Madonna

Issue #167

Many have asked how the Child Pope and I, boys that we were at the beginning of it all, first met the Sienese girl Caterina, that she might become our companion and friend on the long journey to that cold, northern lake. After all, had she not joined us, we would not have had the power to defeat the Drinkers of Blood on that lake’s shores and, by our victory, end their dark communion before it reached all of Christendom. The Oldest Drinker—born on the same night as our Lord fifteen centuries ago, his first drink not milk but blood—and living even then in the shadows of Rome—would certainly have prevailed.

The minstrel who found me on the wharf one night in my fishing village, carrying word from the father I had never seen, certainly did not mention a girl. He said only that I must find the Child Pope Bonifacio, who had been hidden on the windy Island of Elba by his uncle, the Cardinal Vocassini; and that from this boy no older than I obtain the holiest water in the land. I was, the minstrel insisted, the emissary of La Compassione’s spirit to the world, whether I knew it or not; and, as my body changed to serve her, I was essential to any hope for the Drinkers’ defeat. I would (he explained) need the holy water not only for what would occur at that lake but also to save those who mattered to me most on my hurried journey to the lake’s icy waters.

I did as I was told. I took what the minstrel gave me: the pouch of florins, the tiny glass vials for the holy water, and on its leather cord the tooth of a great beast. I also took my beloved dog Stappo—big and ugly though he was. At Elba’s abandoned monastery the Child Pope Bonifacio and I barely escaped a monstrous Drinker that had once been a priest, reaching the mainland again only by the blessings and winds of La Compassione.

We did not know what to do next. If we traveled north at night, the Drinkers would find us. Surely they sensed our importance to their fate. Would my rash, and the light that turned my skin into a blinding sun when a Drinker was near, be enough to save us from more than one Drinker? Yet if we traveled by day, we might be captured by the soldiers of the Medici, whose territory this was, or by the interloping mercenaries of the Venetian Doge, who wanted Bonifacio for his own political machinations.

When, as we headed north in sunlight, we were nearly captured by the Doge’s men, we turned south instead, and, hiding in olive groves, culverts, and tall wheat, began toward Siena—whose walls, we told ourselves, might protect us from both the Drinkers and the soldati of two states while we re-thought our journey north.

Had we not turned south that day we would not have met Caterina.

When we reached Siena’s great walls at last, we sat down on the earth far from the main road and caught our breath. Before too many minutes had passed, Stappo appeared with the moldiest piece of bread we had ever seen. Bonifacio closed his eyes as if to escape an alimentary nightmare, and I sighed, but we both praised Stappo and took the bread. Hunger was hunger, and weakness was not a blessing for any human on the run.

Despite the crowds on the road entering Siena, the night passed without boot steps or inhuman wailing in the darkness around us. Whether the latter was because of the vials of holy water within whose circle we slept, Stappo with us, or simply that the Drinkers had not found us yet, we did not know; nor did it, for the moment, matter. What mattered was that we lived to arise the next morning at first light, gather up the vials, eat the remaining bread (spitting out green pieces that tasted like metal), take two drinks from a spring near a gully and prepare to enter the city along with the teeming hordes arriving for the races.

“I have never seen a dirtier pope,” I said to my new friend. He was indeed dirty. Bonifacio had abandoned his satin gowns on Elba and donned a camicia, a vest and red leggings that made him, chubby as he was, look like an odd fruit. His hands belied his clothes. They were, even with earth smeared on them, as pink as his cheeks. Nor did his imperious scowl, something he had adopted from the adults of his world—the cardinals and tutors, not a single woman among them—fit the paesano he needed to be.

“And I have never seen a dirtier emissary,” he answered pompously, feigning insult. “Though of course neither of us has seen more than one of the other.”

Stappo for some reason looked clean, which made us feel even dirtier.

“Dogs have useful tongues,” Bonifacio pointed out, “while human beings need to bathe.”

“Our dirt will help us, I think,” I said.

“I certainly hope so.”

We indeed fitted into the crowds at the gate. It was Palio, after all, and travelers were filling the roads into the city, riding on horses and carts or simply walking to the city’s iron gates. As we joined the crowd, no one looked at us in curiosity, as if to say, “Why were those boys walking by the wall instead of the road?” Many had already imbibed enough celebratory uva to paralyze a horse, and people either nodded at us with bleary looks or ignored us completely. Who would imagine that two boys and a dog were going to the Palio to hide from the soldiers of two city-states, and, worse, from inhuman creatures few people this far from Rome believed even existed.

The Palio—the horse race in honor of the Madonna of Provenzano—was a fourteen-day affair. If our calculations were right, this should be the twelfth day and the fourth of the qualifying races. The seventeen neighborhoods of the city—the “quarters,” the contrade—would be celebrating. The ten neighborhoods chosen to compete this year would be celebrating with particular enthusiasm and would be the best to hide in. People would be eating day in and day out in the open. The horses would be receiving the official blessing of priests. The standard-bearers that represented each quarter would be practicing their tricks, tossing their great flags with their neighborhoods’ emblems into the air and catching them until they got it right. The race itself, in which even a horse that had lost its rider could win, would be in two days.

“What day should we leave?” Bonifacio asked when no one could hear.

“I am not sure, Bonifacio. If we leave before the final race, the roads will be empty and we may look suspicious. We should leave when everyone else is leaving.”

“Do the celebrants leave all at once?”

“I do not know. There are of course festivities after the race, and much drunkenness, according to our village priest, Father Tamillo, who does not approve of excessive drinking but cannot disapprove of a race in honor of the Madonna of Provenzano. But to answer your question, there may be a time when more leave than not. We will have to watch for it.”

“We will be safe in the neighborhood we choose to hide in?”

“We will have to be careful, Your Holiness. Father Tamillo told us that sometimes neighborhoods try to poison one another’s horses—even the riders—and we do not want to be taken for poisoners or spies. We must be pretend to be, I would think, relatives of a family in the quarter we choose.”

“Yes, that would be sensible. You say each neighborhood has a design. Perhaps we should carry that design on our persons and act exceedingly passionate about it.”

“We may have to steal those designs.”

“God will forgive us.”

“You are certain?”

“Yes, I am certain.”

“You are the pope.”

“Yes, I am the pope, but He would forgive you just the same.”

“That makes me happy.”

“If you are afraid of God at the moment, it is only that you are tired. We both need sleep. And where will we do that, Emissary?”

“That could be tricky, Bonifacio. Sleeping in the Piazza di Campo will not work because that is where the soldiers, and any townspeople working for them, would look. That is where those not from the neighborhoods—from outside the city—would sleep on the clay the horses run on, or on hay placed there for both horses and travelers. Sleeping on the street within a quarter would make us too visible. And we do not know anyone we might stay with—inside a home—in any of the neighborhoods.”

“Then perhaps we need to meet someone—someone with a home.”

“I was thinking that exact thing myself, Bonifacio, and, since Stappo always knows what it is that we are supposed to do, I imagine that he, ugly though he is, was too.”

I had never seen so many people, and certainly not so many drunk and happy people. The streets and alleys were full of them. The Piazza di Campo overflowed with them. Everywhere was food, drink, dancing, hugging, drunk men and women falling down, slightly less drunk friends picking them up and laughing, children running, dogs barking. Most of these of course were the carefree spectators, those who had come from distant towns for the race and for whom the only serious matter was the betting. The contrade were celebrating, too, but would be doing it in the neighborhoods themselves, not out in the Piazza or main streets; and they would, drunk or not, be much more serious. There was much at stake. The honor and pride of each quarter. The year-long blessing of the Madonna to the quarter that won. The pride of the entire city, whose horse race was in fact called “the portrait of the Madonna.” Some of the most serious men might indeed poison a horse or cripple a rider for such rewards, even if no Madonna could possibly condone it.

“How will we know what neighborhood to choose?” Bonifacio asked as we jostled our way through the crowd.

“If Stappo fails to tell us, we will still know.”

It was true. As we passed from the Tortoise Neighborhood—with its central fountain and its marble tortoise spewing water from its gaping beak—a different emblem appeared on doorways, and we stopped. Stappo, at my side, was whining.

The new emblem was a seashell. A scallop. A pettine. And there, to our right, above the fountain in this new neighborhood’s square, was the same seashell but as big as a shield, carved from white marble. Water flowed from the shell, filling the fountain, and the shell’s rays were like a sunrise, one that might save the world if the world would only let it.

The rash on my arms and legs was tingling, but not in the way it did when a Drinker was near. I did not understand, but I knew I should listen. La Compassione, I had learned, had so many ways of speaking, though never with words.

I couldn’t look away from the scallop.

“This one,” I said.

Bonifacio laughed. “Why am I not surprised, Emissary?”

“What do you mean?”

“A divine sign, is it not?”

He was, I knew, thinking of his seashell collection—the one he’d shown me proudly on Elba—though a scallop was a clam, and clams were not snails, and his collection was rare “left-handed” snails, which he loved because (he explained) they were as different from others of their kind as he often felt from other boys. “Have you not always felt this way, too, Emilio?” I had nodded.

“Yes,” I answered.

Bonifacio beamed. “A pope who collects mollusks and an emissary from a fishing village whose skin has always been irritated by salt water. What a pair of travelers! And how perfect a scallop is for them!”

I was nodding. Bonifacio was saying, “That fountain’s water is not salty,” and before I knew it I had walked through the crowd to the fountain, climbed in, and was sitting in the cool water, my burning skin murmuring its gratitude.

Soon I was in a dream. People in the square had stopped and were gawking at me, but I was no longer there, in an old city called Siena. I was in a great, cold lake, swimming, my skin cool, no longer tingling, blue sky and snow-covered peaks above me. My father was close by, calling to me with a cornamusa, a little bagpipe just like the one the minstrel had played on the wharf to call me to him. I was swimming with other great creatures like me, and there were other men playing cornamuse on the shore, calling them as well. I was happy to be there at last. I was happy to see my father’s face on the shore and know he loved me.

“Emilio!” a voice called from somewhere.

The cold lake water parted around me like a song as I swam.

“Emissary!” the voice said again, anxious, stern. I could hear other voices too, shouting too, unhappy, hostile.

When I opened my eyes, the little square was packed with people, everyone staring at me disapprovingly, some heckling with Sienese epithets, others calling for the city’s guards to remove me from their fountain.

A horse snuffled.

I could not but blink. There, only a few strides away from me, was a horse and rider, both decorated with the blue and white silk of the scallop emblem. The rider was a boy perhaps a year or two older than I, the horse a beautiful brown creature. The boy gazed down at me while attendants, decorated with the same emblem, fussed at the flanks of the horse, and behind them stretched the citizens of this contrada in a procession that had now come to a complete standstill.

I could not tell whether the rider was smiling or frowning. There was an odd expression—though not an unkind one—on his face, and his riding cap, which would keep his hair from his eyes when he raced, seemed large, too big for his head.

He stared at me, head cocked as if in a question, but said nothing.

I looked down at my arms and legs and saw what I had not expected: Though my rash, reddish blue and scaly as it always was, was no longer itching, there was more of it—much more. It had spread on my arms and legs even as I sat in the fountain dreaming.

A tall man rushed toward me from the procession.

“What is the meaning of this?” he shouted, spittle on his lower lip. “This is desecration!”

A priest followed behind the man; but rather than shouting along with him about desecration and other offenses, he simply looked back and forth between Bonifacio and me, as if trying to understand something.

“Call the city’s guardie!” the tall man was saying. He grabbed my arm.

As he did, the patches of rash on my arm grew hot again and the man jerked back as if burnt. But because this made no sense to him—that a boy’s skin might burn him—-he responded in the only way he could:

“This boy is ill!” he cried. “Look at his skin! He defiles our fountain!”

The priest had stepped forward to stand between me and the tall man and three other men who had joined him, all of them quite incensed. The priest was of course looking at me but also at the rider, as if more interested in what the rider was feeling than anything else.

Who was this rider—that a priest would be so interested in a boy’s reaction?

The rider was dismounting. He was a thin boy, a little taller than both Bonifacio and I, with a sharp nose, and hair in the Tuscan style, almost to his shoulders. His hands, though roughened by a rider’s training, had long delicate fingers; and there was something odd about him, I thought, though when I looked at Bonifacio I saw nothing in his manner that suggested he agreed.

The four angry men parted to let the rider approach the fountain. When he reached it, he looked down at me with the same expression—neither frown nor smile—and said simply, “We would ask that you remove yourself from our fountain.”

The rider’s voice had cracked once as he spoke, and sounded low for one his age. Perhaps, I told myself, he was older than he seemed and was simply becoming a man. A boy’s voice must change.

I obeyed, inspecting again at the new rash on my arms and legs.

“Are you ill?” the rider asked matter-of-factly, glancing at the priest. The priest looked back without expression.

“No,” I answered, feeling my face grow hot as I did. “It is only an irritation. Fresh water relieves the discomfort.”

“Enough talk!” the tall man said. “Summon the guardia. These boys are not Nicchio. They may be Tartaruga or Leopardo. How are we to know? If they so willingly despoil our fountain, they might just as easily despoil our food.”

“I am certain it does,” the rider was saying to me, ignoring the man, “but does your fresh water have to be our fountain?”

“No. I am sorry.”

A guard from the Piazza was approaching.

The rider, who had, I felt certain, almost smiled at me, was looking again at the priest, who had been listening intently and now stood by the rider and whispering in the boy’s ear.

The rider nodded, turned to the four irate men, and said: “That will not be necessary, Tomaso. Father Salemi has recognized these two boys as fourth cousins of the Borsinis. They are from Terranova and of no threat, even though their behavior be rude.”

The four men grumbled, deprived of their mission. The rest of the procession was losing interest and moving back to their apartments to prepare for the next neighborhood event.

“The procession,” the rider said, turning back to me, “is over for the day, ragazzo, and our horse has been blessed.” He was looking at Bonifacio now.

The priest whispered again into his ear.

“Our priest, who is rarely wrong, feels that I approve of you,” the rider said quietly to Bonifacio and me, “and his feeling is right.” Again, the boy’s voice cracked, as if he were struggling with it; and again, I felt an oddness from him. “He is right because when I first saw you both I felt you posed no threat to our contrada; and so we must, if we are to behave as the Madonna would have us behave—especially at this time of the year—welcome you as guests. I did utter a falsehood to those who would remain suspicious and less than hospitable, but you are indeed our cousins in spirit if not in physical fact. You may stay with my father and me. Our abode is down that alley.”

Why had the boy lied to the procession—to the citizens of his neighborhood? Why had the priest collaborated in the lie? And why would a priest care so much about what the boy felt?

There was, I knew, more than one thing the rider was not telling us, but to press for it, I also knew, would not become the guests of any contrada.

The apartment was much bigger and brighter than the one I had grown up in with my mother, whose evening visitors—unmarried or unfaithful men of the village—had made it seem even smaller. While Bonifacio followed the rider into it, Stappo and I stopped at the doorway and waited.

The rider looked back at us, stopping too.

“Thank you for the courtesy,” the rider said. “I am afraid your dog must remain outside. My father is sick, and dogs upset him even when he is well. He was bitten when he was a boy and, because he lives now more in his childhood than in the present, he fears dogs as much as a child would. We also need a good guard dog for our alley, and yours certainly has the weight and teeth for it, does he not?”

The rider looked at Bonifacio for a moment.

“Were you bitten by a dog, too? You step away when the dog nears you. It is a subtle thing—something that most would not notice—but my father, when he could still walk, did the same thing.”

“Yes,” Bonifacio answered, his own voice cracking a little, too. “I was bitten when I was five years of age. I still carry the scars.” He rolled up his sleeve to show what the four longest teeth had done to his forearm.

This clearly surprised the rider—not that Bonifacio had scars but that he was so willing to show his body to a stranger. The rider looked at Bonifacio and said slowly: “How painful it must have been.”

“At the time, yes. They do not bother me now.”

The rider was nodding with the faintest of smiles, amused as he probably was by the forthrightness of this boy who looked so silly in his leggings and did not act or sound like a peasant at all.

Bonifacio did not seem bothered by the smile. He liked the attention, I knew.

“Thank you,” the rider said at last. “This helps me understand better my father’s fear.”

I told Stappo to remain outside, and when he had lain down, I entered the apartment and shut the door.

As I turned to face the rider, he said: “My name is Gian Felice Rottini. I have ridden in the Palio for five years now, and I was the winner for the city’s Madonna the last two years, finishing last year with an arm broken in two places and the year before that with a broken collarbone.”

He pulled his sleeve up, and there was the bony protrusion proving it.

“But none of this should surprise you, cugini. As you must know, all Sienese are willing to suffer such travails of flesh and bone, not to mention mind and spirit, for the Madonna and for the honor of our neighborhoods and families and city.”

The rider’s tone was not bragadoccio but only what he felt we should know, guests that we were.

“My father rode when he was younger, and his father and his two uncles before him. We have always known good horses and good riders, our family, as you will see if you look at the list posted in the Piazza. I had a sister, too....”

The rider paused, and I thought it odd—mentioning a sister suddenly, out of the blue.

“She ran away with a young man from Capperchio, and who knows where they are. It was a sad thing, but the human heart, when it is not in the service of God, does many sad things....”

The rider had become contemplative, even wistful. What a strange boy this was. Bonifacio was staring at him, too. Something about the words “in the service of God” had made him look at the rider hard. Did Bonifacio, because he was pope, hear more in those words than I could?

“But our neighborhood, Il Nicchio, does not pass judgment on the children of God, for that is for God to do, though God, in his love, passes judgment not at all, leaving—”

“—leaving,” Bonifacio interrupted suddenly, as if quoting someone, “mortals to judge themselves and make of those judgments ‘sins’ which God, in His eternal compassion, need not forgive—for they are not real. For ‘sin’ is but a mistake which—“

“—the truth,” the rider finished for him, “can correct simply by being the truth, if mortals will forgive both God and themselves....”

It was the rider’s turn to stare now. Who was this dirty boy who quoted heretical teologia too? I wished Bonifacio had remained silent.

And yet what the rider himself had said was not, I knew, what a boy from Siena, a rider in the Palio, or any boy from any city—except perhaps a Child Pope—would say either.

Who was this rider?

“You are not,” he said suddenly, using the plural you, “who you appear to be—either of you.”

I said nothing. Bonifacio remained silent.

“And that is exactly what I felt when I first saw you.”

Stepping to Bonifacio so suddenly that the Child Pope startled, he took Bonifacio’s arm and held it out for us to see.

“This is not the skin of a commoner,” the rider said. “These hands have never dug dirt or hammered iron or fished. And you, his friend, have both the hair of the devil—though I do not believe in such superstitions—and a rash that makes you need to sit in fountains to feel relief. You are not going to tell me who you are—of that I am certain—but you can at least tell me your given names, so that I might feel your truths within them.”

Feel your truths within them? What did this mean?

“I am Bonifacio,” Bonifacio said with a sigh, because he knew he must. The rider was still holding his arm, and Bonifacio did not wish a struggle.

“And I am Emilio.”

“You are fleeing from someone?” the rider asked.

“Yes,” I answered.

“May I ask from whom?”

“Soldiers.”

“I would, were this an ordinary day and you ordinary boys, answer that of course you are fleeing soldiers, or guards, or property owners—someone—because you have no doubt stolen something or injured someone. But not when your friend’s skin is so white and smooth, and he walks like a prince....”

“We have committed no crime,” I answered. “They simply wish to capture us.”

The rider laughed. “You might be better off if they did. A city can be cruel.”

Bonifacio was scowling. All of this, I knew, would have been insulting to him. To expect a pope to be good at stealing or farming or living on the streets—what offense! Bonifacio looked at me and I looked back, and we both knew he could not afford to complain. The rider was not being unkind. He was stating fact.

There was a strange look in the boy’s eyes now, eyes which were almost closed, as if he were listening to something beyond the room...and hearing it.

“There is more,” the rider said, and his voice was strange. It was higher now, not cracking, not the voice of a boy-becoming-a-man at all.

“Yes,” I answered, wondering why I had.

“But you do not feel comfortable telling me or anyone.”

“That is true, Master Rottini,” I said. “It would also be better for you perhaps if you did not know.”

“That may be true,” he said distractedly, still listening.

His eyes cleared, and he returned to us.

“Perhaps,” I heard myself say, “we should ask who you are?”

The rider looked at me, then away, as he said, “My father lies in one of the other two rooms of this appartamento. You will hear his coughing. His lungs are full of fluid, and no one can help him. How much longer he will live, we do not know, but his illness is not the kind that sickens others. We have blankets for you to sleep on in this room so that his coughing will not interrupt your sleep. If you are hungry—which I can tell you are—and because this is Palio, there is no shortage of food anywhere in the city, including our home. So please conduct yourselves not only as our guests, but as our family, which you are as well.”

The rider turned and walked toward the room where coughing had started up suddenly.

When he was gone, Bonifacio started to speak, but I put my finger to my lips. “Are you not hungry, Bonifacio? And thirsty?”

“Yes. Very.”

“Then let us act in that spirit only, as members of this hospitable family.”

As Bonifacio and I sat at the table eating bread and stew from a pot that seemed to have been placed there for us, and drinking all of the water we wanted from a beautiful Sienese pitcher, the rider’s head poked around the corner.

“My father is sleeping now, and I must go to the Piazza to register for the third qualifying race, which occurs this afternoon. I would recommend that you not venture out into the city this day—that you wait until the race itself two days from now—but you have your own intuitions to guide you in such matters, I am sure, and do not need mine. If you do leave the apartment and have not returned by night, I will assume that you have left the city on your own or been captured by those you attempt to elude. I would hate to think the latter, Emilio and Bonifacio, but I would have no choice....”

It was the strangest declaration of caring that I had ever heard, but perhaps the Sienese spoke this way—roundabout and formally.

Bonifacio was astonished, too, and not doing well at hiding it.

“We...thank you,” he was saying.

“The gratitude is ours,” the rider answered.

The Sienese were definitely an odd people.

When the rider was gone, a puzzled Bonifacio said, “I have no reason to want to leave this apartment.”

“Neither do I,” I answered, and at that moment the coughing started up again in the other room. We were silent, expecting it to calm on its own accord and the father to fall back asleep. It did not. It worsened. And though we tried to distract ourselves with both talk and an inspection of the apartment, nothing helped.

Without saying a word, we both headed for the father’s room.

There, on a pallet of burlap, straw, and woolen blankets, lay a small, thin man whose eyes stared at the ceiling and whose body was far too frail to stop the terrible wracking of its own coughs. He did not seem to be aware of us, but he did open his mouth to say, “Caterina! Dove stai?” Catherine! Where are you?

That night the man’s coughing grew even worse, and Bonifacio and I could not help but lie on our blankets listening. The rider was in the father’s room, of course, and spoke tenderly to him throughout the night. It was a gentle, consoling voice, one I would have indeed wanted to hear had I been ill, but even the voice left me confused: who was this rider, and why did it feel as if he were hiding just as much as Bonifacio and I? What would a Palio rider have to hide?

As Bonifacio and I stared at the dark ceiling and listened to the coughing grow more violent and ragged—until our own bodies hurt to hear it—we heard footsteps leave the father’s room and, a moment later, a voice standing over us barely holding back tears and saying, “He has made a turn for the worse. I believe he is dying. I must bring the doctor!”

“We will sit with him,” I said.

“Yes, we will sit with him,” Bonifacio echoed.

“Thank you.” The rider composed himself. It was not becoming a Palio competitor to cry. . “Give him sips of water if he asks for them, but not too much. He cannot sit up. He may ask for food, but do not give him any. Sometimes a hand on his forehead is enough to calm the coughing, but tonight I doubt that will be enough.”

Bonifacio and I rose as the footsteps left us and the front door opened but did not close.

“Your dog is here,” the rider said, and we heard Stappo’s feet coming toward us. “Keep him from my father, please.” The door closed at last.

“Stappo!” I whispered, leaning down, finding him with my hands and scratching him behind the ears. He whined a happy whine.

Bonifacio and I headed through the darkness to the father’s room, where the candlelight was faint but did let us see a little.

The coughing was terrible. A part of me wanted to leave, to get away from it, and the room, and the entire city, but another part knew I needed to stay.

It is important, a voice whispered.

What that meant, I did not know, but I could not leave.

Bonifacio was kneeling in the candlelight beside the father, who sounded even frailer now, and whose chin glistened red and wet.

“He is not going to survive the night, Emissary,” Bonifacio said.

“You have seen men die like this?”

“Two. A Cardinal and a Bishop. They, too, coughed up blood.”

“You helped them die? I mean, did you—”

“Yes. When a Cardinal, Archbishop or Bishop dies, it should be the pope from whom they receive last rites. I have given these rites sixty-seven times in my brief life, Emissary.”

What an amazing thing, I thought. To be a boy and yet to have helped sixty-seven men die, helped their souls pass from flesh to God’s grace.

“Can we wait for the doctor to arrive?”

“The doctor is not a priest. We do not know whether the rider will bring the priest as well.”

“No, we do not. Do you have what you need, Your Holiness?”

“Not exactly. I do not have oil and will have to use holy water. You have the vials in your pouch. Please give me one. Once we open its wax seal, we should use it all. We can use the rest of it to bless this house and the rider tomorrow morning. We might even bless the rider, his horse and the race.”

When—fumbling in the dark like a blind man—I finally produced a vial, Bonifacio was saying, “He is not able to request absolution; he cannot perform Penance. I must proceed to the Anointing and then the Viaticum. But if he is the rider’s father, he is certainly a man of contrition, and I can give him the forgiveness he believes he needs.”

“Though he does not...need it,” I heard myself say.

I could feel Bonifacio’s eyes on me in the dim light.

“I was listening to the heresy, Bonifacio, the rider’s....”

“And mine.”

“Yes. And I have always thought the same—about God and ‘sin’....”

“I am not surprised, Emissary,” he answered, and I could not tell whether it was the boy or the pope speaking.

I handed him the vial.

In nomine clementiae patris inunctio te,” Bonifacio began, making a cross with a wet finger on the man’s forehead. I could barely hear the Latin over the coughing, and almost as soon as Bonifacio began, the man began to squirm, as if to say, Do not give up on me! Do not give me the last rites when I am not dying! Allow me to fight a little longer!

Bonifacio stopped, looked at me again, but I had no advice to give. Bonifacio was pope. He should know.

As if hearing my thought, Bonifacio said:

“I believe he is dying, and as pope I must trust what the Holy Spirit tells me. Yet I do not want to help dispatch a man prematurely from his body by the very words I might utter....”

There was a sound behind us, a familiar one. A dog’s paws on a floor. But how had Stappo gotten in?

Then there was another sound, and I turned. A figure stood in the doorway to the room, Stappo at its feet, and the figure was saying, “The doctor is nowhere to be found. They say he has gone to Valverde to minister to a cousin, and I—”

The voice stopped. Even in the dim light I could see the rider’s eyes open wide as they took in the scene in the room: A chubby boy with pale skin—who was not a commoner but was fleeing from someone—kneeling on the floor by the rider’s father and reciting Latin no boy should know. Reciting it with power and authority, one hand on the man’s forehead and in his other a glass vial that glinted in the candle’s light.

The rider took a step. Still Bonifacio did not turn from the father. The work at hand, which only he could do, had made him deaf.

I looked at the rider and the rider looked back at me. The boy, whose features looked even softer now in the dim light, appeared to be fighting tears again. Stappo remained perfectly still.

Then the father indeed began to die. The death rattle that people always spoke of but that I had only witnessed once, when my grandmother had died on a pallet in our church, began as a raspy word that was not a word.

When I saw the expression on the face of the rider, the sadness and yet the acceptance, I felt something move through my body.

It was not an itch I felt, though indeed the feeling came from the rash. It was a coldness and yet a warmth; and it was a word, one I could have uttered with my lips, but one so important that it was also a light I could not speak. It was the light that had moved through me that night in Bonifacio’s room on Elba when the Drinker had nearly taken him from me, but even more of that light would be needed now. Stappo was whining—

—because light was beginning to fill the room. The light was coming from me, as it had before, but this time it would be different, I knew. It would bring something back, rather than send something away. That is what the light was saying, and the voice within it, and the spirit whose emissary I was and would remain until my journey was over.

Bonifacio looked up now. He stood up and stepped back to give me room, my light reflecting in his eyes as if it were bright morning through a window.

Behind us, in the doorway, the rider made no sound.

I placed my hands on the father’s chest and, as I did, the room was filled with such light that it was no longer a room, and the five bodies in the room were no longer bodies. There was only Truth and the beauty of it. These were all that was needed. There was a singing now, too, a sound like a great cornamusa, like a great body swimming toward what needed to be done.

When I woke, I was standing over the father in the candlelit darkness, the light gone. Bonifacio was speaking Latin again, though calmly, and the rider was kneeling on the floor, touching his father, wiping blood gently from the man’s chin.

The father was no longer coughing but instead breathed steadily, eyes open and aware. I was looking at Bonifacio, and Bonifacio was looking back at me. The rider looked up at me then, too, and in a voice that no longer cracked, that was high and sounded happy to be what it was, finally said:

“You are the Emissary we have heard of....”

“Yes,” Bonifacio answered for me. “He is.”

“And you—” the rider said to Bonifacio. “You are—”

“I am Pope Boniface the Ninth. Il Papino.”

Grazia alla Madonna!” the rider exclaimed, removing his cap and pulling even more hair from underneath it, so that it was longer than any boy’s should have been. Still kneeling, the rider—who was not a boy at all, I could see—added in Latin, “In nomine Clementiae mundus salvus semper est....” In the name of La Compassione the world is forever saved....

At seeing the rider in truth a girl, I felt my knees turn to water, and I collapsed into darkness.

When I woke again, I was looking up into a face which, belonging as it now did to a girl, was much prettier than it had been when it belonged to a boy. It was more than that, however. The face was more willing to smile now, and to be as soft as in truth it was. And when the face spoke, it relinquished all pretense of a voice other than its own—a relief to my ears and certainly to Bonifacio’s as well.

“Are you all right, Emissary?” the girl asked, concerned but happy. I was embarrassed, of course. This was a girl, after all, and my head was in her lap—but I did not wish to move. I felt like a child, in the caring presence of my mother, whom I did miss, though I had not thought of her in days.

“Yes. Thank you.”

“If he speaks,” Bonifacio said from somewhere, “he must be all right.”

Bonifacio’s voice carried an odd tone, one I had not heard before. Getting up on one elbow, I looked at my friend. Could it be? Bonifacio was standing by the doorway as if ready to leave, and there appeared to be a pout on his lips.

“Where are you going, Bonifacio?”

“I am not needed here. I am going to the kitchen.”

Did I hear jealousy? A pope jealous of a girl’s attention? As I thought about it, I understood: I had saved the girl’s father; the girl was grateful; she was worried about me, and was attending to me. Bonifacio, though a pope, was suddenly not very important.

A boy-pope had as much right to be boy as pope, did he not?

“You are indeed needed here. I can barely get up on one elbow. I may need last rites at any moment.”

“You tease me.”

“Yes, Your Holiness. That is what friends are for, is it not?”

Bonifacio nodded despite himself.

To the girl I said, “I am fine. Thank you—” I started to address her by her real name, but did not know it.

“Caterina,” she said. “Caterina Rottini.”

“That is the name your father called out in his illness,” Bonifacio said gruffly.

I had stood and was helping the girl up. Her long fingers felt cool in my hand, and I did not want to let them go; but Bonifacio, poor Bonifacio, was watching, and, even if no one were, I would have grown embarrassed holding her hand too long.

Bonifacio, I saw with relief, had moved from the doorway and was standing beside me now.

“How is your father?” I asked her.

“He is sleeping. His lungs sound free of fluid.” She was looking at me, and it seemed that her eyelashes were suddenly longer, which was of course impossible. Her gaze made me uncomfortable, especially in Bonifacio’s presence, but what could I do?

“Yes,” I said, stepping to the sleeping man. “He looks much better.”

“Thank you, Emissary.”

“Please,” I answered. “I am Emilio. And now it is your turn, wouldn’t you say, to tell us who you really are.”

“My twin brother’s name was Giovanni,” she began. We sat at the apartment’s one table eating bread and sausage. “He was the truly blessed rider, and, though a boy, better than most men. Three years ago he was injured in the race—a terrible injury to his head—and we took him home to be attended by the Nicchio’s doctor. Nothing could be done for him; and when he passed from this world, the families of the Nicchio—who knew that I, too, rode well, though never in the Palio, and wished the Madonna’s blessing of our neighborhood and city to continue—swore our doctor to secrecy about my brother’s death, the same secrecy to which they themselves swore.

I was dressed up to look like my brother, kept my face dirty, put a little scar on it where my brother had had a scar, and wore a cap (so our story went) to cover the much worse scar on my head and the skin there that was so sensitive to sunlight. Who the rider is in the Palio does not matter—it is the horse who wins, not the rider; even a horse who has lost his rider may win—but we knew that the Governors of the Race would not allow a girl to compete. Our priest prayed to the Signora to ensure that our pretense would not be an offense to her, and she appeared to him one night to bless both our plan and our contrada....”

I looked at Bonifacio again and saw from my friend’s expression that he was thinking the same: All of this might be true—and probably was—but it could not be the entire truth. We could both feel it in her words. For reasons only she knew, Caterina Rottini was choosing not to tell us everything.

Bonifacio, bold as he often was in such matters (and wishing, as any boy would, to be important), went ahead and asked it: “That is all?”

“That is enough,” the girl answered just as boldly, but averting her eyes, too. What a strange girl, I thought to myself. So strong, confident and even brash, and yet gentle and humble. How could one be all of these at once?

I stared at her; and as if sensing my look, she turned to look at me, too. The instant our gazes met, I felt my heart jump once, then again, and did not know why. Why did her look make my body jump? How could eyes do that? And why was it hard for me to look away?

There was a silence.

“How will you conceal your father’s recovery from the Nicchio?” I asked.

“I will not need to.”

“I do not understand,” Bonifacio said. “The miracle of his healing must point somewhere, and we are the logical direction.”

“They will know,” she answered, “that he was healed, but not that—not that Emilio healed him.”

Bonifacio frowned and glanced at me. I shrugged. I did not understand either.

“We still do not understand,” Bonifacio said.

The girl had gotten up, was tucking some of her hair under her cap again and heading toward the front door with no intention of explaining. At the doorway she turned.

“I have preparations to make—one more qualifying race and then the race itself, which I wish you could attend—”

How strange, I thought. She was certain that she would be in the final race. Everything—even her father’s recovery—she seemed to take for granted.

“—but I would indeed be grateful if you would instead watch over my father while I am gone. He will be hungry—anyone who has returned from death is—and he may be able to eat bread softened with broth, or broth alone, if he seems weak.” She paused again, and when she spoke, it was with a smile: “And when I return, it will be time for you both to tell me whom a Child Pope and an Emissary of La Compassione would, with their considerable authority, need to flee from?”

Not knowing what else to do, we nodded; and as I turned to look down at the girl’s father, who was muttering in his sleep, something changed in the room. In the corner of my eye Caterina was not a girl. Though it was impossible, there was a woman in Caterina’s place, one wearing something in her hair, her hair as bright as daylight. When I jerked my gaze back to the doorway, however, it was Caterina again, her back to us as she stepped outside and closed the door behind her.

“Did you see a woman?” I asked a moment later.

“I have seen many women, Emissary,” Bonifacio answered.

“You are sounding pompous, Bonifacio.”

“I will try to improve. What woman?”

“I am tired and imagining things. Forget that I asked....”

When the father woke at last, we had been sitting in his room on stools carried in from the kitchen and were so nearly asleep sitting on those stools that we startled when he said: “Where is Caterina and who are you? And why is there a dog in this room?”

Bonifacio and I both started at the man, who was up on one arm and looking surprisingly well for one who should be dead.

Bonifacio could not find the words.

“We are friends of your daughter, Signore Rottini,” I said. “When you experienced what could only be termed a miraculous recovery, she told us her story and asked us to remain and care for you while she went to the qualifying race. I am Emilio Musetti and that is Bonifacio—Bonifacio....”

“Bonifacio da Grossacio,” Bonifacio completed for me, and I thought the invention quite sonorous.

“And you do not need to fear our dog,” I added. “He will protect you as he protects us.”

The man stared at Stappo for a moment, and then, with a trusting if exhausted sigh, lay back on his pallet of blankets. “I should have known it would happen.”

Was the man referring to his own miraculous healing or something else?

“That what would happen, Signore?”

“That she would be able to do it.”

“What, Signore?” I asked just as Bonifacio asked, “Who, Signore?” We sounded like a Commedia troupe, trying to get laughs on the street for our daily bread.

“Heal me,” the man said impatiently. “Caterina, my daughter. That she would heal me.”

Bonifacio and I looked at each other. We were doing this frequently. The world held too many surprises for us not to.

“You do not know who she is?” the man asked, puzzled now. “You said she told you.”

“We met her only yesterday, Signore,” I explained. “We have had only one talk with her, and she told us only a little. We are new to Siena.”

When suspicion fell over the man’s face, I added quickly, “Your priest felt your daughter’s approval of us, and so he approved of us as well.” I was not sure what it meant exactly—to phrase it this way—but this was how the people of this city, or this neighborhood at least, put things, so why not put it this way for a confused Nicchiaiolo who had just returned from the dead?

“I see....” the man said.

“And so,” Bonifacio added, “all we really know about her is that she is a remarkable horse rider—“

“And,” I continued, “that she took her twin brother’s place—your son’s place, God rest his soul.”

“My son?”

“Yes, the one you lost to a terrible injury to his head in the Palio three years ago.”

The man was speechless. A frown had taken over his face, and all he seemed able to do was stare at us. I added, “At which point your kind and dutiful daughter, with the blessing of your priest and the Madonna of this city, adopted the identity of her twin brother and began to race successfully for your quarter and for the Blessed Madonna, just as your blessed son did....”

The man’s expression did not change, nor did he speak. Was he having a seizure?

“At least,” Bonifacio said, “that is what your daughter told us.”

The frown changed into something else. The man was looking at us now as if we were crazy. When he finally spoke, it was to say: “I do not know why Caterina told you such a story, but it is not true. If you are in our home and have the priest’s blessing, and hers, which I do believe you have, then you are welcome; and I thank you for attending to me in my illness. But Caterina has not told you the truth. Her brother ran away with a girl from Capo Montalbero. The entire Nicchio, at our priest’s suggestion, kept it a secret and advised Caterina to take his place. Her brother did not die of a terrible head wound.”

It was my turn to be speechless, though Bonifacio was somehow able to say, “Why did your priest advise her thus?”

“Because....” The man hesitated, but then, as if finding something in our faces that made him trust us, proceeded: “Because we all believe—and have for many years now—that she is the incarnation of the Madonna of Provenzano.

“Had she not approved of you,” the man went on, “the priest would certainly not have done so, and you would not be sitting with me now.” He had gotten up easily on his own from the pallet, and the three of us were now seated in the kitchen, at the table, where he wolfed down bread and jerky and stew like a starving animal. “Father Salemi,” the man went on, “once told me that he would not be surprised if she showed an ability to heal others, and so it has come to pass.”

I knew what Bonifacio was thinking. I remembered Caterina’s strange words, too: The Nicchio will know that he was healed, but not how....

“Even when she was little, she seemed able to foresee the future, even to guide the events of the present to better ends than they should have reached on their own. This gift had also belonged, they say, to the Madonna of Provenzano. Father Salemi saw it when Caterina was very young, and more than one member of our quarter has seen the visage of the Madonna in Caterina’s face, for a passing moment at least, and even the Madonna’s figure walking beside her. This has only become more pronounced as she has grown older. The Madonna herself, people say, has appeared before Father Salemi to confirm this....”

Having spent himself with words, the little man looked at us silently, spoon in hand, stew dripping from it, and took a deep breath.

“I do not know why Caterina did not confess this to you when she trusted you enough to let you both minister to me. Why instead she told you a disturbing story about her brother, whose departure from us was foolish but not so tragic, I have no idea. She must have had a reason. Someone who can see the future usually has reason....”

“Perhaps,” I said, “she is simply humble.”

The father snorted. “Some would say so, but others would claim she is as obstreperous and rebellious as the boy she pretends to be. I suspect, however, that you are right. She is humble when it comes to matters of the spirit...at least when the Madonna is guiding her.”

Silence fell again in the kitchen, so that all we could hear was the revelers in the street below, and it lasted until Caterina burst suddenly through the door, dirty and sweaty. She said, “You are looking healthy, Father, and no longer hungry!”

“Yes, Caterina.”

“I qualified!”

“Of course you did,” her father said.

Of course she would, if she were the incarnation of the Madonna and could foresee the future.

Turning to me, she said, “I must ask Emilio to be present tomorrow for the race, even if there is risk of discovery for him. Will you do this for me, Emilio?”

Bonifacio was too stunned to look hurt or jealous. His mouth popped open and remained that way until I said: “Of course.”

Bonifacio and I—and Stappo, too, since the father was unafraid of him—spent the night in the main room, while Caterina slept as always on the floor not far from him.

Try as I would, I could not sleep. There was a question that kept my eyes open, but what was it?

I had wanted, out of vanity, to think Caterina had chosen me over Bonifacio to be at the Palio tomorrow because...well, just because. Perhaps she thought me handsome. Perhaps she could barely contain her gratitude for what I had done for her father and so wanted me near her. Perhaps it was vanity on her part, too, and she wanted me to be impressed with her prowess in the race. Perhaps....

But this was not how a Madonna thought, I knew. Even a mortal girl who could, at times at least, see the future might have another reason.

When I woke on my own pallet, it was to a voice; and I was certain an angel or something worse was standing over me. From the look on Bonifacio’s face, he feared the same. But it was only Caterina silhouetted by bright morning light through the room’s window. She had woken before us and dressed for the race, and was again the boy she needed to be.

“You should rise now, too,” she said to us both. “I will return in a few minutes.” Then she was gone, the door closing quietly behind her.

What she meant by this, I had no idea, and neither did Bonifacio.

As the father stumbled into the kitchen—no less steady than anyone his age would be upon waking—he grumbled “Buona mattina, ragazzi!” and began to prepare bread and butter for himself.

“You have awakened a monster with your healing,” Bonifacio whispered, short-changed on his holy rest and irritable as a consequence.

“No wonder the son ran away—” I joked back, stopping when the father glanced at us from the kitchen table.

Bonifacio stifled a laugh. The father was looking at us.

Just as we sat down with him in the kitchen, buttering our own bread, the front door opened again and instead of one figure—Caterina’s—two entered.

The Nicchio priest was with her. Why? Were our secrets not to be kept?

“Do not be angry with me,” she began. “I have brought Father Salemi, and for good reason. He is the one person I have told about the miracle of my father’s healing and your identities, and I have done so because there is a need. He has asked to meet you. I have agreed, but in return have asked a favor of him.”

“Your Holiness,” the priest said, and he was so agitated, his face so red, that I feared for a moment his heart might explode. He knelt before the chubby Bonifacio, who looked about as holy as a piglet, but who, of the two boys standing before the priest, was obviously il Papino. Had the Child Pope possessed orange hair, as I did, Rome would certainly have spoken both tirelessly and tiresomely of it.

Bonifacio straightened, took on the bearing he had grown up with—the boy-man who had given last rights to cardinals, archbishops and bishops—and with sincerity and compassion said: “Grazia a Lei, Father Salemi. May the blessings of the Lord be upon you.”

The girl’s father, poor man, was struck dumb, the last piece of bread he had put in his mouth still there, the chewing of it ceased, the mouth open, the eyes darting from Bonifacio to the priest to Caterina to me and back to Bonifacio again.

Benedicat tibi Dominus et custodiat te,” the priest and Bonifacio said together.

Caterina, solemn now, continued: “And this is Emilio Musetti, the one by whose light my father was healed.”

At this the father choked and the bread flew at last from his mouth. His hand, horrified by what his mouth had done, reached out wildly to grab the piece in midair but had no luck. The morsel of bread fell to the floor not far from my left foot, and there it lay until Stappo, wondering at the silliness of humans, found it and ate it.

“Emilio is the emissary,” she went on, “we have heard rumors of, even as we have heard rumors of the Drinkers of Blood and chosen foolishly not to believe them. His light healed my father, and that he carries such light is evidence not only that he is emissary, but that the rumors are true: the Drinkers do exist. They have, as we have heard, taken Rome, turning five hundreds priests in the Holy City to their immortal devices. And the hideous figures of the night that those priests have become now travel throughout Christendom to bring about its fall as well.”

The priest was nodding. His kneeling had become awkward for everyone. I stepped to him and offered him a hand. He hesitated, staring at my hand.

“It will not burn you,” I said.

He took it, rose and, with a tremble in his voice, said: “Thank you for blessing us with your presence, Emissary.”

The girls’ father was up, too, and was trying to speak. “Caterina. What is happening here? “

“Father,” she answered lovingly but firmly. “You will tell no one in the Nicchio what you have heard and seen and heard in these rooms. I wished you to know the truth, so that you might join me in giving thanks to the one who returned your life to you and you to me.”

“But you are the Madonna!”

“I do not know who I am, Father; and if I do not, no one does.” She paused, then looked at me. “Except perhaps the Emissary....”

I thought that Bonifacio might frown, feeling slighted, but he did not. He simply stared at her.

“We have a race to race today,” she said, “and I must leave soon for the Piazza. I have asked Father Salemi to come here this morning to meet you both. It is important for reasons that will become clear. He will also lead you to the Piazza at the right time, so that you do not get lost.”

Again, her tone was matter-of-fact, but beyond it, as always, something else whispered too. Something not at all matter-of-fact. Something immense and important.

Feeling like children, Bonifacio and I nodded and said, “Of course.”

The Piazza di Campo was pure madness. Whether those present were inebriated or merely enthusiastic mattered not, for either of those taken to an extreme produced madness. I had seen this at the Carnevale in Viarreggio, south of our village, on the two occasions my mother had taken me there: men and women pummeling each other with leather batons. Whether it was passion or wine or both that numbed their pain had not been clear to me. In their madness they had laughed, kissed, grabbed, fondled, slapped, pummeled, bled, and then laughed even more.

But there was something especially insane about the Palio. While the richest of the city readied themselves to watch the race from windows high in the buildings around the piazza, the rest were packed like over-heated cattle into its center, the race course a circle of empty earth around them. The poor were elbow-to-elbow with no room to stretch and only stale air to breathe. How the crowd resisted panic, I did not know, but I was starting to panic myself just looking at them from where we stood by the track. Bonifacio looked even worse. We had somehow made our way through the crowd at the piazza’s center and were now pressed against the wooden barriers that kept the revelers from the course.

Perhaps if this were your city—if you had grown up here and in your father’s arms had watched every race from the year you were born—if the Madonna of Provenzano, for whom this race was always run, was your Madonna—the insanity of the crowd would not feel insane but instead beautiful?

“Are you going to faint, Bonifacio?”

“I am not sure, Emissary,” Bonifacio called over the din of the crowd, looking somewhat green of face. “I have not been in such circumstances before.”

“Nor have I.”

“Perhaps it is the Sienese. It is in their blood and they love living like this. Perhaps they all sleep together as children in little apartments, and Siena is one great family to them and they prefer this to vast, empty piazze with endless elbowroom. Perhaps they even die of loneliness in piazzas where is too much—”

“You are starting to babble, Bonifacio.”

“Yes, but, if I speak, there is less chance I will faint.”

“Then please speak. I would hate to have to—”

A bell sounded from the great tower. Bonifacio and I jumped, but the noise had absolutely no effect on anyone around us. These simply continued with their yelling, their affectionate or ill-tempered insults, their bad breath and belches, and, of course, their wagers. “Twenty on Draco because I love you, cugino!” “Tartaruga wins or your children will be born with horns. Fifty on Tartaruga!” “Thirty on il Nicchio! The Madonna will deliver!” “Eighteen to your thirty—the Madonna wants speed, not a porker!”

And then the horses tore by the barrier beside us in a cloud of red dust, bright contrada colors and little clubs with which the riders beat each other with determination.

“Did you see her?” I asked.

“I saw one long horse with forty-eight legs and twelve riders.”

“They will spread out more, will they not?”

“Perhaps, but the race is only three laps. We only have two more chances to see her.”

Before the horses could circle the course again, we heard a cry go up from the crowd. Something had happened.

The crowd, I could see, was breaking through the low wooden barriers at the other end of the piazza.

As I stood there, I sensed it was Caterina the cries were about. A strange light was filling the piazza, one the crowd seemed not to notice.

I squinted at it—the light. I did not know at first what was making it, but then I saw it.

Where the light was brightest, a figure hovered in the air high above the crowd.

Even at this distance, I recognized the figure. I had seen her in Caterina’s apartment, confusing her with Caterina herself, but had assumed she was but imagination.

As she drifted closer, she looked at me in silence, and I could see her face—the moon of it, her hair beautiful, a halo for that moon. She was dressed in the finest gown, white and the palest blue and the yellow of the smallest flowers on the hills above my village in spring.

“Do you see her now, Bonifacio?” I asked, barely able to speak.

Bonifacio looked around. “Who, Emissary?”

Her. Over there.” I pointed above the crowd to the exact place where she floated.

“Now you are babbling, my friend. Do you feel faint?”

I ignored him. I started pushing my way toward the commotion. My legs wanted to run, but the bodies around me would not let them. All I could do was push and keep pushing.

“Bonifacio,” I called back. “Caterina has been hurt! The Madonna has come for her!”

As I pushed, the figure floated near me. It did not leave.

When I reached the far barrier, which the crowd had easily toppled, I scrambled over it and was on the race course itself now, earth not cobbles.

The figure floated above me. It had been my guide.

I looked around, coughing from the dust, and there, in front of me, was what I had most feared.

Caterina was lying on the earth unmoving, as if asleep. Her horse was upright, apparently uninjured, its muzzle lowered to her, pushing at her shoulder, trying to get her to rise.

I felt more fear than I could bear. Do not take her from us, Nostra Signora—from her contrada—from her father and her people—from Bonifacio and me—please!

I looked up and the light was gone. The figure was gone.

I looked down at Caterina again and saw what I’d somehow known I would see: A wound on her head, the blood seeping into the earth as if the soil were a rag.

This was why Caterina had wanted me to be here.

This was why she had insisted.

She had known this would happen, but why had she not stopped it? She was the incarnation of our Lady, was she not?

She wanted you to be here with her when she died, but why?

When I knelt by her side, no one tried to stop me. Those standing on the track simply stared. She was still a boy to them. Clothes and cap and hair of a boy. The boy who had won two races for the Nicchio.

The Madonna was there again, hovering high above us, waiting, and that could mean only one thing: That I needed to tell Caterina goodbye.

I could hear footsteps running toward us, but they were not important. I sat down beside her, leaned over her, moved her shoulders so that I could put her head gently in my lap, held her head with both of my hands, and whispered to her, “Thank you for being who you are, Caterina. For being in my life even if briefly.”

No!” a voice whispered hoarsely.

In astonishment I watched as one of Caterina’s eyes, the one that was not so bloody, opened, and she whispered again:

It is not time...

I nodded, wondering whether I had fainted and was dreaming, or we were both dead and in another world. Someone with a wound like hers could not be speaking, could not be thinking so clearly.

The footsteps were louder now, voices with them, and Bonifacio knelt beside me.

“We must give her rites,” he was saying.

“No.”

“What do you mean ‘No’? She is dying if not already dead!”

“Help me carry her,” I said to him, to give him something to do, to calm his frantic hands, to keep the Latin she did not want from his lips. But then others arrived, and they were the civil guards of the Nicchio contrada. It was their arms that began to lift her up and away.

“No one can live with a wound like that,” one man said.

I wanted to argue, but how could I?

As the men carried her back to the contrada, I stayed by her side, and Bonifacio stayed by mine. Father Salemi was with us, too, hurrying beside the guards.

“Why isn’t Father Salemi giving the rites to her, Emilio?”

“I do not know, Bonifacio.”

“Please do not let her die without them, Emissary.”

I could not find words with which to answer.

At the apartment the guards rushed the girl to her father’s room. The priest was shouting, “Here, here! Put her here!” When the men obeyed, placing her on the floor where her father had lain so recently, the priest shouted, “Now leave! Please!” The men stepped back, blinking, and confused.

Leave!” the priest insisted.

Now he will try to give her the rites. I must stop him!

But the priest did not kneel beside her. No Latin came from his lips.

Caterina’s father was there now, standing behind Bonifacio and me. Without a word he stepped to Father Salemi’s side. Both of them just stood there looking at me, waiting.

“Father, please!” Bonifacio cried out. “If you do not give her last rites, I will have to.”

“It is too late for that,” the priest said. “She died in the piazza before I could reach her—even before you could reach her, Your Holiness.”

I thought I might be sick there on the floor. How could she have been dead on the track? I had heard her voice.

“Bring her back to us,” the priest said to me then.

“Yes, Emissary. Return her to us,” her father said.

I stared at them both. If the Madonna could not bring her back to life, how could I? How could the spirit of La Compassione, if the Madonna could not? This was not a Drinker that only needed to be filled with fear. This was not a father ill and dying on the floor. This was a girl, a wonderful girl, and she was dead, her flesh already returning to the earth.

Even Bonifacio was looking at me, waiting.

“I cannot,” I said. “The Madonna will come for her. She will take Caterina’s soul to a life beyond....”

The priest said: “No, the Madonna will not. That is not why the Madonna was here, Emissary. Caterina foretold all of this.”

Then a voice—one without lips or throat or words­­­­­­­­­­­­—said:

Bring me back, Emissary.

I started to shake. I thought I would fall to the floor.

Bring me back, Emissary, the voice said again, and it was Caterina’s voice, and a woman’s too. Only you can do what must be done today. It is the only way you will become the instrument of La Compassione the world needs you to be.

At her words, though for a moment I refused them, my body began to change. My rash became a fire, just as it had with the girl’s father, but now my arms began to glow like coals as room brightened like the sun.

I stepped to Caterina’s body, knelt down, placed my right hand upon her brow, and saw that my hand was no longer a hand but something else, something a creature might need to swim with—and something of fire that could both give life and take it away, as it would soon on the blood-washed shores of a distant lake.

Caterina’s face became the Madonna’s, and then a girl’s again, because they were indeed the same. There was no blood now on her head because tears—or the waters of a great lake—had washed it away, so that her flesh might heal. The boy inside me was crying, of course, but that meant nothing. Mortals weep in the face of Truth, its beauty and the grace it is.

When I opened my eyes, I was still kneeling, the light was gone, my rash no longer hurt, my cheeks were still wet from mortal tears.

Caterina was different. There was no blood on her. The wound by her eye was gone, the gash in her skull had smoothed over, and her skin was perfect once more. And she was sleeping.

I stood up and looked from Bonifacio to the priest to the father. Their faces looked as exhausted as those of soldiers after a battle. What they had seen while I had dreamed a dream I could not remember, I did not know.

“The story is complete,” the priest said.

I did not know what he meant, but then I did: The story Caterina had first told us, the odd lie about her brother. How he had died from a terrible head injury in a race two years ago and how she, disguised as a boy, had taken his place because she was a good rider, too.

“She knew this day would come,” I said.

“Yes, Emissary. And so it has happened, and now the people of Siena will believe her brother died, just as she told you he did, and in a race, while the sister will now run off with a boy for the sake of love.”

“But the people of the Nicchio will know,” I said.

“They will know only that she was brought back from death. They will assume it was by the grace of the Madonna, out of love for her daughter. Which is as it should be, Emissary, if your presence here is to be kept a secret, and you are to continue your journey.” The priest paused. “It is also, as you might imagine, a gift to this contrada—to any contrada in this cityfor it to believe that the Madonna performed such a miracle for those who love her.”

“We are all instruments of La Compassione, Father,” I found myself saying. “The Madonna was present, overseeing it all, I assure you. I saw her at the campo. She led me to Caterina. I think I saw her in this room as well....”

The priest bowed his head. “Of course.”

We watched Caterina struggle up on one elbow. She was not in pain. She was smiling, as if amused, and she was looking at me. I blushed.

“What will you do now, Caterina?” Bonifacio asked, seeing my reddening face.

“I will travel, as a boy, with you and Emilio to Assisi,” Caterina answered, and in that tone we had heard before—one that said no argument would be tolerated. “That is where you must travel next, Emissary, if you are to elude those who seek your capture.”

“You have seen it?” I asked.

“I have.”

I was no longer surprised.

“This was your plan all along,” I said.

“Yes, Emilio. To make of our story the great circle it should be.”

“But what will the Nicchio do now? Who will ride for them?”

The priest answered for her. “There is a boy, Iacopo, who is blessed by the Madonna. You can see it in his eyes. He was too young to race three years ago when Caterina began riding for us. He is old enough now, and he is gifted. It is his time...or so the Madonna told me in a dream a year ago.”

“He will win next year,” Caterina said quietly. “He will win for four years,” she went on, “and then another young man will begin to ride for the Nicchio. He will be tall and loud, but a good rider, and he will dream of the Madonna every night, as we all do in Siena, whether we know it or not....”

I could only stare.

When we parted Siena the next morning, the road to Assisi was packed with travelers, many of them bleary-eyed and uncoordinated in their steps from the previous night’s carousing, and more than a few quite irritable about the work they needed to resume in the grain fields and mills and vineyards. As a consequence, few were in any condition to pay attention to our little troupe—three boys and a dog—pretty as one boy was, pink-cheeked as another, and rash-decorated as the third.

Just before Montepulciano we heard the hooves of horses, and a group of fifteen soldiers road by. Whether they were looking for Bonifacio and me, there was no way to know. Later, in Cittapieve, and after stopping to eat and drink, thanks to the florins that remained in my pouch, we found ourselves exposed in front of a church as another complement of soldiers road by; but, again, we were not noticed. Was La Compassione watching over us, or was it simply not our time?

Assisi lay before us—Caterina had seen it—but what lay beyond Assisi’s pink-marble face remained a journey of fog and doubt whose footsteps we could not see even as they took us inexorably to the shores of a distant lake and the future of the world.


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Bruce McAllister's science fiction and fantasy stories have appeared over the years in the field’s major magazines and many “year’s best” volumes (like Best American Short Stories 2007, Stephen King ed.). His short story “Kin” was a finalist for the Hugo Award; his novelette “Dream Baby” was a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards; his novelette “The Crying Child” was a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award. He is the author of three novels: Humanity Prime, a chronicle of humanity on a water planet in the far future; Dream Baby, an ESP-in-war tale; and 2013's The Village Sang to the Sea: A Memoir of Magic. His short stories have been collected in the career-spanning The Girl Who Loved Animals and Other Stories. He lives in Orange County, California, with his wife, choreographer Amelie Hunter, and works as a writer, writing coach, and book and screenplay consultant.

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