by Robert J. Howe
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
As I tell my father what I think is the good news, it slowly dawns on me that he is not happy, that he is angry. At me.
“Impossible,” he says, when my words finally trail off. “What right has that witch to involve herself in my business?”
“Papa, I thought—” I start to say, but he cuts me off.
“No! Idiot son!” he says. “Don’t you see? She will turn you into one of their dandy boys that hang about the convent door. Is that what you want? To be one of the little sissies holding onto her habit?”
Even in my confusion and disappointment, I pick out in my father’s voice the same note he sounded with the constable. His querulous tone hurts me worse than the insults.
“You will tell her no,” he says. “Gepetto will not have his son turned into a little convent pet.”
I quail at the thought of delivering that message to Sister, but say nothing to my father. That night he doesn’t touch me. He starts his Ciró with dinner and continues diminishing the bottle long after I have gone to my pallet.
* * *
The next school week goes by in fog of worried tedium, punctuated from time to time with the needleprick of fear when my schoolmates’ rough taunts turn physical. I spend a half day suspended by my strings from the old chestnut until Signore Gioppolo thinks to come looking for me.
“How do you let these things happen to yourself?” he asks me as he untangles me.
Father does not meet me at the school, as he did the first week, which means I sometimes have to run the gauntlet of my schoolmates when we’re dismissed. Mostly I sit at my desk, simultaneously looking forward to Friday afternoon and dreading it, for I will get to see Sister again, but I will have to tell her I’m not allowed to come to the convent for instruction.
Of course she knows, since I did not present myself on Monday, or any other day, as she said I should. As soon as she dismisses the pupils after our religion class, she leans back against Signore Gioppolo’s desk and crosses her arms over her chest.
“Your father said no.”
She shakes her head and sighs. I am afraid she is angry at me, but when she speaks again, her voice is softer than usual.
“It is my fault,” she says. “I should have known. What a week you must have had.”
When she says this I feel an unfamiliar tightness in my chest. I don’t know where to look.
“Come,” she says. “Let’s go talk some reason into your father.”
* * *
My father knows this is coming. I can see it from the obstinate look on his face when Sister and I arrive at the small vegetable patch behind the house.
“Signore Gepetto,” she says, “I am Sister Antoinetta. I teach the Catechism at your son’s school.”
After a brief look he turns back to his plants.
“I have come about Tiberio,” Sister says. “Could you take a moment from your cucumbers to talk with me?”
“I know who you are and I know why you are here,” my father says, then spits in the dirt between them.
I am shocked by the rudeness of the gesture, and look to Sister, but she seems unfazed.
“If you knew why I was here, you would know it is for your son’s benefit,” she says. “He is not learning anything in that school.”
“That old fool Gaffore intends he should go to school,” my father says, getting up from his plants, “not that he should learn anything. I myself learned everything I know from hard work. No one took me by the hand.”
“And for him?” Sister says, resting her hand on my head. “How will he learn?”
Her hand on my head — I could feel its warmth — seems to enrage my father.
“Not by being one of your little convent Maries,” he says, snatching me away. “You can’t tell me what to do with him,” he calls over his shoulder as he propels me toward the house, none too gently. “Now go — go back to your convent and leave my son be!”
I risk a glance backward and see that Sister is looking at me, and that she looks sad and defeated. Then I am inside and my father slams the door with such violence that the plates dance in the cupboard.
“What did I tell you?” he rounds on me, still gripping my wrist tightly. “I told you to tell that woman no, did I not?”
“I told her,” I say, “but she wanted to talk to you.”
“The word ‘no,’ is that so hard for you to remember, ‘no?’ That is all you have to say to her, do you understand? No.”
I nod my head, not daring to look up at his angry face. After a moment he releases my wrist. “Go to your bed,” he says. “I don’t want to look at you right now.”
Usually the sound of my father in sleep carries me through the night, but tonight the small sounds from his bed fall upon my ears like recriminations. I am a stupid boy.
At the best of times it is lonely, of course, to lie in the dark and wait. I sometimes wonder how it would be to close my eyes and sleep. Father says it is like going away, but I don’t understand where he goes in the long hours between snuffing the candle and the rising of the sun.
* * *
Monday is a bright fall day with a few high white clouds in the sky. Just before lunch, one of the smaller boys asks Signore Gioppolo where the clouds come from.
“They are bruises in the sky where angels have passed,” Signore Gioppolo says.
Even I know that clouds are made of water, and they are where rain comes from. I find myself saying so before I realize it.
“Ah, Professore Pinocchio,” Signore Gioppolo says, making the class titter. “I did not realize we had such an expert on clouds in our class. Tell us, Professore, how then the water is held in the clouds?”
“It sticks together, like glue,” I say. It is the first thing that comes into my head. I feel the uncomfortable tingle in my nose.
The class roars at this.
“I see,” the teacher says. “And how did you come by this information?”
“I read it in a book,” I answer. Almost instantly I realize my mistake. My nose immediately starts to grow, as does the hilarity among my schoolmates.
“Ah a book,” Signore Gioppolo says. “What book would that be?”
I shake my head, since any answer is now a potential trap.
“You don’t have any books, do you, Professore Pinocchio?”
“Yes I do!” I say, and am instantly rewarded with a few more inches of nose.
“Are you lying to me?” he asks.
I don’t say anything; I don’t dare shake my head for fear of my nose sprouting further from my face.
Signore Gioppolo puts his face down directly in front of mine. “You will answer me, puppet boy,” he grates out, even the pretense of jocularity now gone.
“No,” I say.
“No what? Speak up!” he says, his face so close to mine I can feel his breath on my cheeks.
“No, I don’t have any books.”
“And the clouds, like glue?”
I swallow. He is drinking in my humiliation like wine.
“I made it up.”
Signore Gioppolo straightens and addresses the now-silent class. “Professore Pinocchio made it up,” he tells my schoolmates, just in case any hadn’t heard me. I want so bad to be in my dark little cottage, in my bed of shavings, that it is like a physical pain.
He lets the silence go on for several long moments. Finally he says, “Will we have any more helpful intrusions from the learned Professore?”
I shake my head, but that is not sufficient.
“I hear a gourd rattling,” Signore Gioppolo says. “Did you say something, Professore Pinocchio?”
“I will not interrupt,” I say, almost choking on the words.
“Very good,” he says finally. “Let us continue with our lesson then.”
But for the rest of the day, Signore is kinder to me than before. He calls on me twice more and nods approvingly, even though I know one answer is clearly wrong. And as I file past him out the door with the other students, he gently pats my head.
* * *
An odd thing happens that week. I forget my primer and get halfway home before I remember and go back. As I enter the schoolroom, Falco is leaving.
“Pinocchio,” he sneers as we pass and, as usual, raps his knuckles against my head. As I’m wondering why Falco stayed behind — he is Signore’s favorite and not likely to be disciplined — I realize that I smelled resin as he passed. I look at my hands and bare shins, but there a no new cuts, yet the smell of resin hangs heavy in the schoolroom. A mystery.
* * *
The other boys continue to tease me — often in front of Signore Gioppolo, who offers no rebuke. In private, however, he is conciliatory, even gentle, and tells me I am improving in my studies. When the other boys are not around, he smiles more and sometimes puts his arm around my shoulders when he speaks to me.
At home father seems to go between rage and melancholy. He does not take a tool to me all week. All he says when I come home is “Take off your clothes.” I go from the taunts of the schoolhouse to the frigid silence at home, and I don’t know which is worse.
Gioppolo smiles thinly at me on Friday when Sister fails to arrive at the usual hour. He seems to be speaking directly to me when he tells the class that she will not be returning.
Until that moment I don’t realize how much I am waiting to see her again. I once put back in the pond a little perch my father caught, out of sympathy for its gasping struggles. My father chided me humorously for being too soft. I feel like that fish now.
Would I cry, as I have seen the smaller ones do, if I were a normal boy? As it is, I just stare stupidly at the front of the room and endure the rest of the afternoon in a wallow of disappointment.
The only one who does not treat me as a curiosity is Sister, to whom I am simply Tiberio. And in his more expansive moods, Signore Gioppolo. I can’t say Sister is not kind to me, though her kindness is not soft the way Signore Gioppolo’s is, when he is kind.
I watch him with the other boys and I am sometimes envious of their ease with him especially when he plays with their hair and roughhouses with them. Around him I always feel awkward, and somehow undeserving of the attention he gives the others. It seems especially unfair that my arch nemesis Falco seems the closest of all to Signore Gioppolo.
* * *
That evening my father seems like his old self. The warmth is back in his eyes, and after dinner he goes to work again on my naked legs with the rasp.
It isn’t until the old oil lamp is extinguished and I’m lying on my pallet with burning limbs, that the source of my father’s good humor becomes clear to me. He knows that Sister has somehow been banished from the school.
The gouges on my shins throb bitterly, but I don’t seem any closer to being finished. Often it seems father goes over the same spot several times before he is satisfied. I am scared of getting smaller, or having more and more of myself cut away until there’s nothing left.
I have had these fleeting feelings before, but always dismissed them easily enough, secure in my father’s benevolence. Now, lying in the dark, crisscrossed with lines on pain, my fears start to take root.
Through the long night my thoughts are full of fire and the sound of steel cutting into wood.
* * *
Of course my schoolmates have gossiped about my nose, but no one pays attention to what children say or think. In this case it is a blessing.
Some of the adults in the village are kind. Cuneo the farrier sometimes asks me to hold the bridle of a horse and speak to it while he shoes the animal. He says I have a good way with animals.
He often talks while he works, usually about horses and their care. Today he asks me about my lessons. I tell him what I have learned about geography and the history of the Mezzogiorno.
“And your schoolmates, are they friendly?” he asks. It is an innocent question, but the answer sticks in my throat. My silence makes him look over the back of the horse at me. “Do they tease you much?”
“No, no...” I start to say, and that is all I get out before I feel my nose sprout from my face.
Cuneo stares at me and crosses himself. Though the gesture is no doubt unconscious, it makes me feel a shameful freak.
“Tiberio, are you all right?” he finally says.
The concern in his voice is the final straw. I drop the reins and bolt from the stable, acutely conscious of my enlarged nose all the way home.
There are a few more incidents like this: hastily given answers to difficult questions. Hoping to deflect shame, I bring on humiliation. It is soon all over Orsomarso: everyone knows that I am the wooden boy whose nose grows long when he tells a lie. Men lounging in the shade say, “Come, tell us a lie, Master Pinocchio.” The women look at me with a mix of humor and pity that is almost worse.
* * *
Copyright © 2018 by Robert J. Howe