All night the hurricane had pounded our home. Waves crashed below us and splashed the windows. Twice the house shuddered and steadied on its foundations. At breakfast nobody said a word, and my stepmother Donata looked anxious. Finally father made his usual announcement. "I built our family home on a rock, and it is safe for ever."
The house to the south had been swallowed by the sea last year. The mansion on the cliff just above us had already been vacated. And now the turret on our side looked menacing as it swayed in the wind. Suddenly I saw it begin to topple in the direction of our kitchen. "Get up and run" I shouted. My father remained rooted to his chair. And as I looked back a huge piece of masonry came through the ceiling and crushed him under the floor boards.
When our mother died a year ago my father had brought Donata to meet us. We all objected, "It is indecent to get married so soon." My two younger sisters flatly refused to attend the reception. I did my part as eldest son, but I couldn't bring myself to kiss our new mother. For nine months we treated her as our domestic servant. And our father never stood up for her. He added salt to the pain. "This is not the way my wife cooked the pasta." Yesterday, aged forty, I noticed her cowering like a beaten dog.
Now with father dead, the tune changed. We were relieved when she made the funeral arrangements. Even the old priest said, "Everything was done just right." She had covered the kitchen roof with a tarpaulin. I helped her nail a piece of plywood from the toppled mansion over the hole where father went through the floor. But we all knew it was time to move, and there was hardly enough money to eat. My uncle, who could have helped, claimed he had to visit relatives in Tuscany.
The morning after the burial Donata called a family council. I was surprised to see my two sisters come and sit next to her. She told us we had to leave before the next storm, and everybody nodded. There was a long silence. Then I went over to kiss her, and said "welcome to our family, mother." When I took her in my arms she felt very beautiful. It reminded me of Maria in the barn last week. I also decided Maria would never do for a wife.
That evening she put all we had into a wonderful meal. My younger brother found three bottles of Chianti in the ruins of the house next door. With her eyes wide open Donata said "Thank you God for our family, and this bread and wine, and the good plan you have for us to build a new home." Our father had never prayed because he said the priest was paid to do that. My older sister said, "Donata is right, we need God to help us." My younger sister gulped down her wine, giggled, and said "Our mother could have been a nun."
After the meal Donata announced that in the morning we were going to ask for inspiration instead of eating the breakfast we didn't have. When she disappeared to her room my brother said "I like her courage, but I will never go to church." The two sisters wanted to know what inspiration was. I remembered a story from school about Michelangelo Buonarotti. He had a huge block of marble, and couldn't think how to chisel it for the statue he had agreed to make. When he got the inspiration he needed he began cutting into the stone, and what came out was a beautiful madonna with a child at her breast. I thought the madonna must have looked just like Donata that evening.
At table next morning with nothing on our plates we got a university lecture about inspiration. The Greeks knew you couldn't produce great music, sculpture, tragedy, or comedy, without calling on the Muses. It was easy enough for painters to do pictures, but all really great Italian art was inspired. Botticelli received an inrush of divine power to see things in a new light. Leonardo da Vinci invented things centuries ahead of his time.
My brother rolled his eyes, and I could see my sisters wondering what all this was about. Then our new mother invited us to join her in looking for that same kind of inspiration. "As a family there is no way we can find a way out of the tragic loss of your mother and father and house all in one year. We don't want to beg, or steal. But we are going to turn to the Holy Spirit of God." It seemed logical, impractical, and rather exciting. I noticed Donata's eyes, the bare arms, the shape of her body. I could see why my father had fallen for her. What would people think if I married my step mother?
"I know you have never prayed, except in church. But now each of us will ask for inspiration for the one thing we long to be. Don't worry if you haven't got faith. Just say what is in your heart." Donata began the strange proceedings by asking for wisdom to find a family home. I asked for a way to earn some money for food. My two sisters joined in, and said they each wanted a room of their own and new curtains. My brother Giacomo said it would be hard to find work without a car.
After our breakfast she took me to walk round the town. Giacomo was to see if there was anything else to salvage from the ruin next door. My sisters were to pack up our belongings in the suitcases and any sacks they could find in the shed. As we set out she alternately held my hand and pointed to this and that house. I could see my friends smirking. By four in the afternoon I was hungry and exhausted, but finally she said, "This is the house."
The place looked terrible, but it seemed well built. She found the owner, and said she would sign over our furniture against the first month of rent. He came and looked at the hole where father was killed, he eyed some rather valuable old pieces, and the lease was signed. Would he give us his horse and cart for the move? I didn't like his reply. "How could I refuse such a beautiful woman?"
That evening she found a buyer for my father's motorbike. He had oiled and polished it as usual the morning he died. Giacomo complained he could have driven it till he got his own car. We had a late supper at which Donata gave thanks for the perfect house we had found, and we moved next morning. I felt like hitting the owner of the cart when he lifted mother's skirt and pinched her thigh. "Come and relax with a bottle of wine at my home. The wife is visiting relatives in Florence." Donata said he was very kind, but she was in mourning for her dear husband who died last week.
The next morning she again asked us to put into words what we wanted the Spirit to do for us. My two sisters changed their prayer from curtains on the window to paint to cover the graffiti on the wall. Donata agreed that was a priority. Then she gave us some chores for the day, and said she was going to the public library. We asked if she was going to read the local paper for jobs? "Oh no," she replied, "I want to do some research on how the great artists got their inspiration."
After she left, Giacomo said things were getting out of hand. He twisted a finger at his head to indicate she was crazy. The two girls tittered, and then realized how awful it would be if our new mother was sent to the lunatic asylum. When they came back from school they said they had both got part time work at the market. I had been well paid for a foul job cleaning a blocked sewer.
Sure enough at breakfast we again got a lecture on being inspired by the Spirit to do the unexpected. She began asking us questions about what we really wanted to do with our lives. "Mother, you asked us that yesterday," we objected in unison. She said "I know, but now you have had time to think, and you may not really long for what you thought you wanted yesterday." That was obviously true.
I had to admit I had a strange longing to study law and become a politician to save our country from corruption. Giacomo said "why not join the Mafia?" But when Donata pressed him he admitted he wanted to serve in the police and terminate the Mafia. She forced us to be more precise, and asked what each of us would do if we had five million American dollars in our own bank account. "I would still want to go to university and study law." One sister said she wanted to get married and have children. The other wanted to run her own company.
I decided to turn the question back at Donata. "Mama, what would you do if we had five million American dollars in the bank?" For the first time since our father died she looked defensive. "You have no right to ask me that question." But I could see she had got the point.
That evening the others went to the fair, and she came and sat alone with me under the stars. I could feel her body nestled up to me. "Bianco, yesterday you asked me what I really wanted for my life." There was a long silence as she looked up into the sky. I put my arm around her, and wondered if she would slap me like Maria in the barn last week. "I want to paint. I can't stand pretty landscapes. What I want is to capture the heart of people who are facing the tough challenges of life." I wondered if she would have to go away to an art school in Florence. "No, I have seen what they teach. All they care about is trying to shock and be different. I can feel the Spirit already moving me to visualize and create the shapes and colours."
I got up and paced up and down the garden. Perhaps Giacomo was right. The Spirit was driving her out of her mind. But she seemed down to earth as usual. "I am in no hurry, but step by step I will need a good camera, an easel, and canvas and paints and brushes. You will help me build a studio on the north side of the house."
On Sunday I went to mass with her. My sisters said they wouldn't go unless we all wore black. At least Giacomo and I should have a black arm band. But Donata was dressed in the light green slacks she wore when she came to meet my father. As we walked, two of my friends whistled at her black sweater. The priest gave a sermon about loving God and loving one's neighbour, even enemies. Donata leaned over and whispered that he should have explained that God is love and genuine loving is impossible without the creative inspiration of the Spirit.
When the hymn was announced she said "Bianco, look at the words: O Comforter, draw near, within my heart appear, and kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing. And so the yearning strong with which the soul will long shall far outpass the power of human telling; for none can guess its grace, till he become the place wherein the Holy Spirit makes his dwelling." I wondered if I had been given my strange name after the one who wrote this in Siena five hundred years ago.
When people got up everybody around us heard her say, "I haven't been allowed to take the bread since I got pregnant with my first child. Let's see what happens today!" The priest must have felt she did her duty by my father, including the generous donation, and she looked radiant as he gave her the host. We walked home talking hand in hand like lovers and I imagined what my friends would say.
Two days later Donata was in a hurry to eat her breakfast. "Where are you going, Mama?" the girls asked. "I'm going to work," came the answer. They wanted to know where and what she was doing. "I am working for Giorgio, the painter. He has asked me to model for his masterpiece." Giacomo said, "I hope you are not going to pose stark naked," but she was already on her way down the street.
After collecting the money from some more sewer work, I asked where Giorgio had his studio. If she was posing naked, I would flatten the painter and smash the picture. So I looked in cautiously. On the huge canvas Donata was striped like a tigress tensing to pounce on her prey. Or was it a hunting dog pointing? In the background fierce creatures were beginning to emerge. Or were they trees that caught and devoured passers by? For the first time I saw who she is, so stunningly beautiful.
Giorgio looked round and greeted me. I remembered he had taught me in the art class I failed at school. "Bianco, there is nothing more wonderful than a woman of forty who has raised children, suffered a lot, and is still filled with the love of God. Can you see that?" As he spoke to me she never moved from her pose. And I was so stunned by the news that she had her own children that I left without saying a word.
I made inquiries in the town about her previous marriage. After supper I announced "our mother was married and had two children." She corrected me: "I wasn't married. I had a boy and a girl. My daughter died of diphtheria. My son was killed when he stole your father's motorbike. That's how I met your mother the week before she died." Then she added that our mother's last wish to our father was, "Sell that motorbike and the property, and marry this woman."
After a long silence Giacomo changed the subject and wanted to know why she was posing like a nudist on the beach. "I told you my longing was to be an artist. And when you long for something, you tell God, and take the first step in that direction. I have picked up from Giorgio more in one day than I could have learned at great expense at the art school in Rome. When Giorgio's picture is finished in a week or two I get half the sale price, and I will start painting as soon as Bianco has finished my studio."
That night I dreamed about Giorgio's tigress ready to pounce on her prey. I decided I would take the first step into law studies. The secretary made me wait interminably and fill forms. She kept chattering to the woman at the other desk. I heard her say in a stage whisper, "I saw this Bianco boy in church with that whore who had two children without being married. And the priest gave her communion." This brought the Dean out from his office. He shook my hand warmly, and said "Donata was a brave woman, and you certainly deserve the bursary that has just been given by the Fiat automobile company. Give me those papers to sign." The secretary looked sheepish, and pretended to curtsy as I went to look for my first class.
When I told the good news of the interview to our mother she said the Dean was the father of her two children, but I should never speak a word about this to anyone. His wife would be very upset. In any case he was a good man, and it was he who taught her to look to the Spirit for inspiration. When they both began praying together, he discovered he really loved his wife and children, and Donata was able to end the affair amicably.
A month later we were again enjoying the evening breeze. I asked if she ever felt bad about her previous life. "You never feel bad about yourself when the Spirit pours his love into you. Why be embarrassed if God chooses to grow roses from manure? The manure is in the past. It's the flowering I care about. Which reminds me, I don't want you to fall in love with this rose. I want you to see Georgio's masterpiece before it goes off to the art gallery in Rome. And you will meet Mariamma, who is posing for his next picture to pay her way through university. She is soaring like an eagle over the ruin of our old house." I asked if the eagle knew about the Spirit. "Of course, how else can an eagle mount up to the sky without flapping its wings? Together you will get fierce inspiration for a beautiful marriage. And I want you to name your children after the two I lost before their father and I learned just what we needed to fly."
Footnote: Bianco da Siena wrote about the inspiration of the Spirit early in the fifteenth century. The English translation of Siena's work by Richard Frederick Littledale (1833-1890) begins, "Come down, O love divine, seek thou this soul of mine, and visit it with thine own ardour glowing."