On the outskirts of Rome, a young girl waits, huddled beneath a tattered, dark-green cape. Standing on a cobbled street corner, she holds up a sheaf of straw plucked from the pile that lay at her feet. “If you please, a bundle for your night fire?” her small voice pleads . Occasionally, a passerby drops a few coins into the over-sized pocket of the girl’s apron, but most turn their heads and walk on.
A wet snow begins to fall. The sting of the cold against the poor girl’s legs rides up her frame and emerges as tears in the corners of her dark brown eyes. The tears she brushes away with the back of her rag-covered hand. Her delicate fingers trace over scars that mar each cheek. Ten years ago, a careless nursemaid had laid the girl too close to the bed chamber fire. Sparks burned into the soft skin of her newborn cheeks. The father, seeing the blisters, pronounced her the ugliest of daughters. But her mother held her close and whispered, “Seraphina. My little fire angel.” Seraphina tried to imagine her mother’s face, her smile, the sound of her long-silenced voice. The memories were clouded and she couldn’t reach them.
The forgetting tore at her insides.
A tall man, dressed in the flowing white robes of a priest passes near Seraphina. He walks with the long hurried steps of important men. His robes billow behind him and Seraphina stares at their brilliance, like that of the stars.
“A bundle for your night fire?” she calls out.
The white-robed man stops and turns. “I have no need for a night fire,” he replies. “In my home, there is always the Day Sun.”
“But, kind sir,” Seraphina says, “ even if where you live there is always the sun, where you travel now, it is dark.”
The man walks toward Seraphina and pauses for a moment, his robes churning behind him like the white capped waves that roll and crash on the sea. He looks into her eyes. “You seem a clever girl, so I will grant you three wishes. In honor of my master’s birthday.” The stranger bows at the mention of his master.
Seraphina would have preferred the weight of the man’s gold coins in her pocket to his offer of wishes. Wishes would never satisfy her father, and the thought of returning home with little to show for her day’s work made beads of sweat pool in the small of her back even as she shivered in the cold.
“Three wishes,” the stranger repeated, “and it will be as you ask.” Saying this, the stranger turned and vanished in a gust of snow.
Seraphina, who had wished on every morning star and on the first star of evening for as long as she could remember, knew that wishing wasn’t real. I will make a game of it, she thought. I will wish for the most wonderful things.
Closing her eyes and placing a hand over her heart, Seraphina whispers. “I wish for a Christmas dinner. A feast of roasted goose and potatoes and hot rolls with melted butter.” She breaths in deeply, imagining the smell warm buttery bread and the sound of roasted meat drippings crackling on the fire. “And a cake,” she adds, opening her eyes. “A Christmas cake. With white icing. And strawberries!” The thought of ripe, red berries in the middle of winter makes her laugh. A sudden warmth comes over her. The sensation begins in her toes,then spreads over her slender legs and throughout her body to the very tips of her fingers.
Again, Seraphina closes her eyes and crosses her heart. “I wish for a fiddle for Papa, so that he might play and make merry again,” for her father has not played or danced since the day her mother died. “And I wish for a dress for Marianna. A yellow dress made of the finest silk. With lace covered sleeves. A lace collar. And tiny pearl buttons up and down the back.” Her feet begin to dance to the music in her head, the tattered, dark green cape fluttering about her delicate shoulders.
Having now wished on every morning star, on the first star of evening, and on the words of a stranger, Seraphina looks about. The streets, which before had been streaming with holiday travelers, lay deserted. There was nothing left now for Seraphina to do. She picked up the bundles of straw and walk through the shimmering, new fallen snow toward home.
To be continued…