Excerpt of Leonardo's Swans by Karen Essex
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X * FORTUNA (CHANCE)
From the notebook of Leonardo:
When Fortune comes, seize her firmly at the forelock, for I tell you,
she is bald at the back.
IN THE YEAR 1489; IN THE CITY OF FERRARA
She grew up in a land of fairy tales and miracles. That is what Isabella
is explaining to Francesco as they ride through Ferrara's streets. It is
Christmastime, and though there is no snow on the dry stone road, the
horses shoot clouds of steam into the frigid air through their nostrils.
This is the first time she has been allowed to escort her fiancé through
the city on one of his visits. Francesco Gonzaga, future Marquis of
Mantua, has come to Ferrara to romance his soon-to-be bride and to enjoy
the city's many Christmas pageants ordered by Isabella's father, Duke
Ercole d'Este, a great patron of the theater. Isabella believes that the
more she tells Francesco of Ferrara's secrets and wonders, and the more
she shows him of her father's spectacular building projects and
improvements, the more he will realize her value.
In this very church, Isabella says, pointing to St. Mary's of the Ford,
almost two hundred years ago on Easter Sunday, the priest broke the
Eucharist in two, and flesh and blood came spraying forth, covering the
walls of the church and splattering the entire flock.
"The parishioners watched in awe," Isabella says, eyes wide with drama.
"The Bishop of Ferrara and the Archbishop of Ravenna came to see it.
They instantly recognized it as the body and blood of Christ and
declared it a true miracle of the Eucharist."
Francesco solemnly makes the sign of the cross as they ride past the
church, but his eyebrows arch skeptically, making him look entirely out
of step with the act.
Beatrice trots ahead of the pair of lovers, her long braid swinging in
saucy rhythm with the horse's mane, as uninterested as her steed in
"Isn't that right, Beatrice?" Isabella asks her sister for confirmation
of her story, hoping that the odd girl does not say anything to
contradict her. Beatrice is a puzzle to Isabella, a fact that the older
sister blames on the girl's unsupervised upbringing in wild Naples. The
girl is a feral, unformed thing, alternately shy, naive, aloof, and
bold--the latter especially apparent when riding or hunting. How such a
small fourteen-year-old girl, who is not particularly courageous outside
of these activities, excels at all manly sport is a mystery to Isabella,
but the fact of Beatrice's prowess remains, no matter how enigmatic.
"I wouldn't know. I wasn't there!" Beatrice finally answers without
turning around, but they can hear her laugh at her own joke.
The animal's swaying ass taunts Isabella, who knows that her sister is
dying to break away from them to test the horse's speed. Francesco has
brought Drago, the pure white Spanish charger, from his family's stud
farm on the island of Tejeto, as a gift for the girls' father. But
Beatrice immediately took over the animal, talking to him in whispers
that should be reserved for a lover, and hopping upon him and riding
away, as if the painstakingly bred horse was meant to carry a little
girl in a pink riding dress and not a fearsome knight in armor.
Excerpted from Leonardo's Swans by Karen Essex, pages 5-12. Copyright © 2006 by Karen
Essex. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random
House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be
reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the