Rosalia's Bittersweet Pastry Shop (9 page)

Madre Carmela nodded her head. She looked pale. Rosalia wondered if this was all too much for her to hear. But there was no stopping now. She had to relay the whole story.
“Marco led me back to where he'd been keeping me in the cave. He tied me to a wooden chair he sat on when he was with me. At night, thankfully, he didn't sleep with me. He slept on the ground on the opposite side of where my hay bed lay. After he tied me, he brought his face close to mine, and then he pressed a hunting knife against my throat.
“In that moment, I prayed silently.
God, please let him kill me. Please let this ordeal finally end.
“Can you believe that, Madre Carmela? I prayed for death. I couldn't go on living like that any longer, and, when I thought about how he'd stolen my maidenhood, I wanted to die as well.
“But God didn't answer my prayers that day. All Marco did was keep the knife pressed against my throat while he threatened my family and me.
“He said, ‘If I catch you trying to escape again, I will give you the worst beating yet, and I will make sure your family pays, too.'
“Every day afterward, he threatened me with a possible scenario of what he would do to my family. He even told me he would kidnap my little sister, Cecilia.
“He continued to starve me. I begged him, ‘Marco, please, I'm so hungry. I need to eat more.'
“But all he fed me were those
cookies—one a day. The thought of those cookies now makes me want to vomit. And to think I had thought they were so beautiful when I first laid eyes upon them before he kidnapped me. I was also very dehydrated for he only gave me one cup of water for the entire day. I became so desperate that I began telling him what he wanted to hear.
“ ‘Marco, when are we getting married? When are we going to start our lives together and leave this cave? You were right. I want to be your wife. Only you can make me happy,' I said, doing my best to sound as convincing as possible.
“He looked pleased when I said this. He came over and kissed me on the lips. I wanted to die. He began caressing my arms and back, and I thought,
Oh no! What have I done? He will rape me again.
But he didn't. Then in an instant he snapped and punched me in my stomach. I collapsed on the ground, writhing in pain. He kicked me a few times and then dragged me to the chair and tied me up again.
“When I was no longer sore from the last beating, I vowed I would find the exit to the cave. After my first attempt to escape, he tied me every day. And on some days, he would keep me bound even after he'd returned from work.
“He kept the chair I was tied to against the wall of the cave, never thinking I might try to use the jagged edges of the cave wall to gnaw away at my ropes. And that's exactly what I did. I became so tired from the effort of rubbing my wrists against the wall. My arms were scraped, but I ignored the stinging. Once I got free, I stood up. My legs were shaking so badly, and I felt very dizzy, so I got down on my knees and crawled.
“I don't know how long I crawled, but I managed to find a dim light coming through a crack in one of the passageways in the cave. Finally! I knew this had to be the passageway that would lead me outside. I struggled to get to my feet once more, hoping I could get out of the cave faster. My heart raced as I stumbled along, holding onto the wall for support. As I kept walking, the light became brighter, and I knew I was definitely on the right path.
“Once I stepped outside, I was so overcome with relief. I fell onto my knees again and cried. I didn't even care that I was in the middle of a forest—that much of what Marco had told me was true. I was just so happy to be out of that cave. But when I tried to stand back up again, I blacked out. The next thing I remember was your face, Madre.”
Madre Carmela was crying again. Wiping her tears with the back of her hand, she shook her head before saying, “I suspected you had been violated, Rosalia, and the bruises and the bump on the back of your head told me you had been beaten. And yes, I could tell from your emaciated body, you were severely malnourished, but even though I suspected all this, it still did not prepare me to hear how much you suffered at the hands of that man. I'm so sorry, Rosalia.”
“If you hadn't found me that day outside the cave, Madre Carmela, who knows where I would be now? I wouldn't put it past Marco to have killed me. His rage seemed to be growing.”
“Do not think about that. What is important is that you are safe now. I am going to leave and let you get some rest—unless you would like me to wait until you fall asleep?”
“No, that is all right. You can go, Madre. You are right. I must get some rest, for I will have a big day tomorrow, especially now that I remember my surname and the name of my father's shop. That should help the police find the town where my family lives much quicker. Don't you think?”
“Absolutely, Rosalia. We will soon learn the name of your hometown, and you'll be reunited with your family once more. You can then put this nightmare behind you.”
“I don't know about that, Madre. How can I put what happened behind me until Marco is caught? I'm afraid he will find me. But I haven't been afraid here at the convent. There's no way he would find me here, Madre. Still, my place is with my family. I cannot let my fear of Marco keep me apart from them any longer.”
“For all you know, Marco might be long gone. When he discovered you had escaped, I'm sure he was terrified that you went to the police and that they would be looking for him.”
“I hope you're right.”
Madre Carmela kissed Rosalia on the forehead. “
Buona sera.
I will bring you some food later. But see if you can sleep for a bit. You will feel better when you wake up. I promise you.”
Rosalia smiled. “
Madre Carmela. I will miss you and the other sisters who took care of me these past few weeks.”
“We will miss you, too, my child. Now get some rest.”
Madre Carmela turned to leave. Before she closed the door behind her, she glanced at Rosalia. Her eyes were closed, and she still looked like an innocent child. But Madre Carmela knew Marco had stolen Rosalia's innocence in more ways than one, and Rosalia would never again be the same young woman she once was.
As Madre Carmela made her way back down to the kitchen, she silently prayed,
Please, God, help Rosalia gain strength and courage. Please protect her for the rest of her days. She has suffered enough.
Though Madre Carmela believed in God and realized she could not understand why bad things happened to good people like Rosalia, her faith was tested whenever she heard such horrible stories. Taking a deep breath, she entered the kitchen and did what she always did when her spirits were especially low: She sampled a sweet. She decided to try one of the
Ossa dei Morti
—Bones of the Dead cookies—that had just come out of the oven.
As Madre Carmela crunched down on the hard, sugary cookie, she was taken aback. Turning to Sorella Domenica, who was pounding away at an immense ball of dough—no doubt taking her frustrations out on it as she always appeared to be doing—Madre Carmela asked, “Who baked this sheet of
Ossa dei Morti?
Do you know, Sorella Domenica?”
Without looking up from her kneading, Sorella Domenica said, “It was your new disciple, Rosalia.”
Madre Carmela frowned. Sorella Domenica's sarcasm was not lost on her. Though no one was immune to Sorella Domenica's sour temper, Madre Carmela still expected respect. After all, she was the mother superior. And frankly, Madre Carmela had just about had it with the nun's nasty temperament. She prayed for Sorella Domenica and had hoped she would soften as she aged, but instead her behavior only seemed to be getting more abrasive.
talk to your mother superior in that tone, Sorella Domenica. I will not have it! And if I hear you say anything disparaging toward that girl again, you will be punished. In fact, your behavior needs to change. There will be repercussions if I don't see you making more of an effort to act kindly toward the other sisters and even our lay workers. Am I making myself clear?”
Sorella Domenica's face colored, but Madre Carmela knew it was not from shame. For nothing shamed her. Instead, her change in complexion was due to the fact that she was absolutely livid.

Mi dispiace,
Madre,” she said in a low tone as she slightly tilted her head, meeting Madre Carmela's gaze, but only for a moment before she looked back down to her dough and resumed kneading.
“Are you sure Rosalia baked these cookies?”

Madre. That was all she worked on when she was here hours ago. I haven't seen her since I found her running through the corridors. She almost ran into me.” Sorella Domenica paused for a moment, before quickly adding, “I'm sure she had her reasons for running though.”
Madre Carmela pursed her lips. “I see.
Sorella Domenica.” She knew the nun was dying to make some comment about Rosalia's disrespectful behavior of running through the convent, but had thought better of it.
“May I ask, Madre, why you want to know if Rosalia baked that last batch of
Ossa dei Morti?
Are they not to your satisfaction?” Sorella Domenica finally stopped kneading as she waited for Madre Carmela's response.
“Actually, they exceed my expectations. They are quite possibly the most delicious
Ossa dei Morti
that I've ever tasted. The girl must have a natural talent for baking.” Madre Carmela smiled, enjoying the cross expression that came over Sorella Domenica's face as she said this.

Sorella.” With that, Madre Carmela took her leave.
As she exited the kitchen, she stole a glance in Sorella Domenica's direction and caught her sampling one of the Bones of the Dead cookies Rosalia had baked. Madre Carmela softly laughed to herself. She knew what she had said to the grumpy nun was the best punishment she could dole out to her. For Sorella Domenica's weakness, in addition to her quick temper, was to obsess. No doubt she would be agonizing all evening over why Rosalia's cookies tasted incredibly delicious.
Gelo di Cioccolato
November 26, 1955
adre Carmela was standing over one of the gas ranges, whisking feverishly the chocolate she was melting in a saucepan of water to make
Gelo di Cioccolato
—a chocolate pudding dessert based on a recipe passed down from Benedictine monks in the eighteenth century. The pudding was one of Madre Carmela's favorite desserts, but she often made it when she was feeling down. And today was such a day—for Rosalia would finally be going home to be reunited with her family.
The police had been searching for the tailor shop Rosalia's father owned for the past four weeks. Yesterday, the police inspector, L'ispettore Franco, finally had brought Madre Carmela the good news that they had located a shop by the name of Sarto DiSanta in the village of Terme Vigliatore, which wasn't too far from Santa Lucia del Mela. Madre Carmela was surprised that Marco hadn't taken Rosalia very far from her hometown. She would've thought he'd go as far as possible to evade capture. But then again, Marco sounded absolutely insane, so she could not expect he would have been more rational.
When Madre Carmela had given the good news to Rosalia and told her the authorities would set out the next day to let her family know she was safe, she had insisted on also going. Naturally, the poor girl was anxious to be reunited with her family. Madre Carmela would accompany Rosalia and the police to Terme Vigliatore after they had their midday meal.
Though she was happy for Rosalia, she couldn't help feeling sad that she would not see the beautiful young woman anymore. It had pleased her so much to see Rosalia bloom back to life since they had found her by the cave. And the girl had even taken a liking to helping the sisters and the lay workers in the kitchen, where she learned to make a new pastry every day. Madre Carmela still could not believe how quickly Rosalia had taken to pastry making, but what astounded her even more was the young woman's natural talent for baking. She seemed to possess a photographic memory and was able to remember the ingredients to a recipe after only learning it once. Madre Carmela had watched her bake a few of their popular pastries, which they made several times a week, and every time, Rosalia remembered the ingredients.
Madre Carmela sighed. Shaking her head, she mentally scolded herself.
Shame on you! You should be happy for the girl and not feeling sad that you will miss her.
The chocolate had finally melted to the perfect thick, but not too thick, consistency she wanted. She reached for a wooden spoon and scooped up a little of the chocolate. Blowing on it first so she wouldn't scald her tongue, she tasted the melted chocolate.
È buono!
” She closed her eyes, reveling in the rich, silky chocolate. Instantly, her mood lifted. She would put some of the pudding aside for Rosalia to take home to her family.

Madre Carmela.”
“Rosalia! You look so pretty today.”
She was wearing a violet-colored dress that contrasted perfectly with her raven hair, which was tied in a loose ponytail with a matching violet ribbon. The ponytail was swept to the side and lay over her left shoulder. There was an unmistakable glow in her face. She was happy.

Madre Carmela. Anunziata let me borrow this dress.”
Anunziata was one of the lay workers at the pastry shop, and she also resided at the convent. Rosalia and Anunziata had formed a friendship during the past month. Madre Carmela had seen Anunziata earlier that morning, and she, too, looked sad—no doubt that she would be losing her new friend.
“That was nice of Anunziata.”
Rosalia nodded her head. “I will miss her, as well as you and everyone else, Madre Carmela. But you'll see me again when I come back to return Anunziata's dress.”
Madre Carmela's heart leaped for a moment, hearing that she would see Rosalia again. But she couldn't help wondering if Rosalia's family would allow her to come back. She had wondered if she should tell Rosalia to feel free to visit anytime she wanted. But Madre Carmela didn't want the girl to feel obligated and as if she were in any debt toward the convent for having nursed her back to health. After all, the sisters always helped others in service to God, and not in hopes of getting or expecting anything in return. So she refrained from encouraging Rosalia to visit.
“And we will miss you, too, Rosalia. Try some of this chocolate that I have melted for a pudding. We will have it for dessert.” Madre Carmela spooned up a good dollop of chocolate and held it out for Rosalia to taste.
Rosalia leaned forward and carefully tasted the hot, melted chocolate. “

“Wait until it is done. It will taste even better. There is no doubt you will be dreaming about it tonight.”
Rosalia laughed. “I am certain of it. Thank you, Madre, for everything. I will never forget all that you and the other nuns have done for me.”
“I am just happy your health has been restored and that you will be with your family soon. You must be so excited.”
“I am. I hardly slept last night in anticipation.”
“Well, soon enough, you will be back home.”
A few hours later, Rosalia was seated at one of two long rectangular tables where the sisters and the lay workers who lived at the convent took their meals. The convent had no formal dining room, and there was no space in the kitchen for the tables, so the only place the nuns could fit them was in a corridor. Fortunately, the corridor was only a few feet from the kitchen, so that the nuns weren't forced to walk a long distance carrying heavy pots and platters filled with food.
Madre Carmela had insisted Rosalia, as the guest of honor, sit at the head of the table where Madre Carmela normally sat. Rosalia couldn't help but notice Sorella Domenica frown when Madre Carmela had first suggested she sit in her seat. Her new friend, Anunziata, sat to her right.
“Rosalia, I was thinking maybe I can come visit you on my days off. You can show me around your town.” Anunziata was twirling her long braid around her finger, something Rosalia had noticed she did habitually whenever she seemed anxious. Anunziata's hair reminded her of the amber color of honey.
“I would love it if you came to visit me in Terme Vigliatore, Anunziata. And I will come visit you and everyone else here, too.”
“You must promise, Rosalia. We have had people here who were passing by and swore they would come back, but never did. Please swear you won't be one of those people.” Anunziata held her stare.
“I promise. Besides, I could never turn my back on the women who saved me.” Rosalia reached over and squeezed her new friend's hand.
Anunziata smiled before excusing herself. “I'm going to help the sisters bring the food out.”
“Let me help, too.” Rosalia began to stand, but Anunziata placed a firm hand on her shoulder.
“You are the guest of honor.”
Rosalia thought of protesting, but knew it wouldn't amount to much. Madre Carmela and everyone else had treated her like a guest of honor for most of her stay at the convent. She was almost surprised they had let her help out with the pastry making. Rosalia sighed. While she was thrilled she would be with her family again soon, she was also a bit sad that she would no longer be a part of creating the most amazing pastries. She had thoroughly enjoyed watching the workers and learning from them. And when she made a sweet, and it came out just as it should, Rosalia felt a tremendous sense of fulfillment she'd never felt before.
Her eyes traveled around the two immense dining tables. Each seated twelve people. There were fifteen nuns and five lay workers in residence at the convent. But the convent also employed six workers from the village who did not live on the premises. All the lay workers were women. At nineteen years old, Anunziata was the youngest of the lay workers. The convent had taken her in along with two other orphan girls during the war. Anunziata's father had been killed while he fought as part of Mussolini's army in Ethiopia. And her mother had died while giving birth to Anunziata's stillborn brother. The other two orphans had left the convent when they turned eighteen and had found jobs that would allow them to live on their own. Though Madre Carmela had encouraged Anunziata to pursue other opportunities outside of the convent, she had no interest in leaving. She was also a skilled baker who had a talent for adding new twists to classic pastries.
The oldest lay worker was a woman in her sixties whose real name was Mariuccia, but everyone called her Mari. Anunziata had told Rosalia that there had been some scandal in Mari's youth that had brought her to the convent, but Anunziata had not been able to pry from the other nuns or lay workers what Mari's sordid past was. Though Rosalia was curious, she didn't think it was right for Anunziata to be snooping around and hoping that the other workers would gossip with her and reveal what Mari's secret was. Mari was quite tall with a lithe body and graceful movements, almost like a dancer's. She always wore her hair, which was completely white, in a braid wrapped around her head. Her large black eyes were striking even in her advanced age. Rosalia could tell just from looking at her eyes that Mari had been through much suffering. Besides exchanging small pleasantries with Rosalia and the other women in the kitchen, Mari wasn't much of a talker. She often hummed to herself while she worked, and it was in these moments that Rosalia noticed she looked the most content.
Then there was Lidia, a widow in her thirties whose husband had fought and died in the war. She had struggled with her finances after her husband died and lost her home. With just a small suitcase, she had walked the streets for two days, going from neighborhood to neighborhood, asking for work at all the shops and restaurants she came across. Then on the third morning, she was lured by the aromas coming from the windows where the pastry shop sold its goods. She went up to one of the nuns behind the windows and asked if they needed a dishwasher. The nuns put her to work not only washing dishes, but also helping out with whatever menial tasks the bakers needed done. She worked from dawn, when the nuns rose to begin their baking, to when they closed the shop in the evenings at six p.m., right before the nuns left for their vespers. Then she slept outside in the village, wherever she could find a quiet, hidden spot where no one would bother her. She never told the nuns she was homeless. But one day, Madre Carmela had caught Lidia late at night in the kitchen making the most exquisite sugar roses for the wedding cake of a customer. Lidia thought she would be fired and had cried when she explained to Madre Carmela that she used to make wedding cakes for the women in her town and could not resist making a few sugar roses for their customer's cake. Instead of firing her, Madre Carmela appointed her the decorator for all their special-occasion cakes and even bumped up slightly her wages. That was when Lidia finally confessed to Madre Carmela that she had nowhere to live, and asked the mother superior if she could forgo the increase in her wages and instead stay at the convent. Madre Carmela had given her a room.
Elisabetta and Teresa were the last two lay workers living at the convent and the ones who intrigued Rosalia the most. They were sisters, but were worlds apart even though only two years separated them in age. They were both in their twenties. Elisabetta was the younger sister. She had rich chestnut-colored hair that she wore down whenever she wasn't working in the convent. And when she was working, she kept it pulled back in a severe, high bun, which emphasized her aquiline nose and high cheekbones. Elisabetta's demeanor was very reserved—even more so than that of many of the nuns at the convent. She was not mean like Sorella Domenica, but she wasn't exactly warm either. Madre Carmela had told Rosalia that Elisabetta was seriously considering becoming a nun. Before Rosalia had learned Elisabetta was younger than Teresa, she had assumed she was the older sibling because of her serious manner and the way she carried herself. She'd also seen Elisabetta ordering Teresa around in the kitchen. And Teresa always seemed to take Elisabetta's lead as if Elisabetta were the older sister and Teresa had much to learn from her.
Teresa didn't resemble her sister at all. With emerald green eyes and blond hair the color of rich zabaglione—the decadent custard that Madre Carmela sold at her shop—Teresa was a natural beauty. Even when she was covered in flour and had chocolate stains on her face and in her hair, she looked absolutely stunning. Rosalia couldn't help staring at her, not just because of her breathtaking looks, but also because she kept trying to find a trait that Teresa shared with her younger sister. Nothing. Even their bodies were shaped differently. Elisabetta was tall with broad shoulders and a quite exaggerated pear shape, whereas Teresa was petite with a perfect hourglass figure. Rosalia had seen a few of the male customers trying to flirt with Teresa when she was selling pastries. Teresa always looked pleased that they had noticed her, but she didn't flirt back except for one day when Rosalia saw a handsome young man with light brown curly locks talking to her for quite some time at the seller's window, much to the dismay of the other customers waiting in line. Teresa had seemed to be talking to the man as much as he was talking to her. Then, she had glanced over her shoulder, making sure no one saw her, and she had slyly snuck a few extra marzipans into the man's box of pastries. After that day, Rosalia saw the same young man visit the pastry shop at least three times a week, and when Teresa wasn't at the window, he always looked sorely disappointed. But what shocked Rosalia the most about Teresa was when she learned that Teresa had once been a nun! She had been a nun at a convent in the town of Barcellona Pozzo di Gotto. And when she had decided to renounce her vows, the mother superior had asked Madre Carmela if she could take her in as a boarder and employ her at the pastry shop. What Rosalia still didn't know, however, was how it came to be that Elisabetta had also ended up living at the convent with her sister.

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