Fiction: The Autobiography of Allegra Byron

The young nun just wanted the orphan to love her. A new story from the author of "Birds of a Lesser Paradise"

Published July 21, 2012 4:00PM (EDT)

On the first of March, 1821, Allegra Byron entered the Convento di San Giovanni like a small storm, accompanied by non-relations, overdressed women who handled her with cool affection. It was a clear morning, so we met our charge in the prayer garden, a patch of grass where a few ancient olive trees were waking up to spring. Though lauded by her guardians as an early talker at two, three-year-old Allegra greeted us with silence.

Five ChaptersThis, her chaperone said, is your new home.

Allegra looked at our faces, then the grounds and buildings. I don’t like it, she said.

I stood with another Capuchin sister, flanking the abbess who lorded over the garden with a solemn stare. A breeze whipped our brown habits around our knees, exposing our humble shoes. I felt my job was to soften the harsh presence of the abbess. These moments, where a child was left in our care, struck me as pivotal in the child’s life, grievous even.

The convent was not a place of peace; it was a place of noise, an almost-holy sanctuary carved out in the heart of Bagnacavello in Northeast Italy. It was a boarding school, repository for unwanted children, and abbey for Capuchin nuns. The buildings around the convent were a pastiche of gray, cream, and flesh-colored bricks and plaster; the streets were irregular and winding and smelled of thick peasant soups. Soon the convent gardens would be tilled under and planted with lettuces and herbs that could withstand the late frosts.

Vendors set up leather, vegetable and paper carts underneath our public arches. The Roma curled their dirty fingers around our iron gates — a little something, gaje, they said to anyone looking — but we were not allowed to help them. I could smell garlic, pungent and a little sweet, burning in the trattorias on my afternoon walks past the Palazzo Gradenigo to the boundary of Porta Pieve, the town gate. At night, from my cold bed, I could hear the syncopated rhythm of horse hooves on via Garibaldi’s cobblestone when all else was still.

I’d come to Bagnacavello the year before Allegra arrived, the month my newborn daughter and husband died from typhus. My milk was still strong, and I wanted to be put to use. I wanted to be occupied, exhausted, sucked dry. I wanted to cut myself off from everything outside of the convent walls.

Say hello, Allegra, her chaperone said.

The girl’s eyes were large chestnut jewels, insouciant underneath ash-blonde curls. Her chin was dimpled, giving her face a strange maturity. Her empire-waist muslin dress, which peeked out beneath her unbuttoned velvet coat, was wrinkled from constant movement. Instead of pleasantries, the girl marched off to shake an olive tree, leaving footprints in what was left of a late snow.

Allegra is prone to malarial fevers and tantrums, the lead chaperone said. She likes to drink warm milk and eat biscuits in the evenings. Her father requests that—

We have biscuits, the abbess said, turning to project her voice toward the girl. The abbess was a formidable woman of sixty-eight with short gray hair she cut herself. She was tall, humorless, and deeply committed to the church.

Amaretti? Allegra asked, the question shaping the bow of her cupid’s mouth.

The abbess nodded, but I’d never encountered amaretti in the convent. It was my first notion that the girl was being won over in front of her charges, that she was a prize for the convent. This was not the type of place that made cookies or catered to whims. The sisters were thin. Righteous, they ate like sick birds.

I could tell immediately that Allegra was a difficult child, but something in me felt I could reach her. I watched her quietly, the way she pretended to play while eyeing her chaperones’ every move with a sidelong glance. Her anxiety was evident. Shortly, she moved to clutch at the knees of the lead chaperone, as if she could sense her imminent abandonment.

* * *

At the convent I’d nearly found what I was searching for: blankness. I sought exhaustion through labor, a mind quieted by industriousness.

When I arrived in Bagnacavello, they’d given me the problem children — the ones yellow with malaria or wild with seizures. My first six months, I nursed a countess’s discarded son to health, despite his severe cleft palate, which wrenched his lip into his nostril like a drawn curtain. I stroked his thick black hair and rubbed his cheek with my callused thumb, watched his chest rise, his stomach swollen with milk.

Early on, one of the Capuchin sisters gave me a warning. Your first instinct at the orphanage is to possess a child, she said, to make it love you best.

But guard your heart, mia cara, she said, her brown habit the color of light coffee, faded from coarse hand-washing. When the children you’ve suckled are grown, they will forget you. When the children you’ve taught go home, they will hate you as if you’re the one who kept them here.

In the nursery, you could get away with affection; it was a luxury. But as soon as the children aged, or entered the facility as boarders, the tone sterilized, as if reticence and decorum were more instructional than compassion.

The nursery walls were a sickly green and there was, I worried, malice in our Madonna’s face. She stood with her hands out and open on a wooden table. Her fingers were too thin; her hair, too gold; her lips, too red.

Hail Mary, full of grace, I said that evening before dinner, rosary in hand at the Madonna’s feet. Blessed is the fruit of thy womb…

You could tell she hadn’t enough mercy for all of us. Perhaps it had been siphoned off years ago. Perhaps there wasn’t much to begin with.

* * *

I did not see Allegra again until bath time, when I left the sleeping infants in the nursery to assist with turndown rituals for the older children. As my milk had dried the month before, I’d been asked to make the transition from the nursery to the boarding facilities.

I manned my station, a tin tub on a wooden floor, the bathwater a little dirty but warm. Allegra was undressed and handed to me. The rims of her eyes were red with fatigue. I set her down next to the bath. She looked at the water, then pressed her feet — still plump with baby fat — against the tub and shot backward, the skin of her bottom taut against the cold floor.

No! She screamed, smacking her naked heels on the wooden floors. Lo non voglio un bagno! Her words echoed off the walls and tall ceilings as if she were calling from the top of the Alps, unholy and alarming sounds.

Allegra fell into a wild tantrum, her nostrils inflamed, her back arched. Her little body was a wonder, stout and athletic. She threw herself across the floor and began kicking the air. No, she screamed. No.

She struck me as a broken branch, separated from her roots by an unexpected gust of wind.

Shh, mio caro, I whispered. Shh, Shh.

I brought her to her feet, placed one arm around her chest and kneeled behind her, and tried to contain her. Her arms flailed and one struck me in the nose, sending tears to my eyes. I was afraid she would hurt herself. Her body went slack. The other children watched, wide-eyed.

Ten minutes more and I will call for an exorcism, the sister beside me said.

It’s her first night, I said.

Mammina, Mammina, Allegra wailed. Her breathing was jagged. Papa.

She now stood still a few feet from the tub, her eyes shut and mouth gasping for air between sobs. She urinated on the floor as if unaware of her body, watery beads sliding down her solid legs. No, she screamed. No bath!

Shh, shh, I said. If you will bathe like a good girl, I said, taking her hand, we will make a letter for Papa.

She continued to cry, but let me move her into the tub. She sat still, like a stone cherub in a fountain, her face a tableau of misery. Her blonde curls flattened to her shoulders and neck as I poured a cup of dull water over her head.

I washed her quickly and not without tenderness. I lifted one arm, then another, enamored with their girth and proportion. As I raised her from the tub and began to towel-dry her hair, she started to wail again. Her cry was sharp and unpleasant, like a bleating sheep lost from the heard, and everything in me wanted it to stop.

Take me home, she begged, casting herself forward over my arm. Take me home.

Hush, I said. You must calm down.

Her eyes looked past me. I picked her off the floor. She kicked and clawed at me and slid down my frame as I repeatedly bent to find a better hold. The night was coming in dark through the windows and we were losing precious visibility. The convent was too large to light in entirety.

Allegra’s young skin was like marzipan, her cheeks scrubbed and shiny like the frutta martorana the cafés served at Christmas. I wrapped her tightly in a towel, whisked her down the hallway to the bed chamber, and held her screaming body until it slept.

The bedroom for three- and four-year-old girls — there were six of them — was small, but the ceiling rose to enormous heights, capped off in a gothic arch, humbling everything beneath it with space and shadow. As soon as Allegra’s body went limp with exhaustion, I pulled a standard issue nightgown over her head. Her eyes opened once, blank. I raked a comb through her hair and tucked her underneath the sheets, which smelled of lye. The beds were donated from a hospital, undersized wrought iron frames that sat upon the old floor unevenly.

Try to sleep, I whispered, touching her small back, feeling its heat. I’ll see you in the morning.

I had a chill as I made my way back to clean the bath station; the fight with Allegra had dampened my clothes and hair. I crouched to mop the spilled water around the tub. The horse hair packed between the cracks of the wooden flooring occasionally came loose, dirtying my rag.

The abbess approached me. I saw her worn shoes first, then looked up to meet her eyes. Sister, she said. You broke protocol this evening taking Allegra to bed.

She was upset, I said. I thought—

There are no favorites here, she said. Consider this a warning.

It had always been my intention at the convent to be nobody, to go unnoticed, to punish myself until I could no longer feel the weight of my dead child in my arms. But the old fight in me stirred, the fight of a peasant’s wife who had sewn seeds in the hills of Alfonsine while pregnant, tended my ill husband a day after childbirth. I swallowed the protest and continued drying the floor.

Mother of Mercy, our life, our sweetness and our hope, I mumbled. To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve; to thee do we send up our sighs…

Prayers were dead songs lodged in my head, soothing routine words that meant less to me than they should have.

That night my room, one that looked like all others with whitewashed walls, a cracked plaster ceiling and a small bed, smelled damp and fungal. I went to bed with a body of glass, tired and aching for the child I’d lost. At least it was she who had abandoned me.

* * *

Across the convent, we knew what we weren’t supposed to know, that Allegra was the illegitimate daughter of the notorious poet, George Gordon, Lord Byron, and his mistress, Claire Clairmont. A sister had overheard Allegra’s chaperones gossiping with the abbess in her lamp-lit chambers. The abbess was merely a receptacle to such talk, never engaging in it herself.

He does believe her to be his child, one said. The likeness is there, as is the temper, and it’s the temper he can no longer stand. Perhaps from that estranged, godless mother—

She’s only three, the other chaperone said, exasperated. One can only expect so much for a child who’s lived all over the country with four families in so many years.

According to our source, the chaperone had tears in her eyes. We don’t want to see her go, she said. She so loves her papa.

The child will be fine, the abbess assured her. She’ll receive an excellent education, both spiritual and academic.

But will she be loved? one chaperone asked the other as they turned to leave.

Either the abbess did not hear her, our source said, or did not wish to speculate.

Part Two

I saw Allegra a few evenings later at meal time. I looked forward to dinner every night — the soft, solemn chatter and bowed heads, the clanking of silverware. Allegra had not touched the spaghetti on her plate and as I walked past she raised her hand to get the attention of the sister who was manning her table.

More milk, she said. And then, with a voice that was at once sugared and wicked, added: please.

Allegra’s manners were affected and her face did not show residual infancy like those of her peers. Now that we knew who she was, we attributed intelligence to her eyes and remarks. Early on she wielded intimidating power over the sisters. No one wanted to instigate one of her notorious tantrums or become the object of her dislike.

I was drawn to her face, the life within it, the light underneath her skin.

The letter, Sister, she said, in a childish but articulate voice, catching my sleeve. I want to write a letter to Papa. You promised. During the bath.

The sisters had already received instructions that no one but the abbess was allowed to contact Lord Byron directly.

We’ll begin tomorrow, I said. I’ll find you before prayers.

I did not know if I would be permitted to forward her letters, but I knew we would write them. An academic exercise, I told myself.

As I turned to leave Allegra’s side, I heard one of the older boys at a neighboring table speculate on the existence of the Capuchin Crypt. The boys’ early masculinity strained against the rules and sterility of Bagnacavello. Their eyes still sparkled; they ran down the halls when no one was looking. They did not break as quickly as the girls.

And underneath the churches in Rome, he said, there are thousands of skulls and rotting bodies of friars. Their bones are nailed to the walls and they make chandeliers from the skulls, candles in the eye sockets.

Allegra’s eyes were wide. She was leaning forward, taking in the boy’s words, though how much she understood was hard to guess. She was three, nearly four, and inhabited the space between a baby and a child, far more interested in the older kids than the benign beings at her own table.

Is that what happens to our bodies if we die here? The boy asked the sister at the table. Our bones are nailed to the walls? Candles are lit inside our heads?

No one is dying here, the sister said, though we all knew it wasn’t true. People were dying everywhere.

* * *

Even inside the convent walls we felt the threat of typhus and malaria, the stress and strain of political turmoil. We washed our hands raw. The last of winter was still upon us and we did not have full gardens or a lemon harvest to take our thoughts away from the unrest. Though the Carbonari insurrections and violence were worse in the south, there were revolutionaries in our hills — the Adelfia and Filadelfia. Just last month the Austrians had crossed the Po, upsetting Italy’s unification advocates. One had the feeling that Italy did not yet know itself, and more blood would be shed in its quest to become whole.

Do not let strangers in, the abbess instructed, and do not leave the grounds unless absolutely necessary. The Carbonari are anti-clerical, and we do not know what or whom they would use to make a point.

That afternoon, after Allegra had received her lessons, we sat together in the cafeteria, light streaming through tall, thin windows. A dinner of Ribollita and piselli was being prepared. The cooks, I knew, were dumping the week’s leftovers into a pot with tomatoes and bread to make a thick soup. I could smell the onions frying on the cast iron.

Tell me, I said, what you want to say to your papa.

Dear Papa, she said, her lovely face racked with concentration. There are no amaretti and I do not receive evening milk here. I want to come home now.

She watched my hand as I wrote: Dear Papa, I am happy here but miss you dearly. Please bring amaretti when you come.

Her blonde hair was pulled away from her face and pinned into a simple knot. She was thinner, I felt, than when she had come; she had not eaten much solid food after arriving. Her knees bounced as she waited for me to finish the line.

Knowing the abbess would be unhappy with the letter’s contents, I edited the text. Allegra could not yet read. She looked at the paper — a used sheet of music I’d found with one blank side — happily.

Now, she said, pointing to the page, tell him that I like singing, and if he visits, I will sing for him. I will sing “God the Son” and “O Salutaris Hostia.”

I did as instructed, and ended the letter: Con affetto, Allegra.

Now, I said, patting her small hand. Off to prayers. She trailed behind me as we walked to the chapel, the afternoon sun making bands of light on the flooring, the convent’s bells tolling the hour of four, reverberating in our chests and the bottoms of our shoes. As we reached the great doors, Allegra touched the back of my leg, pausing for a moment, gathering herself before she joined her peers.

She struck me as a boat unmoored. Even with all the structure of the convent, she had no person or place to hold on to, only the routine she was coming to learn.

I wanted to cup her small blonde head in my hands, crouch low, kiss her worried forehead. I wanted to bring her to my hip, tell her a funny story, play with her hair. But I did not touch her, and let the girl go running down the center aisle alone toward her peers, blonde hair bouncing, the travertine loud underneath the soles of her feet.

* * *

In August, just as the walls of the convent began to pulse with the sun’s heat, Allegra received a visit from the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, a thin man with feminine cheekbones and burning eyes. Wavy hair ran wild across his head.

He was immediately affectionate with her, hugging her and kissing her forehead, though her stiffness indicated that she did not remember him. He’d come to us while we were seated in the cafeteria for our morning chat, escorted by the abbess who recessed into the background.

She’s pale, he whispered to me, nodding at Allegra. What is she fed?

What everyone else is fed, I answered. Soups, bread, meat, vegetables.

Allegra was inserting spoons into stacks of cloth napkins, in a manner that was industrious and childlike at the same time.

Why doesn’t she speak more? he asked.

She speaks plenty, I said, trying to reassure him. She’s one of our most precocious students.

Tell your friend, the abbess boomed from the shadows at Allegra, what you learn here.

Jesus, Allegra said, prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. His sweat became blood.

Can you recite the Apostle’s Creed for your friend? The abbess said, a note of pride in her voice, as if she was eager for Shelley to report Allegra’s progress to her father.

I believe in God, the Father almighty, Allegra began. She looked up at Shelley’s eyes, perhaps sensing his horror. Her voice was flat.

That won’t be necessary, Shelley said, holding up one hand in protest. I’m quite confident in Allegra’s capacity for recitation.

Shelley sat on one of the cafeteria benches with his legs spread in front of him. His knees appeared like sharp knobs through the fabric of his pants. He struck me as a nervous man, constantly running his fingers through his hair, a stream of energy and inquiry enlivening his body. I could sense his dissatisfaction and discomfort, and wondered if he’d pictured another life for the girl, something more worldly and secular, a life hard for me to imagine.

Come, Allegra, he said, arms out. I’ve known you since you were a baby. We rolled billiard balls together once at your father’s house. Do you remember?

Allegra moved closer, but remained coolly out of reach.

Do you see Mammina and Papa? Allegra asked. Why have they not come for me?

The abbess took Allegra by the arm in her strong and sensible manner. It’s time for prayers, she said, pulling the girl to her side. Say goodbye to your friend. Allegra moved compliantly, though turned to stare at Shelley and me with wide brown eyes as she was led away.

Pardon the intrusive question, I said. But if you see her father, might you ask if he’s open to receiving letters from his daughter? We have a rule against sending correspondence, but Allegra has written letters—

The poet nodded and was quiet for a minute, absorbing the visit.

She appears greatly tamed, Shelley said to me as the abbess and Allegra disappeared down the travertine hall, though not for the better.

Part Three

When her fourth birthday came, Allegra had been at the convent for nearly a year. Though I checked frequently, nothing had come for her — no gift, no letter, no word of a visit from her father or chaperones.

We’d become as attached as the situation would allow. When Allegra threw tantrums, I was summoned. I was the only one who could bathe her without incident. At first I was cautious of showing favoritism, but began to see myself as a valued peacekeeper, a problem solver. I convinced myself that the abbess appreciated my efforts.

Did Allegra know it was her birthday? I imagined she couldn’t. The convent was a timeless space; the institution found comfort and righteousness in routine and uniformity.

But I found Allegra crying outside of her classroom, a sister standing over her. What’s wrong? I asked, aware of my own distress at Allegra’s unhappiness.

The class wished Allegra a happy birthday this morning, the sister said, a picture of impatience in her brown habit. The abbess informed me before class.

And I could see, then, all the useless hopes Allegra had been holding on to, the expectations she had, the demonstration of her father’s love she so desperately wanted. Her eyes were pink and tears were smeared across her smooth cheeks. Her hair, which had been pulled away from her face, was mussed. She turned away from me as I approached.

You’re four today, I said, crouching beside her. I took her hand. Allegra buried her face between my bent knees.

I can manage Allegra for the morning, I told the sister. She looked relieved. Thank you, she said, disappearing quickly behind a wooden door, the whispers of her class ceasing quickly upon her re-entry.

Last year, Allegra said, Papa brought a cake and a dress to the nursery.

And then I did the thing that I most regret and cherish. I opted not to soap the tubs, as was my weekly duty — they were cleaned each night after use and no one would notice — and instead indulged myself. I thought: What would please Him more — a clean tub, or this girl’s happiness?

Would you like to go outside? I said, touching Allegra’s shoulder. Do something special?

Though we were forbidden to take children outside of the abbey walls, if I could get her to her seat in the cafeteria for lunch, I thought, there would be no suspicion, no problem.

Allegra’s eyes lifted to mine and a smile began to form on her beautiful lips. She wiped her nose with the back of her hand and I offered her the hem of my habit to clean it. We moved quickly through the winding halls — the other children were in class or morning prayers — and to the kitchen, full of scalded pans, split tomatoes and baskets of onions. The back door to the kitchen was the unlocked door to the outside world. We walked through it. The cold air was fresh and rewarding. When I looked back at the abbey, the place looked hollow, the windows black, as if there was nothing inside.

It wasn’t unusual for a sister to be outside of the convent walls, but I knew the brown habit was still conspicuous, as was the skipping, beaming four-year-old in uniform beside me. Allegra had become a little more alive in the winter sun. She held my hand tightly, jerking my arm as she occasionally lost her balance on the cobblestones. We caught glimpses of the blue sky above the buildings, which seemed taller and more jumbled than ever. Allegra kicked stray rocks at the pigeons and stared inside the pharmacias, packed with colored jars and jugs and women out for morning errands.

Why is that man selling ugly hats? Allegra said. Why does that woman carry her groceries all alone? Does she not have children? How long did it take the men to build these streets?

So many questions without good answers, I said. Tell me what you think.

A hundred years to build the streets, she said.

I ran my fingers over the back of Allegra’s hand. Her skin felt like a tulip petal, soft and undamaged. A vendor leaned forward with a bowl full of olives, tempting me to buy. Before I could pull her away, Allegra had one hand in the bowl, her fingers wrapped around three fat olives.

Allegra! I said.

Go ahead, the vendor said, laughing. Take them. Nessun problema.

She looked to me for permission, then brought the fruit to her mouth quickly, as if worried he would change his mind.

Allora, I said, kneeling on the cobblestone to take in the iridescent excitement in her eyes. Let’s head to a café for an amaretti.

Her affection — even if it was fleeting and inconsistent — was a balm. Though I was nervous about breaking rules, the warmth that began to spread through my body was beautiful. The temporary freedom was intoxicating. I thought, then, about a place I could take Allegra. I thought about my childless aunt in her austere villa in Alfonsine, the extra bedrooms and lemon trees Allegra could climb…

…but I knew I could not get away with such a scheme. I knew that while her father did not love her — not the way I could — he cared for her future. He wanted a formal education for Allegra, not a life sowing seeds alongside a peasant woman, a failed Capuchin sister. He wanted a dignified history and explanation, even for his illegitimate daughter.

I imagined making a case to him, a case based on my ability to love Allegra every day. I will ply her with wisdom and all the books I can get my hands on, I would say. We will memorize your texts…

I realized I had been making the case in my mind for weeks, imagining a life with Allegra as my own outside of the convent.

We reached a small piazza and entered Giuseppe’s, a mirrored café that smelled of caramelized sugar and coffee. Paninis heaped with prosciutto and mozzarella were being stacked onto trays in preparation for lunch. Giuseppe’s was a place for laborers and mothers, quiet and many turns off the main street. I brought Allegra to the counter.

A glass of warm milk for the little one, I said to the cameriere, and your best amaretti.

It’s my birthday, Allegra said, unabashed. I’m four.

She did not savor the cookie but attacked it with childish vigor, plunging it into the milk.

I want to write a letter to Papa, she said to me, crumbs across her lip.

I don’t have paper, I said, wiping her mouth with a cloth napkin.

Cameriere, Allegra called. Do you have paper?

He turned from fixing a cappuccino to stare at the owner of the precocious voice.

I have a pamphlet, mia caro, he said. One I no longer want. Politica stupida…

And a pen? she said.

For you, he said, reaching behind the sacks of coffee to retrieve one. He handed it to me.

Your scribe, I presume, he said, nodding in my direction.

Dear Papa, Allegra began. Today I am four. Your gift did not arrive. I am learning my alphabet but do not like the food here.

She paused to press her finger into a crumb on the counter and pop it into her mouth. She continued: A boy says my right leg is longer than my left; I do not think this is true. Please come soon to bring me home.

Dear Papa, I wrote across the political pamphlet, ignoring the text beneath my ink. I look forward to your next visit. I am learning my alphabet and wish to show you. Please come soon. Con Affetto, Allegra.

I reached into my habit to find the small sack of lire I kept hidden on my body at all times — we were not allowed to have money in the convent — and fished out coins to pay for Allegra’s milk and cookie. We were running out of time, and I needed to have Allegra back at the convent for lunch.

I plucked Allegra from her seat at the counter and held her for a moment. She wriggled down and burst out of the café. There was a fountain in the piazza, and she ran toward it.

In the middle of the fountain was a stone horse bucking into the air, his front legs raised in high alert, his rider a man of prominence I did not recognize. Water dribbled form the horse’s mouth. It sounded like a small stream as it hit the tea-colored fountain water beneath.

Allegra! I shouted. We do not have time! Arrestare!

She did not turn back.

Two men on horseback came between us. For a moment I could hear the abbesses’ cautionary words, and I became fearful that Allegra would be hurt or taken from me. I was upset at myself for not being more careful, for putting Allegra’s life in jeopardy.

Allegra! I said. Stay where you are. I’m coming for you.

She was faster than I. As I hurried toward her she looked back once and smiled at me, and if it was a wicked smile, or the smile of a happy child who had forgotten herself, I’m not sure—but she placed one leg into the fountain.

Do not—

She swung her other leg over the stucco ledge and stood knee-deep in the cold, dirty water. She began to splash. She scooped water with her hands and thrust it into the air and over her blonde head. She kicked the water, pushed it, threw it back on itself. She laughed.

I reached the fountain and pulled her backward over the ledge, planting her two feet on the gray cobblestone. Her clothing dripped and sagged and she began to cry.

Knowing now that we would be caught, I slung her over my shoulder and began to walk. She kicked and beat my shoulder but I was resolute and strong and walked further than I believed I could with her body draped over me.

I was reminded, then, of my mother’s assertion that you must work for love. Allegra’s love, I knew, was not mine to have. There was no obligation, no blood, no history that made it so. But even then, as something inside of me raged at her impulsiveness, a thing like love stirred. I didn’t want to turn her over to the abbey again. I wanted to brush her hair, put her in a warm bed, tell her a story about the shepherd in Bergamo that lost his sheep, the one my mother used to tell me, her eyes big and her voice hushed.

The last block my back began to ache and I could no longer carry Allegra. Her body was cold and I knew the walk would be good for her circulation. She had calmed and, once placed on the cobblestone, held my hand obediently, as if aware we were facing trouble.

Stay with me, I said. We must walk fast.

It was quiet in the city. A few articles of laundry popped and waved from the balconies above us. The sand-colored facades seemed to close in around us as we walked. For the first time, I realized the columns that held the upper stories of the buildings above us were painted the color of dried blood.

The only way into the convent was through the kitchen door. The cooks stopped their chatter and chopping as we entered, the air around them pungent and much warmer than the temperature outside. Allegra’s wet hair curled around her shoulders and she began to shiver.

The abbess is waiting, one of the cooks whispered.

Part Four

When Allegra’s first fever came on, I was unable to go to her, though I was told she asked for me. The abbess, infuriated at my poor decision, had not expelled me from the abbey’s walls.

You’ll serve the Reparto Speciale indefinitely, she said. Under close supervision.

The Reparto Speciale was dark wing of the convent, the place where only truly disturbed girls were kept, some chained to their beds, some refusing food, some maimed from experimental surgeries and unable to feed themselves. I fed them broth, their eyes gurgling with a wildness I could not fathom. I changed their sheets and clothes. Some spoke in tongues; some did not speak at all. I was bitten, besieged by prying fingers, hit in the chest with a bed pan. Once a week I filed their nails, which many of them bit down to jagged quicks, or, in fits of rage, accidentally used to scratch the corneas of their caretakers in protest of a linen change. There were four patients per room, and I read scripture to them before turning down their gas lamps.

I did not dare stop by the infirmary on the way to my room at night; I’d been given strict instructions to avoid Allegra. Still, I imagined her shaking and sweating underneath rough blankets, delirious, lonely. Her father did not come to her bedside; through letters, I was told, he claimed to feel certain of her strong constitution and recovery.

When I lay in bed at night, I could still picture the eyes of my newborn daughter, freshly and forever closed, her eyelashes long and lush, her skin yellowed, her life abbreviated. Her eyes, at death, were certainly more peaceful than those of the disturbed girls I cared for, their breastbones protruding from thin gowns, their gnarled hands reaching toward the invisible.

Turn then, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us, and after this our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus. O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary…

I longed to be at Allegra’s bedside. I knew that I could offer her comfort. But I would not risk further punishment, so I worked patiently, and waited.

* * *

Perhaps the abbess felt that I had served my time. Or perhaps Allegra had worn them down with her constant pleas. One month and thirteen days into my service in the Reparto Speciale, I was whisked to Allegra’s bedside, where I found a cheerful four year old with one leg outside of the bleached coverlet.

I smiled, took her hand, and kissed her forehead. Tell me how you’re feeling, mia cara, I said.

I’d like to get out of bed and go for a walk, she said.

That’s not a privilege I can grant, I said.

Can we go for another milk and amaretti? she asked.

And risk another swim in the fountain? I said. I think not.

Allegra smiled. Will you scratch my back? she asked, casually pointing to a place between her shoulders.

I knew that she would never love me, but I could delight, at least, in trust and familiarity.

We were allowed, then, to continue our daily visits before lunch. The abbess, I suppose, wanted to keep her sick and mercurial charge happy. Allegra and I always sat at the same table in the empty cafeteria, the kitchen smells wafting past us— onions, garlic, the yeasty scent of baking bread. We continued to write letters to her father. They grew in length and content, and with some exceptions, I tried to remain true to the author’s intent.

Dear Papa, she instructed. I now enjoy the spaghetti here. I have learned a great deal of Paradise and the angel Raphael. I would like very much for Mammina to bring me a toy and gold dress, and for you to visit and give me a hug and a kiss. How is your bad foot? I think I would like to have a bad foot, too. Please visit your Allegra soon.

I kept her letters bound by my bedside. The abbess would not give me permission to post them — I asked monthly — though I could, she said, present them to Byron at his next visit. There were now close to fifty letters, detailing Allegra’s wishes for toys, her changing dietary preferences, remedial spiritual insights, and desire for visits from her family.

As we continued to compose the letters, week after week, my hardest job was convincing Allegra her father would read them.

Does Papa not write back? she asked.

We cannot mail them all, and the mail is unreliable, I told her. Your father is a busy man who travels widely. But I know he loves you, and thinks of you fondly.

* * *

In February, the abbess received word that Byron might visit.

There is some risk, she said, that the birth mother is living in the area and planning to kidnap Allegra from the convent. You’ll keep a close watch, please.

I realized that even if someone were to take Allegra from the convent and offer her a better life, I could not be entirely happy. I felt agitated by the news, and guilty at my own agitation. I wanted Allegra to be loved and cared for by at least one of her parents. I wanted someone else to want her, but I did not want to give her up.

If Byron’s visit is not certain, I told the abbess, I beg you not to get Allegra’s hopes up.

She looked sternly at me and I could tell my advice was not welcome. Her face was something I could not understand. It was weathered, tired. The compassion in her eyes, if that’s what it was, was faded and rooted in an ancient system, perhaps her own .

It would be good for him to visit, she said.

And certainly good for Allegra, I said. But—

Perhaps we could post one of Allegra’s letters to him, the abbess said. As encouragement.

I’ll bring one to you in the morning, I said, excusing myself.

He wants to come back and win a little favor, does he? one of the sisters asked me, as I left the abbess’s dark quarters.

There are many things he could have done for favor in the last year, I said. Out of simple decency, if not love.

The sister looked shocked. Excuse me, I said, eager to move on from the topic. I should not have spoken so openly.

In my room that night, I leafed through the stack of letters I had penned for Allegra. She’d begun to sign her name and contribute her own words, her handwriting large and unsteady. She had a tendency to bear down too hard on the paper, leaving little tears in her letters that she worried over.

Will Papa mind? she’d ask. Should we begin again?

I imagined Byron reading the letters of his progeny, half-heartedly entertained. Perhaps the matters on a genius’s mind are bigger than little girls and their wants, bigger than dresses and circuses and cookies, early spiritual reckonings.

Not satisfied with the letters I had, I found Allegra in the morning as she was entering her classroom. Would you like to post a new letter to your Papa? I asked.

Knowing this letter would reach him directly, I was determined to let her speak her mind. I promised myself that I would write down every word, true to her intent. Her teacher, one of the younger sisters, remained in the hallway, eager to help.

My dear Papa, Allegra said, stopping to hold her forehead.

I can’t think, she said. My head hurts. What else should I say?

How about this? her teacher said. It being fair-time, I should like so much a visit from my Papa as I have many wishes to satisfy. Won't you come to please your Allegrina who loves you so?

In your own words, Allegra, I said. Your own words are best.

I like the way she said it, Allegra said, nodding to the sister, who, impressed with her assistance and eloquence, moved into the classroom, beckoning Allegra to join her, and she did.

Part Five

Allegra’s second fever hit fast. She began complaining of headaches and pain in her knees. She was sent to bed and given a full time nurse. A doctor was summoned.

In the weeks prior, the convent had given shelter to a group of twelve men sent to us by Austrian authorities, soldiers perhaps, revolutionaries even, who had been found in a leaking boat on the coast of Grado. They were deloused and given food, water, and beds. The doctor brought in to tend Allegra and others who had begun to show signs of rashes and fevers worried of a typhus outbreak. The abbess, however, insisted that Allegra’s illness was related to her ongoing malarial fevers. Still, she wrote to Byron, who still had not come to visit his daughter the entire length of her stay in Bagnacavello.

He will come, she assured me.

Those days, between my visits to Allegra’s bed, prayer, and duties, I began to realize that I was a woman devoted to work more than Christ. I did, however, subscribe to the belief that I might find my own redemption through suffering, and looking at her sick body, I suffered. Listening to her groans of discomfort, I suffered. Feeling the weak grip of her fingers around mine, I suffered.

When will Papa come? she asked me.

He knows you are strong enough to wait, I said.

* * *

Byron did not come, nor did he write to us.

I spent long hours by Allegra’s bedside, forgoing sleep as well as my duties, knowing I would be punished. Her eyes rarely opened except when she asked for water. Her voice was small and occasionally her arms flung themselves in unexpected directions during fitful sleep. I stroked her cheeks and told her stories from my childhood, the story of the shepherd from Bergamot.

Mammina, she said, her small lips devoid of all insolence and fight, just lips for drinking, lips for whispering small requests. Water. Papa.

Concerned that she did not show any signs of improving, the doctor ordered her bled. A vein in her right forearm was cut and ten ounces of blood were taken, then another fifteen in the evening. The process distressed me — it seemed to do nothing but weaken the child — so I left Allegra’s bedside for the hour.

I set off for the bakery we had gone to together for her fourth birthday. The same waiter was there, and I ordered an amaretti, removing the secret stash of lire from underneath my habit. I held the cookie gingerly, afraid it would crumble, so eager to present it to Allegra intact, though I knew she might not eat it.

Across the piazza, the fountain looked lonely, sustaining itself with a steady stream of water, filling and refilling, the stone horse and his rider made whole by the company of birds.

* * *

I could not help but remember my last encounter with death. When my own family died, I was alone with them for two days. Then my husband’s brother arrived to help me bury the bodies, which I had laid out across the table, touching and crying over them until I could not bear to enter the room. We went to the backyard together and began to make holes in the rocky soil.

Two hours later I broke my shovel on the rocks and began to dig with my hands. I wanted, then, to make room for myself. I dug until my fingers bled, until they pulled me out of the hole and begged me to sleep, the moon cold in the sky above us.

Looking at Allegra, the tips of my fingers began to ache, and I knew it would not be long.

* * *

For three days Allegra was in pain, twisting and retching, sweating, clutching at her sheets, her eyes crushed shut, her hands damp around my own.

Give her space, I told the nurses. And quiet.

A vigil had formed in the infirmary, composed of eight sisters, three doctors, and the abbess. They prayed until I no longer heard words, just the rhythm of words. I did not see their faces, just the movement of their brown habits in my peripheral vision.

At night the gas lamps went down and most went to their rooms, but I stayed. I felt a strange burst of energy, the same energy I had felt in the days before my husband and daughter died, the compulsion to stay awake and soak in the last hours of those you love, to memorize the shape of their bodies, the color of their hair, their impression in the world.

Allegra, I said, touching her chest. Can you hear me?

She did not respond, but took a deep breath and settled further into her bed. When Allegra fell into a deep rest — one where she breathed slowly and seemed only to inhabit a portion of her body — I was relieved that her suffering had ended, but knew mine would begin again in earnest.

It was the twentieth of April and not quite warm when she gave up. She was pronounced dead at 10 p.m. The last amaretti remained at her bedside, untouched, unbroken by her beautiful teeth.

You should rest, the nurse told me, as they began to prepare Allegra’s body, washing it, filing her small nails.

I shook my head, wanting to prolong the moment. I understood the finality of the situation, and wanted to keep it at arm’s length, dwell, soak up the last of Allegra’s spirit. I could see a crushing wave of sadness in front of me. I was mute with shock.

The abbess came to me but, defiant with grief, I turned away. For hours I sat on a small chair next to Allegra until they took her. I touched her hair and imagined the trajectory of her life, willing her past the obstacle of death.

Lord Byron made a show of his grief and sent for her body as if it were a rare volume, the thing that had been missing from his library all along.

* * *

I moved to Murano a month later, a small island outside of Venice, and became a wash woman for prominent glassmakers. I could not remain at Bagnacavello; I was too angry, too tired, cynical.

You’re making a mistake, the abbess said, when I told her my intentions.

I have made many, I said.

I lived on the side of the island away from the palazzos, where the gardens were beginning to bloom, and the scent of sea salt and pine filled the air.

I worked harder than I had worked before, trying to forget the children that had been taken from me. I requested extra shifts, my hands raw from lye, thankful for the sleep that came after I’d exhausted myself.

During lunch I ate baguettes and drank strong coffee, but could not sit still. In the afternoons, on the industrial side of the island, I made a habit of looking in the shop windows, the glass figurines inside garish and dappled, some green like the convent nursery’s walls.

I slept with the slim volume of Allegra’s letters underneath my mattress, though I did not read them, could not look at the name she’d learned to write herself, the cumbersome capital A.

I never lay down unless I was sure I was too tired to think, too worn down to remember. When I didn’t sleep, she came to me, young and alive, olives in her mouth, the child I knew better than my own. Their eyes and fingers became the same in my dreams.

The world celebrated her father as he played war hero in Greece, but I thought little of his brave acts and less of his fine words. A coward of a father, he squandered his greatest contribution to the world.

I walked Murano’s heaving wooden piers at night trying to forget her. I put one foot in front of the other, sometimes for hours, the Faro lighthouse sending its blinding beam into the sea, the cries of the gulls, like my grief, inelegant and ancient.

By Megan Mayhew Bergman

Megan Mayhew Bergman is the author of the story collection "Birds of a Lesser Paradise"

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