Tommaso

by Nickolas Urpí

I

The nail dug into the wood as deep as it could without ceremony and without art, one of many identical iron nails compulsory to completing the coffin. Tommaso ran his hand along the side of the wood. Back and forth he rubbed against it. Were there splinters? Were there rough patches? Would a grieving widow place her hand on the wood and feel the pain physically as well as emotionally? He had to rub his hands over it many times, as his hands were no longer young and fresh, but thick and calloused with work.

He was still young, though. Age had had not carved any ridges or troughs into his face. It had only calloused his hands with work and hardened his legs with standing. 

“Your work is excellent, Tommaso,” Padre Giampaolo said, coming up from behind the carpenter to admire his craft. They were old friends, the priest and the atheist. (One time, as children, Tommaso had saved Giampaolo from drowning. They were young and foolish and wanted to catch fish larger and more impressive than the other boys, and so they rowed out further. The waves, however, were choppy with the coming storm and the boat capsized. Tommaso dove into the waters to save his friend, who had fallen over and was sinking into the dark grey sea. He managed to grab Giampaolo by the shirt and breast and pull him up from the water. Giampaolo’s mouth had already almost filled entirely with water. It even crashed down on Tommaso as he kicked his legs, trying to keep him and his friend afloat. It was a struggle just to keep Giampaolo above the water as he swam them both back to shore, the boat succumbing to the ocean’s treacherous pull. 

Just as they arrived on shore, Giampaolo hardly breathing at all, the sun crashed through the clouds, smiting the storm, which seemed so far away. Giampaolo was ill and hardly responding to Tommaso shouting his name. “Angels,” he whispered with his head lying back against the sands. “I see Angels.”)

“The execution is good,” Tommaso replied, satisfied that his work had been efficiently accomplished. The coffin was ready for staining and lining. Tommaso completed every aspect of the process himself, preferring it to hiring apprentices to assist him. He was less artistic than most in his trade, but more meticulous. Not once had the lining slipped on the inside of the coffin, and the seal was always tight. 

“You are talented at what you do,” Padre Giampaolo insisted. 

“Thank you, Paolo,” Tommaso replied. “How is the Tall Man?” 

“He is dying,” Padre Giampaolo sighed, cleaning his glasses with a small clothe. “He will not last the night, the doctor says. I think it is possible he may have a recovery—but it looks bad. It looks very bad.”

“The Tall Man has a good heart,” Tommaso said, wiping his nose on his sleeve. “He will be missed.”

“He was very good to the poor,” the father added, searching his mind with his eyes, sorting through all the glimpses of memories of the Tall Man.

“He was kind to my mother, too,” Tommaso said. “When the mine collapsed on my father and three others—he helped to dig. My mother was on her hands and knees, scraping with her nails. He worked night and day—unlike some others.”

“My cousin was in that mine,” the priest continued. “It was a tragic day for all of us.”

“Yes.” Tommaso looked around his shop for the leather he had purchased from Florence to fill the lining of the coffin. “Yes, I must return to coffin. Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“One more thing.”

“Isn’t there always?” Tommaso sighed. 

“When will I see you at Mass?” the priest asked, smiling.

“Not today,” Tommaso replied, returning his friend’s smile. 

The priest laughed and exited the carpenter’s shop. Their ritual was always the same: conversation, old times (despite neither of them being quite so old), always culminating with one simple question which always had one simple answer.

“Watch your step,” Tommaso said, his hand outstretched to help Nunzia scale the rocks leading to the hillside where they would have their picnic. It was a quiet, green place that overlooked the town.

“I can manage,” Nunzia said, lifting her dress, her bare feet clinging to the rocks and lifting herself up to him. 

“Your hair is very pretty today.”

“Your compliments are like desserts without sugar,” Nunzia joked. “I’ve heard better compliments from many other young men—suitors all of them.”

“Why aren’t you with them, then?” Tommaso asked, shoving his hands into his pockets, his sleeves casually rolled back up to his elbows. He had spun away from her, focusing on his own climb

“Because they are all sweet and no flavor,” Nunzia joked again. 

Her laughter sent a shooting warmth throughout his spine. He closed his eyes and let the moment of her and him together immerse them in a spirit of blissful unity. The wind blew the fresh, dry scents of the mountains into their nostrils.

“Sure, sure,” Tommaso replied, his mind wandering in the countryside. “Isn’t this beautiful? A true religion to be sure.”

“Ah, you and religion,” Nunzia said, punching him lightly in the shoulder as she caught up to him. “Why don’t you ever come to Mass?”

“You know why,” Tommaso replied. “I do not believe in Christ or God.”

“How can you say that when we live in such a beautiful world he created?” Nunzia said, holding her hands out to the air and letting the sun beat down on her breasts, rhythmically moving with her breath.

“He did not create this world,” Tommaso replied. “This world is all there is—it is beautiful on its own. It does not need a God. When we die, we go back to the worms. That is all. Then, the birds eat the worms and the cycle continues.”

“You and circles,” Nunzia laughed. 

“You and churches! You are beginning to nag at me like Paolo,” Tommaso laughed back, grabbing Nunzia’s hand and leading her through the dry shrubs to the spot that had caught his eye since the beginning of the climb.

“Padre Giampaolo,” Nunzia corrected. “Have some respect. He is a priest.”

“He is my friend and does not mind,” Tommaso retorted, finding the perfect location for their picnic. “Here, hand me the blanket.”

“Just because he is your friend and does not mind does not mean you have to treat him disrespectfully! He has worked hard to become a priest and has made many sacrifices.”

“I do not wish to discuss this again, Nunzia,” Tommaso said, sitting down on the blanket and reaching his hand up to pull Nunzia down to him. Nunzia’s hand were planted firmly on her hips, her hazel eyes glaring down at Tommaso. She narrowed them and twisted her lips up towards her scrunched nose. Tommaso withheld his laugh, but his humor manifested itself in his smirk.

“So, you laugh at me now? You think this is funny?” Nunzia asked, her hips bobbing as though they were dancing to her voice’s rhythm.

“No, this is very serious,” Tommaso lied, feigning as though he were deep in thought. He rested his chin on his knuckles. “Very serious!”

“Oh, shut up!” Nunzia said, falling on his shoulders as she sat down beside him. “I am just  sorry for you.”

“For me?” Tommaso laughed. “Don’t be—I am sorry for you! Chasing a dream, thinking about the other world when this one is just fine! Look at the birds and the trees!”

“Yes, I see them,” Nunzia said. “I see you too, the way you enjoy them.”

“Yes,” Tommaso replied. “I do love to be up here. Sometimes you can smell the wild fennel, or even the sea.”

“The sea is too far to smell from here!” Nunzia insisted, laughing at his crazy conjecture.

“Not if you close your eyes! You can hear it if you close your eyes and just listen,” Tommaso whispered, doing so, as though he were teaching her how it was to be done.

“You are a poet,” Nunzia said. “A poet with his faith in grass and bugs.” Nunzia laid herself down flat against the ground, forming hills of her own as she folded her knees.

“When I am your husband, I will not put up with your teasing, Nunzia!” Tommaso laughed, reaching down and tugging at her hair. Her hair was all spread out like a black fan, her curls like whispers of smoke rising from the ground.

Nunzia smiled: “How can you marry me if you will not go in a church?”

Tommaso let his body collapse onto hers. He kissed her, and her arms wrapped around him, her fingernails digging into his back. They remained like that for a long while, the question remaining unanswered…

“Nunzia! Come quick! Papa is ill!” Giacomo cried, as he ran towards his sister, his hands waving in the air and his face black with dust. Nunzia and Tommaso had just returned from their picnic, perusing hand in hand when they noticed Giacomo bolting through the town. 

Nunzia’s hand broke away from Tommaso’s and she ran with Giacomo back to the house, Tommaso following behind. Nunzia disappeared through the front door and jumped the stairs three at a time to reach the top floor. Tommaso waited respectfully at the bottom of the stairs for near an hour before the creaking of footsteps on the stairs alerted the carpenter to the doctor’s presence.

“What is it Dottore?” Tommaso asked, his voice calm, though his blood jolted as it pressed its way through his veins.

The doctor sighed and scratched at the bald spot on his head, decorated with a currant-colored birthmark. “I do not know, but he is very ill—I told Nunzia and Signora Rubino that they can stay and watch over her, but the boy must go. There is no use in having him exposed to the illness.”

“Yes, of course. I will take him,” Tommaso said, as Nunzia escorted Giacomo down the stairway. The shock pulled Nunzia’s face thin. Her eyes were colorless masses and the vivacity that so often shone within them seemed to be nothing more than wisps of smoke from a blown-out candle.

“Are you well, Nunzia?” Tommaso asked, pulling Giacomo by the shoulder to come with him. “You are so pale—let me do something. Shall I run to the butcher for some meat for your father? Perhaps that will help?”

“Only broth,” the doctor interrupted. 

“Thank you, Tommaso,” Nunzia’s weak voice replied. “Just take Giacomo.”

“Nunzia, no,” Giacomo insisted, a tear running down his cheek. “I want to see Papa.”

Nunzia kneeled down in front of Giacomo and played with the curls in his hair. His cheeks were still rotund, and he sniffled as he tried to restrain his tears.

“You have to go, Giacomo,” Nunzia said, brushing his cheeks with her fingers. “You have to go with Tommaso. I will take care of Papa with Mama until he feels better.”

Giacomo nodded and let Tommaso escort him out of the room. Tommaso stole another quick glance of Nunzia while caught in Janus’ domain. The rich yellow, light was peering in from the windows, illuminating the whole house with its peculiar hues. The banister broke the light, its shadow forming crosses on Nunzia’s lower body as she scaled the steps one at a time. Tommaso shut the door behind him as the memory of Nunzia’s ascension repeated endlessly in his memory.

The doctor knew no rest. Nunzia’s father was gravely ill for a week before passing on a Sunday. That was only the beginning of the bad news. 

Giacomo fell ill and was taken back into the house to be cared for by Nunzia and Mama. Like pieces of a chessboard falling to their fate, the men, women, and children of the town started to succumb to the disease. Even some animals passed with this new disease as the cause. The doctor was at a loss to explain it. He wrote back to Rome to see if a friend of his, a professor, knew what the source of the disease could be. He received no reply. 

Tommaso was busy night and day in his workshop, building coffins for his neighbros whose lives and strength were exhausted by the disease. Tommaso, however, remained unaffected. He didn’t have time to pass by the church, illuminated with the faint glow of candles, the musty air muddied with the mutterings and tears of widows and widowers.

“How is Giacomo, Paolo?” Tommaso asked, putting the finishing touches on one of the coffins for the butcher’s wife, who was the latest to fall victim to the illness. 

“He is doing well. Recovering, thanks be to God,” the priest said, sitting down in the corner of Tommaso’s shop. He rubbed his eyes from underneath his glasses.

“And Nunzia? I have not seen her since her father—,” Tommaso began, but swallowed because he could not finish.

“Nunzia is well. Neither she nor the Signora have caught the illness,” Padre Giampaolo continued. “They are tired though. They have been all over town, as all of us have. I have seen Nunzia every night, lighting a candle for the all our brothers and sisters who have fallen. So much death! So much tragedy to have befallen a small village such as ours.” The priest sighed again.

“You do not look good, yourself,” Tommaso said, placing the coffin gently in the pile with the others. He wiped the sawdust off his hands and his apron before approaching his old friend, the chair screeching as he dragged it across the floor, drawing marks in the cushioned layer of sawdust that stretched from wall to wall. “You are pale.”

“I am well enough,” the priest replied, his hands running against his knees. The distinct odor of burning wood felt sharp in his nostrils. He brought his handkerchief up to his nose to prevent himself from sneezing as Tommaso leaned back in his chair. “Your hands are worn—red, are they not? It’s not the candlelight. You have been working hard.”

“They will heal. I have worked hard before, and when this is all over, there may not be much more work for me,” Tommaso replied, using his whittling knife to chop at a stick. No statuette emerged from the piece of wood—no kore or kouroi—no pursuit of artistry—not even simple geometric design. He simply cut away at the wood, sliver by sliver. The senseless chips fell to the ground, destined to be blown away and dissolved in the wind.

“Tell me, Paolo,” Tommaso began. “Why doesn’t your God do anything? Hm? Why did he not save Nunzia’s father? He was a good man, wasn’t he?”

“He was a very good man,” the priest replied, tentatively, sitting back in his chair. “Why do you think that God ‘did nothing’ as you say, Tommaso?”

“Because there is no God,” Tommaso asserted without hesitation. 

“This is our world,” the priest replied. “And we have to live with it as it is—God performs many miracles, sometimes, and sometimes he does not. I do not know why he does or does not—many good men die, but they are not truly dead. They are rewarded for their goodness and are with Him now. We are left to mourn, but also remember, that they are not gone forever, and we will join them one day in God’s heaven.”

Tommaso remained unmoved. “I did not ask for a sermon—for you to comfort me as though I were a schoolgirl, naïve in her faith.”

The priest laughed and shook his head. “If only we all had naïve faith! Faith like a child—if only. I do not know what you want me to tell you, Tommaso. This is what I believe. Bad and good happen in this world and we cannot control it, we can only mitigate it at times. There will always be bad people making bad choices, but the choice is theirs to make. Sometimes the good have ill fortune, but they are rewarded for their goodness.”

“Another sermon,” Tommaso said. “Paolo! How can you believe all this when there is so much death and unhappiness around you?”

“It helps me to believe all the more, Tommaso,” Giampaolo insisted. “All the more—when will I see you at mass?”

“Not today,” Tommaso smirked. As the priest stood up, his old friend embraced him and landed a hearty slap on his back. 

Just as the priest opened the door to exit the carpentry shop, Tommaso stopped him: “Paolo..”

“Yes, Tommaso?”

“Did you really see angels?”

The priest straightened his eyeglasses and let his firm gaze meet Tommaso’s. 

“Yes, Tommaso. I saw angels.”

Time passed not like sands falling through an hourglass, but like mud: it oozed down from the top to the bottom, mirroring the pace of the town’s continual suffering. It almost felt as though time were suspended, the sun and moon continuing to rotate more from habit than from the natural progression of time. The doctor’s visit to Tommaso was never a favorable portent, and Tommaso prepared himself for more ill news when he saw the doctor’s drawn face coming up to him in the cemetery. Tommaso had finished placing the last shovel-full of dirt into one of the graves he had to dig for the undertaker, who had passed in the epidemic.

“Padre Giampaolo is ill,” the doctor sighed as he placed his hand on Tommaso’s shoulder. 

“Very ill?”

“He will not make it,” the doctor replied. “It is a miracle that you and I have not fallen ill—it is a strange disease. So many deaths. So many widows, widowers, mothers, sons, daughters! What do we have left?”

Tommaso left immediately with as much haste as he could muster. He found Padre Giampaolo alone on his bed, pale and weak with the illness which had drained the sun-stained color from his cheeks.

“Do not take long,” the doctor said, coming in behind him. “I do not want you to fall ill yourself.” The doctor’s eyes had sunk down to his cheeks, the dark bags made all the more noticeable by the pale contour of his skin, which had not seen a minute of sun since the plague began. His profession was an illness of its own.

“If I were meant to catch this disease,” Tommaso replied. “I would have caught it already.”

“Be careful, nonetheless,” the doctor insisted. “This disease has played enough tricks on us already.” Tommaso ignored him, and the doctor closed the door behind him as he left the old friends to reminisce undisturbed. 

Tommaso sat himself down on a chair by the priest’s bed. Padre Giampaolo was wheezing in his sleep, his chest gently waxing and waning, inhaling and exhaling, dripping with hot sweat.

“Father,” Tommaso whispered. He hardly fit in his chair, such was his frame. His shoulders were broad and thick with muscles from having worked wood for long hours. 

“Paolo,” Tommaso whispered. 

Paolo’s eyelids opened just enough to let the light in. The whites around his eyes were a creamish yellow color, and his breath took long pauses, in between which, his twitching fingers would still. Then the trembling and breathing would begin anew, a cycle that could only be broken by recovery or death.

“Paolo,” Tommaso reiterated, his eyes reddening as a tear condensed in the corner of his eye. “What has happened to you, friend? Are you in pain?”

The priest’s movements were so subtle, they could have been missed by even the most attentive onlooker. Tommaso could see the shaking of the priest’s head, however, indicating that he had already moved beyond pain.

“That is good—no pain is good,” Tommaso said, reaching out and clasping his hand on his friend’s arm. Paolo’s archaic smile indicated that his courageous spirit was still holding firm in the face of fear— 

He did not know if saying the obvious was for his friend’s sake or his own, but he did not dwell on his words, but was rather immersed in the present moment.

“You’ve been a good man,” Tommaso whispered, biting his lip. Words were failing him, despite how in these moments, their meaning were more potent. And yet, it was in these same moments that they seemed so much more inadequate. “A very good man, and your God, if he is up there, will reward you.”

Paolo could not reply. His parched mouth pursed slightly, as though he were trying to speak. 

No sound came out. He only continued to breath.

“You will see the angels again, Paolo,” Tommaso said, nodding his head. “Of that I am sure.”

Padre Giampaolo’s breathing paused. Tommaso waited for them to resume. 

“Paolo.”

His arms were stiff. 

“Padre Giampaolo,” Tommaso said again, louder this time, as though the volume of his voice could summon the spirit back into the corpse. He could not restrain his tears. He bit his lip again, waiting for the priest to begin to breath again.

“Goodbye, old friend.”

The service for the town’s priest was held in silence. Very few were able to attend. Not even Nunzia was able to show for the priest. All the women were busy weeping or helping to save the remaining few men who were still ill. Many were recovering. Many had recovered. Many widows had left the town to seek asylum with family connections elsewhere, as far as Sicily or Milan if need be. Many were forced to leave to find work as a seamstress or tutor in the cities. 

Tommaso’s lower lip curled, as though he were to speak out, rage even. Instead, he just leveled the shovel and pour the black dirt back to its place, above the coffin he had built for Padre Giampaolo, who was communing with the angels.

II

Nunzia performed the sign of the cross, the wooden pew creaking as she lifted herself up from her knees. She was not alone, but the clacking of her footsteps against the cold, tile floor echoed off the walls and windows. Once outside, she removed the twilight-colored lace from her head and folded it across her arm. She loosened her hair. The sun was weak as the late summer drowsiness began to weaken against the wakening of winter.

The clouds, too, seemed as though they had lingered for some days not even changing their shape. A bird sang as it bathed itself in the aging cement water fountain in front of the church. The water sifted its way through the brightly-colored feathers of the dancing bird. It shook off the excess droplets and dashed off across the sky towards the town. Nunzia realized then, a smile had spread its way across her face. She brought her fingers up to feel her cheeks, the edges of her mouth piercing into them. 

She saw Tommaso driving a cart back into town. His withered, grey mule, Cannolo, grumbled as it slogged along down the street. 

Nunzia waved to Tommaso from across the town. He did not wave back. Both of his hands were wrapped in white cloths. 

“Tommaso!” Nunzia said, approaching him as he descended from his cart. “Tommaso, I waved, did you not see me?”

“No, Nunzia. I’m sorry,” Tommaso lied, unpacking from his cart the freshly cut wood he had purchased in the next town.

“I have not seen you in a very long time,” Nunzia said. “We have not had a moment together, we have not talked or shared a meal—not even a coffee.”

“I have been busy,” Tommaso replied, curtly. “I have had an offer from one of the estates up in the hills for a whole dining set.”

“That is wonderful news,” Nunzia smiled, the scent of incense gently lifting from her shawl and filling Tommaso’s nose. “Come visit us when you finish your work, for dinner, perhaps.”

“I am sorry, Nunzia. I have no time. Another day, perhaps.”

“Will I at least see you in Mass?” Nunzia asked, biting her lip and twisting her shoulder in hope. Tommaso remained wooden:

“No, you know I do not believe.”

“I thought perhaps—”

“No perhaps,” Tommaso interrupted, his patience having exhausted. “I wrote to the bishop, informing him of what happened to—to Paolo. They will send a new priest soon.”

“Of course, thank you, Tommaso,” Nunzia said, her eyes breaking from him at his outburst. “It was a good thing you did for your friend.”

Tommaso nodded, about to take his leave of Nunzia’s company when she reached forward and lifted up his arms. 

“You wounded yourself on both hands? Tommaso! You’re so clumsy, you usually only hurt one of your hands at a time. You are working too hard!”

Tommaso ripped his hand away from Nunzia. 

“What business is it of yours? A man has to work!”

“Of course, he does,” Nunzia said, swallowing as embarrassment swept over her. “Don’t think I don’t know that! I was only concerned for you. I can wash your wound for you if you wish.”

“I don’t wish. Good day, Nunzia.”

“Good day!” Nunzia spat back, angrily. As Tommaso disappeared into his shop, she muttered: “Scimunito!” 

As she dragged herself back to her house, her mind chewed over their conversation, searching her memory for some twitch or look in Tommaso’s eyes that would allow her to explain his cryptic and defensive behavior. She hoped that even if she could not find a way, that time would.

Time, however, was as powerless against Tommaso’s hermetical withdrawal as she was. The whole town, even (few as there were left) took notice of the strange wrapping of Tommaso’s hands. “He is working himself to death,” they whispered to themselves. “He has not been the same since Padre Giampaolo died.” “They were best friends, you know. He saved the padre when he they were boys.” “He is pale, and he works his hands to the bone! That is why they are so wrapped up.” 

The other question that plagued the town was the missing priest. 

“Tommaso!” they would shout at him from across the street. “When is the new priest to come? Have you heard from the bishop?”

“No!” He would say. 

And that was all. 

Time and time again they would pry him for information, but to no avail. Tommaso even wrote to Rome, informing them of the oversight. No word ever came back. Silent were they ever.

“I need to speak to you,” Nunzia said, the door slamming shut behind her signaling her arrival. 

“Nunzia!” Tommaso shouted. “Stop!” He spun around, grabbing a cloth and wrapping his unwrapped right hand, which he hunched over to keep her from seeing. “Get out! I am working!”

“I need to speak to you! Do not speak to me in such a tone!”

“I do not have time for you!”

“You will make time!” Nunzia yelled. “I need your help, Tommaso!”

Tommaso’s muscles softened as his shoulders fell into his sigh. 

“What is it, Nunzia?”

Nunzia tightened the shawl around her arms and approached his table in the far corner of the workshop. She brushed the sawdust from the chair and sat down opposite him. 

“Well?” Tommaso asked, his foot impatiently keeping an allegro tempo against the floor.

“It’s Giacomo,” Nunzia began. The words she had fermenting inside her were now difficult for her to let free into the air. “Yesterday—Oh Tommaso—Yesterday, he disappointed me so much. He broke one of the stained windows in the church with a stone yesterday! I caught him running home, tears streaming down his cheeks. He tried to suck them up when I saw him, but he couldn’t fool me! He didn’t tell me why he did it, but I know. The whole town is suffering, Tommaso.”

“What do you want me to do?” Tommaso asked, scratching the back of his neck. His eyes avoided Nunzia, preferring to keep fixed on various inanimate objects around the shop. “I have told the whole town I have heard nothing from the bishop or Rome! There is nothing we can do if they do not send a priest!”

“The women are starting to lose their hope,” Nunzia insisted. “They do not pray anymore! I hardly see anyone within the walls—they treat it like an ancient temple, one that has fallen into disuse, one that has been forgotten by time! A temple that means nothing any longer—to anyone—to gods that only existed in their minds! I don’t want that to happen.”

“I cannot help you, Nunzia! Why must you insist?”

“I need help, Tommaso,” Nunzia shouted, grabbing him by the arm. “What has happened to you? You never come to see me anymore. Is it because of Padre Giampaolo?”

“I have had many friends die!” Tommaso grunted, shaking Nunzia away from him. She loosened her grip. “His death was the same to me as my mother’s and father’s and brother’s! In fact, he was my brother! We all die! All of us! Even priests! That is not why—”

“Why what? You know it’s true. You have not been to see me or anyone else in the town! You used to shower your love and respect on everyone—even if you were quiet. We could see you smiling and working, being alive! You have changed so much, Tommaso.”

“That is my business,” Tommaso insisted. “I cannot help you!”

“Tommaso, marry me,” Nunzia said, falling back on the table, trembling. “Marry me.”

“Nunzia,” Tommaso whispered, as he walked away from her still, as though the very proximity to her wounded him. “I can’t.”

“Why not?” Nunzia implored. “That would force us to have a priest and use the church! Maybe it would remind the town of happy times—happier times and we could be alive again! Maybe it would save us, too.” 

“There are no happy times,” Tommaso said, his fingers wrapping around a chair. Nunzia could see them squeezing around the back of the chair. The wood almost snapped beneath the weight of his anger, his frustration, flooding his veins and reddening the inside of his palms. 

“There is only time.”

“There are many happy times,” Nunzia insisted, her voice giving her lightness and as her hope filled her and spirited her away, carrying her over to her Tommaso. The distance seemed insuperable, as though a dark shade, cast by the sun hiding its brilliance. “We’ve had happy times together—do not surrender, do not leave me alone. Help me, Tommaso.”

“I cannot!” Tommaso shouted. “Go, Nunzia!”

“Tommaso!” Nunzia yelled. She did not approach him, nor implore him. She incanted his name as though it were a prayer that could rip the man she knew from times past. 

“Go Nunzia,” Tommaso whispered, his shame pulling him away from her.

“Goodbye, Tommaso.”

Nunzia left his workshop and walked over to the church, she felt as though she were hovering, with no ground beneath her to land on. She leaned her head against its warm stone exterior and listened to the echoes of prayers and all times, good and bad, that seemed to be so securely encased in the crumbling edifice.

The town waited until waiting was no longer a habit at all anymore. Life seemed to crawl onwards without the routine of Masses, baptisms, confessions, or funerals. Whatever few living members of the town were left ceased asking Tommaso about the absence of the priest. Nunzia still religiously prayed every week, lighting candles and replacing them until she found that there were none left. She could not afford to order any, someone had already looted the donation box for candles and stolen the matches. 

Tommaso began writing to Rome every day, urging them to send a priest or bishop, even temporarily. There were no return letters, no replies, nothing that indicated any intent on the part of the Church to remedy the situation. Silence—God’s sacred silence descended on the town, and many, if not most, had already stopped listening for it.

Footsteps bounced off every wall. He slowed himself down so that the echo would be diminished. Only the moon’s residual light illuminated the various corners of the church through its colorfully stained windows. Some of the pews were as bright as day, and others were as dark as storm cloud nights. He did not sit on either side but walked straight up through the middle pews to the crucifix. 

The Christ was suspended by ropes behind the altar, nailed to the sacred cross. It had always looked like wood to him—a dead statue.

“What do you want from me?” he said, his lip trembling violently as he spoke. 

Silence.

“What do you want from me!?” 

His scream echoed endlessly from one stone of the church to the other, as though they were gargoyles mimicking him by repetition. The echoes became whispers and then just a hum. Sound.

He let his hands catch his head, falling with tears into them. His knees felt the hardness of the tile floor as he collapsed in front of the watchful sacrifice.

“Tommaso! I thought it was you!” Nunzia whispered as loudly as she could, closing the door behind her. The closing of the church doors sounded like the sealing of a tomb.

“Nunzia! Go!” Tommaso said, backing up into the altar, a monolithic fear shining radiantly from his eyes. “Leave!”

“Tommaso!” Nunzia shouted, as she fell to her knees before him. “I will not hurt you. I had a dream and woke up. When I looked out the window, I saw you walking towards the church. Something is wrong, tell me! I am here. Speak to me.” She put her hand on his shoulder. Her thumb rubbed his shoulder blade and he felt the walls he had erected between them turn to dust.

“I can’t.”

“Please, Tommaso,” Nunzia said. “Why are you here? Why now, so late? I would have come with you tomorrow.”

“I don’t want to be seen,” Tommaso cried. “I don’t want to be seen.”

“What is wrong?” Nunzia asked. 

“I don’t understand,” Tommaso insisted, as though her words had just sailed over him. “I don’t understand at all.”

“Please, Tommaso.”

“I was out in the fields, sometime after the passing of Paolo. I lay my head back, thinking of our times together. I closed my eyes and thought of you and how I wanted all this to be over—the death—the plague—all the bad times. I thought I felt a peace for a minute, as I always do when the wind passes over me. I feel the bugs on my face and I heard the trees murmuring to each other.”

(Nunzia waited patiently, letting her hand leisurely slip down near his)

“I felt an ant crawling on my hand. It crawled near my thumb, then my wrist. It tickled, and I imagined it was your finger tracing over me, as you do sometimes to excite me. Then, the ant crawled through my hand, and onto the grass.”

Nunzia was paler than the moon, whose light shone down on her, giving light to her features as her beloved huddled scared in the darkness. 

“What do you mean, through? Inside?—Tommaso, speak to me.” 

With heavy breaths, quickening from his fear and the tortured agony of revealing his secret to the one person to whom he wanted to reveal it most, he lifted his hand and let Nunzia unwrap the white cloths. She did so slowly and gently, so as not to hurt him. Her heart pounded as she waited to lock her eyes on the answer to Tommaso’s riddle.

She brought her hand up to her mouth, the tears flooding from her eyes onto her cheeks. She quaked and was struck dumb with awe. 

There was a hole straight through Tommaso’s hand.

“The other is the same,” Tommaso said, after some time had elapsed in silence. Nunzia’s shock was such that only her eyes could move to meet his, and then witness the truth of his words. His other hand, which he unwrapped for her, had the same hole, the same wound, driven through the center of his palm, the width of a nail.

 “My feet are the same,” Tommaso added. “And this.” He lifted his shirt, confidently trusting in her fidelity. It was cathartic to him to finally reveal his burden onto one he loved and could trust. 

He brought her hand to his side. There was a wound there, fresh and raw, but not bleeding. A cut, from where a pilum had been pressed into it. 

Nunzia looked at his hand again, biting her lip. She was almost smiling. 

“Tommaso—it is a sign. A beautiful, wonderful sign.”

“I don’t understand, Nunzia,” Tommaso whispered, calming now as the movement of the moon caused the angle of the light to begin to shine on him as well. She placed her hands on his cheeks and held him steady as he breathed.

“I don’t understand…”






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