From along icy shadowed halls of the Sant’ Antimo Monastery, resident monks and students were converging towards the chapel, for it was Lauds, which marked the beginning of each day. The reluctant boys moved grudgingly in the pre-dawn darkness, in little submissive groups, like mute sheep headed toward the shearing pen. The mutinous among the young students wished that Christ had not risen this early from the tomb, the reason given for this daily pre-dawn practice that incorporated prayer and hymns into an interminably long day.
Inadequately clad beneath rough woolen robes, the boys were shivering, their ice-cold hands clinging to Latin texts they dared not lose. Originally orphaned or abandoned, and now malnourished and impoverished, the young students felt the weight of injustice, and the yet unbroken boys rebelled in small insignificant ways. A peep beneath woolen hoods would reveal knots of uncombed hair, dirt behind the ears, and grimy underwear best not described.
A few older students, having taken vows of obedience walked briskly and had neat tonsured haircuts. These students would become priests and abbots. A few would become cruel teachers, whom the headstrong boys with the unruly hair despised. Some of the brown robes were too long and frayed at the hem; some were too short, exposing bony ankles and sandaled feet to the drafts that whistled through the hallways. Some boys were so skeletal their braided belts wound twice around their waists and it looked as if the weight of the robes would drag them to the ground.
As the boys passed through the thick exterior doors into the enclosed garden cloister, they were met with a biting wind and wooly heads were retracted further into their cowls. They resembled turtles as they moved slowly along the cobbled pathways toward the chapel. In the middle of the cloister was an enormous statue dedicated to the source of their suffering. Carved in cold marbled stone, St. Benedict stood in the middle of the dead winter garden indifferent to the weather and the reluctant boys who faced never-ending hours of mandatory church services and Latin drill. Each day had only two breaks, one genuine break after the noon meal, a second sham one during the evening meal when they were forced to listen without speaking while a monk read from a holy text. To communicate they resorted to sign language. A circle made with the thumbs and forefingers of both hands meant “Please pass the bread.” There were other signs invented by the wayward boys that would deserve serious punishment if they were ever deciphered. The untonsured boys were watched closely by the monks and older novices, who had leave to cuff miscreants who made faces or began kicking under the table. Habitual offenders were hauled by the nape of the neck to Brother Scoldini, whose well worn leather strop raised welts across backs, buttocks, and legs.
The cloister was filled this morning with monks crossing the paths that surrounded the central statue of St. Benedict. Several elderly monks moved as slowly as the reluctant boys, their bowed bodies the result of obeying edicts of their patron saint, who espoused hard labor and strict obedience to Benedictine rules. It seemed this morning St. Benedict had settled his approving eyes on Brother Alito, whose old and twisted body resembled the twisted grapevines he tended in the Sant’ Antimo vineyard. Brother Alito had lost count some time ago of the interminable years he had spent among the grapes. It seemed St. Benedict even approved of the hacking consumptive cough Brother Alito had developed, which he tried to suppress as he passed under the visage of the giant statue, a touching testament to his fealty.
Young Albert Alberti was among the last to cross the cloister. He had been a ward of Sant’ Antimo from the age of three when his family had a run of hard luck: two sisters carried away by pellagra, vineyards untended when the serfs were freed, and his father, Count Alberti, accused of being a disciple of Mazzinni, the leader of a secret assembly attempting to unify Italy into one state. Albert was always the most reluctant boy, the least submissive boy, and almost always the last boy to cross the cloister on his way to the chapel. He cringed under the scrutiny of St. Benedict, whose countenance toward Albert was always one of scowling disapproval.
It appeared St. Benedict would never forgive that Sabbath afternoon when he and a few other boisterous boys had played out the David and Goliath story using St. Benedict as Goliath. Albert was chosen to champion the rowdy boys, and using small round stones and his woven belt for a sling succeeded in chipping a sizable piece of stone out of St. Benedict’s left temple and nicked his ear so badly it now resembled a cauliflower. Unfortunately for Albert, the rousing cheers from the boys reached the refectory where Brother Scoldini was drinking Sant’ Antimo’s celebrated wine with Brother Benini.
After thoroughly thrashing Albert, a still furious Brother Scoldini whipped and kicked him in the direction of the Abbot’s quarters. The Abbott was in his cups and especially annoyed with Albert, but also with Brother Scoldini, for not resolving the matter on his own.
“What is it now?” the drunken Abbott asked without interest.
“Young Albert has damaged the statue of St. Benedict.”
That seemed to stir the Abbott from his semi-conscious stupor.
“What? – the statue is made of marble.”
“He has managed it somehow.”
As he walked through the cloister Albert was remembering the rest of the conversation and his creative and impassioned lie to the Abbot about merely chasing the ravens away that were roosting and shitting on St. Benedict’s head and shoulders.
In a moment of lost concentration in this recollection, Albert dropped his Latin primer near the foot of the giant figure. The book fell open, and sheaves of loose hand writing assignments flew away like birds whose cage had been opened. Startled, he chased the swirling papers up the walk to where the freezing wind had plastered them to the brick wall of the refectory and the wrought iron bars of the garden gate. He paused to look wistfully through the locked iron gate into the morning darkness to where, in full daylight, he could see across the wild Val d’Orcia valley to the beginnings of the Alberti Estate, and often in summer one or more of his three older brothers: riding horses, tending the vineyards, or hunting with one of the two falcons their father had trained. This time of morning he could see only frosty fog rising off the Orcia River that flowed through the valley and passed the picturesque towns of Montalcino and Siena on its way to join the Tiber.
By the time he collected his Latin schoolwork, he was receiving disapproving looks from not only the stone faced St. Benedict, but Brother Scoldini, who was angrily holding the heavy chapel door open. As he passed beneath the tunnel formed by Brother Scoldini’s outstretched arm he was slapped soundly on the back of the head by the monk’s free hand. The smack caused the unruly boys in the chapel pews to turn their heads and smirk at Albert, including his slightly older and trouble-making cousin Felandro. Felandro’s father was a younger brother to Albert’s father Dominic. Dominic, as the eldest, had inherited the estate, the largest in the Val d’Orcia Valley. Albert and Felandro shared the same olive skin, the same unruly black hair, the same intractable manner, and the same inherent hate for each other, as deep and entrenched as that between their fathers.
As Albert took his seat he looked past the altar piece to where a small fresco of St. Francis of Assisi was painted on the wall. Albert much preferred the sayings of St. Francis to St. Benedict’s. Benedict said, “Idleness is the enemy of the soul,” and “The first degree of humility is obedience without delay.” There were substantial rumors that his early followers tried to poison him.
On the other hand, St. Francis said, “Where there is charity and wisdom there is neither fear nor ignorance.” It seemed here at Sant’ Antimo St. Benedict made generous allowance for both fear and ignorance. Albert would rather be anywhere in the world than sitting on a hard pew beside Brother Scoldini, preferably in another season outside the monastery, in fields of lavender or in the bird filled woods in the company of St. Francis. Albert suspected Brother Benini, who now stood at the altar leading the litany, had only a rudimentary knowledge of Latin. Regardless of this shortcoming, the assembled monks and boys dutifully repeated the psalms read by the corpulent winebibber with the rosaceous veins in his blue nose. Albert translated the Latin to Italian in his head but repeated the Latin flawlessly.
“Conculcaverunt me inimici mei tota die
quoniam multi bellantes adversum me.”
My enemies have trodden on me all the day long;
For they are many that make war against me.
During this litany Albert refused to exchange heated glances with Felandro or Brother Scoldini, regarding them as only puppets in the machinations conducted by the Abbot and the Church, preferring to stare at the stained glass windows and imagine a better life somewhere beyond their pictured saints.
“Tota die verba mea execrabantur adversum
Me omnia consilia eorum in malum”
All the day long they detested my words: all their
Thoughts were against me unto evil.
“Inhabitabunt et abscondent ipsi calcaneum
Meum obvservabunt sicut sustinuerunt animam
They will dwell and hide themselves: they will watch my heel. As they have waited for my soul.
Despite Brother Benito’s drunken countenance, he had chosen a prophetic psalm to welcome this day with. As the boys filed out of the pew in front of him Felandro received a whack from Brother Scoldini for stretching his neck repeatedly during the service in order to stare vindictively at Albert. Caught up in his daydreaming of being delivered to a better place and a better time Albert had missed this infraction. Whatever the cause, it pleased him to see Felandro punished.
During Latin drills Albert also missed the above normal sniggering and whispering when Brother Scoldini would lapse into one of his pensive walks to the window to check the worsening weather. This kind of unremitting winter weather affected teachers and students alike. Albert was one of the better students and Latin came easily, so he would conduct his own wool gathering sessions to coincide with those of Brother Scoldini’s. These moments were his alone, and he would speculate on why he had been cruelly orphaned here at Sant’ Antimo within sight of his home. It was only at Sunday Mass that Albert sometimes saw his family, usually his mother and two middle brothers, sitting near the front of the cathedral. He was not allowed to visit, but would linger behind the other boys after the last hymn in hopes his mother would have a change of heart. Only at the Feast of Saint Nicholas was Albert allowed an agonizingly short visit to his family across the valley. These visits were often as silent as the evening meals at the monastery. Accusing and guilty looks were exchanged, and it was never clear to Albert why he was the sacrificial lamb.
At the end of the Latin drills, the boys were led to the chapter house where a senior monk began to read the rules of Sant’ Antimo. After chapter rules were read they would be expected to discuss spiritual matters as well as monastery business. There was always enough time allotted for everyone to examine their own conduct and one another’s.
The reading was interrupted when Father Anselmo came into the chapter house looking solemn and apologetic. He asked if any of the monks or boys had found or seen a gold pocket watch on their way to the chapel that morning. There was a great deal of whispering among the boys since none were allowed to have personal items. The monks were also speaking in undertones, having pledged their lives to St. Benedict and the virtues of poverty. It seemed the only lawful owner of a gold pocket watch was the Abbot, who was sometimes given property in exchange for housing and educating boys from wealthy families.
In the midst of questions and growing suspicions about one another, the Abbot’s attending monk entered the chapter house and asked if he might speak to Brother Scoldini and Felandro privately. The Abbot was seldom seen, preferring to sequester himself as he grew fat. It was well known he had great difficulty lifting himself from a chair. Persistent rumor spread that to curry favor with the Pope the Abbot would pick young boys to be castrated and sent to Rome to sing soprano in the Sistine Chapel Choir. As the chapter rules were being read, Albert wondered, somewhat hopefully, whether Felandro, who had a good singing voice, had been selected by the Abbot.
Near the end of the Chapter House Rules, Brother Scoldini and Felandro returned looking self-satisfied, and it was now Albert who was beckoned by the Abbot’s attending monk. He was led out the same side door his merciless Latin teacher and spiteful cousin had just entered. He gathered the hood of his robe in his free hand as they headed directly into the sharp wind and driving sleet toward the Abbot’s splendid quarters. There was little relief from the cold that gusted up beneath his robe. As they were climbing the steps to the Abbot’s private lodgings, the cathedral tower rang out the hour of noon, and Albert’s stomach twisted at the thought of the other boys seated at long wooden tables in the refectory, passing warm loaves of bread and grabbing thick wedges of cheese from the platter. The noon meal was the only time they were allowed to talk openly and even given a little leeway to gossip about their classmates and minders. He suspected correctly that the conversation was leaning in his and his cousin’s direction, with various theories on why they had been plucked from the chapter house by the Abbot’s attending monk.
The Abbot was waiting for him, seated in a tapestry covered chair behind a desk covered with an array of spectacular food dishes. There was a small silver platter with two roasted pigeons, and a leg of mutton on a larger platter with a nicely browned skin dripping with gravy. There was a layered pudding dessert, sprinkled with chopped pistachios, laid on a small china saucer. Albert could smell and almost taste the chocolate pudding, nuts, and honey oozing from the dish. There were no dishes like this served at his parents’ estate, not even at the Feast of St. Nicholas. Albert’s nervous dry mouth gave way to the appetizing odors. He wiped the involuntary drool from the side of his mouth with the sleeve of his frock.
While reaching for a flute of brandy, the Abbot looked directly at Albert and said,
“You were seen picking up a gold watch in St. Benedict’s Garden this morning.”
Albert stared at the rings on the Abbot’s fat fingers and the jewel encrusted cross that hung about his neck from a gold chain.
“Me, Your Eminence?” Albert had never learned or cared how to address the Abbot. Reverend Father, Father Abbot, Most Reverend, the possibilities were endless.
Your Eminence seemed to suit him.
“Yes, you, Albert. You, whose father is seldom seen at Mass, and you who seem to cause so much trouble for Brother Scoldini.”
Albert wondered why he should be held accountable for his father’s absence from mass, but addressed the more serious accusation.
“I swear your Most Eminence, it was not I. I swear by the Virgin Mary.”
“Don’t damn yourself by false swearing, Albert. You were seen picking up the watch near the statue of St. Benedict by not one witness, but two.”
Bewildered, Albert reached in his mind for an answer to this dilemma, but finding none he asked, “Who sir? Who saw me?”
“I am not here to be questioned by you, Albert. You’re impertinence has no bounds.”
Albert remembered it was Brother Scoldini who saw him chase the loosed assignments to the garden gate.
“Your Most Eminent Sir, I only picked up my Latin writing exercises that were blown to the garden gate. Brother Scoldini saw me. Albert tried to maintain equanimity in the face of this false accusation.
The Abbot dabbed his mouth with a monogrammed linen scarf and turned sideways in his chair. Albert followed his gaze to the window and saw the Abbot had a clear view of St. Benedict’s Garden, including the garden gate. From this second story window he could also see over the gate across the valley, to the beginnings of the Alberti vineyards. The Abbott appeared to be looking wistfully in that direction.
Albert was thinking fast, as he had when he was accused rightly about the stoning of St. Benedict. His false story about shooing the ravens away from the statue had been plausible enough to lessen his punishment. A little misdirection here might help.
“Perhaps it was my cousin, Your Eminence Sir that was seen picking up the watch. We are often mistaken for brothers.”
The Abbot’s bloodshot eyes settled on Albert with a look of disdain, as if he were merely a pawn of no consequence.
“Do not bear false witness, Albert; your cousin has been exonerated.”
“You may search me, Sir Abbot. I have no pockets, only this Latin primer and these sheaves of paper.” Albert held out the Latin book to the Abbot in both supplication and argument.
Having taken enough time in this little chess game of his, the Abbott turned once
again to the window overlooking the cloister. He raised his unfluted hand in dismissal.
“Take the boy. Remove him from my sight.”
“It’s God’s truth, ‘Your Highness,’ I am innocent. It’s God’s truth.”
He was led back to the refectory where the emptied trays of bread and cheese had been stacked and returned to the scullery. The boys were talking excitedly but grew quiet when Albert entered the room. Brother Scoldini and Ferlando were sitting cheek to jowl on the far bench as if they were old friends. Taratino, the truly orphaned and unruly boy from Siena, whose hair had been replaced with wire bristles, was the first to question Albert.
“Did you steal the Abbot’s gold pocket watch?”
From that point Albert was overwhelmed with questions and sly looks from the boys.
“Did the Abbot drop his watch in the Garden?”
“Where have you hidden the watch?”
“What else have you stolen from the Abbot?”
The questions brought up more questions, and all these unanswered questions and unjust accusations confused Albert greatly. Albert was relieved when they were led to Latin drills by Brother Scoldini, who not once called on him or looked him in the eye during the afternoon classes.
The following week Albert was surrounded each noon by questioning boys. Not one believed his lame and unexciting story about the dropped primer and the sheaves of paper flying away like loosed birds.
He doggedly stuck to his story and grew angry at not being believed for telling the truth. He was furious at Brother Scoldini and Ferlando for implicating him as a thief. His quarters had been thoroughly searched at his request, and still the unruly boys winked and gave him sly looks. The chapter house rules sessions became unbearable. It seemed every session was designed to excoriate his sins. He was scolded by the monks and held in awe by the unruly boys, who berated him nonetheless, delighted to have a scapegoat who drew attention away from themselves. Now when he crossed through the Garden, which at one time offered sanctuary to Albert on a Sunday afternoon, he would pass behind the statue of St. Benedict, not only to avoid his scowl, but to register his protest against all things espoused by the saint. He hoped each time he snubbed St. Benedict the Abbot witnessed it from his window.
Condemned as a liar he began to spin small tales at the noon table. The unruly boys were skeptical but captivated. The tales became larger.
“The Abbot really does have boys castrated to gain favor with the Pope. What do you think happened to Pascal last year, the one with the high voice?”
“He was sent to his Uncle in Montalcino,” a boy answered.
“That’s what they told you – I have proof he is now in Rome.”
Albert found he was quite good at making up tales off the cuff.
“How do you know this, Albert?”
“There is a secret stairway to the Abbot’s quarters.”
There were so many variations of the stories that it was inevitable Albert would eventually stumble on some semblance of the truth.
“The watch belongs to me. It was given to the Abbot by my father for safe-keeping, to be given to me when I leave Sant’Antimo. The Abbot is the thief and the liar.”
By the time Albert fell on this truth, none of the unruly boys believed him. His father had in fact given a gold watch to the Order of St. Benedict seven years ago in exchange for the education of his youngest son. For all those seven years the Abbot had stared out his window across St. Benedict’s Garden to the vineyards beyond the Orcia River and envied the estate of Count Alberti, and the treasures he imagined were housed there in the small castle. Disbelieving tales of hardship, he constructed elaborate plots in his covetous mind to extort the imagined riches from Albert’s family. In the past, the family had accumulated land and wealth banking for the Vatican, and that money, the Abbot conjectured, should revert to the church. Who was he, if not the church?
That day when he saw young Albert linger in the Garden he was finally spurred to move his first two pawns into action. It was not difficult to convince Brother Scoldini and Ferlando to corroborate what the Abbot told them he had seen with his own eyes through the window.
He would soon make his next move and inform Albert’s parents of their son’s perfidy and extort additional indulgences from the family to save young Albert’s soul from perdition.
As the Abbot’s scheme proceeded, Albert’s tales became more complicated and less subtle in their accusations of the Abbot. Brother Scoldini carried these accusations to His Eminence, who was alarmed when he realized one of the stories was near to the truth. He instructed Brother Scoldini to give Albert scullery duty during the noon hour in order to isolate him from the other boys and monks.
Towards the end of the winter Albert’s determination to absolve himself began to weaken and was replaced slowly and resolutely with the resolve to find the imagined stairway to the Abbot’s quarters and actually steal the gold pocket watch if it existed.
Why not, he told himself. He was already damned to the eternal fires of hell for lying. There was never going to be redemption here at Sant’ Antimo. The path forward seemed clear.
He had already been imagined and condemned as a thief, so now he would commit his second cardinal sin.