Susan Russo Anderson
The Wail of Empedocles
Updated: Aug 9, 2021
In Death in Bagheria, Serafina and Rosa investigate the death of a baroness, a woman who, her husband insists, died of natural causes.
The daughter, however, is convinced her mother has been murdered and hires Serafina to discover the truth. Serafina and Rosa, make the trip to the baron’s villa where the baroness died. Most of the story takes place in Bagheria, a day’s ride from Serafina’s home town, and the location of Lord Notobene’s villa.
There are other deaths in the book—Serafina's third—and the deepening romance of Serafina and Loffredo. And there is a cook who, according to Rosa, cannot cook.
In the nineteenth century, Bagheria was on the gold coast of Sicily, close to Palermo. Its rich soil produced citrus and wealth, and it was a watering hole for the rising merchant class. The monied tradesmen, as opposed to the penurious nobles. There are still large estates in Bagheria, many in ruins.
In the scene below, Serafina is searching for clues. She and Rosa have been helped up to the roof of the baron’s magnificent villa with a view overlooking his estates. She returns to the roof alone, pursued by dark forces. Writing the scene, I, too, climbed with them. I could see vast orchards, golden in the setting sun, the beauty of Sicily’s Gold Coast spread before me. I imagined I could see Mt. Etna in the distance and could hear the wail of Empedocles as he hurled himself into the volcano.
At the top of the stairs, Lina led them through a small enclosure with a few narrow steps to the top. Serafina’s heel caught on the lip of a tile, but she was able to right herself before walking onto the roof. As she edged toward the railing, she marveled at the view of the sea, immense and rough. In the east, Mount Etna glowered, smoke pluming from its mouth.
“We’re able to walk all the way round, a lovely view from up here,” the maid said, holding onto her skirts. A wisp of her hair blew in the wind, and she tucked it back. “But grasp the rail if you go near the edge. Years ago, a young man plunged to his death from this roof. Some say he was a servant who’d had too much wine; others say he was a friend of the family.”
She had their full attention.
“He came up here and wandered too close to the gutter. One story has it that he slipped and fell, another that he was pushed.”
Serafina shuddered, visoring her eyes as she and Rosa held onto their skirts, trying to prevent their flapping in the strong wind.
Lina continued. “Lord Notobene refers to it as ‘the accident that happened long ago, a foolishness best forgotten.’ He doesn’t want anyone talking about it, so a cautionary word. If you wish to know more, don’t ask the baron, ask the butler or the cook. Mima says she can still hear the man’s cry as he fell, a shriek that echoes to this day in her dreams.”
Resolving to walk with deliberation, Serafina stepped closer to the rail, unmindful of the maid’s warning, her eyes fixed on the sea and the lowering sun. When she bumped into the railing just below her waist, she backed up a bit and stared down at the dizzying height below, trying to judge the distance to the ground and testing her resolve, despite the fright she felt in her groin. Her head began to swim.
“What are you doing?” She felt Rosa’s hands tugging at her from behind.
“Best get back here. Keep away from the edge,” the maid called. “That railing’s not high enough for you. A strong gust of wind and you’d be over in no time.”
“You’re daft, Fina! Don’t you ever do that again!” Rosa’s eyes blazed as she jerked her away from the railing.
Fanning herself with her hand, the maid wore a reassuring smile. “Please, ma’am. Don’t do that again. We need you. I shouldn’t have told you the story of the accident.”
“Rubbish! Glad you did. Fina’s nature is half wild, but I know she won’t misbehave again.” Serafina felt the madam’s vengeful fist in her side.
“Oh my, well …” Lina caught her breath and continued. “Some of us, when there’s a big dinner or a ball, we like to come up here between serving the courses, just to take the air, if you know what I mean.”
“The guests don’t come up here?”
“No, ma’am. They have their own balconies on all sides of the ballroom. I’ll show you, if you’d like.”
Serafina shook her head. “Please go on, don’t mind my interruption.”
“As I was saying, it can be delightful here, especially a little later in the spring and summer, after working the dining room all night long, carrying trays and platters and whatnots up and down the stairs. And when the stars cover the heavens, oh my!” She pointed to the gargantuan mass in the east. “And you can see the fires of Etna and hear the ghost of Empedocles wail.”
“Who?” Rosa asked.
“Empedocles, ma’am. He jumped into the volcano.”
The maid shrugged.
“Look at it, the mountain with its peak in the clouds. Can’t you see the fire coming from its maw?” Serafina asked.
Rosa shook her head.
Lina held her arm straight and still, gesturing toward the volcano’s mouth.
“How can you not see it? It’s that huge mountain right in front of us, grey black at the base, a few houses running up its side, white around its peak, smoke and fiery ash spitting out of its mouth!” Once again, as she described it to Rosa, Serafina felt herself drawn to Etna’s power and unpredictable rage. Slowly she led her friend closer to the edge, her arm rigid, her finger pointing to the view, the madam shaking her head, Serafina straining to show her what only a blind person could fail to see, unaware of how close they’d come to the railing. “Can’t you see the spurts of fire?” Serafina asked.
“Now I do!” Rosa clutched Serafina’s arm, and her face lit with Mount Etna’s splendor.
It stood alone against the heavens, as untrustworthy and magnificent as whoever had killed the baroness, someone within these very walls. Serafina fingered the shape of the journal in her pocket. “We’ve awakened a monster. Whoever poisoned the baroness is in this house. I’m convinced of it. Nature senses it.”
Rosa nodded. “I feel it, too, and the nun was correct—the baroness was slipped a venom—but we’re a long way from proving it, especially to the likes of the baron.”
Serafina continued with her thought. “For eighteen months, he thought he got away with murder and now he’s on high alert, fearful that in her agonized awareness, the baroness may have discovered his identity before she died, written down his name or at least a clue as to who he was, and now that we’ve uncovered her journals, he’ll try to rid the world of us, mark me, and his attempts will be sudden and violent.” She trembled at the thought, but so far, she’d learned next to nothing about him. She must take a more daring approach and stir up his rage if she hoped to discover his identity. Perhaps tonight’s dinner would provide her with a stage upon which to provoke his volcanic ire.
The maid asked them again to stay close to the center of the roof while she finished their tour and led them to the other side of the house. “The garden I told you about with lounging chairs and tables, some lovely palms and potted plants—the family used to eat here in the summer every night, I’m told, when the children were young, to catch the breeze and all, but that was long before my time, and I doubt that they’ve been up recently, not after the accident. Of course, ever since the baroness took ill, the house has been, how should I say, more circumspect, what with the children grown and the baron keeping to his affairs.”
“Who tends the plants?” Serafina asked.
The maid shrugged. “One of the gardeners, I suppose.” She told them to take their time, that she’d wait for them.
With one hand on her skirts, Serafina put the telescope to her eye and began skimming over the grounds, looking for what, she wasn’t sure. Splinters from the late afternoon sun marred her vision, and she stumbled.
Photo: cover, Death in Bagheria. Design: Derek Murphy