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THE FIRES OF AUTUMN
Fabrizio was sitting on the hillside with the goats, his back against a boulder, singing a psalm in the early September sunshine, when he saw the rising cloud of smoke. The song faltered in his mouth as he stared at the dirty-white mass lifting to the sky. The light breeze shifted, bringing with it the smell of smoldering wood and grass. The goats muttered nervously.
He climbed the boulder, squinting into the distance to make out the source of the smoke. But the folds of the hills hid it from him. The town did not lie in that direction. Neither did the mills that turned wool into yarn. What could be burning? A straggly, long-haired goat got to her feet and let out a bawl. Fabrizio jumped off the boulder, picked up his staff, and went to her.
“The fire is very far from us, Ermentrude,” he said, rubbing her neck to calm her. “Still, you have been foraging on these slopes for several hours. We can start back down now.” The goat leaned against him as he stroked her back, her long, gray coat blending with his long, gray friar’s robe.
He called to the others. “Sancha! Lily! Bring your sisters!”
They bleated their protest at having their rest interrupted, but rose and trotted obediently toward him. Together, the small herd picked its way across the hillside and had just gained the main downward path, when Fabrizio heard someone calling his name.
A man was striding toward him across the sloping meadow, his peasant robe swirling around his knees, his legs covered and laced with soft leather, a broad, flat-brimmed hat on his head, his massive staff swinging out and striking the ground with every stride. It was Old Leonard, a wise, and therefore prosperous, peasant. He kept not goats, but sheep, a large, beautiful herd that Fabrizio could see scattered across the slopes behind him. The wool from these sheep went to the riverside mills and thence to the weavers in town. Some of Old Leonard’s grown sons wandered among the well-protected flock.
As Old Leonard approached, he waved his arm angrily at the cloud of smoke. “Fabrizio, have you seen that? I think Antonio has gone crazy.” Old Leonard planted his staff firmly in the ground when he stopped to talk. “He has to be the first to burn his fields so he can be the first to plant his winter farro.”
“Burning his fields? Why would he want to do that?” Fabrizio asked.
Old Leonard snorted. “He picked up the idea from some stranger at the spring market in Torino. Claims that burning makes it faster to clear out all the stubble in the fields. The forest keeps sending seeds into them, and Antonio gets angry at all the short trees that spring up. Once he has harvested the farro, he says it’s faster to burn the small trees rather than dig out each one.”
Old Leonard gestured to indicate the farmland below them. “And, of course, if Antonio does it, everyone else will do it too, even if they don’t have troublesome trees near their fields.”
“But what would Antonio’s lord say about it?”
The old man shook his head. “I can barely believe it, but Antonio convinced him first of all. They’ll be burning their fields for weeks now that Antonio has started. All around us, smoke, smoke, smoke! I cannot help thinking that fire burns more than wood and stubble. I won’t feel safe until the autumn is over and the winter stops this foolishness.”
Fabrizio thought he would prefer the warmth of the fires to the coming cold of winter, but said nothing. Old Leonard, his anger spent for the moment, reached out to pet the goats. The herd immediately began to push towards him, eager to get their share of caresses from their friend. The old man laughed.
“What a herd you have, Fabrizio. I marvel every time I see it. Long-haired, short-haired, horns, no horns, brown, black, gray, white. Such a mix! You have two of one breed, three of another, these four here, this one there, and that one who should have horns but doesn’t, and yet without her horns she still rules them all.”
Ermentrude, the curiously hornless one, had stayed by Fabrizio’s side. He stroked her head, smiling. “When your herd is made up of what you have been given, this is what it looks like.”
He could not help but glance again at Old Leonard’s sheep. There were several hundred in that herd, each one a creamy white dot against the green grass. But Fabrizio wouldn’t trade his goats for any amount of sheep.
He scratched Ermentrude under her chin, then reached out to rub Lily’s back. “They are good girls with good hearts. Every spring they give their kids to poor families. Every day they give us milk to make cheese. I am very grateful to them and I love them all.”
“Ah, there, there is your secret!” Old Leonard cried. “They should be tearing each other apart, and yet, they are not. Why? Because you love each one and they know it!” Sancha nuzzled up to Ermentrude, careful to keep her horns away. “Look how friendly this one is with that!”
They watched the goats in silence for a few moments. When the old man spoke again, his tone was serious.
“I want to thank you and your friary, Fabrizio, for letting my grandson help in the kitchen. His mother won’t accept any help from me. I think she is ashamed of her slothful husband, yet she defends him.” Old Leonard tugged slowly on his gray beard, his eyes still on the goats. “The money you pay Little Leo is all his mother gets some weeks.”
“But the money does not come from us—” Fabrizio began.
“Yes, yes, I know,” Old Leonard broke in. “Franciscans have no money, keep no money, and touch no money. I know it is Donatello your procurator who handles these things for you. But it is you Franciscans who have given Leo a place.” The peasant pulled off his hat and scratched his head fiercely. “Pray to God he doesn’t turn out like his father.”
Fabrizio did not know what to say to this. He had never seen his own father and had often wondered if he had grown to be like him in some way.
“I think young Leo tries very hard,” he said. “He always does what Gustave tells him to do.”
Old Leonard grunted, replaced his hat, and leaned on his staff again. “As he should,” he replied. But he seemed pleased by the report.
The peasant turned his head to squint at the land around them and Fabrizio followed his gaze.
High above them, clouds hid the dark mountain peaks. Below them, the Lombardy hills rippled their way down to the river plain where sunshine reigned.
Between each roll of ground, small hamlets and farms tucked themselves in the hills’ pockets. Meadows, woodland, and farmland displayed every shade of green and gold possible for the eye’s delight. Standing on the slope as high as they did now, on a day when no low clouds obscured their view, they could see towns far distant, basking on sunny riversides. Fabrizio took a deep breath of pleasure at the beauty of it all.
“I should also tell you,” said Old Leonard, “that Antonio, this fire-starter, is telling everyone to be watchful for wild dogs in the hills. That doesn’t mean he has seen any himself, of course. But he loves very much to be the teller of things.”
The pleasure turned to alarm. Fabrizio instinctively reached his hand out for Ermentrude. They rambled often in the hills, and occasionally came across mangled, torn carcasses of sheep, deer, and forest animals. Once he saw a half-eaten goat. He always wondered who the animals were and who might be missing them.
Such sights cut him to the heart and made him grateful for the staff Old Leonard had given him several years ago. But it had been some time since he had seen the remains of torn beasts. He shook his head.
“I have seen no dogs. All has been peaceful for days.”
“We may never see the dogs, Fabrizio. Antonio likes to scare people, to see their wide eyes and hear their gasps at something he has said. Still,” Old Leonard cast a glance back at his sheep, “we must always be careful.” Having made this pronouncement, he hunched over, leaning on his staff, thinking. Fabrizio waited until the old man straightened abruptly and took his staff in hand again.
“That’s it! That’s what I wanted to tell you. I was in town yesterday and there were some poor-looking friars in the streets begging for food. At first, I thought they had come from your friary, but I didn’t know any of their faces. Their robes were torn and frayed. They looked almost wild. I had bread in my bag so I gave it to them. What is that proverb your Brother Benefice likes to say?”
“He says many,” Fabrizio replied. “His head is filled with them.”
“I don’t know much Latin. Don’t need it with the sheep. But it starts with Occurrit … No. I won’t try to be above my place. Here’s how I know it. ‘God meets every man, but few recognize Him.’ That’s why I gave them the bread. Do you know anything about these friars?”
Fabrizio felt that he should know about them, but couldn’t think of why. Sometimes he didn’t pay as much attention to the news and events that took place in his Order as he ought. He shook his head. “No, I don’t know, but I am usually in the friary or up here with the goats.”
“They claimed they were Franciscans, so I thought you might know.” Old Leonard was clearly hoping for knowledge Fabrizio didn’t have.
Fabrizio smiled. “For a hundred years now there have been Franciscans, moving all over the world. I know very few of them. Not many beyond those in the friary walls and some in Milan.”
Old Leonard nodded. “I thought they might be lying. Saying they were Franciscans just to get food. But when I saw how poor they really were, I thought, lying or not, Fabrizio would feed them anyway.” He gave a broad smile.
Fabrizio took the smile to heart. “Thank you, kind sir. I’m glad you thought of that.”
Old Leonard drew himself up and put on a pompous face. “Oh, ‘Sir?’ I’m ‘Sir’ now?” He winked at Fabrizio. “Let’s save that for Donatello’s father! The man who truly owns all these sheep!”
With a nod of farewell, the old man turned and headed toward his herds and his own business.
Fabrizio called after him. “I will keep a look out for any sign of the wild dogs.”
The peasant waved in response as he strode away.
The memories of torn animals, nevertheless, made Fabrizio urge the goats down the hillside faster than usual. They bleated and bawled from time to time, but followed him steadily down the steep path.
“I cannot help it, sisters,” he called out. “As our friend said, we must be watchful!”
He slowed his steps with relief when he caught sight of the friary’s red-stoned campanile. It was beautiful, this square tower, with an arched opening on each of its sides and a single gracious bell to peal the hours. The lovely notes often rang across the hillsides settling down into Armonia, the hard-working little town below them. To Fabrizio, each peal was the sound of peace, of home, of a place to live and work and belong, a mark of the security of his life as a Franciscan, and the healing of all that had come before. He paused for a moment, took a deep breath and let out a sigh of contentment.
Years ago, as a postulant, he had been sent to Milan, and though he had delighted in becoming a Franciscan, he also feared that he would be stuck in that great city, or, worse yet, sent elsewhere, even far away from the friary that had sheltered him. When he had been sent back to San Stigliano to be part of its mission, his joy was complete.
He led his herd down the familiar hillside paths and soon the rest of the red-tiled roofs came into view—the chapel; the dormitory; the infirmary; the library; the walls surrounding the garden plots with their orderly rows of onions, carrots, beans, greens, and medicinal herbs. There was the roof of the stables, originally built for a nobleman’s proud collection of fine horses. Now half of it remained mostly empty, used only for Donatello’s lonely horse and that of his bored groom.
The other half of the stables was home to the treasured goats of San Stigliano. Under Fabrizio’s care, their milk produced an incredibly fine cheese. This cheese was one of the friary’s main sources of food and a blessing to the poor who regularly came to ease their hunger at the friary’s board. But it was Gustave, a lay brother, who actually made the cheese using his mother’s recipe.
All the brothers contributed to the life of the friary and to the lives of the people outside it who needed them. Emilian taught the poor town boys how to make shoes, tailor clothes, and do all sorts of practical things. Benefice’s chickens laid many eggs, while he collected proverbs, played the flute, rang the bell, and brought music to the hopeless. Cantor helped Quintus in tending the sick. Kerstan, alongside their Guardian, preached and taught and encouraged both friars and townspeople. All the friar brothers worked in the gardens and did every needed task. And every one of them spoke of the salvation of God as they worked and prayed among the people.
Fabrizio continued downward, his rope sandals finding secure footholds on the rough path. The goats, led by Ermentrude, moved dutifully along after him, Lily, ever watchful, at the end of the line. The psalm that he had enjoyed in the hills came to him again, and he began to sing it. Not to himself. To the Lord of Heaven, who in His mercy had made a home and a true family for a lost boy.
The eyes of all look to You,
and You give them their food at the proper time.
You open your hand
and satisfy the desires of every living thing…
Another bend in the path brought them in view of the friary gates and his song suddenly evaporated. He stopped still and Ermentrude ran into him, butting his thigh with her head.
A procession of weary-looking men was trudging up the road from Armonia. Fabrizio would usually have hurried forward to meet them, but there was something in their demeanor that made him instead step behind a scrub tree and watch as they approached the gates of San Stigliano. The goats showed no interest at all in the strangers, and took the opportunity to sprawl in the grass and rest.
There were six men, all dressed in short gray robes that exposed their bare feet. The robes hung limply. Some were torn, a few shamefully dirty. The strangers carried nothing with them, no pouch, no bags of provisions. Several used walking sticks, but these were only the slim, crooked branches of trees, such as one might find on the ground after a storm. They were wild-looking, and desperately poor, just as Old Leonard had said. With a rush of remembrance, Fabrizio realized who they were, and, with a sickening feeling, why they were here.
These were the Spirituals, Franciscan friars who led lives of extreme poverty to show the world that they had not given up what they considered the true way of St. Francis. They denounced Franciscans who lived in convents surrounded by walls and ceilings and books and regular meals. Even their shorter robes, closer to the style of a peasant, proclaimed their protest against Franciscans like Fabrizio, who wore longer robes and even shoes if a task required it. They carried no pouches because Judas had used a pouch. Seeing them, Fabrizio felt overly aware of the small burlap sack that hung off his rope belt, the one that carried his food on his days in the hills.
But these Spirituals were also rebels. In spite of the commands of the pope and all church authority, they had separated themselves from the others in the Order and claimed to be the truest of all Franciscans, following the poverty of Christ and the poverty of Saint Francis as no one else did.
According to a letter from Cardinal Scantoni, the overseer of this particular dispute, which the Guardian had read out loud to them after evening prayer several weeks ago, a meeting between a group of rigorist Franciscan friars--he had refused to call them Spirituals--and the pope’s inquisitors was to be held this autumn. The Friary of San Stigliano was to be the place of meeting, and the cardinal had ordered a Dominican inquisitor to resolve this crisis.
So these friars at the gates must be the expected rigorists. Which meant that a group of Dominicans must be riding hard from the pope’s palace in Avignon even now with one purpose. To persuade the Spirituals into obedience.
The men slowed their pace as they came near the heavy, wooden gates of the friary, standing open though they were. Fabrizio stiffened, peering through the leaves of the scrub tree. If the men were aware of his presence, or that of the goats, they did not show it.
Yet even still, he studied the men on the road with curiosity. How could a man choose to be so very, very poor? To deliberately choose not to know when he would be able to eat again? What would make him do such a thing? And how could someone be angry with those who did not choose to be so very poor? Fabrizio did not understand it.
Several long moments passed and the short-robed friars still hesitated on the road. They clumped together, heads turning and bobbing, some emphatic discussion going on amongst them. Fabrizio began to wonder at the delay.
Surely, the Spirituals had no fear of entering the gates. There was nothing to fear in San Stigliano. It was the best and truest place to live in all the world. Whose heart could not lift just walking through the gates as his did every single day? No, it must be the Spirituals’ abhorrence of such a community of friars. And a distaste for the very goods and buildings the community appeared to own and use.
The pealing of the tower bell interrupted their talk. Its noon summons to prayer could not be denied. The poor friars formed themselves into a group of little rows—two, by two, by two, as if they were soldiers preparing for battle—and entered the friary walls.
Fabrizio waited on the hillside until the last of them had disappeared into the courtyard. At the tenth peal of the bell, he ushered his goats the rest of the way down the slope and passed through the open gates, herding his charges toward their pen in the stables.
He, of course, would have nothing to do with the looming theological debates. Kerstan and their Guardian would attend to that. He was glad it was theirs to do and not his. He had learned to read and write fairly well and had qualified and earned the designation of priest, but he had a gift for goats and animals, like the humblest of lay brothers. Or, as their Guardian had told him once, “a gift like Saint Francis himself.”
He would do his work, say his prayers, tend the goats, avoid the Spirituals, and live, as he did every day, this good Franciscan life that was God’s gift to him.
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Copyright © 2018, by Rhonda Chandler
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, except for brief quotations in book reviews, without the written permission of the publisher, except where permitted by law.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, events, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination, except for reference to historical figures, historical events, and historical entities, which have been used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.