Rolf pressed the release button, pushed open the great oaken door and stepped out into the night. It was still raining. Tiny street lamps reflected eerily off the cobblestones of the narrow street. The two liters of wine he’d drunk in the afternoon and the glass of grappa in the painter’s studio cast a thick veil of irrelevancy over time and place. His life in general seemed mysterious.
He hesitated, staring into the printer’s shop just opposite his doorway. Shadowy figures passed back and forth against the dim lights of the long narrow room. He noted the outline of the two motorcycles leaning against the wall near the big window facing the street. A band of terrorists, he’d believed. Or simply local purse snatchers. His neighbor told him they were Neopolitan drug traffickers. His painter friend said they were camorra.
Rolf shrugged, pulled the hood of his jacket over his head, and turned to the left toward Campo dei Fiori.
Gianfranco was standing at the Giordano Bruno monument under a big red umbrella. It was a few minutes before 11 o’clock. The market stands were folded and stacked on the east side of the piazza, the shutters of the fancy grocery stores, the rosticceria, the pharmacy, closed. The matted street lamps and the rarified illumination from the bars and restaurants around the square and here and there lights from apartments in the surrounding four and five-storied buildings created an eerie chiaroscuro.
It was his favorite part of the city—Campo dei Fiori, and nearby elegant Piazza Farnese and Piazza Navona. The only son of the owners of the city’s German bookstore, Rolf Augstein, had roamed these parts all his life. Some days he felt Rome was at his feet. Yet, under his jacket, under his shirt, the scars on his narrow chest and his thin arms testified to his self-destructive instincts.
“Rom schliesst immer früher,” he muttered in German to his tall blond friend, pulling part of the other’s umbrella over his head. Crazy, he thought apropos of nothing, Gianfranco looks so German and I with my coal black hair and dark eyes almost Sicilian.
“Who cares when they close!” Gianfranco said in English, tugging at his umbrella. “Fucking Roman rain never stops.”
Like all the former students at the German School in Rome they still spoke together a mishmash of Italian, German and English. Yet, in an accent of placelessness, the accent of their baffling indistinct world. At 25, they didn’t know where they belonged.
“Where’re we going first tonight?”
“Where’s Isabel?” Rolf tried not to slur his speech. “She’s never where she’s supposed to be. Probably off smoking someplace … or fucking someone.”
The three of them had grown up together. Isabel had been Rolf’s girl friend since they were kids. Maybe, he often thought, she was fucking Gianfranco too.
He watched a tall dog walking slowly toward them as if ready to attack. “Via! Via! Get away!” he shouted, moving behind Gianfranco, who laughed and shook his umbrella at the dog that scampered away.
“Those market dogs will eat you alive,” Rolf said.
“Just stay behind me, dear. I’ll protect you.”
“I want to stop by Timmi’s tent. See if he’s all right.” The sick clochard, maybe dying, camped in a tent attached to the great walls of Palazzo Farnese, was their common project. They had built his little house of canvas, tin and cardboard and hung it on the side of the imposing Renaissance palace. For days police had been threatening to tear it down.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake! There she is.” He nodded toward the bar on the corner. “Look how she walks. What a drifter!”
Somehow the three of them had stayed together. Rolf felt that he, the son of second generation German-Italians, was more Italian than the other two—Isabel Abrecht, the daughter of a German journalist forever wandering around the world and his half-German half-Lebanese wife, and Gianfranco Calabresi, the only son of a Roman judge and an Italian mother.
A weird relationship, he now thought, watching the sensuous Isabel, casually but expensively dressed, approach them. Tall and slim like her father, the dark flashing eyes of her Lebanese mother seemed to leap from her face, creating permanent tension around her, somewhat attenuated by the dusky tint just under the surface of her skin. Though not beautiful, she was striking when she strode arrogantly through the quarter, her hips swinging, her luxuriant hair bouncing on her shoulders, her eyes fixed straight ahead.
People stopped to stare at her—men and women alike—for Isabel exuded sex from all her Nordic-Asiatic pores.
Their relationship, Rolf thought, was almost incestuous. Sex with Isabel, he often told an envious Gianfranco, was difficult because she seemed like a sister. Some people thought they were brother and sister. The mere idea of her being his sister made it all the more exciting. Their relationship was the cornerstone of their lives. For Rolf and Isabel were more than lovers. Although they never used words like “I love you,” an unstipulated pact linked them—they fed on one another’s vices and weaknesses, on their uprootedness and on their loneliness.
Isabel grabbed something out of her Indian cloth handbag, dropped the sack in a puddle and pressed a few pills into the hands of each. “Something to make the night more bearable,” she said. “Pure crystal speed! So what’s our program?”
“Gianfra’ has free tickets for the show in the House of Witchcraft.” Rolf popped the pills and rolled his eyes as if to say ‘let’s pamper him in this harmless excursion in the night.’ “And later we have to check on Timmi.”
Isabel shook her hand in that Roman sign of exasperation. “Oh, that Timmi! He’s ready to crepare anyway. What can we do?”
Rolf glanced at her, aware she was trying to be her usual tough and uncaring self. But she had helped them hang the makeshift tent house like a challenge on the illustrious palazzo, the Ambassade de France. Timmi’s house, they called it. And she also took him wine and plates of pasta.
Timmi the barbone, the clochard, was a fixture in the neighborhood. He had lived for years around Piazza Farnese and the surrounding labyrinth. Maybe all his life. Everybody knew him. People said he was once a famous lawyer. Once he had a wife and children and lived in a big apartment on Piazza Farnese. His wife used to shop at the market. When she was shot down on the street during the years of terrorism, his children went to live with an aunt in the north. But Timmi stayed, alien to his past, buried in his present. And he went to the streets. People of the neighborhood kept him in food and wine but now he was ill, dying of liver cancer.
He refused to go to a hospital, drank all the wine people in the quarter brought him and looked at them with pleading eyes.
He told everyone he wanted to die on the streets where he had long lived. He had convinced Rolf to help him die.
Huddled under Gianfranco’s umbrella they tramped through the puddles and rivulets rising from underneath the uneven cobblestones. Gianfranco’s right arm held the now drunken Rolf so that when he slipped he hung momentarily suspended like a marionette, his feet dangling comically.
Isabel ignored the rain and urged Rolf ahead.
No one was in sight on the avenue. No cars, no buses. They were crossing Corso Vittorio when they heard an explosion from the direction of the Campidoglio.
“What the fuck was that?” Gianfranco said.
“Somebody’s trying to rob the National Bank again,” Isabel said.
“Let’s go, let’s go,” Rolf said. “Let’em rob the whole fucking treasury. Let’em blow up the Vatican too.”
They circled the church and entered a narrow lane leading under the Clock Tower to Monte Giordano. With the tickets in his hand, Gianfranco was peering into a dark doorway when they heard a squeaky voice from the darkness behind a torch illuminating the entrance.
“It’s your turn, dears!” From below, a yellow flame rose and spun, puffing blue-black fumes up to the dark street. The three of them started when out of the flickering flames and smoke emerged a multi-colored jester, adorned with a square black hat and matching mask and a thick red sash. His face alternated colors as waves of red blue green white flickered over it. The torch dimmed.
“Ha ha ha! Ei ei ei, stregoneria!”A voice from downstairs cackled in a high sexless voice. “Witchcraft. True or false?”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake!” Rolf snickered.
Their guide leapt down from his pedestal and pushed them forward, accompanied by a series of bows and, “Prego! Prego!” and seated them on a long wooden bench facing a center table under a spinning chandelier of electric lights and fat, multi-colored candles.
Rolf leaned forward, his eyes at table level, and peered at her. In his concentration he was startled by the enormous inflated body of their guide rising and floating past behind her broad shoulders. The pressure of their guide’s hand on his shoulder was reassuring. He looked up into the smiling face and he too smiled.
He was squinting into the dizzying blinking lights when a hard white beam struck his eyes. He rubbed his damp forehead and turned away from the flash. He began to laugh, then stopped short when an image emerged against the tinsel-covered wall behind her—a face, a diaphanous face, expanded, its lineaments swirling like the face of a whirlpool, then forming, taking shape. A shoulder and an arm reached toward the center of the wall. The face composed.
“No! How could that be? How could they know him? By God, Gianfra’, it’s Timmi!”
Gianfranco and Isabel laughed and laughed … and vanished into the darkness.
Suddenly Gianfranco’s gaping mouth laughed at him from over her shoulder while an arm reached from nowhere and grasped a long flexible cane with a huge hammer head attached to the free end and raised it high and it bent and flexed and traveled forward high overhead, a huge dancing rubber hammer that the great arm waved around the room while a white thin arm reached from the ceiling and positioned a long black nail in the palm of Timmi’s clasping hand and the hammer flexed and flew through the air, arching high overhead, and centered with a thud on the wavering nail head driving it through the clawing hand. Blood spouted. Huge drops splashed and spattered her and ran down Rolf’s hands grasping the edge of the table.
The hand on his shoulder tightened as he moaned, “no, no, no, I didn’t mean to….” Colors spun, red black, red black, and Gianfranco’s face raced back and forth along the ceiling near the opposite wall.
“Pull it out, Gianfra’! Quick, pull out that fucking nail.”
“Ha ha ha!” she cackled through the black cavern of her toothless mouth. “Ha ha ha!” higher and higher. Fumes rose around her enormous figure behind the table. The smell of incense was nauseating.
“Pull that fucking thing out,” he yelled, ignoring her. He gagged and tried to stand up against the downward pressure of the guide’s hand.
“Guarda!” shrieked the jester. “Look, look, all your desires can be fulfilled.”
In the corner, under Timmi’s arm, he watched the flushed face of Isabel emerge, her mouth frozen in an “o” shape, her eyes half-closed and unseeing. “Oh oh,” she sighed, searching with her avid mouth. Her head rose, and pounced on its prey. It slid around the growing slippery elusive nail and sucked at it, licked around it, under it at the point it entered the hand, her tongue licking up the black oozing blood and cleaning the throbbing hand, and in one slow motion took the nail between her teeth and yanked it out and blood spurted through the room anew. The head, her head, turned and spat out its charge. The nail wafted slowly across the room, arched, dipped downward and embedded itself in the table in front of her.
Isabel smiled down at him and said, “Mein Bruder!” and flew after the nail, lighting on it, sucking it again, sucking from it … and disappeared inside it.
“Some show, eh!” Gianfranco nudged him and leaning forward grinned up at him.
“Where’s Timmi now?” groaned Rolf, trying to rise.
“Fermi! Seduti! Sit still,” roared their guide, raising his staff and pounding the floor three times.
“There he is, over there,” the guide whispered, pointing at the white clad figure as it skipped past in front of a squatting quaspah player, dancing sideways, lifting his white knees under the toga. The dancer disappeared to the left, to reappear quickly from the right, dancing in a wide circle, appearing from and disappearing into the blackness, faster and faster as the music became frenetic.
“Stop it, enough. Stop it!” Rolf held a revolver with both hands, squinting his eyes, steadying the weapon for the dancer’s next appearance. “Bam bam bam!” as Timmi again whirled past, laughing and lifting his toga provocatively and again disappeared. Craftily Rolf waited. He counted “one two three four five” and fired into the lights just as the dancer whirled into his line of fire. The pistol roared, “bam bam bam” and blood spurted over the white toga and Rolf stared, horror in his chalky face.
“Why, why, Rolfi, boy?” Timmi lamented and ordered the quaspah player to leave. “I told you to kill me gently.”
“You told me to, you wanted me to do it,” Rolf yelled.
“Ha ha ha, I told you so,” she screamed.
“But I didn’t mean to,” Rolf called to Timmi. “You know that. It’s all a game.”
The white figure wilted and crumpled and slunk out a door behind them that their guide opened and bowed.
“You gotta walk and don’t look back!” The song blasted from all sides. Gianfranco and Isabel danced, their faces reflecting tinsel red white green blue under the flashing lights.
“I want to dance too!” Rolf squirmed to rise under the powerful force of the heavy hand. “That’s my song. I want to dance too.”
He strained toward the pistol on the table but the arm nailed him to the seat. The staff rose high and crashed down flush on the shiny silver pistol, scattering shrapnel to the corners of the room. The dancers threw themselves to the floor and huddled together, their arms over their heads.
Rolf sipped his Fanta. A few drops of orange liquid oozed from the corners of his mouth. “I’ll ignore her,” he murmured. “I’ll just drink my Fanta and ignore her, if she has to laugh at me like that.”
Their guide leaned toward him and shielding both their faces behind his black hat said out of the corner of his mouth, “Let me advise you not to try to ignore her. She becomes vindictive.”
No sooner was the warning spoken than a peal of thunder crashed. The music stopped. The lights went up. Gianfranco and Isabel threw themselves on the bench, terror in their faces. Obedient.
“I won’t…” Rolf began, before he felt his arms and legs detach themselves from his body. He cried and watched them fly in two pairs around the room, to hang dangling and swaying from the ceiling above the blood-spattered walls.
“My legs, my legs,” he cried. “I want to dance. It’s my song. I can’t stand up. I can’t run. My legs, my arms, give them back. I’m sorry. I’m truly sorry. I want to dance too. I have to dance.”
Laughter pealed from all sides. “It’s only a game, only a game…only a game.” And his arms and legs flew about tantalizingly while the music rang out and Gianfranco and Isabel danced in a tight circle, their arms around each other, while a dirty black Schnauzer leapt and barked at his flying legs.
“Mein Bruder!” Isabel whispered, looking down at him as she danced in front of him.
Rolf struck at his legs with leaden arms and again tried to rise. “Tranquillo, ragazzo,” admonished their guide. “Easy. The show’s over now.”
They stood in the dark alley behind the heavy walls of Chiesa Nuova. Rain was still falling. Rolf knew he was very drunk. Gianfranco read aloud the sign over the cellar door. “La Casa della stregoneria. By appointment only.”
“Those places are so phony,” Isabel commented.
Unnatural the darkness in the softly falling rain. In the north thunder rumbled like distant cannon fire. The massive hulk of the façade of Chiesa Nuova jutted toward a black sky. The gurgling of the fountain sounded like Alpine cascades. The fortress-like palazzi along Corso Vittorio loomed somber and mysterious, sealed against the night. Gianfranco didn’t bother to open his umbrella and said goodbye. Isabel vanished. Rolf’s steps echoed on the cobblestones. One foot before the other, rhythmically, click-tock, click-tock. He ignored the rain.
He was dizzy, bewildered, distant. He stared at his feet, feeling his gait clumsy, ungainly. Thank God, he again had legs to walk.
Yet his feet were uncertain. Each foot as it came down on the stone searched for a hold. It was the cobblestone. Stone was the symbol, the cause of his state of affairs. The labyrinth of stone that was his prison. His street of stone and its buildings of stone in the midst of the city of stone. Renaissance stone, tufa, travertine stone. Stone, stein, pietra, roccia, masso, sasso. Building stones, limestone, milestones and gravestones. And the Rolling Stones and Stonehenge and menhirs and dolmens. Stone was mystery. Stone was time. His time. Stone was eternity. His dreams of stone.
He recalled the little stone men they’d climbed the mountain to see. Ethnic Germans of the Tirol call the stone totems that have stood for centuries on a 2000-meter high plateau above the town of Merano, “Stoanere Mandlin.” Toys of the gods, chance hikers believe as they observe the profiles of the “men of stone” silhouetted against the snow-covered peaks, appearing now near and menacing, now distant and remote. Inexorably the procession of chanting priests seems to advance downhill. They are surrounded by legions of fearsome warriors, overwhelming the invaders who shrink before the files of brownish figures swaying in slow motion against the cold sky.
A mirage, the stone men? Gli uomini di pietra? You’re transfixed. You can’t help but wonder if they are men transformed into stone? Or stone transformed into men?
Maybe the Merano totems reach back 7000 years to the megalith culture like the menhirs and god images dotting Alpine regions. Cynics instead scoff that it was only last century that bored shepherds piled up the rocks to shield themselves against the winds while their herds pastured. Rolf preferred the Genesis version according to which the piling of stones has been going on forever—“And Jacob took a stone and set it up for a pillar. And Jacob said unto his brethren, Gather stones; and they took stones, and made a heap; and they did eat upon the heap.”
Stone monuments, Rolf believed, were promises to the gods.
The Alpine stone men peopled his dreams, marched in his nightmares, processions of powerful figures in dark armor and heavy conical helmets plodding across his horizon, their chants echoing from the valleys and their dragging movements of lame giants causing the stone earth to tremor, their voices now shrill now deep and sonorous, wailing from high in the low-lying clouds swirling over a mountain plateau and he alone howling his pain amidst the unearthly choruses. People believe the plateau of the stone men is a witches’ Sabbat site. Farmers, they say, burned the witch Barbara here in 1540. A disgruntled peasant woman, Barbara created powerful storms that destroyed their crops. Under torture she confessed and she and other witches were burned here where the stone men now march.
“BAR-bara, BAR-bara, BAR-bara,” they called and Rolf knew they were burning the witch. Barbara all alone howled her pain amidst the incomprehensible chanting of the men of stone. “What are they saying? What are they saying?” he shouted over and over. And as he had mired down into tentacles of weeds and high grass he’d smelled it. He smelled her burning melting flesh while he gesticulated and howled like a wolf.
It was his stone phase, Isabel called it when she slept over and he awoke from his nightmare. “What are they saying?” he would shout now awake. “It’s nothing, it’s nothing, it’s nothing,” she whispered in his ear. He was disappointed when he became aware he was dreaming.
Timmi was stone. The stone spoke of Timmi. He had to do it.
He hesitated at the crowd on Piazza Farnese. The Renaissance piazza was an oasis. An off-limits, reverential atmosphere. As a rule, never any crowds. Palazzo Farnese was a monument. The mob was gathered around Timmi’s tent house. There were police and Carabinieri.
“Fottuti francesi,” a voice cried from the impromptu nighttime crowd around the tent. Fucking French! “Fuck the fucking French! His tent stays right where it is, Ambassade or not.” A gesticulating and shouting mob had surrounded the Carabinieri near the gaudy structure attached to the north corner of the famous palazzo.
“This thing is a disgrace to the city,” the Maresciallo tried to explain to the spontaneous gathering of local residents, some dressed in pajamas and robes, out at 2 a.m. to defend Timmi the wino.
“The French Ambassador is complaining to the Prime Minister. Invasion of foreign property.”
“Fuck the fucking French,” one enraged defender of local rights continued to repeat, ignoring police protests and discounting a priori any diplomatic demarches. “Just let them try to evict Timmi. It’s an abuse of power. They’ll have to send in the fucking army to do it.”
Police had to contend with the mood of the neighborhood. In this tough neighborhood police operated on the basis of consensus. They couldn’t lick popular solidarity.
“You can’t pull down a monument like Timmi on a rainy Saturday night,” one old woman yelled from the crowd.
“Rome is not Peking!” screeched a man in a silken robe.
Rolf was surprised and proud that his handiwork provoked such tumult. It was his reward. And Timmi was waiting for him behind the flaps of that crazy structure they called “Timmi’s house.”
Waiting for him!
He caressed the urgency of his mission. This time he had to act. Their two destinies would meet tonight. Or never. Maybe this was extravagance, as Isabel always called his plan to help Timmi die a free man. But it was to be done.
After separating from the others he had staggered home, Timmi on his mind … after the nightmare of the “show.” If it was a show!
The light was on in the printer’s shop. Men were moving around inside. Still stoned he banged on the door. A huge man with long black hair and a flowing mustache opened the door. He was the one who rode the red motorcycle. He often stopped near Rolf’s sales stand on Via dei Giubbonari. The man stood in the doorway. Immobile as stone. Mute.
“Timmi … sent me,” Rolf stammered. He knew these crazy criminals or whoever they were took Timmi pizza and wine. For some humane reason they had adopted him too.
The brute scowled. Then, “You’re the kid across the street. You’re always peeping in here.” Rolf saw he was a man hardened by life. He was a threat. A time bomb. Why had he come here? The Camorra killed for just eye contact.
“What d’ya want?”
“Timmi says you can help me.”
“Come on in.” The half dark place stank of ink, chemicals and he didn’t know what else. Sweet smells of incense. An old-fashioned printing press stood in one corner. The eternal light came from a back room. The two motorcycles were parked near the door.
“He’s sick,” Rolf muttered.
“He’s dying. He ought’a be in the hospital.”
“He won’t go. He’s afraid. He wants to die – a free man.”
“Eh allora? So what d’ya want’a do.”
“I promised to help him… help him die. Timmi says you can give me the stuff to do it.”
“Matto! Pazzo! Crazy old man. Rich once too. Reminds me of my old man.” Tenderness had crept into his bass voice.
Rolf looked down at the floor.
“Yeah, I’ve got just the thing!” The man turned to a table behind him. There was something effeminate about him. He seemed to tiptoe over the stone floors. “Ecco, you look like you need this.” The dark man handed him a glass filled to the brim with a golden liquid.
“Francese!” he added by way of recommendation. And turned toward the back room.
In no time he was back with a small shopping bag bearing the name of the salumeria on the Campo.
“Everything you need! The bottle too. Give him a good drink of the cognac—from Giacomo, tell him. Then just stick the needle in him.”
Rolf sat down to wait under Giordano Bruno. So lonesome alone up there on his pedestal. “Fucking church!” he mumbled. He was drunk again. “Always burns the best. You the heretic. Unrepentant! Just like Barbara. Fucking church! Never loves anybody. Save your souls but burn your naked body. Always burns the best … in the name of God.”
The dog sniffed around the statue. Rolf didn’t move. He felt no fear. Only pity.
“Is it you, Bruno?” he muttered to the dog. “It must be you.”
Bruno’s spirit was here. Four hundred years later. He was still looking for satisfaction. They’d dressed his statue in his Friar’s cassock. But his soul was naked like the day they burned him. The priests chanted their litanies. It was easy for them to burn him as mad, convinced as he was that religion was just a bunch of superstitions. The people, men, women and children looking on fascinated. The sliced pork vendors walking among them. His body melting and stinking. His soul emerging and leaping down to the ground to forever wander over the stones of the labyrinth and today hating all those stone madonnas crying tears of blood. ‘Go, Rolf, go, you’re the one. Go do it, free me, free Barbara, let her take back her confessions. Go Rolf.’
Rolf concentrated on concentrating. The hardest thing in life was to think. He observed himself on his heroic mission. This was not cinema. He ignored the rain. A deus ex machina doesn’t worry about puddles and wet feet.
Under his breath he sang the lines from De Gregori’s Bufalo Bill--“If I could’ve chosen between life and death, between life and death I would’ve have chosen Ameeerica!”
He turned to the left and went straight through to the square. “A man with a mission is a decisive man!” he whispered to himself. He knows where he’s going. He has a goal in mind.
Piazza Farnese was deserted. The bar on the corner and the trattoria were closed. The only light came from a room high in Palazzo Farnese and a lamp on the corner of Via Monserrato. He heard the water cascading in the fountains. He pulled open the flap, leaned inside and met Timmi’s wide open eyes.
“I was waiting for you, ragazzo”. Since Rolf was a boy the old man had called him “kid.” “Here, kid,” he would say when he gave Rolf a cigarette or lent him 500 lire for the movie.
“The big guy with the motorcycle sent me.”
Suddenly Rolf felt sober. He lifted Timmi’s head and held the bottle of Remy Martin to his lips. Timmi took the bottle in his own hands and drank soundlessly. He hardly seemed to swallow. The liquid flowed straight to his waiting stomach.
Without a thought, Rolf extracted the needle from the bag, stuck it deep into the wino’s thin arm and pressed the plunger.
Timmi lay the bottle on his chest and smiled. “Grazie, ragazzo,” he said, and closed his eyes.
Some years ago Southern Cross Review published my short novel Labyrinth as an e-book. It was also my first novel. See it or order it in the SCR e-book library free of charge. The following story embraces several aspects of that novel: two of the characters here are the protagonists in Labyrinth; the setting of both is in the heart of the Old City in Rome; and two scenes, the life and death of the homeless Timmi and the weird evening in the imaginary House of Witchcraft, are also treated in the novel. I confess that I do not remember clearly if this story emerged from the novel, or if the novel instead developed from this story. That is of little import at this point and I mention it only for the record in case anyone stands up and yells at the top of his voice, “repetition!”)
© Gaither Stewart