Liana Holmberg


Father Arnaldo’s knees creak as he bends, plucks a gum wrapper from the base of St. Francis’s statue. He straightens and slips a pebble into the pocket of his cassock, next to the slingshot. The silver paper he gives to Lucca, the novice chattering beside him, who puts it in the plastic bag he carries and doesn’t notice a thing. Father Arnaldo is pleased. What’s a priest without a little sleight of hand? He blows into his cracked fists to keep his fingers limber.

Lucca looks up at St. Francis, whose face, shoulders, and hands are a white river of fresh bird shit. The boy wants to know who called down the starlings on Rome. “Why would God send a plague on the holy city?” Lucca asks, doesn’t wait for an answer. The boy plays the arguments like new records. Father Arnaldo has every tired groove memorized.

It’s the starlings he’s thinking about. The goddamned starlings. The filthy thieves steal his sleep. Every single morning they shriek and caw, scrabble at his window with their knobby, red claws, and by the time they leave for the day’s hunting, there is no more sleep to be had.

Father Arnaldo glances at the closed, gray lid of the December sky, continues his slow inspection of the courtyard. When he was a novitiate, he took a vow of silence for a year. And kept it. Now everybody talks talks talks. The one thing he would like to teach this boy is silence.

As they walk, Father Arnaldo lets Lucca pick up the big pieces of trash, while he reaches for bus tickets, cellophane—decoys allowing him to pocket ammunition. When he moves, he puts his hands in his cassock, holds the pebbles against his stomach to keep them from rattling.

Last week he tried rat poison. He spiked a bowl of birdseed and set it on the stone casement outside his window. The starlings bullied and pecked and tossed the bowl to the sidewalk. He’d had to retrieve it—cover his tracks—sweep the birdseed between the cobblestones to keep some filthy kid from sticking it in his mouth. If the damn starlings ate any of the poison, they didn’t die. Or if any did die, it wasn’t enough of them. He’d been fuming for days, till he had received his sign. Ha! Yesterday, when that pock-faced altar boy had half-blinded the rectory cat, everyone screeched and scrambled to get it to the vet, and Father Arnaldo quietly slipped upstairs with the boy’s slingshot.

Today, Father Arnaldo had awoken before the birds. Laughed. He pulled on his cassock, tucked the slingshot inside. All day he watched the courtyard, finally it was empty. If the other priests saw him out in the cold, they would think he was atoning for some special crime, and they’d flap around chattering about it. He wouldn’t tell them otherwise. In order to look especially penitent, he left his gloves in his closet. But then Lucca had ambushed him at the foot of the stairs. Father Arnaldo had a reputation among the novices as a good listener.

He points Lucca to a paper cup. The winter wind blew trash into the courtyard. Sometimes at night, local Romeos and their dates hopped the gate, left beer bottles and used condoms at the feet of Saint Francis, like offerings. Ha! Francis, patron saint of the rut. Father Arnaldo made the young priests clean it up as punishment for impure thoughts. Big deal. He let them wear gloves.

Father Arnaldo interrupts Lucca’s monologue, says, “Maybe the birds weren’t sent by God.”

Lucca’s face is blank, then brightens. “You mean it’s the work of Satan?”

Father Arnaldo frowns. The boy plays on. “Like in Job,” he says and spins into how God allows bad things to happen so He can test the faithful. Predictably, he feels sorry for Job, gets hung up on wondering why He had to let things get that bad for the guy, circles back. “So, Satan wants us to think God would let a plague fall on us so that we’ll question Him, and that’s why he sent the starlings.”

A hundred thousand of them, that’s what the newspaper said. Every winter the starlings migrate south from Germany, Russia, and Poland. They roost in the city’s center. Father Arnaldo has seen them. They crap on everything—on cars and cathedrals, the Colosseum. He has seen them hit tourists on the Via del Corso, as if the birds were taking aim. He’d have laughed but there was the smell—like dust and piss, balled up in his throat. Their shit is acid. It eats through stone. The Forum, the Vatican.

People wrote letters to the editor about protecting the monuments, and the tourists. The goddamn tourists—What’s Rome without tourists! That made the senate squawk. A task force suggested poison, and the bird people called it criminal, inhumane. They picketed, waved signs, made all kinds of noise about protecting the damn starlings.

Is there no limit to windy words? Poor, old Francis would have been safe if it hadn’t been for the bird people. And the scientists. Some genius said, “I know, we’ll scare them out of the city.” Someone actually heard him over all the racket, and now, every evening as the birds bed down, loud speakers blare “starling distress calls” from Rome’s historic eaves. Pfff. Not that Father Arnaldo can hear them. His little church is on the wrong side of the river, far from its luminous cousins. But he has felt their effects, oh yes, smelled and heard them.

The news lady—the one that looks like a porn queen and will probably become president, wait and see—she said the birds were supposed to flee to the countryside. But Rome’s a big city, and, with night coming, the birds that bothered to move did not go far. The “distress call” genius admitted nobody could really know what the broadcasts meant.

How about, “Go forth and multiply your stinking mess,” Father Arnaldo thinks, swallows a laugh. Tonight they’ll be saying, “Watch out for the big blackbird that spits rocks.”

So what if he’s no longer pious. There are worse things a priest can be—he remembers. What did they say on American TV? Don’t quit your day job. So? So he listens, he absolves, he sticks crackers on a couple hundred tongues a week, he does paperwork. Paperwork, paperwork. You want to know what’s really in the Vatican? Paperwork. And the young priests? They coach basketball, get involved. They warble over every edict that comes down from the Old Dog, as if it mattered, as if he, or anyone, controlled any of it.

All this chatter. No one reads. Literature, philosophy, history—Church history, that’s what did him in—science even. He reads, and he knows that the damned starlings don’t know why they fly south. They roost in the cupola, under the eaves, on old Francis’s bare head. They sleep and eat and shit—they don’t know why—and every morning, they steal his sleep talking about it.

Lucca looks cold. Father Arnaldo is used to it. The boy’s garbage bag is full, and he says, “So it’s Satan, right? It’s a test.”

Father Arnaldo can see he wants to be sent inside with a pat on the back.

“There are no tests.”

Lucca waits.

“There is only roaming the earth and walking upon it.”

Lucca stares.

Father Arnaldo’s pockets are full. He leaves the boy to do what he will. Up the stairs, his knees are warm and the climb is easy, chk chk, he shakes the pebbles. Into his room, the sky is darkening, chk chk, and it won’t be long. He drags his chair to the window, cracks it open.


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