Mme Meringue’s Message for Pisa
Polly had just slammed the door to the street when she heard in her ear, “The old biddy isn’t home.”
Polly almost managed not to be startled, and her heart only flipped over once. “You’re shouting again!” she complained. “And who’s calling someone old?”
“Age is a state of mind,” Sofia replied primly. “So she’s old and I’m not. But listen: I saw Mme Meringue leaving her house just now, and I know where she’s going. Come with me to the Chiesa del Carmine. Minou loves putting in an appearance there about this time of day because she’s sure of finding some locals who’ve stopped in after work, plus the usual tourists.”
A short way farther up the Corso Italia, they came to a plain church with a small piazza in front of it. “Wait ’till you see the inside!” said Sofia, adding, “No, I came before the church. It’s from the 14th century.”
“There’s Mme Meringue,” said Polly, who had turned to gaze down the street. “She’s near the bookstore.” Polly’s landlady slowly walked in their direction, everyone else—except the window-shoppers and yet another pair of tourists studying a map—passing her as they headed north. The reason for her slow pace was evident: she kept glancing down at a sheet of paper she was carrying.
“Hurry. Come on inside and take a seat near the back somewhere where she won’t notice you. Pretend to be praying. I guarantee a good show.”
The unadorned stucco exterior seemed to be an entirely different building from the exuberant explosion of colors and swirls, angels, and saints that greeted Polly inside. “People kept adding stuff, century after century,” Sofia said in what sounded like an apologetic tone, but Polly thought the church was beautiful. “Now hurry up and sit down,” Sofia ordered.
Polly was happy to sit, to take a deep breath and absorb the peacefulness that lived within the church. To her, it seemed eternal in there, untouched by the bustling outside world. She felt suspended in time as she watched a few tourists moving about almost silently. One paused in front of an ornate fresco. A few Pisans from the neighborhood prayed silently. It seemed normal time would stay frozen until Polly was ready to restart it by stepping out onto the street. A lay worker busied himself at the altar with some preparation for the next mass but was gone after Polly glanced back to see if Mme Meringue had entered the church. She unexpectedly felt like bowing her head and saying a little prayer for her parents and for her grandmother, who had been ill.
Polly heard the door open and then softly bang closed. Sharp heels rang out on the stone floor. Someone wasn’t making any attempt to avoid disturbing the worshipers. When the footsteps had passed, Polly looked toward the front while still keeping her head down. There was no mistaking the comfortable form striding at what seemed for Mme Meringue to be an uncomfortably rapid pace toward the altar.
Polly watched her stop, pivot on the spot, and immediately shout, “Pisans, behold the truth!” Minou Meringue’s voice needed no amplification to carry clearly, in spite of the high ceiling. A half-dozen people seated ahead of Polly glanced up. Mme Meringue was wearing a forest-green hat that, to judge by its style, had been in her wardrobe for thirty years. Her dress was only barely more fashionable, and its pattern of large green Eiffel Towers on a beige background called attention to her built-for-comfort figure. She wasn’t an ugly woman, thought Polly. She could even look quite handsome, the way so many older French and Italian women did, if she dressed more stylishly.
Mme Meringue briefly consulted the paper in her hand and then resumed: “Fellow Pisans, I come to you as one who was once a stranger. But now I hold Pisa in my heart as my true home on earth—Pisa, the site of my worldly bliss and my field of action; Pisa, the city where I am called to aid my neighbors one and all. Will you not join me?” She glanced at her paper again. “Will you not enter the crusade? Yes, I dare call my mission a crusade. My crusade is no less than returning Pisa to the state of righteousness it knew in the days of San Ranieri and Santa Bona.”
“How does she know about the city then? She wasn’t here; I can tell you that,” an indignant Sofia whispered to Polly.
“Behold the elements aligned against return to our heritage of goodness. The extracomunitari threaten our legal merchants and frighten the tourists who bless our land. The Gypsies rob citizens and visitors alike and sully our Tuscany with their heathen. . . .”
Mme Meringue was interrupted by a booming, if girlish, voice that seemed to come from the ceiling: “Who are you to speak thus in the Lord’s dwelling! Identify yourself, termagant of evil!”
“Wow,” thought Polly. “That big voice of Sofia’s comes in handy.”
Mme Meringue’s own voice came out in a shriek: “Gabriel, is that you? Or is it you, Michael, archangel of God?”
“Repent, sinner, for you shall know my wrath!”
“I stand chastened before you,” she shouted, dropping awkwardly to her knees. “Lord, let your angel have mercy on me!”
By now the tourists and worshipers were hurrying toward the back of the church and the safety and sanity of the Corso Italia. Polly left with them. She was laughing, trying to do so quietly until she got outside, but then an uncomfortable feeling of sympathy for Mme Meringue made her continue on down the street, instead of waiting to hear more details from Sofia.
Polly paused in the Piazza Vittorio Emanuale II, in sight of the train station. The piazza, which had been named in honor of the first king of united Italy, was an oval of umbrella pines, flowers, grass, and pigeons that served as a traffic circle linking the main Pisan streets south of the Arno. Polly watched a pigeon pecking at part of a roll. She didn’t really want to go home and have to face her landlady.
“I know,” a familiar girl’s voice said to her. “I feel a little sorry for her, too. But you have to admit I was good.”
“I admit it. But did you have to scare her—not to mention the other people in the church?”
“It couldn’t be helped. I feel a lot sorrier for Flora and Charles than I do for your landlady. And wait until you hear our Minou sounding off about Mirella. Meet me at the bar after your school tomorrow.”
“Please. Don’t you ever say ‘please’?”
“Sorry—please. Anyway, I’ll see you there.”
Polly was suddenly aware of being alone. “Sofia?” she said, checking her perception, but there was no answer.