|Living in the shadow of death.|
The day was starting well. Antonio stepped back to admire his handy work. He felt a touch of moisture on his brow that always told him it was going to be a warm day. His flower stall in the Piazza di Spagna looked splendid bathed in the early morning sun. A little earlier, amongst the many plants and flowers the morning’s nursery delivery van had left , he had found a plant that he had never seen before. There it stood as the centerpiece of this morning’s collection with its long elegant stem supporting a multitude of white flowers only half in bloom. Even the plant’s leaves were striking because of their unusual shape. They seemed formed to acclaim the beauty of the flowers. It truly was a magnificent specimen. He made a mental note to himself to inquire, on his next monthly visit to the nursery, about the plant’s name and origin.
This unusual plant, he thought, had to find a home with one of his favorite customers. In that instance he knew he would sell it to the Contessa Giovanni’s granddaughter. Today, being first Wednesday of the month, the little girl would be coming to the stall to buy a plant for her grandmother. These regular monthly visits had been going on for over a year, and Antonio started experiencing a protective fatherly feeling towards this well dressed dainty child. In his minds eye he could see her now skipping from one flagstone to the next as she made her way across to his stall from the other end of the square. Although her name was Sophia, he affectionately called her his little princess. Antonio felt special plants, like this new addition, belonged to a certain type of person. He noticed his little princess always chose her plants with such care; no doubt her grandmother had an exquisite taste. Antonio was very careful to let her choose, but today he would make an exception, and, if necessary, guide her in her choice. His little princess and the plant were so right for each other, like a wedding carriage with white horses. He was woken from his thoughts by the church’s clock striking 10 o’clock and sure enough in the distance he saw his princess skipping her way across the Piazza to his stall.
Today it only took her a few seconds to make her choice; she immediately pointed to the exotic new plant.
“Antonio that is without doubt the one I will buy, it the most beautiful plant I have ever seen, granny will be so pleased.” She said this in the high pitch voice of a twelve year old.
“Does it have a name?”
Antonio was a little embarrassed and told his princess next month he would give her the exact name.
He was about to wrap it up but the little girl insisted on carrying the plant across the square in front of her with her arms extended; this obliged Antonio to placed it delicately between her two small hands. Maybe it was the beauty of the plant, together with the natural charm of the little girl as she walked solemnly, with the plant before her, across the square that made several people stop to admire the spectacle. It was a moment of magical delight. One of the bystanders, Professor Hawkins, an eminent American botanist, could not believe his eyes. There, extended at end of a child’s tiny arms was one of the most deadly plants known to mankind. May be he was mistaken as it just did not seem possible. Not only was it a rare plant, found exclusively in the Amazon rain forests; but it also possessed deadly properties arising from its capacity to extrude poisonous gazes as it blossomed in dark environments. Except for a closely-knit fraternity of botanists, specializing in exotic plants, very little was known about this plant. Professor Hawkins also knew these poisonous gases released in the limited confined space of a dark room would have disastrous results. A child sleeping with this plant in dark room all night would most certainly be dead in the morning. In a state of anxiety, and without hesitation he approached the little girl. As he got closer he clearly saw the half blossoming white flowers (this stage of the plant’s development posed no danger as it only bloomed in the dark), supported by long stems with their unusually shaped leaves. Without doubt his initial suspicion was confirmed.
Without a moments hesitation he asked the little girl where she had purchased the plant.
Antonio’s princess looked at him as if she didn’t understand. Then she turned on her heels taking great careful not to disturb the plant and pointed with her extended arms in the direction of the flower stall.
Without wavering Professor Hawkins started moving towards the stall, temporarily completely forgetting the little girl. His mind was focused on finding the source of where the plant had come from; no doubt this instinctive action came from years of going on field trips in search of exotic plants. Within seconds he realized his error and turned back to take the little girl with him. She was gone. The square was large with several different streets leading in various directions; also it was known as a meeting place for the local university’s students and by this time of the morning it had become quite crowded. There was not way he could know by which street the little girl had left. He heard himself screaming at the top of his voice.
“ Did anybody see which way that little girl holding the plant went?”
Silence, the people seemed embarrassed by this strange foreigner making a scene, for no apparent reason, in the middle of the square
The Professor’s next only sensible course of action was to go straight to the flower seller. Between his over excited emotional state and the flower seller’s very poor understanding of English, the two of them nearly came to blows. Their heated conversation started to attract quite a crowd that was now gathering round the flower stall. In the crowd the Professor was able to find somebody capable of translating his questions into Italian. The replies were totally unsatisfactory. He was told the man was just a flower seller and could not be expected to know all the names and provenance of the plants he sold. He had been here for years and had never had any trouble. Anyway why was this foreigner interfering with his business? The Professor tried to calm down and explained to the translator why he was creating all this fuss. Even before his explanations were translated into Italian he could see by the facial expressions the translator half believed his story. He was getting nowhere. The crowd had lost interest.
He was on holiday with his wife in a country in which he didn’t speak a single word of the language, unable to express himself, convinced a child was in real danger, he was incapable of finding a means to warn the child of the impending danger.
As Professor Hawkins slowly withdrew from the flower stall he thought the only course of action left was from him to return to his hotel and discuss the matter with his wife. He slowly retraced his steps, head bent forward and deep in thought. He realized his best solution would be to immediately contact the American Embassy, after all they could easily verify his credential and the matter could then be taken up with the police.
That was the last thought he had on the subject for several days; he never saw the car as he stepped of the pavement. The next thing he knew he was looking into his wife’s face as she leaned over him. Somewhere in the distance he heard.
“ Darling, thank God you are alive, you have been unconscious for over a week”. He was too exhausted to answer but flicked his eyes in recognition of her words.
Somewhere deep in the recesses of his brain he saw the image of a child’s burial. He was standing there with tears in his eyes.
The foreigner approaching Sophia in the square had seriously frightened her, but this was immediately forgotten went she carried her precious plant into her Grandmother’s room. The delight on her Grandmother’s face dispelled any further thought of her unpleasant encounter.
“What a treasure Sophia, I will placed it in the center of my plant collection over there on the sideboard. It looks as if it about to bust into bloom, you are a clever young woman.”
In the following days the Contessa Giovanni could not understand why the plant never blossomed. Professor Hawkins lying unconscious in a hospital bed some two miles away could have told her. You see the Contessa, as a result of the war years, would never allow the family apartment to be in darkness; the family always had all the electric lights on.