OCTOBER 2010 (FALL)

In January 2010 on December 31, 2009 at 11:27 pm

Pasquale and La Strega Befana

by Nile Tallman

Crack! A swift painful rap on the head from the witch’s broom handle awakened Pasquale.

“Get up you naughty, naughty little boy! Get up!” La Strega Befana squawked.

Pasquale rubbed his curly black hair and rose from the straw bed on the cold cell floor.  Strega Befana smiled; her soot stained face folded into long deep creases and the bridge of her large hook nose bunched up into a hundred crinkles.   She wrapped a boney arm around the recoiling Pasquale, pressed her ancient cheek against his and swung them both around.   He noticed that her dirty babushka smelled like an odd mixture of burnt firewood, peppermint and herbs.

“You come to steal from La Strega, no?  You think you can just walk in and take from me?  Are you not afraid of my magic?” She quickly questioned with sugary glee.

Pasquale only managed a grunt as he struggled to free himself from her surprisingly iron grip.  La Strega mocked his grunt then kicked the cell door all the way open.  With Pasquale safely tucked under her arm, she skipped down the dim stone hallway, away from the dungeon.   Resigned to his continued captivity, Pasquale allowed the toes of his boots to drag across the floor as he was carried down the hall.

An arched, heavy wooden door blocked the way.  Strega Befana lifted her broom and defiantly waved it at the door.  It flew open of its own accord and crisp winter air blew through the passageway.   She stopped just short of the edge of the open portal.  Pasquale let out a weak yelp as he looked down at the ground far below.  His knees buckled and he tasted bile at the back of his throat.  As his stomach churned, Pasquale imagined how it would feel to splatter on the rocks below.

Strega Befana motioned with her broom to the village in the valley beyond the hill.  It was festively decorated; candles burned in every window, evergreen garland was strung from building to building over the streets and brightly painted wooden statues of gods and saints stood proudly on the cobblestones.  The whole village glowed and twinkled, a reflection of the stars in the heavens above that clear night.  Despite his situation, Pasquale couldn’t help but find it beautiful, warm and lovely.

“Look you naughty little boy.   You should be with your family for the holiday, no?  Instead you come here to steal from me… on the eve of my holiday.  Tell Befana: Why did you do such a stupid thing?”

Pasquale swallowed then spoke without looking at the witch, “You always give me coal and  I never do anything wrong!  All the other children get candy and presents.  It’s not fair!”

“Naughty boys do not receive gifts on Befana Day.”

“I am not a naughty boy!”

“Oh, but you are little Pasquale.  You are.”

“Nicolo and Valentina are much worse than me.  You give them candy and toy swords! They are mean old bullies!”

Strega Befana stared at Pasquale; her smile faded.  She reached over and grabbed the nape of the boy’s neck.

“Who is worse?  What is worse?  Tell me, what good do you do?  All you do is: want, want, want.  You are always thinking, ‘What can I get?’ not, ‘What can I give?'”

She grunted and shook her head.

“Come little Pasquale, La Strega has something to teach you.”

She pushed Pasquale off the precipice.  He tried to force out a scream as he fell towards the ground, but no sound would escape.  The entire world rushed away as he plunged towards the sharp rocks.  Suddenly he was caught and placed roughly on a flying broom.  Strega Befana cackled in delight.  Pasquale grabbed a hold of the tattered witch’s dress and held on tight as they accelerated at an impossible speed through the night towards his village.

Tears streamed across Pasquale’s cheeks as they rocketed over the Temple of Juno, the baths and towards his neighborhood.  He recognized the home of his rival, Nicolo, as they slowed near the window.  He could see the hearth inside and Nicolo’s father lying on his side on a couch.   He held a cup of wine in his hand.   Nicolo was playing with toy soldiers on the floor; banging them together angrily.

“His mother is dead, you know,” whispered the witch.

“I know.”

Suddenly Nicolo’s father stood up and dropped his cup.  It shattered on the floor with red wine splattering all over Nicolo.  His father cursed, stumbled a few steps and fell to the ground.  Nicolo dutifully walked over to his father, helped him up and lead him to his room.   He saw the tears in Nicolo’s father’s eyes.  A few moments later Nicolo was scrubbing the floors and cleaning up the broken glass.

They rushed off again.  This time they sped past the streets of the village to a small farm in the outskirts.  It was Valentina’s house.  They landed gracefully and Strega Befana pulled Pasquale roughly to a low window.  Inside the Contadinos were ravenously scarfing down a very meager meal that must have been their holiday feast.   Pasquale noticed that Valentina was just pushing her food around on her plate.  She sat next to her poor crippled sister who was run over by an ox cart as a baby.  Carefully she slid her food onto her little sister’s plate so her parents could not see.

The boy and the witch were in the air again.  Pasquale watched the village speed past underneath him.   His heart was heavy as they slowed and landed on the roof of his family’s villa.  Strega Befana lifted her straw broom up and leaned on it like a walking stick.  Pasquale looked up at the witch with a frown.

“I see now, La Strega, why they deserve your gifts.  But… I still do not know why I received coal last year.”

“Oh little Pasquale, you only do good for the prize.  This is your problem.   You only care who is looking or what you will get, not about being really good deep down inside.”

“What is the difference, La Strega?”

“It is all the difference in the world, little Pasquale.   Quit being so selfish!  Help your mamma even if she’s not paying attention.  La Strega can forgive a lot.  But, selfishness makes for a very naughty boy.”

“Yes, La Strega.”

“I must go now.  The candy, toys…  and coal still must be packed in my sack for the children.  Go.  Your mamma and pappa are looking for you.”

Pasqualle heard his mamma sobbing then.  She must have been worried sick since he was gone.  He had not even thought about his parents all day; he had only thought of his own hide.  La Strega was right, he was selfish.  He began walking over to the edge of the roof to climb down when…  Crack! The witch’s broomstick smacked him across the back of his head.

“You quit being so naughty, Pasquale!”

He watched as Strega Befana launched off the clay roof and up into the air.   She paused in front of the moon; her silhouette stood out against its cool glow and she cackled happily.   She looked at Pasquale for a moment then sped off into the darkness.  Pasquale knew he was getting coal this year (he did try to rob La Strega after all) but all he cared about was getting to his family, the warmth of the holiday, and to the life he now realized he was so lucky to have.

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