Gaither Stewart:

The Shoe String Miracle

by Gaither Stewart


Andrey is sitting on the wall directly across the road from my store overlooking the valley. His eyes are fixed on a bizarre figure in blooming pants and an over-sized wind jacket, bobbing toward him along the narrow sidewalk in an awkward jerking gait.

As the man shuffles past just in front of him Andrey says, buon giorno signore. The other staggers, makes as if to go on, stops, jerks around and turns on him red uncomprehending eyes.

“Beautiful day up here,” Andrey adds in his careful, accented Italian.

People in the town call the wild-eyed man the village idiot, lo scemo del paese! That is not to say that Roberto is ordinarily the subject of general conversation. In fact, for the most part people either consider him just a picturesque oddity or they ignore him as if he more of a foreigner than Andrey.

But Andrey knows his name. Besides, Roberto is not a stranger to him, not in the real sense. When Andrey was a boy he saw many people with the same wild expression on their faces wandering along the canals of his city.

“This is my favorite spot,” Andrey continues, as if speaking to an old friend. He extends his arm, points down at the steeple of San Giorgio rising up toward them and waves a hand toward the mountains soaring overhead. “I like to watch the tiny cars down in the valley. I try to imagine the people in them.”

Roberto’s eyes dart wildly. His mouth drops open, its black and brown interior displaying his total lack of familiarity with dentists. He still doesn’t answer. The village idiot has never been known to speak intelligibly. He shifts his feet, nearly tripping over the laces of his dirty high-topped shoes coiling and crawling around his feet like garden snakes. For a moment Roberto’s eyes close under his thick eyebrows. Then they pop open as if he were waking from a dream, a sudden gentle but lugubrious look on his dark face.

Physically, Andrey too is still an odd sight in the village. Standing a head taller than most people, he has reddish blond hair clipped short U.S. Marines style, wears a black T-shirt and pants cut off at the knee, and has a northern seas, schoolboy look of budding sensuality in his blue eyes. I think he must be the secret desire of more than one village girl.

“Why don’t you sit down and chat a while,” he says undeterred, patting a space on the wall next to him, as if uncertain that the other understands his halting Italian. It is a gripping scene, the Russian speaking so gently to the man who has never counted. 

The man reddens and mumbles some gibberish that Andrey must assume is the incomprehensible local dialect. Then the man turns and shuffles off in the direction of the cemetery farther up the mountain road.

Watching the back of Roberto’s bobbing figure lumbering hesitatingly away from him, Andrey mutters loud enough for me to hear, “Curious that though no one ever talks to him and he never talks to anyone they give him money now and then.”

He feels in his pocket and pulls out a small coin.

From the rear, the ageless man’s over-sized pants hang over his flopping untied shoes. A colorless shirttail dangles from under a faded blue jacket and greasy ringlets of his hair reach his shoulders. I suspect Andrey is thinking that his solitude must be horrific, something of what he himself sometimes feels, isolated here on the hill overlooking the Valtellina.

Andrey swings his legs over the wall and squinting against the midday glare observes the valley, a drop of five hundred meters below, and the chain of pre-Alps rising over it to the south. Around him, mountain villages, church steeples, and below, in the valley, toy-like cars creeping toward Alpine passes. Andrey is adrift. Adrift in this village distant from everything he has known in his previous life. His adopted cities are hours away. The canals and the banks of the Neva of his home lie in fogs and mists far beyond the Alps, somewhere in another lifetime.

A few days ago he told me it was hard for him to imagine that our Church of San Giorgio was already ancient and had been restored many times before his home city of St. Petersburg was conceived, long before Tsar Peter was even born. No wonder he felt like an alien from outer space, he said.

Today the Valtellina is bathed in the blinding spring sunshine that rainy Rome, trying to exit its winter, and smog-infested Milan are dreaming of. Flowers are budding and trees sprouting their laces before my eyes. Magic purple mountains rise majestically on all sides. Daisies and dandelions spot the fertile pastures on the flanks of the hills below the village of Montagna. To the east, the valley leads toward Alpine passes and to the Engadine. To the west, it ends abruptly at villa-ringed Lake Como. I could just as well be in either of those places today. Or I could be in Rome where I used to spend the winter. Or in Munich where I used to live and where in my mind I often return. Yet, here I am, again fixed in my native village stretched across the side of the mountain hanging over the city of Sondrio.  

Days up here are like the spring—lazy, futuristic and full of promise. Days are sunshine interspersed with wind and rain, the stability of the seasons emanating a sense of security in the laws of nature.

But nights are filled with nothingness and chaos that threaten the security accumulated during the day. Up here there are no safety nets. Night is a chartless wilderness where you easily lose count of the altitude and have no idea of whether you are at the summit or sinking into the netherworld. Great time of seasons and years slips by quickly and easily but small time of night hours is marked constantly and steadfastly by the clanging of the bells of San Giorgio. All the while you lie in the dark counting the hours and in the bedlam you wonder what is really happening behind the quiet walls of the ageless houses on the rises and falls of the thousand-year old village.

Suddenly Andrey lifts his head. He has sensed the soft shuffling behind him. The brush-like touch on his shoulder is no surprise. He turns and looks straight into Roberto’s rabbit’s eyes.

“Mi siedo?” Shall I sit down? Roberto asks distinctly, with a clarity and promptness that surprises me. I too am used to considering him only as the village idiot. There is a calm boldness in his manner as he pats the wall with the palm of his hand just as Andrey did earlier.

“Be careful not to lose your shoes,” Andrey says as the other swings his legs over the wall in the same way. A little smile marks the corners of Roberto’s mouth. Andrey shows no surprise that he spoke.

Their legs dangling over the vertical drop, the two of them, the village idiot and the tall Russian painter, stare down fixedly at the ravine below. For several moments they sit in silence. The sounds of the cascading waters of the mountain stream crashing down from the mountain above them are audible. The scene of the two mute aliens with the signs of their vagrant lives about them sitting on the wall looking at the valley that most people ignore or see with other eyes is the reverse side of what people here are accustomed to.

I feel a strange relief for Roberto. I also sense the beginning of some kind of unpredictable folly. If a police car were to pass in this moment, I’m certain it would slow and observe them closely.

“Hard to walk this way,” Roberto suddenly says in pure Italian and devoid of any attempt at formality.

“Your shoes, you mean?” Andrey says, pointing at the dangling laces.

“I’ve forgotten how to tie them,” Roberto says lucidly.

“I know how,” Andrey says in his candid manner. “Put your foot up here and I’ll show you.”

After a brief hesitation, Roberto lifts one leg and stretches it across Andrey’s knees. A solemn expression spreads over his face. From across the street I chuckle to myself. Andrey must be exerting a lot of willpower to ignore the powerful smell from the unwashed foot while he carefully laces the shoe to the top and slowly begins to tie it.

“Remember, like your father taught you,” Andrey says, “one string over the other, loop it and pull it tight. Make a figure eight with your left hand, circle it and pull it tight. And voila, your shoe is tied. Now, for the other foot!”

“Mio padre!” Roberto says. “I forgot him too.”

As far as anyone in the village knows, Roberto has no father, no former home, no past, no memories to plague or please him, no one who has ever nourished or cared for him.

“I will never learn to tie my shoes again,” he says plaintively.

“Then we’ll have to meet every morning … and I’ll tie them.”

“Will you really do that for me? Everyday? You promise?”

“I promise!”

My observation point is the front door of my bookshop situated across the road from the spot where Andrey each morning sits like a lizard on the wall in the sunshine and watches the world. Perhaps to cover my own erratic life behavior I have become the spectator of the lives of others and have come to feel perceptive of their foibles and madness. A caprice of destiny separated me from my mountain home for nearly a lifetime, so that today as a returnee I sometimes feel like an anthropologist returned to his favorite ethnicity. I think if I didn’t exist in my spectator’s role, I would have to invent myself.

And here at the outset I must admit that although I’m not a religious man, I was touched to the core by the shoe-tying ritual—Andrey reminded me of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. I felt a sinking sensation in my solar plexus.

At this point I must also clarify my relationship with this artist who came from afar. An old friend of mine from our village who moved away from the Valtellina when we were both youths, after recently suffering a great loss, experienced what he described as a kind of transcendence when at a Paris gym he met Andrey. In a short time, my friend, a rich and magnanimous man, became Andrey’s benefactor. A few months ago he invited the painter to use his big house in the village to prepare an art exhibit for a Milan gallery, and asked me to keep an eye on him. Now I have become as fond of the young painter as is my friend.

Unlike most people who depart from our valley, I returned to our village after my wander years. I came back to realize my dream. I opened a bookstore in this little place devoid of signs of modern commerce—no supermarkets or fast food, no car repair garages or gas stations. And so since hardly anyone ever comes to my store except an occasional student or a tourist—and now Andrey—I read, listen and observe what goes on in the village. At night I jot down my notes that inevitably say more about myself than about others. Though I dislike the practice, I admit that I also have a repugnant tendency to classify people.

Andrey, I have decided, is a Cathar. A pure one! I recognized him immediately. It’s written in the unsettling clarity of his blue eyes filled with all the fascination of the taiga and the white nights of the north. It’s written in the way he tilts his head to see you better. Or, as I have come to think, to see through you. It’s the way he remembers every word you say to him, words others usually don’t hear, or ignore. But not him, the Cathar! Wherever he goes he leaves in his wake a feeling of pleasure and satisfaction and goodness. He pays attention to everyone, from the cobbler to the Count.

And now his attention is fixed on Roberto, the village idiot.

It was late winter when I saw Andrey the first time in his improvised atelier in the big house here in Montagna. Dressed in layers of sweatshirts and sweaters and vests and jackets and coats and a woolen cap and a tiny silver ring in his left ear, he was standing immobile in silence on a stool smeared with red and blue and brown paint. What’s he doing up there? I wondered.

The second time I saw him on the stool, I understood—he was observing from above his new paintings spread horizontally on the floor. For a better view perhaps? For a different view, I learned. Andrey has the disconcerting curiosity of wanting to know what is really happening. He is not satisfied with confirmation of what he already knows or what he believes to be true. From up there on the stool his paintings on Plexiglas must have shone brighter. It was as if he saw life with other eyes … from up there. As if he didn’t want to return to earth again. In that moment I told myself, or perhaps I only recalled later, after what happened, that a Cathar sees better from the heights from where everything shines brighter. Because I was right, Andrey is a Cathar.

In March Andrey came to Montagna from Paris. For a work holiday, his benefactor said. But Andrey never expresses it that way. He is a painter and he does paint here in Montagna on the hill over the valley but he never speaks of his work. Work holiday? No, he just accepted the hospitality in the house on the hill. He brought with him an array of paints and brushes and canvases and sheets of plexiglass. He would wait for ideas. Happily he has never spoken of inspiration, a concept I personally detest. He just says he came to paint.

I have come to understand that in a way Andrey’s whole life is a holiday. As if each day were a reward. Working or not working, eating or not eating, painting or not painting, accepting whatever falls to him.

Andrey is like a cat. Insouciantly detached from everyday life, he hardly hears snide remarks and comments and nitpicking about him—either he doesn’t understand or he doesn’t want to understand. In Paris, my friend tells me, he seldom knows where his next meal is coming from. In Paris, he sleeps wherever he is invited—at a friend’s apartment, with a woman if he wants to, or she wants to—or not at all. His clothes are always the same. He doesn’t know the value of money. Another thing about Andrey is that though he never asks for anything, he is always taken care of. I think you could drop him in the middle of New York City, penniless, without one single acquaintance, and before the day was over someone would come along to offer him hospitality. For him it is the way of the world. In Paris, he lives more or less with a friend where he sleeps on the couch in a tiny apartment near Place Stalingrad. Days, or sometimes nights, he works in the atelier of a woman painter in the Belleville quarter. And each evening he has dinner at his benefactor’s apartment in Montmartre. Day and night, he smokes or drinks if someone offers him a cigarette or a glass of wine. And someone always does ... and no one thinks of him as a moocher. He travels by bicycle among the three places, Belleville, Place Stalingrad and Montmartre. As far as he is concerned it is all one. For Andrey life is a wide-open affair.As a rule he doesn’t have a cent in his pockets. He is simplicity personified. He seems aimless.

I say, seems, for that too is an enigma, a rebus concealed deep in his Viking’s eyes. Sometimes he shows up at his benefactor’s in Montmartre with presents, now a flower, now a drawing, now a major painting. He attends art exhibits, visits museums, is informed about events in Paris, attends masses at the Russian Orthodox Church, follows soccer results in every country in Europe, is constantly on his cellular with calls and SMS messages, and reads an impressive number of books. And if there is something to be transported or repaired, a table set, a bottle of wine opened, a dinner served, dishes washed, Andrey does it. Yet, miraculously, by the end of a week or a month he has turned out an impressive number of paintings,

This morning, sitting in the sunshine on the wall, he and Roberto are an extraordinary pair. Observing them is like watching a play in our open-air theater. The two actors dialogue animatedly—Andrey softly, occasionally touching Roberto’s leg and then listening to Roberto speaking more than anyone in the village would believe possible. From time to time Roberto laughs and gesticulates. Once he slaps Andrey on the back. It makes me feel stupid. I have accepted what local people have long believed—Roberto is just the village idiot. He is helped, pitied, maybe even loved, but largely ignored. Now here he is, the center of Andrey’s attention … and he blossoms and begins to perform.

The May days pass peacefully in Montagna. The grass and the grains on the fields below grow before your eyes. Only an occasional cultural tourist arrives to see the Renaissance frescoes in the Church of the Madonna del Carmine or just passes through on the way to villages higher up the mountain. In the village, curiosity about Andrey has begun to dwindle. He is becoming part of the local population … just a little strange, a little eccentric. But, as I know, these quasi-Alpine people are used to eccentrics. People now only smile when they see him deep in conversation with Roberto. A few days ago, the parish priest, Father Romano, who also stops in my shop, whispered to me that it was miraculous that lo scemo has begun speaking.

For my part I am most curious about the shoe-tying ritual. Each day I watch out for it. Often the ceremony is repeated on Andrey’s wall place opposite my shop. Other days I might see the two of them performing their roles in front of the post office on the hill down toward the village trattoria.

One morning I’m entering the post office to pick up a package of books and I see them in front of the Chiesa di San Giorgio—Roberto is standing erect, one foot forward, his shoulders thrown back, a solemn expression on his dark face. Andrey, as pale as the midnight sun, is on one knee in front of him. Andrey laces the shoe to the top, then manipulates the strings slowly while looking up at Roberto and speaking to him softly. His patience is infinite. He is trying to teach Roberto to tie his shoes. But I know something that I don’t believe Andrey has understood—Roberto does not want to learn to tie his shoes. That is the point. He only wants Andrey to tie them. Everyday. Forever.

Father Romano is also observing the scene from a lateral entrance to the church down below. He looks at me farther up the hill, smiles, spreads his arms and lifts his head toward the heavens as if to say, ‘that man is a saint.’

Again I think, ‘yes, he’s a Cathar.’ Father Romano and I are thinking alike.

Things have gone on like that now for a couple weeks. Roberto is increasingly present in village life and from day to day more garrulous and exigent. And Andrey is attentive as a servant to his needs. And now, not only for the shoe-tying. They have taken to sitting among the card players in Caffé Paini. Since neither of them ever has money or knows how to play cards they watch the others play and accept a cappuccino that someone inevitably offers. With some apprehension I have also begun to notice that if Andrey fails to appear at the appointed hour, Roberto becomes fidgety and nervous. With the harried look of an addict on his face he rushes around from one place to the other, from the post office to the church, from the trattoria to the café.

“Where is Andrey?” he asks frantically anyone he meets, the old wild look in his eyes. “Where is the artist?”

Then, when Andrey does arrive, in his eyes the distracted look of one who doesn’t know the time or even what day it is, Roberto frowns, turns his head away, an unmistakable glint of mischief in his little red eyes, and clamps his bluish lips shut. When Andrey sees him that way, he just ties his shoes in silence, stands up, brushes his cheek with his, and goes back to his painting.

Andrey sometimes stops in my shop to look over the books and I lend him those he likes for his long nights alone at the top of the big empty house. One day, standing in front of my shop and viewing the valley and the Orobic Mountains to the south, he says that people in the village are getting used to him now. “They don’t even stare much anymore,” he says, a sparkle of pleasure in his eyes.

“But don’t forget that they’re ever-vigilant,” I say. “They’re always watching.”

I don’t tell him there are nuances in these people he would never understand, not even if he lived here the rest of his life. Things I don’t understand either. But I don’t believe he really cares. And I do understand him and the perpetual nonbelonging life he has chosen and the edge of the world he seems to yearn for.

“Oh, I don’t mind. All in all, this is like living in Paradise. Everything is so simple and so perfect.”

Yet despite the apparent serenity in the air, I have a strange feeling in my bones. It is a foreboding of some impending catastrophe hanging over us like one of the threatening spring avalanches our valley is famous for. The feeling has to do with Andrey. And it concerns Roberto. This year the very beauty of the mountains seems to contain the seed of threat, and perhaps of concealed evil. Moreover I believe other villagers have the same presentiment. Not that anyone has mentioned it but the usual placid atmosphere seems transformed. Something uncanny hangs in the air. Nothing is in the proper place. Everything seems precarious. It is as if some magic hand had shifted churches and houses and buildings and streets imperceptibly from one place to another, edging them nearer and nearer the precipice. The very survival of the centuries-old village seems threatened. Things are definitely out of whack.

One warm morning I’m standing at the bar in Caffè Paini over an espresso. The sun has burned off the morning mist. The temperature is perfect, the coffee good. Marcello, the sleepy barman, is leaning over the bar with his chin in his hand. The card players are assembling. An old man shuffles in for cigarettes. Two dogs are sleeping near the doorway. The bus from the city of Sondrio below discharges some old people carrying shopping bags. The spring fragrance wafting up hill blows into the café. Life seems triumphant and quotidian.

Still, the very normality of the morning seems to sublimate the atmosphere of menace and threat traveling like a dire reverberation up and down the hills. I sense deception in the air. And I begin to feel chaos around us, as if anything could happen. At that pregnant moment everyone in the café stares out the door as a pink Volkswagen pulls up in front.

A chubby, ruby-faced man wearing a light blue silk shirt, a yellow foulard and a straw hat with a flower in the brim enters the café, says bonjour, and in French asks one and all about the location of the house of Andrey’s benefactor.

In a flash I understand my apprehensions. Weeks earlier my friend phoned me from Paris that his close friends might join Andrey in the big house—to take care of him, so to speak. I must say here that the couple in the pink Volkswagen is not a problem as one might expect. I could have assured the couple then and there that our villagers look favorably on eccentric people. Though people here tend to know and accept their place in the order of things, they are not bigots. Things are not rustic and quaint up here in Montagna. I don’t mean to say that people in the village are indifferent as people of Milan or Paris can be but they have few prejudices of a moral nature. Nor are they more easily flummoxed than are the Milanese with their veneer of mundanity—strangers don’t easily disturb our equilibrium as they did in old times. Old times here were not good times.

On the other hand, though my fellow villagers can be jaded and phlegmatic, they do not conceal their feelings as city people do. As a matter of fact, I’m certain their inadvertent comments and slips of tongue will offer surprising off-center opinions about the miraculous events that followed. So I was glad Marcel and Ted arrived, though afterwards I could never reconcile my contentment with the inevitable jealousy their presence provoked in Roberto. Two or three days, I think, and the couple will be integrated. People will be looking into Italian-French dictionaries and searching their minds for French words they hear on their excursions over the mountains into Switzerland. The couple will make them feel international and cosmopolitan. Feelings toward the French gay couple will be no different than feelings toward Andrey. Above all, Montagnoni are curious as to what all this means in their lives. The incontrovertible fact remains that Andrey and Marcel and Ted are foreigners and French and Russian and exotic and therefore anything is to be expected of them.

Though no one is aware of it, the immediate existential problem for Montagna is of a different nature. Roberto has become the problem—his needs, his exigencies, his new participation in life, and also his jealousy. He needs his shoes tied each day. Tied by Andrey! He needs Andrey’s full care and attention. He is Andrey-dependent. But now Andrey has guests to think of. 

I must mention that the Andrey-Roberto presence has changed the rhythm of village life that in the modern era has dispelled old feelings of uncertainty and sadness from peoples’ lives. When I returned I found a happy people. A people of abandonment and carefreeness. The first major movement each day on the hill is the noisy arrival of teams of carpenters and masons and plumbers and electricians reconstructing ancient houses here and there and the simultaneous departure of village working people to their jobs down in the valley. Then housewives begin scouring their porches and hoeing in their gardens and watering balcony geraniums while the older people meander up and down the cobblestone lanes from the Chiesa di San Giorgio to Caffé Paini, from the post office past my shop to the cemetery.

Now, change hangs thick in the air. As if a sudden and an inexplicable metamorphosis were taking place. Each day is filled with the unexpected. A feverish excitement mounts as somewhere on the rises and falls of the village takes place the shoe-tying ritual that so fascinates Father Romano and me. Old people too have begun trying to witness the ceremony personally as if it were a substitute for the morning mass in San Giorgio. People hang out their windows and stand longer on their balconies. And some follow one or the other of the protagonists like private eyes.

Father Romano has leapt into an intriguing spiritual state of mind, which began emerging even before Marcel and Ted’s arrival. Ostensibly he comes up to my store to lament the dramatic fall in attendance at morning masses. And in fact, poor man, they are nearly abandoned. Even on Sundays, despite the frantic bell-ringing and the bizarre little hand-written messages of reproof the priest has begun plastering on the walls of the municipal building, the post office, and the café, organized parish life has reached its nadir. Justifiably concerned about the absenteeism of the faithful—the work of Satan, the pre-Andrey Romano would have accused—Father Romano finds consolation in his firm conviction that a miracle is taking place here under the shadow of the Church of San Giorgio.

“God,” the priest tells me almost every day, “has laid his hand on the village of Montagna.”

His conversation, once punctuated by the doings of Beelzebub or Lord of Darkness, has willy-nilly taken a positive turn since the “shoe string miracle” came into his life. Il miracolo dei lacci, he calls it. I think he says these things to me because he knows I believe in magic. Not his hands-laid-on miracles but a clandestine sort of magic always wavering between the supernatural and sorcery. As a boy here I felt a subterranean magic serpentizing under our hills, crashing down from the Alps above mixed in the furious currents of the Davaglione and concealed behind the Pisalocca waterfalls, and crouched and peering out with its black eyes under the Church of the Dead.

One overcast morning, tiny, wiry Father Romano, whose look is irreparably benign despite his liana-like eyebrows shading black darting eyes, is at my store for one of our matinal chats about matters of the spirit and the soul. He takes my arm and leads me across the road to the wall. The little priest has come to regard this precise spot on the sky-high wall as a holy site like Lourdes or like the Church of Fatima. Running his tiny hand across the rough cement of the wall as if to absorb from it a small portion of divinity and gazing toward his church down below us, the perspicacious priest says, “In some respects the shoe-tying is more spiritually moving than my mass.”

He looks up at me as if to assure himself that I am taking him serious, before continuing in his thick Montagna dialect: “Yes, that man is a saint. Like Christ, he said to Roberto, stand up and talk. And lo scemo did. You realize, I assume, that a miracle has taken place in our village.”

The arrival of Marcel and Ted has brought about another colorful interruption to the normal rhythm of the village—the ceremony of the mid-morning departure of their pink VW for Sondrio below for the daily shopping and the aperitif on Piazza Garibaldi. Each day Marcel ties on his yellow foulard and dons his straw hat with the flower in the brim, which the more modest and shy Ted likes but does not emulate. Loaded with an assortment of handbags and shopping baskets, the three Parisians board the VW with a lot of festive noise and merriment. Marcel opens the sunroof. Italian opera sounds from the stereo. Ted climbs in the back and Andrey rides in the front passenger seat, sometimes standing up with his black scarf blowing in the mountain breeze. He looks like a Roman Emperor.

From the first time I witnessed it this ceremony made me nervous. The pink VW musically curving up and down up our hills seems emblematic of some underground current passing through our mountainside like the lateral crater of a volcano that at any moment can erupt its pent-up passions. I ponder the effect their departure must have on Roberto—for he is most certainly secretly observing the scene. Though his shoes have been tied earlier—Andrey would never neglect that—nevertheless I have the feeling that neither Andrey nor other people are conscious of the force of Roberto’s nascent jealousy.

Marcel and Ted are a sociable couple. Immediately they take over the running of the big house of Andrey’s benefactor. About a week after their arrival they invite me to lunch. And after lunch that day a constant stream of random curious villagers drops in for coffee and tea and later in the afternoon for cocktails in the garden. Everyone wants to meet the Frenchmen with the pink car. An assortment of festive guests are gathered around a table in the lateral garden among the prunus trees and oleanders and rose bushes and chicas, drinking Negroni cocktails and Campari soda. A silver tea set and tableware and delicate cups and plates and initialed napkins and exquisite biscuits in tins with London and Paris and Milan labels cover the white linen tablecloth. Cats are lounging here and there in the afternoon sunshine. Chickens are clucking and fluttering in the lower garden. Verdi opera sounds from the house. In the mountain air hangs a vague atmosphere of frivolity and wariness, urbanity and degeneracy.

A local lawyer, an outrageously handsome man, nearly two meters tall and with long blond hair and a perfect suntan and who despite all his cashmere and handmade alligator shoes emanates irresistible sex appeal, keeps looking enviously at Andrey in the way one beautiful woman examines another. Marcel and Ted ogle him shamelessly.

While Andrey seems unaware of any exchange at all, a retired French-speaking schoolteacher from Sondrio in the valley stubbornly vies for the attention of the three Parisians. From time to time aunts and cousins of the house patron try out their school French. Father Romano looks from one to the other of the mundane group so distant from his world of faith and miracles and never utters a word.

Frivolous chatter is flowing in French and Italian and laughter is in the air at the linguistic misunderstandings and at the badly translated jokes that fall flat, when the gate from the street crashes open and swings back and forth on its hinges. I note the brief flash of panic cross Andrey’s eyes when the shabby figure steps through the wrought-iron gate and starts down the steps into the babble of the garden.

“Mon Dieu,” Andrey exclaims, leaping to his feet. “Roberto!”

Roberto’s pants are rolled up so that his shoelaces dragging the ground are highly visible. His face is black, his ordinarily red eyes, white. He looks around wildly, begins muttering unintelligibly, hobbles and stumbles to the bottom of the steps, and promptly falls forward into an exotic chica that looks as out of place here in the Alps as does he.

Now, in my wanderings I have seen woeful sights before, deformed children, drunken men, slovenly women, but Roberto in this moment is the most woebegone imaginable—in recent weeks he has been out into the world, seen its possible joys, and then lost them again.

“Ciao, Roberto!” Andrey calls out, leaping to him and helping the flopping and grunting figure to his feet.

Roberto straightens up, glaring around the garden with mad unseeing eyes. He is the mumbling idiot he has always been. Hanging onto Andrey at the foot of the steps and gaping blindly toward us at the garden table, he is an uncontrolled shipwreck of a human being. But Andrey knows what to do. He holds Roberto firmly for a moment as if to plant him in place, pats his arms comfortingly and then kneels in front of the cringing creature. As he does each day, he talks to him gently—“Roberto, let’s have a cup of tea and some cookies, but first of all we’ll get these old shoes tied.”

“I was waiting,” Roberto stammered. “I was waiting … and waiting for you.”

“Make the figure eight, Roberto. Remember? Loop it over and now pull it tight. Then we can have some tea and cookies. There now! Now for the other foot. There now! Your shoes are tied.”

While Andrey completes the tie and continues whispering his words of comfort, Father Romano nudges me and says, “Watch Roberto! It’s a miracle. A miracle.” The priest gapes, transfixed by the transformation.

In the space of seconds Roberto returns to his new self. His chin lifts. His head tips backwards. He gazes at us mortals calmly, in insolent triumphant. His smile is an awkward twist of his lips. It is one his rare moments of exhilaration. His eyes say he is king. The king is back.

Andrey rises, takes a triumphant Roberto by the arm and leads him to the festively laden table. Marcel and Ted stand up in alarm. The lawyer from the valley looks bewildered. The cousins and aunts nod their heads and cluck knowingly. Father Romano is more and more beside himself in an explosion of fervor and exaltation.

“A miracle! Right here in Montagna,” the priest exclaims to one and all, spreading his arms toward the heavens like the Pope.  “Right here in Montagna. The miracle of the casting out of the evil spirit. That man, God knows, is most certainly a saint.”

Andrey, still holding Roberto’s arm looks at me and shrugs.

The next ten days are filled with hectic activities, some transparent, others more subtle and spiritual as Father Romano later expressed it. Each single act, the shoe-tying ceremony and morning shopping and lunches in the garden and walks through the lanes of the ancient village on the southern flanks of the Alps, seems to take on spiritual significance. A time of purification. Of absolution and renewal.

A week goes by. Roberto appears regularly at the wall holy site, always closely observed and examined for traces of divinity by Father Romano from behind the blinds of my shop. Under Andrey’s influence Roberto seems to be maintaining a semblance of mental order. Yet something in his flitting red eyes, a certain shiftiness, a spark, a silent rumbling, seems to mirror a volcano too long dormant. His is the quiet of a geyser during the interval before the arrival of hot gases causes its explosion.

It is shortly after 10 a.m. The eternal stillness of an early Alpine summer is in the air. I am on my way to Caffé Paini for my morning coffee when the trio of carefree shoppers with their bags and baskets arrive at the parking place on the rise above the house. Suddenly, from the street level over my head, Marcel shouts, “Zut alors! Zut alors!”

The pink VW is not there!

I rush up to them. I begin querying the housewives now peering down from their geranium-lined balconies. No one knows anything. Most certainly, the women say, the police did not haul it away. Cars are never stolen here. Ted didn’t move it. He doesn’t even know how to drive. Most certainly not Andrey. We rush back down to the municipal building to report the theft to the police.

As it turns out, the mystery of the disappearance of the pink VW is short-lived. In mid-afternoon news spreads up the hill that its wreckage has been found about three hundred meters under the tip of the village cemetery which is perched on a spur of our mountain, a few steps from my store and only a short distance up the road from the holy site. The cemetery caretaker reports that during the night a gap was cut through the protective fence at the rear of the cemetery. Apparently the pink VW crashed through that hole and down the hill to its final resting place. It was found upside down among jagged rocks and rotted timber at the bottom of a deep ravine in a turbid pool of stagnant water.

After taking a look in the cemetery, I set out to establish the whereabouts of Roberto. Fearful that some people might conclude that he is involved, I feel a pleasant surprise when the first person I meet on the steep hill between the post office and the church is Roberto himself.

Walking uphill toward me, he seems carefree. His shirttail is tucked in, his jacket zipped, his shoes neatly tied. Yet as we draw near each other I detect in his darting little eyes the triumphant, self-satisfied expression of that day in the garden when Andrey kneeled at his feet to tie his laces.

From his expression I believe I understand. I don’t know how it happened but I know the meaning. I decide to keep to myself the revelation in his eyes. Especially I will keep it from Andrey. Still, contradictorily allaying my persistent fears is my knowledge that as far as anyone knows Roberto cannot drive a car. Much less would he know how to steal one. Nor does he have any known friends he could commission to wreck the car for him. There is only that insolent victorious look on his face!

In the same moment I am pondering what to do with my knowledge, Father Romano comes out the front entrance of his Chiesa di San Giorgio. In his short mincing steps he rushes up the hill toward us, repeatedly calling out to Roberto:

“Signor Roberto, momento! Signor Roberto, I must speak with you!”

Roberto’s expression is increasingly haughty. He stops and turns back toward the priest as he approaches us.

“Si, Padre,” he says. “What is it?”

For a moment Father Romano stares at him intensely. He opens his mouth to speak but nothing comes out. The man who once was mute has spoken directly to him. The priest living the miracle has the mad look on his face of a man living a dream. He is standing face to face with a walking miracle. He is a man of Galilee. Montagna could become a pilgrimage place. This could carry him to Rome. Roberto is the man sick of palsy, who Jesus told to stand up and walk and he did. He is the chained wild man whose unclean spirit Jesus cast out. He is Lazarus raised from the dead.

"Sunday mass," Father Romano finally gasps.

“Si, Padre?” Roberto replies faintly. The priest has never spoken directly to him before either. Nor has Roberto ever been to a mass.

“Sunday mass … talk to the people … be a witness … the will of God ... the sign of….

“Si, Padre?” Roberto repeats, his voice rising.

“Tu vieni, figliolo? Will you come, my son?”

“Yes, Father.”

Father Romano leans toward Roberto and stares at his lips. In the same moment Roberto and I glance down at his well-tied shoes. Roberto then looks back at me, now magnificently haughty. Contentment and victory and glory are written in his eyes.

This short story is one of a collection set in a village in the Italian Alps, hanging over the valley known as the Valtellina. The book entitled VOICES FROM PISALOCCA—a waterfall in the village—includes also “The Lady From Milan”, “Owl In the Water Pit” and “Dreaming Lance Armstrong” which were published in previous numbers of Southern Cross Review. (See Archives). The collection is scheduled to be published in Italian.)


© Gaither Stewart  2006

Gaither Stewart, writer and journalist, is originally from Asheville, NC. After studies at the University of California at Berkeley and other American universities, he has lived his adult life abroad, first in Germany, then in Italy, alternated with long residences in The Netherlands, France, Mexico and Russia. After a career in journalism as the Italian correspondent for the Rotterdam daily newspaper, Algemeen Dagblad, and contributor to the press, radio and TV in Italy and various European countries, he today writes fiction. He has authored novels and short story collections. His collections, Icy Current, Compulsive Course, To Be A Stranger, Once In Berlin, are published by Wind River Press. (http://www.windriverpress.com/ or http://stewart.windriverpress.com/) He lives with his wife, Milena, in the hills of north Rome. Other essays and stories by Gaither are available in Archives.

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