Father Risolino looked at himself in the mirror. The mirror was small and old and spotted, but it still showed Father Risolino what he didn't want to see -- himself looking frantic. Not insanely frantic, just mildly frantic.
"You need a cat walk," he said to his image. It amused him to use that term. His niece was one of Milan's top models, and he gotten the expression from her. But he meant something completely different.
His "cat walk" meant he would take a relaxing stroll through his small village in the Italian Alps, letting his mind roam as naturally as a cat's. He would think his real thoughts about people, no matter how uncharitable they were.
Of course, as soon as he had an uncharitable thought, the spirit of Brother Bernardino would give him a little poke between the shoulder blades.
Sixty years ago, when Father Risolino was a teenager, white-haired Brother Bernardino had taught his high school religion class. The old man liked to stand in the back of the room, because that way, he said, he could see what was going on in the boys' heads. Any time one of them gave a smart-alec answer, he got a sharp poke in the back.
Now that Father Risolino had become the age of his old teacher, he often felt his presence hovering in the air. He even sometimes discussed his problems with Brother Bernardino. The teacher never replied -- he was definitely a silent partner -- but his spirit still administered a little poke when the priest stepped out of line.
Father Risolino didn't mind. He expected to have to pay for being uncharitable, and Brother Bernardino never poked him too hard. At any rate, he needed to go for a long walk and think about Signor Adorno, the father of the homeless family he had invited to share the rectory with him.
What should he do about Signor Adorno?
Still in young middle-age, the widowed father had the strength of ten men. Since he lost his farm and had nothing officially to do, he was driving Father Risolino crazy. Looking for ways to burn off his energy, he invented non-stop odd jobs, even breaking up an old hen-house in the back yard that had fallen to ruin years after the last cluck was clucked in it.
And when all else failed, he could always be found scrubbing.
Maddalena, the baker's niece who came in to cook supper for them, said Signor Adorno had taken to scrubbing the way Michelangelo had taken to sculpture. Nothing she said could stop him. Pleading, "Signor Adorno, per favore," she would lift her shoes and show him how dangerous it was to walk on wet soles. He would hang his head guiltily -- even his big moustache looked mournful -- but then he would rush back to his bucket and brush.
Now, as Father Risolino could see, Signor Adorno was standing on a ladder propped beside a side wall of the rectory, mending an area of the roof where the wood had rotted away.
All this was fine up to a point, but the constant hubbub of activity was not what the priest was used to. And it wasn't the children who were disturbing him. It was their agitated father, desperate for something to do, and even more desperate for a way to support his family.
"Oh, well," thought Father Risolino, "let me take my walk and maybe a bright idea will pop into my head at the end of it."
He was just a few yards from the rectory when he encountered two of the people he least wished to see -- the Grassini sisters. Wearing long dresses and old-fashioned black veils on their hair, they proceeded down the street as though they were royalty giving an audience. When they saw the priest, they greeted him briefly by murmuring, "Reverendo."
Although they dropped their eyes respectfully, Father Risolino believed that the respect was due entirely to their own position in society and that, in fact, they judged him most unworthy of his status in the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.
Always willing to take correction (from the right source), he paused a moment to see what Brother Bernardino thought about his opinion of the sisters. Unable to feel even the smallest poke, he was absurdly pleased.
He was even more pleased when a dozen young men on motorcycles -- showing no reverence but a lot of affection -- roared by, shouting, "Ciao, Father!" while their girlfriends, sitting behind them, blew kisses at the priest.
After that, Father Risolino took only a few steps before a faint movement under a parked car caught his eye. After another quick movement, a little further toward the curb this time, Father Risolino saw that it was a raggedy yellow cat called Vinnie.
Vinnie had been a kitten only a year ago when Signora Tebaldi brought him to the rectory and asked Father Risolino to baptize him in the church. "I want a good cat, a kind cat," she said. "I won't have another one like Scarpia!"
Father Risolino had no trouble remembering Scarpia, named after the villain in a Puccini opera. Everyone unfortunate enough to come in contact with that sleek white cat with the black ears had a vivid and unpleasant recollection of him. When he disappeared from the village, Signora Tebaldi and her neighbors sang Alleluias.
So the priest could understand the lady's motivation, but still … baptism??? He had never baptized his own cats, believing them to be God's innocents from birth.
On the other hand, when he thought of Scarpia. . . .
Seeing him weaken, Signora Tebaldi played her trump card. "You may baptize him Vincenzo in honor of your favorite saint." Everybody in the village knew that Father Risolino had a deep and life-long devotion to St. Vincent de Paul, the great apostle of charity, who was friends with rich and poor alike.
"D'accordo," he agreed. "But be quick." Hurrying her and her little furry bundle into the church, he led them to a side chapel, where he improvised a service unknown to the Vatican, which he hoped would remain unknown to the Vatican -- at least as far as his part in it went.
Vinnie's baptism may have been rushed and unorthodox, but it "took." Vinnie was an affable creature with no criminal tendencies, although Father Risolino suspected he was a bit of a fantasist. In partnership with Father Risolino's beloved cat, Carlo, Vinnie liked to act out imaginary scenes.
Carlo was much more available for Vinnie's games now than he had been before Signor Adorno got busy. Living in the middle of a reconstruction-and-cleaning-frenzy wouldn't suit most cats, and it didn't suit Carlo. Now he spent all his days away from the house, stalking birds in the meadow, enjoying a picnic with the Adorno children, or playing games with Vinnie.
Reaching under the car to scratch Vinnie's head, the priest scanned the space under the cars on the other side. Sure enough, there was his Carlo, hiding beneath a parked Ferrari, pretending to be invisible. He didn't turn his head to look in the priest's direction, but his tail went back and forth like a metronome, indicating that Carlo was watching, watching, watching. . . .
Father Risolino understood. They were playing at being detectives doing a stake-out. But who or what was their target? Looking around but not seeing any answer, he continued down the street.
Stopping at the corner, he found himself just outside a brand new store with a fashionable English name -- "Puss 'n' Pooch." Although it sounded like a pet shop, it featured children's clothing. The little girls' dresses and shoes were on the "puss side," behind an outline on the window of a fluffy cat with three kittens. The boys' shoes and clothing were displayed behind an outline of two poodles.
Signora Cucinelli, the elegant widow who owned the shop, lived with her elderly father in the townhouse next to it. Just as the priest walked past the front door, he saw her father, Signor Marciano, come out with a pack of five dogs. Three were big scruffy extroverts, of unrecognizable parentage, and the other two were standard-sized poodles, clearly his daughter's dogs.
Like the illustration in the window, the poodles were shaved and curled to the height of fashion. Because of their huge manes, tufted tails and almost naked bodies, they reminded Father Risolino of those bushes which are clipped to look like chess pieces or geometrical figures or any other nonsense that the show-off who owns them wishes to inflict on Mother Nature.
Consequently, the priest didn't feel quite as warmly toward Signora Cucinelli as he wanted to, although his heart went out to the poodles.
Signor Marciano did not share the fashionable appearance of his daughter or the poodles. In his old brown coat and battered hat, he stumped along, moving his fat body down the street with such difficulty that his breathing could be heard by anyone in the area. In Father Risolino's opinion, his balance was not steady enough for him to be walking one dog, never mind five.
On the other hand, Signora Cucinelli had assured everybody that the dogs had graduated -- with honours -- from an expensive training school with military standards of obedience and were guaranteed not to bolt or even jerk their leashes. Remembering that, the priest decided not to worry about the old man.
Suddenly, he heard Signora Tebaldi screech, "Dio mio! Scarpia!"
At the same moment Carlo and Vinnie shot out from under their cars and went streaking down the street after a white cat with black ears.
Now Father Risolino understood! The stake-out was not play. Either by instinct or some feline version of the internet, they had learned about Scarpia's return. Forming themselves into an Unwelcome Committee, they were going to drive the trouble-maker out of town.
At first, the two friends appeared to be winning. Then Scarpia made a U-turn, did a triple zig-zag, and doubled back toward the centre of town, heading straight toward the dogs.
Until that point all five of them had remained true to their training. Only their loud panting and the trembling of their legs indicated their inner struggle. But when the white cat brushed past them, running his claws into the largest of the scruffies, they took off after him in a solid bloc, barking so passionately that Signora Tebaldi had to put her hands over her ears.
Dragged along, Signor Marciano took a few unsteady steps, stumbled and tipped over. The leashes flew out of his hands, his hat rolled off his head, and as he hit the ground, he knocked his shoulder against a concrete trash can.
Bending over the old man, who was conscious but in shock, Father Risolino patted his hand tenderly and said all the comforting things he could think of, while others called Emergency Services, hurried to tell his daughter or set off to corral his dogs.
The man who caught the last dog, one of the scruffies, after chasing him up and down ten streets and across the meadow, returned him to Signora Cucinelli with the tart comment that she might want to get her money back from that fancy school. Although she snatched the leash from him without a word, yanked the dog inside the house and slammed the door, it was generally believed in the village that she did exactly that.
Only Signora Tebaldi refused to joke about "disobedience classes." In her opinion, even an archangel who had the chance to attack Scarpia would seize it.
To the relief of everyone, however, Signor Marciano survived his fall with only a broken shoulder, cracked ribs and a badly bruised hip. His pain was considerably eased by the parade of visitors through his hospital room, including the priest, who dropped by every time he had the chance.
The following Friday, after the old man had been in the hospital nearly a week, Signora Tebaldi pounced on Father Risolino just as he came out of church. "Oh, what a fight! What a battle! He and she were going at it!"
"What are you talking about?" asked the priest.
"Signor Marciano and his daughter! She wants to put him in a nursing home, and he's resisting it bitterly. But she says, what can she do? He can't get out of bed on his own, and she can't lift him."
The phrase "can't lift him" started an electric train of thought in Father Risolino's mind and galvanized him into action.
"Scusi," he said to Signora Tebaldi. With the spirit of Brother Bernardino flying behind him, he hurried through the little cemetery beside the church, shot through the gate, and headed off to catch Signora Cucinelli before she could make her arrangements.
Luckily, she opened the door as soon as he rang. There was no need for him to introduce the subject of her father's care, because, as soon as he appeared, the lady introduced it on her own, pouring out a flood of grievances about her unreasonable father and his impossible demands to come home.
Father Risolino let Vesuvius empty itself of lava. Then he took a deep breath and announced, "A miracle has happened, Signora! Our Lord has provided the solution to your problem. I have a gentleman staying with me who can lift your father with one hand. With one hand!"
For a horrifying moment, it occurred to him that Signora Cucinelli might not be pleased to hear this. She might have already decided to stick her father in the back of a closet, like a suit long out of fashion, and forget about him.
Fortunately, she was a good daughter. "Father, you are so gentile. You worry about everyone," she smiled, patting his arm. "Now, tell me about this miracle."
By the time the priest left, he had entirely forgiven her for the appearance of her poodles. He had an agreement that Signor Adorno could start as home health aide for Signor Marciano as soon as he was discharged from the hospital. The details of his responsibilities were spelled out, including his time off to care for his own family. His salary, the priest knew, would look to the humble Signor Adorno like a small fortune.
"If I were younger," thought Father Risolino, "I would skip down this street. I'm that happy!" Seeing the air around him get a little brighter, he realized that it was Brother Bernardino's way of singing for joy.
The two men weren't alone in their happiness. Trotting right behind the priest was Carlo, who had been out on the prowl with Vinnie but now was eager to get home to his food bowl. There was a neat bandage on his right ear, where a bite-sized piece was missing, but the satisfaction that radiated out of the little cat showed he had no regrets. He would fight Scarpia all over again tomorrow.
Scooping him up, Father Risolino said, "It occurs to me that I never gave you any reward for running a villain out of town. I believe I saw Maddalena bring a can of tuna into the kitchen. Despite all this drama, I haven't forgotten where the can opener is. How would that be, caro Carlo?"
Not needing any answer, the priest added, "Since I'm carrying home a heroic fighter, we should have stirring music to accompany us. I think Puccini will forgive me if I choose something from Verdi." So Carlo made a loud purring in his tummy while Father Risolino triumphantly sang the famous March from Verdi's Aida, as if he were a whole chorus rolled into one.