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Chrysalis cont.

by on February 23, 2015

The sun paid closer attention now as the last of the bales was roughly pulled onto the hard stones of the quays.  Tempers rose with the intensity of bargaining.  Seeking refuge from the sun and noise Tonio went quickly back into the piazza to find some shade.  Along the eastern side of the colonnades, where the morning sun had not yet penetrated, was a thin strip of shade in which some pigeons were wading.  As Tonio drew closer he noticed a human shape sitting in the twilight between two columns.  An old man, slouched within rather drab and worn clothes, sat quietly feeding the pigeons from a worn sack next to him.  An old gray hat hung over his down-turned face like a shade.  Though he neither spoke, nor even looked up, Tonio sensed the man knew he was there.  Tonio wanted to sit by him, but knew he would frighten the pigeons if he walked directly to him.  He turned off into the colonnade and walked very quietly up near the man from behind.  Half concealed by a column, he waited until he was sure the pigeons were satisfied with his presence before he stepped out and sat down three feet from the old man.  The birds spread out, as ripples in a pool.  Their heads bobbed and turned, their orange-red eyes searched him for motives and, perhaps, sized him up for tidbits.  The grayish tide swept back again, carried on red skinned feet which, in their numbers made the only audible sound in the piazza. 

Tonio watched the old man’s wrinkled hand dip into the sack and gracefully sprinkle seeds and bread crumbs among the birds.  For a time a memory of his days as a small child appeared to him.  He was riding in the back of his father’s wagon and he saw, in the countryside outside Venice, a peasant carrying a burlap sack slung in front of him.  In a flowing rhythm the man walked a plowed furrow and matched his stride with small sweeps of his arm, scattering seed onto the earth.  Tonio remembered that he was dimly aware that from this small act life would come and people would eat.  Only now did he tie that memory to the many recent scenes of bartering that he saw almost daily on the quays and in the markets.  The old man’s hand gave freely of the feed as Tonio marveled that men struggled among themselves to eat.

The sun steadily advanced across the flagstones toward the silent congregation.  The birds began to flap their way up to nooks in the colonnade where they could rest and avoid the heat of the day.  The old man emptied the few remaining scraps from the bag and tucked it into his pocket as he slowly rose to leave.  Tonio watched in respectful silence as the remaining birds and the old man faced each other for just an instant before he turned and shuffled slowly along the inside of the colonnade.  The sun was fully upon the young boy before he got up to leave.  He had not noticed the departure of the last few birds.  He had not watched which way the old man went.  His mind was clouded over with many wonderings, and a faint smell of holiness in the air.

The next day was Sunday. One knew it on awakening.  The sky had a different look about it. the air a different scent from the rest of the week.  It was, without doubt, Sunday.  There would be no free roaming today; Tonio’s communion with the spiritual was all planned for him today, as it was every Sunday.  The family would go to Mass in one of the side chapels of the Basilica.  He would have to walk especially upright to be sure as little dirt as possible would leap up on his uncomfortable Sunday clothes.  After the hour of standing, sitting, kneeling, listening, watching and trying to construct new daydreams he would be shuffled among other boys his age into an obscure room in the Basilica for catechism classes.

“World without end, Amen” ran through his head as he removed his hat and stepped with bowed head into the church.  The Basilica was, without doubt, one of the most beautiful structures in Venice. In times of peace people came from many remote places to see the city and the famous Basilica.  But, the Byzantine domes looked to Tonio like so many baking ovens with crosses and spires stuck on top.  The building squatted heavily on the land.  Going inside was no revealing experience; one was simply walking into a beautifully decorated oven with smaller side chambers.  Under the limp stare of mosaic saints a huge populace could gather in the main chamber to have their souls leavened by the priests and baked appropriately to a tanned crust with soft inner whiteness.  Here the mouth watering scents of the bakery were supplanted by incense.  Tonio really liked the incense; it overpowered all the other smells, earthly smells, and lifted him into airy, slow pirouettes only occasionally illuminated by a finger of sunlight probing one of the small windows near the base of the domes high above. he watched the incense evolve through many forms just as he often watched the clouds outside.  When he tired of that he fixed his gaze on a single candle among the many on or near the altar.  He soon learned that he could make all visual and even audio perceptions fade and contract into the flame which, even at great distance, would leap up to engulf him entirely.  He had programmed his body to stand or kneel in synchrony with those around it while his mind floated free through the flame, or out a tiny window high above, or even through the eyes of a passive saint.   

More than anything else, more than the incense, the light rays, or the flames, Tonio loved the indescribable sensation of the Gregorian chants.  On solemn high occasions the monks formed a processional through the Basilica singing such beautiful works as the Pange Ligua.  Their voices…Pange ligua…their souls…gloriosi…flowed into every fold and turn…corporis….ebbed high in the vaulted domes…mysterium…as human life met light and incense and became One.  Sometimes a noise or a bump from someone nearby startled Tonio back into his body and he fell into depression at having lost touch with the Oneness, at having been reminded of his boundaries, his limits, his mortality.

Tonio longed intensely to return to the Oneness he occasionally glimpsed.  His holy awe spurred a love which demanded new avenues of enrichment, new avenues of expression.  As an enraptured couple seek and feel and kiss each other’s bodies, so did he probe and think and feel his relationship to this state of being, this bliss which he could not clearly put outside or inside himself. 

Catechism class was, at first, a revelation, a wonderful event looked forward to all week long.  But as his intensity grew, so did the quality of his probing.  Tonio found through the years that his questions were increasingly rejected or summarily answered by the priest.  He had quickly uncovered several “mysteries” in the faith such as: If God knows all things, how can we have free will? Or, if God is the creator of all things, why is there a Devil with whom he is in combat?  Or, if God is all loving and merciful, why do people burn in Hell for eternity because they missed Mass or ate meat on Friday, sins they were bound to commit because they were imperfect to start with by God’s own creation?  The other boys merely taunted the priest with trick questions such as whether an all powerful God could make a stone so heavy he could not lift it.  But Tonio increasingly saw the priest as a barrier, not an avenue.  And the priest himself confirmed this by pulling Tonio aside after class one Sunday and sternly warning him not to ask any more questions in class because some of the other boys might become confused and lose their faith.  Tonio, who by that time had learned the art of concealment,  let no sign pass that he was finished with the priest; he would have to find these answers for himself.

Another problem aggravated Tonio more than it puzzled him.  Why did he have to submit to enforced “rest” on Sunday?  Why were all the people subdued and in or near their homes instead of being out in God’s wonderful world, tending gardens and doing God’s work?  What was God, anyway?  Did it only happen once?

As the confusion of puberty swelled within him he felt there were fewer and fewer people in whom he could confide.  He began to see Sundays as an adventure in hypocrisy.  Oh yes, this was a day of rest, so Mamma could get to the church and display herself and her little darlings as pious, good, and above all successful people.  Pappa could eye the younger women in the place, if he weren’t half asleep.  And the young men and women of the area, people whom he had once admired, paraded about like so many doves for sale.  Oh, he was often enough excited by a lovely young girl.  His attention increasingly wandered away from the candle flames and into coy eyes, or the turn of a lip, the way a cascade of hair shimmered in the dim surroundings.  He saw the hypocrisy grow within himself.  He saw the fateful changes as his innocence on the periphery of whispered boastings turned to personal cognizance of sexual stimulation and release.  He had thought confession would help, it would pull him from this ever worsening morass of sin.  But the priest simply badgered him in uncomfortably loud whispers that his guilty pleasures would soon drive him insane.   Tonio had only to listen to those around him to decide that was not true.

to be continued… 

  1. Dana permalink

    Marco, what rich language in this story! “The sun paid closer attention now…” “…dirt would leap up..” I have a deep appreciation for exceedingly talented writers who utilize all of the writing elements available such as personification. You paint such a distinct picture for your readers.

    I am once again transported to my years as a little Roman Catholic girl. They ended soon after my First Communion at the age of seven, and I have mostly pleasant memories. Naturally, I am relieved those years came to an end for all the obvious reasons, although as you know the next phase of church-going was destructive for reasons different. But returning to your writing – one moment I am imagining the heavenly smell of freshly baked bread, the next I am recalling the scent of incense. Unlike Tonio, I found incense stomach-turning, and would hold my breath as Fr. Slezak walked down the aisle swinging his censer.

    Your stories require several initial readings for me – the first few for content and meaning, the rest more slowly, so I can thoroughly enjoy ​the artistry of the words. I seem to recall your once saying you are bad at fiction; please correct me if those were not your words. Perhaps you were only being too humble.

    Thank you for this marvelous installment. I think I will listen to some Gregorian chants this evening.


  2. Thank you so much, Dana. Yes, I’ve always thought I was not good at fiction. It feels clumsy to me unless the story takes off by itself. I’m so glad it has done that for you.

    Sometimes I wonder if people who, unlike us, do not share our background would sense the story in the same way.


  3. Dana’s first paragraph expresses my feelings as well regarding your style; subsequently, I would never attempt to add a single word to further express my like feelings.

    I would like to answer the last paragraph of your above comment posing as a question. I’ve only attended one mass when I was 16 visiting my uncle living in Boston. He married a beautiful Polish blonde lady who introduced him to the Catholic faith. On one occasion I experienced life as a Catholic during Mass. I was reared as a Methodist who shared some of the same litany during our services, but never to the degree of a Mass. I recall conjuring all sorts of confusing distractions leaving me anxious for its end. I got a very good idea of what you were wishing to express.

    I believe your fiction to be way above average as I eagerly await your next installment.


    • Thank you, Jerry. The report that a depiction of someone else’s life is realistic enough to inspire a reader to remember and reconsider his own is a reward without parallel. Thank you so much. Marco


  4. Each time I read your words, I see something more. Your imagery and use of metaphor are delightful. I have little knowledge of Catholicism in any practical sense, but have seen similar pageantry while attending other churches. I love the solemnity of the sermons (?); it absolutely intones Spirit. I have mixed feelings about the odor of incense, but the waving of the censer brings to mind other forms of purification. Gregorian chanting spirits me away from reality; it enters me and changes my biorhythms.

    Throughout your story, I am a ghost in the corner, watching Tonio as he goes through his day. Sometimes I am at a distance, and sometimes I am by his side. He’s at such a troubling age; life can be so confusing when the body and mind are in conflict. Tonio is what my mother would call “too smart for his own good” (is there such a thing?), and wise far beyond his years.

    He is a natural mystic; using the smoke and music to travel away from the reality he has already outgrown. His out-of-body experiences near Nir vana, and enlightenment (at least in my uneducated mind), and I feel with him his loss of that perfection of spirit. I’m not religious, not really even spiritual, but your words create this experience for me; thank you so much. Rose


    • Thank you, Rose. Coming from a writer such as you, this is a high honor. Following on what I said to Jerry, I can think of no greater joy for a writer than knowing that one’s work transports a reader beyond the dimensions in which we live our daily lives. Thank you so much, Marco


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