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  • Susan Russo Anderson

Her Face Radiant, Her Belly Distended

Updated: Aug 9

The Serafina Florio mysteries take place in nineteenth-century Sicily during a rabid time——the start of home rule when everyone and therefore no one was in charge. Prisoners were set free. Cholera raged. The price of bread soared. Into the vacuum stepped the mafia. And Serafina, a widow, a midwife, and lately, sleuth, has to earn money to support her large family.

In this scene from Death of a Serpent, Serafina meets Betta, the wife of Don Tigro, a mafia don and the villain of the series. Betta is in need of a midwife.

Thursday, October 25, 1866

Serafina stuffed the address into her handbag, stepped outside. Hugging her cape, she visored her eyes, peered toward the piazza, and saw the same carriage return. It circled the statue, its wheels spinning, the horses straining. Pedestrians scurried out of its way.

When it halted in front of her, bits of straw, clods of earth flew into her face. She glimpsed a blur of silk sitting inside. Brushing dust from the folds of her dress, Serafina muttered something about the vulgarity of the nobility.

The driver opened the door, and Serafina watched a foot emerge sheathed in calfskin, saw a slice of white silk stocking and a few layers of petticoat peek out from under a skirt of watered silk. The woman was clothed in the latest fashion at this early hour. Must be bone-breaking work for the maid.

A familiar voice called her name. Serafina squinted into the light as the woman approached, reeking of Roget & Gallet, wearing a day dress with an indefinite waist. And that hairdo—she must have a French maid.

“Serafina? What luck,” the woman said. “First, my deep sorrow for your loss.”

“Elisabetta! I didn’t recognize you. Sun in my eyes, you know.” They embraced. “I never saw it coming, Giorgio’s death. How could I be so blind?” Serafina asked. Her eyes swam.

The two women discussed Giorgio, his illness, her family’s sudden loss.

Changing the subject, Serafina asked, “How are your boys, they must be, what, nineteen?”

“Almost grown, both in university. Franco studies business, Vito, the law. So fortunate I found you. Went to your home just now looking for you. The magnificence coming from your kitchen! I thought it must be your cuisine.”

“My daughter, Renata. Born cooking, that one,” Serafina said.

“Oh, my, if she’s available for Christmas parties, I’ll tell my friends.”

Serafina felt her cheeks burn. “Her schedule’s heavy through the holidays, a pity.”

“Such a sweet girl. She resembles you, your eyes and height, your smile, yes she does. She gave me a plate of ossa da mordere. I’ve eaten two already. Delicious! She thought you’d be back for the noon meal.”

“Baking early for Li Morti,” Serafina said. Her mind ranged over the years. They’d known each other, she and Elisabetta, since childhood. Her mother, Maddalena, had—what to call it—a special relationship with the orphanage where Elisabetta and Tigro grew up. Inseparable, those two. Even as a child, Elisabetta watched over Tigro until he left suddenly. It broke her heart.

After Serafina went away to school, she lost touch until much later when it was time to deliver Elisabetta’s twins. But she’d heard the stories, how Tigro returned one day, stole Elisabetta during the night. She remembered how the couple showed up in Oltramari a year later, stood in front of the priest to pledge their vows with the Duomo’s bells pealing and the incense smoking, the candles blazing, the choir singing; Tigro, his teeth sparkling, his pockets bulging with coins; Elisabetta, her face radiant, her belly distended. The poor woman, she adores him.

Aloud she said, “Tell me, are you feeling well?”

“I’m with child. That’s why I called on you, and I wondered if—”

“You don’t have a midwife that lives closer?” Serafina could hear delivery coins rattle in her purse. “But of course.”

Photo: cover, Death of a Serpent. Design, Derek Murphy


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