Italy, 1353 - Castle of Petrina, Val d'Era, Dioceses of Volterra.
She was so tired. Tired of travelling on foot, tired of showing devotion, tired of having to lie every single moment of her life. But there was nothing for it; she had to continue along the path she had chosen. At least they had finally arrived at their destination, the monk had said. Yes, the monk, Adso, a dirty faggot, not anything else. She had seen how he looked all the time at that simpering, girly youth, Aligi.
The famous holy relic that they had come to worship was kept in the castle's chapel. As Volterra was not deemed safe enough for it during the present troubled times, it had been moved here by the monks of the Order of San Marcus, the building itself being the property of the Bishop. Of course, the protection worked both ways. The relic appeared to have great power, apparently, as none of the monks died during the plague.
Well, good for them, thought Bonizella, who felt quite smug for having survived the plague herself, with no relic and no prayers. The pestilence had taken away her husband's son from the first wife, and his sickly family too, but he, Baccio, her husband, had survived, and he had wanted another son, a heir. That had been the problem…
Her musings were interrupted by Brother Adso, who had come to tell her to prepare for her confession.
"The Reverend Abbot will receive your confession himself. It is a great honor," he said, indicating she should walk with him. Bonizella would have dispensed with such honor, but could only follow. In fact, only after a full confession and absolution would the pilgrims be allowed to see Saint Marcus' hand in its golden case and kiss it.
Yes, Saint Marcus, the Roman soldier who had chased the creatures of the night from Volterra. Vampires, no less. And how do you exactly chase vampires? she wondered. Of course, later on, Marcus was martyrized, due to his conversion to Christianity. He was burned, but his right hand - the one which probably accomplished the vampire chasing miracle - had refused to burn and had been thereafter preserved for generations by the faithful. So, at least, the legend said.
Now… her confession, she sighed, following the monk along the silent corridors. She would never confess what she had done. But would her confessor believe her, if she had nothing serious to tell him? A trip like this was not reasonable to make, unless one needed the most profound form of absolution. Maybe she could confess fornication. That was believable and, after all, it was what priests most wanted to hear from a woman, and a beautiful woman at that, as she knew she was. In that way they could feel vicariously the pleasure that was denied to them.
Denied only in theory, of course. Bonizella wondered briefly if confessors masturbated after having elicited dirty details from their penitents. Then she lost herself in her own sweet memories. Ah, Lapo. Handsome, tall and strong, pleasuring her like her husband had never been able to. She had seduced him easily, the only problem being to keep their liaison a secret, because Lapo had fallen head over heels in love with her and could not control himself anymore. That had been the reason why she had left for the pilgrimage, humbly, on foot, with only a maid and a male servant to escort her. Lapo had been the only pleasant thing in her life for a while, but she needed him to stay far from her now, in the first months after she had become a widow. If people suspected they had been lovers before her husband died, they might also wonder if Baccio's death hadn't been too convenient. But Lapo, like one of his stallions, could barely restrain himself… and so she had been forced to leave on her journey.
Brother Adso had reached a closed door and had stopped, glancing at her over his shoulder.
"Please, enter and wait here," he said, opening the door. "Dom Aro will be with you as soon as he is free."
He put a small oil lamp on the table and left, shutting the door behind him. The room had the look of an unused cell, stark and bare. A wooden pallet with no mattress, a simple desk with a chair, a crucifix on the wall and a tiny window, with the shutters closed. There was also a kneeler and nothing else, apart from the lamp and a skull on the table. Memento Mori.
The empty orbs of the skull seemed to look at her and Bonizella shivered. She realized that the room was very dark and very cold, the oil lamp barely dispelling the shadows surrounding her. She shivered again. Somebody has just walked over my grave, she thought. No, she would not allow herself to be scared. She went down on the kneeler and shut her eyes, to compose herself. Besides, it would look good if the Abbot found her praying.
Once again, she let her mind wander. The meeting with Adso had been a Godsend, she reflected. Both the priest who was leading them and her escort had fallen ill—not the plague again, fortunately —so they were stranded in San Galgano's guest quarters and could not continue their pilgrimage. But then the young monk had arrived, with a small party of his own and had proposed to those who were willing to continue, that they go along with him to a holy place much nearer than their original destination.
Like others, she had agreed immediately, and left her maid to take care of the sick man who was supposed to protect her. So she was alone now, and good riddance to them. There were other women in the pilgrims' group and she was, after all, a respectable widow. Plus, her pious intention to continue the pilgrimage despite the difficulties would surely enhance her reputation as a devout and righteous woman.
And now, they had arrived. Already a small number of her fellow pilgrims had gone to confession before her. She had not seen them afterward, as they were going to wait in an underground chapel, doing their penance and fasting. In the morning, they would worship the holy relic, assist to a High Mass, take communion and finally, hopefully, have their breakfast. Fortunately, she had had her lunch that day, at least. A generous one. The monks here were not stingy like the ones of other monasteries they had stayed in.
She opened her eyes again, but the darkness was very oppressive, so she let her lids close again. Unbidden memories of her lover taunted her. Carnal memories that were not appropriate to the moment. Lapo' shaft inside her, his unrelenting thrusts… his hands caressing her everywhere, touching her in all the forbidden places…
She felt wet, hot and bothered and fought against the sensations. It would not do if her confessor found her flushed and distracted.
There was a soft rustle of cloth and she opened her eyes again. A man, or better, a monk, was sitting at the table now. Oh, this must be the Abbot. An ageless face with very dark pupils, pale skin and elegant hands, clasping each other on the table. She noticed the enormous ruby adorning one of them. He proffered his hand to be kissed.
She raised respectfully and took his hand, lowering her head to kiss the stone of his ring. His skin was deadly cold, but then again, so was the room.
"Father, forgive me because I have sinned" Bonizella murmured, kneeling again.
The Abbot freed his head from the cowl. Surprised, she noticed that his hair was not tonsured. Straight and jet black, it was tied down on the nape of his neck. Well, maybe Abbots were not obliged to follow the Rule and, come to think of it, alsoBrother Adso was not tonsured, albeit his hair was short. Strange Order. The Abbot's robe was black like the other monks'. But, where theirs were a rough homespun, his was made of the finest wool. Like velvet, almost. A golden cross rested on his breast.
After the usual question about the time elapsed from her last confession, it was time to tell him something. With the appropriate show of reluctance, she admitted to sexual intercourse with a man after she was widowed, wondering if he was going to ask for details and uncertain if she should satisfy his prurient curiosity or not.
He surprised her instead with his response.
"Daughter, look at me," he said sternly. "You know that to lie to your confessor is a mortal sin. When did this young man become your lover?"
She looked and she was captured, like a mouse by a snake. His obsidian pupils bore into hers. Still, she wouldn't speak.
"How did you met him?" the Abbot insisted.
"He is our stable keeper," she answered, because this track seemed safer.
"A stable hand?" His smooth voice was full of disdain.
Offended that he would think she could sink so low, Bonizella reacted out of pride. Knowing full well that the less she told him, the better, still she tried to explain herself.
"No, we… I mean, my husband, kept a large stock of pure breed horses, not just to use, but to sell. He... yes, this young man, he was the overseer. He went to fairs and markets. He took care of everything…"
"And your husband, undoubtedly, trusted him. When did he discover he was your lover?"
Damn him, he knew… he knew. How was this possible?
"No, no, he did not know… then he got sick.."
Hell, she had admitted that her liaison had begun not when she was already a widow, but before. An adulteress, she had just admitted to having been an adulteress. But the fact that her husband at a certain point had known or suspected it? No, this secret had to stay concealed, because it was the reason why she….
But the confessor was unrelenting.
"Of course, my child, adultery is a much worse sin than just intercourse out of wedlock. Why did you commit it? Was it just lust, or... perhaps something more?"
She wanted to raise and run from the cell. But she couldn't. If this went on much longer she would spill everything.
"No…yes... of course. Lapo is handsome and strong…"
"Young, handsome and strong. A very good choice for fathering your child… to provide a heir to your husband, I suppose."
Satan take him! How did he know? He seemed to know everything.
"Well, that would not hurt anyone, surely, the gift of a child?" she admitted. "Baccio desired an heir after the plague took his son by his first wife and his grandchildren. But… he was not the man he was before. He had caught the mumps from his wife, who had died of it. Doctors don't know anything," Bonizella could not prevent herself from snorting in contempt. "But wise women know that if an adult male gets the mumps, he is unlikely to father children afterwards. So we were childless. I know that what I did was wrong, but a baby would have made Baccio so happy."
Here now: she had managed to paint herself as a loving wife, somehow. Sinning, yes, but only to give her husband his heart's desire.
But such was not to be. The Abbot rose to his feet, towering over her kneeling form, his voice like thunder.
"Beware, woman, you are mocking God and this Sacrament. So, you keep the company of 'wise women'? There is the stake, for witches!"
Now, truly terrified, Bonizella needed to divert his mind from this dangerous path. Whatever she had done, she had never tried the black arts, never. She did not believe in magic, basically, whether it be black or white.
"No, no, never that. I swear upon the Holy Cross, Father," she cried.
"Fine, I'll believe you, but you are walking on a very narrow path, 'daughter'," he taunted her. "From now on, not even the smallest lie must pass you lips."
He sat down again and Bonizella nodded her head in response.
"An admission to committing the sin of adultery purely for the husband's sake is a rare event, indeed. I wonder if you weren't afraid that he would get rid of a barren wife?"
Her temper once got the better of her. Unwisely.
"Yes, yes, too true!" she spat. "Rich men can always find a way to bend the Church's rules, can they not? He would work his will to have our marriage annulled, and try his luck with younger flesh. I… I could not accept it."
"Be careful of how you speak of the Church. But, at least you are telling the truth. I know it. I feel it."
She relaxed. Maybe he would release her now, with a heavy penance. And eventually she could go back and be in Lapo's arms.
"But you have more to tell me, don't you?" the Abbot continued. "Let me help your memory, then. So, you were not getting pregnant, and maybe one day your husband saw you slipping out of a room where you had no reason to be. I suppose it went like that. He suspected and would soon confront you with your actions, you feared. "
Damn, him, damn him. He knew everything, could he read her mind? Now she truly had to lie, or she was undone. But she was not given the time to add anything, because the confessor continued.
"You were in a dangerous situation, indeed. I can well see that. So what did you do then?"
She remained obstinately mute, her head lowered.
"It is impossible for you to suppress forever the need of confessing your sin, my child. And, even if you do not speak, I know of your actions. They are so predictable. Let us see: your husband was a glutton, and very fond of mushrooms, wasn't he? Mm, very dangerous things, mushrooms. One must know them well, because a mistake is so easy to make. So easy to mix a poisonous one in with the others. This is why, personally, I never eat them."
At that point, Bonizella lost her senses and collapsed to the floor.
When she recovered, after a few moments, her ears rumbling, she was sitting on the pavement. The Abbot was kneeling at her side, keeping her upright, with an amused expression on his face. Amused? she wondered to herself. Why amused?
And to think that she had been so careful, so careful. She had found the amanita herself, and kept it concealed. When a small basket of porcini was brought to her house by a farmer, she ordered them cooked and then slipped the bad one into the saucepan when nobody was looking. Then she had professed herself unwell, declined her supper and gone to bed early. Baccio was indeed a glutton - she knew that he would eat them all. And since he was prone to colic and other ailments, and was not young, nobody had considered it too strange, when in the morning he was found dead. The cook, having prepared the mushrooms, had been particularly loud in her affirmation that he had died of indigestion, as he surely ate always too much. The merchant did not share a room with his wife, because he snored, he just visited her sometime, so that also had helped to free her from suspicions.
However, this demon in monk's robes knew everything, somehow. Surely, he was in league with the Devil. Indeed, he probably was a stregone. But fear wouldn't get her anywhere now, and so she continued to recount her tale of sin.
"Yes, I poisoned my husband, because I was afraid of what would happen to me and to Lapo," she said. "There, I have admitted it. But you, 'Father', must keep secret what you hear in confession. Otherwise your sin would be worse than mine."
At this last outburst, the Abbot laughed, but the mirth did not reach his eyes.
"Feisty, aren't you? Have no fear. What has passed here will remain here. Forever. But now, we must discuss your penance." And then he tore at her dress.
It came apart like gauze under his hands and her throat and breasts were exposed. Oh that, she sighed, just that. Intercourse. If that was all he wanted, well, that was easy. Repulsed as she was by him, she still could do it. He was just a man, after all, like any other man,
But he surprised her once more. No lecherous hands palming her breasts. No greedy fingers grasping her waist or hips. Nothing of the sort. He was… sniffing her.
"Oh, how good was the choice of you as my penitent. I have rarely been so entertained, and you smell wonderful, my dear. So, I'll be generous and make it quick."
He opened his mouth wide and his white teeth glistened.
I postulate that at a certain point during the Middle Ages it made sense for Aro and his coven to masquerade as monks, a status that would grant them power and protection. There were fewer women in the Volturi ranks at the time but, for female vampires in the coven, a nunnery would do (maybe with an underground passage…)
The name Castle of Petrina, quoted only once in an ancient chronicle is not identified with historical accuracy. Not far from Volterra there were a number of similar castles, controlled by the Dioceses. I choose Petrina exactly because its story is obscure.
The Volturi feed on tourists, don't they? Well, pilgrimages were the only form of tourism known at that age, the only chance for people not of the aristocracy to see a little of the world. Not everybody could go to Jerusalem, Rome or Santiago of Compostela, though, so many choose nearer destinations. The endeavour was motivated by devotion and atonement, mostly, but I can easily imagine a wife telling her husband "I made a vow, I have to go on a pilgrimage for this and this reason…" in this way she saved herself from another pregnancy for a while, and got rid of a vexing spouse, for a while… Bonizella, however, had her own special reasons for going, as we have seen.
Bonizella is a name still current in the Province of Siena. The Blessed Bonizella Piccolomini lived a little before the events and was (still is) very revered. The name of the young vampire-monk, Adso, is my homage to The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. And, no, he is not gay at all. (It is good to note that Eco himself, in choosing for his sleuth-monk the name of Guglielmo da Baskerville, was paying homage to Conan Doyle…)
The confessional was introduced only after the Council of Trento (1545-1563). Before, penitents and confessors faced each other openly.