The Secret of the Pebbles: The Story
On December 22nd, 1945, Stefano’s body was not laid to rest as bodies of the departed should. There was no body. There were no mortal remains. There was just a memory.
The cemetery where peoples’ loved ones were normally buried was up high on the mountain. It quietly nestled there, an anointed and holy place with the blue Tyrrhenian beyond and the ageless brown hills around it. The land below rolled seamlessly into a deep chasm that fell steeply into the surrounding sea. And today, that was where people gathered.
Smooth pebbles surrounding the entire base of the island rolled and tumbled in each wave that came and went by the crowd of mourners. In their endless rolling and tumbling, legend had it that if one listened they would hear the voices of generations of its departed still sharing with each other what had been born in tenderness – long after they were gone. And so, the pebbles, if only to taunt those around them, spoke unceasingly in their own undecipherable code, and whispered despairingly between themselves still: the secrets, the passion, the promises and the pain that would eternally remain between them and them alone.
Most women’s faces were framed by black scarves from which wisps of hair sneaked out onto their cheeks or foreheads. The men, and there were fewer of them than ever, were dressed in their best and only jacket, dark pants, black tie, white shirt, a black armband worn as a mark of respect, and dusty well worn shoes. Heads were bowed low.
A solo bird hovered high in the sky above the crowd of mourners, hanging there as if suspended by some invisible string to the bright blue cloudless sky above.
“We must consider death in order to consider life,” began the priest. His voice was intercepted by the sobs of Stefano’s wife. In her grief without the remains of her husband, there was nothing to hold on to and no soft place for her to fall except back into herself … and perhaps God. It was difficult to tell if she was crying more for herself or more for the loss of the life of the man she had married only a short time before. Either way, she sobbed and cried out loud, becoming the focal point of the ceremony.
Padre Massimo Fraccaldi shifted carefully on his feet and the dry pebbles crunched and moved unsteadily beneath him. Now in his mid-thirties, with fine hands, a soft Italian face, and a strong Sicilian and noble nose, he had been the Padre on this island for the past seven years. If good looks and youth had anything to do with being well liked, Padre Fraccaldi’s handsomeness and young age should have been on his side. But he, like any other outsider, had to earn the respect and trust of these people as their shepherd in God’s name. Most wanted to trust and gladly accept the man who would see them through their everyday lives: their births and Christenings, their First Holy Communions and Confirmations, their Masses and confessions, their marriages and burials, their trials, secrets and longings, their sadness and joy, and every facet of life on this desolate island that for all its natural beauty, had not escaped the trials of life nor the ragged curses of it. Others claimed him to be “too good looking and too young” to be their priest.
The island church was his first home as a priest. He had been treated with the respect that his vocation generally received and the welcome typical of these people. But there had been talk.
The people found that he did not lack depth, but he always stood separate, disengaged. He quickly learned that apart from his job, his life by necessity had to be more bound to himself.
Padre or not, good looks and youth could cause more harm than good on an island short of men. Over time, he discovered that the best way to be a part of these people’s lives was to remain in touch but still remote from it. This, except in jest tinged by otherwise necessary and unquestioned if not naive trust, was not spoken of – not by him and not by the people – not outwardly anyway. It was just “a given”, remotely understood as many things were, without need for words.
“It is death that gives meaning to life,” he continued. The people waited expectantly for what Padre Fraccaldi’s words might have to offer them by way of making sense of this tragic sudden ending of young life; the son who had been taken from his mother and the husband who had been taken from his wife and unborn child. Padre didn’t want his words to just suffice, but he knew that he must hold the middle ground. It was the least treacherous and most sensitive road to take under the circumstances. Padre did his job with the best of what he had, and it provided for the people’s spiritual needs.
Spirituality was closely bound with daily life, not separated from it, yet running completely parallel. There were confessions of course. And then there were many more secrets. Fraccaldi heard hundreds of confessions but in these were held no great secrets; nothing like those that the legendary pebbles would, or could ever reveal.
The cry of the dead man’s widow again broke into the air, her hands holding her swollen womb that was close to birthing their child. “Oh Stefano, my Stefano,” she wailed, and some of the mourners standing closest to her again held her up. “Oh Stefano, where are you? Why have you left me? You can’t be gone!” She sobbed and reached one arm out to the open sea oblivious to the precarious footings of not only herself but of those who supported her. The pebbles rolled under their feet.
Stefano’s mother, Caterina, remained at home with a voiceless silent ache in her heart, deep and profound. Like a quiet broken bird, she nursed the type of ache that only a mother who had lost a son begotten of the only man she had ever loved could ever hope to understand, accompanied by a refusal to accept that her son was really gone.
“Your brother is not dead!” she wailed at Domenico, begging her living son to support her. “If you go to Stefano’s memorial, you’ll look like a fool! He’s not dead I tell you!”
“Mamma, I have to go.”
“No you don’t,” his mother interjected, pleading still.
Domenico was torn. There was no proof – no proof but time to suggest his younger brother was gone. His body had not been found but Stefano’s wife had insisted on the memorial. Caterina was vehemently opposed to it. Attending his memorial would be to admit to his death. She would not do it until his body had been found. Anyway, she hated her daughter-in-law with a passion.
Domenico pulled on his jacket ready to leave.
“You are killing him off? Just like that? You are going to that ridiculous sham of a memorial?” Domenico’s mother was never one to mince words. The pleading was over; her manner had changed.
“I have to go Mamma.” Domenico spoke quietly. “Come on Mamma. We both have to go.”
Caterina resisted Domenico’s efforts to persuade her that his brother was gone and that attending his memorial was the right thing to do.
“I do not have to go anywhere I don’t want to go! And I am not going to any memorials for my son until and unless his body is found. You’re making a mistake, Domenico. Stefano is not dead!”
“I’m going Mamma, I must.” He left his mother to believe what she needed to believe and to continue with her rosary while he attended the memorial.
Domenico was thinking of his mother’s last words to him as Fraccaldi continued.
Padre’s words were supposed to put the dead to rest and to bring some kind of peace to those left behind. Funerals would always remind people of their own mortality, the fine line between life and death, the hope for eternal rest, and faith in a God who would bring blessings even upon those who mourned. In this place, like every other on the face of the earth, God did things in His way and in His time. But this was different. It was only a memorial. Without a body to lay into the ground, it demanded another kind of acceptance.
Padre Fraccaldi’s words continued to float in the air around the crowd and the rising chilly December wind carried them out to the sea. On this occasion he had searched for better ways of saying what still amounted to Christian burial. The crowd did not seem to ask more for the mysteries were for the Padre to work out on their behalf. His words, he hoped, would give some hope to the people gathered there on this day, and lend some credence or witness to the life now being remembered and farewelled. The mystery that surrounded Stefano’s missing body had rocked the island to its core – a moment that their history would hopefully never repeat.
Maybe it was better that Padre’s words were simple and even somewhat formulaic.
The living just sought truth, hope and reason after all. Padre, however, struggled to find it. “As Christians we believe that death is not an eternal end; it is just the end of our life’s journey. It is a new life in God.” Was this making any sense to his people? “As Christians we believe that life is simply a pathway; a pathway to a door we must all go through. Life shifts. It moves – just as the pebbles shift and move, just as the seas shift and move, and the seasons, and the sun and the moon, and the stars.”
So what, he thought. What matters? What am I trying to give these people?
“If we can understand death, then we can understand life. We know that there is an end for us all. So, therefore, it is the journey that matters. And the journey gives us opportunities – opportunities to learn, opportunities to give, to make mistakes and to grow from, opportunities to be what we believe is in our hearts to be, opportunities to dream and to do.”
The Padre stopped trying to keep a steady flow on what his words might offer. “Today we each have an opportunity to reflect. Where are we going? What are we learning? How are we giving? And God, in his infinite wisdom, has a grand plan – one that only He understands – part of which being that life on earth is here to us on loan.”
He wasn’t sure if he was saying really what mattered, and could have gone on. But perhaps this was enough. “Therefore, it is in faith that we now entrust Stefano’s soul into God’s hands and out of our own. We will continue on our voyage of discovery. He has now completed his earthly journey with us.”
The Padre stopped to allow his words to reach his people and to allow himself time to further consider whether he had said enough. It was at that moment that Stefano’s widow called out again. “Stefano, why did you leave me? Where are you?” Perhaps, the Padre thought, his words were as useless to her as a sieve was for collecting water.
He allowed those supporting her the time they needed to steady her on her feet. “So let us not ask why this life was taken from our midst. Instead, let us be thankful that Stefano’s life was shared with ours. It is in gratitude we have the most to gain, not from asking why.”
Padre’s arms reached out to the waters and to the heavens as he spoke, then he placed his hands together ready for prayer. His fingertips came up to his lips to permit time to further consider what people needed to hear; time to allow the loudly grieving widow to be settled. He had been struggling to find the right words and was glad, in his final gesture, to call upon the book of the Church for some structured prayer.
Who would question the wisdom of Padre’s words, or the shortcomings of words to offer what was demanded on this day? Either way, they were words that were spoken on behalf of those who trusted Padre to do what was considered right and to work out the mysteries that surrounded life. The people relied on it.
Burial meant a chance for a restoration to order – the order that the living and the grieving might begin to re-establish once the departed had been laid to rest. Everybody knew that – even if today was different. And so Padre decided that words must not change, that in their predictability perhaps was their power – a power to give strength at that fragile moment to those who mourned and considered their own mortality for a few moments, and an opportunity for them to bid the man whose memory they had gathered to farewell, a chance to be done at last.
As he turned the pages of his book of prayers for the dead, he recited the names of the saints, one by one. Women recited them in unison with him, remembering them all by rote, dozens of saints who had gone to their own rest before this day, now written in the books of the church, and etched in the memories of these women, to reach the ancient hills and God beyond.
Young Nico stood at the back of the crowd wanting desperately to chase a large brown lizard that had just crossed his path and found its way to the water’s edge. He tried in vain to break away from his mother’s too tight grip.
“Mamma! I don’t want that lizard to get away!” He found himself yelling in total frustration. People took sideward glances expecting her to quieten the boy.
“Zittu. Zittu!” (Be quiet!) Francesca, his mother, whispered loudly and held him tightly enough for her son to know and understand she meant what she said. His arm hurt. She had pulled him hard to keep him on his feet. Now her grasp immobilized him.
Nico was more than frustrated and it clearly showed on his round little face with big brown eyes and crop of curly chestnut coloured hair. Thwarted, he put his free hand on his hip. Francesca stood at the back of the crowd in silence, holding her son’s hand. She was now 22, and Nico was her fatherless child.
The young widow let out another wail. “Oh Stefano, my Stefano! The baby! You left us without seeing our baby!” She called it out to the sea around them.
No one saw Francesca’s downcast eyes, nor realized she was holding deep within her breast her own personal heartache and the secret that no other would ever need to know.
Nico’s arm hurt, and he stood whispering obscenities under his breath for the lizard that had gotten away. Obscenities were another fact of life – learned responses that if translated, really were obscene. But they were not really translatable. Instead they were seen as words, utterances, degrees of frustration blurted out without any thought to what they really meant. Still, this was not the place or the time for such obscenities, and the child had been silenced for it.
The bird above still hovered.
“You are in God’s care now Stefano,” continued Padre Fraccaldi. “May God and all his angels and saints welcome you into heaven.” As he said these words he looked out towards the flattened cold sea and made a sign of the cross high into the air above it.
Again Nico spotted the lizard but was still in his mother’s firm grip. He stood in silence hating wearing those too tight shoes, high-necked shirt and long pants at this ceremony on this too cold morning to be standing still. The lizard scuttled away. It had been so close he had seen its heart beat and its little eye that glinted in the sun.