When picking basil, Francisco held each leaf to his nose briefly and rubbed it before placing it in the basket. If anyone had ever pointed out his womanly indulgence, he would have felt ashamed. But the gardeners said nothing. Perhaps they presumed that Francisco was testing the quality of the basil, a notoriously mercurial plant: some extolled its rejuvenating properties. Others claimed the mere scent of the leaves brought misfortune upon them. The latter liked to point out that basil would not grow next to rue. And everyone knew rue did not tolerate poisons.
Towards the end of the summer a rumor began circulating among the stable hands that the marigolds growing around the fens had fallen under the protection of a terrible kind of bat. The house servants, skeptical as men of their profession are inclined to be, maintained that the story had been invented by the villagers to raise the price. In those days the supply of marigolds was matter of serious concern. Marigold petals were used to ease the pains of ulcers and the pains of aging ladies, and to dye those same ladies’ greying hair a pleasing shade of yellow. But they were also thought to protect against the pestilence.
When the rumor reached the ear of the condottiero, he summoned Francisco. Go to the fens, he told Francisco, and bring as many petals and leaves as you can carry without attracting attention. If you encounter anyone on your way home, say nothing to contradict the rumor of the bats, he added. For though we are innocent of the sin of malicious gossip, I see not why we should fail to reap some benefit, for by depriving these mendacious villagers of what they thought to gain through falsehood and the terrorizing of women, we shall see them doubly punished for their sins.
Francisco was more wary of the kind of person he would encounter alone on the road than either terrible bats or fraudulent commercial practices. But he said nothing. He showed his compliance in a bow that curved his head down and green-cloaked shoulders inwards. For a moment the condottiero was reminded of a large soft basil leaf ready to be plucked.
At mid-morning the following day, Francisco bid his daughter farewell and crossed the threshold of the outer gate, heading in the direction of the fens. He raised his eyes to the horizon, and then, briefly to the heavens. All around him in every direction he saw countryside under a cloudless sky. Francisco felt exhilarated, but also decidedly ill at ease. The empty space extended away from him, generous and inviting, but also towards and at him, a great tidal wave of nothing. It was as if the open landscape itself, no longer held in check by the familiar walls and tidy orchards of the condottiero’s estate, could now at last rush in upon and over him.
To orient and anchor himself, Francisco did what he had done his whole life: he cast his eyes earthwards. His gaze wrested hold of a peony, which, he found himself reciting, “prevents the mocking delusions that the Fauns bring us in our sleep.” Scanning the earth along the wayside, he saw lions teeth, used to clear heat and toxins from the blood; years ago, during the last outbreak of the pestilence, he had applied the herbs wet fresh leaves to boils of the condottieros plague-stricken daughter.
Francisco continued walking along the road, his eyes fixed ever on the ground. He spotted elecampane– “elecampane will the spirits sustain”–and all manner of wild mint, of which Wilafried of Strabo had written: “if any man can name all the properties of mint, he must know how many fish swim in the Indian ocean”. Francisco fearful of not returning before nightfall, hurried along, only stopped long enough to pluck from the drying earth a Valerian plant, known to calm the troubles of the mind. He placed it in the pocket of his cloak, near his heart. It would be his reward to himself for his services to the condottiero.