Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Book Thief. A short story.

(Medici Library, Florence, Italy.)

“My Lord?” the deferential tone of a servant broke into Lorenzo’s reverie.

“Yes. What is it?”

“We’ve caught a thief,” Zacharias informed him. “Antonio has him in charge. What shall we do?”

“Who?” he said shortly.

“The Santoro boy,” Zacharias muttered. “I’m sorry, master. He seemed like such a good boy. It’s a little out of character. But these gutter-whelps are always needing money for something, always gambling, always falling into bad company—”

Yes, and sometimes they just grabbed a couple of loaves of bread and ran for home.

Lorenzo de Medici sighed deeply. Pietro was a pretty good prospect for one of the family businesses. The son of a recently-departed cousin, Lorenzo felt some familial responsibility. No matter how poor or distant the relations, and the Santoro clan was distant indeed, family was family. They were also very poor. Originally, that was a consideration, although he couldn’t take in every decent kid in spite of his considerable personal resources. Always a pretty good judge of character, he wondered anew at life’s little surprises. Had his almost-legendary eye for talent failed him? Thank God it was just a kitchen lad, then.

In spite of the huge array of papers and documents he was presently reviewing, some small spark of curiousity came over him. Why, he could not say. But first impressions were often lasting ones. And Pietro Santoro, a slender lad of about thirteen, had impressed him as a good kid.

“What did he steal?” he inquired. “Maybe he just got hungry. I remember at that age, I would steal a pie off a windowsill. And I thought nothing of burning my fingers, even my lips and my tongue! Half the time I had the money to buy my own.”

He grinned a little in fond memory. Zacharias smiled too. It was just as well that his master was in a relatively placid and contemplative mood this evening.

“If it was just a couple of cream buns, the cook would have taken care of it,” he allowed. “No master. He had your only copy of Tacitus in his possession.”

Lorenzo sat up then.

“Whoa!” he said. “Holy Mother of God! Was he trying to sell it then?”

Zacharias just shrugged and raised his hands with upturned palms.

“Who knows? He claims he was going to bring it back!” he reported to de Medici. “But it seems a little far-fetched.”

“Was he going to read it, then?” gasped Medici. “Bring me this boy. Immediately.”

“Yes, my lord,” Zacharias bowed, carefully concealing a small grin.

* * *

“What else have you read?” blurted Lorenzo when the child was brought before him, a frail and slightly-grubby looking kitchen boy, yet seemingly defiant in spite of being forcibly restrained by Antonio’s huge paw.

Struggling in the big man’s grasp, he was clearly prepared to run for it.

“All right, all right, Antonio, he’s not going anywhere,” he added. “Stand there, boy.”

The boy shrugged off the big manservant’s grip, eyes boring into his own. Lorenzo felt his jaw drop—such a burning intensity of desire, anger and something else—something else.

“It’s all right boy, no one’s going to hurt you. Now, what else have you read?”

The boy was silent, suddenly hanging his head now. Resigned to some uncertain but no doubt horrible fate. Revelation hit and Lorenzo understood.

“What did you think of Plotinus?” he said in a different tone.

The boy’s eyes came up and locked on his own, but still he would not speak.

The kid’s jaw stuck out so far in front…somewhere along the line this boy had learned to stick up for himself.

“Plautus? Terence? Aristarchus?” he asked.

“They’re all right,” said the boy, looking away.

Suddenly the kid was right back on him.

“Actually, a lot of it is nonsense,” he informed Lorenzo defiantly.

Medici tipped his head back and laughed, and laughed, and laughed.

Finally he collapsed into barely-suppressed giggles, falling back into his elaborately embroidered and upholstered wing chair.

“I like you, kid!” he said. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll make you a deal. Are you interested?”

The kid shuffled his feet and couldn’t quite manage to look at him.

“Well. I’ll put it to you and then you can decide. How’s that?”

No answer, no eye contact.

“You have one week to read Tacitus. And then you bring it back in the exact same condition, all right?”

It took a while, but the boy finally managed to get it out.

“Yes, sire,” he mumbled.

“Other than that, promise you won’t be awake all night, reading until dawn or the cook will have something to say about that. Do you understand?”

“Yes, my lord,” mumbled little Pietro.

“Very well, then. We’ll talk later. Return to your duties, or go to your room, or something. Go out and play. Books are all very well, but there are other things in life too, you know.” said Lorenzo.

With a nod to Antonio, the interview was over. The big man’s hand touched the boy on the shoulder, and the three of them turned to go. Just as Zacharias was about to exit, Lorenzo called him back.

“Yes, my lord?” he inquired.

“Thank you, Zacharias,” was all he said.

With a smile, and a nod, and little tug on his lanky black forelock, Zach was gone.

For one brief moment of time, he did consider asking how long Zacharias had known about this boy, but thought better of it. Sometimes you just didn’t want to know. Sometimes it really paid off to accord a little respect to one’s servants. Lorenzo employed people like Zacharias for their knowledge and skills, for their facility with languages, and arithmetic. One would have to be a fool not to make use of it.

And it really didn’t pay to go around leaping to conclusions.

“People shouldn’t have to steal good books, just for the privilege of reading them,” he muttered aloud to the four square walls surrounding him; and was startled to discover tears welling up for no good reason whatsoever.

None that he cared to consider right now.

Yes. That thought bothered him for some reason. It resonated inside of him, like a finely-tuned musical instrument. And even at his age, he learned something new about himself every day.

When he had a minute, he would put some more thought into that. In the meantime, he had a lot of paperwork to get through, and then perhaps he might relax with a good book of his own.

Still thinking of Pietro with a small smile, Lorenzo de Medici got busy, for a man’s works define him in so many ways.

“A lot of it is nonsense? The boy has talent, all right,” he grinned.

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