“Come on: let’s go tell signor Luigi what happened,” said Flora. “Charles and Henry’s room is over his shop, around the block. He lets the guys live there free—Sofia says it’s a nice big room, with a little bathroom and a hotplate and tiny refrigerator. Charles and Henry can come and go through a doorway off the alley, so then if some busybody like you-know-who asks signor Luigi if he’s seen any street merchants, he can honestly say no.”
Signor Luigi’s repair shop was filled with batteries and gears, and the smell of oil carried out the open door onto the street. Signor Luigi himself, a little man of about sixty, was sitting behind the counter, a disassembled radio in front of him. “Signor Luigi can fix anything!” exclaimed Flora.
“Hi, girls,” he said. “This must be Polly—welcome!” Did everyone in the city know about her, she wondered. “I take it there’s been a little trouble? I heard the boys on the stairs, but it’s early for quitting time.”
“That stupid Mme Meringue is at it again,” Flora said bitterly.
“Flora, sweetie, she’s really not stupid. I know how you feel, but she thinks she’s doing the right thing.”
“She’s a horrible troublemaker. She thinks she’s some kind of savior for our city, but I wish she’d just move back to wherever she came from and bother the French for a while.”
“She means well.”
“Beh,” responded Sofia, sounding for all the world like Mme Meringue.
“Hi there, Sofia,” said signor Luigi. “I thought you might be here.”
“What are we going to do? We’ve got to stop that woman!” Flora exclaimed. “Sooner or later she’ll figure out a way to drive every non-Italian street merchant and every single Gypsy from the city.”
Polly surprised herself by deciding to take charge of the situation: “We need to try to be calm. We have to look for an opportunity to change her mind a little about who and what are good and bad for Pisa.”
“By the time we change her mind, it may be too late,” moaned Flora.
Signor Luigi tried to calm her: “We won’t let things get that far. We’ll keep our eyes open, and meanwhile I’ll have a chat with agente Barto and try to learn how much pressure he’s getting to take some kind of action against our friends. I would be surprised if our Sofia didn’t have a few ideas of her own. Am I right, Sofia?”
“I might,” she answered smugly, offering no further explanation.
The heavy rain had withdrawn, leaving a light mist, but the girls’ clothes and hair were still soaked from their run to signor Luigi’s shop. As they started back down the street, Polly glanced behind her and saw signor Luigi turning the sign in his window so the “Closed” side faced the street. Around the block, the sidewalk of the boulevard leading out from the train station remained completely empty of its usual street merchants. “It looks so dull this way,” said Polly as they walked along.
“Some people wish it would always be this dull,” Sofia observed.
“Why? Who’s being hurt by Charles and the others?” asked Flora with anger still in her voice. “They’re not really breaking the law, no matter what Mme Meringue insinuates. Ibrahim’s permit should have come by now—he applied weeks ago—and the guys are hardly any big competition for the souvenir sellers up by the Leaning Tower.”
“Some people think that merchants like Charles scare off tourists by being pushy. Can you see any of the guys who work on this block acting pushy?” asked Sofia, her voice oozing disbelief at such a notion.
“Yeah, I’ve heard that intimidating-the-tourists claim a thousand times, but who ever met a tourist who was put off by someone selling souvenirs? Now me—that’s a different story. They’re all scared of us Gypsies, which upsets my parents—and me, too.”
Polly looked at her watch. “I’d better head home. With the state of mind Mme Meringue is in, I’d better not be late for supper.”
“We’ll walk you there,” said Flora, including Sofia in the plan.
“That’s okay, don’t ask me if I want to,” said Sofia, pretending to be miffed.
Polly, Sofia, and Flora turned onto a side street before reaching Piazza Vittorio Emanuale II. “Yesterday I saw a little lizard sunning himself in the piazza. He was so cute,” Flora chatted as they walked along. My favorite place to walk is way on past the Leaning Tower. Have you been out there, Polly, where the city ends?”
“No, so far I’ve only seen the main parts of town.”
“It’s neat how Pisa just stops. The next minute you’re walking past cornfields and those huge wheels of hay. The wildflowers along the edge of the road are so pretty. And the Carrara Mountains seem to be right at the end of the road—and it looks like you could ski in July on those marble summits.”
“That’s what I thought, too—I can see the mountains from my school window. I read that Michelangelo’s carving stone came from them,” said Polly, proud to have this knowledge.
“That’s right,” said Sofia, “and before that, my father and the other stonemasons got their marble there for the Leaning Tower. It was a huge job cutting the stone and transporting it to Pisa.”
When they were two houses away from Mme Meringue’s, Flora said, “Good luck with her tonight. No doubt you’ll hear about what evil creatures Gypsies are. Will I see you tomorrow?”
“Should we meet at the bar again?”
“Yes, let’s. See you in the afternoon—if I don’t decide to see you sooner,” Sofia giggled.
“No spying!” said Polly, softening the order with a smile.
“Hey, before you go, I have an idea,” said Sofia.
“Watch out,” Flora cautioned. “Sofia with an idea is pretty scary.”
“You know I’m the brains here, figuratively speaking. Anyway, Polly, why don’t you go introduce yourself to Mirella tomorrow on your lunch hour. She’ll be in her usual spot.”
“Won’t you introduce me?”
“I think you should go yourself. Mirella will be pleased. She has some fans, as you’ll discover, but most people just look at her as someone to avoid, not get to know, but you’ll like her, and she’ll open right up. You’ll get to know her best that way.”
“What will I say? I can’t just march up the steps and start talking.”
“Sure you can. Try it!”
“Sofia’s right. Mirella’s cool. She’ll be thrilled she’s gotten through to someone instead of scaring her off—that’s how she’ll take it.”
“Plus she’s heard about you from me already,” said Sofia.
“Well,” Polly began.
“Great! We’ll hear all about it tomorrow afternoon.” Sofia closed the discussion.
Polly felt nervous already. These new friends of hers surely did know how to be convincing. “I’ll try. I can’t promise. See you tomorrow.”
“Ciao,” called Sofia.
“Ciao,” called Flora as she turned to head back with her invisible friend.
Flora beckoned to Polly: “Over here! Here’s Charles.” Polly recognized the boy she’d seen at Mme Meringue’s and later waved to on the sidewalk.
“Hi, Polly! Come, I’ll introduce you to everyone. This is Salime,” Charles said, indicating a middle-aged man whose greeting of “Piacere” had soft edges like Mme Meringue’s Italian. Polly shook hands with him. He was the man she’d greeted as she’d walked by on the way to catch the bus to meet Sofia at the Leaning Tower. Salime sold sunglasses and an array of colorful hats.
“Here’s Henry,” said Charles, introducing Polly to a handsome, tall young man who was arranging handbags on the sheet in front of him. He, too, said “Piacere” as he paused a moment in his work to smile at Polly.
“And this is Ibrahim.” A man wearing a hat and shirt in a kente-cloth design shook Polly’s hand. “Hi, Polly and Flora. And hi there, Sofia—I know you’re here, too. Try not to get us in trouble,” he said, grinning. “And they say we intimidate the tourists.” Ibrahim sold t-shirts. The ones in view said “Università di Pisa” on them.
After the introductions, Polly, Charles, Flora, and—Polly was sure—Sofia returned to a spot near the Bar Allegro, where the girls had met the day before, and sat down on the sidewalk where they could lean against the wall. In front of them, Charles’s baskets and carvings formed neat rows on the sheet spread out toward the curb. The beautiful baskets were made of colorful reeds woven into pretty round shapes, like bowls and vases with lids. The carvings depicted animals—antelope, elephants, and zebras—or were in the form of masks that might have hidden the face of a warrior or an actor depicting mighty and fearsome scenes.
Polly felt content in the company of new friends and was enjoying looking around at the passersby. She could see down as far as the train station and back north as far as the Piazza Vittorio Emanuale II. Her contentment was short lived, however, because there trotting toward them along the side street was none other than her very own landlady. She was moving with a speed and determination that could only mean one thing: she was on a mission. “Look who’s coming,” said Polly.
“God’s chosen minion,” said Sofia, snickering.
“Now you keep quiet,” said Flora. “Charles doesn’t need any extra trouble from your upsetting her—and I don’t either, for that matter!”
The temperature was about ninety, and the humidity felt just as high. Thunder rumbled in the distance. The children and merchants were in the shade of the arcade, but Mme Meringue had had no such protection, and to Polly she looked most like a giant raspberry Popsicle beginning to melt. Her hot-pink sunbonnet drooped in front and on both sides, and her matching pink dress hung in damp wrinkles around her ample figure. She was breathing so hard by the time she reached them that Charles was prompted to say, “Mme Meringue, you should get something cool to drink.”
“No time, no time,” she muttered, having shuddered to a full stop right in front of him. “Charles, what are you doing here, after all I’ve talked to you about earning an honest living!”
“I’m sorry, signora,” Charles said politely. “I have to work. I have to support my family. And I have all the proper paperwork to be here.”
“Don’t contradict me! Don’t I pay you good wages to work for me?”
“I’m sorry, Mme Meringue. I would never talk back to you.”
Polly wondered how Charles could stay so calm and polite while she was having trouble not shouting at Mme Meringue about how unfair she was being.
“Come along home, Charles. I’ve offered to give you a room in my house, but you insist on living over signor Luigi’s smelly shop. I don’t understand you young people.”
“You’re very kind to me, signora, and I like working for you, but I have to do this work, too. It gives jobs to the people back home who make the baskets and carvings.”
“There’s no excuse for living outside the law, which is exactly what you’re doing. Maybe if you’d stop hanging around Gypsies”—she spat out the word and glared at Flora before turning back to Charles—“you wouldn’t be so blasé about outlaw activity.”
“I’m sorry, Mme Meringue,” Charles repeated calmly. “I’m behaving lawfully.”
“But is that true for all your friends here?” She waved her hand to indicate the other merchants. “You’re supporting lawlessness, even if you’re not technically breaking any laws yourself.”
“I’m sorry,” Charles repeated again.
“Sorry isn’t enough.” She seemed to notice Polly for the first time. “Polly, what are you doing here? What would your parents say!”
“She was just looking at my baskets,” said Charles.
But wanting to take a stand against her landlady’s prejudices, Polly said, “Flora here is my friend.”
Mme Meringue scowled again at Flora and then said, “You should go on home, Polly—now. I’m off to find agente Barto and make him do his duty. He’s no doubt hanging out in the station coffee bar instead of doing his job keeping our streets safe.
“It’s his break time about now,” said Flora.
Mme Meringue glared at her once more and turned to march on down the street past the merchants. Polly heard her say, “Go back home, all of you,” as she was alongside Ibrahim.
“Be careful in this heat, signora,” Salime said in a kind tone of voice, but the solid pink figure moved on toward the train station as if she hadn’t heard.
“What’s she going to do?” Polly asked, breaking the silence with which they’d watched Mme Meringue’s departure.
“Don’t worry. We go through this little routine with your landlady every couple of weeks,” said Charles, smiling.
“You said people back home make your baskets and carvings? They’re so pretty!”
“My mother and some of the other women in our little town make the baskets. My older brother goes around to lots of different towns and villages and buys the carvings from local artists. Then he sends them to my father and me to sell here in Italy. The money we earn—beyond what we need to live—goes back home to support our family. I have four little sisters and a little brother.”
“Don’t you feel lonely away from them?” asked Polly.
“It’s sad for our family to have to be split up like this, and I’m homesick a lot. I do miss my mother and brothers and sisters. I don’t get to see my father in Rome very much either because of the cost of the trip, but I’m lucky to have this opportunity to help out.” Charles spoke matter-of-factly, not sounding the least bit sorry for himself.
“Let’s get some mineral water while we still can,” Flora suggested.
Still feeling nervous in spite of Charles’s reassurance, Polly asked, “Is there going to be trouble?” A rumble of thunder seemed to underline ominous possibilities.
Flora answered, “Agente Barto is one of the nicest guys in Tuscany.”
And Sofia added, “Relax, we have it under control.”
“Your saying something is under control doesn’t make me feel very secure,” said Polly, “considering the little scene with Byron and Kinzica that had people thinking I was barking.”
“Ha, ha,” chuckled Sofia, not bothering to defend herself.
Big drops of rain began falling on the street. A flash of lightning brightened the dark afternoon, followed in seconds by a loud clap of thunder. “I’ll go get the water—my treat,” said Polly.
The bar was busy now with office workers stopping for an espresso on their way home. On the television suspended in the corner, the heroine of an American crime drama was mysteriously speaking Italian.
After waiting her turn, Polly almost asked for four mineral waters, frizzante, before remembering that Sofia didn’t drink and asking for tre acque minerali.
When she returned to distribute the water to her new friends, she found Flora and Sofia in near hysterics from laughing and Charles smiling as if in spite of himself. The rain was beating down, and it felt cozy there under the sheltering roof with these merry friends.
“Look who’s returning,” gasped Flora between uncontrolled giggles.
Coming closer with each second was the substantial pink figure who had left them a few minutes before. This time, the “Popsicle” was rapidly dissolving. The rain streaming off Mme Meringue’s hat made a waterfall surrounding her head, and the skirt of her dress clung to her legs so that she had to keep pulling at it to be able to walk. Accompanying her was a debonair police officer who managed to look dashing even as his own hat shed water and his well-tailored uniform shone with the rain. He was gallantly holding Mme Meringue’s arm as if to stop her from sliding all together into a large pink puddle.
“Don’t be so mean!” Polly said to her laughing friends, trying not to laugh herself but feeling uncomfortable, too.
“I’m sorry,” said Charles. “I feel a little bad for her.”
“Well I don’t,” answered Sofia, as she and Flora egged each other on with their laughing fit.
“Flora, you’d better be calm now,” Charles said in his usual mild way. “It’s just all the more difficult for agente Barto if we give her a hard time.”
The girls’ guffaws settled down into snickers. “And please stay quiet, Sofia,” Charles added.
“Wasn’t I good before?” Sofia asked in a voice so loud the approaching pair must have heard.
“This would be the right time to be good again,” Charles said calmly.
The three visible children sat against the wall, watching and listening as the policeman and Mme Meringue reached the shelter of the arcade. Henry, Salime, and Ibrahim remained on folding chairs near their merchandise.
“Here they are, just as I left them!” Polly heard Mme Meringue say in a voice that was intended to be heard. “They aren’t even afraid of the law!”
“Hi, Ibrahim. How’s the family, Salime? How’s business, Henry?” Agente Barto greeted them all. “Flora, my dear, how’s the accordion playing? Are you practicing scales the way I told you? Charles, I see you’ve met our young American visitor.” How, Polly wondered, did he know about her already? Had he heard about the dog episode on the Borgo Stretto?
At that, Mme Meringue said disgustedly, “You’re supposed to be arresting them, not making small talk! Do your job, agente Barto!” she commanded.
“Yes, signora. I see your point, if there’s anything illegal here. Well, men,” he said, addressing all of the merchants, “it looks as if I’ll need to see your sales permits or ask you to fold up. We have to help our Mme Meringue see that the rules are followed.”
“Beh,” observed Mme Meringue, “when I’m around to make you follow them. And Polly, why haven’t you gone home the way I asked you to? We can’t have you fraternizing with these people. What would your parents say about my supervision?”
Polly was sure she heard agente Barto whisper, “Hi, Sofia,” under cover of Mme Meringue’s voice. How did he know about her?
The men rolled up the sheets with their wares inside. “See you, agente Barto!” Salime called as he headed for the corner with his big pack slung over his back.
“Good day, Mme Meringue,” called Charles.
“Bye, Flora. Say hi to your mom,” said Ibrahim.
Again Mme Meringue’s comment was, “Beh,” but she added, “some raid,” and, “I’ll talk to you at home, Polly.” Mme Meringue headed back out into the rain in the direction of her house and walked as though oblivious to the weather.
“I’ll see you girls,” said agente Barto. “I left my coffee on the station bar. It’ll be cold by now,” he added with evident regret. The policeman glanced toward the retreating Mme Meringue, shook his head, and started back toward the station.
“Woo woo,” whistled Sofia at the back of the handsome officer.
He turned and called, “Behave yourself, Sofia! You’re too old for me.”
When he was out of earshot, Polly asked the other two girls, “If Charles has a permit, why did he leave, too?”
“Ibrahim is the only one who doesn’t have a permit,” Flora explained. “He’s applied, but it hasn’t come through yet. I found out that’s where the guys were yesterday—trying to learn what the delay is. The others don’t want Ibrahim singled out for trouble—and they don’t want agent Barto actually having to check permits in front of Mme Meringue. She’d like them all to go, legal or not. They don’t fit into her notion of the perfect Pisa.”
“Why doesn’t Mme Meringue report agente Barto to his boss if she thinks he’s not doing his job?”
“That’s easy,” said Sofia. “Agente Barto’s son—he’s called Enrico—was really crazy about Mme Meringue’s husband, Gustavo. Enrico had some problems at school, and Gustavo tutored him every week for a while. He even had meals sometimes with our Minou and Gustavo—she wasn’t so bad when her husband was alive. I think she still has a soft spot in her hard little heart for Enrico, even though he never did finish school and agente Barto worries about him a lot.”
“Enrico does odd jobs and hangs around with a rough crowd,” added Flora. “It’s too bad; he’s really cute.”
“No surprise about that,” said Sofia. “Look at his father.”
Maybe Sofia really did have a crush on agente Barto, thought Polly. Was that possible?
During cena, Mme Meringue was unusually quiet, only asking Polly two questions about her day at school and a single question about how she’d spent her time since class had let out: “What did you do after school? I’d hoped you’d be home in time to go to church with me, but I guess a young girl like you needs to run around a bit after sitting all day.”
Polly answered noncommittally, “I talked with some of my new friends and explored a little.”
By the time they were eating their after-cena gelato, the silence felt more uncomfortable than peaceful, especially in light of what Polly suspected as its cause. “Are you okay, Mme Meringue?” she asked tentatively.
Her landlady sighed but answered, “Yes, of course.”
But after another minute filled by two more sighs from her, Mme Meringue said, “Polly, I just don’t know what is wrong with me these days. I simply don’t look forward to things the way I used to—to my Bible-study group, my quiet evenings at home, my work in the churches. Nothing’s really wrong. I’m not upset over anything in particular. I meet my responsibilities and keep my home in order, but the fire has gone out for me.”
It was hard to imagine a more on-fire person than the one Polly had seen in action at the church a couple of hours earlier, but Polly guessed she more or less understood what Mme Meringue meant. At cena last night, too, she’d noticed the tired, wilted appearance around her landlady’s eyes, a look that came from more than temporary fatigue. The look deepened when the older woman seemed lost in her thoughts. “You must miss your husband,” Polly said a little shyly, not wanting to risk saying the wrong thing but also not wanting to ignore Mme Meringue’s melancholy.
“Of course I miss Gustavo,” Mme Meringue said brusquely, “but that’s certainly not the problem. Gustavo and I always agreed that if one of us were left alone, we’d go on full throttle, doing the best we could with the life with which God blessed us.”
Listening to Mme Meringue’s tone of voice, Polly would have thought she’d offended her and misjudged the situation. But Polly also noticed the few tears that had washed into Mme Meringue’s eyes at Polly’s words. By the time Mme Meringue had shaken her head, the tears were gone.
“I shouldn’t have bothered you with my little troubles, Polly. A girl your age wouldn’t understand.”
“I don’t mind. I do understand a little. I read lots of books and think about things a lot.” When Polly’s dog, Taffy, had died last year, Polly had awakened for several days afterward feeling as if she’d been swallowed up by a dark and bottomless hole in the earth.
“I’d like to hear about your husband—what he was like—if you don’t mind telling me.”
Mme Meringue was silent so long that Polly thought she really had offended her landlady this time, but then she said with a mixture of sadness and pleasure in her voice, “My Gustavo was a man among millions, the best of the best. I met him when my parents sent me to Florence to study art history. He was my teacher for a religion course I added to my program. And no, I am not ashamed of this little bit of scandalous romance in my life. Actually, Gustavo was as without scandal as they come. Even though he was working in Florence, he refused to live anywhere but Pisa, and he made the round trip every day by train. He was such a saintly man, but no one found him stuffy. He liked to laugh and tell stories, but he really was very spiritual and tried hard to be good and set an excellent example.” The description fit the kind-looking man in the portrait over the buffet.
“Do you have any children, Mme Meringue?”
“We didn’t have children, but everyone was Gustavo’s child, or student anyway. He was always helping people with their problems. People came to him all the time to talk about something or other that was bothering them. He would listen and listen. Usually he talked privately to the people who came to consult him, so I don’t know much of what he said to help, but Gustavo was a true believer, so I’m sure he gave the folks some spiritual guidance to support them in their time of need.
“I love Pisa because of Gustavo, but frankly, I think he was too good for the place. And if he were alive now, he’d be appalled. What I see on the streets in broad daylight! I never told him my reservations about Pisa, because he loved it so much, and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but I think he should have gone to Rome, where the important religious people are and he could have been more fully appreciated.
“The trouble with Pisa is it has too many independent thinkers who aren’t sufficiently grounded in religious teachings. I truly think all the trouble started with Galileo, although the ground was laid before that. With such a big university in a small city, it’s no wonder free thinkers are rampant. It’s not that I really disagree with anything Galileo had to say, but he shouldn’t have gone around jumping on the bandwagon and questioning authority the way he did. If the church said the sun revolved around the earth, they certainly had a good reason for saying so, an important spiritual lesson for the people. And here Galileo went around messing with their divinely guided teachings. I blame Galileo, I really do, for starting the kind of behavior we see among our young people today.
“I’m not a cold woman. Really I’m not. I don’t want to hurt anyone, but I don’t want the riffraff to destroy my Gustavo’s Pisa. I can’t say it’s really ever felt like my Pisa, but I’ve made the best of my time here, and I’m trying my hardest to continue Gustavo’s wonderful work. But he was too easy on people. He never wanted to say anything bad about anyone, not even those wretched Gypsies.
“I keep trying to preach the gospel to the Gypsies, but not a single one does anything but taunt me. I try to speak to the old people praying in the churches so that they can go straight to heaven and not suffer the trials of purgatory, but I get turned out of the churches for my trouble. I try to get the Pisans to emulate the lives of their very own saints, San Ranieri and Santa Bona, but I don’t see anyone even trying, in spite of the fact that just about everyone seems so proud these saints were Pisan.
“I do love the beautiful churches around here, and the Leaning Tower is pretty impressive, I have to admit, even if it is a symbol of nothing but pride and boastfulness. Still, my Gustavo loved the tower, and so I like it for his sake.”
Polly didn’t know how to respond to the confidences Mme Meringue had shared, so she said, “Your husband sounds like a wonderful person.” Polly simply couldn’t find Mme Meringue completely idiotic and worthy of scorn, the way Sofia seemed to do. Mme Meringue certainly tended to be prejudiced and narrow-minded, but she was always kind to Polly, and now Polly had glimpsed this sad side of her life and felt even less able to ridicule her. Polly wondered what Sofia would say. Sofia “lived” to help others, but she didn’t suffer fools. Yet Mme Meringue wasn’t a fool, however much she might occasionally act like one. Still there was no denying that, at least according to Sofia, she was causing big trouble for some people about whom Polly was already beginning to care. It certainly was a dilemma.
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.
Polly checked her watch but saw she had time before cena. No doubt Mme Meringue would like for her to be at home more, but Polly wasn’t about to miss out on opportunities for meeting with her new friends or seeing more of Pisa.
Flora kept up a steady flow of commentary as they walked. “I love our apartment. Mamma speaks beautifully and likes to play around by putting on airs like a rich lady. When she gets all dressed up and goes into her act, she can make Mme Meringue and all her phony airs look downright cheap—but they do anyway, in my opinion.
“Anyway, mamma did what she calls her ‘exception to the rule’ and wore regular, non-Gypsy clothes when she went to see about renting the apartment. The landlord probably wondered why such an upper-crust woman would be interested in such a modest place, but mamma can charm anyone when she wants to. The landlord wasn’t a bit happy when he found out the sweet lady and her little family are Gypsies.
“He came banging on our door during cena one evening and demanded to be let in—or he’d use his passkey and come in anyway. Someone had told him what we are. But then when he saw us all at dinner in the dining room, just like some perfect television family, he didn’t know what to say for a moment. So he just said, ‘Gypsies!’
“‘Yes?’ said mamma and papà together.
“‘You didn’t tell me you’re Gypsies!’
“‘You didn’t ask,’ mamma said sweetly. ‘I told you our income and paid you two months’ rent in advance. Did you ask my husband’s employers for a reference?’ She knew he hadn’t, not after he’d had a dose of her charm.
“‘Who ever heard of a Gypsy with a real job?’ he said, not answering her question. If he hadn’t been so smitten with mamma’s pretty face and had checked papà’s reference, he’d have learned papà is a seasonal worker. But we pay our rent on time. Mamma even told the landlord our real income—that is, at least our potential when everything pans out as we hope and the tourists are feeling generous.”
Flora stopped in front of a battered wooden door next to a clothing store and pulled it open with a firm yank. Inside she flicked on a light to illuminate a dark stairway and then slammed the outside door behind them. At the top of the stairs, Flora took a key out of a pocket in her skirt, unlocked and opened the shiny yellow door, and invited Polly inside.
The apartment sparkled with colorful fabrics. Decorative objects and art filled the surfaces and walls. The front window was almost as large as a storefront, but white lace curtains softened the effect.
Flora turned toward Polly. “This apartment is much nicer than the trailer we used to have in the old camp. Look at what a great view we’ve got from here. I like to watch people walking up and down the street—so much variety. It’s so interesting to see the regulars day after day and spot the newcomers and tourists—see that family over there looking at a map? I’ll bet you they’re trying to figure out how to get to the Leaning Tower.”
“Isn’t everyone?” asked Sofia. Even before Sofia had spoken, Polly had had no doubt she was with them. The air felt different when Sofia was around—more exciting somehow.
Flora and Polly, and perhaps Sofia, too, settled into soft, comfortable chairs in the living room. A well-worn sofa that would be perfect for napping or reading sat under the big front window, and a spinet piano stood on the side wall. Just beyond the living room was a dining room filled with rustic but pleasing furniture, and through an archway, Polly could see a blue and yellow kitchen.
“It really is pretty in here,” contributed Sofia. “My favorites are the lace curtains and the dining-room furniture, especially that china closet.” She explained to Polly, “It’s been in their family for years and years. It once belonged to Flora’s great-grandparents—her bisnonno made it himself! He was and is a great guy; I see him from time to time. Most folks like me don’t hang around with folks like you as much as I do. But he keeps up with how Flora and her family are doing. Everything in this apartment squeaks in such a homey way—all the furniture and even the floor. Did you notice Flora’s great-grandmother’s clock over there by the piano?” There was no way Polly could have missed its loud “tick, tock.” Sofia’s commentary continued: “This place is like an orchestra of cheerful noises. I like to go to the symphony, so I know what I’m talking about.”
“Yeah,” said Flora, “I went with her once. She hums along! The people around us thought I was doing it and kept giving me dirty looks.”
“That’s what they get for letting in a Gypsy,” Sofia teased. “As I was saying, I love to visit here, but I can’t just show up any old time and start talking because Flora’s father doesn’t approve of me; her mother and little brothers like me okay, though. Her father doesn’t think it’s safe to be talking to spirits. Me dangerous, can you believe it?”
“Calm down, Sofia. My father has too much on his mind to be sensible all the time. It makes me sad when my parents have to work long hours doing things they don’t really like. My papà is a wonderful artist—that’s his painting of a horse over the table in the corner, and he did the little Gypsy violinist over the piano. Plus papà loves to read about all sorts of things, but he has to spend his days pounding nails. It’s not that he has anything to be ashamed about as far as his work—or anything—is concerned. It’s just that it’s not the right work for him, and it’s not steady, either. But when he’s not working, he feels so bad about not earning money for us, he doesn’t want to touch his art or even his books.
“Mamma throws herself into her flower selling and songs, acting the wild Gypsy all the way, but at home she’s proper and quiet. I think she’d really like to be the classy lady our landlord first took her to be. She is a classy lady through and through, but she hardly ever gets to show that side of herself in public.
“But as both my parents say, we have a lot to be thankful for. I can’t wait for you to meet my family, Polly. Mamma and papà are working today, and my little brothers are with our nonna. I know you’ll just love them all when you get to know them. They’ll like you, too.”
“Have you seen Charles today?” asked Sofia, changing the subject.
“Not once. I haven’t seen any of the guys.”
Sofia said to Polly, “You met Charles at Mme Meringue’s when you moved in. Sorry to bring up a sore subject, but you’ll recall that I was watching.”
“Yes, I remember—both Charles and your watching.” She realized Charles was the third Pisan—along with Mirella and Flora—Sofia had in mind to help. “Charles seemed nice, but he didn’t say much. Of course, I don’t always say much around Mme Meringue either. I saw him near the bar yesterday after I left school.”
“Charles is one of my favorite friends,” Flora said with enthusiasm. “He’s from Nigeria. He’s only fourteen and is living all by himself here in Pisa. Since he’s tall and looks a little older, he tells everyone he’s eighteen—that’s what Mme Meringue thinks—but he told Sofia and me the truth because we’re friends and trust each other. His father is in Italy, too, but in Rome because that way, they figure, they won’t be competing against each other in selling their baskets and carvings.
“Probably if you come to the bar—the one where we met—tomorrow after your class, you can get to talk to Charles. The sidewalk merchants are usually all there around that time—when Mme Meringue isn’t making trouble, that is.”
“What does she do?”
“You’ll see soon enough,” Sofia said dismissively. “Plan on being at the bar the way Flora said.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Polly gave a salute. She glanced down at her watch and was startled to see it was nearly 6:30. “I’d better get going. Mme Meringue will not be thrilled if I’m late.”
“My papà may be getting home soon—I wish you could meet him. But you’d better get going, too, Sofia, because I don’t trust you to keep quiet when he’s around.”
“No sooner said than done,” said Sofia rather haughtily, and immediately the air lost its extra shimmer.
“See you tomorrow, Polly. Can you slam the door at the bottom of the stairs? It sticks.”
“Have you seen that book about my tower?” said a big voice next to Polly. No one else was around, and besides, she’d already spent enough time with Sofia to have recognized her voice anywhere from New York to Beijing.
“I looked at it yesterday. It’s beautiful.” Thinking about how Sofia wished she had chiseled some of those beautiful designs, Polly felt a little sorry for her
“Did you see the carved animals?” Sofia sounded wistful. “There’s even a dragon. I like the ram best. Our family had a ram, and my father made that relief sculpture a portrait of our Rammy.”
“Your father carved the ram?” asked Polly, amazed to have discovered that someone she actually knew had such an important achievement in her family history.
“Woof,” added Kinzica, as if to announce that she, too, was here this afternoon and feeling proud of her family’s patriarch.
“Be quiet, Kinzica! They don’t like dogs in here—invisible or not!” Returning to her usual authoritative tone, Sofia added, “It’s time we were heading down to the bar—the Bar Allegro, right next to your school.”
Polly still found it odd to be heading to a “bar.” She found it odder still to be walking with a girl and dog she couldn’t see. Polly asked hesitantly for fear of being rude, “Who are those children playing accordions? They don’t seem to be having a very good time.”
“They’re Roma—Gypsy children. They come here sometimes—especially when it’s damp, like today. Most of the summer they’re at the seaside. Flora’s here a lot of the time, though. She’s who I want you to meet next. I thought we might see her along here. Maybe she’s playing farther up the street today. Anyway, she knows to meet us at the bar.”
After they’d crossed the piazza at the end of the Corso Italia, Sofia directed, “Go into the bar and ask for mineral water or juice, or whatever you like. Then go to one of the tables outside under the arcade. Try to pick one away from other people so we can talk before Flora shows up.”
“You’d make a good drill sergeant,” said Polly.
“What’s that?” asked Sofia.
After Polly had paid for a bottle of grapefruit juice and a slice of focaccia, she sat down in a wicker chair at an empty table. At the end of the boulevard she could see the train station, but the African merchants were not in their usual places under the arcade shared by the bar. Polly pulled her sweater around her to block out the surprisingly cool, damp air.
“What’s it like going to school?” Sofia startled Polly by asking—in what, as usual, seemed like an unnecessarily loud voice. “Of all the zillion things I’ve done and places I’ve been, that’s an experience I can’t duplicate. Girls in my day didn’t go. I do visit lots of classes, that’s for sure—my favorite is architecture—but I can’t grasp the whole experience. No one ever calls on me—well, hardly ever. Mirella did once. She kind of forgets that not everyone knows I’m about—just the cool people. Mirella’s cool—different but cool. But some completely uncool girl in her class said, ‘Sofia? There’s no Sofia in here! Don’t you know our names by this time?’
“Homework is another thing I miss doing,” Sofia added. It sounds so interesting. But I can’t very well lug around a backpack, can I?”
“Homework is something I’d be glad to give up,” said Polly, “except once in a while in a subject I really, really like.”
“You’d miss it,” Sofia said with certainty.
Polly was eager to bring up another subject while she had the chance. “My Italian teacher said we’re going to be studying some famous Pisans in history—a girl named Kinzica, just like your dog’s name, a San Ranieri, and someone called Santa Bona. Do you know anything about these people?”
“I didn’t personally know Kinzica when she first became famous. Her heyday was before my birth as Sofia. She was a really big heroine, and still is in many people’s minds. Do you want to know the story, or have you already heard it all?”
“No, Elena just mentioned her.”
“About a thousand years ago, the Pisans and Saracens were both big powers and vied with each other in conquering land all over the place. Well, in 1005, the Pisan fleet was off trying to regain some lost territory when the Saracens landed right here on our coast. One night they sneaked into town in a section that wasn’t very well defended because, after all, lots of the men were away. Young Kinzica—her whole name was Kinzica de’ Sismondi—saw the Saracens and began ringing the bells in one of the towers so loudly that folks woke up, armed themselves, and drove off the invaders!”
“For someone who says she’s not into time, you surely know history. How do you know she was real—that someone named Kinzica really saved the city from a Saracen invasion? My teacher thinks there’s some question about whether such a girl ever existed.”
Sofia’s voice conveyed the height of indignation: “Do you think I’m real?” she asked in a tight tone.
“Of course I think you’re real! I’m having a conversation with you!”
“Well then you’ll have to believe Kinzica is real because I was having a conversation with her yesterday, and I’m not any more inclined to imagine I’m talking to someone when I’m not than you are. Even though I wasn’t around here when Kinzica spread the alarm, Mirella was. This was before she was Beatrice, of course. Whoops—I was supposed to let Mirella tell you that, but you probably aren’t up on Beatrice, anyway, so she can explain.”
Sofia continued as Polly struggled to keep up with her explanations: “As far as being other people in the past goes, Mirella doesn’t have great recall—although she’s a thousand times better than most people. Most people don’t have a clue about whether they ever saw the earth before they were born this time around. Mirella does remember some of the really big things she experienced, and Kinzica ringing those bells and saving the day definitely qualify. Why do you think I named my dog Kinzica, and why has my dog stuck with me all these years? Like the girl Kinzica, we love Pisa and are determined to save it from harm!”
“Okay, I believe you.” Polly silently asked herself, “Should I?” and then resumed aloud, “So what do you know about San Ranieri and Santa Bona? I noticed they were from about your time.”
“Let’s clear up this time thing—now is my time as much as it is yours.”
“But to answer your question, San Ranieri—Saint Ranieri to you—died only eight years before I was born. But I know firsthand he truly was a saint who worked miracles because he cured my zio Roberto—Uncle Robert to you—who had been bedridden for years and just kept getting weaker and worse to the point everyone had pretty much given up. But zio Roberto asked to be taken to see San Ranieri where he was living at the monastery of San Vito.
“San Ranieri put his healing touch on my uncle and blessed him, and sure enough, by the next day he was stronger, and he kept getting stronger every single day—so much so that eventually he was able to go back to his work on their farm. He’d had to rely on his son and other relatives and neighbors to tend it, and that had been a great source of sadness and shame to him, even though he had no reason to be ashamed of what he couldn’t help. By the time I remember him, he was strong and healthy, and he stayed that way for my whole life. I must have heard the story of San Ranieri’s cure a thousand times—all my relatives were so proud of the connection, as well as grateful.
“Santa Bona, on the other hand, was only eleven or twelve years older than I was—except that she was already acting like a saint when she was a little thing, before I was born, and no one ever accused me of being a saint! So I’ve just gotten to know her since, well, you know. When I was incarnated, she was always traveling here and traveling there on some pilgrimage or another. And let me tell you, traveling then was nothing like what it is for you now—no cars or trains and airplanes, that’s for sure—but now she does a lot to help out folks who travel in such contraptions, especially flight attendants and people like that, to help them do their job and keep everyone safe. I’ll try to introduce you to her when you’re ready to fly back to New York, if you haven’t already met her by then.”
“Hi, Polly! How are you doing, Sofia?” said an attractive, deep woman’s voice.
Polly looked around her but saw no one who could qualify as the speaker.
“Santa Bona!” shrieked Sofia. “We were just talking about you!”
“I know. I was hanging around seeing how everyone was doing in this neck of the woods when I realized I’d become a topic of conversation. How flattering! I’m not usually a topic of conversation, you know, except for a few minutes of history in one schoolroom or another. I can’t stay—I need to head to the airport—but I wish you a wonderful stay here in Italy, Polly. Sorry, I have to be off now. See you, Sofia!”
“She sounds so normal,” said Polly.
“What’s that supposed to mean? Normal—for a spirit?”
“I don’t mean that. I mean, compared to what I expected for a saint.”
“Oh that. People have the wrong idea about saints. You’d like San Ranieri, too. He’s a lot of fun.”
“How could there be two saints from this one city right around the same time? With all the millions of people we have in New York, I don’t believe we’ve produced a single saint since anyone I know has been around. Maybe I’m wrong about that—I don’t much keep up with saints—but two from one fairly small city seem like a lot.”
“I’ve been telling you, Pisa is special—although we’re probably not producing very many saints right now, either. These times are pretty complicated. Not that my original era wasn’t: you should try living with no electricity and no running water. And not that I’m making excuses for bad behavior. Before we get off this subject of famous Pisans—not that I want to cut it short, but Flora should be here soon—I should remind you: the one and only Galileo Galilei was born in Pisa, but that was almost 400 years after I was born. I hear people talking about him as if he were ancient history. How do you think that makes me feel? But I don’t stay upset for long because, as I mentioned, time is not the same for us as it is for you folks with earth bodies. But we won’t go into that again. It’s way too hard to explain.”
“But don’t you ever get bored? I mean, it’s an awfully long time since the twelfth century. Do you always have some sort of project going?” Polly’s questions continued to tumble out. “Who were you working on last year? Have you worked with a tourist before? I get so frustrated because you don’t really explain things!”
“Slow down! People in your situation. . . .”
“You mean alive?”
“Okay, I know, but it’s different. Let’s not fight.”
“You’re the one who was grilling me.”
“I know. I’m sorry. I just get so puzzled about everything.”
“As I was trying to say, you aren’t supposed to understand some things completely while you’re doing a life. I have to follow the rules.”
“You? Follow rules?” said a pretty, dark-haired girl as she placed a small accordion under a chair next to Polly and sat down. Polly had been too intent on her conversation with Sofia to notice the girl’s approach. “Hi, Polly, my name is Flora. I’m a Gypsy! I’m not supposed to say ‘Gypsy’ to most people, but Sofia says you’re okay. She’s told me all about you.”
Wondering what “all about you” involved, Polly simply said, “Hi, Flora—why can’t you say ‘Gypsy’?”
“It’s supposed to be demeaning to my people, but I prefer ‘Gypsy’ to ‘Roma.’ After all, not all Gypsies are Roma, and I want to feel connected to my people from all times, everywhere. When I say ‘Gypsy,’ I see swirling colors in the skirts of dazzling, dancing women. That’s the kind of Gypsy I intend to be.”
“Flora lives up to her name. She’s a bit flowery, isn’t she?” said Sofia. “But that’s okay.”
“At least I’m not transparent. Got you!” Flora giggled.
Ignoring the dig, Sofia instructed, “Tell Polly your philosophy about having fun.”
“It’s true. My goal in life is to have fun. That sounds pretty shallow, I guess, but I don’t care because I know I’m not shallow. Instead, I’m on to something important.”
“She’s as much of a teacher as Mirella is. She can’t help herself. It’s in her soul.”
“I want so much to be a music teacher. I think I’d be pretty good because I figure out how to make practically everything fun—or at least interesting and full of drama. I have lots of problems—big problems—if you look at my life in the ordinary way, but that’s not the way I look at it. After all, how many girls get to be a Gypsy in Tuscany—an exotic beauty (that’s what I call myself, even if I have to skip a few details) here in the beautiful city of Pisa? The two beauties—Pisa and her Gypsies!”
Polly said somewhat timidly, “You make it sound exciting; isn’t it hard sometimes? I saw a taxi driver refuse to pick up a Roma, I mean Gypsy, family at the train station.” It was difficult for Polly to say “Gypsy” because she was afraid the word was hurtful to some Roma, but she honored Flora’s wishes. “They looked like a nice family, and they were angry about what happened. I don’t blame them.”
Just then, a middle-aged Roma woman approached the people at a table a few yards away. As Polly and Flora watched, the woman was rebuffed. She started toward the girls, but seeing Flora, smiled and waved and then turned to go inside the bar.
“Situations like the one with the taxi driver shouldn’t happen, but when most folks see a Gypsy, they immediately check for their wallet. I don’t believe in stealing, myself, pretty much whatever the reason, but I also don’t judge the Gypsies who do because some of them have a pretty hard life, and who knows how deep their need may be to find enough money to take care of their family?”
Flora continued, “My parents have always spoken out against stealing, and begging, too. They don’t think the excuses for it are enough justification, usually. ‘Stealing,’ says my papà, ‘is only for life-and-death cases, or nearly so, when no other alternative exists.’ My mamma sells roses to the tourists, and I play my accordion for the money people put into my cup. I’m pretty good; I like playing. For some of the other kids it’s just ‘squeak, squeak, squeak’ because they hate it and want to be playing football—which I think you call ‘soccer,’ Polly—or just about anything else besides the accordion. But even though my papà works hard at all the construction jobs he can get, we still need more money most of the time for the five of us. My two little brothers are too young to earn money any decent way, but I hope they’ll like music the way I do. Mamma has a beautiful voice, and sometimes she gets to sing ballads for the tourists—and gets a lot more money than usual for her roses.”
Sofia added, “To hear that mean Mme Meringue tell it, every single Gypsy anywhere—including you, signorina Flora—is just a dirty, sneaky, thieving outcast. In her mind, you’re even worse than her opinion of the African merchants—extracomunitari to her. For them, she at least makes an exception for Charles.”
“I’ll tell you what,” said Flora. “If I ever do take up stealing, I’ll practice on her. I don’t just get mad at people like her for my own sake; I get mad for my family, and my zio Romeo and zia Maria, and nonno and nonna, and lots of my friends, who are honest people, too, and proud to be Gypsies! Sometimes people ask why mamma and I don’t wear normal clothes all the time so we’ll fit in, but why would we want to deny our heritage—and all the colors are so pretty and make a kaleidoscope when we walk and dance.”
“Flora, you’re getting worked up! People will start paying too much attention to us, and when they realize there are three different voices at this table, they’ll accuse you of being a ventriloquist Gypsy and decide that’s the worst possible kind.”
“The way they think I bark like a dog?” asked Polly pointedly, but Sofia ignored her.
Instead, Flora said, “Sofia, if you’d learn how to speak under a roar, we’d have less to worry about. But what I want to say, Polly, is I love Pisa, even if a lot of Pisans don’t seem to love me. It’s my city as much as theirs; why shouldn’t I hold my head high? I have lots of friends—other Gypsy girls and boys, but non-Gypsies, too. It will be fun having you here this summer. Maybe you’ll decide to stay! Why don’t you convince your parents to buy a little place here; some Americans do, you know.”
“I think I’d like to stay, at least part of the year. It’s good that you and Sofia have each other.”
“Some people would call Sofia an unusual friend since no one can see her, but she’s a good sort, even though she can act a little stuck up, calling the Leaning Tower her tower and airing her knowledge.”
“Hey!” said Sofia.
Flora laughed and went on, “But she really loves Pisa, too, and sticks up for people like Mirella, Charles, and me when lots of folks don’t have the courage.”
“Do you live near here?” asked Polly.
“My family and I live in a little apartment over a store on the Corso Italia. Come along; I’ll show it to you.”
After her afternoon class was dismissed, Polly walked up the Corso Italia toward the Arno River, glancing in store windows along the way. She wished she had time to browse in the Feltrinelli bookstore, but that could wait until after she met with Sofia. Sofia seemed to thrive on having people meet her in places she assigned. At least, Polly thought, I’m getting to learn my way around the city.
Polly tried the doors of Santa Maria della Spina, but they were locked. The frilly white church was as small as a one-room cottage, yet the church was real. She’d read that it was called “della Spina”—“of the Thorn”—because it once had contained a thorn from Jesus’s crown of thorns. Whether or not to believe that story, Polly didn’t know, but it certainly was a pretty little church. She’d also read that in the 19th century it had been moved piece by piece from down even closer to the river and then reassembled here on its higher perch above the water.
“You could have looked in the bookstore if you’d wanted to; I have lots of time.”
“Sofia!” said Polly. “You scared me again!”
“What shall I do? Tap you on the shoulder? I can’t very well let you know I’m around by stamping my feet. I could cough or something.”
“I’m sorry. I’m still a little unused to all this. I’ll get better. But please stop spying on me!”
“I wasn’t spying. I simply noticed you standing at the Feltrinelli window as I passed by.”
Polly continued to feel annoyed: “You could have said something to me back there if it was okay to be late.”
“I didn’t think of it. I forget about you embodied folks and your obsession with time. Time is a convenience to me when I have dealings with you guys, but mainly it isn’t very relevant to me—think about it.”
“I see your point. As I said, I’m still a bit jumpy.”
“Possibly some leftover jet lag. I’ve heard it’s quite a problem—not that I’m familiar with the concept from personal experience. But let’s get off all that. Don’t you want to know about Mirella?”
Polly had had her fill of studying the façade of the tiny church and was sitting on the ground, leaning against the wall above the Arno. A couple of tourists were photographing the church from this angle and that in the late-afternoon sun, and she and Sofia stopped talking as one came within earshot of their conversation.
When she felt it was safe, Polly answered in a soft voice, “Of course; that’s why I’m here.”
“First I’d better tell you what she was talking about—or what Dante and Shelley were talking about. Mirella’s pretty worked up at both of those guys for saying mean things about Pisa.
“Here’s the story. About a hundred years after my earth time, there was a count by the name of Ugolino della Gherardesca. In 1284, Count Ugolino became the chief magistrate, the most important man in all of Pisa. In that era, two important parties vied for control. They were called the Guelphs and the Ghibellines—a little like your Republicans and Democrats only a whole lot less well mannered, if you can believe that.” Sofia snickered.
“Shh! They’ll hear you,” whispered Polly, nodding toward a tourist who had glanced up but then evidently decided the noise he’d heard had been traffic on the nearby bridge.
“Anyway,” continued Sofia, “Count Ugolino was a Guelph, but Pisa was full of Ghibellines, so he had a lot of enemies. Ugolino made peace with some of Pisa’s Guelph neighbors—city states like Florence, Lucca, and Genoa—and gave away a bunch of castles in the process, which certainly didn’t please the folks at home.
“Count Ugolino’s biggest mistake was trying to team up with the Ghibelline Archbishop Ruggieri degli Ubaldini, who also wanted to be numero uno in Pisa. The archbishop spread the word that Ugolino was a traitor and had him locked up in the Torre dei Gualandi, along with his two sons and two grandsons. Ever since, people have called the Torre dei Gualandi the Tower of Famine—like in Shelley’s poem. It’s part of a palazzo not too far from my tower.”
It still bugged Polly that Sofia called the Leaning Tower “my tower,” as if everyone who ever visited it were invading her space. “I read about the Tower of Famine in my guidebook,” said Polly, a little more curtly than she’d intended. “That’s not the tower where Mirella lives, is it?”
“Good grief no—Mirella would have nightmares! Ugolino and his sons and grandsons all died in that tower. Of course the big question has always been, how? Oh sure, they all got next to nothing to eat, but who died last? Who survived the longest? I’ll tell you who Dante says it was, and who Shelley says it was—good old Count Ugolino himself.”
“I know, I read about that, too. As Count Ugolino’s sons and grandsons died, one by one, the count supposedly ate them. It’s so unbelievably gross.”
“People have been believing it for more than 700 years.”
“But is it true?”
“Who knew—for centuries, who could say? Maybe the Ghibellines made it up, or maybe the count really was too much of an omnivore for most people’s taste. Well I knew, of course, and lots of other folks like me, but it wasn’t our place to say. Now even embodied people have finally learned the truth.”
“Stop stalling and tell me! I’d hate even walking by a place where something like that happened!”
“Something terrible did happen in that tower, no matter what. But not too long ago the bones of Count Ugolino and his sons and grandsons were actually discovered—just where you’d expect, in the family crypt at the Chiesa di San Francesco, right here in the city. I’ll take you there; the church is so pretty, and there’s a nice peaceful cloister. A famous professor, dottore Francesco Mallegni, from the University of Pisa, studied the bones for months and finally told the real facts—nobody ate anybody in the Tower of Famine, but five people did starve there.”
“It’s a sad story, but why does Mirella get so upset about it? It did happen more than 700 years ago; she still sounded mad about the whole thing.”
“As I told you, Mirella was a professor once, a pretty important Dante scholar, but she lost her job when she told her classes the Inferno is about folks she knew personally. She has a soft spot for Dante—I’ll let Mirella herself explain to you why—but she holds it against him that he’d even hint the count was a cannibal. Mirella has been sticking up for Count Ugolino from the beginning. She hates the idea that Pisa would have an undeserved bad name. She just can’t get past those cruel lines from people she admires so much—Dante and Shelley, that is. I’ll tell you the truth: Mirella is not half as crazy as people say. In my opinion, she’s not crazy at all, really, just a bit naïve and a little short of common sense sometimes. She’s a good sort.”
“When you say she stuck up for Count Ugolino from the beginning, what do you mean? The beginning of what?”
“Mirella will explain. Anyway, it makes sense that Mirella would choose San Michele in Borgo for her recitations. Five hundred years ago, San Michele in Borgo was the church for the University of Pisa. On the front of the church there’s still some campaign graffiti about an election back then for a rettore—that’s the president of the university. Mirella believes the university would be better off now if students continued to elect the president, the way they did in the old days. Most of her students thought she was great. It was the administration that wasn’t too thrilled about her. San Michele in Borgo was even here when I was walking around, but it’s changed a bit from its early days. I wouldn’t have recognized it if I hadn’t kept up, over the years, you know.”
Polly was getting sore from sitting on the ground, but she didn’t want to break Sofia’s flow of information, now that it had, in fact, gotten underway. Polly felt just as confused as ever, but maybe if Sofia kept talking, the details of the summer Sofia had mapped out for her would begin coming into focus. She squirmed as discreetly as she could.
“Mirella’s a natural-born teacher. She always has been and always will be. Some people have an incredible drive to fill their calling. I had that, too,” Sofia added, surprising Polly with the hint of self-reflection.
By following that hint, Polly risked staying in the dark longer about her summer assignment. But she asked anyway, “What did you want to do if you’d grown up?”
“I wish I could have been a stonemason, the way my father was. I would like to be able to look at one of the pillars in the Leaning Tower and tell myself, ‘I carved that capital,’ or know, ‘That pattern there is from my own chisel—my skill and imagination,’ just the way my father can.”
Was Sofia’s father around, too? It made sense, Polly supposed. All she could think of to say was, “I’m sorry. You seem so happy and confident.”
“It’s okay. I shouldn’t have gone onto that track, but I’m in kind of a bad mood today—nothing about anyone walking around now, though. You know, maybe I wouldn’t be here helping Pisa all these centuries later if I’d gotten what I wanted. Anyway, you girls now are lucky in some ways—not in every way, of course. My earth era had some special things, too. But you have lots of careers you can choose—even though still not very many women are stone carvers or stonemasons. I might have been tempted to come back if I could have helped build St. Peter’s, in Rome. The work is in my blood, so to speak. What do you want to do when you grow up?”
“I love languages so much. I’d like to be a translator, but only for things that interest me. I don’t want to be translating computer manuals. It’s lovely to take an Italian poem and try to make it sound good in English but still say what the poet intended. We had to do that in class today—just a little poem—from Italian into our own language. Then we read our translations aloud to each other. Most of the time you could kind of tell it was the same poem, even though I mostly didn’t know the students’ native languages.”
“What are you going to do to support yourself, or are you planning on a rich husband? I’d bet that doing English translations of Italian poetry won’t exactly bring in a steady income—even though it probably should in a perfect world.”
“I also want to be a teacher—and a writer.” Polly squirmed discreetly again, but she still didn’t want to end the conversation.
“Will you write about me?” asked Sofia in an uncharacteristically shy tone.
“If you’ll let me. Maybe you’ll help me?”
“I’ll be your toughest critic! But I’ll be fair.” Polly could tell Sofia was pleased by the idea of finding herself in print.
“Why don’t you come back as a woman stonemason now so you can fulfill your dream? There must be some women who do that work.”
“Much of what my father did is done by machine these days—so it’s not the same. And most of the buildings people are putting up now don’t appeal to me at all. In earlier centuries I did think about returning, but I still couldn’t see any good opportunities for a woman, and I had no intention of doing time as a man. They’re okay; I like some of them a lot, but I wouldn’t want to be one. Now I could be a sculptor, perhaps, but I can’t abandon Pisa, not even for just a lifetime. I could live here, of course, but a body gets in the way of some of what I do. Besides, I’m Sofia. I’ll always be Sofia. I don’t really want to water myself down by being someone else for a while.”
A tour bus pulled up next to Santa Maria della Spina, and a group of Americans began climbing down and filling the small piazza in front of the church.
“Tomorrow after your afternoon class, meet me at Feltrinelli,” whispered Sofia. “You can go inside. I’ll find you over by the books about Pisa.”
“What are we going to do then?” Polly whispered even more softly, but there was no answer. She still had barely a clue about the plans that Sofia had in mind for the summer.
Reluctantly she headed back down the Corso Italia in the direction of Mme Meringue’s house. But realizing there was still time before cena at seven, Polly happily delayed reaching that destination by spending half an hour wandering through the Feltrinelli bookstore. Their collection of books about Pisa—especially the Leaning Tower—really was wonderful. After looking longingly through an impressive, and expensive, photographic study of the tower that illustrated every little detail, from the bells to the smallest designs in the marble, Polly bought herself a guide to Pisa for young people; the book’s Italian looked manageable.
The next morning was cool, with perfect blue sky. Polly stood at her window watching her new neighbors heading off to work on foot and motorini—motor scooters—and in little cars like those still lining both sides of the street. How lovely it was to be about to head out for the day herself, and how strange that she should feel enthusiastic at the prospect of school. She liked her school back in New York well enough, some subjects anyway. But just last week she had celebrated the last day of the school year with the same enthusiasm as her classmates’.
Mme Meringue was nowhere in sight. After quickly swallowing the light breakfast of a brioche and orange juice that her landlady had laid out for her in the kitchen and then washing her plate and glass in the sink, Polly closed the front door behind her and tugged to make sure it was locked. She was used to a heartier breakfast and hoped there would be time for a snack later in the morning. Lasting until lunch without a rumbling stomach would be impossible.
Polly walked down her street and then turned the corner to Via Cesare Battisti. She almost passed the nondescript entrance to the Scuola Linguistica per Stranieri a Pisa—the Language School for Foreigners in Pisa. The small sign for the school was at the bottom of a column of similar small signs announcing the presence of various offices and agencies.
The floor of the tiny entrance lobby was made of blue and white tiles forming a swirling mosaic. A travel poster of the Leaning Tower hung on the far wall. Just around the corner and up three stairs waited an ancient elevator, but Polly chose to walk up the five flights to her school, past the closed doors of the offices and agencies, one to each level.
The door to the Scuola Linguistica was open, however, and signor Poletti, the school administrator, was inside, working at his desk. Throughout Polly’s summer of language lessons, signor Poletti would nearly always be working at his desk or sitting there talking with students and teachers. He proved to be kind, reserved, and efficient, even though he usually seemed a little hassled from his worries of one kind or another.
“Sono in anticipo,” said Polly—“I’m early.”
“Non troppo,” he answered—“Not too much”—and showed her into one of the classrooms, where a copy of a multiple-choice placement test had been put at each seat around tables arranged in a large square. Out of the window she could see the Carrara Mountains in the distance, the white marble at their summits glinting in the morning light. A ceiling fan spun slowly.
Polly usually worried a lot about tests—she hated them—but for some reason she was now calm and confident. She hadn’t even been nervous about walking into the school and announcing herself to signor Poletti, and she wasn’t nervous about working her way through the test choices—the answers she knew, those she thought she might know, and those about which she hadn’t a clue. She just ripped along, not second-guessing herself. It was nice to experience what it must be like for some of the more happy-go-lucky kids in her class, the ones who didn’t care if their grade came back an A or a C. No doubt having spent part of the past evening with a spirit girl had changed her perspective a bit. At the very least, everything now had an edge of unreality, as if she were casually watching her experiences from outside herself.
After the multiple-choice questions came an oral interview with one of the four young women who would teach the four course levels. Polly hadn’t had much chance to hold real conversations in Italian before her trip, just the stilted ones with her classmates in signora Martinelli’s course and a couple of after-school chats with signora Martinelli herself. But she’d been getting along okay in the language for a couple of days now—not to mention her conversation last night with Sofia. So at least she didn’t have to try to make her brain switch gears the way she did back home when she changed classes from English to Italian.
The young man ahead of her came out from his interview, and the teenaged girl in line behind Polly said, “Go on!” But Polly waited to be called in, hoping that this girl who was now looking so impatient wouldn’t be in her class. The other students waiting for their interviews or chatting in the office area ranged from a few boys and girls about Polly’s age to adults at least the age of her parents.
The examining teacher finished making her notes and signaled Polly’s turn. The teacher was pretty and proved to be an expert at relaxing jittery students by sticking with the simple questions: where Polly was from, what her interests were, how much Italian she’d studied. Polly saw her write “3” next to her name on the roster.
The first morning of school was over. Signor Poletti reminded her to return after lunch to meet her new class.
Her first stop outside was the café on the corner—the Bar Allegro—for a slice of spinach omelet wrapped in thin focaccia dough. She bought a second slice and a bottle of mineral water to save for lunch later. It was only 10:30, and she’d be hungry again by early afternoon. Polly thought it was funny that perfectly proper establishments for a light meal or for coffee or juice were called “bars.” Just about everyone Polly saw at the bar was drinking coffee and eating some kind of pastry. Given Italian breakfasts, it was no wonder to Polly that the other patrons, too, needed a snack about now.
Most of the customers stood at the counter to eat and to drink their beverages, and she joined them, trying to look as if she did this all the time. She’d been cautioned that sitting at a table and being waited on would double or triple her bill.
Leaving the bar by the door opening onto the boulevard that led to the train station, Polly saw five of the African merchants Mme Meringue called extracomunitari. She recognized the man she’d exchanged buona sera with the evening before, and there next to him was Charles. He spotted her, and they waved to each other before she turned away from the station to head toward the Arno River and the bridge leading to the Borgo Stretto, a street that was closed to cars.
Polly had plenty of time before she was due to meet Sofia. She spent the next two hours wandering along the Borgo Stretto—glancing into café-bars and shops—and exploring the even narrower side streets and alleyways. The medieval buildings had pink, red, and purple flowers flowing over their balconies. Down at the end of one narrow street she found a pretty church that was hundreds of years old, and wandering farther still, she stood in front of the Teatro Verdi, Pisa’s opera house. Polly imagined walking inside with a ticket in hand for an opera performance. She would wear her green velvet dress and her new shoes with the little heels.
Sitting on an opera-house step, Polly ate her lunch and continued to daydream about attending a performance inside.
She looked at her watch and saw she was due at her appointment with Sofia in ten minutes. Hurrying back to the Borgo Stretto, Polly started to stiffen inside, anticipating Sofia’s strident voice in her ear at any moment.
Polly had earlier located the Chiesa di San Michele in Borgo and so returned there easily, but so far Sofia had not made her presence known. Standing on the steps of the church was a tall, slender woman who, after a few moments, began reciting in a voice as loud as Sofia’s: “Ah, Pisa, you bring curses down upon the people of your beautiful city!”
The woman delivered these surprising lines as though she were an actress in the Teatro Verdi opera house. She flung out her arms on “Ah, Pisa,” paused, and pointed her finger at a startled tourist trying to take a photograph of the church from across the narrow street. “Even though Count Ugolino betrayed you and your castles, you should not have condemned his sons to such a fate,” she continued sternly. The tourist looked around to see who else was paying attention, spotted Polly a few feet away, shook his head, and hurried up the street. The orange and white cat sitting on the steps beside the woman was a more appreciative audience. He regarded his human companion as if he admired her dramatic skill.
Apparently finished with her recitation and now commenting to the cat, the woman said in a more conversational tone, “My dear Dante, you write beautiful words but sanction curses that are undeserved!”
“I see you’ve found Mirella,” said a voice that was becoming familiar but was now unusually quiet—just a whisper in Polly’s ear. Polly jumped anyway, in spite of having been expecting Sofia for several minutes.
“What’s she talking about?” Polly whispered back, trying not to move her mouth. She didn’t want anyone thinking she was as odd as the lady on the church steps.
“She’s reciting Dante’s Inferno,” said Sofia, forgetting to continue keeping her voice down.
A woman who had paused on her way up the Borgo Stretto glanced around. “Very good!” she said to Polly, assuming Polly to be the source of the young voice. “You’ve been paying attention in school. Too bad she’s crazy,” the woman added, pointing to Mirella. “She must have paid attention in school, too.”
Mirella had sat down next to her cat. She pulled back her long gray hair as though planning to wrap it into a bun but then let it fall in disorder over her shoulders. “They refuse to listen to me,” she said audibly to the cat, who continued to look attentive. “No one cares about anything anymore—not about my Dante, my Pisa, or even the truth, and certainly not about literature, which carries truth even when it speaks falsely.”
“Mirella loves Pisa, too,” Sofia said proudly.
“Shh,” Polly whispered to Sofia after the woman who’d spoken to her had gone on. People will think I’m talking to myself. They’ll think that woman and I are a pair.”
“You could do worse.” At least Sofia made the retort quietly. “Look, Act Two’s beginning.”
Mirella didn’t seem very young, but she rose as easily as a girl and smoothed the neatly pressed denim skirt that came down nearly to the top of her sandals, which looked too big for her slender feet. The cat turned his head as if for a better view.
With her palms up, Mirella thrust one arm forward and the other out to her side and declaimed in a clear, powerful voice that sounded on the verge of tears:
Amid the desolation of a city Which was the cradle and is now the grave Of an extinguished people, so that Pity Weeps o’er the shipwrecks of oblivion’s wave, There stands the Tower of Famine.
Mirella dropped her head and spoke just loudly enough to be heard: “Dear young Shelley. You, too, speak falsehoods against the city that welcomed you.”
“That’s Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘The Tower of Famine’ she’s reciting now. He was a famous English poet, and he lived right here in Pisa for a while, down at the end of this street.”
“Yes, of course I know he was a poet. I’ve heard of Dante, too, for that matter,” said Polly, still a little hurt by Sofia’s “you could do worse” comment. “What’s the cat’s name?”
“Byron. I guess you know he also wrote poetry—the real Byron, not the cat. The real Byron once lived around the corner. He was a great poet but a little nuts. People say sometimes he rode his horse right in the front door and up the grand staircase. People didn’t even behave like that in my era.”
“Where does Mirella live?”
“In a tower—don’t look so startled—not my tower. It’s another tower, over near la Sapienza—that’s part of the University of Pisa. There are lots of towers in Tuscany; you should know that by now. Most of them in these parts are square, not round like my tower. Look, I hate whispering, and you look pretty funny trying to whisper without even moving your mouth. After your class, meet me in front of Santa Maria della Spina—that’s the tiny church right next to the river.”
Polly didn’t feel she was being polite to stare, even though Mirella acted as if she were on a stage. Still, Mirella seemed largely oblivious to the small audience of passersby that had formed and was now dispersing. Having finished once again with her recitations, she sat back down, smoothed out the wrinkles in her skirt as she had before, and said something more to the cat, but this time she spoke so softly that Polly couldn’t understand the words. Byron rearranged himself as if to go to sleep, but his eyes remained open and alert and seemed to be studying the comings and goings of the lunchtime crowd along the Borgo Stretto. Suddenly he sat up straight and said, “Meow!” as if he meant business.
“Woof,” said what sounded like a small dog who also meant business, but no dog was in sight.
“Kinzica, get back here!” Sofia hollered, causing two more passersby to turn and look at Polly, wondering where the dog was that she was calling.
“Woof, woof,” said Kinzica, louder still, and then, “Woof, woof, woof!”
Byron clearly had a low tolerance for rudeness in dogs. Ever so slowly, with disdain in his expression and every move, he rose to all four paws and arched his back, his raised fur making him look twice his size. Then he bounded down the steps of the church.
“Byron!” Mirella called after him. “Come back! Leave Kinzica alone!”
Byron ignored her and rushed into the street, hissing and meowing as he ran.
“Woof, woof, woof!” repeated Kinzica.
“Stop it, Kinzica!” scolded Sofia in a voice as loud as her dog’s. “Leave Byron alone!”
“Where’s the dog?” asked a woman who was among the half-dozen people who’d paused to see what was going on with Mirella’s cat.
“I don’t know,” answered Polly, wishing she were somewhere else.
“But you were just talking to it!” said a scornful-looking teenaged girl who turned to the boy with her and said, “She’s as crazy as the old woman!” She gestured toward Mirella but then shrieked and grabbed her friend’s arm as Byron ran to within six inches of her feet, stopped as if he had slammed on the brakes, and began a cat fit such as Polly had never seen before. He pounced, spat, hissed, swished his tail, ran back a few feet, ran forward again toward the cowering teenagers, and nearly completed a back flip whose ultimate lack of success broke the rule about cats always landing on their feet.
“Woof, woof, woof, woof, woof!” said Kinzica as if she were laughing.
Byron righted himself, and with as much dignity as he could scrape together, gave one last ferocious hiss and turned toward Mirella, who had continued calling him to her during his tantrum. With his tail in the air, he walked haughtily up the church steps and sat down behind his human.
“Woof,” repeated Kinzica, but this time Byron did not take the bait.
“Now don’t be mean,” Sofia said as well as she could, given her own laughing fit.
In spite of herself, Polly was laughing so much her stomach hurt.
“Well I’m glad it’s funny to you,” said the teenaged girl. “I think you’re weird. You laugh so hard you sound like two people. Come on, Paulo,” she said to her boyfriend. “Let’s get out of here.”
“I think you have a problem, dear,” said the woman who’d asked where the dog was. “You’re a talented little actress; your barking sounded quite real, but why do you need to call so much attention to yourself? And to torment that poor cat so!”
Embarrassment stopped Polly’s laughter. It was only her second full day in Pisa, and already she was afraid she’d ruined her reputation and would be known forever around town as the “barking American.” She tried weakly to defend herself: “It wasn’t I!”
“You can’t have been looking at Polly if you thought she was doing the barking!” said Sofia, making matters much worse.
“Of course not! I was watching that poor, demented cat,” said the woman before she’d had time to analyze the situation. But then she added, “Who said that?” sounding half angry and half alarmed.
Without responding to the woman or glancing at the other stragglers who’d been watching Byron’s cat fit—and hearing a conversation with more speakers than visible people—Polly abruptly turned and headed back down the Borgo Stretto toward the Arno River.
She reached the bridge across the Arno that linked the Borgo Stretto with the Corso Italia. Like the Borgo Stretto, the Corso Italia was a shop-lined street set aside for people on foot, bicycles, and motorini. Polly was relieved when she had crossed the bridge and could once again feel anonymous. Dodging tourists and motorbikes, she hurried down the full length of the Corso, past inviting stores and café-bars, to her afternoon class.
Polly climbed the flights of stairs to her school and was sent into the classroom for level three. A friendly young Kenyan named Simon, who would be known in class by the Italian version of his name, Simone, pronounced “See-mo-nay,” sat down next to her on the left. A pretty longhaired Polish girl—Anna—sat to her right. The three chatted a little; both of her neighbors seemed to speak better Italian than she did. They sounded more secure. Oh well, she’d do her best.
The ceiling fan creaked. This was not its first summer. Brown shutters softened the sun’s glare and traffic noise as Polly and the others held conversations on topics assigned by Elena, their kind young teacher. Elena called the students “ragazzi,” kids—much more pleasant than the “people” that had been her past-year homeroom teacher’s favorite term, as in, “People, please pay attention!” Elena was wonderfully interesting and encouraging. Polly was thrilled; as the words flew, she understood almost everything.
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.
After their visit to the Leaning Tower, Polly and her parents checked out of the Grand Hotel Duomo and took a taxi across the Arno River to Mme Meringue’s attractive home on a side street not far from the train station. The little yellow-stucco house was narrow but had four stories, with balconies on each of the top three floors. Tubs of tiny white flowers decorated the balconies, and vines with more tiny white flowers climbed up the ironwork and cascaded back down over the railings. On the lowest balcony, three yellow lemons peeked out of the leaves on a small tree in a clay pot.
The taxi waited while Polly’s parents shook hands with Mme Meringue and hugged Polly farewell. An African boy whom Mme Meringue introduced as Charles—saying, “Charles helps me out from time to time”—picked up Polly’s suitcases, waved away her father’s offer of help, and disappeared up a stairway in the front hall. Pleased to see someone about her own age, Polly wondered which country he was from and whether he and she would become friends. Polly’s parents didn’t have much time before their train left for Naples. “We’re sorry not to see your room, Polly,” her father said. “Mme Meringue, Polly has our address and phone number. She’s a good girl; I don’t think she’ll be too much trouble.”
Polly followed Mme Meringue and her small dog to the third floor—so much for any notion of sneaking out her window. Mme Meringue opened the door and stepped back for Polly to enter her bedroom for the summer. The room looked like the inside of a snowbank. The headboard on the bed was white padded vinyl, scalloped at the top and rising on each end to a little white knob. A thick comforter—white, of course—covered the bed, and on top of it Mme Meringue had placed huge pillows trimmed in lace. Polly walked over to examine the pretty pillows, which were embroidered with light-yellow roses. She couldn’t wait to climb up on the bed with a good book, but that desire was immediately squelched. “I know you won’t lie on the spread or throw your books on it,” said Mme Meringue. Her golden spaniel looked at Polly as if to say, “I’d never jump on the bed.”
Polly suddenly felt as though someone else had come into the room. Expecting to see Charles, she turned from the bed toward the door. But all she saw was her tall, stout landlady and the snooty little dog. Mme Meringue was pointing to a small desk with a matching chair. “Over here is a lovely desk for studying your lessons and writing to your little friends. I’ll bet mamma and papà would appreciate a letter now and then, too.”
The desk was as white as the bed and walls, except for gold trim along the edges and on the drawer knobs. The desk, a chest of drawers, and a freestanding wardrobe made a matching set, along with the enormous mirror framed in white and gold that hung over the chest. Over the bed, Mme Meringue had hung a picture of two little girls skipping between rows of towering yellow sunflowers. Yellow seemed to be the one bright color Polly’s new landlady would tolerate. Polly loved sunflowers as much as the next person, but she couldn’t see herself skipping through a field of them.
Really, the room was beautiful, if she hadn’t been afraid to touch—and cautioned against marring—just about everything in it. And how was she supposed to walk on the deep, white carpet without leaving dirty marks, no matter how hard she’d scraped her shoes on the front stoop? Mme Meringue soon answered that question: “In the future, you’ll want to leave your shoes down on the little mat just inside the front door. I’m sure your mother has packed you some lovely slippers that will serve well here at home.” So that’s why Mme Meringue was wearing bedroom slippers—with fluffy white feathers on the top.
The worst thing about the room was its failure to include a single bookcase. In fact, it only contained one book—a white-leather Bible on the bedside table, which also held a white lamp topped by a white shade decorated with pompoms. Polly supposed Mme Meringue would have had a problem finding enough white books to fill even the tiniest bookcase. That was okay; Polly had brought plenty of books with her, as her parents had grumblingly noted when they’d helped her with her luggage at the New York and Pisa airports.
“I’ll leave you to get settled. Cena will be at seven. That is a bit early, perhaps, but I understand you Americans eat your—‘supper’ is it?—practically in the afternoon, and I have some things I need to do this evening.” Mme Meringue’s accent was even more pronounced as she slipped in the English word among her fluent but—even to Polly’s unpracticed ears—French-tinged Italian. Polly was relieved that her landlady spoke slowly enough for her to understand without struggling. She’d been very worried before her trip about whether her own Italian would be up to the test of everyday use.
Polly’s school back in New York offered all sorts of languages, and she felt lucky to be heading into the eighth grade with three years of Italian already behind her. Her teacher, signora Martinelli, was Italian herself, from Rome, and she was the one who had done the most to help Polly fall in love with the language. Signora Martinelli loved music, too—opera, especially—and played recordings of beautiful arias for the class. Some of the kids mocked and pantomimed the singing, but Polly adored Italian opera and hoped to attend at least one during the summer.
As soon as Mme Meringue left her alone, and before she even thought about it, Polly pulled the book she was reading from her overnight case, slipped out of her sandals, and lay down on the thick, white quilt, her head against the luxurious pile of pillows. But her conscience quickly reminded her to jump up again and pull back the quilt. The blanket underneath was equally white, but Polly’s conscience didn’t bother her about lying on that and leaning back again against the pillows. She opened the book, which was by Bianca Pitzorno, her favorite Italian author, but didn’t read more than a paragraph before she fell asleep.
When she awoke, the soft light through the shuttered window told Polly the day was far advanced. After a moment of feeling disoriented about where she was, Polly remembered, glanced in haste at the clock beside the bed, and was relieved to find that cena was still half an hour away. She didn’t want to irritate Mme Meringue, especially the first day, and even more especially given what Polly had in mind for later.
Cena was in the dining room. A soup course had been served at the two places set with elegant silverware, delicate glasses, and linen napkins. Mme Meringue was already at the place at the far end of the table, which would have seated eight comfortably. She motioned to Polly to take the seat at the opposite end of the table. In contrast to Polly’s bedroom, the dining room was dark and formal. The massive furniture was intricately carved. A spectacular crystal chandelier hung so low over the table that it obscured part of Mme Meringue’s curly hairdo and made it look as if she were wearing an elaborate glass headdress. Polly imagined that Mme Meringue had eaten here with her husband when he’d been alive. Had he been called “signor Meringue”? she wondered. Could an Italian man possibly have the name “Meringue”? And was that smiling, gray-haired man in the portrait over the buffet cabinet her landlady’s husband? He had warm, cheery eyes. “Is that a portrait of signor Meringue?” she got up the courage to ask, indicating the picture.
“Oh no, my dear—I mean, yes, that is my husband, my dear Gustavo, but he was Gustavo Bonetti. Italian women retain their maiden name after marriage, although they are also referred to as ‘la signora so-and-so,’ according to their husband’s name. My dear Gustavo was always proud of me and liked to introduce me as ‘my wife, Mme Minou Meringue.’”
“He looks very nice, very kind,” said Polly, thinking that she, too, would keep her own name if she married.
“He was the kindest man you could ever imagine,” Mme Meringue said so softly and sadly that Polly thought for a moment she was about to cry. Polly wouldn’t have blamed anyone for crying from missing such a sweet-looking husband, not at all what Polly would have imagined proper Mme Meringue’s husband to be like.
Mme Meringue abruptly stood up. “I think I would like some more of that minestra. Can I interest you in another cup, Polly?”
As good as the soup was, Polly wanted to leave room for whatever was coming next. She’d been learning about Italian meals and their multiple courses, and besides, she was too preoccupied with all that had happened and all that still lay ahead for the evening to have her full appetite.
Charles was not around, and no other household members were in evidence. Mme Meringue served the meal herself, fussing over whether Polly was eating enough. Polly tried to reassure her: “Really, it’s so good! I’m not very hungry—maybe still a little jet-lagged—but I love the pasta! But really, I’ve had plenty!” Polly had to admit that Mme Meringue did have a talent for pasta, even if she were French instead of Italian. A tasty piece of baked haddock and spinach with olive oil and lemon juice followed the pasta course. Like the rest of the meal, they were served on fragile-looking blue and white china, which Polly imagined Mme Meringue bringing with her from France. And then she was happy to see that dessert was a dish of raspberries, which Polly loved, and a cheese plate she could safely decline. As much as she liked sweets such as tiramisu, she absolutely would have had to turn down a rich dessert.
Beyond the discussion of Polly’s appetite, the dinner conversation felt like a game of Twenty Questions, with Mme Meringue asking almost all the questions and sticking to such topics as Polly’s school, friends, hobbies, and house back home.
Polly offered to help with the dishes, but Mme Meringue declined, much to Polly’s relief because time was getting tight. “No, dear, I have my own system in the kitchen. There will be some little chores for you some other time.”
Polly announced a strong desire to take a walk. “My parents and I nearly always take a walk after supper in the summertime,” she said. The statement would have been true if she’d substituted “sometimes” for “nearly always.” She wasn’t a bit comfortable stretching the truth anytime, much less so early in her relationship with Mme Meringue, but she also wasn’t about to miss meeting Sofia at the Leaning Tower.
“As long as you don’t mind my not walking with you,” said Mme Meringue quite amiably. “I’ll give you a key—you’ll need it for the summer in case I’m out sometimes when you come home.”
Polly wondered fleetingly if she had imagined the whole encounter with Sofia or if someone were playing a trick on her. But how could that be the case? Not one to follow other people’s notions of what she should do unless she agreed the plans made sense, Polly quickly dismissed any question in her mind about why she was going along with Sofia’s demand to meet her at the Leaning Tower. Polly knew why she’d agreed. She had always thought—and hoped—there were people like Sofia around, but she didn’t know anyone else who’d actually had an experience like the one she’d had that afternoon. If Sofia existed, maybe Polly’s grandfather, whom she missed like crazy, was sometimes around, too, and even ancestors she’d never had a chance to meet. Here was an incredible opportunity to find out how these things worked.
Mme Meringue continued, “I might as well alert you now: I don’t like to be disturbed in the evening because that is when I study my Bible—and watch my television shows,” she added candidly. “You’ll certainly be back well before dark, won’t you? I can’t imagine your parents would be happy about your running around Pisa after dark. After all, you have to be up early for your class tomorrow. I don’t suppose you’d be in any actual danger if you stay in the neighborhood, but it’s simply not proper for a girl of your age.” Fortunately she assumed Polly’s compliance and didn’t wait for an answer before continuing: “And I will never trust those Gypsies and extra-comunitari. Pisa would be so much more civilized without them.”
“What are ‘extracomunitari’?” asked Polly.
“Outsiders, strangers, people from distant places.”
“Then I’m an extracomunitaria?”
“Why of course I wouldn’t call you that, dear! I’m talking about people like those African merchants who sell hats and sunglasses and all manner of other nonsense. I can’t even walk to the train station without passing a half dozen of them along the sidewalk. Charles—the boy who carried up your luggage—is an extracomunitario. It’s true that he’s quite a good young man, but I don’t approve in the least of his selling souvenirs with the rest of that lot. He’s hanging around with a very bad crowd, I have no doubt. Their businesses—if you can call a collection of trinkets laid out on bedsheets ‘businesses’—should all be shut down, even Charles’s. It would be for his own good to make him take up a respectable trade.”
“Does he have a family here in Pisa?”
“Of course not. That’s not the way they do.”
“He doesn’t look very old. How would he earn a living if he gave up his business?”
“I could find him plenty of work as a houseboy, the way he works for me from time to time, but he makes ridiculous claims about his souvenir trade helping people back home. I can’t imagine there’s much left over after Charles pays his living expenses. Enough about that; I’m keeping you from your walk.
“Here’s my extra key—but don’t lose it,” Mme Meringue added after taking the key from a shelf next to the window. Polly hated it when adults cautioned her not to lose things. Both of Polly’s parents lost things more often than she did, but they, too, were always telling her to hold on to this or that.
“Have a nice walk, and please be quiet when you come in.”
No problem, thought Polly. She intended to be very, very quiet. The late-setting June sun would have long since disappeared below the horizon when she returned from her meeting at the tower. She fervently hoped Mme Meringue wouldn’t be checking her room to see if she’d safely arrived home.
Polly walked the three blocks to the train station through the warm early evening, the sun casting long shadows over the Pisans and tourists out for an after-supper stroll. A few of the street merchants that Mme Meringue had called extracomunitari still had their wares spread on the sidewalk under the arcade along Viale Gramsci, the boulevard leading to the station. She smiled at a middle-aged man who was sitting on a folding chair with his back to the wall. He returned her smile and “buona sera.” Polly would have liked to look more closely at the sun hats he was selling, but doing so would have to wait for another time. She hurried on to the station—where, she’d learned from the desk clerk at the Grand Hotel Duomo, one could catch a bus to the Leaning Tower. Clutching one of the bus tickets her parents had purchased for her at a newsstand near the hotel, she checked the posted routes, located the right stop, and read the schedule. Another bus to the tower would be along in fifteen minutes.
To pass the time, she stepped inside the station, called Pisa Centrale. Sounds boomed and echoed, and the loudspeaker announced a train in arrivo and then another in partenza. Polly bought a copy of the newspaper Il Tirreno at the newsstand so she could practice reading more Italian and then headed back outside to catch the bus.
After crossing the Arno River near Santa Maria della Spina—a tiny church right at the river’s edge—the bus continued on through city streets until it stopped by the Porta di Santa Maria archway in the old city wall. Just beyond, looking like a fantasy painting in the low-angled light, was the Campo dei Miracoli with its baptistery, cathedral, and bell tower—the Leaning Tower. The tower was framed by the deepening blue of dusk and illuminated softly from within to show the way for tourists still inside at this late hour.
“It looks like a candle made of moonlight, don’t you think?” a rather loud voice said in her ear.
“Sofia? You scared me!”
“Sorry. It’s just so pretty; it makes me proud. And I could tell you were impressed. Come and sit with me on the steps on the other side of the cathedral. We’ll find a place that’s private so no one thinks you’re talking to yourself and calls the police to take you away.” Sofia’s cackling laugh was disconcertingly piercing, and two women standing nearby looked around at Polly. “Don’t worry, I’ll follow you. Just pick a good spot.”
On the far side of the cathedral, Polly was eventually able to find a place to sit on a step where no one was in easy earshot. She settled herself and listened expectantly.
 In Italian, titles such as “signore” (spelled “signor” before a name) are not capitalized.