This excerpt comes from Aldo Nove's recent novel, All the Light of the World, about the life of St. Francis of Assisi (San Francesco), largely as seen through the eyes of his nephew, Piccardo. The excerpt includes three non-sequential chapters from Part One, titled “Scandal.” As Aldo Nove writes in his note to the novel, "The existence of Piccardo is documented, but we know almost nothing about him. He appears in thirteenth-century Assisi notary documents, beginning in 1253, when he and his brother are mentioned, the sons of Angelo della Pica, brother of San Francesco, in papers associated with the inheritance of Bernardone family properties. From these same documents, we know that Piccardo joined the Franciscan third order and, years after the death of his uncle, repurchased the Oratory of San Francesco Piccolino that was thought to be near the house where the saint was born . . ." —Elizabeth Harris
In the beginning was childhood . . .
Childhood, the beginning of everything.
An explosion and its trail of expressions, of waiting, of breathing . . .
Then, just as suddenly, you’re no longer a child.
In the Middle Ages, there weren’t truly children, only small adults, something waiting truly to begin. But they were everywhere. They were, without statute, the stateless of reality, waiting for a country, skulking about before they were grown; to be grown meant to begin an adventure with no precise confines, only to aim, pull back, and fire, like a new bow, taut, before new mystery, brightly colored with expectations, with conquests, tender, violent mystery.
Everyone, all children, are kings.
They can be.
All they need to do is suddenly decide.
And children know this. Things are docile, obedient to dreams, indulgent, so they can keep from slipping out of the crazy rhythm of events, of chance. To be the king of everything, truly king, all you need to do is climb onto a broom, certain that you’ll dominate it, knowing that you’re king. Then that broom becomes a miraculous horse, the most dependable, keen-sighted horse there ever was. All you need to do is decide, and you’re a king riding his horse to his distant lands or off to wage war, or you’re riding in a courtyard and every corner is the edge of the world, because it is.
But there’s danger at the edge of the world.
You start running into monsters.
In the Middle Ages, monsters were very real.
Now, it depends.
If they exist, then they’re real.
If not, then no. Now.
But back then, tying monsters to reality wasn’t a problem; reality didn’t mean what we think it means now, and so monsters sprang up everywhere, an unstoppable flood, and it was beautiful to challenge them and every day, to be afraid.
We all long to be afraid. Especially children, because through fear, they can overcome the many challenges in life.
And the Devil, he arranged all kinds of challenges.
All of life was a challenge with the Devil and his silent monsters, a haughty act of defiance.
The whole point to life was straining toward a destination.
Which it was.
Just as much at the beginning. To begin, to go.
Going was the destination.
This is what children learn.
A story, for example: in the home of Angelo di Bernardone, in the year of grace 1202, Piccardo, still bewildered, between the fleeting warmth of childhood and the violent flames that soon rise up to devour the souls of men, pushes into the world of adventure . . .
Every person facing the flames had to find the means to resist them, had to learn how not to get burned, to make those flames a trusted, undeniable friend. Yielding to those flames instead, not taking the necessary precautions, meant consigning yourself to the Devil.
The Devil watched for babies in their cribs, waited until mothers were distracted, then whisked the babies away, to the witches’ Sabbath, or below, much better, whisked them below, into blackness where metals bubbled and boiled in the dark, and so these children would never become adults and fight against him in the neutral territory of the world, in the neutral field of air and seasons, he locked them away, frightened forever, in darkness, near the fireplace of the world.
The central fire of cries and wails.
The Devil lived off fear.
And at the edge of the world, his delegates were countless monsters. And everything bowed low, yielding to the deception of the Lord of Shadows who never wanted the night to end, so he could merge with the dark and feel that he, too, was a child who’d never grown up, the horrendous, indisputable king.
Always a trap.
Yielding was something you felt in your blood, from the start, from the first words of the woman who bore you and held you and filled you with kisses and sweet, reassuring words, and meanwhile you felt, somehow you knew that a monster was looming nearby, that it wanted to take you away from her forever, to a far-off there that was ever present, imminent, days away, close to the flow of time spilling out your last heartbeat.
Monsters were the evidence.
Evidence of hell.
And every one of them had done something awful; this was certain.
They were souls that hadn’t managed to resist the steady allure of the flames. The cripples, the disfigured, the sick that dragged themselves through the streets, but only at night, weighed down by their sins, their mark of shame that was plain to see. Flesh was sin and had to be continuously purified through good thoughts. Good thoughts were prayers and prayers were the key that locked away the seductions of the Devil.
A sick person was someone who’d been bad.
Piccardo knew this and like other children, he feared the horror of the wretched, those deformed beings who begged for alms, invoking through the charity of others, the Lord’s grace they’d been denied.
Growing up, you learn you’re responsible for what happens to you. You’re taught this right away; it’s something called free will. And so you learn, if an illness is devouring your flesh, that you’ve made a mistake, a grave mistake, and if you can’t seem to remember what you’ve done, that’s only because the Devil has tricked you once more, and your memory’s grown dark because the Devil resides there; a stranger’s settled in your conscience, a stranger who’s always wanted to be the master of the world, and the weakest yield to him. The most unfortunate, the guiltiest, the ones who didn’t know how to defend themselves, how to fight.
They were trapped in a time they didn’t know how to escape and so became stuck in this scandalous, painful form.
The poor were the most common monsters of all.
They were everywhere, the poor, and time was blocked for them, and they blocked the time of others and remained outside—outside the houses, the churches, life; they were on display, because Evil flourished obscenely in their flesh.
They asked others for a bit of life.
Because they no longer had any left to spend. They’d squandered it, who knows how, who knows when, maybe paying for faults that weren’t their own, that they didn’t know how to avoid, to atone for, to eliminate, yielding to tempting desolation, drifting in an instant they couldn’t escape from, turning to shadows, darkness to avoid, living warnings.
You mustn’t be like them, you mustn’t become one of them, if you wish to earn the road to respect like those who follow the right path.
God gives nourishment to all, and the poor are rejected by God, are outside the community of God. Piccardo knew this; he’d learned it from his mother, Giovanna, who was following the teachings of his grandfather and the ancient Bernardone family. But he was confused by something.
Something that had weighed on him ever since he was born.
Something entirely of light, too much light.
Inexplicable, too much.
Too much light.
All the light of the world.
Altogether different from what his parents told him.
In his home, a scandal had occurred.
Before he was born, something had happened that no one was allowed to speak of.
An implication felt everywhere.
Assisi, where Piccardo lived, was filled with it. Jam-packed.
Scandal is something in the world that’s out of place.
The earlier order has been shattered.
And Piccardo knew that one’s whole life must be devoted to restoring an order that the Devil loved to confound, because this is mankind’s destiny, a continual return to the sure path while an extremely dangerous force confuses you, drags you someplace else.
The Devil longs for your misfortune—anyone’s misfortune—he’s always working quickly toward that end, has all sorts of strange tricks, and this is why you mustn’t stray too far from where you left: you mustn’t lose your way. This is why mamas call their children back who’ve strayed too far, like a planet that’s slipped outside its orbit will scatter and confuse the universe and its role inside that universe, because it’s too small compared to the other planets and doesn’t know how to orbit, and no one orbits all alone.
But one day you have to go.
You have to be very aware of when and where, and you must face all the adventures that block your path. The pilgrim’s path on this earth, that’s lost to you when you’re born and you must find again so you won’t become one of the destitute, one of the diseased, one of the monsters, and you follow the road your parents marked so your path’s secure.
Life is short.
It’s hard, always extremely hard. You learn this at once, when your uncertain hands first touch wood, feel it, so unwelcoming, unlike your mother’s body, so hard instead, and you feel it when cold fills the houses and treacherous fire scarcely warms the room where you sleep and sends fading, mysterious shadows up the cold walls, and you must endure, must become a man and remain one, you must accept change like a mystery, a benediction, and sense its protective strength.
Staying. On the proper path.
This is what good people do.
Others have gone astray.
They’ve left decent society.
Piccardo came from a decent family. Entirely opposite from the monsters dwelling there. He shivered at the thought, Piccardo did. First you became poor, then sick, then hellish monsters with no choice but to slide steadily into the abyss. The world keeps pushing these worthless beings further and further down. Children of temptation.
Evil has no limits.
A boy must know this.
He must remain anchored to life.
To his good name.
He must learn a trade.
He must keep to his place, so the Lord will see him and control him, and Evil will know whose control he’s under and won’t even try to carry him off, far away, where there’s only fear, where trying to repent is useless—it’s too late—if you’re there, that means you’ve crossed the line, lost all chance; you’ve defied the patience of God.
In the leper colonies.
At the edge of the world.
Far from heaven.
Piccardo would hear stories on the streets, in church, in the shops.
And many of them concerned his uncle.
His uncle seemed to know how to soothe the world.
He was able to explain to it how things worked and that it mustn’t be afraid, because the world scared easily—too easily.
And you needed to speak to the world, speak softly.
And understand how to give of yourself.
And never stop.
Keep speaking to the world.
This was the idea he’d formed of his uncle Francesco.
Deep in the thick woods, his uncle Francesco prayed fervently as saints do, to explain the world to the world, to open the world up, and they do this in a thousand different ways, do it incessantly, in piazzas or in a dark grotto.
Piccardo and his brother, Giovannetto, had never seen him, their sainted uncle.
Piccardo longed to.
He’d been told countless times that Francesco had dishonored the family, before he became famous throughout the land, and in the end, Piccardo had to live with the fact that in his home, no one liked the saint, no one considered him praiseworthy, no one mentioned his name . . .
But there was one famous story about him.
No, not one.
There were many stories about his uncle Francesco, and they grew in number, and there were many variations passed around, growing ever more farfetched.
But there was one that impressed him most of all.
The confusion of how it all started.
A story of a boy like him who one day . . .
What struck him about that story was that his uncle Giovanni—who would become Francesco—was at first like everyone else in his family, an excellent cloth merchant.
But he was strange.
Ever since he was a boy.
But everything was always resolved with a paternal embrace.
Exuberance of the soul.
No. One day his uncle defied Grandfather.
Defied Grandfather Pietro.
And this defiance was the scandal.
The first legend of Assisi, the origin of it, not to be repeated.
The only thing Piccardo knew about his uncle prior to this story was that there came a time when his uncle Francesco no longer wanted to be a merchant. He’d tried. But he just didn’t like it. And he wanted to test himself, to be a warrior. But something happened. At the beginning, he couldn’t decide, Piccardo’s uncle, if he’d be a merchant or a knight, though, really, he wasn’t that interested in either.
Of course he wanted to be famous.
Honored by everyone.
Respected by important men. Friend to kings.
Valued by the holy pope. Revered by all.
And that’s why he decided to become a saint, they laughed in Assisi. But not right away. This decision came on slowly. And he grew ever wilder.
Wild and strange.
That’s why some said he was an idiot.
Because he was different.
He’d burst out singing.
On the piazza, he played like a child. Someone saw him spinning joyfully in a puddle, spraying mud everywhere. Laughing.
Then he’d cry, and so they said Bernardone’s son had turned idiot.
Something had happened to him.
Something had happened.
Now and then, something inexplicable happens to people.
They told him, told Piccardo, that something strange also happened to San Paolo and that this, too, was something sacred, though everyone thought Paolo had turned idiot as well. San Paolo, who, everyone knew, was a great warrior in the beginning, an infidel who murdered Christians. Then, one day, he fell off his horse. It was God who made him fall. Piccardo had learned this at school from the priests of the San Giorgio church. And after San Paolo climbed back on his horse, he was never the same again.
His life, the life of the entire world, like a spreading sickness, had changed everywhere, forever.
Something like that had happened to his uncle.
Many years before.
Piccardo wasn’t even born then.
But he’d been told something.
It was a wound.
This thing was a wound.
But also a trick. Hard to understand.
It drove him crazy.
And the blood of Christ flowed from this wound, that’s what his mama, Giovanna, told him. Giovanna was very religious; she was the one who told him the stories about his uncle, that not everything he heard on the streets was true, but also Papa, who was so stern about his brother, wasn’t entirely truthful concerning Piccardo’s uncle, because he’d suffered so much from what his brother had done to their father, and also to him. Piccardo asked her why Papa wasn’t happy to have a brother who was a saint, and then his mama stroked his head and told him that one day he’d understand, in time he’d come to understand, but that he must respect his father, and that some things you don’t understand right away, and that he had to learn to do his work, that was important, then he, Piccardo, would understand, and then his mama gently changed the subject, and the story of his uncle almost disappeared once more, was buried every time in all the things that had to be done, the work ahead, the fabric to be cleaned, and Giovanetto who had to be looked after, and he, Piccardo, shouldn’t worry, because he’d understand everything, he just needed to believe in God; with God, all would be understood in due time.
But Piccardo wanted to know.
He wanted to know.
He was a big boy, Piccardo was.
When the moment comes in life when everything changes because you want it to, you want it to and so you must do it, you begin the action that will take you, carry you someplace else, forever, wherever you are, that will steady you someplace else, even if your center’s fixed.
It’s in that moment.
Francesco was no longer as he once was; the masks people wear to stage their existence no longer made sense, and that day Francesco would pull off his mask, and without a mask, man is naked, and the piazza that day was packed with those wanting to see how a man could be naked.
A wind swept over the piazza, and it didn’t carry good news. It stirred up disagreeing hearts, and all eyes were fixed upon these two stubborn souls.
The father could no longer tolerate the oddities of that son who was turning him into the laughingstock of Assisi. The boy had just returned from Flanders, and this time, this time he’d gone too far. It was the umpteenth time. Once again, he’d squandered his money, given it away to priests. But not properly: he hadn’t given it as one must, as an offering so we’ll be commended to the saints, like every good citizen must do from time to time to restore equity and balance.
Francesco squandered everything.
And so nothing threatened years of hard work.
Everything and nothing are linked.
Money is something.
Money is important.
Money makes you important.
If you spend everything, you become nothing.
And if you’re arrogant enough to try and have everything, or if you fritter everything away like crazy people do, then all that’s left to you is nothing, and nothing’s frightening; there’s no refuge anywhere from nothing; nothing’s the most frightening thing of all, which is why you have to throw yourself into doing, to keep nothing at bay, and Pietro di Bernardone’s was a lifetime of throwing himself into doing, for himself and his family; his family was all he had, and like anyone, he wanted to see it grow and prosper.
Angelo was the son who meekly followed in his footsteps.
But Francesco, his firstborn, his favorite, Francesco was an enigma, and Pietro couldn’t bear it anymore.
And Pietro, he wanted revenge.
But he wanted it with tears in his eyes and his heart exploding. A son is part of you, so much so, he takes from your soul, and this is his inheritance, he gives you meaning just like you gave meaning to your parents, completed them, and this is how life works. Maybe Francesco didn’t like life. Maybe he was simply an idiot, like everyone in the city was saying.
But Pietro didn’t understand him anymore.
His son was slipping from his grasp.
When a son is no longer a son . . .
This was the reason Pietro had denounced him.
Let the law decide. Francesco was no longer his son. He’d caused too much confusion, confused his dreams. The dreams for a family, for that family to have everything, through work, noble work, to control their world more and more, but Francesco wanted to throw that world away, and then himself, but enough, enough and no more, end of discussion, Francesco was no longer his son, Pietro thought, Pietro said.
The piazza was packed with people.
The father, offended to death, and his degenerate son.
A one-of-a-kind performance, for all to see.
Pietro had tried everything.
Shut him away in a tiny dark room, like a prisoner, on bread and water. If he would sacrifice and understand the pain he’d caused. What he’d done to his father! Pietro had almost strangled him once, asking him why, his son should tell him, so he could understand.
Why . . .
Love is like a set of scales, weighing every moment, always ready to break if balance isn’t restored, and its story is in these efforts, a story of continuous games of counterbalance, so between men, this means approaching one another, explanations, looks that sometimes meet, and a man must find the balance between being impulsive and discriminating, which time and wisdom teach you. Love approaches, while Francesco wanted to distance himself, but where he might go was unconceivable, where faraway, and why. Why his son. Pietro felt the boy was wicked, selfish. Or maybe crazy—not that there was much of a difference.
He didn’t understand.
He could no longer understand.
The balance was broken.
So in the arena of the piazza stood two enemies, father and son.
Like Cain and Abel.
The old story of betrayal.
The eternal story.
Pietro on one side, Francesco on the other.
In the middle, the ecclesiastic court.
Pietro had addressed the city consuls, who would pass judgment, but that thief and degenerate of a son had arrived early and presented himself before the prelates, declaring that he was under their jurisdiction. Since he’d abandoned his family’s business and dressed like a monk and took no interest in this world, he had the social status of a holy man. Not a priest, not a monk, but no matter how irregular, he, Francesco, was a holy man. Through his faith, he’d decided to be free. A freedom entirely incomprehensible to his family and the majority of the citizens of Assisi. But a freedom he held above all else.
The freedom of someone truly alone.
There was something age-old about that father and son facing off. Like an inevitable fissure, announced yet unspeakable, that shouldn’t happen yet that’s precisely why it does happen, a tragedy in every sense that will continue on in perpetuity, to the pain of many others. And their positions in that scene: father, son, the authorities in their midst who would govern the match, and judge it. There was something transcendent here, something absolute, on this one unremarkable afternoon that would be recalled for centuries.
“Biblical,” someone might say.
Francesco was small, black as a crow, his dark hair ruffled, falling in his eyes. Short in stature, skinny. He looked nervous, about to bolt, escape, and yet he was also very much present, humble yet also proud, and in his very dark eyes, there was something profoundly striking, an ineffable flash of light that was disturbing and enthralling. Pietro’s face, though it bore some resemblance to his son’s, was soft, well-proportioned, smug, and planted firmly on a commanding body; he was entirely elegant, like a nobleman, even if he was only a merchant.
The bishop read out the charges.
Pietro accused Francesco of squandering their family’s money, his money, of giving it to priests, with no authorization, so he stole it. Stole from his father. From him. He wanted it all back, all of it, that money. Francesco was a thief. Francesco had shamed him. Francesco was the greatest disappointment of his life, his torment, his infinite disgrace.
That day, Francesco wore the plain clothes of an anonymous servant.
And like a servant, in his hands, he held the luxurious, folded garments he once wore, garments made from precious cloth, emblems of his family’s wealth. Silent, facing his father, staring, he slowly approached and set the garments at his father’s feet.
“Here. These are yours. I owed them to you, and now I’m returning them.”
Shaken, Pietro was silent. His face turned red. Tears started running down his cheeks.
He wanted to die.
He wanted to kill him, kill that son.
Again. And again.
If only he’d never been born.
For just a moment, Pietro glanced toward his other son. Angelo couldn’t bear Francesco anymore, either; he was dying from shame, hidden in the crowd, shaking his head, a bitter grimace on his face. Pica, the boys’ mother, had her head lowered, but she felt, something told her, had told her for a long while, that this special son was no fool. It was too easy, to think he was a fool.
She knew how to read his heart.
The precious fabric in the dust.
Francesco left it there.
Then he set something directly into his father’s hands, a leather case containing all the coins he owed his father.
“Here, here are your riches.”
“Count them. Count your coins. It’s all there.”
“Son—you’re killing me.”
“But you are no longer my father.”
“Then who is? Who is your father?”
“Who then? Who is your father? Tell me—tell me then, for God’s sake—”
Francesco was staring right through him.
The crowd held its breath.
Pietro shook with rage.
Standing, facing each other, Pietro and Francesco were two titans now, immense, and then, through the fickleness of human perception, they were terribly tiny, the trifling protagonists of one of the everyday family tragedies from which this world is woven, this world sick from lack of understanding, world-sick, intolerant of love.
But that day was the beginning of something.
Francesco took off all his clothes.
He dropped his trousers.
Before the world.
From Tutta la luce del mondo © by Aldo Nove. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Elizabeth Harris. All rights reserved.