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Father $andro's Money

     Chapter 01

Without color or fanfare the sun dissolved into the Gulf of Salerno on a February evening in 1910. The rain had ceased—at least for the moment—but clouds were once again breeding, intending another infliction upon the countryside and the cottage nestling against the foothills.  When the wooden walking stick raked across the cottage door, Maria Avita LaRosa frowned. That racket had become all too familiar of late. She heaved a sigh, then wiped her hands on her apron before plodding to the door. She stood there for a moment, biting the inside of her bottom lip. Then flattening the wrinkles out of the stained homespun, she took a deep breath and lifted the latch. The door creaked open. Father Sandro.

Brown monk cloth swayed back and forth as the youthful cleric fingered a lavish crucifix pinned to the yoke of his alb. Gold chain threaded through the loop at the top of the medallion and encircled his neck. The coarse basket-weave fabric, cinched loosely at the waist with braided cord, befitted his station, but the ornate quality of the adornments gave the priest dominion, a quality rare for his age.  Giving a slight tip to his galero, he said, “Bona sera, Signora LaRosa.

Her lips wrinkled into a pursed smile as Maria Avita gave a curt nod. Refusing contact with his piercing gray eyes, she reluctantly stepped aside and motioned for the comely priest to enter. She scowled as he made himself at home at the roughly hewn oak table right next to her thirteen-year-old daughter. “Wine?” spat the woman.

Grazie.” Sandro set his galero on the table while taking great interest in the young girl who was preparing vegetables for the morrow’s meal. From the corner of her eye, Louisa peered skittishly at him. When their eyes met, hers quickly reverted to the chore at hand.

The twinkle in his eye and the smirk that twisted his lips irked Maria Avita, but her blood boiled when her daughter’s long dark eyelashes fluttered ever so slightly. This man should not come around so often. He toyed much too much with the child’s innocence. Slamming a flagon of wine on the table, only inches from his corrupt fingertips, she snapped, “Louisa! Bring those vegetables over here.” She stepped over to the set tubs. “I will help you to finish them here. And for heaven’s sake, tie back that hair of yours. Hair in the food is not good for the digestion.”

“Yes, Mama,” the girl replied.  Her head bobbed submissively as she gathered the vegetables into her apron.

When a tomato fell to the floor, Louisa hastily bent down to retrieve it. At the same time Father Sandro lunged for it. Suddenly the two were eyeball-to-eyeball, in his hand, the tomato. A Cheshire grin germinated on his lips as he tossed the tomato into the air, up and down like a rubber ball. The pupils of his eyes grew into large black orbs mesmerizing her, salaciously pawing the young girl. Her face flushed.  She swallowed hard. But her eyes failed to turn away.

Leaping between the two, Maria Avita snatched the tomato out of the air and put the backside of her five-foot frame to the priest. “Will you be hearing confessions in the morning, Father?” she asked while dropping the tomato into her daughter’s apron. “Perhaps cleansing our souls of impure thoughts might persuade the Lord to bless us with better weather.”

His mouth opened to respond but the priest choked back his words. The woman had already dragged her daughter off in such a brusque manner that he got the distinct impression that anything he might have said meant less than a good God damn.

Louisa rolled the contents of her apron into the sink, and with their backs to the priest, the mother and daughter proceeded to clean and cut up the vegetables. Maria Avita turned her head slightly to one side and asked, “More wine, Father?”

Fire rose in his eyes. Clearly that old hag was taunting Sandro. “No,” he hissed, chugging down his wine.

Noting his wrath, Maria Avita straightened with satisfaction. After all, Sandro was a man of the cloth. It served him well to be reminded of his place. With just a little more than fleeting pleasure, she picked up another vegetable.

“Any letter from your husband today?” Father Sandro scowled.

“No,” Maria Avita replied flatly.

“Joseph LaRosa forgets his responsibilities to his family. And to the Church I might add. Tithes have not come from the LaRosa household in quite some time. I cannot understand for the life of me why he has deserted his family in such a manner. Never mind God and country.”

Maria Avita clenched her jaw. This conversation came up every time Sandro came to call. Well this time, she was not going to get into it with him. He would only refuse to accept her husband’s desire to provide a better life for his family anyway. It was as simple as that. Besides, she asked nothing from the Church—so far. And now, because of Sandro’s condescending reminders, she resolved that she never would.

All eyes turned as metal rings screeched across the bar that extended over the opening to the bedroom as the homespun curtain parted. Six-year-old Vincenzo ambled towards his mother. His chin folded onto his chest, he peered down at his small clumsy fingers fumbling with the ties of his nightshirt.

“Are Seth and Francesca asleep?” Maria Avita asked.

The boy nodded.

Her expression softened. She placed the paring knife in the bowl of cleaned vegetables and wiped her hands on her apron. “Come here, my son,” she chuckled and bent at the knees. Untangling the strings of his nightshirt, she tied them again so as not to come undone during the night, then kissed the sleepy-eyed boy on the tip of his nose. “When will my little Vincenzo learn to tie his own nightshirt?” One shoulder shrugged as a trace of a smile lifted a corner of his lip. She began to fuss over his chestnut hair. “No matter how I cut this hair of yours it never stays put. It always falls in your face.” She spit on her fingers and pasted it all over the baby-fine fluff. His doe-like eyes caught hers. Unable to resist them, she smiled.

The sober lad never raised his voice nor caused her worry, unlike his oldest brother, Armand, who was short to temper and easily caught up in the adventures that life set before him. Still, Maria Avita missed his husky voice, his naughtiness, and his impish smile that reminded her of a boy who had just stuck his finger into the batter of the Christmas cake and thought he might actually get away with it. No matter how much mischief Armand got himself into, he artfully weaved a charmed web until she had no other choice than to forgive the little bugger.

Maria Avita sighed. Her eight children were all so different. Rom, a mixture of both Vincenzo and Armand, cared deeply about the world around him. For the most part, he kept his head when things went awry and sought out ways to make right from wrong. When frustrated in doing so, he had little to say, though he cracked his knuckles relentlessly. But now the place reserved in her heart for Rom and Armand felt so painfully empty. Were they well? And their father? Oh, Joseph. How hard living had been since the three of them had left her and the other six children behind.

Doe eyes shook Maria Avita back to the moment at hand. She scolded herself for daydreaming again. She did too much of it lately. Drawing a deep breath, she nodded approvingly at Vincenzo, then patted his bottom. “Come, my son.  Biscotti e latte di capra before you sleep.”

Finito, Mama,” Louisa said. Placing the bowl of cut up vegetables on the table, she pretended not to notice the priest’s intense eyes while she untied her apron. Carefully she folded it and draped it across the back of a chair.

Buono,” said Maria Avita. “Go and settle the rabbits for the night. Do not waste time, for darkness is upon the countryside. And don’t forget to take the scraps of vegetables.”

Louisa nodded. Collecting the scraps from the sink into an old tin, she never once glanced back at Father Sandro. With barely a sound, the door closed behind her. Silence befell the house; only slurping and crunching coming from the six-year-old interrupted the stillness.

Moments passed. The priest snorted. His spindly fingers tapped an uneven cadence on the wooden tabletop. Seconds later he turned sideways in his chair and with great flourish crossed his legs at the ankles. His gaze fell upon the paring knife in the bowl of vegetables. Squinting at it, he rubbed his feet together while his cane scraped back and forth along a crack in the fieldstone floor. Manicured fingernails clicked together, but abruptly stopped as Sandro caught sight of little Vincenzo who watched the priest’s every move. What a mess the whelp was making, sopping il biscotti into the cup so deep that the goat milk overflowed. Damn those blasted eyes. Sandro was sick of their indolent stare, to say nothing about that half-wit kid. Twisting up his face, the priest grimaced so ghastly that Vincenzo sprung from his chair and scurried for the safety of his mother’s skirt. Sandro snickered, then stuffed his galero onto his head and grunted, “I will continue my evening meditations.”

The priest stepped out of the stucco structure to find that the last traces of sunlight had faded into the West. He did not call out arrivederci. Neither did Maria Avita. And the door remained ajar. Sandro could not care less about closing the damned thing, for he was angry…very, very angry. “The arrogance of those good-for-nothing guttersnipes. Such disrespect for a man of the cloth.”

Halfway down the lane, he ran into Angelo and Paolo returning home with meager armfuls of wood. “Bona sera, Father Sandro,” the boys called in unison.

Si,” he scowled incoherently, distracted by unholy notions whirling about his head. Earthly desires demanded satisfaction, and Louisa was the only one to get the job done. But that old woman…argh! She perpetually stood between him and the one thing machismo craved most. Any day now that bitch and those nasty whelps of hers would go sailing off to America. And take Louisa, too. Without a doubt, she would marry that Bascuino kid. “Undeserving mendicante. He will delight in her innocence, not I. Aaurggh, these vestments cling to me like shackles! I should be the one to teach Louisa the needs of a man.”

He slumped against an eroded outcrop. Instantly, jagged edges needled icy moisture into his vestments and pricked his buttocks. “Che cosa e questo?” he blasted as he leapt away from the rock and yanked the robe around to despise the onslaught of wetness. “It rains much too much in this accursed land. I cannot take another day of it!”

Rustling through yards of fabric he found a dry spot and made a few adjustments before sprawling against the outcrop once again. He rotated his head in a vain attempt to release the stress knotting up the muscle in the back of his neck. He snorted. Before him the Tyrrhenian Sea, blackened by dense clouds, reduced a ship’s signal to a mere pinpoint in the distance. A shrouded halo circled the lighthouse as the muffled drone of the foghorn brought back Vito’s words. “Listen to me, my foolish young godson.” His low brassy laugh still irritated Sandro. “Your Mama’s greatest desire from her short life on this earth was for you, her only child, to become a priest. On her deathbed, she begged of me, your witness to God, ‘Swear to me. See that Sandro follows the Will of God.’ Those were her very words, I assure you. And I listen good to your Mama. For she insisted that you are truly different from other children. More into your thoughts. Your skin glows fairer, more resplendent. And there is special meaning to the way your bronze hair glows red in the sunlight.”

“But the cloth is not what I choose for myself,” Sandro had protested.

Si, si. So well I know that,” Vito prevailed again with that impudent chortle. “But do this for me, my young Sandro…for your Mama. It will be well worth the sacrifice, I assure you. More than you ever wish for will be yours. Time is short, this I promise you. When I send for you, a parish in New York will be yours. The organization needs a friend within the walls of the Church. I will put you there myself for I, Don Vito, am denied nothing. And you, Sandro…you will likewise never be denied.”

The words echoed in the priest’s mind.  “You will never be denied…never be denied…never denied…”

Yes, it certainly was true. Sandro had never been denied. Under the cloak of the priesthood, he took advantage of situations that would surely raise suspicion against the common man. At any time, the insatiable young male also had his way with the ripening maidens who inhabited the surrounding villages. All were easy to take, like fishes from the sea. But Louisa, she had become a baffling problem to him. “No, she is not the problem. Her mother. There is the problem! Not one single moment does that hag allow me to be alone with il vergine. Oh, to get my hands on the cold iron of il pistori…”

Father Sandro glared at the LaRosa homestead. The door had just closed behind Angelo and Paolo. Through the graying dusk, his eyes strained to make out the enclosure, where rabbit hutches formed a barricade. Only a short distance from the house, it seemed a world away to Sandro. And behind the enclosure, his ultimate fulfillment, Louisa.

He shifted his weight. The sandal on his left foot scuffed gravel back and forth, building ridges as he envisioned the wench moving about among the cages. His tongue skimmed over his dry lips. Her long raven hair cascaded over her shoulders while her arms cuddled a rabbit and her cheek rubbed against its soft fur. She whispered tender words into the animal’s ear, though it seemed as though her breath warmed Sandro’s ear instead. Her fingertips caressed the rabbit’s neck, yet, gooseflesh tingled the back of the man’s neck. His teeth gnashed back and forth, filling his head with grinding. His brittle nerves shredded into pulp. 

At long last lust had set itself free. The priest sprang to his feet and stomped towards the enclosure with clenched fists. “It is time. I will have il vergine for myself this very moment!”

Rounding the corner of the enclosure, Sandro stopped to catch his breath. His eyes rooted on the unsuspecting maiden who stood in the open doorway of a nearby hutch. Rabbits were taking vegetable peels directly from her hand. “Ah, she hums like an angel from heaven,” he muttered under shallow breath. Sweat beaded up on his brow and upper lip. Saliva began to drivel off his bottom lip. Desires of the flesh had mastered Father Sandro.

Louisa tossed her raven hair over her right shoulder and closed the door of the hutch.  She picked up the empty vegetable tin and turned for home. “Oh…Father Sandro…you startled me.”

Commo esta, my child?” He advanced until he and the girl were face to face. When she took a step back, he cajoled, “Until this very moment, we have never spoken alone. Is it not your wish to do so?”

Letting down her guard, Louisa ran her slender fingers over the rim of the empty tin. “Well, yes, but I…”

Sandro tilted up her chin. Peering deep into her dark innocent eyes, he whispered, “God sends me to you this day.”

Her lips quivered. Her eyes lowered, away from his burning trance. “For what purpose, Father?”

The priest toyed with a lock of her hair, coiling the strands in and around his fingers, in and around. “To grant you a tremendous blessing,” he whispered. In and around the strands overlapped and shortened. His hand came nearer and nearer to her face. Her shoulder lifted to brush him off but instantly his fist locked against her head and there was no escape as he yanked her body against his and crushed his lips on hers.

“No, Father,” she sputtered and with both hands shoved away his face. “This is sinful!”

“My dear child.” His voice was smooth and syrupy. “This cannot be a sin, I assure you. God has willed me here this very night to enlighten you, to show you the way.  This is a generous service I do for you. Do not pass it up, for after I am finished, you will know exactly what to expect from that young man who awaits you in America. The wedding bed should be one of pleasure.”

Her eyes grew wide. Her head rolled side to side as once again, Louisa tried to back away, but her hair entangled around his fingers would not give.

Sensing her intensifying resistance, Sandro shoved the girl to the ground. One hand kept her pinned while the other ripped aside her skirt, then struggled to lift his robe.

In the midst of all this, little Vincenzo arrived at the entry of the enclosure. Maria Avita had sent him to hurry his sister back to the house because the sky was nearly pitch black. The child froze. His eyes grew wider and wider from the sight of his sibling struggling beneath Father Sandro. Her clenched fists pounded on the priest while her naked legs kicked at the air. Terror filled the six-year-old until his breath scarcely came and went. Tiny hands clasped together, squeezing, squeezing, forming an ever-tightening ball. His small body rocked back and forth. Suddenly his arms dropped and as fast as his stubby legs could carry him, little Vincenzo fled back to the house, his sister’s shrieks pursuing him. “Father, n-o! S-t-o-p…”

Somehow Louisa managed to worm out from underneath the priest. But the lock of raven hair, still entwined in his hand, prevented a full escape. She tugged and strained. Some hair untangled, but the rest plucked from the root, leaving the priest looking at a handful of hair as the girl fled. He shook the hair off his fingers as he seethed, “I will not be denied.” Again Sandro leapt upon Louisa. “Before you go to America, you will give up your innocence to me.”

 


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