The Island of Murano in the Lagoon of Venice
March of 1774
Caterina Capreta perched on a chair in the chilly room where it seemed no spring came. She forced herself to meet the frightening gaze of Abbess Marina Morosini, her old friend and rival, who sat behind an elaborate scroll-leg desk. Gilt bronze vines climbed up its shiny redwood legs, as if it were on fire.
The abbess gave a nod. “Caterina, I am pleased you have returned to visit us at the convent. How long has it been?”
Caterina couldn’t help staring at Marina’s ruined beauty. Her waxy skin pulled tight across her cheekbones. Her eyes, once blue-green, had lost their color. She was dressed in a black tunic, black veil, and white wimple that covered her ears, neck, and hair. All the forbidden vanities Marina had indulged in when she was young to the veil—the jeweled hairpins, long fingernails, even the rose perfume that had seemed to breathe from the very folds of her garments—were gone.
Caterina’s mouth was dry, but she forced herself to speak. “I believe it is almost twenty years.”
Marina sipped water from a goblet. “Twenty years . . . yes . . . such a long time. As I explained in my letter, a situation has arisen at the convent that brought you to mind.”
“I’m flattered you still think of me,” Caterina said. As if Marina could ever forget her. “But I can’t imagine how I might be of any help—you are the abbess now, after all. And I know so little about spiritual matters.” Caterina bowed her head, as if warding off a coming blow.
“I haven’t asked you here to counsel me on spiritual matters,” Marina said, barely hiding her irritation. “I have an unfortunate problem on my hands with a young boarder—sixteen years old. She was brought here by her father a month ago. The mother is dead. He offered me a sack of gold zecchini to take her in. How could I refuse?”
Caterina dared to look up but said nothing, knowing how these things went. The girls weren’t so much left off at the convents for religious reasons, as for safekeeping.
“Only she is pregnant. He neglected to tell me that part.” Marina’s voice was mocking. “Instead, he sat in that chair showing me old coins and cameos he collects out of the ground. He called himself an antiquarian. He was on his way to Constantinople and said he couldn’t possibly take his daughter there—given the depravity of the heathens. He pleaded for my help.”
At the mention of a pregnancy, Caterina’s gut had started to ache. But she remained silent, hoping she was wrong about where this was heading.
“I can’t keep Leda at Santa Maria degli Angeli any longer,” Marina announced, confirming her fears. “It would cause a scandal. Of course you understand.”
Caterina nodded. Of course she did.
“I need to remove her from the convent until the thing is done. So I asked myself—who would be willing to take in a girl in Leda’s situation—quietly, and with discretion? And then, I thought of you.”
“Marina,” Caterina begged. In her mind she was already grabbing for the thick oak door, running to the dock, and slipping into a boat for home. “You think too highly of me. I’m sure she would do better here.”
Marina simply waited for the foolishness of Caterina’s words to disappear like a bad smell. Then she smiled for the first time. Her teeth had a greenish cast, like the lagoon.
“My angel. May I call you that?”
Caterina felt the cruel jab hidden in Marina’s words. Someone else, long ago, had first called her an “angel.” And somewhere, far away, perhaps he still saw her that way.
“We share a long history, yes?” A glimmer of Marina’s old spark had returned. “I remember when you were just fourteen. Such an innocent! Or so we all thought.”
Caterina laughed nervously and stared at the floor to hide her hot face. Her heart began to pound in her head.
“I learned otherwise,” Marina said, “and I’ve protected your secret all these years. Who knows why?” She sighed. “There was nothing to be gained by revenge; all was lost anyway. I let you be.”
Caterina sat like a piece of marble in her chair. She could hear lagoon water outside the windows lapping at the mossy stones.
“Now, old friend,” Marina pressed, “I ask you a favor. It is only for a short time—I would guess not more than six months. Remember that the girl is no more of a fool than you—we—once were.”
Caterina looked up to meet her faded eyes, which looked softer now at the memory of long ago.
“Will you help her?”
“Of course.” Caterina’s defeat was complete, but she said it with strength, as if this was her wish.
“Good.” Marina smiled green at her again. “Leda is waiting in her room, ready to go.”