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.
“Plaza” is too strong a word for the wide spot in the dusty road, but at its northern end is indeed a house with a low black iron fence and a gate. It is the only thing that sets the house apart from its neighbors.
We stop at the gate. It is still early, and the house is quiet. The sight of it makes me frightened all over again at the enormity of my actions. “What should I do?” I ask Donkey.
“Knock at the door.”
“It’s too early.”
“Too early for what?” Donkey says. “You and I are awake.”
“I’m afraid he’ll send me back.”
“If he sends you back, it won’t be because you disturbed his rest,” Donkey says. “Anyway, we look foolish, standing out here at his gate like timid beggars.”
My hot retort is stifled when Il Magistrato himself walks around from behind the house.
He is even taller than I remember, dressed in rough clothes and carrying an armload of kindling. He stops in his tracks when he spots us at the gate, and I feel myself withering under his baleful gaze.
After a frozen moment he approaches us and swings the gate open.
“Signore, I am here to see you about...” I start to say, but he shakes his bald head and holding the gate with one knee and gestures for us to enter. When Donkey hangs back, Il Magistrato makes an impatient come-on with his free hand.
Once in the front yard, the man closes the gate and sets the armload of kindling on the portico. He puts a massive hand on my shoulder and guides me up the two small steps to the front door of the house. I look back toward Donkey for reassurance: until this moment it didn’t occur to me that I would have to speak with Il Magistrato without him present.
Inside, the house smells of food and strong coffee and cigar smoke. The hand’s owner guides me through an archway and into a large, sunny dining room where a fat man sits at his breakfast, a coffee cup in one hand and a roll in the other.
The lace tablecloth is almost completely hidden by newspapers, plates, a writing pad, books, pots of jam and honey and loose papers.
“Ho, who have we here, Marco? A breakfast guest?” the fat man says when he looks up.
I look at my guide, who nods and gestures rapidly with both hands — some manner of sign language. It takes me a moment to realize that he is a mute. Before I can make the next logical leap — that he cannot be Il Magistrato — the fat man chuckles and looks at me.
“So you are looking for the judge,” he says to me, putting down his cup and roll and brushing a shower of crumbs from his hands. When he stands I see he is tall, taller than the silent Marco. “Raphael Guercio, at your service,” he says, extending a pink, meaty hand.
“I am Tiberio Gepetto... of Orsomarso,” I manage to get out. I have never been in such a fine house, nor shaken hands with a gentleman, much less a judge.
He gives me a long look, which is not unfriendly, but I feel penetrates all the way through me. I am afraid he is going to question me on the spot but, after a few moments, he merely nods.
“Welcome, Signore Gepetto. You have already met Marco,” he says, with a look toward the manservant. “Would you care to join me for breakfast? Have you eaten?”
Have I eaten? No one has ever asked me this before, and a flurry of conflicting answers rush through my head while this seemingly kind man looks on.
Even I know the correct answer is to say that I’ve eaten, or that I am not hungry, especially in the house of someone so far above my station; my father would have heard “Signore Gepetto” as a dig. The social lie is not for me, however: my nose will give away even a well-meaning falsehood.
The truth, I realize, is that I have been hungry since watering Donkey in the barn and ravenous since entering this house of rich food smells. But propriety aside, I fear attempting to eat for the first time in front of Il Magistrato, however gentle his demeanor. I remember the coughing fit the first time I drank water, and for that matter, how fast a kindly adult expression can grow cold.
Finally I settle for the bare truth. “No, Signore Guercio, I haven’t eaten.”
I’m settled into a chair in a flurry of plates, napkins and utensils. Besides my father, who eats using his knife and fingers, I have only seen a handful of schoolmates eating — usually some small treats or a piece of fruit — never with utensils. I sit with food in front of me — toasted bread and jam, links of sausage, slices of orange and a glass of milk — but I don’t know what to do.
Il Magistrato, sitting across from me, appears not to notice my discomfort. He beams at me cheerfully for a moment, then gestures with a blunt finger, “Go ahead, young man, don’t wait for me — eat.”
I pick up one utensil — it is silver and heavy — then put it down and pick up another. I am at a loss as to how I am supposed to get food from the plate to my mouth using these things.
“Is something wrong?”
“I don’t know how to do this.” I feel defeated.
“Is it the utensils?” He waves a hand dismissively. “We don’t stand on ceremony here. Some of the best meals I’ve taken, I have eaten with my fingers.”
“Signore, it is not that that I haven’t eaten today,” I say, forcing the words out, “it is that I have never eaten.”
Il Magistrato purses his lips and the good cheer goes out of his eyes. After a moment he reaches for his cigar smoldering in the ashtray.
“Perhaps you should tell me why you have come to Mormanno,” he says.
On the road from Orsomarso I have thought much about what I would say to Il Magistrato, but when it is time to explain myself, the words come very slowly.
I begin with what I saw of Gioppolo and Falco in the schoolroom, and then, as I am telling of overhearing the teacher and my father through the window, Il Magistrato stops me.
“What do you mean, your father ‘made’ you?” he says.
The question confuses me — what I meant, and what I am, seem self-evident. “I mean... with the chisel and saw and rasp, he made me from wood.”
Il Magistrato frowns around his cigar. “You remember this?”
“Not from the very beginning, Signore. But he has been working on me as long as I can remember.”
I show him my forearms. “You can see the rasp marks here; they are not sanded out yet.”
He looks at my arms and frowns. “Your father put these marks on you?”
I am about to say I do, but in the moment he asks, I see what he sees: a boy’s arms, skinny — and dirty to be sure — with some faint scars on them. Now I am less than sure. I say nothing, and after a long moment, he nods. “How did you get here from Orsomarso?”
“Donkey. I hid in a barn, that first night. That’s where I found him.”
Il Magistrato raises his eyebrows. “You took him from the barn?”
“He took me here. He wanted to leave there.”
He looks at me intently. “How did you know this?”
“He told me, in so many words,” I say. Truth or no, I feel foolish. I wait for Il Magistrato to ridicule me.
“Still,” Il Magistrato says, “you found him in a barn — he must belong to someone.”
“He belongs to himself.”
“A novel defense,” he says brusquely. “All right, go on.”
Il Magistrato doesn’t stop me again until I describe drinking for the first time at the stream.
“You had never drunk before?” he asks.
“Tell me the truth: you are saying that you have never taken a drop before — not milk, not water, not from your mother’s breast?”
“I don’t have a mother, Signore,” I tell him. “Before that day I had never taken a drink of anything.”
“And you are telling the truth?”
“And your father knows this?”
“He does, Signore.”
When I have finished my story, Il Magistrato looks at me for a long minute, then heaves himself to his feet. “There will have to be a hearing,” he says to me, heading for the door. “Maybe you can eat while I am not in the room. You should try: it will be a long ride to Orsomarso, if we intend to convene tomorrow.”
“Signore, excuse me... we are going to Orsomarso? What is a hearing?”
He pauses with one hand on the doorpost. “One of the few legal words that means what it sounds like,” he says. “I will call everyone into the courtroom and I will hear what they have to say. Only after I have heard all sides can I decide what is the next step in your case.”
I now have a case, though I am not sure what that means. I will ask Donkey if he knows. I turn my attention to the food in front of me. It smells good and I want to eat it. I close my eyes and call to mind the boys at school eating treats, and my father at the table.
I must chew, that is the thing. I remember Gioppolo berating a boy who choked on a piece of candy. “Were you raised in a barn, Signore Falaise? Chew your food, don’t swallow it whole.”
I break off a piece of the toasted bread and put it in my mouth. Its crumbly texture is a little strange, but the jam is sweet. I concentrate on chewing, then almost without realizing it I have swallowed. Is that all there is to it?
I break off a piece of the sausage and it, too, is delicious, though very different than the toasted bread. Soon nothing is left but the orange. I have seen my father peel an orange and eat it in moon-shaped bits, but this orange is cut into wedges with the skin on them. I try to bite a little piece off, but it is tough and it tastes bitter.
I try again, this time taking a bite from the softer inside of the orange. The orange is sweet in my mouth, but then something hard at the back of my throat makes me cough, and the juice burns my nose.
When the coughing is finished, my throat is sore and my eyes are streaming. I cautiously sip from the glass of milk, which is cool and soothes the raw feeling. I am just deciding that I am done with oranges when Il Magistrato returns.
“Ah, I see you have discovered how to eat after all,” he says. “Good. Marco has the carriage ready. Why don’t you go to the well behind the house and wash yourself?”
Donkey is lying in the shade of the wellhouse when I go outside. Marco, Il Magistrato’s hired man, notices him at the same time I do, and he tries to hold me back, but I already know the worst and pull away from him.
His flanks are still warm, and his nose is pushed a little into the soft soil. I lift his head and gently brush away the dirt. His nose is soft.
While I hold his head, some of the cruel things I’ve said to him come back to me. He’s been a true friend, and I’ve never said so. In death he seems smaller, and fragile. There are worn spots on his blunt nose and stubbly white whiskers.
After a while I notice Il Magistrato and Marco standing over me, the latter signing.
“Marco says if it were up to him, he would go the same way,” Il Magistrato translates, his voice a little husky. “All at once, happy and with a full belly.”
“Why did he have to die?” I ask. “He ran away with me to escape the man with the hammer.”
The two men exchange looks. Marco signs, but Il Magistrato shakes his head as if he doesn’t like what Marco has to say.
“What?” I ask. “What is it?”
“Marco says the animal knew his time was coming,” Il Magistrato says, a slightly sour expression on his face. “That it is why he left Orsomarso.”
I brush a fly away from Donkey’s face. “We should bury him.”
“Bury him?” Il Magistrato almost shouts. “Oh, no, no, no, my young man. We have a man who will come and... take him away. I am sorry that he had to die when you had such an attachment to the animal, but I will not ask Marco to spend the better part—”
Marco interrupts with signing.
“It’s not a matter of minding,” Il Magistrato replies to Marco. “It will delay our departure for accursed Orsomarso. Besides, where shall we dig such a great big grave?”
Marco signs, and Il Magistrato shakes his head. “No.”
Marco continues to sign while his employer looks more and more unhappy. Finally Il Magistrato throws a hand up in the air. “Basta!” he says. “Do as you will — a day lost digging a hole for the poor beast.”
I help as much as I can. For a large man, Marco has a gentle touch, and he shows me how to use the shovel. When the hole is too deep for me to toss out my shovelfuls of dirt, Marco lifts me up to the edge and pantomimes bringing him a bucket of water from the well.
As Il Magistrato predicted, the digging takes most of the day. Refilling the hole is quicker. Marco says a silent prayer over the hole and gestures for me to toss in the first shovelful of soil. The soft thump of it against Donkey’s flanks makes my eyes prickle.
Il Magistrato’s carriage makes the journey to Orsomarso much more quickly than I imagined. The second meal of my life is taken from a basket that Marco has packed, and I must eat very slowly and carefully in the jouncing carriage. We arrive very late in the evening and go directly to the town hall, where the mayor is roused from his bed to accommodate us in the guest rooms.
Copyright © 2018 by Robert J. Howe