SURE, I CAN TELL YOU what you want to know and more besides. No one will believe it, even though they all know I can’t lie.
It’s been so long, nearly everyone who was involved in that business is gone, God rest their souls, and someone should know what happened.
If it’s true what those scientists say—that if you wait long enough, dry land becomes sea and sea becomes dry land—then someday, the bottom of the sea might rise up into mountains, and on one of those mountains, a tree might grow that’s a little different from the others. Whoever finds that tree might discover what’s hiding inside, and then where will we be?
You and I won’t even be dust’s own memory of dust by then.
• • •
The day she made me a real boy, I was maybe ten, eleven years old. It’s not the kind of thing I can be exact about. When would you count from? The day Papa carved me? The day the tree fell? The day the acorn pushed its first white rootlet out of its shell?
It was the summer of 1910. The first automobile anyone had seen with their own eyes had driven through this dusty little Tuscan town a month before, and people were still talking about it. The weather was so blazing hot, even the crickets couldn’t be bothered to chirp, but I took off running, just for the joy of feeling bone beneath muscle beneath skin for the first time. By the time I got home, she was gone, and it would be many years before I saw her again.
I had promised her I’d always be truthful and obey my Papa. Being truthful was easy. I can’t lie. The last time I lied was when Father Matteo asked me if I knew who painted “Kiss Me” on his forehead when he fell asleep in the vestry. My nose hadn’t grown more than a pimple since I was changed, but if I even thought about lying, it itched like hell, and if a lie managed to get past my lips, I couldn’t stop sneezing until I confessed the truth.
I had no such disability when it came to obedience, but I did my best. I hardly ever skipped school, and I worked in the shop nearly every day before and after. I swept up enough wood shavings to build an army of marionettes and carried enough buckets of water to drown every one of them.
But there were lapses. Mostly thanks to Ludovico, that ham-faced bully. He hated me for the crime of being different. The other boys might have just let it go in time, but with him egging them on, I got into fights almost daily.
It didn’t help that he was right. I had been given a human body, but inside I still felt the same as before. Papa tried to tell me it didn’t matter, but he and every other person in the world had been made the usual way. No magic could erase the fact that I was more closely related to the chair you’re sitting on than to my own Papa.
I never would have survived without my friends, Alidoro and Eugenio. Eugenio’s family made the wine that inspired most of the trouble Alidoro and I got into, including the Father Matteo incident. But mostly, we just hung out under this big oak tree, talking about the great adventures we were going to have when we grew up. The tree is still there. You can see it if you walk past Paola’s café and look up to the top of the hill. It has a nice view of tile roofs and vineyards and offers the hope of a breeze on a hot day.
• • •
I was sixteen when Italy entered the Great War. No one could think or talk about anything else, and we devoured any scrap of news from the front. The grown-ups were mostly against it. They thought Italy should have stayed neutral. We envied the older boys heading off to fight and be heroes. But their mothers changed into black dresses before they even left. I wanted to enlist, but Papa wasn’t having it.
“I need you here. I can’t run the shop by myself.”
“You ran it by yourself before me!”
“And I was so poor, the only way to have a fire in winter was to paint one on the wall. Is that what you want for your old Papa?”
So, there I sat, day after day, rooted to my stool, watching other young men pass our little workshop window on their way to adventure and glory. I might as well have stayed a tree.
I was still sitting there when they started coming back—what was left of them. Even the ones who weren’t missing visible parts looked hollow, blasted away inside. Papa stopped making toys and learned to make wooden legs and arms. It should have put me off wanting to go, but it didn’t. Even maimed, they were the one thing I was afraid I would never be: real men. I’d rather be dead and buried on a battlefield as a man than be buried alive here as a boy.
My wish to go fight wasn’t granted until the summer of 1917 when the war was almost over.
• • •
We were sitting under our oak tree passing around a bottle Eugenio had pinched from his father’s cellar when we saw Alidoro’s little brother running our way flat out.
“Hey, Alidoro,” said Eugenio. “What trouble have you been up to now?”
“And why didn’t you invite me?” I asked.
When Alidoro’s brother reached us, red-faced and sweaty, he threw down a crumpled newspaper. “You’re getting constructed!”
We crowded around to read the paper. Alidoro smacked the side of his brother’s head.
“Conscripted, you idiot.”
The government had conscripted all eighteen-year-old males to join the army. Every single one. It was the law.
I ran all the way home.
“Absolutely not,” said Papa. “Counting from when you became a live boy, you’re barely seven years old!”
It was so ridiculous I burst out laughing.
He crossed his arms and scowled at me. But I could see he just needed a little nudge. I grabbed an apple from the bowl on the table, held it up so it stared at him with two wormhole eyes, and gave it a high, squeaky voice.
“Counting from when I was picked, I’m barely seven days old, but I’m fully ripe!” I took a bite. “Ow!”
Papa rolled his eyes and sighed.
• • •
On the morning I was to report, I was up before dawn, pacing the floor while Papa tried to squeeze one more wedge of cheese into my rucksack.
“Keep it, Papa.”
“You might get hungry on the way.”
“It’s only a few hours!”
“Who knows what they’ll feed you in the army?”
Outside, our neighbors wrestled with a rucksack even more overstuffed than mine.
“Hey, Rodolfo!” I called. “Good morning, Mrs. Passerini.”
She waved me off and blew her nose into a handkerchief. “What good morning? The two of you are still babies!”
Eugenio and Alidoro were already at the crowded square, along with their parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Ludovico was going, too. He jeered when he saw me.
“The army must be desperate. For firewood.”
He and his buddies just about fell down laughing. I bristled. I knew I shouldn’t let him get to me, but this could be my last chance to punch his lights out. Eugenio and Alidoro steered me away.
We could have walked to our muster point in Florence. But Eugenio’s father had some barrels of wine to deliver there and insisted on giving us a ride.
“I might never see you boys again,” he said, his voice bleak.
We climbed up and sat atop the oak barrels. He clucked at the horse, and we jolted forward, waving our hats and blowing kisses to the girls while the grown-ups wept. Then I turned away. My eyes were on the future. I didn’t even look back to see the only home I’d ever known vanish around a bend.
Along the way, strangers shook our hands or shook their heads, sometimes both. We saluted as if we were already seasoned veterans instead of the greenest of sprouts.
The cart creaked and rattled up and down every hill, but it got us there before we detonated with impatience. Country boys like us jammed the transfer point, some loudly ready to slay Austrian bastards and others white-faced with fear and homesickness. Despite the din and confusion, the officers got us all sorted out and onto the train. We chugged north and east all night. I don’t think I slept a minute of it. When the sun rose over the Adriatic, its shimmering sapphire blue felt like a good omen.
The training camp was the first place I dipped my toes in the waters of army life. A beefy drill sergeant assigned us to units and sent us on to collect a uniform, a rifle, and a horsehair blanket. Then we had to find our way back through rows of identical sagging barracks tents to the one that housed our unit. When I found it, I dumped my things on an unclaimed cot and grinned. It felt like a first deep breath after taking off a jacket three sizes too small.
I wish I could tell you how I saved my unit from an ambush or how I single-handedly defeated an enemy regiment, but you don’t want the storm of sneezes that would lead to. The truth is, the epic saga of my career as a hero of the Italian Army wasn’t even a short story.
After six weeks of marching around muddy fields and exasperating our commanding officers with our breathtaking incompetence, we were somehow deemed fit to haul our eighteen-year-old hides to the front.
The Italian Alps look like a picture postcard when you see them in the distance, but up close, they were a stew of rain, snow, ice, and mud, well-peppered with Austrian bullets. Six days after we arrived, I was digging a latrine when the world exploded in a red mist.
Things were foggy for a while after that. At one point, I thought I was a wooden boy again and back inside the giant fish with Papa. Another time, people were speaking to me, but I couldn’t understand them, and for some reason, I thought I must be in America. Eventually, they switched to Italian and told me I was in the hospital. A splinter from a shell had relieved me of my left leg just below the knee. I would have preferred America.
Alidoro was my most frequent visitor, and he kept coming even though I was pitiful company. Not that he was in a position to cheer me up much. He had two kinds of news: bad and worse.
“Lombardi’s gone. Shell took his head clean off.”
I winced. Lombardi was a cheesemaker’s son from Siena who suffered the worst homesickness of any of us. He was his parents’ only child.
“And Romano.” Romano wasn’t exactly my best friend. At boot camp, he got me into trouble more times than any three others combined, but everyone in your unit is your brother. My eyes filled with tears, and it was a few minutes before I could speak again.
“Any word about Eugenio?” I asked.
“Still walking around. Ludo too, I’m afraid.”
“Aw, he’s too mean to die.”
I said a silent prayer for Eugenio. And for Alidoro, too. When I tried to thank Alidoro for visiting me, he laughed.
“Better than digging latrines,” he said and gave me a friendly slap that left me coughing for an hour.
He never once mentioned that he was the one who carried me down the mountain on his back while bullets whizzed past. I heard it from a nurse.
It wasn’t the last time he saved my skin, but that’s getting ahead of myself.
• • •
The war spun me right back to where I started as fast as a yo-yo on a string. By spring, I was home, and the town I’d grown up in felt as foreign as the front.
Papa insisted nothing had changed. “Don’t the houses still look the same?”
They did, but new ghosts haunted nearly every room.
“Don’t spring flowers still bloom?”
They did, but most of them ended up in the cemetery.
“Don’t people still buy vegetables at Sabbatini’s?”
They did, but where was the sound of their cheerful haggling?
When the notice arrived that my neighbor, Rodolfo, had been killed, Mrs. Passerini fainted dead away in her doorway and had to be carried to the doctor.
I stopped reading the papers. If I heard anyone speak of the war, I hobbled out of earshot on my crutches. The news was an abyss of pain, and I had enough of my own. Every week’s mail dressed more mothers and sisters in black. In my school class alone, nearly half the boys died on those wretched heights. And for what? To paint an imaginary line on a slightly different strip of land than it had crossed a few months before.
It wasn’t just that I was a cripple. Plenty of men got around on wooden legs, and Papa offered to make me one. He even took measurements. But I’d gone to war hoping it would make me a man—a real human. Instead, it was turning me back into wood, complete with a stump. Why not lop off my other leg and my arms and my head and replace them with wood too? Then I could be something useful like a bookshelf or a bench.
I planted myself at the kitchen table and drank. If you could find a new leg in a bottle of wine, I’d have been a centipede by summer’s end. Papa stopped trying to talk to me. He shut the door of his workshop and stayed there day and night.
The war ended and Eugenio and Alidoro came home. Eugenio was a decorated hero. When I asked him how, he just shrugged. “I didn’t die.” He married Angelina within a week, and they settled in at his family’s vineyard. I’m embarrassed to tell you how rudely drunk I got at their wedding. But he forgave me as always and would come sit with me at the café when he could get away, though I didn’t deserve it.
Alidoro wasn’t home more than a month before he landed a job with the state railroad. Paola announced that she would host a send-off party for him at the café. I didn’t want to go. He was heading to a real job. He’d travel and see new places, while I would be stuck here forever like a nail in a plank. But it felt petty, even for me, to sulk at home and not see him off after everything he’d done for me. I’d go. But I’d hate it.
A week before the party, Papa emerged from his workshop carrying a sacking-wrapped bundle in his arms and laid it carefully on the kitchen table. He had a glow of happiness about him I hadn’t seen since before the start of the war. What on God’s earth was there to glow about?
“Open it,” he said.
I flipped open the sacking without enthusiasm. Then I sat up straighter. I had seen plenty of wooden legs—clumsy, dead contraptions that looked like torture devices. But I’d never seen one like this before. It gleamed in a pool of dusty sunlight, sleek and softly shining. Taunting me. Daring me.
I brushed a finger lightly along the shin. Smooth as warm water. The foot looked almost real. I ran a fingernail down the sole, half expecting it to flinch with ticklishness. I flicked a toe. To my surprise, it moved. I pushed it again and the whole foot flexed with a faint hum of hidden gears. I looked closer. The joins were barely visible, no wider than a hair.
Where had Papa learned to make something like this? It seemed to hold energy coiled inside. It was magical. My heart raced.
I slid my hands under it and hefted it. Heavy, but probably no heavier than a real leg. I unpinned my trouser leg and rolled it up. My stump was fully healed now and showed no signs of growing back. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly, heart pounding. There was a thick sock for my stump. I pulled it on and slid the cup over it. It felt awkward and foreign. Papa showed me how the straps worked and helped me snug them up.
He prodded it critically. “The cup will need some adjustments. Try standing.”
I gripped the edge of the table and pushed myself up on my good leg. I slowly let the new leg take some weight.
When I pressed the foot into the floor, it pressed back. I gave it more weight and released my grip on the table. With my full weight on it, darts of pain shot through my stump, but I was standing. Without crutches. I bounced lightly, and the new foot bounced along with the old one. I grinned at the clack of my new toes against the floorboards. Time for a step.
I lifted the leg and brought it forward. I meant to tread lightly, but I wobbled and brought the foot down harder than I meant to. It sprang up and kicked out wildly. I tumbled back, taking down the chair and half a bottle of Chianti with me. Papa helped me to my feet.
“Take it slow, son.”
Ha! This leg had no idea how to take it slow.
I ricocheted around the room, leaping and crashing, until Papa begged me to stop before I wrecked the house. I didn’t want to stop. I was starting to get a bit of control over it, though you might not have thought so if you were watching. The leg felt like a caged wolf, wild to escape. When I finally ran out of steam and collapsed on the floor, I gaped up at Papa in wonder.
He smiled slyly. “Can you guess?”
I shook my head.
“Do you remember when I first made you?”
How could I forget? If you read the book, you might recall the log Papa carved me from was already alive when he got it. He only had to give me a shape. The minute I had legs, I bounced off the walls of this very room, mad with the joy of moving.
“I saved some of that wood. Just in case.”
I felt a shiver of the same joy. I might never be a real human. I might be half man, half tree forever. But this leg could go places. I wouldn’t be stuck in a dead-end village.
I bounded toward the door, ready to show the world. But my new foot tangled with the old one. The straps gave, and I went one way while the leg went the other.
Papa helped me to a chair. “Don’t rush it, son.”
Don’t rush? I wanted to strap it back on and run as far as I could. But I had to admit my stump was sore and chafed. The leg might be magic, but it needed some very unmagical fitting.
I decided to wait and surprise everyone at Alidoro’s party. I didn’t leave the house the whole week while Papa made adjustments. I practiced and worked at gaining my strength back and dreamed about where to go. I wanted a fresh start—somewhere no one knew me. Florence? Rome?
When the day of the party came, I was still as likely to bounce off a wall as take a normal step, but I didn’t care. I opened the door and bounded out. Next door, Mrs. Passerini, in her black dress, stood in her doorway with a watering can. She dropped it when I whizzed past. I might have heard Papa’s voice shouting, “Wait!” but there was no chance in hell of that.
Everyone was already at Paola’s when I burst in. They all stared, astonished.
“No more crutches for me!” I announced.
I ran a few laps around the tables, only knocking over two chairs. When I stopped, everyone crowded in to have a closer look.
I told Paola to pour drinks all around and raised my glass. “A toast! Happy travels to Alidoro! And to me!”
Everyone cheered. There were more drinks and claps on the back and requests to see it again—until a familiar and unwelcome voice intruded.
“What’s the occasion?” Ludo swaggered in, puffed out in his new militia uniform, and took in the scene. “Looks like an illegal Socialist meeting to me.”
Oh, did I mention Ludovico also came back? Well, he did. And if he was mean before, war had hardened his meanness into a sharp and heavy axe head. He joined the Fascisti and set about a relentless program to “bring the country to order.” As if a sleepy village where it was news if a horse threw a shoe could drag Italy down into chaos. After he found a Socialist pamphlet in Constanzo the cobbler’s pocket and forced an entire bottle of castor oil down the poor man’s throat, people just tried to stay out of his way. I did, too, and I was ashamed of it. I watched him abuse my friends and told myself I was too crippled to take him on. Not anymore.
“Ludo, get lost. This isn’t your party.”
Horrified gasps sucked the air out of the room.
His eyes fixed on me and he sneered. “I thought I smelled the stink of rotting wood.”
Without a thought, I sprang at him. My unexpected agility caught him off guard, and we tumbled to the floor. I swung my fist, but he was quick and strong. He shoved me off easily and hopped to his feet. People scattered out of the way, screaming and shouting. We circled each other, looking for an opening. Ludo pounced. I leaped aside, and he slammed into the counter. He lowered his head and charged again, but I was nimble as a cricket and spoiling for a fight. I leaped onto his back and rode him like a pony, pounding his head and laughing with the sheer brute joy of finally letting the bastard have it. He threw me and I landed on a table, splintering its legs and sending plates and glasses flying. The room spun, but I shook it off and pushed myself up, feet crunching in broken glass. Ludo turned, a pistol in his hand. I grabbed a splintered table leg.
Papa’s voice rose above the din. “Pinocchio! No!”
Ludo aimed at me with murder in his eyes, and before I knew what I was doing, my leg punched against the floor like a piston. My arm swung in a wide arc. The table leg struck his head with a crack. He dropped to the floor like a sack of flour.
The choked silence was as sudden and complete as the uproar had been a moment before. I stared at Ludo’s inert body on the floor. Get up get up get up. Take a bow. Have a laugh. Ha-ha! Good one!
The silence lasted until a bottle rolled off the edge of the bar and hit the floor with a loud clatter. Then everyone started shouting and weeping at once. Except for Ludo, lying on the floor, motionless and pale, blood pooling under his head. And me, rooted to the floor like a post. What had I done? Not even on the battlefield had I knowingly killed a man. Hands gripped my arms and hustled me out.