Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Poem: "A Small Separation"

This poem came out of the September 13, 2011 donor prompt session.  It was inspired by prompts from jenny_evergreen, haikujaguar, marina_bonomi, and siege.  It is posted here as the free series poem selected in the poll for the February 7, 2012 Poetry Fishbowl reading the $250 threshold.  This poem belongs to the series Fiorenza the Wisewoman, and you can explore that further on the Serial Poetry page.

A Small Separation

When the messenger came
all the way from Urbino
to plead for Fiorenza's aid,
all she could think to say was,
"How in the world did anyone there
even know about me to ask?"

The messenger bowed low, and lower,
and said to Fiorenza, "Gracious miss,
Duke Francesco has many friends in Fermo
who speak well of a village herbalist wise in magic.
The glass house that stands in your garden
is a token of his grandfather's regard.
Please say that you will come."

"Very well," said Fiorenza.
"Tell me what the problem is."

"The Palazzo Ducale is sinking,"
the messenger said gravely,
"more on one side than the other.
Also, something has gone wrong with the studiolo, (1)
making quite a commotion in the night."

"I know nothing of architecture,"
Fiorenza pointed out.
"You know much of magic,"
the messenger replied,
"and in any case, I am assigned to hire you
if you will but accept this commission."

So Fiorenza made the arrangements
for a journey away from the village.
She asked her aunt Zola
to look after mad Ercole the veteran,
who could not look after himself very well.
She suggested that if anything
went horribly wrong while she was gone,
someone should go and consult Giacinto.

Then Fiorenza went to visit
the little city on the river Mataurus,
where the Palazzo Ducale rose above its cliff
to overlook the lands below.
She rode to the palace in a handsome coach
drawn by a pair of fine black horses,
their manes done up in ribbons of blue and gold.
They took an old Roman road along the coast
for most of the way, then turned inland
on the ancient consular through the mountains.

The sharp peaks and valleys there
looked so different from her familiar fields
that they seemed like a foreign land.
Late summer at home turned to early autumn
as they climbed, harvesters picking not peaches
but grapes in the fields that they passed.
At last they reached Urbino itself, and Fiorenza
felt like a little girl again, dreaming of flight
as the streets of the city swept by in a blur of colors.

The messenger rode beside her,
and if he thought her hopelessly provincial
for staring and gasping at the sights,
he said nothing of it.
When they reached the Palazzo Ducale,
he handed her down from coach like a fine lady
and led her to the court where the Duke awaited.

There the messenger bowed his lowest bow
and announced in a clear ringing voice,
"Fiorenza of the village of Nocciolaia." (2)
Then Fiorenza curtseyed as best she could,
and silently swallowed her nerves,
and took counsel with the Duke on his problems.

Duke Francesco told her all about the tilting of the foundation,
and named the half-dozen architects he had consulted
(the last of whom had sworn it was surely due to magic,
and not some hidden fault in the land or the palace proper).
He told her all about the studiolo  too,
and the clamor it made in the middle of night,
as if something had come loose and clattered around in it --
except that nothing was ever found to be out of place
and all the tiny slats of the famous intarsi  inlays (3)
remained firmly fastened so they could not so much as creak.

Fiorenza promised to consider the problems.
The messenger patiently led her on a tour of the palace,
walking through every hall and room and alcove,
even opening all the closets and cupboards.
When the people of the palace complained of the interruptions,
the messenger merely said, "It is the Duke's will
that this woman examine the Palazzo Ducale in every detail,"
and the protesters fell silent.

For all their diligence, however,
the palace kept its secrets.
Fiorenza's patience lasted for two days,
but on the third night, she abandoned her guest room
and slept in a nest of blankets on the floor of the studiolo.

Then when she heard the noise begin,
she swiftly lit a candle,
and to her amazement she saw
several pieces of the intarsi
come to life!

The books and their candle remained quiet,
no more than clever inlays of wood,
but the astronomical instruments
whizzed around the room as if taking measurements
for some grand experiment of their own design.
As soon as they noticed her regard, however,
they returned at once to their former stance.

The next morning, Fiorenza informed the Duke
that she had identified the source of the noise,
and invited him to bed down with her in the studiolo
so that he could see it for himself.

"I am certain that is quite improper,"
Duke Francesco demurred.
"Well," Fiorenza said a bit tartly,
"if you fear for your virtue,
then I suppose you may remain awake!"
The Duke laughed then, and agreed
that they could sleep in opposite corners.

That night, the astrological instruments
came to life again, and Fiorenza lit a candle
so that the Duke could observe them in action.
He grinned like a little boy to see them flying about
and then, quite suddenly, disappear into the inlays again.

"Do you know," he said to Fiorenza,
"I have quite changed my mind
about this part of the problem!
I believe I like the studiolo  this way."

"Be that as it may," Fiorenza said,
"you tasked me with finding the cause.
I believe the items on these walls,
made as they were with the old magic,
grow restless if nobody pays attention to them.
See, you have people reading books, so the books are still.
It would not do leave some of the other things lonely forever."

"Would they not cease these antics, though?"
Duke Francesco inquired in a regretful tone.
"Of course," said Fiorenza, "but you have only
to hire an astronomer -- and retire a musician or two!
Simply change about every few years.  That way,
neither you nor your studiolo  will ever grow bored."

That left the question of the sinking foundation.
Fiorenza tried camping out in odd corners again,
but nothing else revealed itself, so she returned
to the sumptuous guest room with its featherbed.
She crawled around the floors of the palace,
poking at the baseboards and prying gently at the tiles.
Still she found nothing, and it grew quite annoying.

On Sunday, Fiorenza had her head inside a linen closet
when she felt the energy of the palace heave and drop.
She dashed through the halls, chasing the trace as it faded,
desperate to find the source while she still had a chance.
Fiorenza skidded around a corner and all but crashed into the Duke
and a startled-looking priest holding a bejeweled Bible.

"I trust there is some reason for this disturbance,"
Duke Francesco said sternly.
"What is going on  down here?" Fiorenza demanded.
"What did you just do?  Whatever it was,
it has something to do with your tilting palace."

"It was just the Sunday blessing," the Duke said, baffled.
"Every week there is a little reading in the chapel."
Fiorenza looked around.  They were indeed in the vestibule
before the Chapel of Absolution and the Temple of the Muses. (4)
Fiorenza clapped her hands in delight.  "That's it, then!"
"What in the world do you mean by that?" the Duke asked.

Fiorenza pointed at the elegant inscription:
Bina vides parvo discrimine iuncta sacella:
altera pars musis, altera sacra deo est.
Then she waved a hand and the bemused priest.
"You're pouring energy into one side, but not the other,"
Fiorenza explained to the Duke. 
"What happens if you put weights in one pan of a scale?"

"The scale tips," the Duke murmured.
"How can I solve the problem, though?
I do not wish to halt the Sunday readings."

Fiorenza grinned at him.  "Just weight the other side,"
she said.  "Surely you can find someone
who tends the little shrines in the fields."
She glanced at the inscription again and added,
"Have your musicians perform in there too.
After all, it is the Temple of the Muses."

Duke Francesco inclined his head and declared,
"It shall be done.  You truly are as clever
as your reputation implies, Fiorenza."

She blushed and thanked him, then explained,
"Really, it's just a matter of balance.
Our world is built on the ruins of the old.
The past supports and sustains the present."
She waved a hand at the chapel and the temple.
"Even our architecture reflects it sometimes,
and the shrines on the roads to the churches.
We must remember to honor all that is holy,
not just this saint or that spirit, one place or another.
A small separation is all it takes to balance the scales."

So the puzzles of the Palazzo Ducale were solved,
and Fiorenza was free to return to Nocciolaia.
The Duke sent her home with a small pouch of gold,
and an exquisite ceramic plate glazed with the Muses,
and several crates of glass and fixtures to expand her garden house.
It was all terribly exciting, and Fiorenza was glad to be done with it.

She gave half the gold to Don Candido,
who gawked at her in astonishment and asked,
"Fiorenza, whatever is all of this for?"
"It's for the village, of course," she replied,
tilting her head quizzically.  "Honestly, Don Candido,
what would I do with a whole bag of gold?
I'm sure you know someone who needs it more than I do."

She didn't tell him that she'd given the other half,
minus a couple of coins for herself,
to the shepherds who kept the little stone shrines.

- - -

1. The studiolo  is a tiny room in the Palazzo Ducale, whose name means "a small study or cabinet for contemplation."

2. The name Nocciolaia means "Hazel Grove."  Special thanks to Marina Bonomi for naming the village, in concert with the Italian tradition of naming villages after such local features.  I asked her to name the village when I realized that Fiorenza would be introduced that way.

3. Intarsi  is an Italian art form using wooden slats to create splendid inlays.

4. The twin chapels comprise another famous feature of the Palazzo Ducale.  One is dedicated to the Muses, the other to God.  Although it exists in our world as well, I find it exceptionally apt for Fiorenza's Italy, which balances the different spiritual traditions better.

5.  You see a pair of chapels, joined together with a small separation:
     the one part is sacred to the Muses, the other sacred to God.

Further Reading

The Duke here is Francesco Maria II della Rovere, Duke of Urbino.  That finally gave us a specific time period for this series, although we had been gradually narrowing it down for a while.

Maiolica is a type of decorative glazed ceramic for which the city of Urbino is justifiably famous.  It is one of the gifts that the Duke presents to Fiorenza, after she solves the mysteries of the Palazzo Ducale.  I am in awe of that building.

Tags: cyberfunded creativity, fantasy, fishbowl, gender studies, history, magic, poem, poetry, reading, spirituality, writing

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