THE VOICES OF THE NUNS from the convent of San Domenico rose and fell in a soothing rhythm, like the hush and crash of the waves against the nearby rocky shore. Nine-year-old Sebastiano Anzalone thought they sounded like angels. So beautiful were the voices that he found it difficult to imagine they could belong to the black-habited sisters who taught him writing and mathematics every day. Sister Veronica, perhaps; she had kind, sad eyes, and he could imagine her raising her voice in song. But Sister Maria and Sister Lucia were sterner and had little patience for the boys and girls that the war had left orphaned. Sebastiano did not really blame them—some of the children behaved like little devils—but he could not abide the curt chidings of the nuns, even when they weren’t aimed at him.
His worn, battered mathematics book lay open on the small desk in front of him and he scribbled the answer to a question about how many lire he would have left if he bought a bar of chocolate. It was a strange question, because he hadn’t held a bar of chocolate in his hands—nor any lire—since the Allies had taken Sicily from the Axis, killing his mother and father in the process. He missed chocolate, but not as much as he missed his mother and father.
Only three more questions to go. Sebastiano felt satisfied with his work and almost disappointed that when he finished this assignment he would have nothing more to do until tomorrow. Nearly all of the boys and many of the girls despised their school work. They would rather be out in the field behind the orphanage, kicking a football around, or down at the water’s edge watching the fishing boats and warships sail past. Sebastiano didn’t like the ships. If he let his gaze linger too long, he would want to know where they were going, and begin to wonder why he could not go as well, and there was no point in daydreaming about the kinds of wild adventures his father used to always promise to take him on. There would be no adventures for him.
No, unlike the other orphans, Sebastiano was content to sit at his little desk in the room he shared with three older boys, and to add and subtract and try to remember what chocolate tasted like. On an afternoon such as this, with the voices of the nuns rising from the church like the songs of angels, and the crashing of the sea, and the lovely smells of Sister Teresa’s wildly colorful flower garden drifting through the window, he could almost forget the exploding sky and the screams and the tears from July and August, just for a moment.
And then the moment would pass and he would remember.
Sometimes remembering made him cry.
Sebastiano looked at his three remaining math problems and frowned. Flipping the page he saw that there were more, likely meant as tomorrow’s assignment, and decided he would do them today. Adding and subtracting kept his mind occupied, and that was good.
Lost in his schoolwork, he almost did not notice when the voices of the nuns subsided, but then the momentary silence was broken by the deep, reassuring sound of the church bells, and he knew the mass had ended. Rising from his chair, he set down his pencil and went to the window to watch the sisters of San Domenico file out, filled with whatever private grace infused them during the mass said for them each Saturday morning. The nuns emerged in a peaceful stream of black habits and white wimples, of dangling crosses and rosaries wound about fingers, of kindly smiles to one another and conversations barely above a whisper.
Sebastiano blinked in surprise when he noticed a break in the parade of sisters—a man was amongst them, dressed in the cassock and surplice any priest might wear at the altar. Of course it was no surprise that a priest might be amongst the nuns, for wasn’t a priest necessary for any mass? The surprise and curiosity that raised Sebastiano’s eyebrows and made him lean on the windowsill for a better look came from the fact that he and the other children at San Domenico’s newly christened home for orphans had been told that a new priest would soon arrive to take charge—not only of the church, but of the spiritual education of the orphans. Father Colisanti had died of a heart attack more than a month ago, and since then a number of the priests from local towns had shared the duties that a proper pastor would normally have fulfilled.
Sebastiano studied this priest, sure that he had never seen the man before. Young, thin, and dark-complexioned, he wore round spectacles that perched on the bridge of his hawk nose. His black hair was neatly combed but might need to be cut. It was strange. Normally, Sebastiano felt afraid of priests, for they seemed to him to carry a dreadful power, and when they looked at him he feared that God could see him through their eyes, and that the Lord would not be happy with what He saw. Sebastiano tried to be a good boy. He wanted to think that if his parents watched him from Heaven, they would be proud. Priests often made him want to find somewhere to hide.
But this new priest had a nice face. Sebastiano could see even from this distance that he smiled warmly at Sister Teresa as the two walked the path between the church and the orphanage together. The priest seemed comfortable, as if he felt at home.
“What do you think, Pagliaccio?” the boy asked.
He pulled his gaze from the open window and turned toward the small shelf above his tiny desk, where Pagliaccio lay sprawled on its side, bright red yarn hair dangling over the edge of the shelf along with its arms. Sebastiano frowned and hurried over to rearrange the puppet into a sitting position, arms crossed in its lap. One of them moved you, the boy thought. The boys who shared his room knew that Pagliaccio was his and they weren’t to touch it. Sister Veronica had warned them after the last time, but apparently one of the other boys had ignored the warning. Probably Giovanni. He always seemed determined to do precisely the opposite of what the sister told him.
Sebastiano made a tutting noise, fussing with the puppet but unable to arrange it into a position that satisfied him. He picked up Pagliaccio instead and slipped his hand inside the wool sheath of the puppet’s body, animating the arms and the head, making its face turn toward him as if responding to his presence. Sebastiano smiled.
“That’s better, isn’t it?” he said.
Pagliaccio nodded, then executed a silent bow. Sister Teresa had helped him with the sewing but he had painted the clown face onto the puppet by himself. The nose seemed too red to him and maybe too large, but mostly he loved Pagliaccio.
Now that he had the puppet in hand, his thoughts went back to the young priest, with his beak of a nose and long, skinny arms and legs that added to his birdlike appearance. Sebastiano took the puppet back to the window and bent to peek outside again. He was disappointed to see that most of the nuns had already vanished back to whatever duties awaited them, and the priest had also departed. But then he heard a low male voice and he glanced straight down, just in time to see Sister Veronica escorting the man into the orphanage.
“Do you suppose he’s just another visiting priest?” Sebastiano asked the puppet. “Or is he the new pastor who is supposed to teach us about God and the Bible?”
The boy listened a moment, regarding the puppet earnestly, and then nodded. “Yes, I hope so, too. He doesn’t seem so stern. It would be nice to have a priest who doesn’t make us afraid.”
Sebastiano thought that if they had a priest who would be kind, who would talk to them, he might not feel so alone. None of the other boys even tried to understand him and the girls only seemed to be amused by his presence when they could kick or punch him and get away with it. They were girls, which meant they giggled and hid their smiles behind their hands, and he had the feeling that they meant no harm, but still it made him sigh and wish for someone to talk to besides Pagliaccio.
“Though you are a good listener,” he told the puppet, parroting something Sister Veronica had said many times. He liked that thought, that Pagliaccio was a good listener, and it made him think that as sharp as the nuns might be, they might actually be looking after him and the others, worrying for them in the prickly way he now associated with nuns.
The other children sometimes teased him because he did not hate the nuns the way most of them seemed to. The thought made his forehead crease in a frown as it occurred to him that the others—boys like Giovanni and Marcello especially—wouldn’t like it very much if Sebastiano acted too nice to the priest.
The boy held Pagliaccio close, staring out the window at the church and the sea beyond, waves crashing upon the rocks.
“Some of them are very angry at God,” Sebastiano whispered to the puppet. “He took their families and their houses, like He did mine. But I know He still loves me, that He did not mean to hurt me.”
The boy gazed at the puppet, worried and hopeful about the new priest at the same time. “They’re angry at God, but they can’t punish Him for it. Sometimes they punish me and some of the other kids instead.”
Pagliaccio stared back at him, but made no reply.
Copyright © 2012 by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden