Standing outside his rectory, looking up and down the street, Father Risolino tried to catch sight of Carlo, his black and white cat. Since the weather had turned spring-like and the snows had melted, Carlo had given up his snoozes by the rectory stove. Now he played and napped in the broad meadow that surrounded the village.
In the daytime, that was only to be expected, since every cat did exactly the same thing. But last night Carlo hadn't come home. That was unexpected, and Father Risolino was alarmed.
"Eleonora," the priest called, "have you seen Carlo?" Eleonora was his niece's twelve-year-old daughter, and she was staying with him for the Easter holidays. In Italy, those stretch from the Wednesday before Easter to the Tuesday after it.
"One minute," shouted Eleonora from inside the rectory.
Father Risolino had learned that her "minute" could mean five minutes, ten minutes or whatever Eleonora wanted it to mean. Giving up, he reached back into the vestibule and pulled out a wheelchair.
After opening the chair, he flexed his muscles. The soreness in his shoulder joints was getting worse now that he was seventy-five. Looking down at Agostino, his two-hundred pound St. Bernard with the crippled legs, he said, "Tino, you aren't getting any lighter."
A lovable dog, older in St.-Bernard-years than Father Risolino, Tino looked up at the priest with eyes that were filled with pain and devotion. "Woof," he said regretfully.
"When I think of your patience, Tino, I'm ashamed of myself," said Father Risolino. As soon as he got his arms under the dog and heaved him into the wheelchair, Tino became mobile, so to speak, and could be pushed around the village for his morning "walk."
It should have been easy after that, but unfortunately, Father Risolino's village was in the Italian Alps, and getting around its hilly streets was never easy. It was even less so today, which was Easter Monday, or Pasquetta, "little Easter," as the Italians call it, when crowds were out enjoying the sunshine.
"Eleonora," he called again," we're ready."
There was a small explosion through the hall of the rectory, which was Eleonora, running to join her favourite uncle. "I'm ready too," she announced happily, as she burst through the front door, leaped over to Agostino and hugged him. "I can push Tino," she said.
Father Risolino smiled. Eleonora's mother, one of the top fashion models in Milan, was called the Icon of Elegance. Eleonora, on the other hand, was the icon of enthusiasm. Watching her, with her coat flapping open, her dress wrinkled from its sojourn in a suitcase, and her hair combed by the wind, the priest said a prayer that Eleonora would never change.
"We have to look for Carlo," he told her.
Father Risolino had rescued his beloved cat from homelessness last Christmas. Now Carlo had a warm bed in the rectory, although he usually preferred cuddling up to Tino, and his food bowl was kept full. In fact, it was the opinion in the village that Carlo was better fed than Father Risolino, whose housekeeper, virulently anti-feline, had left the day Carlo came to stay.
As they walked down the street, passing a shoe shop, a florist, and a bakery, the widow who owned the bakery hurried out and said, "Buon giorno, Father! Buon giorno, Eleonora. Buona Pasqua!"
"Buona Pasqua, Signora Cabrini. Have you seen Carlo?" he asked her.
"I was asking Beppe just yesterday about him," she said. Beppe was her cat, a big brown bruiser of an animal. "He told me that Carlo spends a lot of time now on the Via Boldoni."
As if to confirm her story, Beppe poked his head out of the bakery. He looked pleased to be the source of such important information.
Father Risolino repressed a smile. He was familiar with Signora Cabrini's claim to speak Feline. Most of the villagers were in the sceptical column on this issue, but the children were fervent believers, especially since the bakery lady, very soft hearted, was generous with cookies.
"I saw Carlo there this morning," she continued. "He was halfway down the street when he jumped over the hedge by the abandoned house. You know that house?"
Father Risolino did. The house had a stucco wall in front of it, and in the middle of the wall was a narrow iron door that had rusted shut. The rest of the house was bordered by tall hedges, put there by a former owner who had an obsession with privacy. The decaying house was an old story, but Carlo's association with it was new, and it worried the priest. Suppose Carlo fell through a gap in the floor and broke his leg! Suppose a chunk of plaster dropped from the ceiling and hit him on the head!
Before Father Risolino could ask any questions, Signora Cabrini continued, "I don't think the house is empty, Father. I suspect a family's living there, but" -- she tapped the side of her nose in the gesture that means, "It's a secret." Then she waved her finger and winked, meaning, "Keep it a secret."
Mindful of her business, Signora Cabrini turned back to her bakery, but not before she slipped a little gift into Eleonora's hand. Over her shoulder, she called, "Don't let Tino or Carlo have any. Chocolate is bad for them."
"Grazie, Signora," cried Eleonora. The chocolate egg was a work of art, decorated with swirls of yellow icing surrounding a cluster of sugar violets.
As they moved on down the street, Father Risolino pushing Tino while Eleonora cradled her egg, she asked, "If it's a secret that the family's staying there, does that mean they're homeless?"
When the priest said, "Probably," she jumped in front of the wheelchair. "You won't give them away, will you? You won't tell the police?" Petting the big dog's head, she added, "You don't want him to tell either, do you, Tino?" She was bringing in Tino as an ally because Father Risolino was usually strict about the law.
"No, I won't," he promised, but he thought about their situation as they progressed along to a chorus of "Buona Pasqua, Father," from the families going past in their Easter finery -- the mothers and daughters looking like flowers in their pink, yellow and green fashions.
Even Cameo, the beige-and-white cat from the village hat shop, stared intently at Father Risolino before she slipped through a hedge, as though she too were wishing him the blessings of the season.
As Father Risolino, Eleonora and Tino turned down the Via Boldoni, where the pavement was broken and the houses were not as well cared for as they were in other parts of the village, the priest said, "Run ahead, Eleonora, and tell me if you see Carlo or anybody else."
"OK," said Eleonora, and she dashed down the street to the house with the stucco wall. Standing on tiptoes, she shouted over the hedge, "Carlo, Carlo, it's me, Eleonora."
Immediately the front door of the house opened, and out came a boy about ten. Shouting "Sono qui," meaning, "Here I am," he jumped over a big basket near the steps and ran toward her.
The boy and Eleonora stared at one another in surprise, but Father Risolino, pushing Tino up to the hedge, caught on. "Are you Carlo?" he asked the boy.
"Carlino," said the boy, giving a little grin. Just then, two little girls about six and eight came around the corner of the house. The older one was tossing a strand of dark hair out of her eyes as she pushed the younger one, who was in a wheelchair older than Tino's. The chair went squeak, squeak, squeak, as they came closer.
At first, Father Risolino noticed only the children's faces, which became shyly respectful when they saw his priestly collar. Then he noticed the wasted legs of the younger girl, whose blond hair was so pale it was almost white.
And then he noticed. . . a very familiar black and white cat stretched out in the little girl's lap, the picture of ease and comfort, as though he was completely at home.
A pang went through Father Risolino's heart. Carlo would never sit in his lap, or Eleonora's. It was unheard of! And yet -- seeing was believing. Carlo could be a lap cat when he wanted to be. What had happened?
"That's our cat," cried Eleonora. "We've been looking for him all over."
As her words reached the child in the wheelchair, the little girl's eyes filled up with tears. Her older sister too ready to cry, while their brother stepped forward protectively.
There might have been an argument, but right away Eleonora handed the sister the chocolate egg Signora Cabrini had given her. "For all of you," she told them.
The girls' eyes got as big as saucers, but before they could say anything, a heavy-set man came out of the house. He was dressed in the kind of overalls worn by farmers in the most rural part of southern Italy, where, unlike Milan, fashions don't change by the season but by the century. His hands were huge, the hands of a man who has worked hard all his life, and to complete his antique appearance, he had a walrus mustache.
His smile was as broad as his shoulders, and as soon as he saw the priest and Eleonora, he murmured, "Buon giorno, Reverendo. Buon giorno, Signorina!" Immediately, he headed toward the door that hadn't been opened in decades. With loud squawks of protest, its rusty hinges turned just enough to greet his new guests.
When the big man looked through the doorway and saw Agostino, his face lit up. His hands flew out, like someone welcoming a best friend or a long-lost family member. Before Tino could utter one woof, he was scooped out of the wheelchair as if he were no heavier than a kitten and set down on the grass. Wasting no time, Carlo jumped down and stretched out beside Tino.
Once they were all together, the man put his hand on his heart in an old-fashioned way and said, "You are our honoured guest, Reverendo." Then he introduced himself, "Mario Adorno," adding, as he pointed to his children, "Carlino," "Gretta," and "Angelina." His eyes lingered tenderly over little Angelina.
After Father Risolino made his introductions, Eleonora, always curious, piped up, "Where is Signora Adorno?"
Once again, the man's hand went to his heart. "In heaven, Signorina," he said sadly. "When it was just the children and me, I came up here. People said I could find a better job and a doctor for my little girl, but…." All he found was homelessness.
"How have you been living?" asked Father in amazement. They had survived an Alpine winter in a house with no heat and no running water, and no one to make food for them. Signor Adorno looked like a man who could harvest acres of wheat and not know how to butter bread.
Just as the priest asked his question, Signor Adorno caught sight of the chocolate egg that Gretta was dividing into three pieces like a little mother. "Signora Cabrini," he cried happily.
"You know her?" asked Eleonora.
"Si, si," said Carlino, coming forward. "I met Beppe, and he told Signora Cabrini."
Mentally apologizing to the bakery lady for doubting her extraordinary linguistic abilities, Father Risolino said, "She's been cooking for you."
A little embarrassed, Signor Adorno nodded. "Carlino goes to her house after it gets dark. He takes that basket" -- he pointed to the big willow basket outside the front door -- "and carries back lasagna, scallopine, manzo brasato." At the mention of Signora Cabrini's beef with its thick, rich sauce, he rolled his eyes.
Since the Adorno family clearly weren't starving -- in fact, they were eating better than he was -- Father Risolino felt free to put his attention on the errant member of his own family.
Bending down, he picked up Carlo, who let himself be captured and held close to the priest's heart. "So, what's been going on with you?" he whispered to his beloved cat. "Have you given up on me and Tino? Have you packed your suitcases and moved on?"
A spirit of great intensity radiated not only out of Carlo's green eyes but out of his head and shoulders as well. He was sending a message he felt strongly about, a plea for some kind of understanding. But Father Risolino was at a loss to get it. He said a brief prayer for help, and immediately, his prayer was answered. He understood.
The loving bundle of gleaming fur in his arms, who had been rescued from homelessness only a few months ago, didn't want to run away from home. He wanted to rescue someone else from homelessness.
"Va bene," said Father Risolino, meaning, "OK." He added, "Te lo concedo," the Italian words for "I give in."
Looking around at the Adornos, he asked, "Would you like to come and live with me? There's plenty of room in the rectory." And there was. It had been built in the days when priests were as plentiful in Italy as tomatoes. But Father Risolino had lived alone there for fifteen years.
The children got excited right away, but Signor Adorno looked at the priest with eyes that showed gratitude, devotion and a little shame.
"Like Tino," the priest thought, "he thinks he's burdening me." How could he persuade the man to accept his offer? Then, suddenly, Eleonora burst forth.
"Oh, please come! Please, please, please," she begged Signor Adorno, "You'll be such a big help lifting Tino. And then Signora Cabrini can come and have dinner with us. She won't have to sit alone with only Beppe for company. And that way we can all be friends."
Father Risolino beamed. "Va bene?" he asked.
"Va bene," the Adornos chorused, except for Angelina, who had her mouth too full of chocolate to say anything. But the way she wiggled in her wheelchair made it was clear she was thrilled. "Woof," said Tino, putting in his two cents, while Carlo licked the priest's neck.
"Just don't forget," the priest murmured in Carlo's ear, "who your first friend was."
Overhearing, Eleonora reassured him, "No cat could ever forget you!"
And that was the truth, as Signora Cabrini, who understood all the cats in the village, could testify.
by Lynn Schiffhorst
Every effort has been made to trace the owners of copyright for the above images. If you own copyright to any image and wish to have it removed, please contact me. Thanks.
My thanks to Jem Vanston who trawled the Net looking for the above illustrations.