First one, ruddy and plump, his shrill cry piercing the air of the birthing room. Then the other, equally pink and just as loud. The midwife cut the second umbilical cord before swaddling the babe and laying him next to his brother in the rough hewn bassinet. The midwife turned her attention back to the young woman, her legs still splayed wide. Her dark hair plastered to her pale face.
“Sont-ils en bonne santé? ,” she husked weakly.
“Oui, mon petit,” the old midwife murmured as she squeezed the water from a cloth and began cleaning the exhausted girl. “Ainsi,” the midwife continued, her voice firm as she nudged the girl down to rest against the bed, “maintenant tu devrais te reposer .”
Inside the old cradle the babies struggled against the rough and foreign bundling. Tiny hands worked free from their blankets, prodding along until each found the familiar grip of the others hand. As inseparable as they had been in the womb, the boys held tight.
Twelve Years Later
“Mon Dieu!” the woman cried as her dark haired boys raced into the stone house. One continued on, easily vaulting a chair that blocked the doorway leading to their living space. The other slowed just enough to flash a winning smile and press his finger to his lips.
“Shhh, mama. We are not here.” And then he too was off. Through the open room in a flash to catch up with his brother before they both sprinted out the back door to clamber up the exterior stairway and hide.
“Madame, madame! Hand over those two devils!”
Elea scanned the street from her front door and her shoulders dropped when she identified the owner of the loud bellowing voice. Old man Fesch lumbered down the dusty road, his fist raised. “This is the third time this week! Thieves, madame, your boys are nothing more than common rats! I demand you give them over immediately. I demand justice!”
“You are too late, Monsieur Fesch. Yes, they came in, but they are already gone.” Elea called back.
“Nothing good will come of your little bastards! If I catch them in my hen house or on my farm again I will shoot. I will shoot, I say! To kill!”
“What did they take, Monsieur Fesch?” She asked quietly.
“Look at where they come from, sons of a thief,” the man growled, jutting his finger at her, “and a whore! They were on my land, that is enough!” The old man fumed.
“So, they took nothing,” she said, drawing herself to her full height, meeting the old man's eyes. “This is the third time this week you have darkened my doorstep, Monsieur Fesch. Three times and no proof, no witnesses. You harass a poor woman and her children -and for what?” From the corner of her eye Elea realized she had an audience. Her neighbors had given up the pretense of disinterest and now stood watching the argument play out. Elea raised her chin and pitched her voice louder. “You come to my home, you abuse my family name! You say you will kill my boys? For nothing? Leave my house, Monsieur Fesch! “ She snarled, lunging forward to pummel his chest with her small fists. “And stay away from my boys or, God help you, I will call down worse!”
“Madame...” The old man gasped, stepping away from the wild woman.
“Allez-vous! Get away from this house!” She wailed, looking for all the world like a she-wolf protecting her twin cubs from a villainous hunter.
“Leave her be!” A voice called from across the street, then another and soon there was a chorus of neighbors shouting down a dumfounded Monsieur Fesch. Flustered, he backed away, muttering about the injustice of it all as he took to the narrow street again.
Elea stood firm, arms crossed over her breast as she watched the farmer slink away. When he was finally out of sight she closed the door, and exhaled.
“He set -” began one indignant voice and finished by a second, equally outraged cry, “- a trap!”
“A fox trap!” the boys cried in unison as they skulked back into the house. Heads hung in a good show of contrition that lasts just a moment before the younger one burst into a fit of snorting laughter.
“Really, mama, it was quite a daring -”
“-and dangerous! -”
“mission!” They finished together. “You should have seen us!” The boys scrambled around the room, reenacting the caper.
“He's lined the entire perimeter of his rotten farm -”
“With steel toothed traps -”
“And wire snares! But we could see where he'd planted them.”
“Messy.” They said with disdain, shaking their heads at the farmer's sloppy work.
“So,” they began up again in unison, “we climbed a chestnut tree and went over the fence!”
Elea clapped her hands at their bravado and gave a nod of approval as, from under their hand sewn shirts, they produced their plunder: a small prisuttu ham and a round of tomme de chèvre cheese. “Tonight, we eat like kings!” the youngest boy proclaimed.
Many hours later she watched them sleep. So alike, curled together on their thin cot, thick curls dark against their pale faces. So like their father. How many times now? Elea let herself indulge in a warm memory of their father. Of course she'd been foolish and in love. They spent those fleeting spring months being foolishly in love together. Then came the first signs that she was with child. Then came the start of the shipping season and he was gone.
There was no great ship to carry her and her ever growing belly away. Instead the family sent her here, away from the great port city, to the backwoods of wild pigs, shepherds and ill-tempered wheat farmers.
Yes, they would all go to bed with full bellies tonight but eventually the food would run out again and they would all be back to the hard scrape of living.
Fesch would be just the first. The old farmer had, of course, pegged the small family for what they truly were. Sooner or later her boys would run afoul of another villager, there would be more accusations. Elea stopped her spinning thoughts and smiled. -accusations, but never any proof. The twins were smart and seemed to get more clever with each passing day. No, there would never be the bungle of getting caught red handed.
The boys were growing bigger and bolder. This village, her exile, was too small. Elea pressed back the burn of tears. Her boys where too useful to rot away in this backwater. It was time to send them to the city, to the family. It was time for her petits chéris to claim their birthright.
Cards play and gamblers brag
Pierre-Marie Fratacci studied the two boys standing before him. The Sea Breeze cafe was closed for the day. Elea's sons had arrived in Bastia on the afternoon bus and they looked terrible. Far too thin for their height and clad in tattered clothes. He brought his eyes back to their faces. The were indistinguishable, uncanny and unsettling. Grown men had wet their pants under Pierre-Marie's fixed scrutiny, but not these boys. They met his gaze, followed his eyes as he looked over one, then the other. Pierre-Marie did not miss the sly look they passed between them, the slight upturn of their mouths. The boys were amused, entertained, he thought.
“So, what use to me are my sister's bastard twins? We have family enough, what do you two scroungers bring to the Unione?”
They boys cocked their heads towards each other then smiled.
“And,” they began in unison, “we're humble.”
The older brother stepped forward. “Our résumé is short, but we can learn.”
“Which one are you?” Pierre-Marie asked.
“I am Tomaso, and this is my brother -”
“Maximo,” answered the younger boy as he stepped forward beside his brother.
“Ah,” Pierre-Marie said, sprawling back into his chair. “But of course you are. My dear sister never misses an opportunity to twist the knife.” He shifted his tall frame in the chair, turning his attention back to the impertinent twins. Elea's spawn or not, they had balls and Pierre-Marie had a knack for spotting talent that could benefit the family. “Here, Lucchetti,” he called, signaling to the group of men who had stood quietly through the interview. “Take these two and find them something to wear. Then take them to L'Hotel Central. Set them up with an apartment. Tomaso, Maximo, tomorrow morning, 6:00 am, school begins. Now go!”
The man called Lucchetti loaded the two boys into the back of a car and drove them into the heart of of the port city to carry out his orders. The first stop a clothier. Tomaso, and Maximo marveled at the rich fabrics and quickly set about pulling items from the rack, instinctively mirroring the style and tone set earlier in their meeting with their uncle: two matching dark blue suits apiece, a handful of crisp dress shirts, fine linen and cotton undergarments and a sturdy pair of shoes each. Loot in hand, the boys almost laughed out loud as Lucchetti settled the bill. They had taken turns guessing their uncle's wealth, but the easy way in which the hired man handed over Pierre-Marie's money confirmed that their new benefactor may well be the wealthiest man in all of Corsica. Possibly the world.
Next Lucchetti took them to get haircuts then checked them into a room overlooking the busy seaport. L'Hotel Central was not one of the glamorous new hotels that catered to tourists, but it was clean and it felt safe. For the first time in the long day Tomaso, and Maximo relaxed into the quiet pleasure of finally being alone.
“Well, this was quite the stroke.” Tomaso murmured as he studied himself in the mirror.
“The suit,” Maximo answered from behind his brother, deft fingers smoothing and adjusting Tomaso's collar. “Or our dear Uncle?”
Tomaso snorted, stepped aside to give his brother time in front of the single mirror in the room. “All of it. Yesterday we one step up from dirt, today we're living like kings. It's absurd.”
“Hmm.” Maximo brushed his hair back and tilted his face to the side, admiring the reflected image. “Possibly, but why not enjoy it? Why criticize the play before we've even seen the curtain fall?”
“Mmm.” Tomaso shrugged. “It's late, come to bed. I think tomorrow will be a very long day for us.”