At Home in the Leaning Tower of Pisa
“Hey, Polly, I’ll see you up there!” Thinking her mother had called to her in amazingly good Italian, Polly was jolted out of her daydream. She’d been imagining what it would be like inside the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The high-pitched yapping of a small dog had muffled the voice a little, but who else could be calling her by name? It wasn’t a man’s voice; it couldn’t have been her father.
Polly looked around for the dog and for her mother. She finally spotted her parents talking together up at the head of the line of people waiting for a guide to lead them over to the tower. So who had spoken to Polly? She must be imagining things. That’s what comes from being excited. One of the world’s most amazing buildings, her geography book had called it. The tilting layers of white marble were just about the most incredible sight Polly had ever seen.
After the line began to move, she continued to hang back in the group of tourists with reservations to visit the Leaning Tower at one o’clock on that hot June afternoon. Her parents, used to her independent ways, entered the tower door ahead of her. Polly didn’t want anyone to distract her as she climbed. She was last to step through the entrance and onto the first stone step, which had been worn into a shallow trough. Over the centuries, who had gone before her up those stairs—how many thousands of men, women, and children? As she began climbing the spiral staircase lining the tower walls, she wasn’t really aware of the slant. The steps felt smooth and a little slippery beneath the rubber soles of her sandals.
Polly ran her hand over the blocks of stone forming the inside wall of the stairwell. On one block, the surface had been worn away; the pebbly fill behind it would be lighter than solid rock. As it was, she’d read the Leaning Tower weighed nearly 18,000 tons—how anyone had figured that out, Polly couldn’t guess. After the third level, the climb seemed a little easier. She thought she was just getting into the rhythm of ascending but then saw the steps were not as high. With the rest of the group out of sight ahead, Polly could send her mind back four hundred, five hundred, six hundred years and more—to the time when the tower was finished in 1350, almost two hundred years after it was begun, and farther back still to the people of medieval Pisa watching their magnificent bell tower grow in fits and starts and lean long before it was complete.
Two hundred ninety, 291, 292, 293—a slightly scary giant step brought Polly from the stairwell to the floor surrounded by the tower bells. Beyond them, the rest of the Campo dei Miracoli—the Field of Miracles—spread out in front of her: the roof and lacy dome of the cathedral, the round hat-like baptistery, and the perfect wide, green lawn beneath the marble buildings. In the distance, she could see the high mountains from which this marble had come, the same mountains that later would give Michelangelo his carving stone. Lower and more rounded Tuscan hills led off toward the city of Florence.
Polly’s parents left her alone to bask in the Leaning Tower and its sights. By the time most of the group had already started back down the steps, Polly was still gazing at the marble mountains. Suddenly, startling her again, a friendly but slightly boisterous voice called out, “Ciao, Polly! Sono Sofia, la ragazza nella Torre Pendente.”—“Hi, Polly! I’m Sofia, the girl in the Leaning Tower.” The closest person to Polly just then was a middle-aged man taking pictures of a scene from the opposite side. “Stop looking around; you won’t find me,” said the same voice, still in Italian. Actually it really didn’t sound at all like Polly’s mother, even though Polly realized this was the same person who’d addressed her before. In spite of the noise from the barking dog, Polly had heard well enough to conclude in retrospect the Italian had come from a native speaker, and a young one at that.
Polly felt less unnerved than she might have expected to be, hearing a disembodied girl talking to her at the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Maybe it was the tower’s aura of hundreds of years of history and the awareness it gave her of the countless lives that had filled that history. “Ciao,” Polly replied tentatively, hoping to be clued in about what was going on without having to ask for an explanation. She couldn’t stop herself from looking around again for some trace of the girl, but she saw only the man taking pictures, the guide—who was standing near the steps and looking a little bored—two older women about to enter the stairwell, puffy white clouds floating in the blue sky, the bells and arches surrounding her, and the Tuscan landscape fading into the distance.
“I remember when everywhere you looked, you saw forests, right up to the edge of the city, and great sailing ships in the harbor—ships back from places like Sicily and even Constantinople. Sometimes on a really quiet, starry night when I sneaked here to the tower alone—it wasn’t nearly so tall then—I heard wolves howling on the hillsides.”
Polly noticed the guide glance at her and then at the man taking pictures; they were now the only two from the group who hadn’t yet started down. “I have to go now,” she said urgently. “Please tell me who you are, but talk softly. That guide is giving me strange looks.”
“I told you: I’m Sofia.” The girl was still louder than Polly would have liked. “Meet me here tonight, about ten. We’ll be able to talk better without so many people around.”
Then Polly, too, had trouble keeping her voice down. She exclaimed, “But I can’t climb the tower that late! I’m going to be staying with a lady on the other side of the river. What will she say when I tell her, ‘I’ll be leaving after dark to meet some kind of ghost at the top of the Leaning Tower’? She’ll have me shipped back to New York so fast I won’t know what hit me, or down to join my parents—they’ll be in Naples by then. More likely I’d beat them there.” For the guide’s benefit, Polly tried to look fascinated by the nearest bell.
“Don’t be dumb—you’ll think of something better than that. But okay, make it nine o’clock. Any earlier and you won’t have time to finish supper and get back here. You’d better go now; that guide is giving you a funny look. He thinks you’re talking to yourself. Besides, kids are supposed to be with an adult.” Sofia finally switched to a whisper. “Naturally I don’t mean meet me up here. I’ll see you outside the tower—at nine sharp, remember. Hurry up; you’re almost the last one, not counting me, of course. Oh and by the way, I’m not just ‘some kind of ghost’!”
“And I’m not a kid,” Polly couldn’t resist adding. “I’m almost thirteen.”
“I know, but you look about ten. Now hurry up!”
“Woof!” said a small dog.
“Be quiet, Kinzica!” whispered Sofia before Polly had a chance to realize how out of place a “woof” was on top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Both the guide and the man taking pictures looked over at Polly, and she saw the guide move toward her. She started on her way back down the stairs so fast she nearly stumbled on the top step.
Polly barely noticed a thing about the descent, except that the steps seemed even slipperier going this way, and she wondered what would happen if she really lost her footing and slid all the way to the bottom. She didn’t, though, no thanks to her attentiveness. Instead, as she descended she puzzled about how Sofia had known her name and age and how she could possibly sneak out of Madame Meringue’s house to meet Sofia. Maybe Mme Minou Meringue would be an easygoing lady, but when Polly and her parents had called from New York to make the arrangements for Polly to stay with her, she’d sounded prim. Polly imagined her as strict and set in her ways. The fact that a lady living in Italy insisted on being called “Madame,” rather than “signora,” was certainly unexpected. It was true that Mme Meringue was originally from France, but her husband had been Italian and she’d told Polly and her parents, “I’ve lived in Pisa for forty years and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”
“You must have really liked it up there,” Polly’s father said after she’d spotted her parents and joined them where they were waiting for her a few feet beyond the tower entrance.
“I was glad to come down,” said Polly’s mother, “even though I loved the view and the notion of being on top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, which I’ve read about my entire life. The whole time I was standing up there, I had the strange notion the tower could topple over at any moment.”
“The bells were so interesting,” said Polly rather distractedly. “Did you know they play a musical scale—one note for each of the seven bells?” she thought to add, to make her lingering on the top seem only a matter of fascination with details.
“For a girl who never cared much for history, you’ve done a great job of studying about the tower. We’ll miss having you with us in Naples for lots of reasons. You’re our tour guide!” said her father, giving her a hug. Polly thought her parents were more worried than she was about the prospect of spending a summer apart. She’d miss them a lot, but she also looked forward to adventures on her own—assuming Mme Meringue didn’t prove to be too formidable. As far as meeting Sofia was concerned, it would probably turn out to feel more comfortable working around even a formidable landlady than misleading her almost-always-reasonable parents. She didn’t think they’d be a bit keen on her showing up at the Leaning Tower alone at dusk, but by that time, they’d be settling into their apartment in Naples, where they were going to spend the summer buying contemporary Italian art and crafts for their gallery back in New York City.