October 15, 2009



by Michele Stepto

Foundling Wheel

Once, during the Renaissance, in the new town of Pienza, a convent of nuns installed a foundling wheel in an out-of-the-way spot along one of its outer walls. When the wheel was turned to the outside, with its opening exposed, any woman of Pienza might leave in it a child she didn’t want. She would place it on a small cushion which the nuns had provided and then turn the wheel until the baby disappeared inside, knowing that the nuns would care for it from then on.

What happened to the children who disappeared from view in this way? They fell to the care of Sister Ludovica, who had been placed in charge of the foundling wheel. She lived in the little room where the wheel was located, and when she heard it creak she knew that the Holy Mother had swept another soul into her keeping. She would lift the child from the wheel and examine its clothing for signs of who might have left it, for some of the children came wrapped in fine cloth and bore on their little arms tiny gold circlets, and these Sister Ludovica knew were children of quality. Others had nothing about them but a cloth bag or a scrap of animal skin such as a peasant might wrap a newborn in.

It is strange that the convent left all the work of the foundling wheel to Sister Ludovica, because the truth is that many of the children died in her care. The poor little wretched ones (as she called them) in particular were carried off very quickly, almost as soon as they arrived, while the others usually survived long enough to be transferred to some sturdy peasant who had come to Pienza looking for a child he might raise and get some work out of. The little ones who died were buried in the convent garden, which was sown with tiny headstones that looked like teeth. Many thought that they were better off than the children who went out into the countryside alive.

At length after many years Sister Ludovica died, and a new person, Sister Novizia, was given the foundling wheel to look after. Right away the other nuns noticed that very few children died in Sister Novizia’s care. She removed each one from the foundling wheel, undressed it and bathed it and replaced its clothing with a simple woolen blanket. Whatever the child had come wearing she put in a large trunk she kept in her room, and when a child was ready to leave the convent she gave its new foster parent the choice of one article from that trunk. Some peasants found a piece of gold to take home with them, others not so much as a scrap of linen, and all of them came back often for another child and another go at Sister Novizia’s trunk.

So the children kept coming through the wall on the foundling wheel, and the peasants kept coming to get them, and the only thing that stopped was the digging of graves and the sowing of headstones in the convent garden. And because the garden was a small one, this seemed to everyone a very good thing.


At the Window

It was the Renaissance and it was Pienza, so everything was new and up-to-date. The little convent of nuns decided to bring their establishment into the quattrocento by knocking out a window in the wall that separated their garden from the street. They put bars on the window, so no one could get in, and on the outside they had the workmen build a sturdy shelf to hold the surplus from the garden. They meant to keep all the cabbages and turnips and carrots and other fine vegetables for themselves and set out, for whoever might want them, the garlic and onions which kept shooting up everywhere, no matter what they did.

Shortly after the window was built, a young Pienzan by the name of Tommasso began stopping by every day to gather up the vegetables left by the nuns. He took everything, though it was mostly just garlic and onions and the occasional cardoon, and what he didn’t use himself he sold in the new marketplace. And because most of the people in and around Pienza were much better at gardening than the nuns, they had already gotten rid of all the garlic and onions in their own gardens and were happy to buy Tommasso’s, because everyone likes a little garlic or onion in a dish now and then, although too much of either one is not very refined.

One day when Tommasso arrived at the window to collect his vegetables, the head gardener herself, Sister Ortagia, was there waiting for him. She was young and pretty and she said, “Hello, Tommasso, today I’ve brought you some carrots to sell. Don’t tell anyone.” Tommasso was as startled to hear the nun speak as he would have been if the statue of the Holy Mother in the new church had said something. But he took the carrots, and of course he sold them in the marketplace without any trouble, because they were smooth and sound, and straight too, not gruesome and hairy like the carrots the peasants brought in from the countryside.

Tommasso didn’t quite know what was up at first, but everyday when he appeared at the window, Sister Ortagia was there with something from her garden: a basket of artichokes which she passed one by one through the bars to Tommasso; a gleaming bunch of baby turnips tied with a gold string; a pear from the convent pear tree. And everything she gave him, even the garlic and onions, Tommasso quickly sold to the Pienzans who came looking for vegetables, so that he went home from the market every day with a nice pocket of coins.

People in Pienza began to notice this. It was an up-to-date town but Tommasso was no farmer, everyone knew that, and a lot of them wondered whether he should be making money from someone else’s labor, even if it was a nun’s. They liked Tommasso and they liked the vegetables, but still.

And the nuns in the little convent noticed too. They noticed the young man who came everyday to get the vegetables, and they noticed how much time Sister Ortagia spent with him at the garden window, and how there didn’t seem to be as many artichokes or cardoons or peas (which they loved) on their own table anymore, and how the last time Cook made soup it had nothing in it but onions.

They went to the Mother Superior with their suspicions, and the Mother Superior decided she’d have to have a word with Sister Ortagia. They had a long talk on a bench next to the garden window, while Tommasso listened from the other side, and when it was over Tommasso went and got his ladder and Sister Ortagia climbed over the wall and ran away with him.

The Mother Superior put an old nun by the name of Sister Benedetta in charge of the garden who didn’t have nearly the green thumb that Sister Ortagia had. But that was okay because every few days a nice box of peas and artichokes and other good things, even the occasional head of garlic, arrived at the convent. Cook was happy, the Sisters were happy again, and no one ever asked where it came from.

Veronica’s Trellis

Veronica wanted a trellis for her spring peas. She explained it to Tommasso, how the little tendrils would catch onto the trellis, as they naturally did, lifting the whole plant up.

If we could get it to climb, she said, we could pick the peas sooner, before they get fat and starchy and before the birds find them.

Tommasso was fixing a wheelbarrow, one of the many pieces of old equipment that he and Veronica had received as gifts for their new farm. He thought, Sister Ortagia would have built the trellis herself. But it was a fleeting thought. So ardent were his feelings for his new bride (Sister Ortagia that was), they left no room in his heart for complaint. When he lay in her arms at night he felt like a fresh green pea himself, nestled in a shapely pod.

He built the trellis near a sunny wall at the bottom of the new garden. He built it out of wood and string and various scraps of metal taken from the old equipment, and when it was done it looked like a miniature version of the new bell tower in Pienza. Tommasso thought (again, fleetingly) that if the trellis had a bell the peas might toll their readiness to be eaten.

Veronica planted it inside and out with pea plants, and just as she had predicted the vines climbed up the trellis toward the sky, turning their flowers outward to catch the morning sun. In the afternoon, when the sun went behind the wall and Tommasso and Veronica went indoors to rest, the flowers hung expectantly in the shade, little bonnets full of demure thoughts.

In time the flowers drooped and changed into slender green fingers that gradually swelled into pods. Tommasso brought the first one to Veronica, who gently pressed it open to reveal a string of perfect green pearls. To Tommasso’s surprise, Veronica popped the pearls in her mouth, one by one, and chewed with a certain avidity.

We’ll keep some of these for ourselves, she told him.

Not too long after the peas ripened, in early summer, Veronica told Tommasso that she was pregnant with a child who would be born on Christmas Day. This was a miraculous coincidence, and right away Tommasso understood that it was the peas from the trellis. He reasoned thus: the fruit, perfect in itself, had grown on a trellis that was the perfect symbol of their marriage, for Veronica had thought it up and he had designed and built it. And now it was about to yield another perfection, a child born on the Savior’s birthday.

When Tommasso explained this to Don Francesco at the church, Don Francesco agreed, even hinting that the peas Veronica had eaten might carry the vital principle of life. If ever you and Veronica don’t wish to conceive a child, Don Francesco said, have her refrain from eating the peas. You can bring them to me.

Tommasso and Veronica took the old priest’s advice and in this way, over the years, they had three beautiful little girls. The first was not born on Christmas Day as Veronica had promised. She came several weeks late, and when Tommasso asked Don Francesco why this had happened, the priest reminded him that humanity might aspire to perfection but nature herself rarely achieved it. Years later, as if to confirm this, their last child, a little boy, arrived on the long-awaited birthday with a club foot. He will limp to his grave, said the midwife, a brisk woman with a black mustache.

Tommasso wondered what had happened. Was it the peas? He suspected not. He would have liked to discuss this puzzle with Don Francesco, but by then Don Francesco was dead.

Don Francesco and the Angel

Don Francesco was enormous, as big as the rainwater cistern behind the church in Pienza. He was red in the face and couldn’t walk more than a few steps without stopping to take a big breath. His parishioners always expected to hear the bell in the new bell tower tolling the news of his death, but Don Francesco remained stubbornly among them. Mostly he sat on his side of the confessional box, into which he just fit, waiting for his flock to come one by one to confess their sins and receive absolution. No one ever had anything very bad to tell. They were an innocent lot, and a happy one, by and large. The peccadilloes they owned up to were nothing, Don Francesco thought, compared to his own, weighty offenses.

One day as Don Francesco waited in the confessional box, he heard a rustle on the other side of it. Peering through the screen he saw an angel almost as fat as he was squirming around in there trying to get comfortable. His wings were enormous and he was having trouble getting them into the box with him. One was crushed into a corner behind him and the other was still poking out the door, which he had left open. He was breathing heavily.

Don Francesco leaned down to speak. “I’m a terrible sinner,” he said. “I’m fat.”

The angel took a big gulp of air and said, “It’s not a sin to be fat.”

“But I’m a glutton,” said Don Francesco. “All I think about is food.” The angel waved his hand as if to dismiss this idea. He was still catching his breath.

“And I have food envy. When I see what the Piccolomini cook has prepared for the young lord, I want to steal it.” The angel waved his hand again. “Not to worry,” he said.

“I want to steal the cook, too. And lock her up in the parish house. And make her cook only for me.” The angel raised his eyebrows at this idea, which seemed to interest him.

“Well, you mustn’t do that,” he said. “Think how awful it would be for the poor woman.”

“Oh, I won’t do it,” said Don Francesco. “But I think about it. That’s the point.”

The angel could see that Don Francesco was suffering terribly. “Follow me,” he said, and he led Don Francesco around to the back of the church and showed him a little wooden bowl, which Don Francesco had never noticed before, hanging by a string next to the cistern. The angel lifted up the lid of the cistern and dipped up some water in the bowl.

“Drink this,” he said. At the back of the church the land fell away sharply into the valley. Don Francesco stood at the edge and lifted the wooden bowl to his lips. As he drank, he could see over the rim of the bowl the little farmsteads and orchards of his parishioners, stitched into a green and gold quilt.

“Do this three times a day, before meals,” said the angel. Then he began to flap his wings up and down, and when he had gotten up a good head of steam he stepped off the path and flew away, down into the valley at first, and then up into the sky.

Don Francesco did as the angel bid. Three times each day he stood on the path at the back of the church and lifted the wooden bowl to his lips, and drank, and watched the valley below where he had been born and where everyone he knew, even the Piccolomini cook, had labored and loved. He grew thinner and thinner until there was hardly any of him left, and one day the bell in the bell tower rang out the news of his death. His parishioners lowered his body into a narrow crypt in the church floor and placed over it a paving stone with his name on it, in Latin, and a small design that might have been a wooden bowl and might have been a pair of angel wings, it was hard to tell. And after awhile, what with all the visitors, impossible.



The seeds came from a stranger in a long gray robe who appeared one day when Veronica was working in the garden. The visitor’s cowl was pulled up so that Veronica couldn’t see the face. It might have been death itself, except that when it held out the seeds for Veronica to take she saw, not a skeletal hand, but a flesh-and-blood one, somewhat callused from labor but very shapely. No sooner had this strange figure deposited the seeds in Veronica’s hand than it glided away, disappearing around the curve in the road that bordered Veronica and Tommasso’s farm, in the direction of Pienza.

It was early spring, an ideal time, and Veronica planted the seeds right away. She had no idea what plant might come of them, how big it would be, how much room it might need, and whether or not it might want to climb on a trellis. She planted the seeds in an unused corner of the garden where Tommasso planned to set out his artichoke slips in the fall.

The plants, when they appeared, looked like weeds, tenacious and hairy, with stiff, jointed arms that sprawled this way and that. In a few weeks little yellow flowers appeared, followed by perfectly round fruits that were hard and green at first and afterwards turned a warm orange color. Veronica picked one and cut across it and discovered that it was orange inside as well, and full of transparent seeds set in a viscous liquid. The look of it made her hesitate. She still didn’t know who had given her the seeds. What if it was the devil? But then Veronica thought that the devil would never have bothered to tempt you with something that required so much effort, and so many weeks of waiting, before you were able to sin with it.

She took a bite. It had the taste of the sun in it, warm and sweet and also slightly sour, like a lemon. It would be good with salt, sugar, herbs, in Veronica’s mind the list went on. She picked the six fruits that were ripe and served them to Tommasso for dinner in neat little slices. He ate them avidly, but with one small scruple. “I wish I knew what it was called,” he said. “It doesn’t feel right to eat something you don’t know the name of.”

When the fruits began to ripen faster and faster, Veronica stewed them with oil and garlic and put them in a large crock covered with oil. After that she dipped up the stewed fruits to serve with everything, with trofie, rabbit, and bread, with soup and with vegetables from the garden, and she added more and more to the crock so that all that summer she and Tommasso ate the strange new fruit, neatly sliced for breakfast with olives and cheese, and in salads for dinner and supper, and stewed with everything. The plants were so vigorous and so bountiful that Veronica and Tommasso sent the extras to the little convent with instructions on how to use them, and word came back from Cook that the Sisters liked this strange new taste and wouldn’t mind having more.

One day a woman appeared at the garden gate whom Veronica recognized as the Piccolomini cook, Ersilia, who had been a particular friend of her own mother. Ersilia wanted to know about the new fruit. She had heard of it in town and from Cook at the convent, everyone was speaking of it, some quite darkly. Poison, they called it. Delicious, said others. Might she not see it?

Veronica took Ersilia down to the end of the garden and placed one of the orange fruits in her hand. Ersilia looked at it for a moment and then bit into it, and a light seemed to come into her eyes. Veronica showed her the crock where she kept the stewed fruits. She dipped up a bowlful and offered it to Ersilia with a spoon. Ersilia ate, daintily at first, tasting carefully, and then afterwards with abandon, dragging the spoon across the bottom of the bowl until there wasn’t a drop left.

“I will take your entire production,” she said, “for use in the Piccolomini kitchen.”

“Ah,” said Veronica, and she went on to explain how they had received these seeds from a complete stranger and planted them on the spur of the moment in an out-of-the-way place that Tommasso was planning to use for artichokes, come the fall, and how, yes, the fruit was very good, they had enjoyed it themselves all summer, with practically every meal, but really it was hard to say where they might be able to plant it again, their farm was so small, and this particular plant tended to sprawl, it needed a lot of room. But she was happy to give Ersilia a small crockful of the stewed fruit, if she wanted to share it with the young Piccolomini lord. He might be interested in this strange dainty.

Not too long after that, Tommasso and Veronica found themselves master and mistress of another farm in the valley below Pienza, an old place with an abandoned farmhouse sitting in the middle of good, arable land. Some day they might fix up that house, but for now they planted the land entirely with the new fruit, which people seemed to go wild for. A portion of their harvest went to the Piccolomini cook, and they kept some for themselves, but there was always enough to sell in the marketplace on Tuesdays, and as their daughters grew older one after another they sat at the stall in the marketplace where the fruits were sold, almost as lovely as the fruit itself, beneath a sign that read “Pomodoro.”

Tommassino and Bernardo

Tommassino was too puny to help his father in the orchard. He could do a few things in the kitchen garden and help out his mother shelling beans and cutting up fruit for the crostata. But when Tommasso began to shake the olives out of the trees, he had to call in a big boy from the village to help him haul off the tarps to the mill.

The big boy’s name was Bernardo and he lived with the new priest, Don Silvio, in the parish house right next to the little convent of nuns, where he had been left when he was a few days old. Don Silvio had baptized the boy and afterwards decided to raise him, hoping to make a scholar of him, but Bernardo was so thick-headed when it came to study that Don Silvio finally gave up and let him run free.

Bernardo soon found his way down the Via Ortodonico to Tommasso and Veronica’s farm. There were other children there, three little girls, Maria, Isa and Simonetta, and a new baby boy with a funny foot. Released from his studies, Bernardo proved a sociable being, open-handed and kind, as Don Silvio had taught him to be, but with a streak of invention much appreciated by the other children. The little boy, Tommassino, who couldn’t walk, he carried around on his shoulders, or he led him around on the back of a little goat that he named Pensivo. Tommassino spent so much time tied to Pensivo that Bernardo, who had picked up one or two useless bits of information during his years of study, began to call him Saturos, comically drawing out the syllables as if he were hallooing in the woods. “Satu-u-uros!” Bernardo would call, and from somewhere on the farm would come Tommassino’s little cheep cheep. Veronica deplored the nickname and had her doubts about Bernardo himself, who was only a foundling, she reminded Tommasso, and a thick-headed one at that. But she had to admit he was becoming more and more useful around the farm.

The years went by and the children were no longer small. Maria, Isa and Simonetta were young ladies now, and Tommassino, who had learned to walk, bounced along keeping up with them. His father had designed a special shoe for him that took the pressure off his bad foot. Bernardo had grown into a giant, twice as tall as Simonetta, who was just his age. He had to bend down to speak to any of them.

One day, just before the olive harvest, he bent down and whispered in Simonetta’s ear something that startled her. She blushed violently and laughed, and then she followed him down to the Orcia River, where they spent the rest of the afternoon. Simonetta came home with tares woven through her hair and a spot on the back of her gown where she had sat down in the mud. She was a mess. Her older sisters couldn’t believe their eyes. They knew exactly what had happened, although they were still innocent themselves.

Bernardo was forbidden to come any more. Veronica and Tommasso waited to see if there would be any consequences to this event. They kept a close watch on Simonetta, confining her to the kitchen garden, which had a wall around it. Tommasso walked around the outside of the wall twice a day to make sure Bernardo hadn’t put a ladder up against it, to climb over, and after several months had gone by they concluded that everything would be all right, although it had been a narrow escape. Simonetta moped about at first and then seemed to forget about everything and retreat back into her childhood. Veronica marveled at the inconsistency of youth, and at its pliancy. Meanwhile, from Don Silvio they learned that Bernardo had turned over a new leaf and was applying himself vigorously to his studies. He would soon go to the abbey outside of Siena to study to become a priest.

Everything would have been fine if it weren’t for Tommassino. No one explained to him what had happened because he was thought to be too young for such information. All he knew was that one day Bernardo was there, readying the olive tarps, and the next day he was not there and he was not going to be there ever again. Another boy from the village came in his place, a boy named Dominic, who liked to whip the goats with a stick when he had finished working. He especially liked to whip Pensivo, and one day he whipped him so hard that he put out one of his eyes and knocked a horn loose. Tommasso did what he could to save the goat, for Tommassino’s sake. He sewed up the eye and detached the loose horn from its socket, hoping that another might grow there, although it never did, and he told Tommassino to keep the goat out of Dominic’s way. If he hadn’t needed Dominic’s help with the olives, he would have sent him away.


Ill Luck

When Veronica was a girl, she slept with her hands crossed over her chest. However she started out, whether on her back or on her side, she first crossed her little hands over her chest to keep her soul from flying loose. It was the only way she could get to sleep.

Veronica’s mother, Maria, liked to visit her friend Ersilia, the Piccolomini cook, and she came back from such a visit once determined to break her only daughter of this habit. “It is a source of ill luck,” she told her husband, Campi. “If we don’t do something about it, something terrible will happen.” Campi thought he had never heard anything so foolish, but he considered the children, of whom there were five, to be his wife’s business. She had borne them and raised them and done a good job of it so far. If she said it was a bad thing that their youngest slept with her arms crossed on her chest, she must be right. Campi thought Veronica looked like a little angel, sleeping like that, a little dead angel, but he left it all to his wife.

Maria might have tied Veronica’s hands behind her back and called it a day, but she didn’t want to hurt the child, or frighten her, so she decided to reason with her instead.

“You must sleep with your arms open, like this,” she explained. “That way, the angels will know that you are open-hearted and kind.” It was a beautiful explanation, highly suitable for a little girl, but in the morning there was Veronica, her eyes closed in sleep, her hands crossed over her heart.

“Your open arms tell heaven that you fear nothing,” her mother explained the next night, and Veronica started out with her arms at her side, trying to feel how pleasing this was to heaven, but very soon curled up and crossed her hands again, and fell asleep.

“You are in God’s hands, not your own,” Maria said, somewhat severely, on the third night, and added, “What makes you so stubborn?” Veronica did not feel stubborn, she did not want to be stubborn, she wanted to feel that she was in the hands of God, just like her mother said. Didn’t everybody? But it was impossible for her to get to sleep without crossing her own, and so she went right on sleeping as she always had.

Eventually Maria ran out of explanations and took to rocking the child to sleep, as big as she was, but the moment she put her in bed Veronica’s hands always came together over her heart. She went back to her friend Ersilia, who told her to keep at it and try some cow’s milk, which was said to have magical properties.

“Where will I find cow’s milk?” Maria asked.

“You can buy a cow from up north,” said Ersilia. “You can make butter and cheese like they do up there.”

It was necessary to buy both a cow and a bull, if they wanted milk. “We can have some veal, too,” Campi pointed out, thinking how tall and strong his children would grow with some meat in their diet, taller and stronger than any of the other children along the Orcia. But the first time Campi tried to bring the cow and the bull together, he somehow got in the way and wound up impaled on one of the eager bull’s horns. Maria thought afterwards that neither one of them knew the first thing about milk or cows or butter, or bulls for that matter, that’s what had happened. She sold both animals to raise money, because as ill luck would have it Campi had left her pregnant with their sixth child, and there was no telling how they were going to manage without him. The cow was pregnant too, just as Campi had envisioned, and brought in a decent price.

When her time came, Maria gave birth to another girl, and both died shortly after the child was christened. Viviana, Maria’s uncle said she should be named, after his mother. He put Maria and Campi’s oldest boy in charge of the farm and told the others to get to work. Veronica he took to the little convent of nuns up the hill in Pienza.

“You know what to do with her,” he said.

The nuns weren’t sure what he meant, but Veronica was a beautiful child, with an open face and a willing spirit, and they were happy to take her in. They put her in charge of the convent garden, which in those days contained nothing but cabbages and pear trees, so that she would always have something to do and would feel close to her poor dead parents. Veronica spent her days outdoors in the walled garden, and when she went to bed, tired and burnished from the sun, she no longer worried about whether or not she crossed her arms on her chest. She knew now she was in God’s hands, as her mother had always said. And besides, her soul had already flown away.


Ersilia never aspired to be the Piccolomini cook. It all happened by accident. She was preparing dinner one day when her husband Fino appeared in the kitchen doorway with a stranger. The stranger was tall and powerfully built, though Ersilia could see that he was no longer young. Behind him in the dooryard, a horse in tattered trappings was grazing on the wild thyme.

“The signore is on his way to the Piccolomini,” said Fino. “He is one of the old pope’s knights.”

A pot of rabbit was stewing with onions and bacon on a hook over the fire. Ersilia added some mustard and gave it a stir, thinking how Fino loved company and loved to show off her good cooking.

“The signore is welcome to eat with us before he goes on,” she said.

A few days later Ersilia was summoned to the audience room of the Piccolomini palazzo. The young lord, the old pope’s grand nephew, was there, and so was his cousin Romolo, about whom it was whispered that he was the pope’s own grandson. The young men were as alike as two zucchini. If the young lord hadn’t been sitting in the big chair, Ersilia wouldn’t have known which was which.

Romolo did the talking. The old cook had been carried off by the plague, perhaps she had heard? And now they were looking for a new cook. No less a personage than a Knight of Our Lady of Jerusalem had recommended her to them, which was very much in her favor, but there were other candidates, in particular two chefs come up from Rome, and so there was to be a contest in which each would prepare a single dish. The young lord would sample the dishes in turn and choose from among them the one he liked best and, with it, the new Piccolomini cook. There was just one catch. Whoever became the Piccolomini cook would be required to invent at least one new dish each day, something the young lord had never yet eaten, to surprise and gratify his cravings. The young lord listened intently to his cousin and nodded his head once or twice, as if he liked hearing himself talked about in this way.

On her way out, Ersilia passed by the family chapel, noting its jewel-like colors and wondering, idly, what might lie in store for the hapless cook who failed to invent a new dish each day. It was hard to imagine. This was Pienza, not some fairy tale in which people lost their heads. On the other hand, she had no trouble imagining what she might accomplish in the Piccolomini kitchen with the Piccolomini larder and gardens at her disposal. The possibilities were endless.

As she walked home along the Via Ortodonico, gathering wildflowers, she thought about the silent young lord with the talkative cousin. By the time she could see Fino waving at her in the distance, she knew she would make him a custard topped with a sauce of cherries stewed with wild thyme, with little shavings of honeyed lemon strewn across it. It would be the most beautiful dish he had ever seen, creamy white and deep, ruby red and yellow, buttercup yellow, just like the inside of the Piccolomini chapel.

Erasmo and the Disappearing Gold

A farmer got an idea once from a story he had heard that if he shoved gold pieces up his donkey’s rump he could fool people into thinking that the donkey shat gold, and sell him for a lot of money. The first time he tried it the donkey wasn’t very cooperative, but eventually the farmer, whose name was Bobo, managed to insert three gold pieces into the donkey’s rear end, and then he settled down at the side of the road to wait for some credulous bumpkin to pass by.

There weren’t too many credulous bumpkins in Pienza in those days. It was a modern, up-to-date place where even the peasants had lofty ideas. But the occasional stranger passed by and Bobo stopped the first one he saw to show off his miraculous donkey who shat gold. He didn’t say anything, of course. He just stood there passing the time of day, looking off into the distance, waiting for the donkey, whose name was Erasmo, to defecate, and when Erasmo obliged and let loose a goodly pile of dung, Bobo waited for the stranger to say something. But nothing happened. The stranger bid him a polite adieu and continued on his way and Bobo, looking down, saw that what Erasmo had made was just an ordinary pile of shit.

“Well, the coins must be buried inside,” thought Bobo, and he stomped around in the dung for several minutes, hoping to turn them up. But the coins had disappeared.

One nail draws another, Bobo told himself, and the next day he inserted three more gold pieces into Erasmo’s rump and waited for another stranger to pass by, but everything happened as before, and so it did again on the third day. The gold pieces kept disappearing. Bobo couldn’t imagine what was happening inside the donkey. What went in at either end was supposed to come out, wasn’t it? But here he had done this three times, and each time nothing had come out, and now he was out nine gold pieces. That’s enough of that, Bobo said to himself, but he still wanted to get back the money he had lost.

He stopped feeding Erasmo, reasoning that the gold was sure to come out if it was the only thing left inside of him. He stopped giving him hay and when Erasmo began to eat grass, like a goat, he tied his muzzle with some heavy rope so that he couldn’t open his mouth. Before long Erasmo’s ribs were showing, but still the gold pieces hadn’t reappeared. I’ll just wait until he shits that gold, said Bobo, and then I’ll give him a good supper.

His neighbor Tommasso came by one day when Erasmo was almost dead, and seeing the poor thing he asked Bobo, “What has happened to Erasmo?” He remembered the donkey as a lively, capering creature with long, sleek ears whom the children used to love to ride, and now here he was looking a thousand years old, with a rope tied around his muzzle and a sad, speaking look in his brown eyes.

“Oh, he’s a stubborn, old jackass,” Bobo said. “I feed him and feed him and nothing comes out, and as you see he’s wasting away to nothing. I’ll have to club him over the head soon, and make an end of it.”

Tommasso fished around in his pockets until he found a gold coin he knew was there, and holding it out to Bobo he said, “Let me buy him from you.” The gold glinted in the sunlight and Bobo thought, Well, that’s one of the nine, and better than nothing.

Tommasso untied Erasmo and led him away, down the Via Ortodonico to his own house. There he put him in the courtyard and forked loose some fresh hay next to the water trough, and Erasmo went at it. He ate and he ate and he went on eating for days, and in no time at all he began to look his old, sleek self again and to make big piles of donkey dung around the courtyard.

“It’s just as I thought,” Tommasso told Veronica. “Bobo has been starving him. But why?”

“You’d better clean up that dung,” Veronica said. “We can figure out the why of it later.”

Tommasso got out the dung cart and went around the courtyard shovelling up Erasmo’s dung. In the third pile he came to he saw something shining, and when he looked closer he saw it was a gold piece. He fished it out, cleaned it off, and put it in his pocket, thinking, Who ever heard of a donkey that shits gold? It seemed like a miracle, but Tommasso was a modern man and he knew there must be a rational explanation for this, probably something to do with that old coot, Bobo. And besides, Veronica was right, there’d be time enough later to figure it all out.

When the courtyard was clean and Tommasso had nine gold pieces in his pocket that weren’t there before, he sat down next to Erasmo and began to pet his ears. “This is windfall money,” he reflected. “If I don’t spend it wisely, it will all go to waste.” He stroked Erasmus’s velvety ears as he thought about it, and Erasmus looked at him solemnly with his brown eyes.

After a while Tommasso said, “I’ll bet you’d like a nice jennet, wouldn’t you? A little Erasmina to keep you company?”

Erasmo didn’t say anything. Donkeys never do. But he threw back his head and brayed for the first time in days, a big, laughing bray that bounced off the courtyard walls, and Tommasso knew he had hit upon the right idea.


Mysterious Ways

Luigi had come to them late, well after Ersilia became the Piccolomini cook and well after she and Fino had given up expecting any children. They were surprised, but grateful. “God works in mysterious ways,” Don Silvio said when he saw that Ersilia was pregnant. Ersilia knew he would say that. There were no surprises with Don Silvio.

She thought of it in terms of cooking. There was the word and there was the world, the recipes and the stuff the recipes spoke of. Both were infinite, and there was no end to the ways you could put them together. Don Silvio’s world was smaller than that, it was just one dish over and over again. No wonder he was never hungry. At the celebration after Luigi’s baptism, he ate one small plate of plain macaroni.

“Have a good-luck sweet,” Ersilia told him, “for Luigi’s sake.”

“That’s an old superstition,” Don Silvio said. “We are in God’s hands, not the pastry maker’s.” Here was another thing Ersilia knew he would say. What a tiresome old windbag he was! The pastry maker? She was the pastry maker! Didn’t he know anything?

But it didn’t matter. Luigi prospered. He lay in a basket on the floor of the Piccolomini kitchen and whenever he stirred and began to cry, Ersilia would pick him up and nurse him for a bit. The fact that she was now a mother made no difference to the Piccolomini lord. He still expected his new dish everyday, and a sampling of his old favorites too, and when Luigi was a few months old Ersilia began feeding him tidbits of the dishes she was making for the Piccolomini table, spoonfuls of soup and of fruit sauce, peas from her friend Veronica’s garden mashed into a paste, a pudding of ricotta and honey from bees in the Orcia valley. There was nothing Luigi wouldn’t eat.

Feeding him, she always thought of the old priest, Don Francesco. When he had grown thinner and thinner and was almost ready to die, Ersilia made him a meat broth and some tiny ravioli to float in it and carried it to the church in a bowl. Don Francesco came out of the confessional and sniffed at the soup, and then he lifted the spoon Ersilia gave him and began to fish out the ravioli. “Just one more,” he kept saying. Even dying, he had such gusto. It seemed impossible he would vanish altogether.

Now here was Luigi, growing fat in his basket. Ersilia ran her finger through the mashed peas and put it in his mouth and felt the warmth and strength of his life. There were mysteries, she knew. “What did you put in them?” Don Francesco had asked, as if these ravioli were made from something altogether new and otherworldly. But it was just cheese, salted cheese, as simple a dish as Ersilia knew how to make. If he wasn’t tasting that, she wondered, what was he tasting?

* * *


* * *

Michele Stepto says: I have taught in the English and African-American Studies departments at Yale and at the Bread Loaf School of English in Vermont, and have published a translation from the Spanish of the Catalina Erauso memoir under the title, Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World, along with works of history and fiction for younger readers. An earlier short story, "Pagoda," appeared in the magazine Italian-Americana.

What do you think is the attraction of the historical fiction genre?
For the writer, the genre of historical fiction can be liberating. The contemplation of other times and places releases the imagination from the often tedious business of being true to one's own time and place. That is perhaps its chief attraction! The genre also allows us to bring to life a place we may have visited (through books or travel) and come to love —for me, Pienza is such a place—to exist within it as something other than a tourist, to imagine a life for ourselves there. I think that for the reader the pleasures of historical fiction must be the same: it frees the imagination from the here and now, allowing it to ramble elsewhere.


Unknown said...

Michele, these are just lovely--brava!