Three Omens of Federico da Montefeltro

By BEN STROUD

 

Urbino, 1472

Ottaviano held the staff high and steady as Scipio tugged at the bunches of leaves fixed to its top.

“He remains content?” Ottaviano asked the giraffe’s keeper.

“He does,” the keeper said. “Twice since sunrise he’s moved his bowels.”

Ottaviano watched Scipio chew. With his knobbly horns, his puzzled hide, and his great neck, he had clearly been made for a far different existence in his home beyond the Nile, a home for which even the library’s grandest atlas possessed only the most rudimentary of maps. And yet, snatched from that home, confined to his pen, the animal betrayed neither alarm nor sorrow.

Once Scipio finished off the leaves, Ottaviano gave the pole back to the keeper and, cutting through the stables, returned to the palace. It was near the end of July. Three weeks had passed since Battista had died, weeks in which Ottaviano had been acting as count while his brother Federico mourned the loss of his cherished second wife. No part of ruling was in Ottaviano’s nature—he loathed the public life—and now especially he would prefer to be in his turret room readying himself for another ascent. Instead he had to sit through his mornings receiving petitioners, entertain the envoys who’d been arriving from all over Italy for Battista’s funeral, and this afternoon visit an abbess to make, on Federico’s behalf, the weekly inquiry into her nuns’ health. The sole half hour whose loss Ottaviano didn’t resent was his call on his six orphaned nieces, whose tears he attempted to dry with assurances of the bliss toward which their mother’s soul was traveling, and on his nephew, poor, plump Guidobaldo, as yet innocent of all that was happening around him. Every minute was accounted for, and even as he walked along the hallway to a privy, craving the quiet it would offer, he was grabbed by an old man, one of the six who’d been attached to Battista’s household and who now pleaded for some guarantee as to his future. Only after Ottaviano told him he would have a good word for him shortly did the old man let him go. For a moment, the single moment in all the day, Ottaviano was free. But he took little comfort from this temporary freedom—not after, last night, Federico had spoken of his three omens.

 

A hope had been rekindled in Ottaviano, a hope the three omens might well threaten. These last weeks, despite having to tend to every care that was usually Federico’s, Ottaviano had also, thanks to the grace of one of Providence’s turns, focused on reviving his efforts to speak with his son, Bernardo. For ten years Bernardo’s body had been lying in its tomb. At present his soul was likely, Ottaviano knew, in one of the far, uppermost spheres.

The secret arts had intrigued Ottaviano since his youth. He’d been sent to the court of Milan to complete his education, and in Milan the duke himself, impressed by Ottaviano’s ability with a spangled chart, had personally encouraged him, inviting him on occasional afternoons to view his feather, plucked from an angel’s wing, with which he wrote his dearest wishes, or the elixir, of his own recipe—ground ruby, a day-old infant’s tears—whose each drop, if taken under the influence of the proper star, added to the foretold span of his life one more hour. Returned home, Ottaviano had continued his inquiries into such knowledge, and when, years later, his correspondence stirred with the news of fourteen lost treatises discovered among the shelves of a Macedonian monastery, he’d sent a request for a copy of them to be made for his personal use.

By the time he’d received the copy, Bernardo had been dead for six months. The boy, just twelve, had been taken from him so cruelly, so quickly, and as Ottaviano read in the treatises of how the soul, upon the body’s death, floated up through the spheres, and of how those who perfected their intellects could send their own souls to any point within comprehension, he’d understood that, in following the laws revealed by their author, that most ancient Egyptian sage Hermes Trismegistus, he might pilot his soul to Bernardo’s and say to him all that he most desperately wished.

His wife, Angela, Bernardo’s mother, mocked his delusions and declared he would never be absolved for that which he’d done. It was absolution he wanted, she’d said as she’d chased him from her chambers, and absolution he’d never get. Undaunted, and saying nothing to Federico, who disapproved of any attempt at peering into what God had seen fit to hide, Ottaviano worked for a year to fill in those few gaps in his intellect. For this purpose the palace’s library, rival to both the pope’s in Rome and that established by the Visconti at Pavia, seemed more than suited, and at the end of his year of study, having corrected every remaining ignorance he could, Ottaviano isolated himself each day and commanded his soul to ascend. As the treatises instructed, he paraded his knowledge of every created thing before his inner eye and contemplated it in its fullness. The world becoming his mind, his mind the world, by the end of a month he could feel his soul lifting from his body, just as the treatises said it would. But he never managed to keep it aloft for more than a moment, nor pierce beyond the second sphere—that of the moon—nor, most crucially, glimpse that great congregation of souls loosened by death from their mortal bodies and floating up from the earth in what should have been a constant stream. If the library’s eight hundred volumes had not been enough, he decided, then, in this corrupted present, anything close to the necessary perfection of the intellect must be impossible. After thousands of years of rot, the pure knowledge of the world at hand when the treatises were written was still too scattered.

Then, three weeks ago, just as the court was plunged into mourning at the announcement of Battista’s death, the forty books Federico seized in Volterra had arrived. They had been a happy surprise—Federico had made no mention of them in his letters—and many of them were of astonishing antiquity, and all of them were written in Hebrew, the holiest language, the holiest alphabet, the language in which God spoke, the alphabet with which He’d inscribed his commandments. What long-hidden learning might they contain? Ten years had passed since his initial, stunted ascents, but instantly Ottaviano had understood. With the aid of the books from Volterra, he might be allowed to breach the higher spheres and, finally, speak to Bernardo.

 

After another supper at which, sitting in Federico’s chair, Ottaviano had to suffer the tedium of the funeral envoys’ polite conversation, he stopped by the library. He had enlisted Enrico, a young scholar trained in Hebrew, to catalogue and skim the books taken from Volterra, and he asked him, quickly, “Anything?”

“Not today,” Enrico said.

Thus far since he’d begun, Enrico had found little beyond dry chronicles and bland instructions regarding minor rites. Still, Ottaviano hoped. As he did whenever they spoke, he reminded Enrico to alert him as soon as he had come upon any item of interest. Then he hurried on. Upstairs Federico would already be waiting.

 

Last night in the studiolo, when he’d disclosed his visitation by three omens, Federico had started out by sharing his interpretation of them. “In Volterra I overstepped,” he’d said. “I must retire to a monastery and atone. Little Guidobaldo will become count and you his regent. Otherwise, the Montefeltro line will cease, and everything I have striven to build will be lost.”

Never before, Ottaviano knew, had Federico tolerated such excesses as had occurred in Volterra: hundreds slaughtered, women insulted, churches robbed. Indeed, Ottaviano had been alarmed by the reports, and that these omens were real, that they threatened a punishment, he thought, could be true.

But it could also be true that Federico was overwhelmed by the suddenness of his grief. After the sack of Volterra, now barely more than a month past, he’d been feted by the Florentines, whose instrument he’d been, and it was as he was riding home that he was delivered the news of Battista’s fever and cough. The very night, racing, Federico had gotten to her side, she’d succumbed. Such a swift tumble from his triumphs must spur certain fears and doubts, and these could in turn give rise to the spontaneous invention, within Federico’s troubled mind, of supposed omens. Never mind Ottaviano’s own distaste at the prospect of being made to serve as regent for year upon year while Guidobaldo grew. Surely he owed Federico the opportunity to awaken from a grave fallacy, if that’s what it was.

And so, after Federico described the first omen—in Volterra, as he and his personal guards had ridden past a house in flames, fire licked from a window and caught the black eagle on his standard—Ottaviano bargained with him to save the second omen for the next night, the third for the night after that. With luck, the other omens would be too opaque, their truthfulness thus disproven. Or maybe by then Federico on his own would announce he’d been mistaken. In either case Ottaviano would be assured that no peril was being tempted and that, once Battista was buried, he’d be able to begin his search for Bernardo anew.

 

“I thought she was improving—that is what is so cruel,” Federico said tonight as soon as Ottaviano sat across from him. As he had before, Federico again recounted his and Battista’s last hours together. Sitting up in her bed, her face pinkening, she had analyzed each Florentine gift he’d received, Federico said, in an attempt to ascertain the genuineness of Medici gratitude, and then had pressed him to investigate a worrying rumor about the Malatesta to whom they’d betrothed their Elisabetta—a rumor that, if true, would suggest he’d become an imitator of his pagan father despite the multitude of promises they’d gotten to the contrary. “She was herself, committed as ever to the happiness of our children and of Urbino. And then, to be taken? That night, taken?”

“It is unfair, wretchedly unfair,” Ottaviano told him with as much tenderness as he could muster. Despite himself, he could not stifle his jealousy: at least Federico had had those precious last hours, the chance for comforting talk and final conversations. When word had been sent that Bernardo, missing for a week, had turned up ill at a shepherd’s hut high in the mountains, Ottaviano had rushed to him only to be presented with his son’s lifeless body lying on a rude bed of straw.

“What if her death was the first punishment for my overstep?” Federico asked. “What if I could have stopped her from dying?”

“You mustn’t think so,” Ottaviano said.

“But there are the omens,” Federico reminded him.

“Of course, the omens.”

Ottaviano had hoped—it was a faint hope, he knew—that the omens might already have been forgotten. Now, as he stilled himself and prepared to listen, he hoped that this second omen would be so false as to prove the entire matter an illusion. Indeed, Federico had never set much store by such things, could not be counted on to recognize a true omen. But as Federico described the second omen—in Florence, an orator who’d been tasked with reciting his praises had thrice stumbled over his name, and at the third stumble, Federico swore, the heavens had boomed with the sound of distant thunder—Ottaviano could not stop from feeling that this, together with the burned eagle, suggested a truth that could not, perhaps, be ignored. Still, he kept silent until, in answer to Federico’s expectant look, he said he would deliberate on this second omen as he continued to deliberate on the first.

 

The next morning, while holding high the staff prepared with leaves, once more Ottaviano asked Scipio’s keeper, “He remains content?”

“He does,” the keeper said, and pointed to the scatterings of hard black dung not yet removed from the pen.

Inspecting the giraffe each morning was another task Ottaviano had taken on for Federico, and he’d found that observing the manner with which the creature bore his captivity buoyed him. If Scipio could delight in his unhappily altered circumstances, might not he, at the least, endure his own? But this morning, in that part of Ottaviano’s intellect dedicated to the orders of beasts, a particular fact had risen from its resting place. “His kind do not keen, do not bark, do not whimper. Does he possess some other way of making his unhappiness known?”

“When he arrived, he stomped his foreleg,” the keeper said. “However, he has learned that if he does that, he gets the whip.”

At this, Ottaviano felt within himself a cold stroke of disappointment. Before the animal tugged free the last bunch of leaves, he handed the pole back to the keeper and then, bracing himself, returned to the palace. There the day continued much like the last until, soon after lunch, Ottaviano was summoned to the courtyard. One of Federico’s lieutenants wished to show him, in the light of day, the sketch of a gun that could be had, he claimed, for an agreeable amount, and as the lieutenant drew his finger along the length of the gun’s barrel and speculated upon the force and accuracy with which its corporeal counterpart—being birthed this very moment at the foundries of Siena—might strike a city’s wall, Enrico came jogging out of the library, caught at Ottaviano’s elbow, and said, “I have found something.”

Making his apologies to the lieutenant, Ottaviano stepped away with Enrico. Once they reached the courtyard’s far corner, the young scholar told him that the volume he was currently cataloguing contained a list of the names of the angels along with the ties that bound them to the stars of the zodiac and the days of the week. He then voiced what Ottaviano had himself already grasped: the addition to his intellect of such a detail, revealing as it did one of the hidden sinews of the world, might be enough for him to gain one of the upper spheres. It could even be enough to allow him to call to Bernardo and discover where exactly he was among the congregation of souls floating ever higher.

The lieutenant, waiting, inched closer, and beyond the courtyard the envoys were expecting their day’s entertainment. Too, there were the countless as yet unknown matters that, as ever, would surely arise. But these he must ignore, at least for an hour or two. The clarity of the second omen had become even more undeniable since he’d spoken with Federico last night in the studiolo, and Ottaviano had no choice, now, save to tell Federico so. Federico would abdicate, Ottaviano would have to stay on as regent through all the long years until Guidobaldo attained his majority—it was what was commanded—and he’d never be able to speak to Bernardo unless, somehow, he could pry loose from the constant obligations what time he needed.

Ottaviano sent the lieutenant away with the promise that he would decide by tomorrow, then ordered a page to go to the envoys and suggest that, since the day was fine, not so hot as it had been, they and their retinues might enjoy a ride through the count’s personal forest. Within the hour the palace had emptied, and the court’s staff had been instructed to keep any petitioners away for the length of the afternoon.

 

On the balcony outside his turret room, on a night ten years ago when he’d intended nothing more than to test him on the stars, Ottaviano had last seen the living Bernardo, and inside this room now, seated in its very middle, eyes closed, legs crossed, talismans ranged about him, he took in that knowledge Enrico had found. As Ottaviano contemplated his new, fuller understanding of the world, his soul vaulted into the lower spheres. Then it was permitted into the first of the upper spheres, that of Mars, and here, amid its luminescent darkness, Ottaviano at last beheld the great congregation of souls rising and rising, each one a tiny flame floating toward the universe’s farthest bound. He’d plotted how he might find Bernardo among them, and as with his earthbound body he called Bernardo’s name, with his soul he channeled the plea outward. It was possible that after ten years Bernardo’s soul was no longer here—a thought Ottaviano had tried to ignore—but as he strained to hold his own soul in place, one of the flames far above him glowed more brightly.

At that same moment, though, there came a shout, an unknown shout, and Ottaviano’s soul plummeted. He feared he’d angered a seraph, perhaps one of the angels whose names he’d learned. But once he awoke to himself, he realized the shouting was coming from below.

“What is all this?” he asked Enrico.

Enrico said he didn’t know.

Ottaviano stood, in his haste tipping over two of the talismans. Down the turret’s spiraled steps and beyond the door that, at the first landing, shut off his private room, the shouting continued. When Ottaviano opened the door, he found the old man who’d grabbed him yesterday struggling with a page; seeing him, the old man burst free, bent to his knees, and whined that another of Battista’s six old men had been made master of keys at Lamola, not him—where was the good word that had been promised to him? And behind the old man, one step off the landing, a second page was waiting, was already saying, “Sir, now I see you are available, I must tell you one of the Milanese fell from his horse,” and two steps below the second page stood the lieutenant with his sketch of the gun. The Sienese, he’d learned, were preparing to up their price.

He had seen Bernardo; he was almost sure he had seen Bernardo. But he’d not had near enough opportunity to be certain, nor to estimate the remaining distance between them, much less attempt the difficult further ascent, before he’d been wrenched back down. Could he not be left alone for even the mere length of an afternoon? Evidently that was too much to ask of this constant cloud of cursed, importuning flies. Even so, Ottaviano hid his fury, hid his upset, as he sent Enrico back to the library to carry on with his work, and as he approved the purchase of the gun, visited the injured Milanese, and dictated a letter to the keeper of the castle at Rampugnano ordering him to accept the troublesome old man as his master of keys. Once he was done with this last, and having given up on another attempt at the spheres—impossible, with his mind so rattled as it was at present—he went to those rooms where Federico’s children were kept. The nieces had gone out to gather more flowers for their mother’s bier, and Guidobaldo lay in his little bed, which his nurse rocked with her foot while one of the palace chapel’s singing boys soothed him with a lullaby.

“He has been well?” Ottaviano asked.

“Perfectly well,” the nurse answered.

At a wave of Ottaviano’s hand, the singing boy stopped his song, the nurse her rocking. Ottaviano lifted Guidobaldo from his bed and tickled his neck. The infant giggled and smiled as, at Ottaviano’s touch, Bernardo had once giggled and smiled. Ottaviano blew on Guidobaldo’s forehead and cheeks, as, too, he had once done with Bernardo. It had been easy then, before Bernardo had grown into a boy of twelve who, asked to find Jupiter, had not even looked, and who, reproved with a single hissed “Imbecile,” had run weeping down the turret’s spiraled steps. In the morning, Ottaviano had expected, tempers would be cooled and they could begin again. Instead—fate’s cruel trick—a week later he’d fetched his son’s corpse from a low stone hut. What had Bernardo thought while he wandered alone? What must he have long been thinking if one hissed word was enough to so wound him? Putting his soul next to Bernardo’s, Ottaviano could hold his son to him, as he held Guidobaldo now. But, more, he could finally let him know he’d meant none of it, that Bernardo had ever been loved.

The only way he’d have any hope, he understood, was if he convinced Federico the omens were false. Bernardo’s soul had been unfathomably high in the uppermost sphere, and he would need time to get to it. If he had to stay on as regent, though, there would be the countless tasks, and even if he clawed away an hour, he would never be able to concentrate in the manner he must, would always be waiting for another shout, another demand. There could be no accommodation, at least not any he could depend upon. Before this afternoon, he’d suspected this; now he ached with the fresh bruise of its inescapable truth. And yet, convincing Federico the omens were false would invite the punishment that, if unheeded, they foretold. The end of the Montefeltri might be an acceptable exchange, considered vaguely, but was there not the possibility he would be condemning his infant nephew to an early death? Could he so risk little Guidobaldo, who even now was drifting off to a trusting slumber in his hands?

He couldn’t. Of course he couldn’t. It would be monstrous.

Ottaviano set Guidobaldo back in his bed, whispered to the singing boy to resume his lullaby, and hurried off to prepare for the Neapolitan envoy, who, he’d been told just minutes before, was but two miles from the city’s gates.

 

That night in the studiolo, after Federico described the third omen—a dream in whose each instance he rode alone in a storm and whose insistent return since Battista’s death, he said, had prompted his worry over the danger his family now faced—Ottaviano replied, “Brother, I have learned in all my studies to beware of seeing patterns where there are none.”

He led his arguments out in the order he’d chosen: Federico could not have overstepped in his sack of Volterra, for the Volterrans had known the bargains of war; besides, should any fault have accrued on his part, it would in fact lie with the Florentines, who’d hired him; moreover, his retirement to a monastery would be a blow to his people, and for what reason would they deserve to suffer in the absence of his scrupulous care? He had other arguments at the ready, but Federico interrupted to ask, “You really believe this?”

“I do,” Ottaviano said. “The omens are phantoms brought to your mind by your intolerable grief. They predict nothing.”

Federico, quiet, turned from Ottaviano’s gaze. Then he grunted, said he needed to think and pray, and already Ottaviano knew this would be the last talk of abdication.

 

The night not yet too far gone, Ottaviano climbed to his room at the top of the turret. There, as he’d requested, Enrico was waiting.

In the hours since he’d visited Guidobaldo—hours that included not just the welcoming of the Neapolitan envoy but also the adjudication of a dispute between two sellers of hats—Ottaviano had not been able to shut from his mind the glimpse he’d had of what he was more and more certain was Bernardo’s soul. Every minute it was floating higher, and eventually, at some unknowable moment, it would be too late: once it touched the universe’s edge, according to the treatises, it would be irrevocably mingled with the Powers singing eternal hymns to God.

Then, at supper, while Ottaviano was suffering through yet more of the envoys’ polite conversation, Enrico had come into the banqueting hall and, kneeling at his side, discreetly told him he’d found something else that was quite promising, an account of the order in which God formed the minerals. As the fruit and cakes were served, Ottaviano absented himself and walked out to Scipio’s pen. The keeper, surprised, started to put leaves on the staff, and Ottaviano dismissed him. He needed to consider, and in his way Scipio was, perhaps, his most honest counsel. Scipio he understood, and Scipio, maybe, understood him. The animal was no model of forbearance. There was no knowing what sorrows he might complain of if he could. Never mind how monstrous the sacrifice might prove, Ottaviano decided as he was gazed upon by the mute giraffe’s dark eye, he could not lose his chance.

As Enrico read the account, Ottaviano installed this new knowledge amongst his rest, then sent his soul aloft. Too agitated from the day, he could not get his soul beyond the sphere of Mercury, and neither could he spy the bright congregation. But he did not despair. Soon Battista would be buried, soon Federico would return to his duties as count, and soon he would be able to ascend again and again. That instant his soul reached Bernardo’s, he would tell him all that he needed to hear. For as long, at least, as he could hold his soul beside his child’s, every wound, past and future, would be healed.

 

Ben Stroud is the author of the story collection Byzantium, which won the 2013 Story Prize Spotlight Award and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Prize for fiction. His stories have been published in Harper’s, Zoetrope, VQR, Oxford American, VICE, and One Story, among other places, and have been anthologized in Pushcart Prize XLII, New Stories from the South, and The Best American Mystery Stories. He is currently associate professor of English and creative writing at the University of Toledo.

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Three Omens of Federico da Montefeltro

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