In late July, the golden summer that had graced the Italian Alps took a brief vacation, and winter moved back in. As the first of August dawned, a cold wind was scouring the villages.
Rolled up in his blankets, Father Risolino reached out one hand and grabbed his alarm clock before it could do its worst. He whacked the setting from "On" to "Off" and buried the clock under his pillow where his chin could rest on it.
The tick-tick-tick was just loud enough so he wouldn't fall back asleep. There was no need for the unearthly shrilling of the alarm, a sound which he was sure had originated in hell. Somehow a devil must have sneaked it through the infernal gates, dropped it like a bomb on the time-keeping industry, and out of that explosion -- to human horror -- flew the first alarm clocks.
In another five minutes the need for coffee had overcome the need for sleep. Father Risolino crawled out of his little nest and headed for the kitchen. Immediately, his cat Carlo burrowed under the blankets and stretched out in the warm hollow left behind.
While the fragrance of coffee brewing filled the cold air, the priest made breakfast for Agostino, his St. Bernard, whose bed was placed close to the radiator. His old joints needed all the heat they could get.
"There you are, Tino," he said, as the elderly dog lumbered to his feet and headed toward his dish. Next, he reached for the bag of cat food that Carlo favored. When he discovered it was mostly empty, he poured into the bowl what there was and said to himself, "This will hold him until I get back from Mass."
His cook, Maddalena, with youthful impatience, had a habit of sticking the cat food anywhere there was room for it, and he didn't feel like going on a search mission through the unheated pantry. Besides, the kitchen clock reminded him that it was time for him to get dressed and head over to the church to start his prayers.
As he finished his coffee, he became aware that a silent drama was taking place on the floor. Carlo had slipped into the kitchen and was standing beside him, staring at his food bowl without touching it. He looked up at Father Risolino with reproach in his eyes. His back was straight as a ruler, and his paws were planted firmly on the floor. There was no twining around the priest's ankles in his usual friendly fashion.
Carlo's message was very clear. "You are letting me down. What happened to your standards?"
Father Risolino knew when he was beaten. "All right," he said, "but it's your fault if I have to leave out half the psalms."
Fortunately, however, the new bag of cat food was the first thing that caught his eye as he opened the pantry door.
"Grazie," he said to his guardian angel. He liked to think of her as a mother-with-wings, who had the power to rearrange reality occasionally to benefit her beloved son. If that wasn't orthodox theology, it was at least heart-warming, something that could not generally be said about orthodox theology.
Dressing quickly, he picked up his breviary and headed out the door, aware that the sound of Carlo's crunching was louder than usual. The crunch-crunch-crunch also carried a message. It said, "See how much I enjoy my food! Don't scare me again by a cut in my rations!"
Amused, he headed into the thick mist that had descended on the village, wrapping the church and everything else in a kind of cotton wool. It was only when he got right up to the church that he saw a bicycle propped against the wall. It belonged to Signor Adorno, the widowed father of the homeless family he had helped back in the spring.
This morning, attendance at Mass was small, which was not surprising in view of the unpleasant weather. At the end of the service, the half-dozen other villagers bundled themselves back up and left quickly, and only Father Risolino and Signor Adorno remained behind to say their personal prayers.
When the two men emerged, they were surprised to hear faint cries coming from the far end of the churchyard. With the chill white mist muffling everything, the cries sounded almost eerie.
"Could that be a cat?" asked Father Risolino.
Hurrying ahead of him, Signor Adorno peered behind a large granite tombstone. "Si, Reverendo," he said. "It is a cat." Squatting down, he picked up the little creature, who had been lying on the cold ground.
As soon as the cat found himself gripped by human hands, however, he turned into a tornado. He twisted and yowled, and his message, like Carlo's, was crystal clear. "How dare you! Put me down! NOW!" But Signor Adorno had worked for years as a farmer, taming headstrong steers and angry sows. He had no trouble holding onto this little scrap of animal life.
"Bring him into the rectory," said Father Risolino. "Then we'll see what's wrong."
As soon as they got inside, Maddalena stepped out of the kitchen and let out a little shriek. Right away, her young eyes identified the white cat with black ears. "It's Scarpia," she cried.
"You're right," agreed the priest, who was stunned. It was Scarpia, the cat who had been named for the villain in a Puccini opera! Scarpia, who was the terror of the four-legged population of the village. Scarpia, who had been run out of town only a little while ago by his own Carlo.
"He's gotten thin," said Signor Adorno. "I can't feel any broken bones, but let me look into his mouth." Gripping Scarpia with one hand, he pried open the cat's mouth with the other.
What the two men saw made their hearts break.
Scarpia's teeth had not grown in straight. Some leaned outward, cutting long red gashes in the side of his mouth. Others leaned inward, scraping and inflaming his tongue. To make matters worse, his gums showed angry-looking boils, evidence of terrible infections.
His eyes full of tears, Signor Adorno said, "This poor creature must be mad with pain."
"We must get him to the vet right away," said Father Risolino. But as he turned to go, he almost tripped over Carlo, who had witnessed the two men's dash into the rectory and realized that something was up. He came trotting in behind them to indulge his perfectly legal curiosity. But in a second, he shifted from Peaceful Spectator to Tantrum Incarnate.
His spine arched up. His ears went back. His eyes shot sparks. His tail swelled to three times its normal size. He looked like the cartoon version of an enraged cat, a cat who can't believe that his mortal enemy has been brought into his home. Carried in by his best friend and ally!
"Yowrrrrrr," he spat. It was a fearful cry, which meant, "What is THAT doing here?"
"You take Scarpia to the vet, and I'll deal with Signor Carlo," said Maddalena firmly. Reaching down, she imprisoned the yowling cat in her arms and carried him into the priest's study where his litter box was kept.
"Come on," said Father Risolino to Signor Adorno, and they hastened out to the car. Fortunately -- since the only veterinary clinic was three villages away -- the mist had lifted, and driving conditions had improved. As they headed out, only a light rain was falling.
When they were almost at the clinic, the priest took a quick glance at Scarpia out of the corner of his eye. The cat was stretched out on Signor Adorno's lap, uttering low growls, but this time they were sounds of despair, not aggression.
Luckily, the doctor at the clinic was able to see them right away. As Signor Adorno placed the patient on the treatment table, Father Risolino was surprised to see a matronly black cat enter the room. She jumped onto a chair and from there leaped to the top of a filing cabinet, where she had a clear view of everything going on.
The doctor, a sandy-haired man with a cheerful voice, said, "That's Floria. She's the charge nurse whenever a cat is brought in."
"Floria?" repeated Father Risolino in a startled voice. "In Puccini's opera, Floria is the heroine who kills Scarpia."
The doctor threw back his head and laughed. "In our case, Floria is short for Florence. As in 'Nightingale.'"
"Now that you say that," joked the priest, "I can see the nurse's cap floating over her head."
After the examination, however, every trace of laughter was wiped off the doctor's face. "As you saw for yourself, his mouth is a horror," he said. "We can swab his wounds and get antibiotics into him to heal his gums, but repairing his teeth -- that will be a real challenge. It will probably involve breaking and resetting his jaw."
There was a significant pause before the doctor said, "I'd like to take him to the dental specialist at my old school. He's very expensive, but he's worth it. Will that be all right?"
Father Risolino did an interior gulp, which he hoped was not audible, and said, "Yes, of course." The doctor's diploma, framed on the clinic's wall, showed that he had graduated from one of the most prestigious veterinary schools in Italy. "Expensive" in this case meant "very, very expensive."
The priest could see a chunk of his tiny retirement fund take wing and fly away to Milan. But before he could sink too deeply into self-pity, he looked down at the poor sufferer lying on the treatment table. It would be worth any amount of money to buy him some relief!
After that decision, he felt a light kiss on his forehead. His guardian angel was putting her seal of approval on his compassionate sacrifice.
In the end, the complicated surgery and recovery took almost two months, but finally Father Risolino was back at the clinic for the last time. Carlo's nemesis was as thin as a sheet of paper, and his mouth looked a little peculiar, though that was only to be expected, given the extensive treatment he had required.
Now that pain was a thing of the past, Scarpia's whole spirit was different. He was alert, alive, interested and completely friendly. Even Floria looked pleased with him. This time, she stayed on the floor, realizing that her supervisory duties were over. She was simply there to say her addio, her farewell meow.
As the priest pulled out his checkbook, the doctor waved it away. "You've already paid us, and -- here's a Lourdes miracle for you -- the specialist isn't charging," he grinned.
His heart singing, Father Risolino shook hands with the staff. He even slipped a little treat to Floria, who, temporarily off duty, gulped it down.
As soon as Scarpia was eased into his pet taxi and loaded into the car, the priest said to the little cat, "Now that you're a new creation, we have to get you a new name, but first we have a challenge to face at home."
Feeling a little ridiculous but not wanting bloodshed on his carpets, Father Risolino crept into the rectory. He hoped to tuck Scarpia quietly into the bathroom, until he could decide how to acquaint Carlo with the new order of things. But he had no chance to do that.
Maddalena came out to greet him, waving a dish towel. "Let me look at this reformed sinner," she joked. The priest handed her the carrier and set off on a tour of the rooms. But all he found was Tino, looking as peaceful as he always did. There was no Carlo.
By the end of the evening, there was still no Carlo. And none in the morning. Then the priest understood. He was being boycotted. Carlo was loudly and intentionally absent.
As Father Risolino wondered how long this would go on, the situation was resolved by Signor Adorno, who came to ask, "Are you going to keep this brave cat, Reverendo?"
"Only long enough to find him a good home," the priest assured him. "Do you want him, Mario?"
"Si, Reverendo. My children will love and care for him. They will learn from him about courage." Then he confessed. "I have given him a new name. I have chosen Cristoforo. Like the medal." He held up the chain around his neck to show his St. Christopher medallion.
Father Risolino was delighted. The name Christopher was warm, friendly, and definitely un-Scarpia.
So brave little Christopher was bundled again into his pet taxi. As Signor Adorno carried him off to his new home -- a happy and permanent one -- the priest was all smiles.
Half a minute later, Carlo stalked in. Holding his head high and his tail higher, he surveyed the room. Everything was back to normal, the interloper was gone, the house was his own again, and he was still Top Cat.
Father Risolino opened his mouth to say something about "being a Christian cat," "having humility," "not upsetting your friends," and other single-sentence-sermons. But he closed his mouth again, when a gold halo appeared around Carlo.
"All right, I get it," said the priest to his guardian angel.
Speaking through light, she was reminding him that little imperfections, which belong to a creature's nature, if they are relatively harmless, should only be a cause for greater devotion.
When Carlo meowed for breakfast, Father Risolino said tenderly, "It's coming right up, caro Carlo!"