A splash of noonday sun danced against the latticed window. Giulia paused, plate in hand, as a spider, escaping the sudden light, spooled slowly downwards on a silvery thread. If it put so much as a leg into the downstairs chamber, Mamma would kill it. Any stray crumb could pollute her work, she said. Any creature that fell into her carefully measured remedies could change the balance. Turn good to ill. Things were apt to turn into their opposite without careful attention, Mamma said, and Mamma was always right.
Fortune smiles on you today, little one, Giulia thought, Mamma is busy in the still-room.
The spider completed its acrobatic descent and was gone; spindly legs scuttling away across the windowsill, and into the blue-black shadow behind the cheese press. Giulia finished laying out the meal; yesterday’s bread, wedges from a round of hard salty cheese, pickled olives and figs from Tuscolo.
She called down the staircase, ‘It’s ready, Mamma.’
It was their servant Maria’s day off, so it was left to Giulia today to make Mamma eat. And today she was determined to make her listen.
She cocked her head. No answer.
Mamma often didn’t hear, or pretended not to, when she was involved in her work. Giulia tucked the stray wisps of hair back into her dark coiled braids, lifted her heavy skirts and went downstairs, heels clacking on the stone treads. The door was shut as usual. It seemed to her she’d been locked outside this door her entire life. Only when Mamma was ready, would she open it.
She remembered the time when she was eight years old straying into the still-room and lifting the end of a stopper to her nose to smell it. A stinging slap to the cheek. ‘Never, never do that,’ Mamma had shouted, whipping the stopper away with a gloved hand, ‘You could die.’
Since then the door was locked, until Mamma deigned to open it.
Jerking her attention back to the present, Giulia gave a double knock, louder than necessary. She’d make Mamma listen, this time.
The door swung open, and Mamma was there, angry as a wasp, a pair of red-hot tongs in her hand and a lump of something black smoking in their jaws. She hated being disturbed. ‘What?’
Giulia put a hand to her nose. The heat and noxious smell of the still room had stopped her at the threshold. There was always something on the boil down here.
‘Well, what is it, that you must knock fit to wake the dead?’ Mamma pulled down the gauze so only her sloe-black eyes were showing. The lower part of her face was covered so she did not breathe in the gases as she worked.
‘It’s ready,’ Giulia said again.
‘Food, Mamma. You put it in your mouth and swallow it, and it stops you from dying.’
‘Ha, ha. Less of that. I’m coming. What’s the hurry? Nothing will spoil. I must wait until this dissolves.’ She pointed with the tongs to a small charred pan bubbling over the fire.
‘I’m hungry,’ Giulia said, ‘even if you’re not.’ She blew onto her upper lip. ‘It’s airless again down here. How can you can bear it?’
‘Because if I don’t finish this, neither of us can afford to eat, my dove, that’s why.’
‘You should let me help more.’
Mamma dropped the smoking lump of matter into the pot. ‘This is delicate and needs a slow and steady hand. Better I do it. And never fear, there’ll be time enough for learning this when you’ve mastered the kitchen simples.’
‘They’re mastered, Mamma. I can make them blindfold, every single one. You promised you’d train me in the secret arts when I was sixteen. Then you changed your mind, and said when I was eighteen. And still, even now I’m waiting.’
Mamma threw her look that said, ‘not that old argument’. Giulia watched her mother hang up the tongs, wash in the stone basin, wipe her hands, wash and dry them again, examine them minutely, put her gloves back on, and then return to ministering to the fire.
She was used to her excessive cleanliness, though today it made her want to scream. Mamma dealt in grains and specks – granules of matter so small they could barely be seen. Not a single ant was allowed to tiptoe into her workroom; every table was scrubbed with lye and bleached white, and she made Maria burnish the tiled floor with beeswax to a high gloss.
Giulia hovered by the dispensing table, picked up a small lead weight from the scales, then put it down again. It was fruitless to discuss this again. But the words still came out of her mouth; ‘When will you train me in alchemy, Mamma? Who will make the remedies when you’re too old and sick?’
‘Tush. I’m hale as ever I was. Can’t get rid of me yet. Anyway, I’m far too occupied at the moment to spare the time.’ Mamma shrugged and turned away again to stir the pot. ‘Pass me that flask, will you.’
The sight of Mamma’s bent back, with the neat grey curls poking from under her starched cap, and the hunch of her shoulders, suddenly made Giulia furious. By God, she’d make her listen this time. Deliberately, she picked up the slender glass flask from the table, opened her fingers and let it crash to the ground.
Mamma whirled round at the sound of splintering glass, astonishment in her face.
‘Will you heed me now?’ Giulia said. ‘I’ve asked you over and over. God in heaven, I’m twenty-three years old. More than old enough for a proper share in the business. A son would have taken over by now. Instead you leave me toiling in the kitchen like a servant. Even Francesca has more responsibility than I, and she’s not even part of the family.’
‘It’s because she’s not part of the family that I use her. I’m trying to protect you. It’s more complicated than you—’
‘Oh, not those excuses again. You just want iron control over everything. I’m weary of it Mamma, weary of your promises that come to nothing. Weary of the whispers between you and Francesca. Weary of all the women that come here with their aches and pains and desperate faces. What are you all so afraid of? That I’ll make some sort of mistake and kill someone?’
Mamma’s eyes sharpened with suppressed anger. ‘Who was it that burned the wax for the liverwort balm? Who forgot to add borax to the tooth dressing? Do you think I can trust you with my remedies?’ She picked up a green-tinged bottle and brandished it before her. ‘One drop of this has healing power. Three drops can kill. Are you ready for that responsibility?’