Susan Russo Anderson
Still in Mourning
The following domestic scene from No More Brothers takes place in Sicily in 1870. Serafina and her son have just come home. I wrote it to give a sense of the times, how they had worsened in Sicily after the Bourbons had left and the fledgling government was just beginning—as was the Mafia. But it’s also a domestic scene and I hope it gives a sense of Serafina’s family and how loving it is. (I almost wrote was, but of course this family is immortal—they are all characters, and all characters are immortal.)
Serafina felt a tug on her skirt and looked down. Totò held his sore finger in the air. She kissed it. “Much better today, my sweetness. Carlo, look at his finger, won’t you?” She clasped her youngest son closer before releasing him.
“Over here. Let me look.” Carlo bent to Totò. “That little cut? It’s nothing!”
“Is too. Sore!” Totò stuck out his lower lip.
“It didn’t bother you until Mama came into the room. Grow up!”
“Not so rude to your brother! Wash his wound and dress it with fresh cloth.”
“Wound? It’s a scratch! And you dress it—you’re the mother!”
Carmela stomped over to face her twin. “Your mother works two jobs and we eat scraps so you can go to medical school and you talk like a, like a bandit—”
“A lot you care, storming off and disappearing for four years and bulging with your bastard when you re—”
“Enough! We’re a family and still in mourning.” Serafina blinked hard. While she knelt to kiss Totò’s finger, her mind played tricks. They were gathered around the table, Giorgio pouring the wine, his laughter tumbling over them, the house rich with the smell of roasted pork. Carmela and Carlo must have been what, five or six? Vicenzu and Renata were toddlers; Giulia, Maria and Totò, not yet born. Those were the days of plenty when Serafina’s mother lived on the third floor and, with the help of two servants, kept the kitchen whenever they were between cooks. Whatever they wanted, they bought at market, traveling by coach to La Vucciria each week. They bought only the finest cuts of meat, fish so fresh their tails stood on end. Entrées were accompanied by two or three succulent side dishes, each course served with the proper wine. Today they had a watery sauce, overcooked pasta, a heel of stale bread.
Maria’s music was lumbering, punctuated by the ticking of the grandfather clock.
Carlo tasted the sauce and made a face. “No bread?”
A knot formed in Serafina’s stomach. “Carmela’s too busy with Rosa’s gardens for perfection in the kitchen. We’ll hire a cook.”
“No funds for cooks!” Vicenzu, the middle son, yelled from his desk in the corner of the kitchen. His abacus whirred. A carriage accident three years ago left him with a limp and a love of numbers. It was a calamity at the time, especially for the life and career of a young man, but in the end it had become a boon for Serafina’s family. Ever since Giorgio’s death, Vicenzu ran the apothecary shop and kept a tight rein on their coins.
In a few moments, Carlo seated himself at the table. He fiddled with his watch chain. Serafina rose and hugged Carmela. She told her daughter how proud she was of her landscaping and her attempts at cooking. She showered her grandson with kisses. The baby gurgled.
“Maria, Giulia, Vicenzu, time for dinner!”
The piano stopped.
They were all eating when a loud knock interrupted them. The domestic shuffled down the hall to answer the door.
Serafina recognized the approaching footsteps.
Vicenzu and Carlo stood when Serafina’s friend, Rosa, entered. She was followed by an entourage—her cook carrying a large platter of steaming bruscialoni smothered in pomodoro marinara, two maids laden with antipasti, warm bread, and three bottles of Nero Mascalese.
“My chief gardener is detained by you?”
Last month, Rosa relinquished the running of her high class house after a deranged killer murdered several of her women. Taking her cook, maids, driver, stableboy, and several bodyguards with her, she moved into the abandoned villa next door to Serafina after its owners had fled to the Americas or some such place in the middle of the night. Serafina was thrilled: it gave Rosa and her daughter a home next door.
She and Rosa had met when they were children, and despite vast differences of class and temperament, they’d remained best friends. What would she do without her, Serafina wondered. Although the former madam’s nature was prickly, Rosa’s eye for the main chance had helped her business prosper when everyone else failed. Frequented by generals, politicians, and—it was rumored—bishops, her house was famous throughout the province. She knew everyone and everything. She’d helped Serafina and her family survive the war. Last year when the police did nothing to solve the murders of Rosa’s women, she called upon Serafina who risked her life to unmask the killer.
Rosa kissed Carmela on both cheeks. “You’ve made a lovely design for my gardens in the back, but you should be planning the conservatory, not cooking for this one.” She jerked a thumb in Serafina’s direction.
“But we’ve got to eat and—”
Rosa scowled at Serafina. “Where’s your mind? We agreed last night: in exchange for Carmela designing my gardens, Formusa will prepare your meals while Renata is away. Here’s your dinner, delicious and steaming. And she’s planning pasta con le sarde for your supper.”
Carmela threw up her hands. “Mama schemes and doesn’t bother to tell us.”
“Not quite.” Rosa glared at Serafina. “She connives, then forgets to remind herself.”
But Serafina wasn’t listening. While the others took their places at the table, she grabbed her cape and satchel. Following Rosa and her staff out the door, she said over her shoulder, “Eat. Don’t wait for me.”
Photo: Cover, No More Brothers. Cover Design, Derek Murphy