Pigeons were everywhere, strutting and flapping and bullying their small. None on David, though. Not a single dropping plastered his hair, or roped down over his muscular shoulders. Back home, Lafayette and George Washington had crap all over them. It made the boy wonder if he ever wanted to be important. Italian birds probably didn’t respect major statuary any more than American ones did. Somebody must be cleaning David up.
So what made a kid fight a giant? A dare? Wicked boredom? Orders from God? You didn’t just walk up to somebody huge and whip a rock into his head. Where were his parents? Was it okay indulging in mortal combat as long as you got back before dark? The boy stared up at the mammoth figure, its head in line with the tower above. The clock said eleven. How old he’d in six weeks. By then, though, he’d be back home again. Back to ordinary. Looking up hurt his neck, made him dizzy. Who looked more like a real David now, here? Would he ever peg a rock at some guy it hurt him to stare up at?
Nobody in Sunday School ever mentioned David fought naked. Maybe he figured Goliath wouldn’t take a naked boy too seriously, not even a naked boy built like a professional wrestler. Big mistake. Maybe, in fact, it was because David had his privates hanging out like that that the pigeons stayed away. The boy thought about it and smiled. But he doubted it. So, what would be worse? Standing out in a public square with bird crap all over you – or being out there crap-free with your thing cooling in the breeze? Maybe it was better just being an ordinary kid.
The long sweep of stone belly reminded him of the painting yesterday in the museum, the one of the baby Jesus and his mother with the saints on either side. St. John was on the left, with a red robe on. He was staring at his finger, like he’d just touched some wet paint – or maybe blood. St. Sebastian was on the right. He had arrows sticking into him, just like the picture in Paris, but here there were only two of them. So far. One was in his arm, the other in his neck. He hardly seemed to notice, like they weren’t any more bother than a couple of mosquitoes. His belly skin was like David’s, only Sebastian was wearing something slung low on his hips. It looked like he’d wrapped a long dresser scarf around himself, or maybe a priest’s stole, then shoved it down about as far as he could without showing off the family jewels. Like David. St. Sebastian was looking up to the left, like he’d just noticed a gecko or something frozen on the ceiling, or maybe a chunk of plaster falling away. So was Jesus. The boy’s father, who taught these things in college, said their glances were a way the artist had of showing that both of them would die for God. He remembered other paintings, of Jesus grown up – a beard He had then – with a spear running into his side and water flowing out. Like He was a human cactus or something. Stuck and gushing. Answering the Call.
The Ponte Vecchio was like London Bridge in the song, except it still stood there whole, even after hundreds and hundreds of years. Boat-shaped piers kept it safe as the muddy river sheared past, boiling in big wakes, side-by-side, downstream. A sort of Noah’s Ark for shoppers! Of all the jumbled little stores, the boy liked the leather workers’ best. Behind the creaking glass door huddled pungent stacks of handbags, boxes, wallets, bookmarks, briefcases, belts; all sizes, all shapes; fabulous colors glowing deeply; ornate patterns pressed from gold foil. They could stamp your initials into anything. Where there was stitching, it was so fine you could barely see it, like elves did all the work while David gleamed out there in the midnight moon. Where things had tops, they fit so snugly they were hard to close. He held them right up to his ear so he could hear the air sigh out. The scent of the leather was sharp and dry, a little like cork, but finally like nothing but itself. Precious as . . . myrrh. You could buy the smell of the place in tiny portions, inside every box, along every fold, but who knew how long the perfume would last back home, when the radiators came on for the winter or somebody started cooking fish or Brussels sprouts? Deep in the shop, with his back to the narrow window, hunched the oldest of the leather workers. Il Maestro. He worked on a box with six sides, each of them perfectly like the others. Out of the glow of his hooded lamp he peered up at the boy. When he grinned, his cheek scrunched and the boy could see past a corner of the stiff leather patch, back into where an eye used to be. From the bright glint of the other, he knew the missing eyeball had once been blue as the Virgin’s mantle, and white as David’s marble thing. The old man was humming something just at the edge of the boy’s hearing. Master of skin. Geppetto of containers. His father said shops like this could almost be “mid-evil.” They still took apprentices.
Serafina barely fit with the family into their tiny, puke-green Ford. Her hipbone pinched the boy’s leg as he straddled the hump in the back seat. For two weeks they’d stayed at the pensione on the road up to Fiesole, while his father studied in the gallery down in the city. Every day, Serafina cleaned their room – and every day she left two tangerines in a clean ash-tray for him and his sister. Mandarini. He’d taken to eating his right before bed, while he soaked his feet in warm water, leaching out the winter chill. Waiting her turn at the basin, his sister read aloud from Peter Pan. She was fifteen. It took her back, she said. Sometimes he peeled her fruit for her, handing over a piece at a time. He had to pull off every one of the crawly white threads left by the peel or she wouldn’t read on. “Spider webs,” she called them. Nights their parents were out of the room, they pinched the peels double next to a lit match and watched the oil flare up like July sparklers. Come morning, the tart scent still lingered in the stickiness between the boy’s fingers.
The village where Serafina’s family lived was twenty miles south of the city. Their road turned to dirt just outside the cobbled town square. Well before they reached the house, backed up against a skinny row of cypresses, the boy grew tired of laughing at all the ruts and bumps. As the car crunched into the door-yard, two men stepped over the fence from the fields across from the low farmhouse. They wore flat caps, short wool jackets, high rubber boots. Both of them had shotguns slung over their shoulders. One swung a black bag. It was that size it could have held somebody’s head. Its contents were more lumpy, though. They were Serafina’s brothers.
Her mother and father greeted the family at the entryway, their faces pink in the morning chill. They led them down a dark hall past closed doors and back into the smoky kitchen. There was no glass in the sole window, only green shutters thrown open to admit the weak January sunlight. When they’d sat down on the benches flanking the table in the middle of the room, Serafina’s mother shoveled coals from the open hearth into a huge copper pot and slid it under the table, in between her guests’ feet. Paisan radiator. If he weren’t next to the open window, the boy thought, he might have suffocated on the smoke that nuzzled up between his knees. As it was, it was hard to choke back the coughs. Across the table, he could see his sister’s eyes watering above her stiff company smile. His parents, both smokers, didn’t seem to mind.
There was spaghetti for a starter, almost enough, the boy was glad, to fill up on. The main course was dozens of tiny birds that had come out of the brothers’ sack, each of them skewered and roasted over the grate until they were charred black – heads and feet and all.
“Uccellini,” trilled Serafina, as though the word itself were delicious.
“Little birds,” translated his mother. “A hunter’s delicacy.” She signaled with her eyebrow. Be a big boy.
She’d talked to him again about being polite, trying everything. Being an “ambassador.” But he could see how much it bothered even her to do as Serafina did – crunch the little heads whole, beak and brains and all – even if she grinned so wide after the first one that you could see the charcoal sticking to her teeth. Com’ é delizioso! The boy lifted his fork and nudged one of the tiny, stick-legged corpses across his plate. It was too crisp even to leave a trail. His mother stopped chewing and raised a hand to her lips, pretending to cough. He heard a little clink as she dropped a piece of shot stealthily onto her plate. She smiled around the table, then looked at him and gave her head a little shake. He took a few bites of boiled potato, then laid down his fork and knife and folded his hands in his lap.
When he could stand the smoke no longer, he told his mother he had to pee. There was no bathroom inside. One of Serafina’s brothers led him out to the back wall of the house and casually unbuttoned himself. The man did his business quickly, but it wasn’t until he’d finished and stepped back to light his pipe that the boy felt he could go, too. Something made him want to aim high, splashing the yellow stucco as far up as he could reach. But the man was right there, puffing on his pipe, waiting to go back in to the kitchen.
On their last trip up to Fiesole, clouds hung thickly on the hills. The boy’s father had to take some lecture slides of the monastery of San Francesco, so he’d arranged for a family tour. A round little man in a grey robe stood at the gate to meet them, fiddling with an end of his belt rope. He already knew their name. The top of his head was shaved bare and, even though the morning was bitter, he wore open leather sandals without any socks. They were hardly through the portal when the man bent down to the boy.
“I live in Boston once. You know Boston?” His eyes were bright blue.
The boy nodded.
“Your papa say you want to ring the bell. You want to ring the bell?”
The boy looked at his mother.
“Sure he does,” said the father. “He loves church bells.”
“All kinds of bells, actually,” added the mother. “And sirens. And horns. Any kind of major signal, really. Whatever.” She tittered and her daughter rolled her eyes.
“Good,” said the little man. “You like to ring our bell, then?”
The boy nodded.
“I think just as long as he’s not surprised, he’ll be fine,” said the mother.
“Surprised?” asked the friar. His sandals scraped on the flagstones as he turned to face her..
“In Siena. At the duomo, you know? We were going up the campanile just short of the hour? He was afraid all those bells – there’re so many bells, and huge ones too – and he was afraid they’d start ringing. While he was up there and all.”
The friar studied the boy closely.
“We’d heard they were very, very loud,” the mother explained.
“Like Judgment Day,” said the father. “DIES IRAE,” he bellowed. He was loud enough that a young couple walking by picked up their pace noticeably.
“Dies illa,” the friar echoed softly. “Bong, bong, bong.”
“So he ran back down,” the mother continued. She nodded pleasantly and patted the boy on the head.
“Oh, ho,” chortled the friar. “I see. How you say? Careful little fellow? Or, maybe, stubborn little fellow, too?”
He smiled at the boy. The boy stared back at him.
“Well, you know, the bell tower in Siena is very, very high,” the friar went on. “Veramente. Here, though, we ring the bell from the ground. It’s very okay!” He reached out and patted the boy on top of his head. “Such hairs you have. Come along.”
They visited the chapel and the library, with the father snapping photos as they went. With every flash, the friar giggled and grinned. “Oooh!” he squeaked, as though someone were goosing him. After he’d showed them the dormitory where he and the other brothers slept – simple, cold cells, each with a bed, a table, a shelf, and a crucifix – he turned to the boy. “So, you want to be a monk? You want to ring the bell?” He looked at the parents and chuckled. “Come along, then. Come along.”
As they walked into the cloister, they heard a commotion out in the center of the garden. Five or six brothers huddled around the base of a fruit tree, looking up. The tops of their bronzed heads looked like blank potatoes, it occurred to the boy – ready for someone to stick in all the plastic noses and eyes. Ten feet above them, two more friars struggled upwards in the tree, their sandals scrabbling on the slick branches. Their robes were hiked up. Even from a distance, the boy could see thick hair curling around their ankles and calves. One of them was standing on his own waist rope, which quivered like a bowstring as he strained to climb.
“Ah,” snorted the friar. “The cat. See the cat? It is high up in the tree, and they try to get him down, no? How funny it is.”
The boy smiled politely.
“He loves cats,” said the mother.
“Good,” said the friar, winking at her. “Perfetto. So, we go to the bell now. You want to ring the bell? You want to be a monk? Come along. Come along.” For the first time, he grabbed the boy’s hand. The father and mother smiled at each other as the little man towed their son along like a double-tailed kite. The girl saw the look on her brother’s face and glared at her parents.
Beneath the bell tower, a stout rope hung down through a hole in the wooden ceiling. The friar went over to a cleat on the wall and detached the pull, walking it back towards the boy.
“Here you are, fratellino mio. A little pull won’t hurt. A little ‘ding-a-dong,’ yes? ‘Bong, bong.’” He looked at the father, who nodded. “People think it’s . . . maybe our most new brother. He just practice. Jump up high and hold on tight,” he coached. “I think you just fat enough.” The little man slapped his own stomach and laughed. “But, you know, look out the rope don’t pull you up through the hole, eh? Zippa-zoop. You stay with us forever then! No?” He turned to the parents and roared. The boy took a step back. The friar’s eyes bulged with anticipation. “Come, now. Ring the bell. Don’t you want to ring the bell? Don’t you want to be a monk? You ring.” He waved the pull temptingly, twisting it into a sinuous kink. “Come now, sonny.”
“No,” the boy said firmly, glowering at the worn rope like it was the Serpent itself.
“Honey,” said his mother. “Ring the bell for the nice man. You know you want to.”
“No I don’t,” said the boy
“Frankie,” said the father. “Mind your manners.”
“No, thank you,” said the boy.
“I don’t know what’s gotten into him,” the mother cooed to the friar. “Really! He was so keen on doing it.”
The friar smiled. “That’s okay. Really.” He bent again and peered into the boy’s eyes. “Perhaps you come back then, eh? When you feel more ready?”
“We’re leaving Italy tomorrow,” said the boy. “We’re Americans. We’re not even Catholics.”
His sister laughed gently. “It’s okay, Frankie. You don’t have to be a monk.”
“I know,” said the boy. “Not ever, right?”
T. L. Reed
* * * * *
T. L. Reed teaches English Literature at Dickinson College in Carlisle. His fiction has appeared in literary journals in both the United States and England. Stimulated by a reader who looked for more “narrative momentum” in “Come Along,” Reed observes, “I think if there’s a narrative momentum here (and I hope there is), it's to be found in the way kids will often carry half-formulated concerns through a whole range of fairly random experiences and then, somewhere completely unpredictable, their psychic lives will reach quirky little climaxes – muddling little ‘defining moments’ that that mix triumph and failure in equal measure and that, ironically, any adults hanging around rarely seem to realize are even happening. ‘What was all that about?’ they might ask, a best, when it’s all over. ‘Come Along’ tries to get at an answer or two.”