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Gekruyste Hart (broken heart)

(Amsterdam, 1693)

Haunted, his eyes never resting long, Matteo’s former manservant, Pietro, clung to the back of a jarring wagon ride entering the Dutch port city of Amsterdam. Sleeping rough for a couple of nights, the former butler to Prince Imperiali, overheard Italian locals talking about the waterfront, learning that there might be work on the docks. As luck would have it, a vessel was in need of a few more hands, anyone who could breathe, and so, Pietro signed on as a merchant seaman.

Even though the Dutch ship, Gekruyste Hart (broken heart), was bound for New York, that suited Pietro just fine. If the destination had been the dark side of the moon, he would have said yes – the further away the better. The ship’s captain warned that this crossing “be harsh and long, by way of north Africa, then onward to Brazil, and eventually, after many months, to New York.” He’d tolerate no slacking, no back talk, and no disorderly conduct, else it’d be the brig or worse.

Through the mist

The next morning, his few possessions stowed below deck, Pietro held rough ropes as he was directed, until his hands bled. One of the older sailors, taking pity on him, handed him a pair of worn gloves. Slowly, the vessel tacked out of the harbor through the morning mist, sun hanging like a fuzzy golden orb in the sky as it rose. Eventually, clearing the levy, Pietro saw the open sea for the first time, feeling a small release in his soul, leaving behind all that was familiar.

Life aboard the big boat was a smelly affair, for none bathed regularly. A ship full of endless hard work and routine, the old dogs barely tolerated the new hands. At first, his soft palms formed agonizing blisters, then callouses as he learned the ropes of the ship quickly through repetition and a fair amount of cursing. No matter, the pain in his body helped numb the agony in his soul.

On one of the rare moments he could be alone, hands on the ship’s rails, he gazed out upon an unending ocean. To everyone’s surprise, including himself, the waves didn’t upset his land lubber stomach much. Of course, he hadn’t seen rough weather yet, but constant movement on the open sea didn’t bother him. While gazing at the endless blue, a seagull landed a few feet away on the railing, twisting its head this way and that, looking at Pietro quizzically. You look tired, Pietro thought, not knowing exactly how a exhausted seagull might look. He’d no idea how far out the ship was from land, but imagined the bird must be, like himself, very far from home.

“You’re ugly,” Pietro grunted to the grey-white bird, shooing it away. It just hopped a few feet further, then continued to perch. Putting his hand to his heart, he felt the edges of an envelope inside his shirt, the one he’d carried from Prince Imperiali’s country estate, weeks earlier.

Red sky in morning

The next morning, red skies lowered as a stiff wind blew up from the south. The ship leaned into it, always at an uncomfortable angle, full sails taut in the wind. Soon, the others on board didn’t give him much grief, for even with his small stature, he worked harder than most. Good at knots, after being shown once or twice, he followed an old sailor around daily as they checked rigging. Sitting down, giving him a nasty knot to unravel, the old seafarer pointed and said things in Dutch that Pietro couldn’t understand. The trick with very tight knots was patience and perseverance. With a simple iron, something like a long needle, you could tease apart almost anything. Since everything on the high seas was precious, it was worth your time to try.

That night, the ship creaked and groaned while he lay in his hammock after dinner, trying to sleep. Many snored loudly, others talked unintelligibly. He couldn’t help feeling the letter against his chest, touching it as his eyelids became heavy.

The next day, the feared storm hadn’t arrived and the sky cleared to crystal blue, a steady breeze driving the Dutch trading ship southward. Pietro looked out from the railing of the forecastle deck at the waves. Again, holding his hand on the letter, he brought it out and looked at it. It said only, “Pietro” written in Matteo’s flamboyant pen.

Putting it back inside his tunic, his mind drifted backwards to happier times; his master’s 21st birthday gala, when they’d first met, and afterwards, the long trip through southern Italy, Matteo visiting his extended family for months. Then there were the nights of seclusion at the country estate, free from the cares and prying eyes of normal life.

“Damned bird!” Pietro cursed, broken out of his revelry by yet another seagull, or perhaps the same ugly bird from yesterday, for they all looked alike to him. Again, he shooed it away, with limited success. Sighing, he reached inside, took out the letter, broke the Imperiali seal, and read:

Beloved Pietro

“Beloved Pietro,

In view of recent events, I think it best to leave you with explanations for my odd behavior. You are always so good to me, my love, so very patient and understanding; you are my guardian angel. I know sometimes I can be difficult, but you always understand me.

I may have told you by now, but if not, if I die I cannot leave you without explanation. The truth is, I married Fiammetta Piccolamini, because I had no choice, it was blackmail most foul.”

Incredulously, Pietro read the details of the abduction and faux torture, and of how the evil man ate breakfast as his master lay naked, stretched on the medieval rack.

I had no choice

“I had no choice – we had no choice, for he knew of my deep affection towards you and used it to bend me to his will.”

Looking back over the sea, Pietro flashed back to the wedding and the kiss, now realizing who the priest behind the blushing bride must have been.

“When my Nonna said, ‘kiss the bride,’ I saw my chance to humiliate that monster before all and get away with it.”

So, the kiss wasn’t affection after all, but an act of defiance, Pietro thought with admiration, how very brave. Lifting the letter once more, he read on:

“My wedded bliss was a manufactured hell, a ruse to hide the mistress of a priest so powerful, so vile, with a word he could end not only my life, but yours as well. I was afraid, my love, not only for myself, but for you, too. Dying, being pulled apart on the rack of that beast, was terrifying, but the thought of losing you – that, I simply could not bear.”

You were protecting me?

In his mind Pietro remember how adamant, unusually so, his master was as he wed. The tightness in his chest loosened as he said under his breath, “You were protecting me?”

“I admit, I was the fool. I could have left well enough alone, playing my assigned part, but the injustice of it all stuck in my craw. The thought of being trapped and manipulated like a rat, caused me to test the fates by visiting Lady Fiammetta. You warned me, but I, in my foolish pride, journeyed anyway.”

Pausing again, looking over the blue-grey horizon, Pietro remembered how he stole into the carriage house the night before their journey, loosening the bolts which secured the axle, injuring his hand.

“You were right, the spiritualist woman read my cards and told me no more than you had already advised. I should have listened to you, my love, your heart was only ever for my well being. After that, I fully purposed to stay away from that whole accursed affair, but my Nonna called me to her deathbed.

“I want you to know, I had no love for Fiammetta whatsoever, I just went to honor my grandmother’s last request. She was everything to me when I was young, the only one who truly loved me for who I was. I had to say goodbye.”

Pietro’s mind flashed back

Looking up, past the bird still perched, feathers luffing in the breeze, Pietro’s mind flashed back to the small bottle of mild poison he’d sprinkled on his master’s food when they’d dined at Fiammetta’s table. Thank god for that ugly dog, Pietro thought.

“After the attempt on my life, I realized you were right all along, I should have never come. I know I hurt you deeply with my secrecy, but my only course of action was to try to make peace with the man who kept Fiammetta as his mistress. All I could do, for both our sakes, was to throw myself on her mercy and ask her to plead my case to her keeper. Thankfully, she was gracious. I would go away, not tempt fate again as I had, and live at my country estate – with you.”

Calloused hand raising to cover his face as he bowed his head, the cruel irony of what he’d done gut punched him. “You planned to stay with me after all!” he agonized out loud.

Pietro remembered that terrible day, following Matteo down the hall like a stray dog after his conversation with his wife, being crushed by his master’s harsh words, crying bitter tears in Fiammetta’s study. The last shred of love stamped into the mud of his life, he stole the white-handled dagger, slipping it up his sleeve. They would both pay! he promised himself as he walked back to wait for his master outside the privy. Shaking inside as he stood, his emotions repeated over and over, “Never again. Never again.”

Always and forever

Barely able to see, through teary eyes, Pietro read more:

“There you have it. I was a fool not to trust you with the truth, my love. I am so ashamed and sorry, can you forgive me, even a little? Know that in my heart it was always you, no one else really mattered, there is no one I ever loved more.

“Against my solicitor’s protestations, I have willed you my country estate, along with a stipend for it’s upkeep, staff, and for your personal means. It is all here with this letter, a copy of which is safely kept at my solicitor’s. We had such good times in the country, Pietro, it is my favorite place in all the world, mostly because it was where I could be my true self and be loved by you.

Always and forever,


His lover’s chest

Looking blankly at the legal document, then back at the letter, his heart skipped another beat, remembering how Matteo gasped with surprise, as he plunged Fiammetta’s sharp letter opener into his lover’s heart. In his death throws, Matteo looked into his servant’s eyes, pointing with his last ounce of life towards his study. Pietro had found the letter lying on his desk as he quickly ransacked the office for valuables before fleeing the scene of the murder.

Mouth open, he stared again at the documents. Just then, he realized the seagull was barely two feet away, looking at him intently. Waving it away, the brokenhearted man saw the fresh, oozing poop on the gunnel of the ship’s railing.

Feeling his heart become hard as marble, he separated the deed to the country estate from his master’s last words. Shifting his weight, eyes narrowing, he folded the deed, placing it back inside his tunic. Looking at the letter again, he held it for a moment. Above, the canvas fluttered as the wind changed direction. Men yelled as the captain barked commands. Soon the big ship began to come around as the sails suddenly caught and billowed full. Looking at the signature one last time, his fingers let go.

On the stiffening breeze, Matteo’s last letter seesawed down as the ship passed on, landing gently on the cold waves of an endless ocean, sinking out of sight.