Another Italian story, one of about twenty published in literary magazines or, as here, in In All Directions, Short Story Anthology, published by the Canadian Authors Association.
THE TROUBLE WITH SAINTS
A. Colin Wright
My statue of St. Francis has never been replaced, but otherwise the village is much as I remember: more prosperous now that its villas, once occupied by Mussolini’s bureaucrats, have been restored to their benevolent self-confidence. Tourists eat ice-cream in the café by the harbour, but the local men still argue under stucco arches in the bar further down Lake Garda, near the smaller port where I used to kiss Emanuela.
The statue was a few cobbled streets away, a larger version of those figures of saints with their brown sheen and whitish faces found in shops for religious kitsch. A path led up the hillside to a monastery, and St. Francis stood in a brightly-lit shrine cut into the rock, eyes cast piously down and a hand raised in blessing. Each night, after taking Emanuela home, I used to stop and lay at his feet a pink flower from the bushes. Now I look at the empty niche thinking that I’m the only one who knows why he’s no longer there.
I’d talk to him of Emanuela; even, occasionally, of Clara. In one brief summer I’d met and desired both, but it was to Emanuela that I said “I love you”: little understanding in my youth that those words are seldom clear except as a vague contract interpreted differently by each partner. She’d lay her head on my shoulder, look at me with those mystified brown eyes and whisper “mio caro,” while the knowledge that somewhere there might be a husband gave our love greater poignancy.
“No one knows I’m married,” she told me that first night as we sat listening to the waves in the darkness, while my hand stroked her nipples inside her dress. “My father couldn’t have trusted me if he’d known I’d married someone who wore a Fascist uniform.”
The war had been over for more than two years, and I wandered across Northern Italy justifying my search for adventure by journalistic pretensions, mailing bulky envelopes to editors in Toronto—although the only article I’d sell would be the one about Emanuela’s father. It was him I’d come to talk to. A prosperous wine-maker, he’d joined the Italian underground when he was fifty, allowing his villa to be used for meetings under the nose of Mussolini, at that time ruling his collapsing empire from nearby Salò. I would come to admire Emanuela’s father, seeing in the way he spoke to her a deep affection, while his shyness was even greater than my own. Because of this our first meeting had been difficult. And then, not used to interviewing people in my imperfect Italian and intimidated by the scowling maid who’d let me in, I hadn’t known the right questions to ask.
He couldn’t spend much time with me. “Mister Tony”—he hadn’t grasped my surname—could you return the day after tomorrow? I’m sorry, eh? Tonight I go to Milan.”
He’d been telling me of a cheap pensione when his daughter came in: a mischievous Botticelli nymph with impudent eyes. “Emanuela,”—he turned to her as he shook my hand—“please accompany our guest to the door.”
“He likes you,” she told me as she showed me out. “Don’t be put off by his awkwardness.” Her hand lingered in my own, her lips parting as though to say something more. But then she looked into my eyes, waiting for me to speak.
“Could you... ” I began, aware that our bodies were almost touching: “could you perhaps... help me by telling me about your father too?”
“Of course,” she said, laughing, and we agreed to meet that afternoon.
But by four o’clock I still hadn’t found accommodation, either at the Pensione Flora—which would have a room only two nights later—or anywhere else I could afford.
“I can invite you to the villa, then,” Emanuela said over a cassata and coffee in the newly opened café by the harbour. “Maria won’t mind, she’ll just grumble as always.”
I looked at this delightfully brazen girl in front of me, thinking how she might make up for my disappointment with Clara.
So Emanuela went home to tell Maria, and we met again in the evening. Walking along the lake we joined hands, impatient to kiss and start exploring each other.
While raucous voices from the bar floated to us across the port, Emanuela told me about her husband. There’d been only a brief, clandestine honeymoon before Alberto, like other unfortunates after Italy’s capitulation, had been mobilized by the Germans. Near Ortona he’d been taken prisoner by the Americans, but had later escaped. That was all she knew.
“I can’t tell anyone, I can’t marry again—if he’s dead, that is. I have to pretend I’ve never been... intimate with a man.”
We walked back to the villa, through empty streets, kissing as we went. I’d left my suitcase at the pensione, but I had my pyjamas in my briefcase, which I had to put down awkwardly each time I drew her softly toward me.
“By the way,” she laughed after another long kiss: “what are you doing fooling around with pyjamas?”
As we made love in her bed that night she was an extraordinary mixture of provocativeness and self-doubt. Next morning, waking early, she turned on her radio, stretching across me so that her breasts brushed over my lips. It was a programme of classical music, some of Grieg’s lieder with their swelling crescendos, and I eased myself into Emanuela as the chords on the piano led into his famous love-song, Jeg elsker dig.
“I love you,” I translated the words into Italian as her hips beneath me moved with my own: “I love you, in time and eternity.”
Perhaps I really believed it would be that way. But when her father returned I had to move to the Pensione Flora, and Emanuela couldn’t come to me there because she knew the family who ran it. She didn’t hide the fact that she was seeing me, which took courage in the Italy of those days. Her father with his gauche kindliness seemed to approve of me, for if I had been too young for the war I was still Canadian, one of the allies. But now we could only meet on our bench, kissing passionately in the darkness.
“Help us to be together,” I’d pray to St. Francis each night after I’d left her, knowing he understood that I wasn’t traditionally religious. Patiently I’d explain to him that churches and saints were important in my life only because, if you’re interested in Italian art, they’re unavoidable.
In those days I dreamed of becoming a great lover. It didn’t turn out that way, and in the intervening years, during my marriage too, I’ve come to understand that few of us turn out to be a great anything: that most of our loves are little ones, fearful of being hurt, not wanting emotional commitment without a lifetime guarantee.
In love with Emanuela, I was embarrassed to recall my stupidity over Clara not long before. My failure with her hadn’t been my fault and I no longer blamed myself, but how could I have dreamt of love with her, when her one commitment was to God alone?
I’d met her in Padua, where I was staying in a Hotel Agape: named for appropriately for Christian rather than erotic love. I was standing in St. Antony’s Basilica beside his sarcophagus built into the back of an enormous altar.
“He’ll grant your request, I guarantee it.”
I turned to see this dark-haired girl: like a Tiepolo cherub, I thought. I started to object that I wasn’t one of the pilgrims who’d arrived in busloads as I was going in, but was there only because the Scrovegni Chapel with the Giotto frescoes was closed. But, looking at her smile and dark locks of hair, I stammered instead: “I guess he’s my patron saint.”
She indicated that we should line up behind the black-shawled women waiting to touch the sarcophagus, which was covered with letters giving thanks for favours received. I read them thinking that Italians who’d gone through the war probably needed to believe in miracles, and yet to me it seemed miraculous enough that I’d been spared the effort of myself approaching an attractive girl, so I too said a prayer of thanks, feeling foolish as I watched her lips move silently while she pressed her forehead to the marble.
“So your name’s Antonio?” she asked me over coffee.
“Mine’s Clara Gentile. Really. Can you imagine a nicer name?”
It suited her: kind, pleasant, gentle.
“One day God will call you too,” she insisted. “I guarantee it.”
I had no desire to be called by God, but to talk to her about religion seemed the obvious way to get to know her.
As she took me on a tour of medieval Padua, she told me her only passion was to see Christ in his second coming and—brushing aside my attempt to mention more earthly passions—assured me it would be soon.
“And will people recognize him?”
“Absolutely. Because we’re told he’ll come in glory. And I know I’ll see him: either in my lifetime or at the moment of my death.”
Strolling through cobbled streets, by the market with its thirteenth-century Palazzo della Ragione, she said she had a guardian angel beside her, protecting her from danger. Believing I was an unconscious pilgrim (I laughed at that!) she showed me almost every church, always stopping for a prayer. But she had a sense of fun and showed no disapproval when I argued that one should enjoy the pleasures of this world.
“I’ll pray for you,” Clara laughed. “You’ll come to God, I guarantee it.”
She invited me to dinner the next evening. She had only two rooms and a miserable kitchen, their walls covered with reproductions of religious paintings. I learned she was a teacher, giving most of what she earned to the church. But whenever I tried to ask about her personal life she kept returning to her religion—and to the Pope, whose every utterance, she maintained, reflected God’s truth. In vain I argued that one could hardly put much faith in the Pope after the Concordat with Nazi Germany and Pius XII’s pro-German attitudes in the war.
“He had to choose between terrible alternatives,” she defended him. “As for the Fascists... well at least they stood up to the evil of Communism!”
For this reason she’d given a grudging assent to Mussolini. Those in the resistance, she explained, were sincere but had been duped by the Communists. Her brother was one: “I try to make allowances for him, but he’s given me so many problems. My conversion to Catholicism caused even more of a rift between us.” Before I could ask about this, she continued: “Of course, the Fascists betrayed us. But we’re told to love our enemies.”
I disagreed with most of what she said, but she argued charmingly, refusing to sit in judgement over others: “Only God can do that.”
When, unwisely, I tried to kiss her she dodged me, and we parted laughing.
I returned several times. Her cooking was abominable, which I don’t think she even realized. Irritated by her unquestioning belief, I found her attractive just the same. Perhaps, I suggested, she was the only saint I’d ever met. She made a joke of it: “All I need is credit for a few miracles!”
St. Antony, Clara told me, had been a disciple of St. Francis, so when a few weeks later I came upon my statue I would constantly be reminded of her saintliness. I’d left Padua disappointed. I was looking for a woman, not a saint, and it seemed to me there was indeed this guardian angel standing there beside her. Clara perhaps had the radiance of God, but it set her apart from other mortals. I sensed in her a personal joy I might have envied, but I could never get close to her because she’d never speak of herself, except in terms of her faith. Nor could I talk sincerely about my own sexual nature and deepest longings because, although she accepted them, she saw them as failings, to be prayed about and dismissed.
When I told St. Francis about this he only winked, saying we all had different purposes in life.
That very day I was to meet Emanuela. I plunged into my affair with her all the more recklessly, finding at once that abandonment that love demanded, our bodies moistening for each other at the slightest touch. But after I took up residence in the pensione we knew all the passion of despair. October became November and, with only our bench to go to, we had to dress more warmly, our hands stretching under more layers to caress those enticing places we longed for. If we brought each other to a climax I had a cold and clammy walk home, with St. Francis laughing at my discomfort as I stood before him.
“Help us to find a way,” I begged him, while he gazed down inscrutably.
One evening Emanuela’s father invited me to dinner.
“He hopes... you might want to marry me,” she told me. “But what can I do, when I’m married already? For that all to come out... I couldn’t hurt him that way.”
He stammered during the meal, apologizing for not inviting me earlier because of his difficulties since his wife had died. Afterwards, he reached for a leather-bound book.
“D’Annunzio,” Emanuela told me: “He feels reading poetry’s a way of sharing with his friends.”
He was embarrassed. “Not if you don’t want... But to help you write about--eh?--the paradox of the Italians that led to Fascism. Eh?”
My Italian wasn’t up to understanding poetry. But as he read I couldn’t help being moved by the flowing, musical cadences.
“Yet Gabriele D’Annunzio, who created such beauty”—he paused in distress—wanted to be a hero, wanted glory for Italy. To wield the sword as well as the pen: ‘Not to plot, but to dare,’ he wrote.”
Emanuela giggled. “And that he didn’t know which pleased him most, to spill blood or to spill sperm!”
Her father chuckled to hide his embarrassment. “Violence, sensuality, decadence, heroism. Fine in poetry, but... ” He was interrupted by the door-bell. “Maria’s in the kitchen, get it will you please, Emanuela?” He went on: “But when it comes to life around you... eh? It’s easy to blame the Germans, but Italians too... ”
Emanuela returned and handed me a telegram. “Forgive me for opening it. Your name didn’t show in the window.”
I read the words “TONY PLEASE COME CLARA”—sent to the only address I’d been able to give her.
“How many others are there?” Emanuela asked as she showed me out.
When Clara met me at the station in Padua I walked by without recognizing her, and she had to run after me. She wore a scarf over her head, but the shining black locks were gone. So too, I realized, was the rest of her hair.
“Why, why didn’t you come as soon as you got my telegram?” she sobbed.
I hadn’t realized how important it was. Why me, when I seemed so incidental to Clara’s life? Few people had telephones then and there was no way I could speak to her. I’d spent the next day trying to explain to Emanuela, and by the time she’d come to an unwilling acceptance of my irrational feeling that I should do as Clara asked it was too late for the last bus. I could only send a telegram saying I’d arrive the next evening. But it wasn’t the loss of Clara’s hair that I’d have prevented.
“Last night,” Clara told me, “I... was raped.”
She led me through those familiar streets, crossing herself each time we passed a church but walking so fast that I had no chance to ask what had happened. Not until we got to her apartment did she finally start to talk, her tears dripping onto a plate of spaghetti she’d prepared knowing I’d be hungry but had let boil so long it was barely edible.
Even then she seemed to avoid the most important thing. “Tony, I must tell you something. I’m Jewish.”
She took off her scarf, revealing only a slight stubble covering her scalp. It occurred to me that I might have guessed it from her appearance, but I never think about such things.
“I changed my name. To something I liked better.”
Choosing ‘Gentile,’ I thought, with all the solemnity of a sacrament. Of course: Italian for both ‘gentle’ and ‘gentile.’
“But... it was during the occupation... my parents were deported... my brother Giuseppe attributed it to cowardice. It wasn’t cowardice, I swear! I was safe: like many Jews I was hidden by Catholic priests. It was then that I saw God, became converted. My parents... were unlucky.”
I was still impatient to know what had happened, but she needed to tell me in her own way, crying the whole time.
It had all started three days before, when Giuseppe had come to see her and they’d got into an argument about his Communism. “Why I even bothered with him, I don’t know! He only thinks of himself, having a good time, showing his friends what a man he can be.”
She couldn’t make him understand how she had to oppose the forces of the Antichrist. He’d become violent and stormed out, but returned later with some friends.
“I shouldn’t have let them in, but I couldn’t cast aside my own brother! They’d been drinking, called me a Nazi, accused me of betraying my parents. If they’d known what my conversion cost me! Then they shaved my head, as though I were a collaborator.” She ran her hands over the stubble. “But that,” she sobbed, “was nothing! Vanity, that’s all. The next day, at mass, I met this student I know, Enrico. But when I told him what they’d done he hardened his heart. He told his friends: some of them Christians, but some... well neo-Fascists too. But good boys, you know! All they could think of was revenge and what weapons they could get hold of. ‘Love your enemies,’ I kept saying to them, but they wouldn’t listen. That’s when I sent you the telegram.”
“What did you think I could do?”
“Oh, with an outsider... they’d have respected you. You can talk to people in terms they understand.” Clara shook her bald head with quiet despair. “Last night, you didn’t come. I knew they were planning to find Giuseppe and his friends. They used to fight at school too. I was afraid someone would get killed because of me! And they were supposed to be Christians!
“I didn’t know what to do. Find them and try to stop them, or not get involved, which was cowardly. I spent over an hour in prayer, and then I felt yes, God had heard me and I could leave it to Him. Only then I started wondering what might be happening. ‘Beware of vain curiosity,’ we’re told: if only I’d heeded that! Instead, I decided to go to Giuseppe’s and find out.”
I was beginning to see where the story was leading. But where, Clara, was your guardian angel?
“A voice kept telling me ‘Go back,’ but I wanted to find out. Curiosity, that was my sin, and how God punished me!”
She told me she’d found about ten of them at her brother’s apartment, and there was blood all over the place. But she soon realized it had mostly come from a nosebleed, and they were now drinking. There’d been the usual brawl, and then, honour satisfied--“That’s so important!”--they’d got into Giuseppe’s stock of wine.
“Nothing terrible had happened, and I could only kneel and pour out my gratitude to God.” She smiled as though still remembering to be thankful, then started crying again. “Lord, do with me according to Your good pleasure, and do not reject my sinful life, known to none more fully and clearly than Yourself.”
I took her hand, happy at least appear in the role of comforter.
“But the fighting had excited them and they were... proud of themselves. Wanting to glorify in their sin by doing something worse. My praying seemed to make them more excited, and I realized they were looking at me with lust in their hearts. Even Enrico. They started taunting me, trying to get me to drink their wine, and when I wouldn’t they grabbed me, pushed me to the floor, stuck the bottle into my mouth so I had to swallow or be choked. ‘This is my blood which was given for thee,’ I heard Enrico—defiling the Blessed Sacrament! ‘And this is my body,’ came another voice. They had my legs apart and I felt someone clawing at my underclothes and forcing himself into me. All I could do was shut my eyes and try to keep from choking on the wine they kept pouring into my mouth.”
I recalled how I’d imagined making love to Clara myself: passionately, but not like this. It occurred to me that for once she was speaking about herself, but almost with detachment... as though, afraid of breaking down, she’d rehearsed the words.
“After a while I remember thinking that it didn’t hurt so much, although I knew I must be bleeding. They... took me in turns. And... after a while it didn’t seem so bad. I could just observe it all and think Madonna!, all this is happening to me.”
I was silent, uneasy.
“In the past I’d denied myself so much,” she went on. “What they were doing was terrible, but there was even a certain curiosity within me, to know what it was like, can you imagine? Then they weren’t holding me down any more. I remember sitting up and taking off my clothes to keep them from being torn or getting more blood on them—knowing it was an excuse, that I wasn’t really concerned about the clothes. I knew I should be in despair, but some part of me... I can only put it like this... was enjoying my shame and humiliation. ‘Blessed are ye when men shall revile you,’ I found myself thinking. I was proud of the thought that I was a martyr and that none of it was my fault! Only it began to change. I began to do everything they suggested, terrible things. Not from pleasure, I don’t even know why, perhaps just to be able to say I’d done them. Things I thought I’d driven from my imagination by prayer and fasting.”
“You’re only human.”
“Alas,” she quoted again from somewhere, “a perverted pleasure overcomes the mind that surrenders to the world, and counts it a delight to lie among the brambles.” She looked at me with defiance. “Giuseppe was the last. Bruises on his face, a cut over his eye, and his lip was bleeding as he kissed my neck, my breasts, even my... ” She indicated with her hand. “Then he seemed to stay inside me forever, becoming part of my soul. Now I’m damned, I thought. Now I know Satan. I didn’t care. My brother, my own brother!”
That night, in a makeshift bed on the sofa, I kept going over it in my mind. Clara in the next room was wakeful too. I was torn between thoughts of what had happened and, I admit it, a newly aroused eroticism, a desire to make love to her myself: gently, happily. I was betrayed by my own timidity. I didn’t want her to think I was like those others, and so I didn’t even show the natural affection which might have comforted us both.
I returned to the village feeling guilty. It occurred to me that no one could see it as my responsibility if Clara should become pregnant and, at the same time, that I might even welcome such a responsibility. Yet as the bus skirted the lake, taking me past D’Annunzio’s ornate villa, I realized that it was still Emanuela I wanted—that Clara would always represent for me Christian love, agape, while it was the pagan eros I longed for.
I’d rarely stopped to talk to St. Francis in daytime. But now I needed to compose my mind. I had another problem too: my money was running out. Should I do the logical thing and return to Canada, or prolong an impossible situation with Emanuela?
St. Francis promised to find a way out of my dilemma, and I walked to the villa telling myself to expect a miracle.
Emanuela answered the door, kissed me, looked at me with those mysterious eyes, then took my hand and led me into the living room. “It’s finished. My husband’s alive.”
“You’ve seen him?”
“I’m going to Bologna next week. He’s in prison.” Her voice rose in anger. “He sent a message to my father! I had to tell him everything! Alberto’s coming out soon and needs somewhere to go.”
For a moment it seemed like a bad melodrama, and I barely restrained a desire to laugh.
“Alberto’s a petty crook! All this time I could at least think of him as a hero. He ran away from the Americans with one of their soldiers, and lived by the black market. He never bothered to come back. Until now, when he needs money.”
“It hurts,” she said. “I’m married to him. You know what that means in Italy?”
She could see nothing but emptiness for us ahead. “All we have is physical, which isn’t enough. There’s not even a way to sleep together. Nothing’s the same.”
Her father, when I said goodbye, shook his head. “Eh, Mr. Tony. I’m sorry, eh? I’d have been happy... but how could I have known? Eh!”
It was dark when I left, walking to our bench, where I sat listening to the waves. Then I walked on to where St. Francis was waiting. “Thanks!” I spat at him. “You were going to answer my prayer.”
“I did,” he said with his usual serenity. “You asked me to find a way out of your dilemma.”
“But that’s not the way I wanted! You were no fucking use!”
Still he gazed piously down—at an earthenware pot in which someone had arranged some of the flowers.
I’ve never been a violent man. Never have been able to spill blood: spilling sperm is more in my line, although, if truth be known, I’ve spilt little enough of that in my wretchedly cautious life. But, faced with emptiness where once there had been dreams, all I could do was indulge in a futile gesture of despair.
I picked up the pot, dumped the flowers on the roadside and, infuriated at the mocking radiance of his face, thrust the pot against it. The statue didn’t have the inner strength I imagined. A crack appeared in one shoulder, darted across the body to the opposite hip and—slowly, so that I almost wanted to catch it and hold it in place—head, torso and raised arm slid down, then toppled forward to the ground, where the whole thing broke into several pieces.
I was dismayed, wanting to destroy the evidence of my crime, and at the same time elated. Casting the pot aside I started grabbing the pieces of porcelain from the ground, throwing them down in a fever of destruction; toppling the base of the statue as well so that it too shattered onto the road. The light in the niche went out. I was horrified at myself but I couldn’t stop, and seeing that the face was still intact I took the larger pieces and threw them at St. Francis’ eyes, nose, lips: bombarding them, kicking them, crunching my heel on the slivers I eventually reduced them to.
St. Francis lay dying, bleeding. Then I saw it was my own blood, from a gash in my hand.
I heard later that Clara had become a nun. She wrote to me occasionally, assuring me that she prayed for me, and I hadn’t the heart to reply that it didn’t seem to do much good during those troubled professional years. Six months ago her Mother Superior wrote telling me Clara had died from cancer: a long letter saying how she’d been loved for her saintliness, and ending with the sentence “She had the radiance of God.” Did she finally see Christ in his glory at the moment of her death?
Perhaps that had something to do with my returning to Italy—something I’d been thinking of ever since the break-up of my marriage. With no more dreams of becoming a great lover, I’d be happy to settle for one woman to love. With the tourists I eat ice cream in the café by the harbour, reading headlines which tell of atrocities committed by the Red Brigade. At night I sit on my bench, listening to the waves in the darkness and telling myself that Emanuela must be out there somewhere. Times have changed, and nowadays we could perhaps have lived together without worrying too much about her husband. I walk to her father’s villa, try ringing the bell, but the house is as empty as the shrine where the statue once stood.
I go to find it again, praying it was only a dream and that St. Francis will still be there. But there’s nothing except for the empty niche and the pink flowers growing close by.
Tomorrow I’ll go to Padua, to the Giotto frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel; to the Basilica of St. Antony where, with the believers, I’ll line up to touch the sarcophagus.
Perhaps I’ll pray to Clara.
Clara, Clara, please send me a miracle: I beg you with all this stupid, idiotic heart of mine! I’d like to have believed, why did I always deny it? All you need is credit for a few miracles, so I can pray to you. Not even that I may find Emanuela, it’s too late for that, I don’t deserve it, but that one day there will be someone to love again.
A.Colin Wright's novel Sardinian Silver can be ordered from any bookstore, from www.amazon.com and other amazon sites, www.barnesandnoble.com, and www.iUniverse.com.