by Robert J. Howe
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
The legendary puppet Pinocchio has a name: Tiberio. In his diary, Tiberio recounts his journey out of the dusty village of Orsomarso in Italy’s Mezzogiorno and into the wider world.
He already knows of danger: adults often say one thing when they mean another. Along the way, he learns how to tell the difference between his friends and enemies. He also learns about mountains and streams, and loss.
In his travels, Tiberio must make desperate choices, the meanings of which he struggles to understand. He ultimately faces the truth about who he is, and what it means to be a boy.
Of all the tools father uses to make me, the chisel is the cruelest. Long after he has had his Ciró and retired for the evening, I lie on my bed of shavings, my half-formed body criss-crossed with burning gouges. In the small hours I finally drift into a kind of stupor, my head full of the scent of resin that seeps from the cuts.
He does this because he loves me.
“It is growing pains,” he tells me. “All boys have them.”
And it is true that he otherwise touches me very gently, in a way that makes me feel loved indeed.
Other little boys have mothers, I know from the stories father tells me. But we just have each other, which makes us closer, or so father says as he takes the rasp to my face. When I complain that it hurts, he says it is making me handsome.
* * *
Outside it is high summer. Dark brown buffalo move somnolently like bovine sleepwalkers against the brilliant green grass, and mingled scents of honeysuckle and sweet hay waft through the open window. Inside the cottage it is always the same: dim and stinking of lamp oil, overlaid with the tangy odor of fresh curls of wood carved from my body.
I want to be out there, I tell my father, who nods patiently as he wields the tool. I want to run in green meadows and splash in cold streams, like other boys. Without strings piercing my palms and feet; without the shadow of the traversa over my head. But then I think of my father’s weathered hand, blunt fingers curled lightly around the cross, and the thought of running free makes me sad. To reject my father would break his heart — I can see that in his face and feel it in the pressure of his fingers through the fine-grained sandpaper he uses to caress my features to smoothness.
Still I long to be finished. When I ask him when that will be, he just smiles absently, more intent on my body than my words. I wish he would talk to me; it makes the work easier to bear.
I try to concentrate on the sounds outside the window, imagining myself with the other children at play in the fields and vineyards. Even in my daydreams, however, I can’t see myself as a normal boy. I see myself as the other boys would see me: stiff and expressionless. I don’t know how I would be able to run and play without my father standing above me. For that alone, they would not want me around.
* * *
Constable Gaffore in his dusty tan uniform comes to the house. “If he is a boy, he must be in school,” he tells my father with upraised hands. “I do not make the rules.”
“Impossible!” my father says. “You don’t know what you’re saying. He has never been on his own. Who will hold his strings? Without me there...” he trails off with a look at me. Whatever he was going to say, he has stifled it to spare me. I can see the pain in his face.
Constable Gaffore, despite his protestations that his hands are tied, does not like my father. I can sense that much, though I don’t understand why he should bear my father any enmity. They are of the same age and are even distantly related, as are many people in Orsomarso.
My father continues to protest, and I want to cover my ears to block out the sound of his voice, simultaneously hostile and pleading. “Traduco’s son is older than my boy. He does not go to school.”
“I am not speaking with Traduco, I am speaking with you,” the constable says, his eyes growing hard.
My father begins to speak, but Constable Gaffore cuts him off with a curt gesture.
“Basta! He goes, Gepetto. That is all.”
* * *
I am excited and apprehensive. I must hold my own strings — which is awkward and strange — the first time I have done anything without my father to guide me.
At first the teacher and the other children seem kind. I am assigned a seat and given a primer, other than my hand-sewn clothes, the first things I have ever had that belong to me.
But the stares turn from curious to contemptuous as my first day progresses. At recess I cannot follow my schoolmates in their games, as it takes all of my concentration merely to walk and sit and turn my head.
I envy them their fluid unselfconsciousness, I who must plan every move in advance. I feel their eyes on me as I make my halting way from the schoolhouse door to the bench beneath the old chestnut tree.
“You are old Gepetto’s son,” says Falco, one of the bigger boys in the class.
“Yes,” I say. He and several friends stand around me in the shade of the tree.
“You don’t belong in school. You’re not a real boy.”
“I am a real boy!” I say it with as much conviction as I can, but the boys all laugh at me.
“He can’t be a real boy,” Falco says to his friends, “he doesn’t even have a mother!”
“I have a mother,” I say, and as soon as the words are out of my mouth, I feel something peculiar happening to my face.
The other boys are laughing at me.
“You don’t have a mother,” Falco says, his tone ugly. “You’re a piece of wood that Gepetto stole from the carpenter’s scrap pile.”
“That’s not true,” I say. “My mother is very beautiful. She...”
The boys are staring at me now, but that isn’t what chokes off my words. Not only can I feel something happening to my face, I can see my own nose getting longer.
“What’s wrong with your nose?” Falco says. “You’re a freak of nature, Gepetto’s little bush!”
“I’m not a freak!” I say, but they are all laughing at me and don’t hear.
“Tell us about your mother,” Falco says, drawing out the word for effect. The others snigger behind him.
“Shut up,” I say, though not very forcefully.
Falco shoves me, and I go down in a tangle of limbs and strings. This gets Signore Gioppolo’s attention.
“Get up off the ground,” he says brusquely to me. “No horseplay unless you want to stay inside during recess.”
Behind his back the other boys can barely suppress their glee at my chastisement. When he walks away they are all laughing again.
By the time recess is over, I have a nickname: Pinocchio, “pine eye.” It is an unkind play on my wooden limbs and a slang word for an anus, “knothole.”
“It was the great navigator, Cristoforo Colombo, who proved to us the Earth is round,” Teacher is saying. “His crew was fearful when he sailed to find the new world, afraid they would fall off the edge.”
A smallish boy with ears that stick far out from his head, raises his hand. Teacher tries to ignore the hand.
“But the Captain knew better—”
“Yes, Pietro,” Teacher says.
“Wouldn’t the ancients have known the world was round?”
Signore Gioppolo hesitates. When he finally speaks, there is a weary tone to his voice. “And how would they know that?
“Did they not have ships, the Romans and the Greeks?” Pietro asks.
“Yes, but they never ventured far from the coasts—”
“Yes, but when a ship comes upon another ship at sea, or returns to the Bay of Napoli, for example,” Pietro says, “would not the sailors have wondered why they would see only the tips of the masts at first, or the peak of Etna?”
Signore Gioppolo seems perplexed by the question for a long moment, then waves it away. “You see the top first because it is higher than the rest.”
“Yes, but Signore, why—?” Pietro starts to ask, but Teacher cuts him off.
“What has this to do with the Captain?” he says. He looks at the other students as if inviting them to share a joke. “Are you saying he did not discover the New World? That it doesn’t exist?”
Falco speaks without raising his hand. “Pietro has not discovered how to make water standing up.”
I’m shocked by the boldness of this, but Signore merely smiles benignly. My classmates snigger, once they see no rebuke is forthcoming, and Falco basks. He is clearly one of Signore’s favorites.
The rest of the afternoon grinds slowly by as I try to keep my mind on the lessons. From the corner of my eye, I catch mocking glances and mouthed taunts from my schoolmates who relieve their boredom when Signore Gioppolo is writing on the board.
My father is waiting in the schoolyard when we are dismissed, and I am so exhausted from the strain of the first day, and from working my own strings, that I barely care what the other children will think when he scoops me into his arms to take me home.
After his dinner, my father is seated by the fire with his glass. It is the best time to ask him questions.
“Why don’t I have a mother?”
He looks at me sadly over his vino. “Do I not love you enough?” he says.
“Yes, yes — I didn’t mean that,” I say. “I just wonder why I don’t have a mother.”
“Some boys do not,” he says. “It makes no matter. We are poor, but we have each other.”
I want to tell him about the boys in school, and about my nose — since shrunk back to its usual size — but I can’t find the words in the face of his melancholy.
That evening the bite of the rasp is almost soothing in its familiarity. I lie on my pallet, buoyed upon the comforting scent of resin.
* * *
By the end of the first week, all of the children and even the schoolmaster are referring to me by my nickname. It is not even funny to them anymore, just a matter-of-fact acknowledgment of my inferiority to real boys.
And anyway, there are already uglier taunts sent my way, and physical cruelties. One of the boys takes to throwing fallen chestnuts at the back of my head, the hollow thump making his friends laugh. When I complain to Signore Gioppolo that another boy jerked my strings, causing me to drop my primer in a puddle, he tells me that I must learn to get along with the other children.
“No one likes a tattletale, Pinocchio,” he says to me. It is clear he means that he does not like a tattletale. He does not like me.
When I finally tell my father, he says I will find my way among the other boys; I should just ignore their taunts. He tells me about his own boyhood, during which he had to put a bully in his place with fists more than once. When I protest that he was a real boy and I am not, my father has no response but a pained expression. After a while I can’t bear to see the sadness in his eyes, and I stop talking about school altogether.
Another strange thing is the clothes. Before I started attending school, I only wore my one homemade suit on the infrequent occasions we had visitors. It seemed completely natural to go naked otherwise.
Now, more and more, I am uncomfortable without my clothes. When I say so to my father, he points out that I have only the one set, which I must save for school.
“Why can’t I have another set?” I ask. “The other boys have different clothes every day.”
“We are poor,” my father says, looking stricken. “You know that. Why would you ask me such a thing?”
I am instantly ashamed for having hurt my father’s feelings. I wish I were a real boy, so that I would not be so selfish and ungrateful.
* * *
On Friday something different happens. After recess, Signore Gioppolo leaves the room and is replaced by Sister Antoinetta. She is a nun who lives in the convent on Via Dolorosa, and she has come, as she does every week apparently, to teach us about Jesus.
I have seen nuns in the village, especially at the market on Saturdays, long black habits covering everything but their faces. But this is the first time I have been able to look at one up close. Sister is a little frightening: her voice isn’t easy, like Signore Gioppolo’s, and the other boys do not call out or make little jokes as they do with him.
She calls me by my right name, Tiberio, which causes the beginning of a titter to ripple through the room. The giggles are stifled instantly, however, by Sister’s icy look.
Most of the talk about Jesus goes past me, but I cannot look away from Sister. Her directness is a little frightening. So much conversation in the village, even the most trifling, is elaborate circumlocution. “How are your figs, Signore?” “Ah, the rain, you know — too much or too little.”
I listen attentively, my eyes riveted to the ruddy oval of Sister’s face framed by the veil and wimple. I am terrified she will call on me and that I will be shamed in front of my classmates, but though she sends several glances my way, she does not ask me any questions.
Despite my difficulty in following the lesson, the afternoon speeds by. When class is dismissed at 3 o’clock, Sister tells me to stay in my seat. The look in her eye is frank, as if she is deciding what to do with me. “You’re Gepetto’s boy,” she says after a moment.
I nod, wondering at the “boy” part.
“Do you like school?”
I shake my head.
“The others tease you.” Not a question. “Have you learned anything this week?”
On the spot, I search for some tidbit to satisfy her, but nothing comes to me. Since that first day, all I have done is sit in my chair and worry.
Without me saying anything she seems to understand.
“Starting Monday, you will come to the convent after school,” she says finally. “We will teach you.”
* * *
Copyright © 2018 by Robert J. Howe