The Power of 4
(essay in the upcoming anthology, Sisterhood)
My sisters and I are bonded in ways both biological and philosophical. We could not be
more different. We could not be more alike. We spent our early lives in a large boisterous
family where the sheer number of children required us to take care of each other as our
parents tried to navigate life. We have a brother placed for every two sisters. Like colored
beads on a necklace, we are one then two then one then two. Our family life was busy with
the power of six personalities, each vying for a place in the home, for our parent’s attention,
for our need to be autonomous. There were times when the need to be alone was
overwhelming even as I longed to be included in my siblings’ lives. Yet that privacy was
elusive as I shared a room with my older sister. Even so, I was grateful for her company. In
many ways, she raised me, teaching me about makeup and clothes and life. She was the one
who taught me about my period and what changes were happening to my body. Still, I was
the younger sister, and not always welcome in her world.
(Novel in progress)
The bell above the door jingled as I walked into the shop, and I could see clouds of dust motes swirling in the one ray of light coming through the grey-filmed bay window. Behind an old oak desk were glass-encased coins of all shapes and metals. I walked over to get a closer look, and was greeted by a raspy voice asking if he could help me. I turned to regard a wizened old man peering up at me from above the spectacles perched on his nose.
“I hope so,” I smiled, “I have a coin that is a complete mystery to me, and I am hoping you might be able to tell me something about it.”
He motioned for me to sit at the large desk as he took a seat across from me in a worn leather chair that all but swallowed him. He laid out a velvet cloth, and held out his hand for the coin. When I put it into his palm, he straightened immediately.
“Ah, gods,” he breathed, ”I have not seen one of these for many years!”
“You know it?”
“Oh yes. It is the coin of the Secret Order of the Lotus.”
“The Order of the Lotus? I’ve never heard of them.” Despite that, I felt a pulse of recognition and my bracelet felt warm.
“And yet you hold their coin.” He peered up at me through his glasses. “How did you come by this?”
Suddenly I felt more cautious and a warning tingle rippled down my spine.
“I…I found it in a thrift store,” I stammered” It looked pretty.”
The old man eyed me for a moment and then gave a slight nod. He turned his attention back to the coin, turning it over and running his gnarled fingers over the markings.
“This coin was minted in the 14th century in the city state of Venice in the country now known as Italy to commemorate the formation of the Order. Its founder had hailed from China. Yuan Yen was the illegitimate son of the great Khubilai Khan.” The old man paused a moment as if recalling some old history but he waited so long I was concerned he had forgotten I was there. With a small shake of his head, he continued.
“The great Khan had many concubines but he cherished those from the province of Onggirat. Legend has it that Yen’s mother was a favorite. The Khan had taken Yen into his household and when Yen showed a talent for calligraphy, the Khan made him one of his trusted scribes. Yen penned most of Khan’s decrees and agreements with foreigners like Marco Polo and his family. It is said Yen accidentally, or perhaps it was intentionally, we’ll never know, penned a treaty instead of a threatening decree to an enemy of the Khan and fell from grace. He was banished from the Imperial Court and was gifted as a slave to Marco Polo who took Yen back to Venice with him.”
I sat up a bit straighter at that. Dante had mentioned Venice before.
“The Polo family were the ones who called him Yuan Yen, meaning of the Yuan Dynasty, which was the name of Khubilai Khan’s dynasty. They quickly recognized Yen’s skill in calligraphy when they saw the printing blocks he had carried with him, and took him in as secretary. Yen had knowledge of how to print with the format he had learned in China, and the Polo family funded a print shop in their name for their various business dealings. His skill at beautiful calligraphy gave the Polos valuable business with the Church and the Doge’s court that in the past had only been given to the monks to create. This gave them a certain autonomy from the church which for businessmen like them seemed especially desirable at the time. The Church was very powerful and kept watch over it’s most successful merchants even from France where the Pope was seated from 1309 to 1377.”
The man stopped a moment, seeming to search his memory then he continued. I was trying to process what he was telling me but his account just seemed to get more fantastical. What did this have to do with my family?
“Marco died in 1324 but on his deathbed, Polo gave Yen his freedom, and gifted the print shop to him with the caveat that he would continue to print materials for the Polo businesses. But Yen’s art was at its heart the language of love and beauty and in Venice that is high currency. He soon became in high demand among Venice’s wealthiest families although much of his printing consisted of love notes among the patriciate. Still, his fame grew, as did his wealth. To stay in business, and to be somewhat accepted by the Venice society, Yen became a Catholic although his heart remained Buddhist. He had learned much about the religion during his years with the Polos and always recalled his own father’s fervent wish to know Catholicism. Like his father, he believed in religious freedom and did not feel his Buddhist beliefs were compromised.”
The old man paused once more. He turned the coin in his hands once more.
“Despite misgivings of her family, Yen fell in love with the daughter of a fellow merchant, a gifted glassblower, by the name of Santini from the island of Murano. At the time the glassblowing industry had been moved there because it was feared the fires might burn Venice. Amelia’s family eventually made their fortune as famous glass blowers. In any case, despite it all Yen and Amelia married and together they bore five children.”
At this the old man sat back in his chair, seemingly exhausted from his long account. I was stunned when he mentioned my family name and my bracelet grew warmer. I had no idea there had been Santinis in Murano. Once again, I felt woefully out of sync with my own family history.
He rested another moment then leaned forward again and picked up the coin, longingly turning it in his veined hands as he continued.
“There was much persecution against foreigners then, as there seems to be in the world since time began. Those who are different always seem a threat. Yen had his adversaries but none of that bothered him until his shop was attacked and burned. Racial slurs were painted on his shop doors, anger at his marriage to an Italian woman. His beloved Amelia died in the fire although his children were spared because they were at their grandfather’s home on Murano. The loss broke Yen. He vowed to protect his children. He gave them his wife’s name, Santini, and gave up his rights to them to her family to be raised as Italians although some of their Asian features belied their heritage. However, after decades of intermarriage, it was hard to even see those anymore. Yen founded the Order of the Lotus, named for his determination to honor his Buddhist roots and the belief that the Lotus survives the most difficult of environments.”
My heart started pounding erratically, and I surreptitiously touched my charm bracelet, surprised by the growing heat of it as the story unraveled. I was suddenly remembering that long past birthday when Grams had told me the same thing about the Lotus flower. Yet, she had told me nothing about our family despite it seeming to be part of a centuries old story. I felt the room receding and I felt faint.
“Miss?…Miss, are you alright…” I could see concerned eyes through the fog and I fought to steady myself.
“yes…yes…I…” I took a deep breath and my sight began to clear. I took a long drink of water the old man had placed in front of me, willing myself to grab hold. I had not had this kind of experience since that long ago birthday with Grams, and a shred of fear shivered down my spine. What was this? “please…continue…”
The old man watched me from under bushy grey eyebrows for another moment then confident I was not going to pass out on him, he sat and resumed his story.
“Yen felt the Church had betrayed him and failed to defend him and Amelia. The Order vowed to protect merchants and others who were foreign-born from the hate and discrimination he had endured. The Order also funded their businesses, educated their children and sometimes smuggled them out of the city if their lives were endangered. This coin was their means of communication. Every family was given one as soon as they joined the order. If they needed help, their coin was passed on until help arrived. The markings on the other side were the individual markings of each family.”
This time when the coin dealer stopped, it was clear he was finished with his story. He leaned back and closed his eyes. His skin had a grey pallor and I grew a bit alarmed, thinking we would both be found prostrate, and senseless on the floor of his shop.
“Sir? Are you okay?” I pushed the water glass back in his direction.
He opened his eyes, nodded, and seemed to draw himself up. He took a soft cloth and began to rub the dull silver coin so that the markings became clearer. He took his magnifying glass, gazing closer at the coin, and then looked up at me.
“These markings are for the Santini family,” he regarded me closer, “are you in trouble, young lady? If so, you must contact the Order!”
“They still exist??” I was shocked to learn the coin was one of my family’s. There seemed to be no end to the revelations of the past few days.
“Oh yes,” the twinkle returned to his eye. “Perhaps someone at the thrift shop could help.”
I blushed at being caught in the lie.
“Do you know how I could find anyone in the Order?” I pressed on.
“My dear,” he said, the toll of the tale clearly outlining his old face, “I would recommend you start where it all began; Venice.”
all rights reserved. Tina Celentano 2021