He was a curious boy, a little one of four, perhaps five, years. He lived with the bishop and this was before the bishop was called Papa. It was a simpler time when my family worried only of crops and weather. He was the child from Church, clad in a white robe. The petite priest he was called.
He was such a serious boy, with flushed rounded cheeks and bent bow lips, always scowling, always pouting, always sad. But I got him to smile, an easy feat once you knew the trick. A good meal, some sweet wine, a long nap, and he would smile, slow and soft. A smile warm as summer sunshine washing the fertile farms. A smile gentle as early morn light kissing those winding Roman streets. Slow and soft, he smiled for me.
I was young then too, of eight years. I thought him my little brother and I, his sister. He was an obnoxious one. He would patter into our home, quick little thing that he was. The bishop had a whole manner of riches to spoil him but he claimed Mama's cooking was best. He needed no invite, simply scurried inside and sidled up to the kitchen, crying food – food – food! His whining could put princes to shame. But we indulged him, our petite priest.
It was simply so natural to have him running about, curling into corners and napping into nooks. Where our home ended and he began, I did not know. He was a seamless fit into our family.
Often, we would sit by the hearth, by firelight in winter and by moonlight in summer. He would read to me the Bible, of Cain and Abel, of Abraham and Ishmael, of John and Jesus. He was a smart boy and very well read, young though he was. He knew the Testaments as well as he knew the back of his hand. He taught me my letters and my numbers knowing full well there could be consequences. But he said I made the best biscotti and he was only repaying his debt. I laughed.
On those warm weather days, those long summer weeks, we would spend countless hours beneath the bright blue sky. We would run through the wheat fields, sample the orchards, and nurse our bruises when we got caught. We went berry hunting and flower picking. He would grumble and mumble, dragging his feet all the way, but spend near forever sifting through the grass, looking for that perfect bloom. Once he found it, he would stutter and mutter, blushing pink as the sun-setting sky above, and he would offer his blossom to me. I would smile, tucking the flower in my pocket, and plant a quick kiss on his cheek. He would turn a pomegranate red and I laughed, teasing him.
It seemed as if those days would never end. That we would simply live our lives frolicking in the hidden glades and soaking in that warm Italian sun. But all too soon, the moon would peek out from the folds of the darkening sky. And I would offer him my hand, and together, we walked home. If we were especially lucky, it would be one of those precious few nights when Papa wasn't bone tired. There would be music flowing free from our humble home, and our neighbors would gather. There would be a chorus of chatter and vibrato laughter, and I would take him to our little courtyard. And we danced beneath the stars.
He never grew old, our petite priest. As the months slipped away, a laughing brook over pebble days, I grew taller but he stayed petulant and he stayed petite. As I aged, cresting as the ocean waves do, swelling and curving into a fine figure, he remained of four or five years. The idle rock frozen on the river banks.
This was before demons were nothing more than dreams, before spirits were simple fantasies. When folk lore had yet to occur and legends were yet myths, he stood barely brushing my widening hips. An anomaly, an enigma, he was an orphan with no known relatives. He had been the bishop's and then the bishop's before him, passed down the line like a priceless heirloom. He was the so called spirit of the people, a timeless being embodying those who called themselves Romans. And no one questioned his existence. They were far too occupied with their affairs to spare him more than a cursory glance. He was relegated to the background, no more special than the cobblestone streets. They whirled about their lives, passing him by. But I stopped, or rather he had stopped me. I had been on my way to the market in hopes of supplementing our then meager meals. He had been standing on the Church steps, giving a sermon to a flock of pigeons. A queer sight it was, a petite priest and his congregation of birds. It was queer and funny and reeked of a loneliness I could not then fathom. So I had stopped.
I had stopped and I had found this curious little boy all by himself. He had flushed, rounded cheeks and bent bow lips, always scowling, always pouting, always sad. I didn't see a spirit. So I smiled, inviting him to supper. He turned a pomegranate red and shot his volley of insults. But I was patient and I offered him my hand. And together, we walked home.
We were family. We have always been family. Even before we met, we were already family. I did my best to care for him. I held him when he cried. I picked him up when he fell. I comforted him those cold, stormy nights, as thunder warred in the heavens. And he was my brother. My troublesome little brother who picked fights with squirrels, who stole food from the kitchens, who peed in bed then lied about it, who broke the pottery whenever he drew near. He was my headache every morning and a shouting match at night. He was stomping feet, slammed doors, and a new tear in my best dress. He was a bane to my existence. He was my little brother. He was the little brother I helped sneak out of boring Bible lessons, the little brother I hid from the bishop's rampant fury, the little brother I carried on my back those sleepy afternoons after a long day of play. He was tickle fights and teasing jokes. He was messy hours of cooking lessons and burnt biscotti that still somehow tasted so sweet. He was my troublesome, annoying, foolish, lovable little brother.
And though he was finicky, filled with the arid air swimming from the south. Though he was mercurial in mood and cried often, complained always. For as much as I took care of him, he took care of me more, so infinitely more. There was strength in that stubborn scowl of his, steady and firm as the mountains to the east. A strength I don't believe he quite rightly realizes. He had been my rock. He had watched over our family, made sure we were never wanting, never starving. He spared us a cow when ours died of disease. He had hired a search party and brought back my sister that one time she stupidly eloped with a swindler. He had toddled up to me, the night of Mama's death, and despite his size, he pulled me into his arms. And he helped me cry the tears I tried to tuck away. And when the time came, and a suitable suitor asked Papa for my hand, he aided my acquirement of a dowry. Then he kicked my husband's balls a few minutes shy of the ceremony. He threatened pain and punishment if I were to ever shed a tear.
He had this earnest desire, almost a desperation, to take care of me, to protect me. He confessed to me once. It had been the night of my wedding, when wine spilled endlessly and celebration roared. He was drunk, having imbibed on far too much wine for a boy of his size. And he told me of his grandfather and how his grandfather suffered. He spoke of how he could only watch as his grandfather splintered and broke, how he could do nothing as that German bastard dealt the finishing blow. He confessed to me how helpless he had been to protect the only family he knew. And just once, he wanted to do something right, to be strong enough and brave enough to protect those he cared for.
Then he threw up and fell asleep on my lap. I had forgotten then, for it was so easy to forget, to turn a blind eye. But that night, before I was carted off by my husband, I saw him huddled around the warmth of my bosom. And I remembered. My brother is small. He was little. As precocious as he was, as loud and proud, as obstinate and strong as he was, he is still a child yet at the same time so very old, and so completely, utterly foolish.
He bore the world on his back and a chip on his shoulder. And I wanted nothing more than to box his ears. He was so stupid and blind and so irritating because of it. He couldn't see what he had done for me. He couldn't see how invaluable he was. And I dare say, I spent the rest of my life trying to show him. I let him protect me, let him fuss over our family. For nothing could bring me a greater pleasure than to watch my dearest little brother light up around my grandchildren, how they fawned over him. And I would tease him, warning him not to grow so big a head or he might just blot out the sun.
He would stick his tongue out and pout, fighting down a smile. And funny how it is, that nothing has changed. Though I have grown old, though years painted their passage on the white of my hair, though the ages are sculpted into the wrinkles of my brow, he and I still bicker and banter. There is still that mocking laughter and scripted anger. He is still my incessant shadow, clinging to my skirts and crying food – food – food! Although his biscotti has improved. It's almost as good as mine, well almost. He says mines is simply the best there is. And I smile, ruffling his hair.
And even though I have long since learned to read, we still sit by the hearth, by firelight in winter, by moonlight in summer. And he tells me of Adam and Eve, of Mary and Joseph, of St. Peter in Heaven. And I pretend I do not see the drops of water blurring the Bible ink. We still go flower picking, though my bones are weak and my joints creak and I have long lost the ability to stoop. He still sifts the grass, thoroughly, painstakingly, for hours on end, searching for that perfect bloom. And he still blushes a pomegranate red as he offers his flower to me. And as the day draws to a close, I offer him my hand, and together, we walk back home, just as we have always done the last forty or so years.
His entire hand now fits into my callused palm. And I pretend he isn't taut and tense. I pretend I do not feel his every quiver, his every tremble. I pretend I do not feel his fear, that he isn't clutching my hand with all his strength, because soon, all too soon, I will fade away. Just as the mists melt in the morning warmth, as his grandfather did once upon a time, I will also leave him behind. So I squeeze his hand, just as tight, and I pretend I do not fear my numbered hours. And together, step by step, we walk home.
It is now the wee hours of dawn. My troublesome little brother, you lay before me, fast asleep on my lap. And I am reminded of when you curled in my closet, when I had to visit relatives far away, and I was gone for days. I would return home and find you nestled in my dresses, fast asleep. I remember that one bored evening we tried to steal from the bishop, only to be cornered by a rabid mongrel. It had bared its teeth, dripping of hunger. And with your knees shaking, you had picked up a stick and you had bashed it on the head. The mutt was deterred and ran away. You peed your pants. But you had been very brave and very strong.
I hope you remember that, little brother. I hope you remember that you are stronger, braver than you give yourself credit for. And if you ever think otherwise, so help me I will descend from the Heavens and spank you so hard, your ears will be ringing. And you know I will.
I know I have lived a long life, a happy life. I was married to an honest, hard working man who took care of me. I had three sons and a little girl of my own. I have plenty of grandchildren. I have weathered through my fair share of storms. The death of my youngest still haunts me to this day. I have committed follies and made my mistakes. I have been brought to tears by hardships. It wasn't an easy life. But it was my life. And I was happy to have shared it with you, little brother. I was happy to have your irritating pleas for food wake me up every morning, without fail. I was happy to clean up after all the messes you made. I was happy dancing with you those nights so long ago. I was happy watching you smile after a good meal, some sweet wine, and a long nap. I was happy that you were happy. You are my little brother, always have been and always will be. And I wouldn't trade that honor for all the riches this world could offer.
Hey, Lovino. Thank you for everything.