by Robert J. Howe
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
Mayor Lapino, a slight, nervous man with drooping mustaches, recognizes me and starts to call me Pinocchio before he remembers Il Magistrato is standing there. He is obviously curious about my disappearance and return, but Il Magistrato is brusque with him, and we are soon in a suite of rooms that are opulent for Orsomarso, but I realize would probably be unremarkable elsewhere.
Before allowing him to retire, Il Magistrato hands the mayor a list of names. “Make sure these are notified they are to be in the courtroom at the stroke of nine tomorrow,” Il Magistrato says.
“Now, Signore?” the mayor says, eying the list.
“Immediately,” Il Magistrato says. “I want no excuses, from them or you.”
“I’ll have Constable Gaffore get right to it,” the mayor mutters as he leaves.
Marco shows me to a room, which I will apparently have to myself. It has a bed, a nightstand with a basin of water, a chair and a chest of drawers with a mirror. The bed has soft blankets and a down pillow.
I take off my clothes, now much travel-stained, and slide under the sheets. Now that I am alone, my mind races back and forth between fear of what will take place tomorrow and the novelty of the room. I still don’t understand exactly what this hearing will do, and I look forward to seeing my father with a mixture of dread and anticipation. I do not look forward to seeing Gioppolo, nor any of the others on the list Il Magistrato compiled in the carriage, with the exception of Sister. I am wondering what she will say at this hearing when I finally drift off.
I wake with gray dawn pressing on the curtains. I lie still, wondering for a moment at my surroundings, when a light tap comes at the door. I realize there was a previous tap which woke me.
“Yes?” I say.
The door opens and Marco cranes his head around it. He motions for me to dress, then withdraws. I pull on my clothes thinking how strange it is to have someone ask my permission to enter a room.
* * *
The main room of the town hall is the meeting hall, the marriage hall and the hall where everything else official in Orsomarso takes place. Today it is the courtroom by virtue of a long desk framed by a pair of flags, and its front two rows of wooden chairs separated from the rest by a moth-eaten velvet rope.
I sit in the front row, in the last seat on the left, with Marco between me and the rest of the chairs. Now that we are right down to it, my stomach is jumping with nervousness. People begin filing in just after we are seated, and it is soon clear that everyone in the town will try to push themselves into this room. I am just wondering what will happen when I see my father when a murmur runs through the crowd, and I know it is him. I turn around and find myself staring into his face.
For a brief second there is a flare of anger: teeth bared in an ugly grimace and hard eyes. Then he remembers where he is, and his face becomes impassive, like wood. He doesn’t so much as nod at me. Next to him is Gioppolo, who favors me with a lingering smirk.
I am so upset I barely notice when Il Magistrato comes into the room. Mayor Lapino is pressed into service as the court’s clerk and, despite his wrinkled brown suit and hangdog expression, he is briskly efficient.
“All stand for the Honorable Raphael Guercio, chief magistrate of il circondario quattro,” Signore Lapino says.
Already a large man, in his black robe and snowy white cravat, Il Magistrato is even more imposing — almost forbidding. He nods unsmiling as he takes his seat, then gestures to Mayor Clerk.
“You may be seated,” Signore Lapino tells the crowd. “This hearing is now in session. There will be no talking unless directed by the court.”
The last is unnecessary, as Il Magistrato’s grave demeanor has silenced everyone in the room.
“Signore Mayor,” Il Magistrato says, “please call the first witness.”
“Tiberio Gepetto, come to the witness chair,” Signore Lapino intones.
For a moment I am rooted to my seat. I don’t know what I expected to happen, but not this. Marco gives me a gentle nudge and nods to the chair set facing sideways to Il Magistrato’s desk.
My legs feel weak as I walk to the witness chair. Signore Lapino holds a heavy, leatherbound book in his left hand and tells me to place my right hand on it. When I do so he says, “Do you swear to tell the truth, as God is your witness?”
This prompts a few snickers from the audience, which makes me wither with shame.
“Enough,” Il Magistrato says, his tone of voice quelling the crowd instantly.
The mayor repeats the question.
“Yes,” I say, obviously not loudly enough.
“Speak up, young man,” Il Magistrato says firmly. “They have to hear you all the way in the back of the room.”
“Yes, Signore,” I say again, and the mayor tells me to be seated.
For the next quarter-hour, as measured by the ornate grandfather clock at the back of the hall, Il Magistrato asks me a series of simple questions, the answers to which he already knows: what is my name, where do I live, who is my father, who looks away from me when I say his name, where do I go to school, and so forth.
“Now tell the court what you observed on the afternoon of two days ago,” Il Magistrato says.
Though I knew this was where the questions must lead, it is still hard to say it out loud.
“I saw Signore Gioppolo carving Falco with a rasp in the schoolroom,” I say.
This sets off a few gasps and much murmuring in the room, and Il Magistrato has to slap his hand on the table to silence the noise.
“Who is this Falco?” Il Magistrato asks.
“He... I don’t know, Signore. I only know him as Falco; I don’t know where he lives or who his family is.”
Mayor Lapino, standing to my right, leans in toward Il Magistrato. “Falco Severino,” he says. “His family is from the North, I believe.”
“Is he here?” Il Magistrato asks.
The mayor scans the room. “No, Il Magistrato: I don’t see him, nor his family.”
“Direct the constable to find him,” Il Magistrato says.
From the back of the room Gaffore nods officiously and exits without waiting for Mayor Lapino to repeat the order.
“Go on, young man,” Il Magistrato says, returning his attention to me.
I describe the scene as best I can, remembered through a blur of fear and surprise. I tell the court about the smell of resin and the weeping cuts on Falco’s body. About the fear in the boy’s eyes, and the crafty, hungry look of Gioppolo, as he beckoned me closer.
Aside from muttering and some disapproving clucks, the room is silent. From brief glances out of the corner of my eye, I see my father sitting impassively with his hands in his lap, as if waiting for a train.
“Now tell the court about the relationship with your father,” Il Magistrato says.
“Signore?” I ask.
“Would you say it is troubled?” Il Magistrato asks.
Words fail me. I feel as though Il Magistrato has snuck up behind me and hit me with a club.
Il Magistrato does little to hide his impatience. “Come now: tell the court at least how you came to be.”
“My father...” I start to say, but Il Magistrato cuts me off.
“Again, speak up, young man.”
I start again, my insides shaking. “My father made me,” I say, “from wood, with his carving tools. Just like Gioppolo did to Falco.”
This time there is a general hubbub. “That’s right, that’s right...” I hear a woman’s voice say. “He made the boy a little puppet.”
Il Magistrato actually shouts the audience into silence. When it is quiet again he turns to me.
“So you were made of wood,” Il Magistrato says. His tone is neutral, but I feel like a hot stone has been pressed into the pit of my stomach. “Tell the court how that is.”
I describe the tools my father used to fashion me, and the way they felt — the burning feeling they left behind. I describe the traversa and the strings, and how I left them at the side of the stream on the way to Mormanno.
Il Magistrato asks me if I traveled alone, and feeling smaller and smaller, I explained about Donkey, and our conversations. There are a few titters in the room, but not many.
By the time I finish speaking, the only kind face I see in the room is Marco’s. Even Mayor Lapino seems to regard me with pity and contempt as he directs me back to my seat.
The brash, smirking Gioppolo is not in evidence as he takes his seat in the witness chair. He is attentive and respectful and dressed in a clean jacket and tie. I wince at the comparison the court must make with me in my ill-fitting and dirty clothing.
“Signore Gioppolo, how long have you been teaching school?” Il Magistrato asks.
“Almost twenty years, Excellency,” he says. “The last five here in Orsomarso.”
“So you are experienced in dealing with children,” Il Magistrato says.
“Oh yes, very,” Gioppolo says dryly, drawing a ripple of laughter from the audience.
“And Master Gepetto? Is he a typical pupil?”
“I would not say typical, Excellency,” Gioppolo says, putting on his most thoughtful expression. “Rather I would say he is a type I know well.”
“And what type is that?”
“He is very fanciful: a teller of tall tales, I believe because he desires attention. I don’t say that as a criticism,” Gioppolo says, holding up his palms, “It is probably a natural result of the boy lacking a mother. Nonetheless, he brings trouble on himself because of his tendencies.”
“What sort of trouble?”
“The usual sort. The other boys are sometimes rough with him — I have had to step in a number of times. He can be disruptive in class, as well, sometimes diverting us from the lessons with his fancies.”
Il Magistrato nods. “And what of the day in question? The one to which the boy referred?”
Gioppolo shakes his head sadly. “Perhaps he thinks he saw what he said, but it was nothing more than me removing a splinter from a boy’s foot. I had him up on the desk because the light is better there, and because it is easier on an old schoolteacher’s back.”
“So there was no rasp, no chisel with this boy Falco?”
“A complete fabrication,” Gioppolo says, “and a rather mean-spirited one.”
“Yet you went to the boy’s house afterward?” Il Magistrato says.
“Naturally, I was concerned. As was Signore Gepetto,” Gioppolo says, nodding at my father. “As you know, the boy never came home.”
“I see. And what of this nickname, Pinocchio?” Il Magistrato says, an expression of distaste on his face.
“Something the other pupils hung on him. I confess,” Gioppolo says with a sheepish expression, “I have slipped myself, once or twice, and called him by that name.”
“That is hardly becoming,” Il Magistrato says. “Not a good example for your students.”
“No, I am afraid it isn’t,” Gioppolo says contritely. “I can only add in my defense that when it is the only name one hears him called by, day after day, it is easy to make a slip.”
Il Magistrato grunts. “Very well. You are dismissed.”
When my father takes the witness chair, I see him as Il Magistrato must: sturdy, if old — a workingman in clothes that are plain but neat. His brushy white mustache is neatly trimmed, and his hair combed.
Once the preliminaries are past, Il Magistrato asks my father if he heard my testimony.
“And, Signore Gepetto?”
My father shrugs. “He is a good boy, mostly. He feels the absence of a mother keenly, as Signore Gioppolo has said. I have to support us, and so cannot be both a father and mother to him.”
“He claims you made him,” Il Magistrato says, “from wood.”
“Il Magistrato, I wish I knew what to tell you,” my father says with the weary air of someone saddled with the burden of a disobedient child. “My son has too much of an imagination for his own good. You heard him: a talking ass. I am just a woodcarver. From where he conjures these fantasies I cannot tell you.”
“And of the marks on his arms? They come from the chisel, he told me,” Il Magistrato says.
“I... A chisel? No! Excellency, he is a boy, and his schoolmates play roughly with him. Are there the tools of my trade in the house? Of course! And the boy likes to play with them.”
I know it is not my place to speak, but I want to shout that my father is lying. What outrages me more than the lie of putting marks on me is that he would say I touched his tools. Never, not once, knowing if I did I would have been severely punished. The silence of my neighbors, all of whom know what my father did with me, sickens me, but that is not a novel sensation. It is the way of the village, to turn a blind eye to what happens under another man’s roof.
Il Magistrato moves on in his questioning. “Your wife, she died?’
“In childbirth, Excellency,” my father replies. “Tiberio is our only child.”
“And when he ran away, were you concerned?”
“Naturally,” my father says. “I called for Constable Gaffore when the boy didn’t return from dinner. We tried to find him, of course, but we had no idea which way he had gone.”
Il Magistrato nods. “Signore Gepetto, there is but one road in and out of Orsomarso — could it have been all that difficult?”
“But who knew whether the boy struck out across the hills?” my father says, a querulous note creeping into his voice. “He is a willful boy, and that is just the kind of thing he would do.”
“Yet you don’t seem particularly glad to see him,” Il Magistrato says. “I mean for all your worry.”
“We are plain people, Excellency,” my father says. “Working people. We don’t wear our hearts on our lapels. I am glad to have him back home.”
I sit through Gioppolo’s and my father’s questioning in a kind of suspended state, listening to Il Magistrato’s questions and their replies without thinking of the outcome, but my father’s final words puncture my equilibrium. I will be sent back to my father’s house, and to school, to who knows what end.
Sinking in the fear of what will happen to me, I don’t notice my father being dismissed from the witness chair, nor the next witness being called.
Copyright © 2018 by Robert J. Howe