A Spirited Assignment
The cheerful, strong voice resumed: “Another nice view from here, don’t you think? More attractive than your room at Mme Meringue’s, wouldn’t you say? All that fluffy white! La Meringue takes her name a bit too seriously.”
“I hadn’t thought of that. But how do you know what my room looks like?”
“I saw it: ‘I’ll bet mamma and papà would appreciate a letter now and then.’” Her Mme Meringue imitation was unmistakable for what it was.
Polly jumped up and felt a strong urge to run all the way out of the Campo dei Miracoli. “You were there this afternoon! Were you spying on me? If you were there, why did you make me come all the way out here to talk to you? Will I have you following me around all summer?”
“Calm down. I’m not going to be spying on you. I have better things to do. I did have to check out your summer plans and make sure your parents won’t be hanging around—that was necessary research. And today’s visit was to prove what I can do. You may find my talents useful as we get into our work. As for your coming here tonight, the tower is my home; I invited you to my home because it’s beautiful and I’m a hospitable girl.”
“What is ‘our work’? This is the first I’ve heard about it! How do you know I’m going to help? And who are you, really? I mean, who were you when you were alive, and why are you here in Pisa now?” Polly could still feel the heat in her face from her shock at realizing Sofia had been watching her earlier in her room—and who knew how often before that. Had Sofia started spying while she and her parents were in the hotel? On the plane coming over? Back in New York?
“Too many questions! I am Sofia; I told you that, and I’m as alive as you are, just minus a regular earth-style body, meaning one your type can see. I lived here in Pisa as a mortal girl from 1168 to 1180.
“When I was growing up, Pisa was a great power on land and sea, an extremely important city—it still is, in my opinion! My father was a stonemason working on the first phase of the Leaning Tower. Although he was highly skilled, we were anything but rich, and our family lived in a two-room stone cottage on the land of a wealthy merchant. We grew olives and grapes, as well as beautiful vegetables of many kinds. We shared our oil, wine, and produce with the padrone, who was kinder than many and let us keep enough for our needs. My mother and we older children did most of the work in the garden, orchard, and vineyard because my father was so busy, and some of the time he was away at the quarry in the mountains selecting the best marble.
“I didn’t mind the work at home, but whenever I had a chance, I ran off to watch my father and the other men building the tower. First they carved all the pieces, which were then put together like a huge, three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.”
“How do you know about jigsaw puzzles?” Polly said skeptically.
“I didn’t just stop learning in 1180, you know! Mirella likes puzzles—you’ll be meeting her. Sometimes I help her find where the pieces go. I have an eye for patterns. I’ve been observing how things fit together for centuries now.”
Hesitantly, Polly asked, “What happened to you in 1180?”
“That’s enough about me for now. I need you to help me make some things better for three of my Pisans.”
“Are they, uh, disembodied, too?”
“Of course not. You’ll be able to see them just fine.”
“Do they know about you?”
“Of course! Generally the people I try to help know me for who I am. It’s just too hard, otherwise—plus, it bugs me when I’m ignored. It’s not as if I make a pest of myself, most of the time, anyway. You’ll be surprised how many people around here know me. They just avoid talking about it to those who don’t—except for Mirella; she says whatever’s on her mind, no matter what. You’ll see her tomorrow. She forgets sometimes that most people don’t think the way she does—too bad more don’t. Anyway, Mirella used to be a professor, until she got fired.”
“Fired? Oh dear, what did she do? And where does she fit in with this work you talked about?”
“You’ll see when you meet her,” Sofia answered cryptically.
“How did she—how do people find out about you?”
“The same way you did. I say hello.”
“Have you ever said hello to the wrong person?”
“People who aren’t ready to deal with my type usually make some excuse to themselves about what it is they’ve heard—they blame their imagination, mostly. Now your Mme Meringue hears me; that’s for sure. But she’d never in a million years believe I’m the spirit of an ordinary girl. Her husband, Gustavo—he’s a nice guy, but he died a few years ago and doesn’t come back too often since Minou (the name suits her to a T) has some lessons to work on alone—Gustavo was a religion professor and was quite wise about things; too bad only the being religious rubbed off on Minou, not the being wise. Oh well, that’s where we come in.”
Polly struggled to follow Sofia’s chain of thought. Lingering jet lag, not to mention the strangeness of the situation, didn’t help any. Polly looked around at the beautiful scene surrounding her and at the handful of tourists still milling about. She felt as though she’d been dropped onto the cathedral steps by magic. How in the world had she ended up chatting with an invisible girl at dusk on the Campo dei Miracoli as casually as she’d chatted on the phone with friends back home?
She returned her focus to what Sofia was saying: “Gustavo may not want to interfere in Minou’s earthly lessons, but I have no such scruples, and I hope you’ll agree with my perspective.”
Polly also had to work hard to keep up with Sofia’s surprisingly up-to-date and polished Italian, spoken at a good clip. Sofia rattled on: “Anyway, one day Minou’s convinced I’m the archangel Michael, and the next I’m Gabriel minus his horn. I wouldn’t have thought these guys—and no, I haven’t met them—sound like a girl, but Mme Meringue gets so thrown hearing a voice supposedly coming out of nowhere that she doesn’t think about such details. Wait until you see how your Mme Meringue spends her free time—trying to cause trouble for the folks I’ll be introducing to you.”
“Are you planning to do something to Mme Meringue?” Polly asked with trepidation. After all, Mme Meringue was Polly’s landlady. She’d been nice to Polly so far, even if she were a little unusual and judgmental. Polly felt she owed her some loyalty.
“Reform her, if I can—I have some ideas—otherwise run her out of town, someplace where she can’t cause trouble for so many people. Maybe New York would be good, if I could figure out how to get her there. She’d just be lost in the crowd.”
“We’re not so bad in New York!” Polly said indignantly. “But then Mme Meringue really doesn’t seem so bad, either.”
“Wait and see,” said Sofia. “Just wait and see. Well, anyway, we’ll keep her in Pisa if she shapes up as I hope she will.”
Polly realized the light had completely gone from the sky, and the Campo dei Miracoli was nearly deserted. “I’d better go soon, so we should get to whatever else you wanted to talk about. I can’t help you very much if I get kicked out the first night and have to leave Pisa. Are the buses even still running?” she asked nervously, having completely forgotten to check the return schedule. She looked back toward the archway through which she had entered the Campo dei Miracoli.
“There’s one more in about ten minutes. Stand across the street from where you got off. Yes, you’d better go on now. You’ll be okay. I’ll be around to make sure, but it’s pretty safe.”
“You haven’t explained very much! I don’t even know why you’ve been hanging out in Pisa all these centuries. And you said you wanted me to help three people, but I’ve only heard about some Mirella and learned that Mme Meringue is a little odd, which is not really big news—even if I can’t believe she’s some kind of villain, as you seem to think.”
“Tonight I mostly wanted us to get to know each other a little better. Meet me tomorrow afternoon at San Michele in Borgo—that’s a church—on the Borgo Stretto; that’s the pedestrian street on this side of the Arno River. Walk up from the river; you’ll see a big marble church on the right side. Come about 1:30. That will give you time to eat your pranzo after your morning lessons. Don’t worry, I’ll find you—and I’ll give you time to get back for your afternoon class.”
“Why should I meet you there?” Polly asked.
“Oh, sorry; I thought I’d told you. Mirella should be in action about then.”
“What do you mean, ‘in action’?” Polly asked, but there was no answer except for a firm “woof” from a small dog that sounded right next to her but was nowhere to be seen. “Can I at least meet your dog, Sofia?”
Still there was no answer, except for a second, softer “woof.” Sofia had said she’d be “around,” so Polly decided she must be ducking further explanations of her plans for the summer. Sometimes it must be pretty convenient being invisible.
Polly turned the key in the lock as quietly as she could. The front door squeaked as she gently pushed it open, but she could hear a television whose high volume didn’t finally abate until after she was in bed and struggling to fall asleep over the voices and laughter floating up through her open window.
Once relative tranquility replaced the TV noise, Polly found that lying in bed in her own room in Pisa felt blissful, like waking up inside the perfect dream. She even had to admit that pretty much every moment of the day had been blissful, too, in spite of being rather surprising and still a bit puzzling. The night air through the open window carried the pleasing sounds of neighbors on a nearby balcony, along with the smell of their late-evening barbecue. Polly looked forward to meeting more Pisans.
She was excited to be about to begin Italian lessons in what she’d already decided was one of her favorite cities in the world, right up there with New York. And her life in Pisa certainly seemed more exciting so far than her life in New York, even if her guidebook claimed Pisa could be a little bit dull. More than likely, its author hadn’t bothered to stay in town long enough to get to know more than the famous sites—and also probably hadn’t encountered any Pisan spirit girls.