Tara L. Masih

Weekday mornings, after the sidewalk vendors have opened their stalls, she positions herself on the same street that her boyfriend disappeared from years ago. He left her with the local map of Vatican City and their guide book, and melted away before she knew he was gone. But she remained, and she stands there now for work as a street docent to the Basilica. Women are her main target. In Italian and English and Spanish, she lures them in; Catholics especially. Pilgrims bedecked with crosses and souvenir bags and Holy Water in tiny, cork-stoppered bottles. The orange cotton umbrella she carried on that first trip to Europe, a little water-stained now, serves as a shepherd's crook while she woos and leads her people to the cool, hushed interior of St. Peter's.

It's the women who pay the most for the emotional and spiritual trek. And she is sure to end the tour in front of that most holy of all statues, the Pietà. The lights overhead highlight the folds of the Virgin's robes, curve like rainwater around the polished marble rises and the pyramidal form. After she explains the desecration of the statue by a crazed man in 1972 on Pentecost Sunday, how people took away with them the pieces he hacked off the unprotected Mother, and how the tip from the broken nose had to be carved from her back, they listen intently as she tells them why the young Michelangelo was criticized for his depiction—the Mother too young and lovely, the body of the Son too small and peaceful and Passionless. She knows they will start crying now. The daily script never deviates. And they pay. For her ability to make them feel one with sacrifice and suffering.

On most days, she can pull in nearly 500 Euros. Enough to cover the rent for the studio apartment she found right before the baby was born. Complete with a used love sofa that measured the child's horizontal growth.

Tonight, he is coughing loudly and continually. And yet sometimes, it sounds like he has no breath left at all. She knows she should take him to the hospital, but she can't afford one. Instead, she pours Tachifludec from the local farmacia down his throat three times daily to loosen the phlegm. But it scares her—the silence, more than the hacking coughs. The third time he stops breathing she goes to the sofa and kneels down. They have been in Italy for 15 years now. He used to show her with delight how, with his head on one arm, his feet could almost, then actually, reach the other arm of the sofa. Now, they fold over the end, rubbing the cotton away to bare, latticed threads.

"Roll over," she says to him, so he will breathe better on his side. "No," he refuses her, in his feverish sleep.

He is not listening to me anymore, she realizes, even when he's not awake. And she watches this son she has raised on her own, takes in the cold, bluish light that washes over him from the shutter open to the full moon. Such a sharp, cold light, accentuating the shadows made by his spidery, bent limbs.

It won't be long now, she thinks, feeling a deep, gut-sorrow. As if the same man who had hacked at the stone Mother has now entered her life, and will soon take another mad swing.

Tara L. Masih is the author of a book of stories, Where the Dog Star Never Glows, and the editor of the Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction.

Detail of photo art on main page courtesy of Fred Matos.

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