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A U G U S T 2 0 0 0
IS back is stiff and sore from days of riding and from the long rounds of the shrines. He shrugs his shoulders, attempting to shake out the soreness, and rolls his head in a slow circle, easing the knotted muscles in his neck. As he does this, his horse starts, making a panicked sidestep that nearly unseats him. He catches up the reins as he lifts himself out of the saddle and then, when he drops back into his seat, he loosens his knees, gripping the horse's flanks with his calves. He knows as he goes through these automatic calming responses that there is something in the road just ahead, something that was not there a moment ago. The horse comes to a standstill in a cloud of dust that rises to his knees, and he stands working his head back and forth against the bit. Francesco rests a hand on his mane and says his name softly, reassuringly, as he looks down past the foaming lips to see what has so terrified this normally sedate and reliable creature.
The leper stands in the middle of the road, perfectly still. One hand rests on the bell cord around his neck, the other hangs limply at his side. He is dressed in a filthy garment, patched together from bits of sacking and undyed wool, which hangs loosely on his emaciated body. He regards Francesco and his horse steadily, his head slightly turned and his chin lifted, the better to see them, for his disease has eaten away half his face and he has only one eye.
Francesco does not speak. He cannot move. They face each other on the road, and the bright sun pours down great quantities of light over them, so there are no shadows anywhere, nothing to soften or dim the harsh reality of this encounter, and nowhere to hide from the necessity of playing it out. The leper's eye drills into Francesco. From childhood he has had a horror of lepers, and he has always avoided the lazaretto at the foot of Mount Subasio, where they sometimes congregate in the road, rattling their wooden bells and calling out for alms. He dreams of the foul stench rising from their rotting flesh, their grotesque faces, their phlegmy, guttural voices. He wakes sweating and shouting for help.
He glances back down the road and into the neat ranks of the olive trees. All is uncommonly empty and still. Even the birds, twittering only a moment ago, have been silenced.
He could ride on. There is no reason to stop. He could throw down his last coin to the leper as he passes. His horse lifts one hoof and paws the hard dirt. It is time to go on, to go home. As Francesco drops his hand to the reins, his eyes fall on his own well-fitting glove, and it dawns on him that this leper is not wearing gloves, which is odd, because he and his kind are required always to wear them when they leave their hospitals, just as they are required always to wear and ring their bells to warn unwary travelers of their approach.
Again Francesco looks down on the solitary figure of the leper, who has not moved. His hand is wrapped around the cord, his head arrested at an angle. He is like a statue, lifeless and weather-beaten, and Francesco has the sudden sense that he has been standing there, in his path, forever.
Something has been coming toward him, or he has been coming to something; he has known this for some time, and he has bent his energy in the direction of finding out what it might be. This was the reason for his pilgrimage to Rome. At the shrines he had recited the requisite prayers; gazed upon the relics, the bones, the bits of hair and cloth, the vials of blood and tears; and proferred the proper offerings. But he had not felt the burden of his sins lifted, and this spiritual restlessness drove him on. Only when he was with the beggars in the vestibule of the basilica had he felt some respite from this condition of tense and urgent expectancy.
He is in the grip of it again as he swings one leg over the saddle and drops to the ground beside his horse. The stillness of the world makes every sound acute -- the clinking of the bridle chain as he leads the animal to a green patch nearby, the sound of grass tearing, and then the big jaws grinding. Francesco runs his hands through his hair, bats the dust from the front of his surcoat, and turns to face the man, who is there waiting for him.
The leper watches him with interest. His blasted face is bathed in sunlight; the black hole that was his eye has a steely sheen, and a few moist drops on his scab-encrusted lips glitter like precious stones. He moves at last, releasing his cord and extending his hand slowly, palm up, before him.
This supplicating gesture releases Francesco, for it dictates the countergesture, which he realizes he longs to make. Without hesitation he strides across the distance separating him from his obligation, smiling all the while as if stepping out to greet an old and dear friend. He opens his purse, extracts the thin piece of silver inside it, and closes it up again. He is closer now than he has ever before been to one of these unfortunate beings, and the familiar reaction of disgust and nausea rises up, nearly choking him, but he battles it down. He can hear the rasp of the leper's breath, rattling and wet. The battle between Francesco's will and his innate reluctance overmasters him: he misses a step, recovers, and then drops to one knee before the outstretched hand, which is hardly recognizable as a hand but is, rather, a lumpish, misshapen thing, the fingers so swollen and callused that they are hardly differentiated, the flesh as black and hard as an animal's rough paw.
Carefully Francesco places his coin in the open palm, where it glitters, hot and white. For a moment he tries to form some simple speech, some pleasantry that will restore him to the ordinary world, but even as he struggles, he understands that this world is gone from him now, that there is no turning back. It was only so much smoke, blinding and confusing him, but he has come through it somehow; he has found the source of it, and now, at last, he is standing in the fire. Tenderly he takes the leper's hand, tenderly he brings it to his lips. At once his mouth is flooded with an unearthly sweetness that pours over his tongue, burning his throat and bringing sudden tears to his eyes. These tears moisten the corrupted hand he presses to his mouth. His ears are filled with the sound of wind, and he can feel the wind chilling his face, a cold, harsh wind blowing toward him from the future, blowing away everything that has come before this moment -- this moment he has longed for and dreaded, as if he thought he might not live through it.
He reaches up, clinging to the leper's tunic, for the wind is so strong and cold that he fears he cannot stand against it. Behind him the horse lifts its head from grazing and lets out a long, impatient whinny, but Francesco does not hear it. He is there in the road, rising to his feet, and the leper assists him, holding him by the shoulders. Then the two men clutch each other, their faces pressed close together, their arms entwined. The sun beats down and the air is hot and still, yet they appear to be caught in a whirlwind. Their clothes whip about; their hair stands on end; they hold on to each other for dear life.
E can hear their voices, angry and exultant, over the terrified cries of their prisoners, like the shouts of butchers one to another when they are herding squealing, struggling pigs into the slaughtering pen. These captors are neither men nor beasts; in spite of their hairy backs, black horns, brutish snouts, and birds' feet, they stand upright and brandish in their large human hands the tools of their trade: lashes; slashing hooks; glowing, red-hot irons. One digs his talons into the neck of a naked man who writhes beneath him, his face swollen and blue, his body drawn up in an impossible arc. The man's mouth is opened wide in a howl, for his captor has forced a thick rod between his buttocks and is bearing down hard upon it. Behind these two a woman has fallen to her knees as she struggles to release her shoulder from the jaws of another demon. The creature's thick reptilian tail is wrapped around her torso, holding her fast against his thighs. He mocks her suffering, pointing out her destination: a black tube with teeth, like the mouth of an enormous serpent, down which two of his fellows have thrown another victim -- whether male or female is uncertain, because only the legs and feet are visible. The feet are curiously flexed. All but two of the prisoners are naked: a man in rich garb, carrying a sack across his shoulders and entering the awful scene through a flaming gate at one side, and another man crawling on the ground near the serpent's mouth, naked but for the bishop's miter still firmly in place on his head, his torso wrapped tightly in the coiled tail of another demon. The bishop is gazing at another man, who has a demon crouched on his stomach. The creature is positioned so that his buttocks are poised just over his victim's face; his sharp talons are sunk in the man's genitals. The sufferer's mouth is held open by an iron device, and his eyes are rolled back in agony and horror. From the demon's anus flows a stream of gold coins, filling the open mouth, choking the man with gold.
Francesco lets out a soft huff of amusement as he examines this last image. He looks up from the dark and lurid sufferings of the damned to the bright sunlit window next to him, but he does not notice the limpidity of the light that illuminates the book and the table he is bending over, because he hears the sound of footsteps on the gravel outside. Hurriedly he crosses the room and drops down into an open recess in the floor, a space so narrow and shallow that he has to curl himself in a ball to fit into it. He reaches up to slide the flat stone that serves as a lid for this, his own personal hell, into place, closing his eyes tight against the dirt that always showers down when the stone's edge lodges in the earth.
The door has opened, the intruder has paused, and then the footsteps come purposefully to the hiding place. Two sharp raps bring down a fresh shower of dirt. Francesco pushes against the stone, lifting it, while his friend grabs the edge and pulls it back across the floor. Francesco sits up in his hole and rubs the dirt from his eyes.
"Your father has not relented," the old priest says. "He knows you are in hiding hereabouts, and he has sworn to find you if he has to pay the entire guard."
"He won't have to pay anyone," Francesco says flatly.
The priest throws up his hands. "What will you do?"
"I'm going to Assisi," Francesco says. "He will find me in the street easily enough."
NSIDE the gates of Assisi two boys, returning from the forest, each burdened by a large dead hare, push past Francesco, and he is so weak that he staggers into the wall. Their heads come up like those of young wolves alerted by the misstep of a sheep, their eyes fix coldly upon him, and their nostrils quiver, testing the air, deciphering the scent of vulnerability and fear. "Idiot," one observes to the other. Francesco rights himself and continues up the street, holding the skirt of his tunic so that he will not trip on it. The boys fall into step behind him. Each is half his size but has twice his strength. "You know who this is," one says to the other. "This is the son of Pietro Bernardone, the one who has robbed his father and disgraced his name." Francesco plods on, his eyes on the paving stones rising ahead of him.
"Why have you come back, madman?" one of the boys taunts him. "Do you think your father will welcome you?" The other steps up quickly, overtaking Francesco and dancing out ahead of him, brandishing his hare. He squeezes his nose with his free hand and whines, "God, how he stinks."
"He stinks of his friends at the lazaretto," his companion offers. "He is searching for his new love among the lepers." At this Francesco looks briefly over his shoulder, his expression a mixture of exhaustion, fever, and irony. The boy feels the hot black arrow of this regard as a momentary hesitation, instantly banished by the arrival of a boisterous trio clattering down the steps from San Giorgio. They are just released from school and wild from a morning of Latin declensions, intent now on merriment or mischief, whichever comes easiest. At once they spy Francesco and his persecutors and rush forward to join in the game, shouting imprecations -- "Idiot," "Swine," "Thief," "Madman." Circling Francesco, they pluck at his sleeves, bump him hard with their hips and elbows, mock his efforts to keep his footing and to continue on his way. His resistance is feeble and he does not protest, which excites their contempt. They speak for him, grinning and winking at one another, "Oh, do not push me so, my dear Giorgio." "Matteo, why are you so rough with me?" The racket brings women to the upper windows along the street. "It is Pietro Bernardone's son," one observes to another. Like a feather riding on the air, this phrase is borne away along the streets, fluttering across the piazza at San Giorgio, sucked into the narrow passageway and puffed out across the marketplace, where the stalls are closing for the day. Old women, trudging homeward with their baskets half empty -- summer is over, and already there is little to buy but turnips, apples, and quinces -- lift their sharp faces to hear the news: "Pietro's son, Francesco, has come back."
As Francesco makes his way through the town, the mocking entourage thickens around him, and he can scarcely see what is ahead. The children pick up stones and clods of dirt, which they pitch at him, shouting with delight when they hit their mark. He plods on, indifferent to all provocation; but when they pass the ancient columns of Minerva's temple, the press in front of him suddenly parts, and he is faced with a sight that weakens his knees, though not his resolve. His father rushes toward him, bellowing, cursing, calling on God and on all his neighbors to witness his disgrace and his fury. His face is bright red, his eyes bulge in their sockets, his lips are pulled back over his teeth like an enraged dog's. Francesco stands his ground, but at the last, as his father charges down on him, he throws up his hands to protect his face.
"Ingrate!" Pietro shouts, grabbing his son by the hair. "Thief! Scoundrel!" He knocks Francesco to his knees with a backhanded blow and then jerks him up and slaps him across the ear. Francesco does not struggle or cry out. He has been living in a hole for a month, refining his courage for this confrontation, and though the father has superior strength, the son's will has been formed as igneous rock is formed, under pressure, and it is unyielding.
The crowd now takes the side of youth against age, and chides Pietro for his anger. This criticism stings him, and he protests vociferously. How could they know what he has been through day after day, with this good-for-nothing boy who claims he has God's blessing to steal from his own father? He grips Francesco by the elbow and pulls him forward so roughly that he feels the sinew pop at Francesco's shoulder, but he will not be stopped now. If his son resists, he will take his arm right out of the socket. Francesco reels, his eyes roll back in his head, and he stumbles forward, endeavoring to keep up. Pietro rains down curses on his son, on his neighbors, on his town, on the world, on God himself, who has cursed him with the infamy of an ungrateful son.
Illustrations by Steven Adler.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.