by Robert J. Howe
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
The legendary puppet Pinocchio has a name: Tiberio. In his diary, Tiberio recounts his journey out of the dusty village of Orsomarso in Italy’s Mezzogiorno and into the wider world.
He already knows of danger: adults often say one thing when they mean another. Along the way, he learns how to tell the difference between his friends and enemies. He also learns about mountains and streams, and loss.
In his travels, Tiberio must make desperate choices, the meanings of which he struggles to understand. He ultimately faces the truth about who he is, and what it means to be a boy.
Never before has my father worked on me after he’s had his Ciró. Today, as soon as I am in the door I see he is well in his cups. Before I can put my primer down, he gestures with his chin at the worktable.
“Get up,” he says thickly.
I tremble at the first touch of the tools, and before long I am in agony. His cuts are deeper and less calculated, and the blows on the chisel so wild that twice the mallet glances off and strikes me.
I can take it no longer when the chisels slips a third time, and as he bends to retrieve the tool, I jump from the bench and dash out the door — pulling my clothes from the hook as I go.
The schoolroom is lit with bars of late afternoon light and shadow, the sun slanting through the wooden blinds. I notice nothing except my own turmoil as I pull my clothes over my sore body.
Naturally I smell of resin, but today the schoolroom seems suffused with the stink, and I’m glad none of my schoolmates are here to note it. Then I hear the sounds, at once familiar and distressing, coming from Signore’s office.
My curiosity is stronger than my fear. The door is ajar, and what I see peering through the crack freezes me to the spot. Falco lies atop Gioppolo’s desk, and Signore is bent over him, rasp in hand.
Everything about the scene is nauseating in its familiarity: the tension between pain and submission, telegraphed by Falco’s body. The cut lines on his belly that weep resin... Yet Falco is a real boy. Why does he not bleed? The avid look on Gioppolo’s face, and the misery on Falco’s.
It is like looking in a mirror, and it is ugly. I don’t want to see my father’s greedy expression in Gioppolo’s face, nor the way Falco’s limbs tremble with the suppressed desire to leap from the table and escape the knife.
I make some noise that alerts them to my presence. Signore Gioppolo’s face wears his accustomed look of peevish impatience. But Falco’s expression is the one that roots me to the spot. When our eyes meet, his are full of fear.
“Come here,” Signore says, looking at me over the tops of his spectacles. In any other circumstance I might have interpreted his tone as a friendly one.
I stand rooted by competing impulses to obey and to flee.
The clatter of Signore putting down the rasp breaks the spell. I flee, my only hesitation in leaving my chief tormentor, Falco, behind.
Down the slight rise I run, heedless of strings and cross. My feet know where to take me, even if my head is clouded with Signore’s long look over his spectacles. A guilty, speculative expression I had seen my father wearing many a long evening as he bent over me at the workbench.
It works in my favor that the village is in its afternoon stupor: there is no one outside to see me hurrying down the lane toward the convent, primer under one arm and my strings and cross under the other.
A very young nun, almost a girl, opens the door as I am about to knock. She has a basket of washing under one arm and gives a little start when she sees me standing on the threshold.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I didn’t mean to surprise you. I’m looking for Sister Antoinetta.”
She looks at me for a moment, then puts the basket down. “Wait here,” she says, and disappears back inside.
After a moment she reappears. “Come, Little One,” she says, “Sister is in the kitchen.”
I have never been in a house with a separate room just for cooking, and this one is enormous — dominated by a long table in the center and an iron cookstove.
Sister Antoinetta is sitting at one end of the table with two other nuns, shelling beans. The sleeves of their habits are rolled to the elbow, and they seem at ease, snapping the beans out of their pods.
“Tiberio, what’s wrong?” Sister says, as soon as she sees me.
I don’t know what I expect her to do, but Sister is the only adult I know who might do anything. When I try to tell her, it comes out garbled. “I went into the schoolroom, and Papa was cutting Falco with the rasp.”
“Your father? In the schoolroom?” Sister asks, as if that is the part that surprises her.
“Yes... no, I mean Signore Gioppolo. He was carving Falco’s legs!”
“He’ll hurt the boy,” says the novice who let me in.
“There was no blood,” I say, not to refute her, but because it just occurs to me. “There was only sap.”
“Sap?” Sister asks.
“Resin,” I mumble. “As from wood. Papa calls it my sap.”
Sister exchanges a look with one of the older nuns at the table. “So I said,” the older one says, continuing to shell beans into the pot. “You should get the constable.”
This makes me afraid of what I started. What Sister says next truly scares me. “No, the Magistrato.”
I have seen Il Magistrato in the village only once, when he arrived for the trial of Gianno Pietro who had strangled his 81-year-old mother with a goat tether. Senora Sclafani, who used to live next to us before she died, pointed out a tall man with a bony, liver-colored skull and false teeth too big for his mouth on the village square.
The big man fixed me with dark eyes for a long minute without speaking, then looked away. I felt like a lucky young rabbit dropped by a hawk.
“What’s wrong?” Sister asks, seeing my stricken expression.
“He scares me.”
Sister pokes me gently with a bony finger. “You are not very good yet at knowing whom you should be afraid of, Tiberio.”
Il Magistrato is the most famous jurist in the Mezzogiorno. He does not come to our little village every month; we will have to wait for his arrival. Meanwhile, I will have go to school and face Signore every day. The thought of it makes my heart sink.
Walking down the lane behind our house, I’m lost in my own fears and the yellow dust smell that rises up from my steps.
My hand is on the knob when I realize I hear voices inside: my father’s, unusually jolly, and another male voice. I realize with an ugly start that it is Gioppolo’s voice. He and my father are talking easily just on the other side of the window.
“I try to look out for him, Gepetto, but you know he is a difficult boy,” Gioppolo is saying. “And one can protect a weak boy too much: it causes his schoolmates to chafe; they already mock him because of that nose.”
My father laughs at this — he laughs! “It’s true he needs to learn to stand on his own two feet,” my father says. “It will only make him soft, knowing you or I will run to his rescue.”
Their easy banter cuts me more cruelly than the chisel. How could my father be so chummy with Gioppolo the Ass? I hear the clink of the wine bottle against glass, and even the sound enrages me.
“Where is he, anyway?” Gioppolo asks, his voice a little thick with drink. “It will be dark soon.”
“Ah,” my father says, and I can picture the familiar, dismissive hand gesture. “He runs to those church whores when he is upset. He thinks I don’t know. I have already made Gaffore have words with them. He didn’t like it, but he knows I am right. The boy is my boy, and they can’t interfere.”
My father says “my boy” without affection, the way he would say “my chair” or “my saw.” This explains Sister’s sad distance: Constable Gaffore’s hands are bound by the law.
I cannot go in, not with Gioppolo in there, and not while I am so roiled by ugly thoughts. I keep seeing my father bent over me with the rasp, but he wears Gioppolo’s face. In my mind Gioppolo speaks and my father’s words come out.
I want to hide myself, not just from Gioppolo and my father, but from everyone in the village. I have the feeling, standing on my own doorstep, that I belong nowhere and that I wear my alien status on my chest like a sign.
I’m grateful for the deepening gloom, and even for the rain, when it begins, that makes people pull in their shutters: less chance they will see me, and less chance I will catch a snippet of conversation from some happy family sitting down to their evening meal.
I walk away from the village along the old road, a track of yellow mud that meanders in the folds between hillside farms and dense copses of olive trees. Carrying my string cross over my shoulder, I cleave to the high side of the road, trying to avoid the worst of the mud. Slow going. It is becoming full dark, and I can no longer tell the road from the ditch, when I see a weatherbeaten house and barn just off the road.
I slink around the barn in the dark for a long time, listening hard for voices or footsteps. Hearing none, I slip the latch, opening the door just widely enough to edge in, then pull it to behind me.
It is warmer out of the blowing rain, and the barn smells pleasantly of hay and old wood and animals. I grope blindly until I find a stall that by smell and touch I can tell has a pile of hay.
A strange feeling has overtaken me. My limbs are heavy and I’m having trouble thinking of what to do next. I sink down into the hay with a pleasant sense of relief, and I realize that it is not merely dark in the barn — I am having trouble keeping my eyes open.
I lose track of my thoughts for a time — maybe moments, I do not know — then snap back to alertness. It is a strange sensation, though not an unpleasant one.
Again I lost track of myself, then suddenly snap back.
I am falling asleep.
That has never happened to me before. I try to wonder what this new fact about myself might mean, but the pull of it is too strong.
Just as I am abandoning myself to the delicious sensation, a rough voice brays in my ear, “Who is that?”
I am on my feet again instantly with a small explosion of hay, then go down, hard, as I tangle myself in my strings.
I roll over on my back to face the direction I think the voice came from and I hear one soft, unmistakable clop of a hoof. My eyes, straining wide open with fright, can pick out deeper shadows in the gray. Some light from the house, it seems, is coming in from the open hayloft.
It is a long moment of staring before I realize I’m looking at the soft round nose of a donkey.
“Did you just speak to me?” I say, wondering if this is what my schoolmates call a nightmare.
“I did,” the donkey replies, his breath warm on my face and smelling of cut grass. “Why are you in my barn?”
“I’m running away,” I say, still in wonderment over talking to a donkey.
“Where are you running from?”
“Orsomarso,” I say.
“You haven’t gotten far.”
“Where will you go?”
Until Donkey asks I haven’t known, myself. “To Mormanno, to see Il Magistrato.”
He makes a chuckling sound. “That is far away for a little boy with short legs,” he says. “How will you get there?”
“On my short legs,” I say. I am feeling the beginnings of impatience with this impertinent donkey.
“I can take you there, unless you’d rather walk.”
“Why would you take me there?” I don’t like the edge of suspicion in my voice, but as I have lately discovered, there have been many things I should have questioned and didn’t.
Despite the sharp tone, Donkey takes the question with equanimity. “Because I also need to run away.”
“I am old, and soon the man with the hammer will be coming for me.”
The man with the hammer is Popeo, whose offal cart is drawn always by the animal in his stable he judges furthest from death. Popeo’s judgment in this is not perfect, and more than once I have passed his cart in the middle of the road, one dead animal in the back and another in the traces.
I stare at Donkey’s outline in the gloom. “Okay, I say to him, “when shall we start?”
“It would be best to be away from the village before first light,” he says. “My master is fat and lazy, but he might send one of his sons looking for me.”
I nod and settle back into the straw. Again, just as the delicious feeling of sleepiness steals over me, Donkey speaks.
“Who are you running away from?”
“I told you, Orsomarso,” I say.
“That is a place, not a person. Are you running away from the whole town?”
“No,” I say, hoping that will end the conversation.
“What does it matter?”
“It will matter a great deal if they come looking for you,” Donkey says.
“My father. He will not come looking for me,” I answer, wondering if it’s true, and if I want it to be true.
“Why? Does he beat you?”
“No.” In my mind’s eye I see the avid look on my father’s face as he bends over me with the chisel. Too much to explain to a donkey.
“Go to sleep,” I say. “Since we will be on the road early.”
Donkey makes a rude noise, but says nothing else. Judging from his long, even breaths, he is asleep long before I.
Copyright © 2018 by Robert J. Howe