The first light made its mark on the grey veils outside the small barred window that was our only source of light and air. I had watched what was left of my world parade past there. It was a world of boots and shoes. No one was ever visible above the knee. The men and officers, priests and prisoners were all reduced to pollarded marionettes; headless puppets scuffling, walking, marching, and creeping round a forgotten backwater of the war. My sentence made no sense to me, not that I had tried particularly to fathom any reasons. My winter of captivity, the damp, the cold, the appearance and disappearance of boys from the cell were always less interesting than the sour smell of the tepid slop we ate twice daily. My own left foot was chained nineteen links away from an officer called Vitelli who was unlike any of the other inmates. Had I been less confused, I might have noticed him earlier, but I hadn't. Everything was unreal to me until that day of my proscribed death.
I was immune to thought, and unable to share the fear of the huddled deserters. The first flicker of my plight came not with the footsteps or the turning of the key, but from comparing the pierced fragment of sky to my mother's one grey sheet. I imagined that worn smoky stretch of mended linen being scorched by a rogue spark as it dried by her fire. I felt her dismay at the marring of her most prized possession. Then I felt a foretaste of her grief for me, and with it came a sharp pain in my chest and a reluctance to breathe that rendered me unable to answer my name. It was called again.
This is the chronicle of my rebirth; the vision of my life after death. If you will let me be the custodian of your attention for a while, I will tell you how I entered the world of paradox. I will lead you from the prison where I was free to dream (and dreamt to keep my sanity) to the liberty of obsession. Such terms are other people's words. I will use my own, beginning with what would have been my last night.
I lay on my part of the stone shelf in the darkness unable to sleep because of the cold cramps in my shins. In my village, the hay for the mules would have long since been gathered, and the barley and corn would both be almost ripe. The first tomatoes would be swelling green on their fragile stalks, drinking in the daily sun. These were the months of drought and heat. Only this holy stone seemed to recognize no seasons. Despite my tiredness, I lay there, holding myself and thinking about a woman. Then I felt a gentle movement; a tide beneath the ice. I knew that Vitelli was awake too. He never pulled on our shared chain when he was awake; only when he slept would he draw me unconsciously towards him as though trying to reduce the gulf that always separated us despite our enforced intimacy. I could sense his eyes blinking, registering the visible and the invisible in an uncanny way that he had. Vitelli would not be thinking about a woman; there was something Jesuitical about him that seemed too austere for that. He was a man of ideas and ideals. I used to think that all we two had in common were our nineteen links of chain and our predicament. We were both prisoners of war, held at the pleasure of the Vatican States. We had fought for Garibaldi and the Red Shirts, me for wages, he for his belief. Now, camp follower and colonel found themselves sharing a bed, married under cover of night, their bodies joined in heavy wedlock.
Donna Donatella, you never would lift your silken skirts for me. No, and you never even lifted your eyes. I am twenty-two now, I was a mere child then, but I have always longed for you. The New Year frosts were no worse than the ache I have felt for you because of my unworthiness. I served my apprenticeship for you. I cut my fingers to the bone learning to carve in stone. I can carve angels' wings with more skill than many an artisan. Is it the remoteness of my memory or my own failure to exist that will not lift your skirt even in my dreams? There is no illicit waft of the orange flower water you sprinkled on your petticoats; one sniff would do. Even the hem of your gown seems weighted with stone.
So I hugged myself and lay as still as a quietened lunatic, waiting for the sun to edge through the barred window and lay its light across my lap like slices of golden polenta so I could breakfast on memories of home. First the scorch mark and then the slivers of light. Instead, while it was still half dark, there was the snapping of bolts being drawn and the rattling of keys. Two black silhouettes entered. They merged together. I heard a voice reverberate around the cell, seeming to come from under my feet and under the stone shelves. It was a disembodied voice that had learnt my name. It said it, chopping up the syllables, cutting the threads that joined me to my life. There was an accusing silence when I should have answered, `Present.' I felt the tension gather around me. I imagined, but could not see, the deserters anxiously looking away, reprieved for another twenty-four hours. The bald one would be chewing his ragged sleeve to contain his glee. I had seen him do it on so many mornings.
`Hurry up,' the voice insisted.
I felt myself sleepwalking across the cold floor. The chain on my leg tugged but seemed unable to stop me. After only a moment, it let me go. A jab in the side from the guard's rifle butt made me want to cry. My feet moved but not even the chain would come with me. The filtering light I had been waiting for arrived. I fumbled with my boots, bowing my head to disguise the tears I felt gathering.
`Leave the boots, boy,' a guard said, not unkindly. `Boots are hard to come by.'
He was crouching beside me; close enough for me to feel his cap against my wrist as he unlocked the shackle from my ankles. I placed my boots neatly together under the granite bench with their long laces spilling like entrails from their gaping holes. I wondered who would wear them next, and if, like me, he would waste his life. I tried to distil things from my twenty-two years, but they shrank like handled gossamer in my trembling hands.
My body continued to sit hunched on the edge of stone, but my spirit began to creep around the lightening corners of the cell, searching for traces of the cobweb that had, or might have, been me. The voice was hurrying me, taking me away before I had begun to exist. I felt the presence of Donatella both as a grown woman and as a child. I knew that she could not see me; I did not exist for her any more than I existed for myself. I was invisible, more so than a spider retracking its web. Once, and once only, had she smiled at me, and while the pair of guards jostled me to my feet, I refound that smile from many years ago.
Instead of comfort, though, it caused me a pain so sudden I felt stripped and vulnerable. My eyes stung with remorse and shame. Donna Donatella, if only all eyes could be as blind as yours to my plight, then at least I could crawl out of this place unnoticed, with my fears and yearnings hidden away.
Vitelli, the colonel, would have his mask around him now: that cloak of I don't know what to cover his nakedness. He would know how to walk out of this cell to the firing squad, keeping that smile safe. He would have more than his old mother to miss him. Would mine miss me? They'd shoot more than a body if they shot Vitelli. I realized that he had secrets, hundreds and hundreds of secrets which he would hold to himself and take with him to his grave. If time itself were to freeze, I would go back and speak to him, and listen and try to glean something of the mystery. I put my hands to my face to try to push back my tears. A fist or a rifle butt was prodding me away when I heard his voice, Vitelli's voice, floating around me: `Come back soon, friend, I'll be waiting for you.'
Strange words to a condemned man; yet I took them gratefully and covered my face with their implications. My feet walked again and my eyes were dry. I even hurried along the low corridor. I was ready to go wherever those guards took me and I would do what had to be done, and then I must get back to Colonel Vitelli. It's a bad thing to keep a friend waiting.
Outside, the sun had already risen. It felt hot, so hot that I wanted to close my eyes but they were fixed open like the propped eyes of a dead child. The firing squad was shuffling restlessly. I heard some of the soldiers murmur as two stepped forward with a length of rope.
I no longer wanted to be ignored, I wanted to be noticed, and I was disappointed when I realized that the murmur was merely one of discontent at having been kept waiting. The rope took my hands away from me and jammed them against splintered wood. The wall behind me was pink and pock-marked like my paternal uncle's chest. At New Year and Easter he would come to our house and scorn our hospitality, surveying our meagre stocks with bleary eyes while drinking our wine and tapping his bubbling, grappa nose. Zio Luciano, the one prosperous member of our family, would sit in our midst, isolated by his success. I was forced to kiss his cheeks, touching his pitted face and smelling his stagnant breath in the hope that he would `do something for me'. Zio Luciano, lost to all and sundry by his pride, yet never able to break away entirely from the tug of chestnut bread and the smoky squalor of a labourer's kitchen. Condemned, I stood condemned to be pressed against a giant version of his damaged pink flesh, pressed against it for ever with my dry lips welded to his oozing flesh.
A long-beaked priest came hurrying to me, looking as though he had just been turned forcibly out of bed. The last rites dropped from his lips with a mumbled haste that had nothing to do with me. I tried to say some words of prayer to make up for the lack of comfort from his speech, but responses were hollow even inside my head. `Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.' Where was the `us'? I was alone, and I'd mumbled the lines so many times, with much of the indifference of the priest, that they held no meaning and no solace now that the hour of my death was come.
I didn't want to die. I didn't want not to have lived. There was lavender vetch growing in the grass in the courtyard. The grass and cobbles were cool under my bare feet. A soldier came with a piece of cloth to tie around my eyes. I rolled my head from side to side and he withdrew. I saw a first flicker of interest there. He must have thought that it was pride or courage that made me reject the blindfold. I couldn't speak, I didn't trust myself to, but I feared the touch of a hand against my face, even the rough hand of a stranger. It would have reminded me of my mother's coarse hands on my skin, touching my brow for fever.
Death was a word with little meaning that morning. It was something that happened to neighbours, to newborn babies and brothers and sisters and soldiers with numbers less fortunate than mine. I had seen dead men laid out with flowers or lying abandoned in ditches. To me, though, it was just a word, a trigger of tinder to spark off my meagre memories. A smile, a touch; they were not enough to soothe the numbness of my brain. The priest had taken flight, glutted on another sinner. My foot had crushed a stalk of vetch, bruising the mauve petals. I felt a sudden tenderness and looked up to try to scan some fellow feeling from the soldiers lined up in front of me. I no longer felt invisible, nor even blind. Something stirred in my blood, awakening my senses to the world.
I saw the two rows of black eyes, the eyes of unknown girls waiting to be asked to dance. The round black expressionless eyes that sometimes stared out of winter faces. I heard frogs croaking in a distant pond. The backs of my hands rubbed on the coarse cloth of my breeches, chafing. I swallowed mildew on my tongue. Somewhere beyond the wall there must be a wealth of broom. The eyes stared hopefully, impatiently.
I remember something pressing on my heart with the weight of a waterfall. There was a riot in my chest which I mistook for death; but the moment passed, and another chest, an officer's, stood close up to mine. There was a choke of cordite. I felt a momentary elation. This is the coup de grâce, I thought; this is it. Instead, he lifted my head up by my hair, looked into my face and then released me. No word was spoken. Beyond him, the squad was jabbering like gathered starlings until some new order sent them away.
Such was my rebirth and my first death. Whatever reasons there may have been for that charade of an execution, I do not know. It may have been a mere caprice of the garrison, for it is hard to believe that it took place on Vatican instructions. At that time, I had scarcely heard of His Holiness, the Pope, so how could His Holiness have heard of a captured soldier as insignificant as me?
Nor can it have served as a tool in my interrogation. For questions had been few. It was clear from the start that I served Giuseppe Garibaldi and fought for the Resurgence: I had my scant uniform to prove it, my streaked scarlet blouse. `Would anyone have the wealth to ransom me?' When I told them, no, they shook their heads and said more's the pity. The diet had been especially devised for the poor and the disinherited, recipes to jog the memory: might not any cousin, godfather or well-wisher be constrained to take pity on a famished prisoner? It could not have been worth the powder used to extort any secrets from me by means of a mock execution. I was a mere boy and, although an artisan, so clearly of peasant stock that there could have been no booty to be shared between the guards on my account. As to secrets, I had none but my love of Donna Donatella and the names of a few girls who had granted me favours in the woods around Urbino.
So I was reborn by virtue of a meaningless trick. When I was taken back to my cell, I had lost not only my fear but also my indifference, and I determined never to merit such a sense of wasted time again. I would ask Colonel Vitelli to teach me all that he could. I had already learnt how to make music out of blocks of stone, how to shape necks that a hand would involuntarily reach out to stroke, how to make faces that could hold a stare for hours. I knew the anatomy of rocks and little else. Now I'd piece together the bits of Vitelli's teaching like the fragments of a broken statue, until I'd made a new man.
That was the course of my life for the remainder of my time in that Vatican prison. Imolo Vitelli became my friend and mentor. I copied his ways, his wisdom and his fopperies. I learnt to eat with his silver instruments, and to speak another language than my own, trading my Eugubino accent flecked with Urbino for the Tuscan tongue.
My head filled with this new knowledge. I became aware of everything and everyone around me. On the one side, I was shackled to Imolo Vitelli; on the other, to my own sensitivity. The former told me of his ideas and his hopes for a united Italy. He told me of a new Italy built on stones of Independence, Unity and Liberty. He told of the Austrian invaders and the need to oust them. He spoke of Mazzini and Cavour, but mostly of Garibaldi himself, whom he worshipped. Garibaldi, who held Italy first and Italy last.
Vitelli also told me a little about his own family, the Marquises of Borbon and the Counts, who later became Dukes, of Gravina. They had mostly been loyal to King Charles Albert and supported his clerical leanings, so a rift had grown between them; Vitelli preferred to dwell on Byron and Foscolo, the rise of the Movement, his own views on the past, and his hopes for the future. He told me for what and for whom I had been fighting. I learnt of the tyranny of the Austrians, of the `Attempt of '48', of the rout and the flight to South America. Vitelli fired me, not with a round of dummy bullets, but with desires and aims. I wanted nothing better than to return to fight with him, persuaded that it was better to die for freedom than to live a slave. But such dreams were tempered by a round of corn slop and cabbage broth, and the small grid that gave access only to a world of boots.
Sometimes, finding myself so full of life and so ensnared, I would be battered by despair. At first I had no weapon with which to combat it. It sat on me as heavy as a slab of granite. I could no more break its surface with my head and fists than I could dent a piece of Carrara marble without my tools. At such times neither Vitelli's advice nor Donatella's memory was enough to keep me from that dry-land drowning.
One by one the deserters were taken from our midst and shot against that wall. There were two men and a boy, anxious for their crops and families. Had I met any one of them in a ditch the year before I might have bayoneted him without so much as a backward look. Locked through a winter and a summer with them, I saw that if there truly was an enemy, they were not it. The men who slunk away from the Pope's forces to tend their crops and feed their families were no enemies of mine, nor the other deserters, those fired by Garibaldi's rhetoric who died for freedom. I saw in each, as he was led away, the suspicion that slavery had not been so bad after all. Faced with the wall, many longed to be living slaves rather than dead idealists. So, those who fought against the Red Shirts, were they really any different from the frightened boys, or from me? There were so many deserters with their hidden sympathies and hidden tricolours. The Pope did not absolve those who were caught red-handed. Confessions were the order of the day, but forgiveness had been temporarily deleted from the Padre Nostrum.
I tried to carve an angel in my mind to block out their padding footsteps anti their whimpering and the dull thud of coffin nails banging through makeshift lids. But where once I had been able to carve a calm face in stone, now I could carve only one likeness, and that was so far from the angelic that it filled me with disgust. Each time my mind took up the octagonal handle of an imaginary chisel and began to work, the beak-nosed bird of ill omen, the prison padre, stared out of my block. I thought of him rushing through his so-called prayers With my cell mates who had died, and I shuddered for them. The angel would have been my own prayer, and something to keep me sane. But my head was a desolate place and as barren as the bare hills of Le Marche. Until I began to build in it, only vultures nested there.
The palace started as a single vaulted room and grew in proportion to my despair. It began as an exercise to keep my mind from its melancholy, then it became a dream and a necessity. They say that all the great fortresses are weakened and destroyed in times of war. They say that buildings always suffer for the follies of men. If that is so, then I have broken a natural law: for I built a temple in my head with cut stones and mortar from that prison cell. Its hallways were as lofty as a cathedral, and the arch of each window as supple as a bow. Its corridors were the passages of my own brain.
Whenever I despaired of leaving that damp cell, I reopened the designs (all drawn and measured in my head) from the kitchens to the cupola; and I roamed through the palace of my invention where there was neither tyranny nor ignorance. No one can pass by immune to its beauty. Even Donna Donatella would raise her lovely eyes to admire its façades. I marvelled at my creation.
There was a room for every man who had spoken a kind word to me, from old Nicola who showed me where the best porcini mushrooms were hidden in the woods, to Taddeo, my childhood friend. There was a room for my old master, who taught me to hear and then to draw out the voices in the stone. Born in Gubbio and moved on by the Curia to Urbino, he had been a master craftsman. He had a room as ornate as the tomb he carved for Cardinal Lerici. There was a cabinet for my Zio Luciano, panelled in chestnut, fitted with a thousand cunning drawers, places to hide his coins and his grappa. There were rooms for all my favourite dogs but no stables: there will be no hoofprints on my floors. There were rooms for my mother to fill with her sick sisters. And rooms for the four girls who granted me their favours and rooms for those whose promises were left unkept. The deserters from the Vatican States all have a resting place. But the best rooms and the most magnificent were the suites reserved for Donna Donatella. The days were long and the nights were longer, but the sum of the details and decoration for my palace were longer still.
© Copyright 1999 Lisa St. Aubin de Teran
Back to the top