Agustina looks to the sky and hopes for rain. Dark, billowing clouds loom above the church bell tower in the distance.
“If it rains, I can finally take a nap!” she laughs.
We are on our hands and knees by a stairwell in the shadows of some forgotten part of the cloister, attempting to free the ground from the overgrowth of dirt, moss, and mildew that has engulfed it. The scraping of our metal palatine against the bricks, the occasional rumbling of thunder, and our own voices are the only sounds around us. The smell of the wet, rotting earth beneath us bombards our nostrils. Agustina conjectures it can’t be good for her lungs.
Agustina is from Argentina. The grandchild of Italian immigrants, she is fluent in Spanish and English and understands enough Italian to get the job done. This is fortunate for me, as one is my native tongue, the other is the one I yearn to be fluent in, and the last I struggle to understand here at the monastery. When she speaks Spanish to me, it is slow and deliberate, like a car feeling its way up a winding mountain road, but when she speaks to her Argentine boyfriend Matteo, it is rapid and soothing, like a babbling brook flowing over smooth stones. Wavy brown hair with streaks of blonde frames her serene face, which seems perpetually tilted upward. A dusting of light brown freckles adorns her tan cheeks and nose.
Agustina notices the details. She slowly and methodically carves out every nook and cranny in a small patch of the patio until the red brick shines through.
Meanwhile, I plow across the patio with my palatina, sending thick clumps of dirt flying before tossing the mess into a trash bag. I rush through my work as though on a deadline. We have no deadline.
“Aw,” Agustina whimpers as she holds something in the palm of her gloved hand. I walk over and lean in closer.
“Ew!” I scream. “It’s a bee!”
“Yes,” she sighs, “but I think it is dying.” She walks up the stairs and brings the bee to some other part of the monastery.
She does the same thing each time she encounters other insects, and with this work, there are many. She gently picks it up in her hands, speaks soothingly to it, and carries it away.
When she comes across a millipede rolled up into a black, shiny coil, she asks me, “Do you think it’s dead?”
“No!” I assure her. “It’s not dead. It’s just rolled up to protect itself.” I have no idea if this is true; I just really don’t want her to think the thousand-legged insect has perished before her eyes.
About an hour into our work, the sky grumbles and I feel a few droplets of water land on my forearm. Two stories above us, Sorella Erica busts open the brown shutters and pops her gray-veiled head out of the window.
“Piove!” she yells, bringing each hand up and down in alternating motions.
Agustina got her wish. We take off our gloves, store our tools beneath an awning, and take shelter inside of the monastery.
The next day, as we walk through the hall connecting the guesthouse to the cloister, Agustina stops and examines a bouquet of branches inside a large terracotta urn by the clausura door.
“These are new,” she says, stooping to bring a single white blossom to her nose. I hadn’t even noticed they were there.
“Have you smelled the roses in the garden?” she asks me later. “The fragrance is so intense!” I pass through the rose garden every morning on my way to work, but I have never noticed.
That evening in the guesthouse kitchen, I spot something draped across one of the saucepans hanging by the sink: a delicate crown Agustina created by braiding the stems of tiny, fuchsia-tipped white daisies. I feel like crying.
The following week I am working in the garden, and when I roll the wheelbarrow through the gates to dump weeds into the compost pile, I notice blush-colored roses winding around the iron archway above me.
Remembering Agustina, I stop to smell them.