 31, 1866

Serafina entered the kitchen, scooped a few olives from the barrel, and popped them into her mouth. “What’s for dinner, Renata, my good sweetness?”

“Chopped eggplant with melted goat cheese on garlic bread, swordfish and broccoli with charred pig over a hot green salad,” Renata said.

Carlo rattled his paper. “Asking about dinner when we haven’t eaten breakfast yet?”

“You’re home early my disheveled doctor. Skipped out on your exams?”

He rose to greet Serafina. “Renata wrote to me about Carmela so I came a few days early. Stubborn, my sister. Perhaps I can help her to see.”

“I’ve tried, believe me. She has no time for me. Visit as much as you like, but I’m finished. No more talk of Carmela.” She felt the prickle of tears and swiped them from her eyes.

“But you can’t just—” He stopped when Renata put a finger to her lips.

Carlo buried his face again in Giornale di Sicilia. “Where’ve you been so early in the morning?” he asked.

“None of your business. You think just because you’re a big shot, the world owes you an explanation.” She swatted his newspaper. Then kissed him, hugged him a little longer than usual.

“You smell like the sea, Mama.”

“And you, like the cadaver room, and your hair needs a trimming. Poor Gloria.”

“Assunta is doing his laundry. He brought at least a month’s worth with him.” Renata rolled her eyes. “And since you ask, Mama takes long walks in the morning.”

“Alone?” Carlo asked.

“It’s perfectly safe. The ne’er-do-wells are sleeping, and I walk no farther than the cove. Well, not too much farther than the edge of town.”

Silence.

“Where’s Vicenzu?”

Renata scraped crumbs from the table. “He left early for the shop. He’s expecting the arrival of some supplies. After breakfast, I’m going to Sabatini’s for honey. I might buy some figs if they look good.”

Giulia and Maria sat on the other side of the kitchen, both of them busy. Serafina smiled, watching Giulia’s finger moving underneath a string of English words as she read her Godey’s. Maria studied a sheet of music. They ran to kiss her when Serafina called to them.

Chewing a piece of bread she’d swiped from Carlo’s plate, Serafina said, “Giulia, I have an assignment for you, but later. Maria, my lamb, a new piece of music?”

“Brahms. All the rage in Europe, Donna Minerva says.”

“I know, but you’re too young for that darkness. Stick to Scarlatti.”

“Bu—”

“I’m teasing. But a little lightness would be good for us today. Merriment, please.” She looked at her watch pin.

“I fixed the hem of your wool dress,” Giulia said, “and hung it back in your closet.”

“You did it before I even asked.” She kissed Giulia’s head.

“Graziella had her baby last night, I heard,” Renata said.

“A boy with excellent lungs.” Serafina reached into her reticule, handed over the money. “From the proud father.”

She wiped the corners of her mouth with forefinger and thumb, and sighed, “I thought Maria would be the midwife, but she was born for music, Giulia for costuming, you for cuisine. No matter, we must each follow our own specialness. Too bad your papa died before we could have made one more girl.”

Renata set her mother’s breakfast on the table, and Serafina sat. She took a bite of breakfast and closed her eyes. “The orange sauce, delicious. Makes me crazy, such bitterness smashing into sweetness, the smell of almonds and oranges mixed in with the aroma of your caffè—divine, your biancomangiare. I feel springtime invade November.” She twirled her spoon.

Carlo reached for part of Serafina’s bread but she slapped his hand.

“Not yet November,” he corrected.

“Make sure we have enough cream and eggs for tomorrow’s breakfast. Sabatini’s honey, you say? Get a big jar. I need to eat well. Rosa’s guards and I have business.”

Carlo folded his paper. “What sort of business? Better yet; don’t tell us, it’s too early to hear about your treacheries.”

“We search the lower part of town and shore for clues to the killing of Rosa’s women.”

Her children stared at her as if she had spoken in a different tongue. She looked from one to the other. Then the dawn: the loss of their father was raw, her efforts at comedy, another one of her failures. “Not to worry,” she said, softly. “The wild one hasn’t been invented who can rid the world of me.”

Giulia’s finger began moving again on the page of her magazine. Maria buried her head in her music, humming a strange melody.

The domestic entered, carrying Totò. When he saw Serafina, he reached out to her.

“See how he adores me?” she asked Carlo.

“Wait a few years,” he said.

She got up and walked over to her youngest son, arms outstretched. “Renata, some breakfast for our little prince, and warm milk with bits of chocolate. He needs to eat, grow tall like his brother, don’t you, my honey bee, but without his fat mouth.” She planted his face with kisses. “And your specialness, my little man, what is it? Never mind, you’ll know it soon enough.”

Photo: Cover, Death of a Serpent Cover Design, Derek Murphy


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