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The Miracles of Santo Fico


Sleep was the enemy. The old man knew that. The heat was merely its accomplice and these scorching days of August were particularly dangerous. He rebuked the little voice whispering in his ear that it would be all right to lean his head against the cool stone wall of his closet for just a moment. But the little voice insisted that a quick rest of the eyes might even help him to concentrate on Maria Gamboni's moans droning from the other side of the black lace netting.

The old man thought of all the years he had been hearing this particular confession and his mind couldn't help but wander to how many atonements this poor woman must have uttered over the years. Years became numbers that rolled around in his head like marbles in a bowl, brushing against his fingertips, always just out of reach, or a bit too slippery to grasp—and again the little voice suggested that maybe he would feel better if he just rested his eyes for a moment. Soon Maria Gamboni's muffled voice droned into some vague distance as the familiar blanket of heat and darkness folded over him and he wondered if this pleasant sinking feeling was what death was like. How fitting it would be to die in this little closet, he thought, while Maria Gamboni chants her sins next door. How appropriate.

Only when his white head finally plopped and his neck snapped forward and his skull conked against the hard stone did the old priest jerk upright.

"Oh, my goodness," Father Elio Caproni mumbled as he tried to stretch his aching limbs, but there wasn't enough room in the cramped compartment. He sternly rubbed his craggy face with both hands in an effort to focus on his task. Sweat poured down his forehead, stinging his eyes, and that helped a bit. He tugged at his soiled white collar in an attempt to capture more air, but it did no good. How could anything as old and frayed as that collar be so stifling? He recalled his childhood daydreams of wearing the white collar. It never occurred to him, back then, that being a priest could ever be a bad thing. That came later. It wasn't until he was a young man of twenty-two returning home from Bologna, wearing the stiff white collar for the first time and for all the town to see, that he realized he had made a horrible mistake. Everyone was so proud of him that day, and yet he was so ashamed. God knew his lie. He swore that day to devote his life to serving his neighbors as the priest of the Church of Santo Fico. If he did that, he thought, God would have to forgive him for his terrible sin.

Now, Father Elio had been Santo Fico's priest for as long as anyone could remember, including Father Elio. For fifty years he kept his secret and devoted himself to his promise as he waited for some sign that God had forgiven him. But nowadays his faith was worn as thin as his frayed collar, and his heart felt as dry as that fountain in the center of the piazza. These days, if he dreamed at all it was no longer in hopes of a sign—these days he usually dreamed simply of an ending.

On the other side of the black veil, Maria Gamboni whined, ". . . and heaven knows that I deserve whatever punishment God chooses to inflict on me, because He knows all of my wicked sins against my beloved Enrico—God rest his soul if he be truly dead . . ."

It wasn't difficult for Father Elio to find his place. He had been listening to this same confession at least once a week for almost thirty years and he not only managed to catch up, but even inserted a comforting "There, there . . ." right on cue. At least he hadn't fallen completely asleep and snored like last Thursday.

It had been almost thirty years ago that Maria's husband, Enrico Gamboni, had disappeared. One spring morning he walked down the steep cliff road leading southeast out of Santo Fico to catch the bus into Grosseto, where he was going to buy a new rebuilt oil pump for the engine of his fishing trawler. He was never seen again. The police combed the streets of Grosseto for weeks, but they never found a clue as to what happened.

Maria, on the other hand, knew exactly what had happened. She had driven the poor man away—probably to his death. Since the day Enrico disappeared she knew that God was punishing her for being a disagreeable wife. And Father Elio had to acknowledge that there might be some truth in this.

". . . And Father, I swear," Maria Gamboni whispered as if she were revealing a black secret, "sometimes I feel like if God were to ask me if I should live, I would just say, 'No. Come ahead and take me.' That's what I would say. I would just say, 'Come ahead.' Is that a terrible sin? . . ."

Father Elio was prepared to answer, but he knew it wasn't necessary. Maria wasn't interested in replies.

". . . I ask God to forgive those thoughts. But sometimes I wonder if God even hears me. Sometimes I think I should go to a big church in Siena and light a candle, because Santo Fico is so small I feel like my prayers get lost. No one ever comes here anymore; sometimes I wonder if God does. I know it's a terrible sin to say that, but I can't help it . . ."

Father Elio leaned against the cool stones and smiled. Maria Gamboni was not the first resident of Santo Fico to feel the frustration of insignificance. He recalled another confession along those lines—actually, it wasn't really a confession, not in any priestly sense. This confession was some years ago now and was actually more of an owning up to the truth. The disclosure slipped out quite accidentally over lunch one afternoon, when his niece Marta Caproni Fortino finally admitted the actual facts concerning Santo Fico's wonderful summer of miraculous arrivals.

Father Elio enjoyed recalling the days when Marta was young and carefree, part of a band of four that had a rare and special fellowship, one that transcended blood ties. There were Leo Pizzola and Franco Fortino—closer than brothers and rivals in everything, they seemed determined to set the world ablaze together. And then there was nervous little Guido Pasolini—Topo, or little mouse, as they called him—whose devotion to his friends made him everyone's Sancho Panza. And at the center of this golden circle was his beautiful niece Marta, younger than the others, but still wiser and stronger than her years. These four shared a bond that lasted . . . perhaps, lasted too long. The old man sighed. He didn't want to think about that part right now.

He could still see Marta's earnest expression as she explained, trying unsuccessfully to sound repentant. It seems that the four friends had been lolling about the church's bell tower one hot afternoon, fighting off the summer doldrums by inventing ways of getting enough money to escape Santo Fico. According to Marta, it had been Franco who first suggested that Follonica and Punta Ala had the right idea.

"Tourists!" cried Franco. "Santo Fico should do something to bring in tourists."

Marta swore that she wasn't trying to encourage anything illegal when she pointed out that "those other towns have certain things that tourists want—attractions!"

"But Santo Fico's got attractions!" Leo almost whispered. "The Miracle and the Mystery are attractions and I'll bet tourists would even pay to see them."

Well, some things are so incredibly obvious that one wonders how they stay undiscovered for so long, and as Leo unfolded his clever scheme the others could only stare at him slack-jawed. Finally Marta (according to her, the only determined voice of reason) pointed out that they also lacked another basic ingredient—advertisements! Those other places had highway signs to entice passing travelers.

She was right. After a long collective silence it was a dejected little Topo who sighed, almost to himself, "It's not fair . . . We should just go out to that highway and change those stupid signs!"

Marta assured her uncle that no one ever spoke anything out loud, but Leo's and Franco's eyes grew wide and the power of their silent resolve and the danger of such a wild plot frightened Marta and Topo. In fact, Topo suddenly remembered he was supposed to help his father with something. Within seconds he was gone. Marta also remembered certain nonspecific chores and quickly disappeared—but not before this ten-year-old girl had given both boys a stern lecture on the law and sin.

Leo and Franco brought their scheme to Father Elio. The two twelve-year-old boys sat with him in his kitchen and solemnly explained to him all the virtues of telling tourists the stories of the Miracle and the Mystery. Of course, he gave them permission to bring guests into the church—after all, they were his altar boys. But he warned them, "Don't get your hopes up, boys. If anyone comes to Santo Fico, it will be a miracle!"

Imagine his amazement when the very next day two carloads of travelers on their way south to Riva del Sole suddenly found themselves in the piazza of Santo Fico by mistake. Father Elio was so proud of the way Franco seized the moment to convince the confused travelers to have lunch in the hotel across the piazza and then allow his good friend, "Leo, the Altar Boy," to show them "the Miracle and the Mystery of Santo Fico."

By the end of the first week, a half-dozen automobiles and a few small buses had unexpectedly found themselves in Santo Fico's dusty piazza. Father Elio had to admit he might have investigated this marvel with more vigor, but there was something so wonderful about the way Leo told those stories. Day after day, he found himself sitting with the pilgrims—who donated surprising amounts of money to the boys—listening to Leo's wonderful tales.

All that summer the procession of tourists continued and the boys always gave a share to the church. It was a happy arrangement for all. Until one day in the fall, the carloads and buses of bewildered tourists who thought they were headed for Piombino or Orbetello or Punta Ala suddenly stopped arriving in Santo Fico. Father Elio remembered when the man from the government drove into town, stopped his car in front of the hotel, and stomped inside. A lot of yelling was heard from within the hotel before the man from the government stomped back out to his car and roared out of town.

It seems that someone had gone out to the highway and changed a bunch of the signs. Travelers en route to a particular destination suddenly found themselves in the center of Santo Fico. It occurred to the man from the government, whose job it was to fix all of those signs, that the most likely candidate for this dastardly act was the owner of the only restaurant in town. It was later learned that he had threatened Father Elio's brother, Young Giuseppe Caproni, with jail if there was ever again any funny business with the signs. For his part, Young Giuseppe threatened the man from the government with immediate emasculation if he ever entered his hotel again . . .

Father Elio had to smile when he recalled how he had warned those boys, "If anyone comes to Santo Fico, it will be a miracle." How could he have known that what they had in mind was a whole summer of miracles . . .

Suddenly, Father Elio sat up with a jerk and held his breath. In the adjoining closet Maria Gamboni had stopped talking. The old priest had no idea exactly when her words had stopped, but he had certainly heard something that had abruptly caught his attention. Maria Gamboni had growled at him. It was a low, rumbling, menacing sort of growl and he found it quite unsettling. He strained to listen, but now all he heard from the other side was the sound of the old woman's heavy breathing.

In her adjoining cubicle, Maria Gamboni also strained forward with her eyes wide in both amazement and no small amount of fear. In all the years that she had been making her confessions to Father Elio, at no time, as far as she could recall, had he ever growled at her. But she had definitely heard it—a distinct growl. And now she too heard stirrings next door. He was leaving the confessional.

The old woman opened her door and peeked out and in the shadowed cathedral light she discovered Father Elio also peeking out of the adjacent door, staring back at her in a curious fashion.

"Excuse me, Father. Did you . . . ehh . . ."

Just as he was about to ask her a similar question, from outside the church came a low, rumbling growl. And it was getting louder. Father Elio, followed closely by Maria Gamboni, hurried down the empty aisle to the front of the church. Whatever grumbling beast was doing this growling, it was arriving just beyond the cathedral doors.

What greeted them outside was a blast of hot air, blinding sunlight, and the spectacle of a blue and white sightseeing bus straining up the last steep street leading into the center of Santo Fico. Its gears ground painfully and the engine groaned in anguish as the stunted little tour bus rounded the corner and drove past the church. The bus appeared to have been transported from a previous decade. It was too fat and too tall with exaggerated windows and it was only about a third the proper length. From where they stood on the church steps, Father Elio and Maria Gamboni stared dumbfounded into the vacant eyes of a dozen bewildered travelers trapped behind dusty windows.

The little bus made a slow exploratory circle around the piazza, using the empty fountain in the middle of the square as a pivot point. At one time the marble fountain was quite a centerpiece for the small piazza. The central pedestal was made of white marble and topped with a smiling cherub tipping some sort of jug that once poured an endless stream of water into the surrounding pool. But the cherub's bottomless jug had been dry for many years and the only water that graced the pool anymore came during the rainy season. Nowadays the monument best served as a turnaround point for lost buses and a bench for old men.

At that moment one old man sat on the edge of the fountain watching the one-bus-carousel revolve slowly around him. A skinny gray dog lay at his feet, and as the bus rolled by, raising a cloud of dust and diesel exhaust, the dog lifted his head curiously. The old man scratched the white stubble on his chin and apparently decided that some greeting was in order because he offered them a friendly wave. The gray dog went back to sleep.

From their front-row seats behind the sun-baked glass the visitors had a wonderful view of all the high points of Santo Fico on their orbit around the town square. First, of course, came the blessed Church of Santo Fico, and standing on the church steps was an old priest with a wild shock of white hair and a bewildered smile that, like his hair, seemed to be gripped in perpetual surprise. It was sad, the observers thought, that there should be such a deformed lump growing out of the old priest's back, but on closer inspection the lump blinked two frightened eyes at them. Even though Father Elio was a short man, Maria Gamboni was shorter still and as thin as a weed. And since both she and her priest tended to wear the same shade of black, and because at this moment the old woman was clinging to his back like a growth and peeking around his shoulder, their mistake was understandable.

The bus continued its extended left turn toward Santo Fico's newest building—the Palazzo Urbano. Built before the turn of the century to house all the government offices, the faded two-story palazzo now stood empty and in disrepair. Most of the windows were locked and shuttered and apparently nobody had even mentioned the word paint in its presence for many years. One small room on the ground floor remained open to serve as a postal drop for the obnoxious young man who came over from Grosseto every Tuesday and Friday with the mail.

The rest of their quick expedition around the cobblestone piazza showed a jumble of small homes and shops crawling down the town's inhospitable slopes. Most of Santo Fico clung to the jagged cliffs above the sea by its fingernails, and many of the old buildings, like these newest visitors, seemed to be asking in surprise, "How did I get here?"

In a matter of seconds, the bus's brakes screeched to a halt in front of a handsome old villa and the tour was complete. A weathered sign above the gate leading into the villa's courtyard announced in fancy letters of faded reds, yellows, and greens that they had arrived at the Albergo di Santo Fico. With a gasp of gratitude the engine died and, except for a distant dog that continued to bark its personal protest, the village was silent again. Shiny tourist faces peered through the glass as if they had unexpectedly landed on the back side of the moon. Although they had no idea where they were, it was a safe bet that this place was not listed in any of their glossy, tri-folded, four-color brochures.

Back on the steps of the church, the novelty of the bus passed quickly for Maria Gamboni. She was impatient to get to her atonement.

"I think fifty today, Father. Don't you think so? Don't you think maybe fifty?"

Father Elio felt her insistent tug at his sleeve, but he was preoccupied with the bus. What was this bus doing here? Of course, it must be lost, but how strange, after so many years to have a tour bus become lost again. And with Leo Pizzola returning to Santo Fico just six weeks ago—a suspicious coincidence, he thought. He sighed as he also thought of all the finger waggings and forecasts of misfortune he could expect before this day was over—all because of Leo Pizzola's return.

Since his return, rumors and speculations about what Leo Pizzola would do next ignited faster than grass fires. Gossip of scandal and doom is always engaging and the villagers enjoyed discussing these rumors as if they were omens. Even in the best of times insignificant incidents were good for at least a casual debate among the 437 inhabitants. And why not? For some time Santo Fico had only grudgingly conceded the passing decades, and the second half of the twentieth century visited only occasionally—and then, like this tour bus, usually by mistake. The inhabitants of Santo Fico no longer concerned themselves with unimportant things like the future. They had better things to do—like spending a cool evening at a verandah table with a friend, a glass of wine, and domino tiles, debating winds and cloud formations—or like sitting at their open windows studying how distant lightning storms changed the blues of the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Father Elio finally had to respond to the insistent yanks on his sleeve and so he patted Maria's bony hand and said, "No, fifty is too many. It's too hot. Ten is plenty."

"Ten? Ten would be an insult to God!"

"All right, twenty. But no more than twenty."

As he guided Maria back into the church where she could spend the next hour savoring every chastising moment of her penance, Father Elio stole one more glance across the piazza at the curiosity parked in front of his niece's hotel. He liked the notion of these tourists staying for lunch. It meant that Marta would dress up her menu and that prospect made his mouth water.

At that moment a wiry little figure came hurrying up the street, following the route of the bus. Father Elio couldn't help noting the appropriateness of Guido Pasolini's lifelong nickname. It was more than just Topo's short stature or slight build. It was also his gait; the way he moved with a comical jerking motion when he was excited. It couldn't quite be called running, but might best be described as scurrying—like an excited little mouse.

Guido Pasolini didn't notice Father Elio watching him from across the piazza. By the time the excited little Topo reached the hotel, he was dangerously out of breath. He'd run for almost a quarter of a kilometer up the hill and now his thin legs could barely hold him. But Guido Pasolini was not the type of fellow who failed to recognize opportunity when it presented itself and from the first moment he'd heard that diesel engine approaching, he was on the alert. When it rumbled past the open door of the Pasolini Fix-It Shop, it had taken him only seconds to abandon Signora Morello's broken record player, grab his hat, and race out the door in full pursuit. Now, staggering up to the blue and white bus, gasping for breath, he tried his best to look uninterested.

Strolling nonchalantly by the bus, Guido knew that they would have to be getting out soon and opportunities pass quickly. So he hurried across the verandah and disappeared through the front doors of the Albergo di Santo Fico.

Excerpted from The Miracles of Santo Fico © Copyright 2003 by D. L. Smith. Reprinted with permission by Warner Books. All rights reserved.

The Miracles of Santo Fico
by by D. L. Smith

  • paperback: 358 pages
  • Publisher: Warner Books
  • ISBN-10: 0446690368
  • ISBN-13: 9780446690362