Joyeuses Paques!

#1
8-th of April 1792, Easter Sunday, late afternoon
Agustin had received a basket of ham, some breadrolls, pastries and a small bottle of wine from the seamstress Thurenza had introduced him to. His Provensal friend Fernand had brought him coloured eggs and little Easter cakes with eggs inside. They were small, fitting one egg only, but somehow similar with the traditional French Gache de Paques, as some of the traditions weren't as different between the two countries. Since he had in those two baskets more than one person could eat, he looked around, first and foremost, for Giuseppe, to share them with him. But his friend was nowhere to be found.

He saw, however, one of the French priests, arrived to the monastery not too long ago. He seemed sad and longing. Would a Christian Easter blessings-filled gesture draw him a smile instead?

Agustin knew him from view. The church, the garden, the refectory and the dormitories weren;t as big as not to have seen your neighbours. But he hadn;t talked yet with him. Well, he couldn't boast about having talked with ALL the Benedictine friars either, even if he was here for some years.

Now he approached the man, who was about the same age as him, and said, in an hesitating French language with some Venetian accent:

"Joyeuses Paques! I have an Easter gift for you, welcoming you to Venice in a traditional way. And please forgive my rusty French - it's just lack of practice. Maybe we are going to remedy this too."

First he offered the traditional cake with an egg in it, not knowing that it had a French counterpart.
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#2
The change that Kai's face underwent was absolute, like a lightless room that has had its draperies pulled aside to reveal a ballroom, glittering and gay. Where he'd been pensive and morose, sitting in a corner of the refectory with his back turned uncharacteristically toward the room, he was suddenly alive with gratitude.

He was too startled, initially, to comment on the young man's apology for his rusty French, otherwise he would have batted it away reassuringly. The friar was considerate enough to try, which was more than could be said of the others, many of whom still spoke to him in Italian -- either out of ignorance or indifference, he wasn't sure. He did speak Italian, but not comfortably, so the friar's attempt at speaking in his mother tongue was terribly refreshing.

"Thank you, ah--" he replied in French, feeling a twinge that he hadn't bothered to acquaint himself with the other monks -- something more than embarrassment, almost an existential terror, since it was so terribly unlike him not to. "...Thank you," he finished lamely, feeling acutely the discomfort of not knowing a fellow monk's name: at his old monastery, he had prided himself on knowing the names of every one of his brothers. His apathy in this regard, if nothing else, frightened him.

But it wasn't enough to dampen his pleasure at the unexpected overture of kindness. Still glowing, he took the Easter cake and cracked it in two, eager to show his appreciation for the gift by eating it right then and there -- and was delighted to discover its similarity to the egg cakes that were served in his own monastery this time of year. "Gache de paques?" he asked, with bemused pleasure. "I didn't know you had these."

He took an experimental bite. It wasn't the same, certainly, but the similarities were enough to remind him of the kitchens in his monastery at home, and some of the effulgence drained from his face. More soberly, but sincerely, he repeated, "Thank you. I'm sorry I don't know your name-- I came with the-- the others, from Brittany." Still, he couldn't bring himself to use the word refugee though, he reflected bitterly, that's exactly what they were. "I've, ah-- been keeping mostly to myself, I suppose."

The words felt strange on his tongue, like they were being spoken by someone else. Since when had Kai ever kept to himself?
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#3
Agustin enjoyed seeing the French priest smile. The man thanked him, ready to eat the cake before anything else.

"Yes, these cakes are traditional to the area of Venice. We have other kinds as well. One I haven't got yet this year has the shape of a dove," he added with a smile. "But I have others to share with you," he opened the basket to show him the red eggs, the piece of ham, the bread rolls, the pastries and the small bottle of wine.

The Frenchman reminded him that he hadn't introduced himself. Agustin blushed.

"I am sorry, I forgot to introduce myself. I'm Agustin Barbaro," he extended his hand. "And I think that, if keeping mostly to yourself during Lent had its merits, feast days are to be shared with our brethren into Christ," he further smiled. "How is Bretagne? I have heard about it only from sailors' stories about Lorient, Brest, Saint Malo, La Rochelle..."
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#4
Kai's eyebrows bobbed in appreciation of the bounty. He was too polite to take more than he'd been given -- even through the priest had invited him to do so -- but his eyes lingered yearningly on the piece of ham.

"It's a beautiful country, though I haven't traveled it as much as I'd like," he said sheepishly. Kai had never visited Brest or La Rochelle, but the sound of the familiar names was enough to rekindle his enthusiasm. He had only the haziest memories of Rochelle -- they had passed through the port city on the way to Italy, and he'd been in no state to appreciate the idyllic coastal beauty -- but he did recall Lorient from his and his father's yearly pilgrimages to Auray, where Niemi the elder would restock the various woods and varnishes he'd depleted over the previous year, and cultivate his relationships with wealthy patrons of the arts. He remembered the city primarily in shades of blue: blue skies over dazzlingly blue waters, white sails looking periwinkle in the reflection of sea and sky. "The longest journey I've taken was the one from Perros-Guirec to-- well, to here-- and my brothers and I weren't keen on idling."

His smile was somewhat sour, but he made an effort to purge any unpleasantness from his face as he continued brightly, "I'm Kai, by the way-- Kai Niemi. I agree, feasts days are best shared -- I only regret I haven't anything to offer you in return. Besides my gratitude, of course. But San Giorgio will always have that," he finished, quietly, his eyes dropping momentarily to his lap, where he held the partly-eaten Easter cake.

When his eyes found Agustin's again, the spell had passed, and he smiled, gesturing to the seat across from him. "Will you sit?"
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#5
Agustin saw the Frenchman’s look to the ham, and he gestured again to strengthen the invitation to share everything he had got. Afterwards, he searched through his pockets for a small knife, and got it, to cut the ham in two and give him half.

The French priest said he hadn’t travelled too much.

”I haven’t traveled as much as I’d like either. I have never been outside Serenissima Reppubblica. As for around the city… yes, my family has several estates, one near Vicenza, one in Friuli, near Pordenone, and I went there when young, until going to the seminary. A few weeks ago I’ve been for three weeks up on the Dolomite mountains, reaching to the remote little villages without a church,” he further explained, his expression showing clearly how much he had enjoyed that trip.

He nodded at the confirmation that the longest journey was running away from the French revolution, and that was a good reason not to linger on the road.

”Understandably,” he said. ”Thanks God you are here, safe!” he further smiled.

”And may God exempt us of any extension of the Revolutionary fire towards here,” he thought.

As the priest introduced himself, Agustin smiled:

”Pleased to make your acquaintance, Kai. And you have already given me in return your company on the Holy Easter Day. I think this is the best gift we can make to each other, in the name of Christ the Ressurrected one.”

At Kai’s invitation, he sat by his side. It started seeming an interesting Easter evening.

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#6
Kai accepted the slice of ham with a penitent smile, then bit into it with relish. He chewed thoughtfully, his eyes getting increasingly rounder as Agustin ticked off his family's estates. Several estates -- several! Few could boast of having even one. That word estate alone suggested wealth beyond the dreams of anyone in the province he'd grown up in. There, his family had been considered relatively well-heeled simply for having a horse and the leisure to occasionally ride it.

Of course, his father had never held their relative wealth over the heads of his neighbors, had always modeled good Catholic behavior of charity and humility... and, judging by the priest's behavior -- and the excitement with which he spoke of his endeavors in the Dolomites -- he supposed Agustin did the same.

"Same," Kai said, still a little starstruck by the suggestion of wealth unimaginable. He supposed he ought to get used to it -- this was, after all, Venice. Feeling very provincial, he continued, "The Dolomites... I hadn't known people lived there." He recalled the white-capped pinnacles rearing like sleeping giants over the rooftops of Venice, and couldn't imagine their snowy peaks sustaining human life.

With almost childlike curiosity, he asked, "What was it like? Do the priests here often make such... exciting excursions?" He'd almost said dangerous, but decided against it. After all, he didn't want to sound cowardly.
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#7
For Agustin, the mention of his parents' estates was normal. He was a Barbaro and everybody in Venice knew this name – therefore he told it less since he got into priesthood, for modesty's sake. But modesty had a limit in the mind of the one who was born in a noble and wealthy family, a limit he didn't even notice, because he was born and raised to be a Barbaro, even if he took this path in life.

"Kai is an unusual name. Is it Breton? I have heard that they have different-sounding names." he asked.

Kai said that he didn’t know that people lived in the Dolomites. He had heard about them, but he didn't know details until spending almost a week there.

"They do. There are a few remote villages there. I managed to visit only two, but I understood there are a few more. Not all the people there are friendly, because even if those territories lawfully belong to the Serenissima Reppublica, in fact Venice had forgotten about them long time ago, remembering conveniently only when it was about more and more spoliating taxes. And so people left the villages at the base of the mountains and went further upwards, searching for peace from harassing soldiers. The fact that some of them speak another kind of language, somehow similar to Friulan but farther from ours than the Friulan is, and that most of them, peasants and fishermen who can't read and write, don't understand much what happens in Venice and why we claim them, don’t help either. And these villages hadn't seen a priest for… decades."

He had talked to them and he had understood something of their predicaments, with Gabriella's wise insights.

The next questions were somehow to be expected. Agustin replied in the reverse order:

"I don’t think they do it often. Otherwise, those people would have had churches and religious services. But it is more common that before ordination, priests go into some kind of retreat, like Jesus himself had done in the desert. Mine happened to be there. I witnessed marriages and helped them say proper vows, I baptized children of all ages, I talked about God and Jesus and Virgin Mary to people who were named Giuseppe and Maria but didn't know why. I guess it wasn't far from what missionaries we are hearing about do in remote countries. Just that such a work is needed here close by as well, and nobody does it."

This summarized better than anything else the situation. He had talked to the Patriarch about it too, upon return. The Patriarch explained him that as long as there weren't priests originating from those villages and speaking the local language, it was difficult to send someone to live there like hermits and be well received by the locals.

"What about you? What had been exciting in your priestly life?"
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#8
"No," Kai said, with a half-smile. He did not look surprised to be asked about the origin of his name; it was often the first thing strangers asked, when he gave it. "It's an old family name, from Sweden... or Finland, depending on who you're talking to." He still didn't quite understand the difference between the two, but his mother had always been adamant that there was one. She had been born in Turku, in the southeastern reaches of the Swedish Kingdom, where national identity had never quite petered out, despite its being under Swedish rule for over half a millennium. But then, she had many political beliefs that her move to Brittany rendered irrelevant. "I've never been to Sweden myself, though. I may be the only person in all of France to speak a word of Finnish, besides my mother."

Kai listened to the priest speak with an expression of keen interest, occasionally taking his eyes away to tuck what remained of his ham into the hollow of his Easter cake, making a sort of sweet ham-bun for himself that had completely vanished into his mouth by the time Agustin finished speaking.

He hadn't the mind for politics, but he did understand the universal human need for spiritual guidance. It sounded as if Agustin had done much good in his excursion into the Dolomites. He felt his expression go a shade green with envy. Often he had craved the thrill of striking out for regions unknown; in his imagination these excursions had seemed exciting and romantic, thrilling adventures to which he, as the protagonist of this grand hero's journey, could not but be equal.

Now that excitement had found him, those daydreams seemed silly and boyish. But the soft light of enthusiasm in Agustin's eyes reminded him what it was like to dream of adventure that did not end in soul-sapping exhaustion and heartache.

The next question found Kai at a loss. After this enterprising and, he supposed, relatively glamorous picture of the priesthood, his peaceful life in Brittany seemed excruciatingly uneventful. It had never seemed so at the time; Kai would invariably make excitement when none was to be found, and he often invented innocuous capers to keep the lazier evenings lively. But at the moment, he couldn't remember a single one.

"Exciting?" he repeated, his eyebrows arching in bewilderment. "Not really. Until recently, I'd have told you my life was extremely boring." He fixed a lopsided grin on the priest, making a conscious effort to bring himself out of his shell-- to be friendly and open and gregarious as he knew he ought to be, not the solemn reflective moody thing he'd somehow become. Agustin, at least, with his generosity and his openness, made the effort easier.

"But there is some excitement in coming here... it's not the sort of excitement a reasonable person craves, but it, ah--" He had to bite back the words it could have been worse. He abruptly changed tack. "...Everyone here has been so kind. It's reassuring to know that the brotherhood goes beyond national boundaries. It reminds me that everything that's happening--" He waved a hand in a gesture clearly meant to encompass the unrest in France, the anticlerical protests, the maddening legislation and the burnings and sackings, "--they are the affairs of men, not God."
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#9
So the name was from farther North, Kai revealed. He had barely heard of Finland, but he knew better about Sweden and its heroic wars against the Russians.

"And you are the only Finnish or Swedish man I have ever known," Agustin smiled.

Agustin had thought the same when Gabriella told him about the mountains, the harsh winter they had just left behind and its villagers in need of help, making him decide to take a small caravan of mules, loaded with the basic necessities, and accompany her. It had been an exciting, romantic, thrilling adventure in the service of God. A wonderful experience which, even if he got again the opportunity

"In the village at the highest altitude, I received the most precious gift upon return," he told Kai. "Maybe tomorrow, if you like puppies, I will show you my precious little wolfie. She is a fuzzy playful three months old, and I was told that her father is a real wolf, while her mother, which I saw, is a shepherd dog."

Indeed, there hadn't been anything sweeter and lovelier than the puppy who took a liking on him, and Gabriella decided to give her to him. As he couldn't let the poor animal in the saddlebag on such dangerous path, she had made all the way snuggled against his chest, in his shirt, so in six days of travelling together, they had become close friends. If he was allowed, he would have kept her in his room, but he was not, so she had to stay in the animals' yard, under the care of Fra' Nunziato, a Benedictine novice in charge with taking care of the animals. One more who fell in love with the sweet friendly puppy. Agustin could only visit her daily and play with her.

The discussion turned, as it was polite, on Kai and his own adventures. He said that his life was extremely boring.

"So was mine," he nodded.

Indeed, the excitement of running away from persecution and from a mad crowd wasn't exactly what Agustin had asked about.

"We are brothers in God, no matter our nationality. And you are right, unfortunately those are affairs of men. Most often, of men who have forgotten about God."

However, wars were in Bible too… So there was nothing new under the sun, nothing God and His prophets hadn't mentioned. To come back to the present day of feast, he looked at the alluring red eggs and took one, holding the basket towards Kai. He didn't know to ask in French "Veux-tu paquer?", but he said the gist of it:

"Make a wish! Christ ressuscited today!"

If Kai broke Agustin's egg in knocking them one against the other, his wish would be accomplished.
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#10
"If I like puppies?" Kai repeated with a smile of bewilderment. "Who doesn't like puppies?"

He listened to the priest speak, his expression troubled. Forgotten about God, indeed. He wished that were the case. Too often, the changes taking place in France were attributed to God Himself -- that was the affront of it.

Kai smiled at Agustin's invitation to make a wish, but his smile was a thin line. He could not say aloud that he wished above all else to be back home, away from the stink and bedlam of Venice. Instead he plucked an egg from the basket and said, "I can't wish for more than what I've already found here -- friendship and welcome, and good food to share with good men."

He tapped the egg firmly against Agustin's. There was a muted crack; Kai turned the egg in his palm to observe the little concavity formed by the impact. The shell had indeed cracked, but the membrane held, keeping yolk and albumin inside. He held his egg up for Agustin to see, shrugging. "I'm not sure this counts. Did yours crack?"
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