The Pieta (Story by Risa Peris)

Our second day in Rome we went on a tour of Vatican City. We bought a tour package because we were ensured a fast pass into St. Peter’s Basilica and I was glad I made the decision to fork over extra cash because the line for the Basilica stretched so far that it ended on a Roman street outside the Vatican City boundaries. It was November and the tour guide, a pleasant and small bird-like woman with a beakish nose and dark hair wrapped in a chignon, said it was offseason. I had to laugh. The crowds were immense and it became very difficult to stay with the tour group. The guide had a yellow flag that she kept raised up so we could find her stay with the group. We would cluster around paintings and the guide, in staccato English, would talk about the art and the secret basement in the Vatican where artists worked and made a glue from a secret recipe that was developed in the 1500s and was no amazing that it was still used by the Vatican for maintenance, minor repairs to the mosaics, and other projects. Then the guide would sigh with a beatific smile and say “Allora”. Allora? She must have said it fifty times during the first hour of the tour.

I asked James what it meant. He had been an Italian major in college. “So, then, well…it’s an Italian filler word when you don’t know what to say.”

“I guess she doesn’t know what to say then.”

James. “Don’t be harsh. English isn’t her first language.”

When we reached the Sistine Chapel we were told to quiet. We could only whisper. The Chapel was much smaller than I had imagined. Much smaller. I strained my neck gazing at the ceiling. Then a priest came in and led a prayer. As crowded as the Chapel was with tourists, it became incredibly silent with the appearance of the priest.

After the Chapel, was more art and then the Basilica. The Basilica was monstrous, glorious, and ornate. The Pieta was behind plexiglass as a few years ago some mentally disturbed woman hacked at the centuries-old statute. As far as I could tell, the Pieta was pieced together beautifully by the Vatican artists. The guide spoke with dreamy eyes about the Church and the relationship of a mother to a child.

We left, entered the main courtyard, saw the funny clothed Swiss Guards, and then weaved our way into an open space. I went into a store and bought rosary beads blessed by the Pope. James stayed outside pacing in the courtyard. I had his wallet in my purse that draped crossways over my shoulder and securely zippered.

When I left the store, I found James talking to an older woman. She was a gypsy and was asking for money.

“I don’t have any,” said James.

The gypsy woman pointed to great windows on the second floor of a building.

“Sometimes Papa Francis appears in the window and waves.”

We both looked at the windows and as if an apparition solidified, the Pope appeared and crowds thronged. That was when I saw the gypsy woman slip her hand into James’ pocket.

“There’s nothing in there,” I told her.

She frowned and then made the sign of the cross and threaded her way to more tourists.

“Allora,” I said. “You almost lost your wallet.”

“Yeah, but we saw the Pope.”

“I didn’t really. I was watching the gypsy woman.”

“Gypsies, Travellers…you do have to be on guard around them. Did I tell you the time my coat got stolen by a Traveller in Birmingham, England.”

“Yes and I’m quite done with Catholicism today. Somewhere in Rome, there’s a gin and tonic with my name on it.”

“And a pizza with my name on it.” James laughed.

“By the way…the Pieta. I may need to take a pregnancy test.”

James’ face frowned. “Christ.”

“I hope I’m not giving birth to Jesus.”


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