A sample of the historical fiction novel,
Susanna, Mother of Columbus.
Chapter 1 Friday, August 13, 1430, Gorrreto, Italy
The soft rustling of the Mulberry leaves announced the arrival of an August breeze that had slipped up the hillside from the sea carrying a hint of brine behind the basil and lavender from the fields. Susanna took a deep breath and smiled. This was Gorrreto …her Gorreto. Reaching up and out from the River Trebbia, the tiny village frayed into the farms and pastures of the Commune. From where she stood, balanced on a stone wall at the edge of the river, she could see the farm of her grandfather, Guagnino, and that of her parents. She knew the names of each sheep there; knew where the bees stored their honey, and where the wild strawberries could be found in the spring. She could see the weaving house where her father, Giacomo Fontanarossa, worked turning silk and wool thread into fabric. He was a master weaver, managing the weaving house that produced finished cloth for Signor Malaspina.
Wool and silk were the life of Gorrreto. From the Mulberry trees and the pasture to the fine cloth for the nobles, Gorrreto lived for and from weaving. Her grandfather, her Nonno, raised sheep, and Susanna would help each spring at the shearing. The rougher lads of the village were carders and beaters, preparing the wool for the spinners. The spinning house was near the weaving house, but many of the village women spun in their homes to earn money. The spun wool fiber went to the weaving house on spindles as tall as Susanna. There, her father and one other master weaver turned the thread into cloth.
In Signor Malaspina’s factory, everyone wove, even the maestros. The hardest workers were the apprentices. They were there from dawn to dusk every day but Sunday. Alberto was her father’s apprentice. Everyone treated him like he was already a man even though he was only one year older than Susanna. The sottoposti, graduated apprentices, sold their labor by the day; sometimes for as much as 5 dinari. They would only work when they wanted to although some were at the loom every day. Too many of them worked only when they had spent all of their money on wine.
Silk was becoming important in Gorrreto. The first Mulberry trees, planted fifty years ago, were now huge; their twisted and gnarled trunks splitting into firm branches that were often used by Susanna and her friends as hiding places, high above the ground. Every farmer’s barn had silkworms. Susanna loved to watch them grow and hatch. She and Bianchinetta, her best friend, would help feed the worms while they grew. Climbing high into the trees they would strip the leaves from the branches and stuff them into bags. For every ten bags of leaves the farmers would pay one half dinari. The thousands and thousands of silkworms in the village would eat Mulberry leaves constantly for a month, and then spin themselves into a cocoon. The tenders would gather the cocoons and put them into drying racks and bake them to kill the beetle inside. Then the silk would be pulled and wound onto a spinning stick so the weavers could make the wonderful fabric for clothes.
Most of the tasks in the weaving trade were hard. Gathering mulberry leaves was the only thing Susanna could do now to earn money. Someday, she would be old enough to join the other young girls and ladies as they warmed the silkworm eggs. For most of the spring and summer the weather in Gorrreto was perfect for silkworm eggs; warm, but not too hot, with a little moisture from the sea carried in on the breeze. But in late autumn the eggs had to be kept warm. Heating the barns would be too costly so the eggs were put into thin glass tubes, stoppered with a silk plug, and wrapped in a wool sleeve. The older girls would wear two or three of these on leather cords hung around their necks and against their skin so the eggs would rest between their breasts and stay warm until they hatched. When she was old enough, Susanna would be Seta Ragazza, a silk girl.
But this morning Susanna wore no tube around her neck. She carried a leather bucket filled with small, sweet, wild figs from the trees near the edge of the town. The midwife was with her mother and the seven year old had been sent on several errands already.
“Susanna, go pick some lavender so we can wash the infant when it comes.”
“Susanna, go to the Church and ask for some Holy Water to bless the child when it comes.”
“Susanna, fetch some linen from your Nonna’s kitchen so we can keep the child warm when it comes.”
All morning her tasks had taken her out into the August sunshine when all she wanted was to be with her Mother.
“These are chores for a child.” She pouted. “I am nearly eight years old. I am almost grown. I can help.”
As she hurried through the town toward her house she could hear garlic and bacon sizzling, smell the sweet aroma of pesto, and listen to the slap of bread dough hitting wooden tables as the women in the houses she passed began to prepare supper.
“That will be my next job.” She told herself. “There will be a small crowd to feed, especially if it’s a boy.”
She followed the winding road up through the grove of old pines and into the pasture next to her house. The closer she got the louder her mother’s cries became. She knew something about birth. She knew it was painful.
“God tests both the Mother and the Child.” The priest had explained. “Childbirth is a time of weakness when the Devil sometimes sees his chance.”