|Brother Nicholas Running |
by Steven Scarpa
The chimes rang three times for matins and Nicholas stretched his arms and pulled his thin gray blanket over his head. The morning sunlight cut golden daggers through the murk of his room. He sat up and swung his feet onto the cold floor.
He stood up, took stock of his sleep tightened muscles, and walked across the cold stone floor toward the bathroom.
No one else was stirring at the abbey.
Nicholas looked at himself in the mirror. His face, blue with yesterday's beard, was gaunt. He had dark circles under his eyes, a small faded mark beneath his left eye, a remnant of a childhood illness and thin, straight red lips. Nicholas sighed and pulled his cheeks down to expose the reds of his eyes. "Yes, everything is still there," he thought to himself and began to run the water. He turned it on cold, as cold as he could stand it and splashed it over his face. Feeling slightly more alive, he took a wash-cloth, wet it, and squeezed it over his bald head. The cold water gave him a sudden start and he rubbed the excess off with his right hand. Nicholas took one last look, nodded, and quickly turned away. What he saw was sufficient.
One chime. 5:30. Nicholas walked back toward his bed and sat down. He took his plain and meticulously neat brown robe, and pulled it over his head. He reached under his bed and pulled out a pair of worn out gray Etonic running shoes.
Nicholas smiled slightly. He took out the laces of each shoe, put them on, and replaced the laces. He stood again. Flexing his toes in and out, a perilous motion because the fabric around the toes was thin and fraying, Nicholas broke into a full blown grin.
"I think I am going to go out now," he thought, with a permissible degree of satisfaction.
Nicholas opened the heavy wooden door to his room and a line of monks headed for morning devotions passed as he walked toward the exit of the abbey.
"Buon giorno, fratello," the monks repeated as Nicholas passed.
Nicholas stifled a smile and nodded silently at the brown cowled brothers.
The sun was coming over the Tuscan hills and Nicholas looked out from the terrace outside the monastery over the lemon groves, cypress trees and small, mismatched homes. The sun was burning off the early morning chill and Nicholas could see all the way to Florence. The Duomo sprouted out over the ancient city. Nicholas closed his eyes and folded his arms in his wide sleeves in an gesture of prayer. The town of Fiesole was rustling beneath him, café owners opening their doors and setting up chair for the tourists who would be coming. The bus was beginning its round to and from I Termini in Firenze.
Six chimes. 6:00.
With almost a yelp, Nicholas began to run.
There was no pace to his run. He ran as hard as he could, his full foot striking the ground. His strides were loud and long. He ran as if no one had ever showed him how. His brown robes streaming in the breeze generated by his speed, constantly threatened to upend him, but never quite did.
He patted the monument to those few carabinieri who had defended the small town from the Germans in World War II and kept on running. He dodged a tiny green Fiat rounding the corner on two wheels and laughed at the righteous indignation of the driver.
"Ciao Fratello Nicolo! Come stai?" yelled the owner of a local inn who was trimming his lemon tree.
Nicholas turned his full gaze on the man, whose name he believed to be Antonio.
"Bene, Antonio. Molto bene!" called Nicholas just as he stumbled over a curbstone.
Used the sight of the awkward monk running like a madman, Antonio shook his head and went back to his labor, sure that the Lord had Nicholas in his safe keeping -- even if Nicholas didn't himself.
Righting himself, Nicholas stopped. Bent over, heaving, and out of breath. He looked rather like an awkward bird, all brown wings and long legs. The holes in his Etonics had worn through. Nicholas stuck his big toe right through, figuring he would just sew it later. Beginning his cumbersome gait again, Nicholas took off toward the town center.
There was another small monument and a rotary in the center of town. He was in good spirits and thought he would give the paying customers a show. He clomped through the center, whirling, spinning, jumping and singing what he had just learned in choir the other day. The shop owner, used to Nicholas' spectacle, waved and chuckled. The tourists, however, were amazed.
Nicholas was like nothing they had ever seen before. They took photos.
Nicholas danced a fairly bad waltz with a laughing German woman. He only stopped moving once to bestow a blessing on a little brown hair boy.
"Priests aren't supposed to be running around," the little boy said.
"Who says? Besides I am a brother, not a priest," Nicholas said, winking.
The little boy brightened. "Are you my brother?"
Nicholas looked up at the little boy's parents, who were waiting expectantly. "Why, yes. Yes, I am! I would love to be your big brother!"
He picked the little boy up and in spite of his sweat stained robes, he gave the boy a big hug. "I would love to be your brother," he repeated quietly.
"We are on vacation and we can't stay but we will send you Christmas cards," the boy said.
"I would like that."
Nicholas took a pen from the pleasantly surprised father and wrote down the address of the monastery and took off running again, waving the whole way. The family waved back.
The road away from the town center was steep and windy and Nicholas was having trouble. The wool of his robe had saturated all of the weight of his sweat. He was tired.
Eight chimes. Nicholas thought he had been gone a long time. His run slowed to a walk. He did not generally like to walk. He stopped outside a small cottage on the outskirts of town. Lying in the only patch of sun in the shaded driveway was a black Labrador retriever. Although Nicholas had run by here many times before, he had never seen the dog.
Nicholas stretched his legs, looked around, and walked toward the dog. The dog, rolled on to her back, begging to be pet. Nicholas obliged.
"Hey! What the hell are you doing?" a gravelly voice rang out.
Nicholas was taken aback at the tone. "Buon giorno, amico" said Nicholas, but abruptly switched to English when he realized how he was addressed. "Good morning my friend. Wonderful dog you have here. What is his name?"
An old man, with mended pants and a faded fedora, shuffled forward.
"None of your business. Everyday you run by here and drive her crazy. The dog would sit quietly but when she sees you flapping by she barks and runs back and forth and I can't get her to be quiet."
"Oh, I am sorry ."
"You are goddamn right you should be sorry! You ruin my quiet mornings everyday."
"I will try to find another route "
"Then you come into my yard. Uninvited and causing trouble."
Nicholas, speechless, turned away.
"Who the hell do you think you are anyway?"
Nicholas stopped. "What?"
"A brother. A supposedly pious person. A man of God shaming himself everyday with this running back and forth in the square. Shouldn't you be praying or something instead of making an ass of yourself?"
"Prayer takes many forms" Nicholas feebly retorted.
"You are a fool. Everyone in town thinks so. Get the hell out of here."
Nicholas walked out of the driveway. The old man watched Nicholas go, removed his hat and, using a crunchy handkerchief, wiped the sweat from his forehead. He then grabbed the dog's chain and dragged it inside.
No one had spoken that way to Nicholas before. He kept his head down and began to run again. But the gait was different. It was slower, more hesitant. In fact, it was technically a better stride than he usually showed. But there was no heart behind it.
"What if that man is right? What if I am a fool for running in the square?" Nicholas thought. "I just thought I thought that people liked it. That they saw some . I don't know. Some glimpse into ."
His thought did not finish. Nicholas tripped again this time taking a nasty fall. His robe was torn down the front and both of his knees were skinned and bleeding. The sneakers had ripped even more grievously and this time Nicholas was not sure he could mend them.
He sat on the ground, making no real effort to get up.
Nine chimes. 9:00.
Nicholas sat quietly. "The old man is right. Who do I think I am? I am drawing attention to myself. My running is not joyful. It is clownlike and silly. It is a vanity, getting all of those people to look at me. I am surprised the other brothers have not said anything about it."
He was pleased that he could think rationally about the matter. In truth, Nicholas thought, the old man might have been cruel but he did me a service.
But Nicholas wasn't sure if he really believed that.
"Come on! You should have spent more time at the gym," a girl's voice exhorted.
"I should have spent any time at the gym," said a young man, clearly laboring.
No no no I cannot let them see me like this, Nicholas thought.
A girl, about 20 years old, stopped a short distance away and stared at Nicholas.
Nicholas averted his eyes.
"Oh, Father, are you alright? You look like you have taken a fall."
"No I am fine, really. Just a little spill when I was jogging," Nicholas said.
The girl was petite, a little over five feet tall, her blonde hair pulled back into a bun, exposing a slender white neck. The young man with her struggled up the hill.
"Let me give you some water, Father," the girl said.
"Brother. I mean, my name is Nicholas," he said, accepting her water bottle.
"I'm Lauren. And this is Ed."
"Lauren. Ed. It is a pleasure to meet both of you."
"Pleasure to meet you too Nicholas, but you look like you need a hand," said Ed.
Nicholas thought for a moment. "No, I just need to pick up and keep going."
"Oh," said Lauren, looking at Ed. "Well, we were walking back into Fiesole. You are welcome to join us."
He looked at her. She smiled back and slid her small hand into Ed's when he was not paying attention. Ed was pleasantly surprised and squeezed her hand.
"Yes I would like to," Nicholas said.
They walked along in quietly for a time. The young man was pointing out various landmarks to Lauren. Ed had clearly been here before and was sharing it with this girl.
"What brought the two of you up here?" Nicholas said.
"Well, we are staying with my sister in Florence and I so loved this place the last time I was here I wanted Lauren to see it with me," Ed said.
"I have been to all the churches and seen all the art, but being up here was the place where well, I don't know," Lauren said.
"Don't know what?" Nicholas said, knees aching.
"Maybe felt God the most," she said.
Nicholas looked at her and then at the Tuscan hills and he realized then that he felt it too. Not everyone feels like that old man, Nicholas thought. Even if some do, he would go on, he would continue to run, all the way to Firenze if necessary.
"Thank you for the water." Nicholas grinned lopsidedly.
"You're welcome, Nicholas," Ed said.
"Maybe we will see you in town," Lauren added.
Nicholas brushed the dirt off of his robe. "Yes, I think you might."
"Goodbye Nicholas. It was very nice to meet you," Lauren said.
"The same to you. The same to you."
Nicholas burst into a frantic run, bounding up the hill, feet stomping, robes flailing and this time multiple toes sticking out of his Etonic running shoes. "Good bye! Good bye my friends!" he waved with both arms.
Ed waved back with both arms and jumped up and down, a motion that Nicholas imitated.
Lauren waved and smiled brightly at Nicholas. Nicholas grew smaller and smaller as he ran up the road.
"You know, I got kicked out of one of the churches here by on old priest. He was very nice. I think I told him I could not read the closed sign in Italian …"
Ed's story was broken up by the roar of a red bus coming down from the town.
After the bus passed, Lauren heard one chime sound from the monastery on top of the hill. Ed was in the midst of another story.
She looked back toward where Nicholas had run off. He had disappeared.
Lauren smiled, nodded slightly and turned her head back towards the city in the distance.