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In every human activity, even in religious ones, sooner or later "competition" arrives. For friar Giacomo it craftily took shape in the middle of a warm Indian summer, a few days after the feast of All Saints.
It came from the Piceno mountains, famous in the center of Italy because they were inhabited in ancient times by Sybils and now were visited by hundreds of "pilgrims" who went there to have their palms read or their futures predicted.
In their caves, women, who boasted they could foretell the future, made ends meet by exploiting the popular superstitions of simple people or the pagan tastes of nobles and cultured people who believed that in this way, turning away from God, they could revive the splendour and atmosphere of the pre-Christian world.
The passionate preachers of the mendicant orders, Observants leading the way, had however won a battle and the local populations, re-converted to the true faith, bad chased away from those caves magicians, witches and sorceresses of every kind.
So, one of these, a certain Aslaf, to avoid prison, followed some flocks looking for new pasture down to the Daunia region where she lived in a little cave in the Gargano, in a place called "the devil's cave". But here there was little "work" and much poverty. She decided to travel south and following a caravan of Neapolitan merchants, so arrived in Bitetto.
She was not ugly to look at and, thanks to some charms which here it is best not to recount, she succeeded in renting a little stable outside the walls, where she began again to do her work. Filters and mysterious formulas, undrinkable potions, together with the experience of one like her who at first sight understands the troubles of other people, got her a certain clientele, enough for her to be able to eat everyday; and so with the plough of magic, she worked the furrows of superstition to sow the seeds of deception.
Truth to tell, the soil was extremely fertile. The people of Bitetto were good and simple people but also devoted, so she got around them by working on their faith.
She said, untruthfully of course, that she had learned her art from a nun from Cascia, a village near where she came from: she could communicate with God, see the angels behind people and thanks to her prayers improve the future prospects of her gullible clients.
Friar Giacomo didn't take long to understand that something was wrong. In that period, the request for spiritual help greatly diminished. He ingenuously explained this by the fact that finally the work of charity and the example of the friars had borne fruit: he even thanked God for this. But something had changed for the worse, as he soon realized: people looked at him in a different way, the eyes of some people didn't meet his as serenely as before. And the flowing thoughts of that good people finished up in another sea!
He spoke with the canon about it and then with the sacristan, and further investigated by sounding out some children who played near the market. His suspicions finally found the name of Aslaf.
He was all of a panic and did not know how to react. The first days were terrible: what could he do? Denounce her to the Bishop as a witch, persecute a creature of God who had lost her way? His religious zeal told him to do this, but charity responded not to! He couldn't speak to her, the Rule did not permit him to... and besides he didn't know what to say!
It was a cool day in April, the Wednesday of Holy Week; he was fasting everyday and he prayed God in his heart to accept that privation to save Aslaf's soul, but nothing happened; at the same time, the traffic of people going to the stable increased... and it was Holy Week!
He walked around Bitetto hoping to find her: he would have spoken to her, he might even have threatened her; the Holy Spirit would have suggested what to do. However, he saw Alessandro, a good and jovial peasant who often accompanied him, when he went begging in the nearby areas. Alessandro had recently become inexplicably grave and ill-tempered, indeed irritable and quick to anger. He ignored his friends, and those he still saw, he ended up quarrelling with. Alarm bells began ringing when friar Giacomo was sitting with his novice on the little wall near Alessandro's home. He was terrified on seeing a strange pendant like an amulet, which was hanging on the window grate.
It was a tremendous shock. He was astonished, like a captain who sees his ship sinking. A plague was spreading throughout the village and it must be tremendous if even his friend had been contaminated. In that precise instant, black clouds covered the sun and a breath of wind blew up his sleeves and chilled his spine. Satan was breathing over Bitetto, his bad breath blackening innocent souls.
In that moment friar Giacomo felt a new sensation: he raised his nose to the sky as if to smell it and he felt the strange presence of an outsider, the beguiler who turned men away from the saving grace of God. It was the first of innumerable similar experiences, and that morning he began to realize exactly what was happening. He felt a cold sensation that wasn't cold, a taste of bitterness in his mouth and right at that moment the door opened and Alessandro came out, curved and wary. He also saw friar Giacomo, and their eyes met, but he turned away as if he felt ashamed, then, without greeting Mm, he entered the lane with a freshly-killed chicken in his hands.
It began to rain, small, thick and sharp drops. Giacomo covered himself with his hood, confused and hardly believing what he had seen. He did not hear the voices of the children shouting to him as they were jumping joyfully in a puddle. Sharp drops of rain fell thickly around. Nobody, not even the novice who accompanied him, realized that friar Giacomo was crying.
That afternoon he didn't remain in the friary, but went disheartened to La Benedetta. Only in that little chapel did he succeed in calming the shaken emotions that he felt, thanks to the loving gaze of the Virgin Mary. He lit a candle to Her and the flame began dancing and giving life to the image itself. Christ's Mother was more tender than ever, Her fine, gentle hands holding Her Son's little foot without grasping or lifting it up: Mary, full of grace.
God had perfused Her with Himself but Her mind had never been subjugated by Him.
Christ had inhabited in Her body but not even a fibre of Her had been altered.
The Holy Spirit had married Her, but Her soul was not violated.
Man is God's temple, the saintly friar reflected using this analogy; he is great and noble, but so fragile. We can enter in his inner soul with delicacy, asking permission to do so and being careful to leave everything as we found it, or we can enter it abruptly, creating disorder and wasting the treasures that are found there, before finally going away, satisfied and content for the crime we have committed.
This is why St. Bernardino, after finishing his sermons, had people burn their cards and amulets: superstition is a pestilence that divides friends and families, a cancer at the heart of community life. With superstition it is no longer God who leads our way, but fortune; and in periods of crisis, which all men have sometime, it is not the virtue of hope that keeps us going, but the search for the cause of our misfortunes, so we trust in magic to find out the envious relative or jealous neighbour. With superstition the world is full of enemies and adversaries, and love is banished.
This happened in Bitetto. And Giacomo didn't know how to react. He could only pray, and then, fast; then, in cases of extreme evil, the most extreme solution: self-flagellation!
He went out for a moment and came back with a big bunch of thorny bushes. Maybe God would have accepted his blood and would have done what Giacomo was not able to. He pulled up his habit and he was going to beat himself, when a little animal quickly entered the chapel and jumped up on his lap, tired and trembling: it was a hare.
"And who are you?" asked friar Giacomo spontaneously. The little hare just cuddled up even more in the folds of the habit, and the barking of dogs abruptly broke into the tense atmosphere. What appeared to be a hunter stood at the door:
"Excuse me, have you seen a hare come in here?"
The penitent friar did not turn around but answered patiently:
"It has escaped: we had already captured it, when my brother, while he was putting the animal into the sack, let it escape. We have followed it here. I'm sorry if we are disturbing this sacred place, but our children are hungry and at home everybody is waiting for dinner".
Friar Giacomo stood up and, moving towards the hunter with the hare in his arms, looked at him straight in the eyes. The hunter startled with surprise:
"But you are friar Giacomo, the friar from Zara, who healed that little girl who couldn't speak..." The friar quickly silenced him:
"What do you mean healed ? You and your legends!" Let's come to the point: "would this be your hare?"
And saying these words he held out the animal to the hunter who, visibily content, was opening his arms to take the hare, when friar Giacomo suddenly paused and looking at him with sharp, accusing eyes, added:
"So, you eat meat during Holy Week...!"
The hunter was speechless, and did not reply.
"My dear young man, I'm sorry if I have embarassed you and I assure you that I don't want to judge you. But if God has permitted this animal to escape from you, it is because He didn't want a good person like you to break your fasting, which is in honour of Him who, for our salvation, never tried to save Himself."
The young hunter turned his eyes to the painting of the Virgin Mary, then he looked at the friar: "But my children are hungry".
Giacomo, unperturbed, responded: "Do you want to accept an exchange?"
So, a few minutes later, while a timid ray of sun was dividing the clouds, that hunter set off towards Grumo, his horse loaded with apples and fresh beans. Giacomo remained in the chapel; he had already forgotten what he was going to do, but he remembered that God did not want sacrifices of living things, only sacrifices of prayer and, why not, the freeing of prisoners.
He sat down again with the hare on his left arm, and with his right hand he began tickling the animal's little face with the end of his cincture. This brought him consolation and he was reminded of a psalm, which he began to sing as if it were a children's lullaby:
"He will free you from the hunter's noose and from the plague's destruction. Under his wings you will find refuge..."
When this prayer was finished, they went out together into the open air; Giacomo took the hare and set it down on the damp ground: "You have had a very close escape! Now go and don't let yourself get caught again". The animal hesitated for a moment, then it smelled the fresh evening air, looking almost with affection at his providential saviour, and ran back to his bushes, as free as air.
Giacomo saw it disappear and then he decided in his heart that the day after he would ask the Father Superior for permission to meet that woman.
The kind-hearted doctor lets the cancer grow, he thought, and he couldn't waste any more time. There were so many people to free; he couldn't pretend not to see what was going on.
So, he went back to the friary, while a timid rainbow, a little colourless but perfecly complete, began to show above the roofs of the town.
The day after nothing happened; the news that Alessandro and Aslaf had run away together spread quickly and nobody knew where they had gone. But few months had passed when a passing missionary revealed that he had met them in Constantinople, a short time before the city fell into the hands of the Turks, and then he had found out that poor Alessandro had died during the siege. Aslaf survived and now she was pretending to be a magician in a zone of that city, which was now Islamic. It was the year of Our Lord 1453. The world was a little less Christian, but Bitetto could breathe freely again, like the little hare.
But still, at the end of this long century and of a long day, with his old fingers busy working the dough to prepare the day's oven-cakes, Gacomo nourished the idea that Alessandro was not really "lost". He wanted to hope that it wasn't Aslaf who had led his friend away, but Alessandro who had taken away the magician, sacrificing himself for the good of the town. If it were really so, Alessandro had done an act comparable to that of the Saints, and also had had a very clever idea.
But only Heaven knew the truth. In Heaven there are no longer hunters and the hunted. And he hoped that Alessandro was really there now.
He put the oven-cakes into the oven and immediately went to find Father Bernardino for his confession. In doing so he did not confess his innermost desire: that it should be his last.
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