Beltramino the sculptor and Marco the soldier fled Florence in the story “River Gods,” in the Dreamspinner Press short story anthology “Juicy Bits.”
Snow in Bethlehem
Marco’s sandaled feet left footprints in the sand; his skin crawled beneath his worn cotton robe with the quiver of the hunted. The monster behind him was not human, but a phantasm of fear. Fear for Bel, his lover Beltramino.
Beltramino lay ill, likely dying, God have Mercy. He’d been sick for three days, so sick he was incoherent with it, believing them back in Florence, the Florence they had fled seven years ago. They had no money for a physician or medicines and only made enough to feed, clothe, and house themselves. It was enough for Marco to come home to Bel, who might or might not have found work carving mother of pearl into religious items. The locals got the work first and Beltramino only if there was a lack. Which was bitter medicine, he had complained to Marco more then once, considering the Franciscan monks had taught these desert people how to carve. Marco knew Bel’s talent was wasted there, anyway.
With the Feast of the Nativity upon them, Marco had hoped to hire himself out to the pilgrims, whether interpreter, tour guide, or bodyguard or all three. The Church of the Nativity was, for some, the destination of a lifetime, and for others another stop upon the way. Within it was the Holy Crypt, where the infant Christ had lain in His manger. The church and crypt drew hundreds of people a day. It drew Marco now who, like the pilgrims surrounding him, had come to pray for something. It was all he had left.
What was it about this place–not just the church but Bethlehem itself that gathered the people of three different faiths to this place? Jewish pilgrims stopped here on their way to Jerusalem for their High Holy Day feasts, visited their ancestor Rachel’s tomb, and the birthplace of King David. Two types of Christian abided here (wasn’t one bad enough? Beltramino had chuckled in his ear their first week) and Muslims. More surprising, within the walls that protected the village from raiding desert tribes, the people lived in accord.
All this holiness, could not one of them spare a miracle for Bel? He was putting them all to the test today. If he lost Bel…it did not bear thinking. They’d gained and lost fortunes, some stolen from them or sunk to the bottom of the sea. He could bear all that and laugh in the company of clever, warm, inventive Bel and his endless optimism, his constant planning and strategizing to win the moment for them, whether it was their next meal or work. Bel and his halo of red hair, the inheritance of his Scottish grandfather, a holy hermit who had taken up residence in one of the ancient towers that dotted the countryside, to face God and his trials alone. But—in Tuscany, of all places! So rich with fertile life and beautiful women, it had called him from his lonely tower to spread his seed throughout the land. Giving Marco handsome Beltramino the sculptor who moved with him in the night, their strong bodies locked together in passionate conflict. Who had captured whom?
When they had learned Bel was sick, a few women of the neighborhood had stopped by the room they rented over a stable, creeping up the stairs with their heads covered to give advice or whatever family medicinals they could spare. It paid to be kind here, Marco had learned, though it had taken him a long time to lose his inherent distrust of all, including simple people, during their travels. His own brother had turned the Grand Duke against him, hunted him out of Florence, and took his place in the palace guard.
The village women of Bayt Lahm did not fear the two Latins from across the sea. One of them sat with Bel now while he begged for Beltramino’s life.
Marco played the pilgrim now.
The muezzin sang out the call to prayer and village men began to make their way to the mosque beside the church; a few called out to him by name. He mumbled his answers in Arabic, recalling again their shared delight that their native Tuscan was also spoken here due to the influence of the Franciscan friars.
Inside the church, Marco looked about for a place to pray in peace and quiet. Lingering by the mural of the Three Magi, he marveled at its lushness, feeling a kinship with the travelers. They were said to be physicians, learned men; perhaps he ought to pray for their intercession. He found a small chapel tucked out of the way of the pilgrims, paid for a candle with the only coin he had and lit it, his heart filled with thoughts of Beltramino.
In his mind, he addressed the three wise men bearing precious gifts. “He has so much to give the world, please, please…” He could not think of a single prayer, and his mind refused to adhere to the discipline of the olive-wood rosary in his hand, carved by Beltramino himself. “So much beauty inside him. Here, look.” He laid the rosary on the altar, then produced a meticulously rendered Christ on the Cross in the same olive wood and lay that down also. From the sack by his foot, he removed the angel carved from marble that was Bel’s pride and joy. They had once planned to bring it to the Terra Sancta College, in the hope Beltramino might gain a commission there.
Today was about Bel surviving another hour, perhaps the day and into the night; Marco sacrificed a future they may or may not have for the life Beltramino still had in him today. The little angel suited the small chapel, and Marco felt a moment of peace take hold of him. He’d done what he could. The urgent need to see Beltramino, to touch him and look into his eyes gripped him, and he hastily crossed himself as he rose to his feet.
Once he got out onto the street, he was shocked at the snowflakes falling. The children around him stuck out their tongues to catch them before they fell to the earth as raindrops.
“He sleeps,” a woman seated at the foot of the stairs that led to their room informed him. “But he is no better. My sister is with him.” She took his hand and filled it with dried figs.
“Thank you,” he said, humbled by their care of both of them.
Her sister cried out above them, jerking their heads upwards. The woman bowed her head and spoke words of sorrow.
“NO!” Marco rushed up the stairs, trying not to trip on the robes that impeded him. He pushed the door open and the woman inside rushed out, clattering down the stairs and shouting at her sister in some desert dialect Marco could not ken, but the hair rose on his arms and the back of his neck as he entered the room. “Beltramino?”
Sitting on the edge of the bed they shared, Bel looked up at him and smiled.
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