"Grazie, Signor Busoni," called Eleonora, jumping out of his car. As she reached into the back seat to grab her suitcase and other belongings, Father Risolino came out of his rectory.
"Grazie, Enzo," the priest said to the driver.
"It was a pleasure, Father," answered the driver. "I'm sure you're glad to have Eleonora back, even if it's just for a few days. I'll tell Delfina you're here," he shouted to the girl, before his Maserati pulled away from the curb and roared off down the street.
"I see the train was on time," said Father Risolino, as he picked up her suitcase. "But what are those for?" "Those" were shopping bags from some of the most fashionable stores in Milan, where Eleonora lived with her parents.
"I brought some special things for Delfina," confided Eleonora. "She's going to star in a play."
Sixteen-year-old Delfina was the oldest of the three Busoni children. She and Eleonora were good friends, although they were opposites in almost every way, including looks. Delfina was tall and slender, while Eleonora, who still had her puppy fat, was only thirteen.
But the real difference, thought Father Risolino, was the fact that Delfina was silly and boy-crazy. Although he didn't judge her harshly for that, assuming that at her age, it was probably inevitable, he was a little worried about her influence on Eleonora. In fact, all the prayers he prayed for his grand-niece could be summed up in the phrase, "Dear God, don't let her turn out like Delfina."
As soon as they got inside the priest's study, Eleonora shoved the suitcase aside and opened the shopping bags. First, she took out a pair of gray shoes. They were simple, but they had that indescribable elegance which defines a classic.
Looking at the brand name on the bag and calculating the probable cost of the shoes, Father Risolino asked, "Does Delfina's mother know she asked you to shop for her?"
"Sure," said Eleonora. "Delfina told her about the play, and her mother said she should have a new dress for it. She even wanted me to get a pair of grown-up shoes to go with the dress. She gave me a budget and everything!"
"A budget and everything," repeated Father Risolino, tickled. He was impressed that Signora Busoni trusted Eleonora with such special purchases.
When Eleonora lifted the lid on the box, Father Risolino was prepared to be amazed. But when the dress made its debut, he was disappointed. It was a gray blue silk, cut on very simple lines, but so plain that he wondered if Delfina would like it. "Wouldn't she want something that stands out more?" he asked.
Eleonora shook her head. "Mama says that if you're crazy about a dress, you shouldn't buy it. If it looks that good, then nobody will notice you when you put it on. They'll only notice the dress. You want to buy something that makes you look terrific."
"Well, Carlo," Father Risolino said to his cat, "we just learned one of the Ten Commandments of Shopping. Don't you wish you could go out and shop?" The little black and white cat, who was stretched out on the desk, rolled over and butted his head into the priest's hand. "Carlo's saying no. In his opinion he looks terrific just as he is."
A little disingenuously, he asked, "Did you get anything for yourself?" It was his way of establishing how much she was -- or wasn't -- getting caught up in the whole Rite of Fashion.
"No," said Eleonora, somewhat surprised. "I didn't even think about it."
Father Risolino's heart purred. She was still his own Eleonora. "So you have a few days of summer vacation left," he said to her. What do you want to do first?"
"Signor Busoni invited us for dinner tonight. Can we go?"
"All right," he said. "We'll ride out on our bicycles, and he can drive us home."
"Great," said Eleonora, "because Delfina and I need time to rehearse."
"What play is she in?" asked the priest.
"Mine! I wrote it! I've been taking theater classes all summer. Signorina Fini teaches them, and she shows us how to put on a play. I'm going to stage a scene tomorrow, and Delfina is the star. It will help her get Amadeo's attention."
Father Risolino hadn't met Amadeo, but he had seen him. He was a handsome twenty-something who had just moved to the village from Milan, so he had all the appeal of the New Boy on the Block. "How are you going to get him focused on Delfina?" he asked.
Reaching over to scratch Carlo's ears, Eleonora said, "You know Delfina is great at climbing trees. That's what gave me the idea for the plot."
"Delfina started climbing when she was eight," the priest remembered. "She became so good that if tree climbing had been an Olympic sport, she would have taken gold. Her father had to buy an old extension ladder from the fire department just to get up to her level so he could talk her into coming down for dinner."
"Delfina's still a great climber," said Eleonora. "Tomorrow she's going to put Sofia up a tree -- way, way up. Anybody who sees her will get scared and think she's in trouble."
Father Risolino was shocked. "Put Sofia in a tree? What is she going to do that for?"
Sofia was a good-natured tabby, who let herself be picked up and hauled around by the Busoni family as if she were a pillow or a rag doll. She was completely peaceful -- not to say, lethargic -- and she had the greatest tolerance for human behavior the priest had ever seen in a cat.
The only protest she ever made was a little moo. She was like a mini contented cow. But there were limits even for a feline cow!
Eleonora assured Father Risolino, "Sofia won't mind. Delfina will put her up in the tree just before Amadeo passes the house on his motorcycle. He comes by at two o'clock every day on his way to work. As soon as she sees Amadeo, she'll flag him down and beg him to save Sofia."
Father Risolino still wasn't happy. "What if he doesn't come that day? Or suppose he doesn't know how to climb a tree?"
"If he doesn't come, she'll climb up again and get Sofia back down. And Amadeo doesn't have to climb on his own. He can just use the ladder. Her father still has it."
"How did you dream up this complicated drama?"
"We all had to write a one-act play, and Signorina Fini said mine was the best in the class. She said it had believable characters and a unified plot, and she gave it a gold star!"
When the priest still looked sceptical, Eleonora went on. "You see, Amadeo doesn't know that Delfina can climb, so she'll pretend to be helpless. He will rescue Sofia, and Delfina will cover him with gratitude. Signorina Fini says young men want to be heroes more than anything."
"And that's probably true," thought Father Risolino. Out loud, he said, "I'm going to take Tino for his airing. Want to come?" Tino was Father Risolino's aging St. Bernard, who could hardly walk. The priest pulled him around on a wheeled cart.
"No," decided Eleonora. "I have to figure out how to direct Delfina so she comes across the right way."
"OK," said the priest. Pulling out the cart that was Tino's taxi, he lifted the old dog onto it, and then eased it out the front door, leaving Eleonora to her dramatic devices.
When they passed by the meadow where the village boys were playing soccer, Tino barked a deep woof, which has his way of saying, "Stop."
"You've become quite a soccer fan, haven't you, Tino?" said Father Risolino. He pulled the cart next to a bench so he could watch also. The boys of six and seven were given a small play area where they could chase around from the sidelines to the centre with an enthusiasm that was matched only by their ignorance of the rules.
After a few minutes, a cheerful voice behind Father Risolino said, "Buon giorno, Tino. Buon giorno, Reverendo." The priest turned around to see a tall young man bend down over Tino's head and scratch his ears.
"Buon giorno, Franco," smiled Father Risolino. "I'm not surprised to see you here. I heard you were coaching the smallest boys in ways to improve their soccer." The young man was famous in the village for being almost a professional player.
"I do a little of that," admitted Franco, "but what I really do is show them how to keep themselves from getting hurt when they play with the bigger boys. I don't want them to be stepped on or kicked or knocked in the head. The older kids don't mean any harm, but when they get carried away by the game, they forget the little ones are there."
"You've always been kind," said the priest admiringly. "I remember when you were late for your First Communion because you insisted on feeding a stray dog."
Franco grinned. "Mama had a fit because the dog jumped all over my new suit, and I had to go to the altar for the first time in my old clothes."
"Our Lord would have done the same thing," insisted Father Risolino. "I know He was devoted to animals even though the Gospels don't mention it." He added, "A cultural defect on the part of the evangelists!"
Suddenly, there was a loud wail from the playing field, where a little boy was bent over, holding his knee. "You'd better go," the priest said to Franco.
The young man hurried onto the field, inspected the knee, which gave no cause for alarm, and pulled the boys aside to give them some instruction. There was a lot of laughter, but there must have been some listening as well, because their play became marginally better.
On the far side of the meadow, the Busoni twins -- fourteen-year-old Giorgio and Emilio -- and their friends were handling the ball with great skill and dedication. Father Risolino watched them with pleasure until Tino woofed again. This time his woof meant "I'm hungry."
As soon as the priest pulled the cart home, helped Tino into his dog bed, and began to prepare his supper, Carlo appeared in the kitchen. "You have an amazing nose," he said to the little cat. "You can smell supper when it's still in the can."
At five o'clock, before they left for the Busoni’s, Eleonora knelt down next to Tino, hugged the old dog and promised him they'd bring him back delicious leftovers. "And we'll take your love to Sofia," she said to Carlo,
As she and Father Risolino biked along through the air that was surprisingly warm for early September in the Alps, he said, "This afternoon I saw Giorgio and Emilio playing soccer."
"Don't ask them how the game came out," warned Eleonora, "because they're not allowed to mention soccer at home. They were driving their parents crazy talking about it, so their father said if they did it again, he would mash an olive into their gelato. That shut them up."
Father Risolino laughed out loud. He admired the parents, Enzo and Felicia. In fact, it was a treat to hear the Busonis talk to one another, because they always said exactly what they thought with an honesty buffered by good humor that would have done credit to a world parliament.
As soon as their bicycles squeaked onto the gravel of the driveway, Eleonora slipped the shopping bags off the handlebars, and they headed toward the door.
Delfina gave a happy shriek when she saw the packages. She and Eleonora hurried into her bedroom like two conspirators. Signor Busoni turned off the television, stood up and held out his hand in greeting, while his wife brought a salad out of the kitchen.
"Buona sera, Reverendo," she said. "Are you going to help along this crazy plan or are you here to knock some sense into these girls?"
"Mama," complained Delfina through the bedroom door, "What does sense have to do with love?"
Her brothers would have shouted her down, but they didn't hear her. Father Risolino could see them outside in the back yard, kicking around a soccer ball.
Signora Busoni rolled her eyes and gestured to her guests that they should seat themselves at the table.
The priest went into their dining room with high spirits. He loved this particular room. One wall was almost entirely windows. The family's guests always sat facing out, watching the sun shine on the snowy peaks. To the left was the meadow where he had watched the boys play soccer, and to the right was a tall grove of spruce trees and silver firs that separated the house from the road. No home had a more beautiful view.
Before pulling out her chair, Eleonora bent down and scratched Sofia's ears. The little tabby was stretched out on the arm of a sofa, all four paws hanging down. She looked as though she had been created before God even thought about putting bones in cats. "You're got the supporting actress role tomorrow!" Eleonora promised her.
"Moo," protested Sofia, who wanted to be allowed to go back to sleep.
As soon as everyone was gathered around the table, Giorgio and Emilio began to tease Delfina about Amadeo. Giorgio warbled an Italian love song, trying to imitate the throbbing of a Neapolitan tenor, although his voice sounded more like the throbbing of an engine in an antique car. It reminded Father Risolino why Giorgio had never been invited to join the choir.
To back up his brother, Emilio jumped out from his chair, put on a tortured look intended to express hopeless longing and flung out his arms in the direction of Delfina.
"Sit down and pipe down," Signor Busoni told the twins.
"But, papa, we have to talk about something," objected Giorgio.
"You won't let us talk about --," complained Emilio, who made the motions of someone zipping his lip. He meant "soccer," the banned subject at the dinner table.
Turning to the next day's Great Event, Signora Busoni asked Delfina, "Why don't you want Franco as a boyfriend? He would be a wonderful choice. He's a lovely person, warm and friendly."
"You may see him anyway," said Signor Busoni. "Amadeo got him a job at the same place, so they'll probably ride in together."
Giorgio and Emilio chimed in. "Franco's the best," they agreed.
In a dreamy voice, Delfina said, "Amadeo's tall, dark and handsome."
"Franco's good-looking too," insisted her mother. "He just takes after his grandmother, who had the same honey-blond hair."
"But Amadeo says the most beautiful things. Signora Cabrini and Signora Tebaldi and Signora Testa all talk about the compliments he gives them. They say his words are like bouquets of flowers."
"I see," concluded her father, "Amadeo's a born flatterer."
Picking up Sofia's plate and putting a little chicken on it, Signora Busoni quoted the Italian proverb: "Belle parole non pascono i gatti," which means, "Beautiful words don't feed the cats."
Eleonora, who had been lost in her own thoughts, spoke up for the first time, "In a play, Amadeo's the kind of character who appears to be the hero. He's so good looking that everyone understands why the heroine's crazy about him."
She paused, until Father Risolino asked, "What happens as the play goes on?"
"Another character shows up. He's kinder or braver or just more unselfish. The audience gets to like him better and by the last act, so does the heroine."
"There's a lesson for you," said Signor Busoni.
"Maybe neither one of them will like you," suggested Giorgio brightly. "You'll be an old maid."
"Then you can enter a convent," said Emilio, throwing a sly look at Father Risolino. "Mama, start baking sospiri di monaca." These were the little almond cookies that Italians call "sighs of a nun."
Delfina stuck out her tongue at him, while Eleonora said, "She can't enter the convent. If you want to be a nun, you have to be in love with God." She spoke as simply as if she were saying, "Delfina can't get to X from the train station in her town."
"What do you think, Reverendo?" asked Signor Busoni.
"I want God's will for all of these young people," said Father Risolino. Raising his hand, he gave the whole family his blessing. Then looking at Eleonora and Delfina, he raised his wine glass and said, "In bocca al lupo!" -- into the mouth of the wolf -- the Italian phrase that means, "Good luck!"
The next day at one-thirty, Eleonora hopped on her bike. Looking around for Father Risolino and not finding him, she jumped off and ran to the open window of his study. "Aren't you coming?" she called to him. "We need an audience."
"I'm getting ready to make my hospital visits," he objected. "You don't need me. You'll be there as well as Giorgio and Emilio."
"Please come," she begged. "Giorgio and Emilio will be off playing soccer, so you have to be there! The bigger the audience, the more successful the hero feels."
Father Risolino allowed himself a little sarcasm. "Is that the Gospel according to Signorina Fini?"
His sarcasm went over Eleonora's head. "It's just the truth," she said, and the priest admitted to himself it probably was.
By the time they arrived, Delfina was nowhere in evidence. She had already tucked Sofia safely on a high branch of a fir tree and gone inside to change. But to their surprise, Carlo emerged from a bush and settled himself on the front step, like a spectator taking his seat and waiting for the show to begin.
"Who says cats don't have ESP?" asked Father Risolino. Bending over to scratch Carlo's ears, he said, "Promise me you won't ever let Delfina put you up there!"
"Up there" was a branch thirty feet above the ground, where Sofia, the placid little tabby, was gazing around, as calmly as if she were in her own basket. Clearly, she could make herself at home at the bottom of a mine shaft or on a peak of the moon.
A few minutes later, when Delfina came hurrying out of the house, the priest stared at her in amazement. The blue-gray dress he had thought was too drab allowed her youthful beauty to shine out. She was as radiant as the sun, and he realized the truth of Eleonora's point. Nobody would notice anything about Delfina except her loveliness.
The dress also made her look like a young woman whose days of climbing trees were far behind her. It was ideal camouflage.
Signora Busoni came out right behind her daughter. "It’s kind of you, Reverendo, to lend your time to this drama," she told him. She winked at Delfina, saying, "The ladder is behind the house." Gesturing toward Sofia, she added, in an aside to Father Risolino, "The ladder that the Hero is going to use to save this damsel in distress!"
As everyone stared at the tree, suddenly, to their surprise, another cat's face -- a familiar black and white face -- appeared behind a screen of branches on the same tree but lower down.
Father Risolino whirled around toward the front step, which was now empty, and then looked back at the tree. "Carlo? Is that you?" he called in disbelief.
Slowly, steadily, bravely, like a raw beginner, Carlo was crawling around the trunk, hauling himself up from branch to branch, until he landed on an isolated limb. It didn't have a branch above it in easy reach. As he dug his claws into the bark, he looked up.
"Mew! Mew!" he cried piteously. It was a heart-breaking sound that made everybody look up to see what Carlo was seeing.
A bird was passing overhead. The bird had long, broad wings and a strong, hooked beak. It emanated an aura of power, which struck panic into the heart of Father Risolino. He could already picture Carlo dangling from its claws, carried off to be killed.
"Delfina," he cried harshly, "there's an eagle right above us. Get up that tree!"
Hearing the sound of motorcycles in the distance, Delfina had edged toward the road to see if Amadeo was coming. But at the priest's cry, she turned back. She too saw the eagle and understood the great danger Carlo was in. With the speed of lightning, she ran toward the tree.
Throwing both arms around the trunk and gripping it with her thighs, Delfina began to climb. Everybody's attention was on her and not on the two motorcycles that roared to a stop behind them.
As she came just close enough to grab Carlo, she pressed her body against the tree and her arm shot out. Yowling, the little cat resisted capture. He too pressed his body against the tree. But Delfina was not taking no for an answer. She seized him by the nape of the neck, lifted him up and dropped him on her shoulder.
Father Risolino forgot about the eagle, which had soared on to other hunting grounds, in his concern for Delfina. The descent was an operation as difficult as the ascent, if not more so. For one thing, she couldn't see where she was going, and for another thing, the shoes Eleonora bought her had never been designed for climbing trees!
To add to her difficulties, the priest knew from experience that Carlo's claws were like little scimitars. He was sure they were digging through the thin material of the girl's dress into her skin. But Delfina ignored the pain as stoically as any soldier engaged in a life-saving mission.
As soon as her feet touched the ground, Eleonora rushed up to her friend, and Father Risolino hurried to detach Carlo from her shoulder, while behind them came a burst of applause.
Looking behind her, Delfina exclaimed with delight, "Amadeo!"
For a moment, the young man couldn't respond. He was doubled up with laughter, as if he had never seen anything so funny in his life. Then he said, "There's a monkey inside this elegant young woman. A monkey!"
Franco, standing next to Amadeo, looked at Delfina with awe. "Accidenti," he breathed, using the Italian word that can mean "Damn" or "Wow," depending on the speaker's tone. Here it definitely meant "Wow!"
When he got close enough to see the state of her shoulder, his face changed. "Delfina," he said in a concerned tone, "go into the house and wash those wounds. Even if they're not deep, they could get infected.
"Don’t worry, Franco," said Signora Busoni. "I came prepared." She waved a tube of antibiotic cream at her daughter and said, "Come! Now!"
"In a minute, Mama," said Delfina. Turning to Father Risolino, she asked, "Is Carlo all right?"
"He's in a lot better shape than you are," said the priest, lost in admiration of Delfina, who was standing there in her ruined finery. Her shoes had deep scratches in the leather. Her dress was badly ripped, and there was a filthy stripe down the centre of it, made by dirt, bird droppings and tree bark. But she was concerned only about his beloved cat.
In that moment, Father Risolino underwent a complete conversion regarding Delfina. Never again could he see her as a silly girl! She was a brave young woman, whose maturity had everything to do with inner strength and nothing to do with fashion. She was really worthy of Eleonora's friendship!
Taking Delfina's hand, Franco called to Amadeo, "Don't wait for me. Tell the boss I've been delayed, and I'll be there as soon as I can."
"Va bene," shouted Amadeo, meaning "OK." He started his motorcycle and roared off.
Jumping down from the priest's arms, Carlo disappeared just as quickly. He darted through some bushes and was out of sight almost immediately. "Well, that's that," said Father Risolino. But it wasn't. Not quite.
From thirty feet up above them came a moo, a calm little moo. But it was soon followed by a more urgent one. Sofia was ready to descend to earth.
"Franco," said Signora Busoni, "would you be willing to get Sofia down? We have a ladder behind the house that will go almost all the way up there."
"Of course, Signora," responded Franco quickly. To the priest, he said, "I remember the cat that my grandmother had when I was a little boy. If you tried to keep her on the ground, you'd get bitten or spat at. She was always walking on rooftops, jumping fences, and climbing trees, but once she climbed too high and froze. Don't you think that's what happened to Sofia?"
Father Risolino almost laughed, but a pleading glance from Eleonora choked off the laugh. Out of compassion for all her hard work, he decided to step out of gospel truth and into her gold star drama.
"Yes, my son," he agreed, "I'm sure that Sofia" -- the Boneless Wonder, the Sleeping Beauty, the Breathing Cushion -- "is just like your nana's wildcat."