by Robert J. Howe
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
The first witness is Guiseppe, a crony of Falco’s.
After Guiseppe swears on the Bible, Il Magistrato asks him what he saw.
When my classmate starts to look toward the spot where Gioppolo sits in the courtroom, Il Magistrato almost shouts, “Stop!”
Leaning over the desk, Il Magistrato catches Guiseppe’s gaze. “Do not look anywhere but at me, young man,” he says. “Now, did you see Master Gepetto’s nose grow?”
“Yes, Signore,” Guiseppe says, almost whispering. He can be heard only because the courtroom is deadly silent, as if the audience is holding its breath.
“When did this happen?”
“It was in September,” Guiseppe says.
“No, I mean what happened just before his nose grew?”
“He said he had a mother, a pretty one.”
Gasps from a few in the crowd.
“Anything else?” Il Magistrato asks.
“That he read something in a book — I forget what,” Guiseppe says, almost stammering in his nervousness. “And that he had books in his house.”
This brings a nervous titter from the audience. Anyone who knows my father knows that it is as likely he has a camel in our little house as a book.
“And what of him being carved from wood?”
Guiseppe looks as if he wants to disappear. “Yes, Excellency. He is made of wood, or he was — I don’t know how to say it. But that’s why we called him by the name.”
“Pinocchio.” Il Magistrato says.
Several more of my schoolmates tell substantially the same story, causing Gioppolo to roll his eyes extravagantly and mutter about schoolboy imaginations.
Gioppolo’s muttering stops when Cuneo the farrier takes the witness chair. More so than with the others, I relive the painful sensation of being caught — visibly — in a lie as Cuneo lays out his story in a calm, deliberate way.
“And you knew he was lying?” Il Magistrato asks.
“Of course. Everyone in this room, save Professore Gioppolo and, possibly, the boy’s father, would acknowledge seeing Tiberio taunted by his schoolmates at one time or another.”
Gioppolo’s face colors at the sarcastic title, and he avoids looking at the farrier.
Il Magistrato asks a few more questions, then dismisses Cuneo. Il Magistrato’s voice is hard when he has Gioppolo called back to the witness chair.
“You are under oath, Signore Gioppolo.”
“I understand, Excellency,” Gioppolo says. His composure has worn thin, judging from the tightness of his voice.
“Tell the court again what Master Gepetto witnessed in the schoolhouse on the day he saw you with this boy Falco.”
“As I said, the boy had a cut I was tending to,” Gioppolo said. “That was why Tiberio saw blood, perhaps.”
“A cut? It was a splinter in your last telling,” Il Magistrato says.
“A cut, a splinter — the boy had injured himself somehow at play, that’s all. I was tending to him.”
“With woodworking tools?” Il Magistrato asks.
“There were no woodworking tools!” Gioppolo says, raising his voice. “You take the word of an addled boy, a proven fabricator, over mine?”
“There are no proven fabricators, yet, Signore Gioppolo,” Il Magistrato tells him, “though there are certainly some suspects. Let us turn to the question of the boy’s nose. Why do you think it doesn’t grow when he tells us what he saw of you in the schoolroom?”
“I couldn’t possibly say why his accursed nose grows or doesn’t grow!” Gioppolo says angrily. “The boy is prone to fantasies — maybe he believes he saw something, who can say?”
If the crowd has been treating the hearing as an entertainment for most of the morning, the mood certainly changes in the last quarter hour. There is some grumbling during Cuneo’s testimony: “That’s right, the poor wooden boy — everybody knows his schoolmates made him the goat...” But now the crowd is becoming plainly hostile to Gioppolo.
“How many other boys had splinters to be removed?” someone in the crowd shouts.
Il Magistrato admonishes the audience, but when he speaks to Gioppolo, it is through clenched teeth. “For a schoolmaster, you are woefully short of answers and courtesy, Signore Gioppolo,” Il Magistrato grates out. “Your denials are becoming less and less believable. Can you tell me why you should not be barred from the schoolhouse?”
“It is my profession, Excellency,” Gioppolo says in a wounded tone. “I have never been accused of anything untoward until this troublesome boy” — he glares at me — “entered my class.”
Some in the crowd hiss at the schoolmaster.
“Again, your answer is deficient,” Il Magistrato says. “Do you have anything to add?”
Gioppolo opens his mouth, looking as if he is about to speak, then shakes his head. “No, Excellency.”
“A wise choice.”
My father, never an expressive man, is himself like a wood carving on his second trip to the witness chair.
“Do you have anything to add, Signore Gepetto?”
My father’s face wears its obdurate peasant scowl. “What has changed? The boy’s nose is yet another embarrassment!”
“An embarrassment for whom?” Il Magistrato asks. “Tiberio told the court you made him with woodworking tools, which would be a spectacular untruth, no? Yet his nose grows not an inch.
“But when I ask him if he will not run away again from your house, it sprouts like a bush,” Il Magistrato says. “Why do you think that is so?”
“He’s a disobedient boy,” my father snaps. “Of course he intends to run away again. Anything to cause more trouble and embarrassment for his elderly father!”
“I see,” Il Magistrato says.
Whether my father sees the same thing is hard to tell: his face is a mask, and in it I can’t find a trace of the kindly expression he would often wear with me in the workshop.
It seems, thinking back, that the only time his expression was soft was when he was cutting or sanding or gouging me. To make me a real boy. Most of the rest of the time, I might not have existed.
Il Magistrato says nothing further to my father, but releases him from the witness chair with a curt nod.
“We will adjourn for lunch,” he announces to the courtroom. “I will announce my judgment at 2 p.m.”
Mayor Lapino jumps to his feet just ahead of Il Magistrato. “All Rise,” he calls unnecessarily. Everyone is already on their feet and anxious to get out of the hot courtroom.
“Enough!” my father calls petulantly from behind his chair. “What more is there to judge? Either the boy is a liar or not.” He makes a dismissive wave. “To be honest, it makes no difference to me whether he returns to school, or to my house!”
Gasps from the audience, and hisses.
My father rounds on his neighbors. “And who of you would take him in, this difficult boy?”
He turns back to Il Magistrato, who stares coldly at my father. “Speak the boy’s fate now, and let us go back to our homes and work,” my father says.
“The boy’s fate I’ve already decided,” Il Magistrato says slowly. “It is yours, and Professore Gioppolo’s, fates that I wish not to decide too hastily.”
Il Magistrato’s words cause a flutter of excitement in the audience, and they wash out of the room in an excited tide. In a few moments, all that are left behind are the mayor, Sister, myself and Marco.
Sister starts to speak to Il Magistrato, but he forestalls her with a raised hand. “I know what you mean to say,” he tells her. “You will have your chance.”
He turns to the mayor. “Signore Lapino, please escort Sister out. I want to have some private words with Master Gepetto.”
When it is just myself and Marco in the room with Il Magistrato, he tugs off his cravat, now damp with perspiration, and sits heavily back behind the desk.
“What would you have me do with you, Tiberio, if I don’t return you to your father’s house?” he asks.
”I don’t know, Excellency,” I say truthfully. I am almost equally afraid of being sent back to my father’s house or being consigned to some unknown future among strangers.
“Sister Antoinetta will offer to take you in at the convent,” he says. “Do you think you would like that?”
I almost smile at the memory of the nuns’ gentleness, and of the young Sister calling me “little one.” But staying at the convent would still mean being here in Orsomarso. It is a small village — too small, I fear, for me, my father and Gioppolo.
Il Magistrato is waiting for an answer. A truthful one.
“I’m not sure, Excellency,” I say. “May I have some time by myself to think about it?” I half expect my nose to erupt.
He looks at me for a long moment. “Yes, but do not wander far,” he says. “We will start promptly at two.”
The streets of Orsomarso are deserted in the hot sun. Everyone is either enjoying the afternoon meal or the afternoon nap. I walk east, because it is downhill and because it puts the glaring sun at my back.
I miss Donkey suddenly, and am seized with sadness that I will never speak to him again. He was wiser, in his way, than Il Magistrato. What would he have said at the hearing?
What will I say to Il Magistrato? It seems unlikely, though still possible, that he would return me to my father’s house. What then? The convent? The sisters would be kind to me, no doubt, in the way they would be kind to a pet.
Donkey was the only one who ever treated me like I belonged to myself. Even Il Magistrato, for all his sympathy, thinks I must be someone’s charge. It comes as a small surprise to me that someone can be well-meaning and even wise, but wrong.
I walk and walk, turning the problem over in my mind. Probably I can go live in the convent. That will not stop the teasing of the other boys, nor the rude stares of the adults. While I am in Orsomarso, I will not know whether I am a real boy or just my father’s wooden puppet.
My heart, and my feet, have made a decision before my head realizes it. My shadow extends far in front of me: it is long past two o’clock. At the crest of a small rise a breeze comes up, and on it, a slight salt tang. Down below me, far in the distance, is the blue Mediterranean. It is too far to reach before sunset, and anyway they will soon be looking for me, this time in earnest. I can imagine Il Magistrato driving the searchers relentlessly.
Soon I will leave the path and go to ground. When the moon is up, I will resume my walk to the sea. I have heard that sturdy boys can easily find work on the ships that sail from Menestalla, out to the shores of Africa and beyond. If the life is hard, well, I am used to that.
The more I think of it, the more the idea takes root. I think I would prefer the cool, blue sea to the dusty Mezzogiorno. A ship will carry me beyond the reach of my father and Gioppolo, and even that of Il Magistrato. Despite his dignified demeanor and black robes, he is just a provincial official, the blue boundary of whose jurisdiction I can already see down below me.
If I’m not sure what it will be like, on the ships, at least I will have chosen it.
Copyright © 2018 by Robert J. Howe