The Girl in the Leaning Tower – Chapter 16


Battistero 3
Pisa Baptistery, with the Cathedral to the right

Mirella’s Life and Sofia’s Story

Polly stopped briefly at Mme Meringue’s to drop off her schoolbooks. She was relieved that her landlady wasn’t at home, so no explanation of where Polly was going was needed.

When Polly reached San Michele in Borgo, Mirella and Byron were already on their feet. Mirella spoke to anyone on the street below who cared to listen: “I want to be the tower, and you the cathedral, and you the baptistery—harmonious, sharing space and time, each quietly complete. If you ask, I will speak of my history, my vision out over the Tuscan hills and red roofs, the individuals and generations I have watched and known.”

Almost in unison, Mirella and Byron sat down on their step, and Polly began the climb to join them.

“That was beautiful,” Polly said when she reached Mirella. “Who wrote it?”

“I made it up, and it’s true; it’s exactly how I feel, about the tower, about me, about how I want to relate to other people.”

“Have you written it down?”

“No, I’ve never said it before, although I’ve been thinking about it, composing it in my mind.”

“It’s so pretty. Could you write it down for me?”

“I’m sorry but no because I can imagine what Sofia would say. She wouldn’t be happy if she knew the whole truth about how I feel. I took the risk of sharing my tower piece because I assume—and hope—she’s off hassling signor Varelli. Not only do I consider the tower as much mine as hers; I even see the tower as my alter ego, sort of my totem. Did you know you Americans almost blew it up near the end of World War II? You thought it was being occupied by the enemy. But the tower has always found a way to survive, and so will I, until its time and my time have truly run their course.”

“Don’t look so worried,” she added. “I haven’t lost all touch with reality. I’m just telling you how I feel. You asked why I’m so attached to Pisa, and the tower is a big part of it. Many evenings I sit on the cathedral steps next to the Leaning Tower and watch night settle as the tower lights deepen, showing the way for tourists still climbing to the top.”

“Yes,” said Polly, “I saw the tower like that the first night, when I visited Sofia there.”

“Then you know how incredible it is. The tower is like a lighthouse for me. I imagine it keeping me from crashing as I navigate my life.

“You know, everyone is always wanting to fix me, just as everyone kept trying to fix the tower—and ended up making things worse and worse, until just recently, when they finally got it right—but they haven’t gotten me right yet. And Pisa herself isn’t right yet, either, just as nowhere is right without revering our great writers, our artists and musicians, our sages from the past, and the present, too, all those who can bring us together—in peace.” Mirella looked both sad and angry. Polly also heard determination in her voice.

Mirella sat quietly, looking down at her lap. When she looked up again, she asked Polly, “Don’t you have anything that you identify with so closely it feels like part of you?”

Polly thought for a moment. “My room at home, I suppose. We were going to move last year but ended up staying. I would have felt I was leaving part of myself.”

Mirella nodded but continued to reflect on her own situation: “Maybe I am crazy—though I know I’m not nearly as strange as people say, just a little dreamy, perhaps, but I like being that way. Anyway, I know buildings can’t come back as people—and besides, the tower doesn’t need to come back because it’s still here. Yet somehow my spirit is tied to that tower. I suspect Sofia knows more about why I have such sensations, but she probably wouldn’t explain if I asked. She likes to think of the tower as all hers, but hasn’t she noticed all those tourists tramping up and down the steps every day? It’s not exactly undiscovered territory. I wish I hadn’t forgotten so many details about the times that came before I became Mirella.

“For those times and present times, I love Pisa as much as my life, but Pisa worries me. Even before my unfortunate experience with the rettore, my literature classes were getting smaller each term, and I don’t think it was from dissatisfaction with my teaching—the rettore acknowledged I can teach circles around just about any other professor. No surprise: I was there, an eyewitness to the roots of our greatest literary creations. Some of my students were there, too, but I’ve been over that, how no one else, almost, seems to have the vaguest notion of his or her very own past.

“The University of Pisa is still a mighty institution, but the arts are getting less and less attention. Everyone seems to think science and mathematics have all the answers—plus computers, of course. Head knowledge, all of it, and of absolutely no use without the intervention of the spirit. I’m not talking about religion, really—not about mass and rosaries and priests and all that, anyway—but about connections among people, and with the earth and all living things. Forget that and we’re just machines, no longer human.”

Mirella suddenly seemed self-conscious. “I’ve been talking too much. I’m sure I’ve bored you. You’re a very polite girl to have stayed and listened. May I offer you a cup of tea in the bar on the corner? It’s called ‘Dante,’ and the owner’s name is Dante—no relation that I know. But as is appropriate, they serve me and don’t act as if I’ve come to beg from their customers.” Mirella added quickly: “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against the Roma, the Gypsies, as Flora is proud to call her people. Have you gotten to know Flora very well yet?”

“Yes, she’s great. But I still don’t know where any of us fit into this project of Sofia’s. I get the part about stopping Mme Meringue’s campaign to remake Pisa in her own image, but do you know what else Sofia has in mind? Why all the secrecy?”

“I’m not sure precisely what she’s planning—Sofia makes things up as she goes along. And she likes a bit of drama, our Sofia, so she keeps some things to herself—such as exactly what she has in mind for me, too. But I have a general idea because she knows my dream so well. And Sofia’s a bit transparent, no pun intended.”

“You’re right about the drama, that’s for sure. What is she planning for you, and where do I come in, in these ideas of Sofia’s—that’s what I want to know!” Polly felt herself getting worked up.

“I may be able to give you a better answer to that last question when I get to know you better, but as I say, what she has in mind for me is pretty easy to guess.”

“Doesn’t it bug you having her manipulate things that affect you?”

“If Sofia can help me make my dream come true, I’ll forgive her all her meddling and manipulating, but I do anyway. Sofia understands that I live to teach. That’s what I’m doing now when I recite here. And to tell you the truth, some of my classes weren’t any more attentive than the people who hear me now. But like then, a few do pay attention, even still. In trying to help me resume my teaching in a more regular way—that’s what I think she hopes to do—Sofia is being my guardian angel, as unangelic a girl as she is. But she’s not being one hundred percent altruistic, either, you understand. She’s always wanted to go to school, and if I were to open a little school myself, not only folks like Flora—she hates her school now—and Charles could attend, but Sofia herself could also do so openly.”

“That’s a wonderful idea! But how can I help?”

“Let’s not worry about all that now. I believe in Sofia. She’ll come through for us folks outside the status quo, and my intuition tells me you’ll be a wonderful help. Did Sofia tell you her story?”

“Some of it, but she wouldn’t say what happened in 1180.”

“She doesn’t like to tell people herself—she hates dealing with their reactions—but she doesn’t mind anyone knowing if he or she finds out from someone else.

“When work on the tower halted in 1178—it wouldn’t resume for nearly a century—Sofia’s father went on to Lucca to work as a stonemason there. Sometimes he took Sofia with him because she loved the craft so much she wanted to be a stonemason herself, even though that was an impossible dream.”

“Yes, she told me about that.”

“Sofia’s father held Ghibelline political views. One day a Luccan stonemason who was a Guelph picked a fight and punched him. Sofia was watching and tried to intervene. The Luccan pushed her away, and she fell; they’d been high up. Her father never worked again because he blamed himself, and he died a broken man.

“Sofia, as she is now, stayed near her family and tried to encourage her father through his nighttime dreams, but he thought the dreams were only wishful thinking. It’s partly in honor of her father that Sofia has followed the fortunes of Pisa and the Leaning Tower over the centuries. Her father still feels too much pain about his life—he never has come back for a new one—to stay closely tied to the region. But Sofia has made herself one of the guardian angels of Pisa itself, as well as of people like Charles, Flora, and me. It was prejudice that killed her and ultimately her father, and she is spending forever fighting all kinds of prejudice.”

Polly’s admiration for Sofia rose with the details of her story.

“Don’t get me wrong. As I said, Sofia’s no angel in the ordinary sense—she’s mischievous and feisty—but she truly wants to help those she likes. Her heart is in the right place.

“Now how about that cup of tea? Hardly anyone in this whole country drinks tea, but I do—green tea—it’s very wholesome and clears the mind to study and learn, and to watch, too. I learn so much by watching.” Mirella was off on another of her tangents. Polly didn’t feel awfully hopeful about ever getting the tea. “Take your Mme Meringue, for instance: I watch her, and it’s not always a pretty sight, even though she’s about as sincere as they come—sincere and utterly wrongheaded. She goes tramping around this city like some undisciplined Saint Bernard trying to save souls by preaching nonsense and driving everyone nuts. She’s not any more tuned in to what matters than are those physics professors at the university who think any kind of brain other than theirs is no brain at all.

“Hence my troubles. I want to bring literature back to the Pisan people. They need to be thinking about the ideas of my Dante and our Pisan visitors Byron and Shelley—those dear boys behaved just terribly, but they had exquisite minds, too. Their words are an important part of our Pisan legacy—now nearly forgotten. That’s where I come in.”

Mirella’s thoughts had wandered back after all: “If you’re ready for your tea, signorina Polly, follow me.”

Mirella rose and started down the steps, with Byron at her heels. Mirella’s legs were longer than Polly’s, and Mirella had the strong strides of a young athlete, even though Polly figured she had to be a lot older than her parents. Along the Borgo Stretto, no one seemed to be paying any attention to them. Perhaps Mirella did fade back into the ordinary population of the city when she wasn’t performing on her church-steps stage.

Polly struggled to keep up with Mirella and Byron. Fortunately it wasn’t far to the Bar Dante.

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