It was her duty, you see. She used to work there in the big house on the mountain overlooking the town. She was the housekeeper not just a maid but the one they relied on to watch over the place and everything in it when they were gone. So naturally, when the Germans came with their Panzers and canvas covered trucks in caravans of vehicles full of men and cannon and supplies, it fell upon her to protect it.
It had been in their family for three generations housing the treasures and relics accummulated before the revolution by the Baron Von Leichester and his beautiful wife the Countess Veronica de Cortez. Federica had come with her when she was a little girl from the village in Andalusia where the Countess lived before the Baron found her. They say that her father had covered Frederica’s face with a veil like the Arab women wore because he was afraid her beauty would seduce any man that looked upon her. Others said it was the Baron who insisted because she bore such a resemblence to the countess that it unsettled him. He didn’t want the towns people to think it was her child and not her servant’s. That his bride was not a virgin. The family could ill afford another scandal. But it didnt matter what he tried he couldn’t hide those eyes.
When I was a lad I used to help my big brothers carry milk to their mansion from our farm or should I say I rode in the cart while they carried them. The containers were nearly as tall as I and quite heavy. It would be several more months before I could lift one with both my arms wrapped around it much less two like Phillipe and Marco, mirror images of each other and the God, Adonis, my mother used to compare them. Then she would cross herself hurriedly as though she’d committed some sacrilige for speaking her thoughts aloud. They would hoist one under each of their massive arms and carry them up the back steps to the kitchen.
When the door openned Phillipe dropped one and nearly the other when he looked into her eyes. Father was furious when we got home. He wanted to whip him but Marco defended him. “She was not of this earth father. No man could have looked into those eyes, the color of the cloudless sky in summer and not been struck dumb. They belong to an angel or a goddess but no mere mortal.” And his words rang in my ears and haunted me because Phillipe had not spoken on the ride home nor to my father. He did not eat with the rest of the family at our table but took to his room as soon as we arrived home. It intrigued me. I wanted to see this medusa who turned my brother to stone for myself. So I snuck back out after the others had gone to bed and ran back up the mountain.
The gate was closed to the courtyard when I got there so I climbed the wall. The vines were thick in the back of the house and made the wall easy to scale. My bare feet had no soon touched verdant undergrowth that covered the garden beneath a balcony that i heard a sound like a canary singing to her young. “Boy, what is it you want?” She might as well have been addressing me in French or some language I didnt know. For I heard only that sound before the whole orchestra opened up in that garden as I looked up to find her staring down at me. I swear her feet were not on the ground. I don’t know why I thought I’d be immune. Perhaps because I was not quite a man but wanted to be that prompted me to go there to that garden at night and see the temptress for myself.
She was not wearng her veil and I could she her pale skin in the moonlight as it fell upon her like a elegant white robe. She was not much older than myself and lean except for the rise of her bosom and the curve of her hips beneath the thin material of her night gown. Something stirred inside of me that I would someday learn was my awaking as a man. I could not find my tongue immediately. Not until she began hitting me with a switch. “Stop,” I cried out before I fell back onto the soft ground. I must have hit my head because when I openned my eyes again i was on a bed and she was looking down at me again. This time i could see what Phillipe had seen that struck him dumb. Her eyes were blue and so clear that when i looked into them I could see my startled face looking back at me.
“I just wanted to see what creature bewitched Phillipe.” The words escaped my lips with the gasp that preceded them. She smiled. Amused by the effect she has on men and boys, I thought. But there was something in her face that lifted my fear. Its hard to put into words, like when the morning light first alights on your face. I felt warm.
“Ah, the boys who brought the milk. And splashed it all over Coljai’s floor. He’s from an Island near Madagascar where they see omens in everything. He saw no good coming in the spill. Perhaps it is you?” Her eyes narrowed at me accusitorily and her smile was gone. I sat up. “You best leave now before someone finds you here.” I looked around and realized I was in her chamber. I shuddered and stood up quick but my knee buckled under me and I nearly fell. “Oh, you’re hurt.”
I leaned on the bed from the pain. I must have twisted my leg when I lept off the wall. Federica took her leave of me without a word and when she came back she brought a ghost. At least I thought it was. All I saw was a pair of white trousers hovering beside her in the dark room andf then I noticed the whites of his eyes starring at me from high above Federica and the form of a man emerged as they drew closer. A man with skin so black it bored into the darkness.
“We have caught a thief, Federica?” His voice a hoarse whisper that resonated in my chest. “Oh, we must tie him up for the constabulary. Or shall I curse him and set him free.”
“No, sir, please. I am Paulo from the hollow outside the town. I am a farmer. Please, don’t tell on me. Don’t curse me. I have done nothing. I beg you. Ler me go.”
“Hush, boy. You bring the whole house awake upon you. Then we have a mess that’s true. A boy in Frederica’s room unchapharoned.”
“But I have done nothing.”
“I found you in the garden.” Federica defended her honor. It was an awkawd situation. I could not leave of my own volition. I could not walk home on my injured knee. The pain was too great.
“I think we keep this thief here with me. I need help in the kichen with guests arrive from Stockholm and Hanover the morrow. At least until he pay his debt.”
Coljai lifted me in his powerful arm as though I was mere a sack of flour and carried me to his room where he threw a blanket and sack of potatoes and made a place for me on the floor. He left and came back minutes later with ice and bandages to wrap my knee. And so it came to be in the days after my leg healed enough for me to walk to the kitchen. I became his apprentice if such could be said of a would be thief who did nothing more than fall from a wall while trying to steal a look at an enchantress.
I learned to prepare pheasants and quail in the richest red wines from the shops in Marsailles and roast lamb with peppery spices from his Island that sizzled on the tonque but did not hurt and beef bourganis and burgandy with wild gander and duck in succulent brown sauces that tantilized the sences until you fell back in your chair and cried out in ecstasy. I had no interest by the end of tge summer in returning to my family’s farm. Once Coljai sent Aline, the stable girl to tell my family i was safe and working for the Baron my heart was relieved. Although i missed my mother and brothers and cousin Eileen, who had come to live with us after my father’s sister died. I did not miss the farm and that legacy i had been born into. Somehow meeting Federica had changed my fate.
She smiled at me many times like she did that first night in the garden and I came to love her but not in a way that would seem salacious. It was more like that crush you get on yiur first teacher and wanted to be around her all of the time without knowing why. We grew together in that house of stone and mortar that was a castle to our town and its inhabitants, of which i now was one, royalty and the noblemen and women who served them.
Federica blossomed into the flower of our kingdom there on the mountain in the sun that streaked her auburn hair with light and the winter rains calmed the mane that would have otherwise tangled into a knot. Long ringlets encircled her pristine pale face and I’d fantacized in my bed each night that it was only when she looked at me that the roses appeared to blossom in her cheeks but I knew every morn it had only been a dream. She thought of me, not as a potential suitor, but a brother that she plucked from her garden one night. In time the Baron sent her away to a convent in the mountains of her beloved Spain. Not to become a nun but to be educated so that she may come back to run the house he loved so much. It was her legacy. And I suspected as such the day I saw the countess standing beside her and doting on her handmaid like a wounded bird that she’d found in the bush. No one dared cross Federica, for each knew by one look at her that she is sacred and in her veins ran royal blood but soiled somehow by the sin of the mother.
The day she came back I was in the town square at market buying several grouse and some venison, red potatoes and wild beets for a stew. Her favorite meal. But I never saw her nor did I get to prepare her meal. That was when the cathedral in the square exploded and thunder fell from the sky. By the time the shelling stopped half the town was gone and the Germans began rolling in.
My only memory was one day when I was delivering milk on the mountain I saw her hand in the window of the kitchen with a cigarette pinched between her delicate fingers. In my shame I dared not look upon her nor call her name. I left the milk by the door as i always did. And She did as any house keeper would. She gave her best and everything she had including her dignity to preserve its life. The townspeople should have forgiven her but because of her status they expected–no, unfairly demanded more. When the Germans left they shaved her head and cut her nose. Now she doesn’t leaver the house or even answer the door when I bring her milk. Federica wears a different veil. One I cannot lift from her head or she might bewitch me again and all would be lost.