Rosalia's Bittersweet Pastry Shop
by Rosanna Chiofalo

PROLOGUE

Frutta di Martorana (Marzipan Fruit)

September 4, 1955
Santa Lucia del Mela, Messina, Sicily

Madre Carmela's favorite nuts were almonds. Not only did she like the way they tasted the best among all nuts, but she loved the flavor they imparted to Sicilian desserts from cakes to biscotti, and her favorite of all, Frutta di Martorana—the perfect fruit-shaped confections made from pasta reale, or marzipan, which required plenty of almonds. Who would have thought that the base for an elegant, regal dessert like marzipan came from such a simple ingredient as the almond? But it was this nut that was the underlying flavor in many of the desserts that Madre Carmela and the nuns from her Carmelite order baked for their pastry shop, which was operated from their convent.

To collect the almonds for their baking, Madre Carmela and her fellow sisters were on one of their outings in the almond groves found in the countryside of their beautiful hill town of Santa Lucia del Mela in Messina, Sicily. In a month, the demand for marzipan fruit would soar in their shop.

As Madre Carmela and her Carmelite order of nuns busily harvested the almonds from the trees, singing their favorite hymns, she pondered on how far she and her convent had come over the years. Not only was she the mother superior of her order of nuns, but she was also the head pastry chef of the bakery she ran out of the convent. She had managed to turn their little pastry-making side business into the most famous pasticceria, not only in Santa Lucia, but in all the neighboring towns. Madre Carmela's pastry shop continued the tradition that dated back to the 1800s, when many convents and monasteries in northeastern Sicily also made and sold pastries. Their pastries had become famous for surpassing those of the professional bakeries in town. Long lines of patrons often waited in the courtyard of their convent, outside the pastry shop's windows where they also sold their baked goods.

Pastry making was Madre Carmela's greatest passion in life. She took the utmost pride in the confections she made, and every biscotto, torta, marzipan, crostata, and any other baked good had to be perfect—anything less would be unacceptable. Her sisters and the other workers at the convent's pastry shop knew her high standards. Mediocre work was not allowed and was cause for dismissal, but it was rare that Madre Carmela fired anyone. For her weakness was having a deep compassion, especially for those who had suffered greatly.

Suddenly, a low moan startled Madre Carmela out of her thoughts. She glanced toward Sorella Giovanna, a new nun who had entered their order only the previous month and who was standing to her right. Their eyes locked. Sorella Giovanna had heard the moan, too. And there it was again. Another moan. Madre Carmela took Sorella Giovanna by the arm, and they slowly walked in the direction the sounds were coming from. A few of the other nuns had also stopped picking almonds and were following them now, fear evident on their faces. But none of the sisters dared question Madre Carmela, since they had learned a long time ago to always trust her judgment.

The nuns continued following the sounds, which seemed to be coming from land that was just behind the almond orchard. Soon, the outline of a crumpled form came into their line of vision. It was the body of a young woman, lying by the mouth of a cave. The area was known for its many caves. Madre Carmela let out a small cry and rushed to the side of the girl, who looked to be no more than seventeen years old. She was very pale, and her lips were extremely chapped. Bruises circled her arms and legs, and scratches etched her cheeks. She wore a plain housedress that was several sizes too large on her petite, very thin frame. The dress was torn in several places and revealed one of the girl's breasts and showed she wore no undergarments. Madre Carmela tore her eyes away from the girl's exposed body as she tried in vain to cover her. While Madre Carmela did so, her gaze settled on the girl's hair. The tresses hung down to the young woman's waist, and in stark contrast to her dirty, battered body, her hair shone radiantly in its lustrous shade of black. Without a doubt, it was the most beautiful hair Madre Carmela had ever seen.

She turned to Sorella Giovanna. "Give me your canteen."

Sorella Giovanna's hands shook as she opened her canteen and handed it to her mother superior.

Madre Carmela helped the girl sit up and held the canteen up to her lips.

"Bevi. Bevi." She pleaded with her to drink. The young woman barely fluttered her eyes open, but then began to drink, slowly at first, yet soon she took in quick gulps.

Madre Carmela reached into the deep pockets of her habit and pulled out two marzipans—one shaped like a small apple and the other shaped like a pear. She often threw a few marzipans in her pockets when she went on these long outings since she suffered from low blood sugar. Once she started to feel lightheaded, she'd chew on the marzipan and instantly would feel better. Well, sometimes she had a couple of marzipans even when she wasn't feeling woozy. Of all the pastries she made at the shop, marzipans were her greatest weakness.

She held out the shimmering glazed sweets. "Prendi. Take. The sugar in them will help you feel better."

The girl's eyes widened. She tentatively took the small apple, but left the pear in Madre Carmela's hand. She stared at it for a moment longer, no doubt in awe of the miniature dessert's perfection and marveling at how much it looked like a real apple. She took a bite out of the marzipan and stared once more in wonderment at the pastry. Then she popped the rest of it in her mouth and chewed it ravenously before swallowing. Her eyes immediately went to the pear-shaped marzipan Madre Carmela still held in her hand.

"It's very good. No?" The girl nodded her head. Madre Carmela handed her the other marzipan. This time, without hesitation, the girl took it.

"Cosa ti e successo?" Sorella Giovanna asked the girl what had happened to her.

In a split second, her eyes filled with terror, and she glanced over her shoulder at the cave.

Madre Carmela's gaze met Sorella Giovanna's, and she implored her silently not to take this line of questioning further.

"Don't worry. You are safe now. My sisters and I will take you back to our convent, and we will take care of you. No one will hurt you again."

The girl looked at Madre Carmela as tears fell down her face.

"Can you tell me your name?" Madre Carmela gently asked her.

The girl remained quiet. Madre Carmela reached into her deep pockets once more, and this time pulled out a plump, strawberry-shaped marzipan. A flicker of light appeared in the girl's hollow eyes. She took the marzipan and ate it just as ravenously as the other two. Once she was done, she whispered to Madre Carmela, "Rosalia."

"Your name is Rosalia? Did I hear you correctly?"

The girl nodded.

Madre Carmela looked at the cave and then back at Rosalia. A shiver ran through her. She couldn't believe the irony at finding this young woman by the name of Rosalia in front of a cave. For Santa Rosalia, one of Sicily's most revered saints, was known to have lived the last years of her life in a cave. But an even greater coincidence was the fact that today—September 4—was none other than the feast day of Santa Rosalia. Could the saint herself have intended for the nuns to find this poor soul?

Tears filled Madre Carmela's eyes as she said in a soft voice, "You have a lovely name, Rosalia."

Rosalia continued to look at the ground.

Turning to the other nuns, Madre Carmela instructed them to help the girl to her feet and take her back to the convent. She explained that she wanted to harvest more almonds and would join them later at the convent. The nuns brought a sheet they'd been using to collect the almonds and wrapped Rosalia in it. With the help of Sorella Giovanna and another nun, Rosalia rose to her feet, her legs shaking visibly beneath her. It was apparent she was suffering from malnourishment. She managed a small smile for the nuns as they cloaked her in the sheet and offered words of encouragement. Madre Carmela's heart filled with joy as she watched her fellow sisters form a semicircle around the girl, wrapping their arms around her as they escorted her to the convent. She realized what they were doing. The sheet was not only serving its first purpose of covering Rosalia's naked body, but it was also being used as a protective shroud to make her feel warm and immediately safe.

As soon as the nuns were gone, Madre Carmela entered the cave where they'd found Rosalia. She followed a long passageway. Her heart was beating fast, and she wondered what she would find, thinking perhaps she should turn back around and leave. But her curiosity at what had happened to the girl propelled her forward. She noticed there were other passageways to the left and right, but she was afraid she would get lost, so she continued walking straight along the path she was already on. After about five minutes, the narrow passageway opened up. No one was present, but there were traces of someone having lived there: kindle wood, plates, cups, and a makeshift bed constructed of hay in the corner. Madre Carmela then noticed a pile of dirty clothes in the corner. She went over and picked them up. They were a blouse, skirt, slip, brassiere, and underpants of a young woman about Rosalia's size. The blouse was missing a few buttons. The skirt and slip were torn, much like the oversized housedress Madre Carmela had found Rosalia in. But unlike the housedress, they were covered in dried-up bloodstains. Madre Carmela closed her eyes, fighting back tears. She could only imagine what terrors the poor girl had suffered in this terrible place. But she was safe now. That was all that mattered. In that moment, Madre Carmela vowed to God that she would help Rosalia find peace in her life again.