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Chrysalis. part 3

by on March 1, 2015

Three years after his confirmation Tonio left the church.  Many scenes with tearful Mamma and scowling sisters followed, but nothing would change his mind.  The boy who had once desired nothing more than to sink himself into the mystical ocean of Oneness with the Virgin, her son, and God the Father now saw himself as a free floating renegade, unsure of what he was leaving, unsure of where he was going, but with growing strength in a sense of rightness.  Pappa was a shadow, a form, a non-entity in this development.  Though Tonio had been in apprenticeship to him for three years, his relationship to Pappa had never been as deep as that enjoyed by Pappa’s business partner.  After all, raising the children was women’s work.  Dealing successfully with the business world was all a man had to worry about.

At sixteen Tonio managed to bumble his way through sexual intercourse.  He went through the motions, anyway.  His great fears of being caught, of getting the girl pregnant, and of disclosing his virginity tightened around him.  He could perform, but not ejaculate.  Although the experience set him to wondering about himself it did leave him with a net gain in self assurance; another hurdle had been passed, another indicator of manhood and self reliance. Though he spoke to no one about it he was, to others, a changed person.  The scales had tipped.  It seemed his adult personality was finally forming.  Pappa was relieved that, if nothing else, his son would not turn into one of those damned priests who lived off the people and often derived more than casual pleasures from little boys such as Tonio had been.  Mamma spent more time with her daughters.       

As another year passed Tonio was given more responsibility in his father’s business.  He was free to travel to other cities to re-assess contracts with various partners involved in merchandizing Venetian glass.  He was a gallant seventeen years old, successfully moving into his father’s business, apparently not destined for the monastic or scholarly life.  Still, he carried within him the unforgettable foundations laid in solitary and contemplative childhood.  Somewhere within him lay a pool, dark and quiet, while his attention fell to externals, to new found friends, to wine and an occasional girl seeking adventure.  His friends seemed to enjoy him; he could recount and impersonate doddering old merchants in Ravenna, a drunken priest in Padua, or witty whores in Brindisi.  Life’s doors seemed to be opening widely for Tonio. Yet, there were portents; there were vague problems.   Occasionally, in an obsessive rush toward excitement, in an impassioned attempt to have fun,  he would drink to extremes which would become legend.  Afterward, with loud buzzing in his ears he would pitch and lurch down darkened streets holding fast to a building stone, stumbling and falling in the street, pressing his face against the cool cobblestones while a maelstrom churned from the depths of his bowels and flowed out his mouth and nose in punishing spasms.  And the sky lay black over the streets.

Tonio’s eighteenth birthday occurred during a trip to Brindisi.  This town, near the extreme boot heel of the mainland, was crucial to Mediterranean trade.  After two days of very careful negotiations he had another contract to his credit, and another year to his life.  At a time when he might be expected to be at his raucous best he shunned his fellow travelers and ventured into the city alone.  Night fell quickly as he wandered from tavern to tavern in the seaport’s waterfront district.  Sailors and merchants from countless places were gathered in noisy congregations, taking communion with each other and in wine until dawn.  Tonio watched and drank; listened and drank.  He wondered if he was seeing his future laid out in front of him. He could not imagine living the composed, ritual life of his father.  He was drawn to the point-blank honesty of these outriders from society.  A man’s pedigree counted for nothing the moment he stepped into one of these taverns.  If he could not find family and friends among the faces of the world then he should settle with people he could call his own.  Personal histories vanished in celebration of the moment.  And one need not expect anything to come of the moment’s relationship.  A tavern mate tonight may be at the bottom of the sea tomorrow.

But within himself Tonio knew he was not of this caste.  The whores in the taverns and the streets knew it, too.  They looked at him, made half-hearted solicitations, and went on to hang around the necks of other merchants and crusty sailors.  He sometimes felt ambivalent as to whether he should take pride in that.  In any case, he was always fascinated by whores.  They seemed able to be there, yet not be truly there.  In his travels he had gotten to know a few as friends, but he had never indulged in their wares.  The emerging merchant had never bargained for flesh.

There was something very curious about women who could offer their bodies to men.  Tonio strongly disliked the ones who were obviously ashamed or unhappy in their trade.  Their attitude only compounded the moroseness he imagined attended their clients.  He admired the women who exuded happiness, enthusiasm, and contentment in their vocation.  He was terribly attracted to them and derived joy from just watching their happiness.  His pleasure was taken at a distance, though.  An enticing glance from one of these harlots was enough to set him to embarrassed fidgeting until he could finish his drink and leave, face burning with shame, heart consumed with desire.

Back in Venice several weeks later he was crossing Piazza San Marco in early morning when his eyes fell upon a sight which stopped his heart.  He stumbled on the smooth flagstones as his mind reeled back through the years to place this image, this part of his being.  In the shadows of the far colonnade sat an old man attended on three sides by pigeons.  Tonio’s body wobbled in obedience to a force which compelled him to desert his mission and go to the old man.  Again, as in a dream, he went along the inside of the colonnade to avoid frightening the pigeons.  As he sat in almost the same spot as eight years before,  an unknown chronology of anguish, distrust, and solitude fell from his shoulders.  There was nothing to fear from this man; he demanded no credentials, he offered no competition, he would not laugh with sarcasm.  His hand did not move as easily now.  And his face, what Tonio could see of it, was more deeply etched by time.  As Tonio watched the sunlight emanate in a corona around the old man’s head, the man slowly turned his face to him and said, “I see you are a chrysalis. What will you become, a butterfly or a moth?”   

Before Tonio could answer the confusing question the old man relieved him of the burden by asking if life had been good to him so far.

“I have many friends,” he said.

“And how many of those call you ‘friend’?  How many friends do you have who do not know you? How many people are friends you will never know?”

“I suppose I have been on my own now for a couple of years,” said Tonio. “When I left the church I, of course, left my family. I am still under my father’s roof and am his senior apprentice. But my family has excused me as a sinner.”

“And do you think you are a sinner?”

Tonio kept silent; a frown tossed about on his turbulent face.  Once again, the old man answered his own question.  “A sinner is as close to the church as a saint. Both are bound by their definitions. A man who is truly free is one who can see himself in all things and all things in himself. He is at once no greater or no lesser than what he is, and so he is complete.  I am a man whose life no one believes. Before my few short years among Shaolin monks that would have bothered me.  In fact, I would have defended myself at every turn. But I learned that we each live in our own reality, and we cannot expect someone to make our reality theirs, or theirs ours.  Ultimately, we truly give to ourselves when we give to others, and I give them their reality”

Putting aside his question of what is a Shaolin monk, Tonio asked, “But what if there is a god?”

“Chrysalis, if there is a god who is self-aware and so forth, would not this god place more value on a man who lived his life according to what he believed was true – no matter what his belief – than on a man who lived a pious life only out of fear that there may be a god?”

Tonio fell silent again, his face placid this time. Several minutes passed and the old man spoke.  “If you want to call it god, you might.  But god is not known through studying scriptures or using one’s intellect or learning. God is known by him who knows himself.”

Tonio lifted his face to the old man, desperate to ask where he learned this, and who were those monks when a little girl came running across the piazza calling, “Master Polo, Master Polo. You are wanted at home, sir.”

As the old man rose to leave he handed Tonio the feed sack. A rush of memories flowed through the young man as he held the past in his hand. The old man was halfway across the piazza when Tonio looked up.

 to be continued.

  1. Dana permalink

    Marco, another wondrously beautiful installation.

    “A man who is truly free is one who can see himself in all things and all things in himself. He is at once no greater or no lesser than what he is, and so he is complete. ”

    This is how I feel when I have a mystical experience. It is truly liberating for however long it lasts.


  2. Thank you so much, Dana. Your enjoyment and sense of connection makes every effort worthwhile. I know that many of us are awaiting your writing.


  3. Just caught up with Tonio yesterday; what an interesting young man he is becoming! I watch with interest as his unique character grows, showing itself in his relationship alongside, but not really with, the world around him. I envy his independence, and weep for his social awkwardness, so like my own.

    This chapter has been the best one yet, both in content and literary skill. I look forward to many more, and to seeing where life takes our Tonio. Rose


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