Last Days of Ambrogino

by Peter Dellolio

I was told that after the war a patrol of soldiers found me lying unconscious in an abandoned building in a town I could not remember.  The soldiers brought me to a hospital where I was gradually revived and given medication for some wounds I had received.  These were not gunshot wounds.  When I awoke, I could not recall who I was or where I had come from.  That is, I did not know if I belonged to this town, or if I had been a soldier myself (I was wearing civilian clothing when they found me).  The doctors said that cases of temporary amnesia were common and they had already treated many persons who had experienced it after receiving some kind of head wound.  This puzzled me because, as far as I could see and feel, my wounds were on my legs and back.  I felt no pain in my head, nor could I feel any bump or gash of any kind.  After a few days, I began to feel better.  My appetite returned and I enjoyed some meals although the food was very plain and sparse.  One evening, a nurse came to me carrying what looked like a ledger book.  She sat on a chair next to my bed and explained that this journal was found on my person when I was brought to the hospital on that first day.   She wanted me to have it.  I thanked her and explained that I still had no idea of who I was and therefore was even more puzzled to discover that I had carried this volume of writings (I assumed that the book had been used and that I was the one who had used it).  The nurse explained that my memory would gradually reconstitute itself, that this would be a lengthy process.  I thanked her and opened the book.  There was indeed a series of writings inside but the words were arranged as a narrative of some kind.  I suppose I had expected to see diary entries.  Since my own mind was still a tabula rasa to me, I could make no judgment whatsoever about my abilities or tendencies as a writer.  I wondered if this could be some kind of military journal.  Was I a free-lance writer who had been commissioned to write short stories or political commentary about the war?  I found a pen in the little table next to my bed and decided to test whether or not my handwriting matched the penmanship on the pages in front of me.  As I copied what appeared to be the title of this work, Last Days of Ambrogino, I immediately noticed that my handwriting matched what had been previously written on the front page.  I must be the author, I thought.  To be certain, taking my time, I wrote out the first sentence without looking back after I memorized it, so I would not subconsciously imitate the writing.  I wrote, It is possible to regard the following events in more than one way.  Again, when I compared the sentence to the beginning of the story, I was convinced that I had written the same words previously.  I decided to write out the entire work.  I thought that a sequential reconstruction of the text might stimulate my memory.  This whole set of circumstances was very puzzling and troubling to me.  After all, I must have been someone.  I must have done things and went places and, for all I knew, I could have grown up in this very town.  No one who had spoken to me so far recognized me or knew who I was.  I did not know this Ambrogino; why would I have written about him?  I flipped the pages until I reached the end of the story, and found that the journal still had many unused pages.  I decided to begin again, and rewrote the first sentence as before….

It is possible to regard the following events in more than one way.  To deny that possibility would be the same as erroneously accepting that something, whatever it may be, is always truly and completely itself because that is the form in which we experience it.  I do not wish to convert the nonbeliever into a disciple.  A voice can give comfort only to those who listen.  An image can be understood only by those who see it.  Telling the story of Ambrogino is something that I am compelled to do.  I do not understand the reason.  The war brought misery to countless souls.  Just as in centuries past, the war took the lives of men, women, and children, by the thousands if not the millions, just as it will in centuries to come.  The selection of Ambrogino, in the aftermath of this war, and in this time and place, is as incidental as it is predetermined.  It is the median value between these opposites that I wish to identify.  That is the substance that lies at the heart of the story of Ambrogino.

                                                blows where it likes, and you hear

                                                          but cannot tell where it comes from

                                                          is every one that is born of the Sp

Someone, probably one of the priests or vergers, had written these ancient words on a broken, rectangular blackboard that was hung lengthwise to the right of the church entrance.  Bombs had blown away part of the roof and removed the sides of the blackboard, while the block of incomplete scripture remained.  Inside, an altar boy was lighting candles.  There was chalk dust on his hands.  He may have transcribed Christ’s dictum, following the instructions of a superior, for the benefit of the faithful.  The handwriting was elegant.  There was a supply truck that had backed up to the church.  The vehicle had a circular mirror that, in inverted form, partially reproduced the holy message.  In its entirety the text read:

“The wind blows where it likes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes.   So is every one that is born of the Spirit.”  Ambrogino and his dog were passing through the courtyard.  Some laughing children were playing nearby. 

Their laughter was sarcastic and shrill.  Surrounded by the high stone walls of multiple dwellings, the sounds the children produced reverberated with a slight echo.  Behind the windows were people of various ages.  Incomplete families, missing a deceased or absent father or son; a raped mother or daughter; a disoriented uncle or grandmother, driven mad by the war.  Functional behavior, such as ironing a garment or watering a plant, occurred alongside irrational behavior.  In one of the apartments was the grandfather of two brothers killed in the war.  He sat on the edge of his bed while his wife washed him with a warm, damp cloth.  He spent most of his time counting his footprints made in the dust of the rooms as he walked back and forth at random and mumbled unintelligible curses at God.  In the floor below was a young woman who had been recently informed of her husband’s death.  She accepted this fact with a strange insouciance that she could not understand and to compensate for what she feared was callousness she refused to remove the man’s boots from their place beside the front door, as though they would be needed before he left on some neighborhood errand.  It is not uncommon for the living to cling to physical reminders of the dead. The young wife was disturbed by ordinary sounds and the memory of her husband’s voice.  The dog’s footprints were small but they were visible in the dirt.  The animal’s owner left footprints, too.  One child threw a stone.  From one of the open windows in the wall someone yelled “Stop that!” or “Show respect!

I paused here to consider why I chose both phrases to express the displeasure of the person in the window who was yelling at the children.  Could it be that, if I was in fact a witness to these events, and I had written this account sometime afterwards, my memory had failed me, and I simply could not be sure which phrase had been used?  It could very well be that several persons observed this mistreatment of the unfortunate Ambrogino and so two different things may have been said, more or less simultaneously, by two different people.  So far, in reading the story, I still had no recollection of this Ambrogino, or his dog, yet there was something familiar about him; as if he was a mist that, very slowly, was beginning to assume more corporeal dimensions.  Yet the time and place and circumstances of his existence remained a mystery to me.  I continued writing…

It was a poor district.  A large pot filled with boiling water stood on the stove in one of the shabby apartments.  There was no meat or fish or fowl.  The meal that had to be cooked would consist of a few vegetables.  Their color was unhealthy.  On the kitchen table was a knife with a broken handle.  In the corner was a pile of glass shards that had been swept into a heap that resembled a little cone of quartz, the remains of a kitchen window that had shattered during artillery fire.  The sun shone through the empty frame upon the glass and made it appear to be incandescent, as though embers burned at the bottom of the shape.  A man with an extremely swollen, bandaged foot was lying on a bed across from the window.  Flour dust covered some of the black tiles in front of the stove.    Chewing rodents had left little openings at the bottom of the large burlap sack that contained the fine white powder.  All of this could be seen through what may have been the window from which the man or the woman had just shouted.  Or the reprimand to the child who threw the stone at Ambrogino may have come from another window leading into another apartment.

More uncertainty.  More ambiguity.  Still puzzled by the possibility of more than one version of events, I strove to determine what motivated my decision to write these lines.  Could it be that my impressions of this tenement were so subjective, that in my mind there was a swirl or a matrix of information, so that emotion and imagination governed the selection of detail, rather than the limited realities of physical perspective and the logic of identity?  Did my sense of Ambrogino affect the depiction of reality, even the nature of reality; was Ambrogino a kind of zeitgeist, rather than a person, that characterized everything around him?  I began to remember little pieces of activity in my life.  Nothing conclusive, but more and more flashes of scenes, of things that must have happened before.  I knew that I had studied modern painting.  Suddenly I had an image of Mystery and Melancholy of a Street by de Chirico.  Were the repeating archways and windows, descending in perspective, and the silhouette of the little girl with her hoop, visual triggers in my mind?  Did these triggers allow the uncertainty of which apartment window, which reprimanding adult, to remain unresolved on the page I had written?  Did the very act of writing become a way for me to question what was or was not possible?

Ambrogino and his dog were often ridiculed, mostly by children and sometimes by adults.  Everyone was poor but Ambrogino was especially poor and the wretchedness of his existence triggered this mistreatment by those who, destitute themselves, felt compelled to belittle someone even less fortunate.  It was a cruel impulse, motivated by self-preservation, which somehow justified itself because humanity under great duress will always revert to the atavism of the predator and the prey.

Ambrogino’s footprints were unevenly spaced because of his lame gait.  The child’s stone nicked the bone of the dog’s hind leg.  It yelped at the same instant that the sickly carrots and potatoes were dropped into the pot with a splash that turned into a hiss as some of the water overflowed onto the hot stove.  In the next room a crying child refused to be consoled. 

Many of the bombed out buildings were barely habitable and since the end of the war there were those who had managed with improvised dwellings.  Ambrogino fell into this category.  In one of the last standing structures at the edge of the town he had secured a couple of rooms.  Here nothing was available other than shelter.  Once a week he walked into town for fresh water.  Often during these trips the children’s aim would land a stone or two into his bucket.  On those occasions the water would burst out suddenly, either staining Ambrogino’s trousers or wetting the dog’s fur.  This did not happen today.  For cooking he made small fires behind the building.  For light he searched the streets for broken, discarded candles.  For warmth he wrapped himself (and his dog when the animal allowed it) with newspaper.  And for now, at least, there was no immediate worry about warmth because it was the beginning of spring.  The people were weary, emaciated and sick, but the renewed trees bloomed with green.  Birds even landed on Ambrogino’s windowsill from time to time.  He left them breadcrumbs when he could.  The moonlight trickling into the room collected in a corner and deposited a faint glow upon one of Ambrogino’s boots.  The birds flew away suddenly when the dog barked.  Its nails grazing the wooden floor gave a metallic quality to its footfalls.  At night Ambrogino’s convulsive, incessant coughing kept the animal awake.  Rarely would it abandon its post at the foot of his bed and go to sleep elsewhere.

It was indeed pitiful that in his old age Ambrogino should find himself alone except for his dog, foraging through ruins for food.  At least some of the townspeople had more substantial resources.  Some of the families had young men returning from duty with their service pay.  Some of them owned small businesses that they were painstakingly reviving.  For those with some money stored away, there was the black market.  Ambrogino was viewed by many as something of a parasite.  Or it could have been that his disheveled appearance, his utter poverty, the filthy dog that accompanied him everywhere and his abnormal walk made him a natural object of derision, a living reminder of the ravages they had suffered and wished desperately to forget.  In any event, kindness towards Ambrogino was infrequent.  The supply of stones was inexhaustible since there was wreckage and devastation everywhere.  On windy nights particles of debris swept through the chimney in Ambrogino’s room.  These tiny fragments produced a faint, rattling sound.  Masses were beginning to be held again but since the church roof had been blown apart, the prayer books absorbed the stubborn glow of unfiltered moonlight.  Left unsupervised, some of the younger children teased each other with parts of a split wooden cross. 

Ambrogino had lived in this town his entire life.  From the time he had been a small boy, long before the war, until his old age now, just after the war.  His parents had died long ago.  They had owned a pharmacy and when Ambrogino was twelve, he began to help his father there.  He was fascinated by all the bottles filled with different colored liquids.  He loved the little bell or Chinese wind chimes that announced each customer’s entrance into the shop.

Was I assuming Ambrogino’s point of view as an old man?  It would surely follow that, given his advanced age at the beginning of this story, if the object and the kind of noise produced by the object were being remembered by Ambrogino, there could be some uncertainty about the identity of this object, and the character of the sounds it produced.  I remembered something about my childhood.  I must have had a bicycle.  I remembered the little bell that was fastened to the right handlebar.  I had an image of my thumb pressing the side of the bell; pushing a little flat lever that made the bell ring.  But I had written or Chinese wind chimes as well.  As my mind began to reach back into itself, I continued to experience many elliptical sequences of blurry information, such as this image of myself as a child riding a bicycle.  I knew, for example, that I rode the bicycle to school; I saw my father going to work at the university; he was a professor of literature; my mother loved gardening; she was also very fond of mobiles and wind chimes; we had one such chime, made of colored, tiny rectangles of glass, hanging in the kitchen, near the back door.  As I read and wrote out the sentences, a greater and deeper sense of synchronicity took hold of me; there was a relationship between things and memories and people and places, inside and outside of this text, but so far the meaning that united these elements eluded my conscious understanding.

 Late at night, when he could not sleep, which seemed to happen more and more often these days, probably because of the terrible coughing fits, he listened to the wind rustling the new leaves in the trees and thought he could hear the sound of the bell.  But he knew this was the influence of memory and imagination.  It was not perceptual.  And yet, often enough, he would look over at his dog when the thin, distant music of the chime or the bell sounded through the empty night, as if the animal’s lack of reaction proved that the sound was illusory.  Ambrogino might have been waiting for a reaction, to prove that the sound was real.  But the animal slept soundly enough, and the only thing Ambrogino noticed was the steady, rhythmic undulation of its breast, and occasionally its paw twitching in sleep.  He wondered if dogs dreamt of things, too.  Surely, thought Ambrogino, it was possible, that the dog, having seen so much violence and heard so much frightening noise, might be capable of dreaming about its death, if it were possible for the dog to regard itself in such a self-reflexive way.  Ambrogino wondered about his own death.  Each night he wondered if he would die in his sleep, if he could sleep.  He wondered what would become of his dog, should he die.  Huge bomb craters behind the building glinted under the sunlight that illuminated the metal debris scattered about.  The dog’s bark resounded when Ambrogino let it play there.  The amplification of the bark was like the children’s laughter but without their malice.  It would be a good place to die, he thought.  He did not want to die in his house.  His father had died in their house.  The men had come from the hospital and carried his father away on a stretcher.  A large white sheet covered the body.  This frightened Ambrogino more than the thought that his father was dead.  It seemed to Ambrogino that the sheet made his father a stranger, someone who did not belong in his own house anymore, someone who no longer possessed an identity, someone who had to be taken away.  Ambrogino did not want the dog to see him that way.  More than likely, it was a silly thought.     What possible difference could it make to the dog?

In spite of his infirmity, Ambrogino was lately in the habit of climbing the several flights of steps to the roof of his building so he could look at the night sky.  Naturally the stairwell was pitch-black and Ambrogino struggled with a dripping candle in one hand and a cane in the other hand.  With a light but certain step held in check by Ambrogino’s shuffling form, the dog ascended behind him.  The cane was fashioned from a wooden post and a large piece of cork at the tip served as a handle.  Occasionally a drop of liquefied wax fell upon the stone and almost instantaneously flattened and hardened.  When the timing was right the long sharp nails of the dog scraped the wax off the step before it could solidify.  Although there were few steps, Ambrogino paused two or three times before making it to the roof.  At these moments there was only the clogged sound of his difficult breathing and the aimless patter of the sniffing dog pacing back and forth on the charred landing.  As he raised the candle to get a better view of the next step, the shadows of man and dog swept along the wall, widened and distorted by the angle of his hand and the movement of the flame.               

Ambrogino greatly enjoyed the night sky.  He was comforted by the gleam of the heavenly bodies.  There were very few clouds and the clarity of all the constellations was striking.  Ambrogino sat in his favorite spot, a broken wheelbarrow that for some inexplicable reason had been left on the roof.  He had used the winter’s supply of newspaper for a cushioned seat and a scorched wooden door for a back support.  Circular areas of charred wood alternated with lighter, unburned patches, forming shapes that suggested some kind of large, budding flower.  A shaft of moonlight shone through the empty circle that used to contain the knob. The tube of white light, occasionally broken in its fixed position when the dog darted across its path, shot across the roof like a flashlight beam when Ambrogino lifted himself from the chair.   He would experience a moment of confusion when he sat down again and the halo disappeared, until he realized his own body was blocking the source of light.

Ambrogino felt a wonderful peacefulness here, under the serene moonlight, sitting beneath the stars.  After some initial explorations, the dog would settle down, nestling against the cool metal of the wheelbarrow, not far from Ambrogino’s feet.  Sometimes a scurrying water bug would be revealed if it crossed a path of moonlight, and the dog would become alert, jerking its head and staring at the insect with fixed attention.  Sometimes the animal would not stir at all, sighing lazily as Ambrogino patted its head.

As the weather became warmer, groups of children, especially the older children, began loitering among the ruins, even here, at the outskirts of the town.  Their shouts preceded them, and bottles could be heard shattering against the burnt structures, or windows could be heard cracking apart from the stones.  When he heard these disturbances he stiffened in his improvised easy chair, and the dog growled just audibly enough to give Ambrogino further cause for alarm.  On such occasions Ambrogino had to determine whether or not the wind swirling through the leafy trees or the infrequent remote bursts of artillery fire had deceived him and created the illusion of the children’s approach. 

And so on this evening when the faint impact of glass splintering against some surface registered itself in first the dog’s, and then Ambrogino’s consciousness, the old man knew that the marauding pack was on its way.  Ambrogino grasped the cork handle of his cane and struggled to lift himself from the wheel-barrow.  At the same moment, one of the children, a boy of about fourteen with dirty hands and a long snake-like scar covering his right arm, spat vigorously at a sick cat.  It had jumped out of the wreckage and darted for shelter into a scorched pocket-book sandwiched between some bricks.   Already the dog stood barking into the cool black space of the rooftop doorway, spinning around to look at Ambrogino, then turning to the stairway, possibly as a way of encouraging Ambrogino to hurry towards the exit, possibly as a way of instinctively protecting him from imminent danger.  The exact intention of the animal was not clear, but Ambrogino struggled nevertheless, limping across the roof, grasping his make-shift cane with the same fierceness as an older boy who just then stepped over and drove a long, carefully sharpened stick into the pocket book, piercing the cat’s throat and pinning it firmly to the ground.   The mangy front claws of the animal jutted through the handbag. Outstretched stiffly, they twitched slightly during death throes.   The blood streaked down from the wound, staining the matted fur.   The movement of the blood, however slow, contrasted with the stillness of the death stare.

There were cries of “Hooray for the Victor!” or “Down with the Invader!” as the boys stomped around the cat’s corpse, their strong, youthful voices echoing throughout the hollow landscape.  The wind shook the trees.  It seemed as though the boys’ voices blended with the breeze.

I may have wandered through this town for weeks or even months.  Such phrases were rather dramatic and a little simplistic; one could imagine a group of children shouting something like Down with the invader! or Hooray for the Victor! as a way of celebrating some perceived accomplishment in warfare that they did not fully understand.  One could imagine the even greater likelihood that, in their characteristic and unfortunate imitation of the words and deeds of adults, the children were simply re-enacting, with a bravura that was pitiful in its glorification of killing, the execution of a prisoner of war or a soldier felled by a sniper’s bullet.  I suppose I could have remembered such phrases because of my contact with the town, moving in and around areas where the voices of children could be heard.  I was not sure. 

The boys’ circling movements appeared upon a dusty pane of glass in a shaky window frame.  The wind snapped against the loose wood.  The amorphous image of the chanting boys collapsed like a puzzle tableau falling from a table as the window glass shattered into fragments.  Startled by the loud, splintering sound, some large, dark birds leapt in unison from the ledge of the building.  Their black wings flapped under the chalky moon.  The old man puffed with exhaustion as he descended the stairs.  His minuscule torch flickered slightly.  In contrast, the boy’s eyes, the one who had harpooned the cat, glowed with energy.  The prompt of the dog’s nervous bark preceded Ambrogino at every landing as he slowly made his way down the stairs.  Awkwardly lowering the candle to his hip, his face was eventually overtaken by shadow.  

The boy with the peculiar scar licked a sore on his upper lip.  Another child struggled with a stone too heavy to lift.  He may have wanted to use it to crush the skull of the cat.  

Because of the viciousness of their actions, the ugly thrill they experienced from destroying life, I suppose it would be reasonable to assume that any object in the boys’ hands, such as the heavy stone, could be used as a weapon, something to cause more destruction and death.  As I wrote these sentences, I remembered a scene from my childhood.  Some of the older boys had taken me to a vacant lot, where an old, stray dog was often to be found.  They beat it to death with discarded, rusty pipes.  They ran away, laughing at me, because I could only stand there, holding my length of filthy pipe, sobbing.  I could not participate in such a sickening act.  Later that night, when the other boys were long gone, I returned to the lot with a shovel I had taken from my father’s garage.  I dug a hole and buried the poor creature.  This memory could be the reason that I have become fond of Ambrogino’s dog.  I felt a great anxiety over my powerlessness to help it.

The fleeing birds glided over these boys who were so perversely energized by having hunted and killed.   The knife used to cut the unappealing vegetables now lay on the washboard in the semi-darkened kitchen.  There were droplets of water on the dull blade.   The cranky child who had cried for so long slept soundly.  He clutched the rag doll that had served as a calmative.  There was dried saliva on the doll’s awkwardly stitched, faded cloth face.  Ambrogino, drenched in sweat, shut his door behind him and rested his chin on the spongy cork of his cane, tasting his salty perspiration, listening for breaking glass and angry voices.  The dog anxiously paced in circles within the debris filled room, occasionally stopping to bark at the window which overlooked the bomb crater behind the building.

The boys were filled with blind rage and cruelty.  No one in their path tonight would be safe, unless it was a strong, armed adult who could threaten them equally, and intimidate them into obedience consistent with their long lost adolescence.  Ambrogino was especially vulnerable to such attacks.  Certainly it was disgraceful that his old age and his afflictions made him a target for such violence.   They lifted their heads and turned toward Ambrogino’s building.  They spoke again and said what they were going to do but their words were not intelligible.  They were making unalterable decisions.

I wondered, as I did over previous parts of the text, why I would create an ambiguity here, to make the content of the boys’ comments unknown, referring instead to their words as unintelligible.  Having written this much of the story over, thoroughly convinced that I was the author, it occurred to me, at first, that, like the earlier examples, this could be considered a dichotomy of style.  Apparently, I had chosen an authorial or omnipotent point of view; therefore, how could the words spoken by the boys not be known to the narrator?  Was I thinking, subconsciously, of that day when the unfortunate dog was slaughtered?  The other boys ran off, exchanging laughs and insults at my expense, but their voices became more distant as they ran, and as they vanished from earshot, I could not distinctly hear their words.

A group of soldiers were slowly patrolling the area.  Their purpose was to maintain security at night; prevent looting, disturbances, assaults.  Much of the crime committed recently had been attributed to these boys and this unit had been dispatched principally to intercept them.  There was mud on the men’s boots and their field helmets were dusty.  One of them held the remains of a long extinguished cigarette between his lips while listening to his sergeant colorfully describe a sexual adventure he had had the previous evening.  Part of a cracked brick fell among the debris as the frightened birds flew to another rooftop.  Instantly the men swung out their weapons, pointing in the direction of the sound.  The final days of the war had made the soldiers’ survival instincts so acute that even the remotest possibility of danger produced an alarmed response.  It may have been that, having lived through all that they had experienced, they were particularly leery that some unforeseen minor incident could rob them of their lives now that the war was officially over.  Once they recognized the source of the noise, they relaxed themselves with professional control: no unnecessary shots fired.  The soldier finally ignited his cigarette as the promiscuous Sergeant resumed, in mid-sentence, the account of his conquest the prior evening.  It was with a shopkeeper’s tubercular daughter who cooked him a modest meal afterwards.  He did not use her fork when she offered it.  The soldier was a medic and quite familiar with the smell of blood.  It may have been his awareness of the woman’s affliction that caused him to imagine that he smelled the remains of dried blood everywhere in the house.  She listened to the heavy footfalls of his combat boots on the cobblestones as she lit a cigarette in the dim kitchen.  She did not consider herself a prostitute though she had sex with some of the soldiers in order to get money for food.  She knew this man.  They had grown up together and he did not remember her.  She refused his money and was far too ashamed to summon some common experiences from their childhood that might trigger a recollection.

The young wife had postponed the task of going through her dead husband’s clothes and tonight she decided to be done with it.  His military uniforms had been returned to her and there were also many articles of civilian clothing hanging in the closet.  She brought everything over to the kitchen table so she could work more conveniently.  A brass button from one of his dress jackets smacked hard against the wooden table and she was startled by the sound.  The contents of his pockets were predictable: cigarettes, a few coins, some enemy trophies such as bullets or small knives, letters that he had received from her, and one letter to her that had not been sent.  This couple had no children and because so many neighbors had scattered as the war reached its conclusion, the woman had no occasion to speak to anyone in the prior few weeks.  She had been storing food and water for some time, and there had been no need to go about looking for supplies.  She opened the letter and read it aloud and was surprised at the sound of her own voice, realizing that this was the first time she had spoken in the apartment without speaking to her husband.

The grandfather went into a sudden rage and demanded to know who had stolen his footprints.  He stood on top of his dilapidated bed, balancing his shaking body by bracing one arm against the wall as he shook his other fist at invisible thieves who always seemed to come in the night and remove most of his footprints.  His wife was accustomed to these episodes.  She sat on the bed and reassured the shouting man that he had merely miscounted, and all of his footprints were still there.  After a brief period during which the old man suspected that his wife was an impostor, he began to calm himself somewhat, and eventually, reaching for him as delicately as possible, the wife persuaded him to lower himself back into his bed.  “It’s the enemy!  They did this!  Don’t you understand, they’re taking away my footprints and we’ve got to get them back!” warned the man as his wife guided him back under the bedding and tried to make him comfortable though his head rarely touched the pillows as he spoke with urgency.  In the morning, she cajoled, they would look together in the daylight and find every footprint.  The man was very concerned; he explained again and again that he was tracing a pathway to heaven for his grandsons, and he wanted to make sure they could find it, otherwise who knew what would become of their souls.  His wife stroked his hair.  She discreetly shook her head, as if silently discussing her husband’s sorrowful state with herself, the way decent passers-by feel a fleeting shame at their wholeness when confronted by the handicapped.  He suspected the enemy of stealing his footprints and using them to deceive the two young men.  This had to be prevented at all costs, he stated.  He had fought in the previous war, and he knew how insidious the enemy could be.  All of that would be fixed in the morning, cooed his exhausted wife, when the sun was up again and, if she could find wood for the stove, the smell of her coffee filled the rooms.  And as always, she reassured, they would look for the footprints together.

The altar boy sat on the front pew eating an orange.  Some fresh fruit had become available recently through the black market.  He remembered his mother’s habit of taking the orange peels and placing them over the pilot light at the center of the stove, to create the sweet, wafting aroma of orange throughout the apartment.  The peels lay beside him, carefully piled one upon another.  He lived with his aunt, and he thought, maybe now that the war was over, it may no longer be so dangerous to visit his mother’s grave.  They had buried her in another town, in the same part of the cemetery that contained the graves of her parents.  He often thought of the last words he heard his mother say, on the day she took the train to visit her ailing brother.  Later that day there had been an air-raid and the railroads were bombed.  She was always teasing her son about his parrot.  She knew how much he liked to talk to the bird, and the pleasure he took when, after much repetition, the creature finally mastered the high-pitched reproduction of a word or a little phrase.  She was most proud of her son’s interest in the church and encouraged him to consider the priesthood.  Yet she was playful about it when in connection to the parrot.  They kissed good-bye on the train platform and she told her son what to say to the bird.  She wanted to be surprised when she came back and heard the parrot repeat the phrase.

“You must teach it to say, ‘God knows the future with as much certainty as He knows the present.’”

“But Mama, that is too long!  He cannot remember it all!  What can I do?

She laughed and hugged him.  She expected no less than complete success, for she believed in him.  He remembered the scent of her perfume against his cheek and for some reason he associated that smell with the orange in his hands.  The two smells were not at all alike.  In the rectory hung the boy’s street clothes and stuffed into the back pocket of his pants was the perch bar from the parrot’s cage.

Down the road from the church was a hospital that overflowed with wounded soldiers as well as civilians of all ages.  In the basement, where the laundry was done, were hundreds of green military blankets covered with dark red stains.  There were many patches of dried blood on the wooden floors of the operating rooms, where the emergency surgery had been performed.  A source of much post-operative infection could be traced to this wooden floor.  Imbedded between the planks was a potentially lethal, soft material, which had accumulated over the months from dropped surgical instruments and soaked cotton pads.  This had become a rich breeding ground for Streptococci bacteria and many patients suffered from serious post-operative infections.  A young doctor, pondering the idea of pulling up the boards and laying down a cement floor, sat at his desk and stared at his hands.

Many older horses had succumbed to strangles disease.  There were few opportunities for proper isolation and contagion was rampant.  Horse owners reached the point where, to protect the remainder of their herds, even the bridal equipment was discarded and burned.  A large disposal procedure had been underway for some time and now, with some semblance of order having returned to the town, it continued without interruption.  Dozens of horse carcasses had been hauled by cart and truck to an enormous mass grave dug in the woods.  Each day, another equine corpse was deposited there.  To consolidate space, the bodies were laid to rest in an upside down position, so that the stiffened legs of the animals jutted upwards.  In this way the beasts could be laid out side by side.  Many villagers, after depositing their load, came away from the sight with the impression of a sunken forest, thinking of the long, once powerful brown and black legs as narrow trees reaching toward the sky.

The wind suddenly swept through the trees; it produced a sucking sound, like an unclogged drain.  The rustling and shaking of leaves shaped a rhythm not unlike the succession of knocking sounds as Ambrogino was pulled down the last flight of steps. The laughing boys gripped his legs and there was blood everywhere.  An arabesque of smaller and smaller red circles appeared from landing to landing.  The blood was smeared by Ambrogino’s collar and the dotted steps of the excitedly barking dog, its snapping bites soon to be stilled by the boy with the scar.  The stick’s sharpened point was thrust with precision and great velocity but the dog slipped unexpectedly on its master’s blood. The animal escaped the spear, which imbedded itself in the wooden balustrade. The end of the slender projectile vibrated after impact. The staccato report of military rifles transformed into dozens of scattering footsteps as the boys fled in separate directions.

Ambrogino had succumbed to unconsciousness as a result of the mortal wounds to his head.  He lay on his back and his breathing became lighter and fainter with each moment.  This supine position, given the gravity of his head wounds, must have accelerated the bleeding.  Swirls of blood leaked from both sides of his skull, circling around and curving into a kind of floral pattern.  Expanding into double shapes that mimicked the effect of time-elapse photography, when an imperceptibly blooming flower is shown in fast motion, the bunched areas of blood rapidly opened and spread forward. 

Ambrogino was buried in the bomb crater behind his house.  There was no sense of decency or ceremony in his burial: the body was wrapped and covered with lime to hasten decomposition.  Disease and infection were still a public health concern and the unburied dead were disposed of quickly.  The dog could not be found.        There were no footprints.  There were no reflections.  There were no shadows.    There was no one to mourn for Ambrogino.  No one wept for him.  There could be an epiphany, an image in which a child, an old woman, and a young man stood at his grave.

I remembered the death of my grandfather.  I must have been around seven years old.  I was so fond of him; he told me stories, took me along when he met his cronies for a drink, always knew how to make me laugh.  When he died, my father asked me, during the wake at the funeral parlor, if I wanted to remember him as he was, or did I want to go into the room, with the intense smell of so many flowers, and the muffled sobs that I kept hearing, and see him in his coffin.  We stood, my father and I, just a few feet from the entrance to the chapel that contained my grandfather’s body, in his coffin, and there was an elderly woman, probably a relative or friend, standing alongside us, preparing to pay her respects inside.  I told my father that I wanted to keep my memory of my grand-father as it was; I knew there would be something incomprehensibly illusory about seeing him that way, looking at his dead body, as if he was pretending to be someone else, or something else, and the illusion would not go away, and he could not wake up and say things or do things anymore.  In my mind, remembering his stories, picturing him laughing and walking, there were no restrictions against what my grandfather could do, and I liked seeing him that way.  Memory is a strange tool of the mind; it watches over you with its endless supply of images and sounds, yet it can torment you with reminders of loss, or, as in my case, leave you somewhere dark and imaginary, and refuse to answer when called. 

Somehow in dealing with their own hardship and misfortune during the war, they had come to know Ambrogino.  In spite of their personal tragedy and sorrow (the child, for example, had lost her mother during a bombing), they felt compassion for Ambrogino and showed him kindness.  When one of the children who belonged to the group of children who so often laughed cruelly at Ambrogino and flung stones at him, had absconded with his water bucket, the young man, having witnessed this, ran after the insensitive child, retrieving the pail and giving it back to Ambrogino.  The old woman remembered Ambrogino’s politeness and smile.  When she was a little girl, she had visited the pharmacy with her parents and Ambrogino had secretly given her a sweet when his father was not looking.  Although it had been more than sixty years earlier, she could still see the little square of fudge that the boy had surreptitiously stuffed into the blue pocket of her white dress.  The candy was wrapped in shiny gold paper and had some kind of white scroll-like design.  She thought of her own mortality and of all the dead; finally she thought of the little boy who had been kind to her long ago.  She found herself amazed that the corpse in the hole before her was in any way connected to the image of the boy inside her head.  That image flashed back and forth; it dipped behind little moments and shadows; lifted itself over time and shimmered with the immediacy of fresh paint or a new coin.  She turned away and slowly made her way back to the courtyard where Ambrogino often walked with his water pail and his dog.  She passed the church and made the sign of the cross as she looked in puzzlement at the blackboard.

blows where it likes, and you hear

                                                          but cannot tell where it comes from

                                                          is every one that is born of the Sp

I remembered.  I understood.  The inconsistencies in the text were a kind of literary manifestation of the wind, described in the parable.  You hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes.  That in the analogy of wind and Spirit, many mysteries of life are conjured, many possible connections between man and God are suggested.  That like the wind, the Spirit is sovereign; the Spirit is invisible. Like the wind, the Spirit is inscrutable; incomprehensible; indispensable; life-giving…irresistible.  I was deeply interested in the metaphysics of language. I had studied art and literature before I trained at the seminary for the priesthood.  I was an army Chaplain.  I wrote quite often.  I rarely slept and tried to keep myself occupied by writing stories.  I visited Ambrogino once, after one of the stone-throwing attacks committed by the children, to offer him some consolation and to see if he required medical attention.  The sorrows of his life had touched me.  Then, a few months later, I had learned of his death.  Although it was not my calling or responsibility, I decided to write the story of Ambrogino, at leastin as much as I could imagine what the scope of his life might have been.  I suppose it was not difficult to insert the missing pieces, given what I did know of his day to day existence.  And yet, in becoming the creator of a self-enclosed world that contained Ambrogino in the purest sense, I felt empowered by invention and language and, most of all, the possibility of free will. I wanted the text to become two seemingly contradictory things: the voice of an other-worldly creator who allowed His beings to make choices yet already knew what those choices would be, and a man-made tale that somehow achieved an incantatory power, like the apocryphal story of the rich old man who offered five guineas to a sailor to impregnate his wife.  I believed that language could elevate Ambrogino beyond what he was in life; as though he might acquire a symbolic significance, like the warnings of Ignorance and Want embodied by the pitiful children under the robe of the second apparition.  To offer him up as a kind of metaphorical sacrifice; as a condemnation of the senselessness and horror of war, as an embodiment of the suffering it caused.  I was discharged shortly after I wrote the story; I left the church soon afterwards and did volunteer work at a hospital in another town.  I was there for the past two years.  I lost my memory in that town.  There was an explosion from artillery fire.  I was standing near a window, lost my balance, and fell out.  Luckily, I was on the first floor.  I must have wandered over here at some point and lost consciousness in one of the buildings.  Troops, especially medical and religious officers, were always changing and moving around, so nobody here recognized me.  Certainly, Ambrogino’s murder was a horrific event.  Nothing could be done about that.  Yet there was elegance and beauty in this image of it.  It was a poetic image. I knew that he died violently; that the vicious tribeof ravaging boys was responsible.  I thought that comparing the flow of his blood to some kind of floral shape or pattern, given the hideousness of his death (I was told that his features were unrecognizable), would create a lyrical dimension, a moment of epiphany for Ambrogino.  Certainly there was very little, if anything, in any part of Ambrogino’s life, especially this final part of his life, which could be even remotely called poetic.  At least Ambrogino’s death, as a beautiful image, might somehow be gracefully and mercifully juxtaposed against the meanness and starkness of his life.  That was my intention.  My hope now is that the results are in harmony with my aspirations.  In granting freedom to that which is created, while the creation seems at times to have a life of its own, certain secrets are somehow concealed from the created.  At the same time, the knowingness of the Creator may be mysteriously compromised, because moments of the image, and the life they hold, may transform or move in unexpected directions.  There was a window next to my bed.  I was on the third floor of the hospital.  I picked up the pen and wrote….

From a window in his room the altar boy saw a dog in the street.  Its fur appeared to be stained with blood. 

Peter Dellolio’s poetry and fiction have appeared in various literary magazines, including Antenna, Aero-Sun Times, Bogus Review, Pen-Dec Press, Both Sides Now, Cross Cultural Communications/Bridging The Waters Volume II, and The Mascara Literary Review.  His poetry collection, “A Box Of Crazy Toys”, was published in 2018 by Xenos Books/Chelsea Editions.  Peter has a film background and is currently working on a critical study of Alfred Hitchcock, Hitchcock’s Cinematic World: Shocks of Perception and the Collapse of the Rational.  Chapter excerpts have appeared in The Midwest Quarterly, Literature/Film Quarterly, Kinema, Flickhead, and North Dakota Quarterly since 2006. He lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn.