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.
I look up only when I hear Sister Antoinetta’s voice saying the oath.
Sister sits in the witness chair calmly, without fidgeting. After taking the oath, Il Magistrato leads her through our meeting in the schoolroom and subsequent relations.
I look back over my shoulder. My father looks away, faced flushed with what emotion I’m not sure, when Sister describes her conversation with him outside the house.
“Signore Gepetto, you failed to mention this meeting. Do you have anything to add to the sister’s recollections?” Il Magistrato asks.
From the audience, my father makes an irritated shake of the head, chin held high: a familiar gesture. “She was told to keep away from him,” he says. Not once has my name passed his lips since we have been in this room. “Is the law one thing for me, and another for her?”
“That is one of the things we will settle today, isn’t it?” Il Magistrato says. He turns to Sister. “Did Constable Gaffore warn you not to meddle in Signore Gepetto’s family affairs?”
I expect Sister to say that she did nothing wrong: that it was I who came unbidden to the convent after seeing Gioppolo and Falco in the schoolhouse, but her answer surprises me.
“Obedience to the law is a good thing, up to a point,” she says, “but sometimes the law demands unjust things.”
“Oh, now she takes the law into her own hands!” my father blurts out. “She is above us all, Sister Too-Holy.”
“Please!” Il Magistrato says sharply, one hand raised. “I will ask when I need your opinion.”
He turns back to Sister. “Signore Gepetto raises an important question in his crude way: Are we all to be free to follow our own hearts, despite the law?”
“Free?” Sister smiles. Her tone is not disrespectful, but neither is it fawning, like that of the other witnesses. “Excellency, I am not free in the sense you mean. Indeed, I am bound by tighter strictures than Signore Gaffore could imagine, much less have the wherewithal to enforce.”
“Sister Antoinetta, it is not Constable Gaffore who sits in the judge’s seat today,” Il Magistrato says. His tone is even, but it sends chills down my back. For a moment I am more concerned what will happen to Sister than to myself.
“I respect you, Excellency, and I respect the law,” Sister says, “but I am more afraid of seeing violence done to that little boy’s body and soul than I am afraid of whatever sentence you could impose.
“I believe one day I will be judged by One whose laws I tremble to disobey.”
Il Magistrato steeples his fingers in front of his chin for a moment before he speaks. “Pride,” he says finally. “Beneath your humble words I detect a hard backbone of pride. You know what is better for the boy. You, not a semi-literate old woodcarver, should be the one to decide for Tiberio.”
I hold my breath. In the audience, my father nods his head vigorously in agreement, despite the insult.
Sister looks down at her hands folded in her lap.
“Yes,” she says quietly, “I admit that I have a low opinion of Signore Gepetto. It is my pride that I could do so much better for him than his know-nothing father; and I have contempt for the schoolmaster, who is worse in his way, turning his back on what he knows in favor of what he wants.
“I admit to all of that,” Sister says, speaking slowly as if choosing every word deliberately. “I am ashamed for it. That I can have base motives is true, but it can also be true that I am right — that Tiberio would be better served anywhere but in his father’s house. Or Signore Gioppolo’s schoolroom.”
“But how do you know?” Il Magistrato says. “How do you know you are right?”
“I pray. I ask for discernment. I struggle for the right answer,” she says, looking Il Magistrato directly in the eye. “I try to set my own passions aside and put myself in the shoes of a little boy. I am willing to be wrong, but I am not willing to do nothing.”
“And his father does not have the boy’s best interests at heart?” Il Magistrato waves away the answer before it comes. “Never mind. What of the boy’s so-called ‘tall tales’? Let us speak plainly here, since much rests upon it: Is the boy dishonest?”
So shamed am I by the hesitation in Sister’s face that I want to disappear into my shoes.
“No more than most,” she says, finally. “The donkey that speaks to him is hard to credit, I know. Sometimes, Excellency, we need to see things in a certain way to live with our circumstances. How much more is that so for a little boy?”
Il Magistrato looks grave. “I don’t doubt that, Sister,” he says. “You are dismissed.”
He looks down at his list, then at the audience. Sometime during Sister’s testimony, Constable Gaffore has slipped back into the room.
“The Falco boy?” Il Magistrato asks.
“Gone, Excellency,” Gaffore says nervously. “His family has taken him back to Padova, apparently.”
“Then there are no more witnesses,” Il Magistrato says. “I will now render my opinion.” The look of unhappiness in his face scares me.
“The law is about the truth, not what we might wish to be the truth,” he says. “There are the needs of the boy to consider, but also the rights of his father. Likewise, there are the reputations of Signore Gepetto and Signore Gioppolo to consider.”
Any restiveness in the audience is gone. We all sit like stone waiting for Il Magistrato to deliver his judgment. Marco’s large hand rests upon my shoulder.
“That Signore Gepetto is the most loving father is not at issue here, nor is Signore Gioppolo’s expertise in the classroom,” Il Magistrato says. “That the one has raised, clothed and fed him, and the other tried to educate him, is all that the law demands.
“Sister Antoinetta, though a warm advocate for the boy, said it herself: his stories are hard to credit. So unlikely were Master Gepetto’s tales, in fact, that only the seriousness of his charges persuaded me to convene this hearing.
“In the end I am sure the charges are baseless,” he says. “I release Tiberio Gepetto into his father’s custody. This hearing is closed.”
I hardly hear the confusion of voices in the room. When Il Magistrato began his speech I knew where it must end. While the din swirls around me, I resolve to run away as soon as I can — tonight, if possible — and this time to not place my fate in anyone else’s hands, no matter how fair-seeming nor august of reputation they may be.
Marco’s hand is suddenly removed from my shoulder, and my father stands in front of me, unable to conceal his dark pleasure at my discomfiture. His hand on my wrist is not gentle.
“Come, boy, I have wasted enough time on this,” he says.
“Just a minute,” Il Magistrato says, still standing behind the table. “I want to address the boy.”
The room quiets when he speaks, everyone looking at him expectantly.
“Do I have your word that you will obey your father, and that you will not run away again?” he asks.
“Yes, Il Magistrato,” I say without thinking. Of course my nose immediately erupts from my face, giving my plans away and filling me with humiliated fury.
The crowd reacts with loud amusement: “There goes Pinocchio’s nose again!”
“Silence!” Il Magistrato shouts, not taking his eyes away from me.
“What just happened?” he asked me in a quiet, dangerous tone.
“My nose...” I can’t go on.
“Your nose what? Master Gepetto?” Il Magistrato asks.
“When I lie, it grows,” I mutter, provoking another round of titters from the audience.
“Only when you lie?”
“Yes, Il Magistrato.”
“For how long has it done this?”
I think back. “I noticed it just this year, when I started going to school,” I say.
“And is it absolutely reliable, this nose of yours?” he asks.
“As far as I can tell, Excellency, yes,” I say miserably.
“Is what the boy says true?” he asks my father.
“Sometimes it does that, who knows why,” my father says dismissively. “Did you not hear he is a peculiar boy?”
Il Magistrato looks around the room and fixes on Sister Antoinetta. “What do you know about this, Sister?” he asks.
“Excellency,” Sister’s voice carries over the amused murmur of the crowd, “I didn’t mention it to spare Tiberio further humiliation, and because I have never seen it myself.”
“And him being made from wood?” Il Magistrato says. “What of that?”
“I saw only a scared boy,” she replies, “but it is commonly said that his father carved him from a stolen block, and that the boy’s nose grows when he tells a lie.”
“Said by whom?” Il Magistrato asks coldly.
Sister seems unafraid. “By everyone,” she replies calmly, gesturing at the crowd around her. “This is a small village, Excellency. Word passes from mouth to mouth very quickly.”
“I have heard it myself,” says an old man in rather dirty overalls.
“And who are you?” Il Magistrato asks.
“Giovanni Penza, Your Lordship,” the man says. “I have a small farm on the north side of the village. It was my ass the boy took to Mormanno.”
“I’m not a lord,” Il Magistrato says with an irritated wave. “You don’t seem upset. Why did you not see fit to speak up sooner?”
“Well, he’s an old ass,” the farmer, no youngster himself, replies. “He can’t work anymore, so it’s fine with me if someone else feeds him.”
“No one will be feeding him now,” Il Magistrato says. “He died under my eaves.”
“Huh,” the old farmer grunts. “What did you do with the carcass?”
“My man buried him,” Il Magistrato says, seeming a little ill at ease.
“You buried an ass?” the farmer cackles, drawing a laugh from the crowd. “I would have liked to see that! It must have been some hole!”
“Yes, yes,” Il Magistrato says, dismissing the levity with a wave. “The boy was very distraught. He insisted.”
Il Magistrato considered the old farmer for a moment, then the crowd. “Mayor Lapino, bring the court to order again,” he finally says, “and have Signore Penza take the oath.”
“Did you ever hear the ass speak?” Il Magistrato asks the farmer as soon as he is seated in the witness chair.
“No, Your Lordship, but if one ever did speak, it would have been him; he was a smart devil.”
Il Magistrato rolls his eyes at the honorific, but doesn’t correct the old man again. “But you never heard him speak?”
“No, he understood when you talked, though,” the farmer says. “More than once I’d tell my wife, God rest her soul, that I was getting ready to take something or other to market, and he’d overhear and take off in the opposite direction. I learned not to say anything where he could hear it.”
This gets a laugh from the crowd.
“All right,” Il Magistrato says. “Enough about that. You said you’ve heard the boy’s nose grows when he tells a lie. You’ve never seen it?”
“No, Your Highness, I never met the boy before today, but everyone knows it.”
“Who, specifically?” Il Magistrato asks.
Though everyone in Orsomarso knows of my shameful nose, only a few have seen it. As morning wears on, and the courtroom becomes hot and full of the smell of sweating bodies, Il Magistrato doggedly narrows the list to those who have actually caught me in a lie. It is at once tedious and humiliating.
Copyright © 2018 by Robert J. Howe