We All Fall Down
There he is again. Watching, always watching. Doesn’t the old bastard have anything better to do? Vittoria Fornero wonders as she rolls up the blueprint and tucks it under her arm.
The little monk has shown up at the site every day since the first crew arrived to tear down the old monastery. As always, he’s wearing a traditional black Benedictine habit with the hood down, exposing a wispy ring of white hair around his otherwise bald scalp. Every morning at about nine o’clock or so, he appears with a rusty fold-up chair held under one arm and a black satchel worn over the other. Sometimes he sips from a thermos or reads from a well-thumbed leather prayer book. But usually, like now, he just sits near the edge of the excavation pit and watches like a pigeon perched on a building’s eave.
Most of the time the monk blends into the scenery along with the site’s other fixtures such as the giant yellow diggers, piles of lumber, and mounds of rubble and rock. But this morning Vittoria has no tolerance for the uninvited spectator.
“Se n’è andata!” Vittoria calls out to him, as she bundles her flimsy windbreaker tighter to fight off another vicious chill. “Your relic, she is gone, old man, gone. And the funeral is over!”
In truth, Vittoria can still see the ancient brick and stone monastery in her mind’s eye: a simple Romanesque structure that was already crumbling on the south side of the cloister where part of the attached arcade’s roof had collapsed years before. Dilapidated as the monastery was, Vittoria had appreciated its decrepit charm. And even though she is an unrepentant atheist, she carries enough childhood memories of intimidating nuns to feel a bit uneasy over her role in having leveled the ancient house of worship.
The old monk responds to Vittoria’s calculated belligerence with a friendly wave, making her question his hearing as much as she already does his sanity. Regardless, Vittoria isn’t about to be appeased; not this morning, not after he has already compounded her workload and aggravated her piercing headache.
Vittoria wasted fifteen minutes in the cramped overheated trailer that passed for her office trying to calm one of the workers, a pimply-faced apprentice named Emilio.
“Listen to me, Emilio!” Vittoria cut him off in midsentence, unable to listen to another moment of his alarmism. “That freeloading monk is bitter about losing the roof over his head! Nothing more.”
“But, Vittoria,” Emilio muttered. “Brother Silvio . . . he says it’s not just the monastery.”
“Brother Silvio, he says that the monastery . . . it is built on hallowed ground.”
“To a monk, maybe. But to us it’s just a construction site. No different from any other.” Although, she silently conceded, the crypt below the monastery had come as a surprise. The excavators had not expected to unearth such a complex cellar, with its convoluted network of passages. And all those tiny bones. When Vittoria had first glimpsed them, she
instinctively thought of her own two children. But she was in no mood to discuss medieval architecture.
“What about Yas?” Emilio asked.
“What about him?” Vittoria demanded, sounding more defensive than she intended.
“The day before last, Yas wasn’t feeling so good,” he said. “And then yesterday he didn’t show up. I haven’t seen him since.”
“So what? He’s probably just hungover.”
“Yas doesn’t drink. And he’s not answering my texts or calls. Brother Silvio says—”
“Enough, Emilio! For the love of God!” Vittoria held up her hands. “Not another word! Or you’ll end up on the docks looking for work scrubbing the fishing boats. Just like where Yas will soon find himself!”
Vittoria digs her thumbs into her temples, trying to squeeze away the throb along with the memory of her conversation with the panicky boy. She wishes Emilio hadn’t mentioned Yas.
Her legs tremble and another chill overcomes her. The ecstatic TV weatherwoman promised record temperatures for Genoa this morning. The bright April sun has already risen high over the rolling hills above the city, where the site is nestled, but Vittoria doesn’t seem to benefit from its warmth.
Maria warned her that she was too sick to work. Of course, Maria was like that, keeping their twins home at the first sniffle. Vittoria can’t help but smile to herself. Life hasn’t always been easy for two of them, living together in a city as traditional as Genoa, but Maria is still the best thing to have ever happened to her. And, as usual, Maria was right. Vittoria can’t remember ever feeling worse. Her breathing is inexplicably heavy. Each step is an effort. Her head is on fire. But it’s her armpit that bothers her most. The bluish lump under it has swollen to the size of a robin’s egg and throbs like a toothache. Even the light contact against her overalls is agonizing.
But Vittoria hasn’t missed a day’s work in twenty years. She’s certainly
not about to take time off now, not when the crew is behind schedule and the boss is so worried over the financing. Her first order of business today is to permanently rid the site of this interloping monk before he scares other workers and puts them further behind. She should have had the security guards deal with him weeks ago, but now she will just have to do it herself. She squares her shoulders and marches toward Brother Silvio.
As she reaches close enough to inhale a whiff of his coffee, Vittoria has to pause to catch her breath. An invisible flame ignites her innards from toes to scalp. Her knees tremble so violently she half expects them to clatter.
The old monk tightens the cap on his thermos and leans forward in his chair. His eyes twinkle. “What is wrong, my dear?” he asks. “Can I be of assistance?”
“Yes! You can get the hell off my—” A sudden coughing fit silences her.
Vittoria feels phlegm climbing up her windpipe and shoots a hand to her mouth. For a moment or two, she can’t breathe at all. When the hacking finally subsides, she senses sticky warmth in her grip. Panic seizes her, even before she opens her palm and sees the wad of congealed blood.