In this excerpt from an unpublished short story, Serafina introduces her family. Serafina is a midwife and sleuth who lives in nineteenth-century Sicily, in a fictitious town near Palermo. She is the main character of the Serafina Florio historical mystery series, and here, unlike her novels which are told in the third person, she speaks to us directly.
Oltramari in early spring, 1867
When I’m not in the room, I know what my children do—they conspire. Carlo rattles his newspaper. They look at one another and smile. So clever they think they are, but they don't fool me.
They have such dreams, each one’s fantasy more opulent than the last. I swear I don’t understand them. Maria, for instance. From the time she was two, all she wanted was her piano. Aunt Giuseppina’s doing; my side of the family encouraged it, so what can I say. Now Maria fancies herself curtsying in some concert hall inVienna or Paris or New York, one of those.
Giulia rises. “Get that wooden soldier off this fabric!”
She’s another one, Giulia. Her stitchery is exquisite; any studio would snatch her up in a minute. But not Giulia, her dreams are fat. She longs to open a dress shop in God knows where. Not here, that’s for sure: Oltramari’s getting rustier, dustier by the week, what with the uprisings, the famine, the cholera. Peasants leave in the middle of the night. I hear their whispers from my bedroom window, their carts clattering on the cobbles, full to bursting with their bundles. Whole families packed in together, the nonna crying, the children silent sticks, the father forward facing. And not just the peasants, either. The villa next door has been empty since the uprising last September—the family here for two, three centuries only to be blown away by an unfavorable wind. My children, too, I know they long to leave.
Giorgio and I should have married the girls off, but Mama, with her liberal tendencies, turned my head. Oh, Paris was the ruin of her, all right: that year of training under Madame La Chapelle made Mama’s midwifery head and shoulders above the rest. Passed it on to me, too, but the Parisians fed her fancy. “Don’t let them marry so young, Serafina,” I can hear her say. “Let them find their specialness first.”
Too late now.
Totò hugs my skirts. He hands me a wooden soldier, sticky from sweetened figs. Carmela says I spoil him. But he’s my youngest, has Giorgio’s smile.
Renata makes the rounds, kissing us goodbye. A special hug for Carmela.
The messenger wipes his mouth, hands the empty cup to Assunta, and takes Renata’s bag.
“Write to us!”
Renata turns, nods, is gone.
What will I do when the rest of them leave?
“You need a diversion,” Carmela says, “a mother in labor or a dead body.”
My eyes water. Rain spatters on the window.
“What’s for dinner?” someone asks.
Photo: A baglio in Sicily. Read more about Serafina’s novels here.