Antonio wrung his hands, as if feeling them for the first time, then ran his finger down the soft blue veins that burrowed through the surface of the loose flesh. He inspected the liver spots that speckled his skin. He picked at them and rubbed them, but they stubbornly remained. “Cosa sono questi scarafaggi?” he mumbled to himself. “What are these cockroaches?”
“Not cockroaches,” said the young monk wheeling the old man through the dim yellow light of monastery hallway. “They’re just the rot of old age, Antonio. You’re decaying.”
“Rot?” Antonio’s worried eyes sank further into the heavy folds of his eyelids and thick, gray brush of his brows.
“Yes, rot. They’re fine,” said Roberto, sighing, “just leave them.”
“Where are you taking me, Francesco?”
Roberto stopped the chair and bent down to the old man. “I told you,” Roberto said, waving a menacing finger in the old man’s face,
“I’m not Francesco. I’m Roberto. Brother Roberto.”
Antonio rested his elbows on the arms of the wheelchair and let his unfocused eyes stare into the distance. “Roberto?” he whispered to himself. “Roberto,” he repeated, nodding his head.
Roberto wheeled the old man into a small chamber. Age and the smoke of a thousand years of burning candles had turned the walls the color of dirty mustard. A single, hot beam of noontime sunlight entered the room from a high, open window cut into the wall near the 15-foot ceiling. In the center of the room were an ancient oak table and two wooden chairs. A fresco by Fra Angelico decorated the wall opposite the window. It showed a monk preaching to a small crowd of peasants in an idyllic country setting. The beam of light shone intensely on the monk’s face.
Antonio pointed a trembling finger at the fresco. “May I see it?” he said.
“That’s not where she wants you,” said Roberto, pushing the wheelchair to the table and positioning it to face the crucifix hanging beneath the open window. Antonio made the sign of the cross. “At least you remember that,” said Roberto, as he stepped toward the door.
“Are you leaving me here?” asked Antonio. “Can I come back with you?”
“No, you can’t come back with me,” said Roberto. “You must stay here and wait. Gemma is coming.”
“Your daughter,” said Roberto.
“Gemma,” Antonio said softly, like a child sounding out a difficult word. “Gemma.”
“I’ll be back in half an hour,” said Roberto.
“I’m thirsty,” said Antonio, as if to himself.
“Sorry to hear that,” said Roberto, as he stepped into the hallway.
The minutes passed, and the muscles in Antonio’s neck relaxed. His head ratcheted slowly forward to his chest. “Cosa sono questi scarafaggi?” he said, rubbing the back of his hands. After a few minutes alone, his breathing slowed, synching with the serene, flow of the musty, incense-laden air. His eyes started to close, and he began to snore softly. The dust swirled and turned gold in the beam of sunlight coming from the high window. The light moved slowly down the fresco.
A loud bang came from down the hall, as if someone had dropped a heavy tome on the floor. Antonio gave a start. His eyes cleared for a moment. Instinct, the product of an unremembered lifetime, made him turn to look behind him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the fresco. The picture of the monk. “Who’s there?” he said. He desperately tried to look, but his withered muscles failed him, and pain shot through his neck and shoulder.
“I need my-” he began. What? What did he need? His heart raced and his breathing quickened. He grabbed both wheels of the chair and tried to roll himself from the table.
A woman walked into the room. Antonio’s hands fell from the wheels. She was familiar, he thought, beautiful. A tall, elegant figure in a black dress with a crimson scarf, carrying a large purse. She was youngish, and, as she strode across the floor, her long black hair sparkled in the beam of light. She pulled one of the chairs away from the table and sat demurely, with her purse on her lap.
“Hello, papa,” said Gemma.
“Hello,” said Antonio, weakly.
“I’m Gemma,” she said. “Do you recognize me?”
He stared at her. She knew he did not understand the words. “Do you recognize me?” she repeated.
He started to speak, then shook his head slowly.
“I’m your daughter,” she said.
He nodded, not because he recognized her but out of a vague sense of decorum.
She pulled a packet of photographs from her purse and laid them on the table. “These will help you remember.”
He stared blankly at the faded pictures. He reached out a hand as if to pick them up, but his arthritic fingers fumbled and managed only to push them across the surface. He gave up and pulled back, rubbing the spots on his hands.
“Cockroaches?” asked Gemma.
Gemma pointed to an older photo of a woman. Based on the condition of the photo, and the garish flower print on the woman’s dress, it looked to be from the late 1970s. “This woman,” she said, “is your wife, Rina.” She picked up the photo and considered it. She smiled. “She was maybe 20 then. You were older, of course. She was a child.” Antonio reached for the photo, but she placed it back on the table. “Do you remember her?” she asked. “Rina?” Antonio shook his head slowly.
Gemma went through each photo, slowly, deliberately, explaining every detail. As she spoke, the sunbeam crept down to the peasants’ faces.
“Who else is here?” she said, as she examined the other photos.
“Ah,” she said, picking one up. “How about this one?” She held up a photo of a young boy, smiling widely, with black hair and warm brown eyes. “Do you remember him?”
Antonio shrugged. “No,” he said softly.
“Francesco,” she said. “Your son. He loved AC Milan. See?” she said, tapping the boy’s red jersey. “This is your family, papa.”
“Yes,” he said, struggling to understand. “My son.” He pointed at the photo.
“Look at these photos,” she said, spreading them across the table near him. She gently pushed away his hand as he reached out to them. “Don’t touch,” she said. “Just look.” He stared at them, his brain straining hard to make sense of the hazy, disjointed memories.
“Do you remember them now?” she asked.
He nodded, uncertain. “Are they coming?” he asked.
“Who?” Gemma said. “Do you mean them? You mean your wife, Rina? Your son, Francesco? No, papa, they are not coming.”
“Oh,” said Antonio.
“Now, what about the other pictures?” said Gemma. “Do they help you remember? I bet you would like to remember. There are more here. More of Rina.” She held up several of the photographs, one at a time. “Here she is, at her wedding. That unsmiling man next to her is you. And this one is my favorite – her in the garden with me when I was eight. She has dirt on her face.” Gemma laughed. “It was amazing that she could go from working in the soil in the afternoon to accompanying you to your dinners at night. Francesco liked the fields, too, see?” she said as she held up another photo of the boy in the red jersey playing soccer with his friends. “More,” she said, as she held up each picture for Antonio to see. “Do you remember them, now?”
Antonio shook his head. “Are they coming?”
“No, papa, I told you, they are not coming.”
“Oh, that’s too bad,” said Antonio. He wiped his nose with the back of his hand. He reached again for a photo and knocked it to the floor. “I’m sorry,” he said, looking away absently.
Gemma leaned over to pick up the photo. She looked at it and put it back on the table. “Francesco,” she said. “Again, in his red shirt. I have more,” she said. “Would you like to see them?”
“No,” said Antonio.
“Well, in case you change your mind, here they are.” She placed several more photos on the table.
“Who are they?” asked Antonio. “May I see them?”
“Well, of course you can,” said Gemma. “They are right here, on the table.”
“No, no,” said Antonio. “I want to see them.” He tried to make a fist to show his anger, but his fingers would not allow it.
Gemma leaned back in her chair. “Well, you can’t, papa. They’re dead.”
“Dead?” Antonio rubbed the back of his hands.
“Yes,” said Gemma, “they died long before you made the church bring you here to this monastery. You always liked this monastery. It was the paintings, I think. So beautiful, you said. So delicate. I always thought it was strange, though, that someone like you would care for such things. But I see why. I like it, too.”
Blurred images passed through Antonio’s mind. He had a few memories now. They were slippery, but they were there. He managed to pull a photo from the pile. “Gemma,” he said.
“No, I’m Gemma. This,” she said as she held up a photo, “is Rina. And this is Francesco.”
“Yes,” he said. “I…I think I remember.”
“Good,” said Gemma. “I’ll wait, and let you think. Let you remember. I’ll keep these here for you to see. Try to remember, papa. Beautiful Rina, and your son, Francesco.”
Antonio laid his palm on the stack and pulled it toward him. He looked at each one, pausing on occasion, then moving on.
Finally, Gemma said, “Do you know who that is behind you?”
“Behind?” said Antonio, startled, struggling to turn his head.
That beautifully painted saint on the wall. Do you know who that is? It’s San Francesco. Francesco, the same name as your son. I like seeing him there, on the wall behind you. Above you. I like to think it is Francesco himself, there, looking down at you.” She paused. Her eyes fixed on his. “Judging you.”
“Francesco,” said Antonio, “my son?”
Antonio’s hands began to tremble. The trembling moved up his arm to his shoulder, then spread until his entire body quivered. “He is there,” said Gemma, “watching you.”
“Who?” Antonio gasped and began to reach. For what? He wasn’t sure.
“What are you looking for? Your knife? Your gun? They don’t allow guns in the monastery. Well,” she said with a soft laugh, “perhaps this one is different. After all, they let you stay here, so what kind of a monastery is that? How much did you pay the church, anyway? I ask you every week, and you never tell me. What did you give them? Or perhaps it was a threat, eh? That’s more your style. I bet you threatened to burn down the Vatican itself. In any case, I know at least that you don’t have a gun now. Roberto – sorry, Brother Roberto – made sure of that. Brother Roberto does things for me.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “Of course, I do things for him, too.” She smiled and winked. “He’s a bit young for me, but I’m like you, I guess. Young is good.”
Antonio’s frail hands grabbed the wheels of his chair. His arms shook as he tried to push.
“No, that won’t work, papa,” said Gemma. “The brakes are on, I’m afraid. Oh, I have one more picture to show you.” She pulled another photo from her purse and placed it on the table. “Look at it, papa.”
Antonio’s lips trembled. He turned his gaze downward. He gasped and tried with his gnarled hands to push the picture away. “What is this? Why would you show me this?”
“Show you what?” said Gemma. “Do you even know who they are?”
Antonio shook his head. “No,” he said.
“No?” said Gemma. “Well, I suppose the blood makes it difficult. Take a closer look.” She held the photo close to his face. “See this one,” she said, “the boy with the red shirt? This is Francesco, your son.”
“Francesco?” said Antonio.
“Yes. And the other? Do you know who she is?”
Antonio put a hand to his temple. “R -” Antonio began. “Ree-, ree-.”
“Yes, good. Rina. Rina and Francesco half buried in the woods. Killed and thrown there like trash. You did that, papa. Don’t you remember?”
The sunbeam inched further down the wall and now rested on Antonio’s face, blinding him. He could not see clearly. Gemma lowered the photo slightly so as not to block the light.
“No,” said Antonio.
“Well, you didn’t wield the knife. At least I don’t think you did. It was the Verga family, of course. They took them, Rina and Francesco, because you had killed one of theirs. I don’t know why they didn’t take me. I was in America, but they could have gotten me there if they had wanted.” She nodded her head and smiled. “But Giorgio Verga always thought I was pretty. Maybe that’s why. How many have you had killed over your lifetime, papa? Thirty, forty, a hundred? More?”
Antonio’s face glistened in the intense heat of the sunbeam.
“They took them, papa, and you did nothing. You could have paid them. You could have sacrificed yourself. You could have tried to take them back. You could have done anything. But you didn’t. Why? Did you just lose your nerve? Was it money? Peace with the Vergas? What? Tell me. Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe you did kill them. Were you tired of her, papa, is that why? Was she going to betray you, and Francesco just happened to be there, too?”
Antonio said nothing.
“No, of course you can’t remember. Your mind is gone. But,” she said slowly, “your soul is not. Your soul knows what you did. And if it doesn’t, then I will always be here to remind it. Look at them, papa. Their throats cut and their bodies thrown into a shallow pit in the woods. Not even the decency to fully bury them. It was the birds that found them first, you know. Maybe it was the smell. Thank goodness it wasn’t the wolves, eh?”
Antonio squeezed his eyes against the light and rubbed his hands. The memories were there, just beneath the surface. He could see them sinking slowly away into the blackness. The long, yellowed nail of his index finger tore into the back of his hand. It bled slightly.
“And then, after all that, after they had killed your wife and son, you came here. You hid, like a coward. Do you remember now?”
Gemma was quiet. She waited long enough for the beam of light to move slowly out of Antonio’s eyes.
“Can you see now? Look closely, papa. Do you know what these are?” She pointed to two dark spots on Francesco’s cheek.
Antonio shook his head.
“They are cockroaches, papa.”
Gemma said nothing for several minutes. Just watched Antonio as he stared at the photo.
Gemma stood and put the photos back in her purse. “Roberto!” she called.
Roberto obediently entered the chamber. “Does he remember?”
“For now. Then he will forget. And then, next week, I will remind him again. As always, please leave him here until the sun goes down.”
Roberto nodded, and Gemma left.
Antonio stared at the empty table and rubbed his hands.