This poem came out of the September 13, 2011 perk round. It was inspired by prompts from janetmiles, jenny_evergreen, aldersprig, and laffingkat. It was posted in part by minor_architect as the linkbacks poem for the November 1, 2011 Poetry Fishbowl. Since there are verses left over, you can reveal a verse today by linking to a favorite poem from this fishbowl. These people have boosted the signal: wyld_dandelyon, marina_bonomi, janetmiles, the_vulture, aldersprig, rix_scaedu, meeksp, and minor_architect.
Special thanks to marina_bonomi for helping me research the traditional apples of Italy. Some sites we visited featured apple cultivars, old Italian apples, Binotto apples (with picture), Decio apples, and ox muzzle apples. I love antique apples and I'm happy to share these with you. Later in the poem, there's a round of herbalism for which I researched herb magic, belladonna, and henbane. This poem belongs to the series Fiorenza the Wisewoman, and you can find other poems in this series via the Serial Poetry page.
Fiorenza's cottage stood quiet
as she laid a hand on the closed door.
She loved the place where she had grown up
with her grandmother, and she never wanted to leave it,
though sometimes it got a little lonely
with only mad Ercole for company.
It offered plenty of room to work, and
people in need of an herbalist could come here
without bothering a whole houseful of folk.
Today, though, Fiorenza's work lay elsewhere.
Her aunt Zola kept the biggest orchard
at the edge of the village, and when each variety
got ready to pick, everyone was invited over
to help in exchange for a share of the fruit --
just as they came to help Fiorenza
with the ox muzzle apples in her own orchard.
Fiorenza hummed to herself as she walked
through the village to the huge rambling house
full of aunts and uncles and cousins.
When Fiorenza arrived, she found
the kitchen overflowing with baskets
of small green Decio apples waiting to be put up for winter.
By spring, they would turn creamy and red,
ready to eat, long after the other varieties had run out.
Zola presided over the long marble counter.
Her middle sister Graziella supervised the older girls
as they discarded apples with nicks or bruises,
and her youngest sister Carine supervised the little girls
as they sorted the apples by size.
Now and then, the men and older boys would come in
lugging bushel baskets full of more fruit,
while the little boys carried buckets of discarded apples
outside to feed the livestock.
Fiorenza joined Zola at the counter,
making one last meticulous check for perfection
before packing the apples carefully into clean straw
layered into the tall wooden barrels.
Zola valued Fiorenza's sharp eye for flaws,
and said so, often, to anyone who would listen.
One bad apple can spoil a whole barrel, you know.
They all gossiped as they worked.
Fiorenza could not imagine
living amidst such cacophony every day,
but as an occasional divergence from her quiet life,
she loved it dearly.
Zola's husband Alberto had decided
to retire the old bull and raise one of the male calves.
Desideria was with child, unmarried,
and had blamed Pasquale down the lane.
The merchant Otoniel
was pressing his daughters to wed,
though they did not care to do so.
Then Zola lowered her voice and said,
"Do you know, Fiorenza,
the strangest thing happened yesterday.
An old woman stopped by here
wanting to buy one perfect red apple."
Zola grew the best apples,
and people knew that, the way they knew Fiorenza
as the best gardener and baker and herbalist.
The Binotto apples were in season,
deep rose-red with the flavor and scent of roses.
Anyone might ask after them.
Fiorenza carefully kept her eyes on her work.
"An old woman, you say?" she murmured.
"Did you not recognize her, then?"
"I never saw her before in my life,"
said Zola, "and I don't care to see her again.
Something about her just seemed odd to me."
It might be nothing, of course.
People did travel, on occasion,
though generally not old people.
She might have only wanted a snack for the road,
but then again, one perfect red apple ...
winter storage wasn't the sole reason
for requiring perfection.
"What seemed odd about her?"
"I'm not sure she was as old as she looked,"
said Zola. "She didn't sound quite right for it."
Then Graziella chimed in with a story
about her husband's mother Vanna
who was certainly quite old
and had lost her glass eye yet again,
this time in the boys' jar of marbles.
When Fiorenza went home that evening,
her cousin Timoteo went with her
to put the heavy barrel of apples
into a safe place for the winter.
She fingered the smooth rim of the barrel
and wondered about Aunt Zola's visitor.
The next day, as Fiorenza worked in her garden
pulling up the yellowed vegetable plants,
she heard an unfamiliar voice calling out,
"Girl in the garden! Come and help an old woman."
Fiorenza straightened up and looked.
A woman stood at her gate, sure enough,
but her grey hair looked dusty and smelled of chalk
and her voice still sounded as smooth as Zola's.
"What is it that you need, grandmother?"
the herbalist asked.
"Oh, just a bit of henbane root
and some belladonna leaves,"
the woman said, swinging an empty basket.
"I'm in need of killing vermin, you see."
"I see," Fiorenza said evenly.
She narrowed her eyes
and made the little mental pivot
that sometimes let her see through illusions.
The woman's wrinkles flowed away,
replaced by a dark beauty in full bloom.
So Fiorenza harvested leaves and roots
that looked like belladonna and henbane
but were much less noxious -- a substitution
unlikely to be noticed by anyone who would
buy herbs instead of growing her own.
Hidden in the bundle was a sprig of rue, for spellbreaking,
so that all Fiorenza needed to do herself
was pick loose the tiniest thread of the illusion
and trust that the rest would unravel all the way home
like a sweater that had gotten snagged on a nail.
Doubtless the not-so-old woman would be surprised
to find that her magic poison apple wouldn't kill so much as a flea
and that whatever mischief she planned would reveal her own face.