No face-to-face contact allowed. No touching. No speaking permitted. Only a knock signaled her daily bread. Once the afternoon prayer bells sounded, the prisoner would listen for the scrape of a basket against the stone walls leading to her tower cell. As soon as the descending footsteps faded, she would slide the tiny door panel open to pull a basket woven of thorny branches inside.
On the first day of her imprisonment, she pierced her lips biting into the bread where thorns lay hidden beneath the crust. She soon learned to tear small pieces from the loaf to remove any thorns before rolling the bread into small pellets she placed in a circle at the bedside table. These she ate slowly to contain her hunger until the next ration appeared.
After several days of confinement, her ankles swelled. The sour scent of her unwashed body sickened her. As the weeks continued, she moved trancelike through a daily drill she had devised to keep her fear and hunger at bay.
She performed the ritual always with the first bread pellet, which she placed under her tongue. She imagined herself no longer in the tower, but lying on the ground under a canopy of thickly woven, thorn-covered branches—the same branches from which her food basket had been made. Thin shafts of light penetrated the vaulted ceiling. Unlike the harsh, dangerous branches of the basket, these imaginary branches held the blessed presence of rosebuds. As she lay beneath this image of flowers among the thorns, she allowed the small pellet to swell with her saliva, then slide down her throat. With the first swallow, she would watch in her mind’s eye as the buds burst into full bloom, obliterating the thorns and releasing a sweet perfume.
With the second bread pellet, she would conjure a happy memory to calm herself.
Today, she recalled the path leading to her village outside Ferrara. The cool evening breeze sounded like the roll of the ocean as it rustled through the trees. The moon, an icy sliver, hung in the purple night sky. She imagined herself as a child, weaving together flower stems as she traveled by wagon with her family. Her father had shown her how to double the braid to make it as strong as rope.
“Together,” he had said, “we’ll climb to the moon and watch the gathering storm clouds. We’ll find the lost sheep grazing on the hillside, and discover, at last, where the wolf sleeps.”
His fingers were round and thick at the knuckles, like the carrots he grew on their land. She saw them as extensions of his loving embrace as she fell into a peaceful sleep. Dusk descended over the land to mark the end of her thirtieth day of confinement.
Later that night she awoke to the sound of labored breathing as footsteps ascended the stairs. No one had ever come to her cell at this hour. She braced herself in the dark against the straw mattress. Her cheeks burned with an intense heat. A jangle of keys outside her door filled her chest with a dread deeper than her cavernous hunger.
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