By Mary Vigliante Szydlowski

Tears streamed down Serafina's cheeks as she hobbled amid the trees, a frail and feeble specter in a baggy black dress. Hand trembling, she lifted her glasses and wiped away the tears; then nervously smoothed back the wisps of white hair. Her breath was coming in strained gasps. A sharp pain radiated from the center of her chest.

She clutched her breast and began sobbing. It wasn't dying she feared, but being locked away, abandoned to the care of strangers.

Serafina had been stabbed in the heart, but it wasn't her enemies that conspired against her; it was her own flesh and blood.

Her children insisted that she deserved a rest after a lifetime of hard work, that she should enjoy her sunset years, and not have to worry about cleaning house, cooking meals, or tending a yard. They were pressuring her to sell her home. "Too much work," they said. They were equally adamant that she shouldn't rent an apartment. "You can't live alone. A woman your age, it's too dangerous! Suppose something happens to you? You could fall and break a hip. Or have a stroke. Or a heart attack. Who'd hear your calls for help?" they warned. "An old person alone is easy prey for muggers and robbers. You need to be some place safe, where you don't have to worry about such things."

They were trying to confuse her, pushing papers under her nose, telling her to sign them. They called it a Power of Attorney and said it was insurance, in case something happened to her and she couldn't handle her own affairs.

She was suspicious of their motives, thinking their sudden concern for her welfare had more to do with greed than love. She'd had a hard life; all she had to show for it was her inheritance. It was payment for all the years she'd spent scrimping and doing without. Now her children were conspiring to take her money away and her independence with it.

It wasn't fair, she'd suffered all her life, forced to marry a man she didn't love, endure his abuse, his drinking, his womanizing. God forgive her, but she was glad he was dead. He'd treated her like a servant, doling out money by the penny, making her beg for every cent. He spent his money on whores and his businesses, while she lived like a pauper on the dole. The nicest thing he'd ever done for her was die. She hated the color black, but wore her widow's weeds gladly. They symbolized her freedom.

Antonio Macri was a terrible husband, but a fine mason and a good businessman. He turned a one-person operation into a large construction company, then bought a brickyard and a ready-mix concrete business.

It was the money she'd gotten from the sale of the businesses that her children were now trying to get their hands on. Like greedy vultures, they were vying to control her assets.

Even though she'd never worked outside the house, to her way of thinking, she'd earned every cent of the money, living with that tyrant all those years. She'd be damned if she'd allow her children to steal it from her.

Looking back, her life seemed little more than a collection of painful memories. Serafina could remember gathering olives with her mother and eating bread and goat cheese with her aunt. She could also remember picking her way along treacherous mountain trails to bring food to her shepherd father as he stood watch over his flock. She could still see his face: bushy brows, weathered features, and dark, cold, uncaring eyes.

Serafina had been eight when her mother died trying to bear her husband a son. The poor woman had suffered six miscarriages, barely recuperating from one before discovering she was pregnant again. Her deteriorating health seemed of little concern to her husband, who wanted a boy to help him with the sheep. She died delivering his son, but her death was in vain. The baby was stillborn.

Serafina had been glad her baby brother died. Since it was her father's fault her mother was dead, it seemed only fitting that he be punished and denied the thing he wanted most.

She'd cried herself to sleep the day he remarried, bringing that evil witch, Bella, to live in their house. With her father away all the time tending his flocks, Serafina was left to the woman's mercy. The girl became the object of her stepmother's cruelty. Serafina had been beaten and worked to near exhaustion. When she told her father about the harsh treatment she'd received from Bella, he accused her of lying. He believed Bella though, when she said Serafina was insolent, lazy, and disobedient. Serafina felt the sting of her father's strap many times, but that wasn't enough for the devious bitch. Bella wanted Serafina out of her house; the only way to accomplish that was to marry her off.

Serafina had been an excellent student, but Bella convinced her father that sending her to school was a waste of money. She said books would fill Serafina's head with nonsense, that the girl would be better off staying home and learning the skills she'd need to be a good wife and mother. Her father agreed. Ignoring his daughter's pleas and protests, he withdrew her from school, denying her an education and any hope of a better life.

She was just fifteen when Antonio Macri came to the village from America seeking a wife. He was ten years older than she was, a squat ugly ape with glowering eyes. She loathed him from the moment she first set eyes on him.

After being assured that Serafina was both a virgin and healthy enough to bear children, and that she would be a dutiful, obedient wife, Antonio asked for and was given Serafina's hand in marriage.

She begged her father not to force her to marry a man she didn't love, but her pleas fell on deaf ears.

Her husband to be was a hard worker with a good trade, her father told her. So what if he wasn't the man of her dreams. There was no Prince Charming coming to claim her, that was all romantic nonsense, he insisted. This might be the only proposal of marriage she'd ever receive; he wasn't going to let her pass it up. She was getting married; she'd just have to learn to make the best of it!

Alone in a strange country, unable to speak the language, Serafina lived her life in abject terror. There were no friends or relatives to protect or befriend her, there was only him. Antonio treated her with disdain, frequently flying into violent rages that escalated from curses and shoves, to slaps, kicks, and punches. Serafina had no choice but to endure the abuse. Where could she go? Who could she turn to?

The only people she knew were her husband's family and they were hardly sympathetic to her plight. She couldn't say a word about him without arousing their anger and being accused of ingratitude. If Antonio hit her, then she must have deserved it, they said.

Serafina retreated into a world of silence and despair. She spent her days saying Rosary after Rosary and praying for release.

It took fifty-five years, but God finally answered her prayers. Her suffering and misery had ended; she had her freedom. She would not allow anyone to take it away from her. Not even her children!

Serafina had given birth to a nest of vipers. They were born of her womb, but they were Antonio's seed, selfish and cold-hearted. She paused again to wipe her eyes.

They would spring their trap at dinner tonight and she would be ensnared in it. Her children, who rarely called to see if she was alive or dead, had suddenly decided to have a family dinner.

Theresa and Frank were driving up from Poughkeepsie, where her big-shot son-in-law worked as an executive for IBM. He was an ass, always trying to impress people, bragging about his 14-room house, his Mercedes and Range Rover, his exclusive country club, and his investments. She loathed him!

She didn't think much of her daughter, Theresa, either. She was just as pretentious as her husband, always putting on airs, acting as though she'd been reared in a Park Avenue penthouse instead of a row house in Troy. It had to be something very important to bring her back to the old neighborhood. Serafina didn't delude herself that it was concern for her mother. The only reason Theresa would come back was for money.

After paying off Antonio's debts, between the sale of the businesses and the life insurance policies he'd carried, Antonio's estate amounted to over 3.4 million dollars. That was certainly enough to lure Theresa home.

Her daughter, Maria, was also coming. So was her sleaze-ball husband, Lou Crocetti. He'd drive up from New York City in his new Cadillac, wearing gold chains and diamond pinkie rings, expecting to be treated like visiting royalty. He was an importer, but was very vague about what it was he imported. Serafina was sure he was doing something illegal and suspected he was connected, a gangster, Mafioso!

Maria was no prize either, even though she was blood. She was greedy and spiteful, just like her father.

Then there was Tony. He was the equal of his sisters in avarice, but not nearly as cunning. He fancied himself a wheeler-dealer, and always had some new "get rich" scheme in the works. His father had kicked him out of the family businesses after discovering he'd pilfered money from petty cash. Their argument had been heated, father and son coming to blows. It was this confrontation that brought on the first of four heart attacks that eventually killed her husband. Antonio was an unforgiving man. He'd gone to his grave without ever laying eyes on or uttering another word to his only son.

Tony's wife, Patty, could only be described as an arrogant bitch. She thought because she was Scotch-Irish and could trace her ancestors back to before the Revolutionary War, she was somehow superior to her husband and his "goomba clan."

Serafina's children were exactly like their father, cruel and uncaring. She should have smothered them at birth! They cared little whether she lived or died, just so long as they got their hands on her money.

The only exception was Angelina, the baby of the family. She was different. If it hadn't been for Angie, Serafina would be in dire straits now. It was Angie who'd convinced her father to make out a will, naming his wife sole heir, and to change the names of the beneficiaries on his insurance policies from his mother, who'd died twenty years earlier, and his four children, to Serafina.

Angelina had badgered her father to put his affairs in order before he died, but he'd balked. As far as he was concerned, the family could fight it out after he was gone; he could care less. Antonio was superstitious. He believed making a will and planning for death was a self-fulfilling prophecy. He had been content to leave things as they were, but Angie was relentless. She told him that if he died without a will the government would grab the lion's share of his estate. Then the lawyers would take their percentage, giving his family half of what remained. She said that after paying off all his debts, Serafina would have barely enough to live on. He didn't care! He was angry Serafina would outlive him. His attitude was "let her fend for herself". But Angie, God bless her, wouldn't give up. She was like a broken record. First she appealed to his ego, telling him people would talk, think him "less a man" for not providing for his wife after he died. Then she appealed to his fear. He was a sinner; his soul was bound for purgatory. How could Serafina afford to light candles or buy Mass cards for him, so his soul could go to heaven, if she was poor and had no money? How could she spend time praying for his immortal soul, or make Novenas, or say the Rosary if she had to work scrubbing floors in order to put food on the table? In the end, Angie convinced him. It was just in the nick of time too. Little more than three weeks after the papers were signed, he died; and Serafina, just as Angie had worked so hard to insure, got it all!

Unlike her siblings, Angie didn't have a greedy bone in her body. She was very much like Serafina's own mother in temperament: kind, generous, and loving. The money didn't matter to her; she wanted her mother to have it, but her greedy siblings disagreed. Her meddling angered them.

Angie was close to her mother. Not a day went by without a call or visit. Unable to read or write English, Serafina was hard-pressed to function on her own. She was incapable of doing even the simplest tasks: looking up a telephone number, balancing a checkbook, paying her bills. She wasn't prepared to be on her own. Antonio had seen to that, but Angie had come to her rescue, battling the world on her mother's behalf. That bond between mother and daughter was now threatened.

Angie had always been a good daughter, even as a child. She'd committed only one sin in life, marrying Brian Ryan. The desperate situation Serafina now found herself in was his doing.

Brian was ambitious. His job was the most important thing in his life. It took precedence over everything else, including his wife. He was out of town three or four days every week; time Angie, who was childless, spent with her mother. Everything was fine until Brian was offered the job of Northeast Regional Vice President at his company's Boston headquarters two hundred miles away. Without even consulting Angie, he'd accepted the position.

Angie cried for three days straight. She pleaded with him to reconsider, but he wouldn't. It was a good career move, too good an opportunity to pass up, he told her. They were moving to Boston and that was that!

Serafina never liked Brian; he was a cold fish, as different from Angie as night was from day. Sometimes, hearing the way he spoke to Angie, barking orders and treating her as though she were a brainless child, Serafina had a hard time understanding why her daughter put up with him. She wasn't stupid; Angie had master's degrees in public administration and criminal justice. She'd had a high level position with the New York State Department Of Corrections before meeting Brian. Her career, however, caused problems in the marriage. Brian did nothing but complain about the demands it made on her time: the long hours, the business trips, the separations. In the end, it had come down to either resigning her position or divorcing her husband. Angie opted to stay married, much to Serafina's dismay.

Brian was a control freak and wanted to be catered to every minute. So Angie became a homebody, focusing all her attention on providing for his happiness and comfort. To keep peace in the house, she saw only those friends whom he approved of and engaged in only those activities which he deemed appropriate.

Serafina shook her head. Angie was trapped, just like she'd been, and her mother before her.

Brian's relationship with Serafina had been strained from the start. He resented the time Angie spent at her house. He wanted her all to himself, but couldn't forbid her to see her own mother; now, however, he could blame his company for keeping them apart.

Something on the ground caught Serafina's eye. On closer examination she realized it was a puffball. She looked around and spotted several more of the little round mushrooms. They looked like white ping-pong balls strewn amid the grass.

Brian loved puffballs sautéed in butter and lemon juice. She'd picked a few earlier in the week and cooked them up for dinner. Brian stopped by after work that night to drop off two gallons of olive oil Angie had bought her. He arrived just as she finished eating. He gobbled down the five or so mushrooms left on her plate and asked if she'd pick some for tonight's dinner.

She'd agreed, though, for the life of her, she didn't know why. She hated him, hated all of them, for what they were trying to do to her.

With Angie looking after her, they couldn't force Serafina into a nursing home. But with her daughter out of the picture now, thanks to Brian, nothing could stop them from locking her away.

Serafina suspected that if she refused to do as they wanted, they'd try to declare her incompetent and commit her by force. They'd been laying the groundwork for such an action, commenting about how forgetful she'd become, how confused she seemed. They would use whatever means they could to assure that they got control of the estate. Serafina's situation seemed hopeless.

She picked one of the mushrooms, wondering why she was going to all this trouble to please the very people who were plotting against her.

Her family loved wild mushrooms and devoured them with gluttonous relish, all except for Angie; she wouldn't put one in her mouth if she were starving.

Serafina stared at the mushroom, choking back sobs. How could they be so deceitful and evil? She'd given them life, and this was how they repaid her years of sacrifice! They'd betrayed her!

Serafina pulled the paring knife from her basket and cut through the firm white flesh. She stared at the halves in disbelief, inside was the unmistakable outline of gills and a stem. It wasn't what it appeared to be. Not an edible puffball, but instead a poisonous toadstool, a deadly Amanita in its button stage.

Serafina was about to throw it away when it occurred to her that the toadstool and her children had much in common. They too appeared innocuous. It was only after closer scrutiny, however, that their true treacherous natures were revealed.

She examined the toadstool closely. A strange calm washed over her. It was a curse to grow old, she thought, smiling to herself. People pitied the elderly for their failing eyesight, confusion, and memory lapses. They weren't responsible for their actions. Serafina was almost 71, with spectacles so thick they looked like magnifying glasses. Who could blame her for making such a mistake? They looked just like puffballs.

Serafina dropped the mushroom into her basket. She plucked another, and another, and another. Her basket was soon brimming with the deadly harvest. She wanted to make sure she had plenty; her family had hearty appetites.

She'd slice the toadstools, fry them in butter, drizzle lemon juice on top, then sprinkle them with white pepper. They'd be served with a big platter of sliced sirloin steak and another of roast chicken seasoned with oregano and garlic. They'd start with a nice salad of romaine and plum tomatoes. They'd eat baked potatoes, green beans with garlic and chopped basil, and then wash it all down with several bottles of red wine. It would be a feast, one worthy of her children.

It was getting late; she had lots of work to do before her family arrived. "Mangia, mangia, my dear ones" she sneered, "Mama has a little surprise for you". With that she turned and hurried down the path toward home.

Ms. Szydlowski's short stories, articles, children's stories, and poems have appeared in newspapers, literary magazines, children's magazines, and other publications. She has published six adult novels under various pseudonyms and is also the author of three children's books. Her newest children's book, Kia's Manatee, will be published by Operation Outreach-USA summer 2011 and will be used as a 2nd grade reader in classrooms around the country that participate in the OO-USA children's literacy program.

You may visit the author's website at http://www.maryviglianteszydlowski.com.

Copyright © 2011 Mary Vigliante Szydlowski. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited.

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