Don Fiorentino, a tall and robust man, with large bones and granitic muscles, closed the indolent wooden door of the church that creaked on the hinges of its rusty and historic past.

He had just dismissed the funeral of an estimated parishioner, to whom he had administered the holy oil three days earlier. He remembered the sick room perfectly. The totally white sheets of the deathbed, the circumstantial smiles of those who accompanied the last gasps of an old farmer devoured by a merciless disease nestled in the only male organ of which it was compassionate and Christian in order to avoid even mentioning the name and, above all, the insistent and sugary scent of someone who is already drenched, even before she takes him with her, in the mantle of the great consoler.

On the other hand, Don Fiorentino’s hydraulic system – and he knew it very well – still worked, even though fifty-five years had now passed for him which did not seem like youth. And, after all, – he thought – it had not been much of a funeral either. The church, now that the thurible had been put away, still retained the fumes of the incense with which it had been at the same time impregnated, pungent and definitive.

He had to hold, in his calloused hands, those with the wrinkled skin of the widow and children of the deceased, sublimating with the smile of the viaticum the painful and embarrassed suffering of those who remained.

And then the words. Always the same of a life of priesthood achieved by consuming modest meals of little nutritional value, to which he had become accustomed, albeit reluctantly, since his seminary days, when hunger could often do much more than as much as they did not study Latin, the saints’ lives and his own worn and pancake-like tunic. The same words that he repeated to everyone at every exit of the coffin carried on the shoulders of the funeral employees. “God calls us to himself”, “Courage… it is the will of the Lord”, “It takes dignity to carry the cross”, “Pray, pray a lot”, “Thank you Bob, thank you Charlie”, “His will, not ours.”

He watched with tears, contemplated lips swollen from constantly kissing the air and applied a script bordering on theatrical representation.

And what were, after all, the ritual, the mass, the Eucharistic sacrifice, if not the living representations of man’s fear of leaving for the other world, from which, except mistakes and omissions, no mortal was ever came back to tell us what it was like?

However, Don Fiorentino paid little attention to it.

Instead, he began to think about the theme of the resurrection of the dead in body and soul, just as he had read it in a novel by Tabucchi, in which the protagonist, a journalist from Lisbon, by complaining about his fatness, commented on the inappropriateness that his fat and flaccid flesh came back to Earth in order to make him suffer and become extremely tired. And why on earth, in addition to the pious soul of the old farmer who had accompanied him to the hearse, should his nauseating smell have also resurrected, which he had given up on in the name of that pietas that supports everything and that reduces everything to the secondary appearance of a mystery that he had never managed to penetrate?

Once he had closed the door, following his skepticism, and left it to the woodworms that devoured it every day, Don Florentino lit a cigar stub, which he had hastily placed among his clothes, which had now imbued with the smell of traditional Tuscan which still retained at the end the blackish mark of the brazier from the first lighting of the morning, the one that he so liked to complete, with two pleased puffs and with the support of the Swedish matches, the ones that made a cheerful and prolonged blaze that he enjoyed extinguishing with the first smoke exhaled from his lungs.

And when he placed the burned wooden remains, now on the ancient and worn piece of furniture in the sacristy, in any improvised ashtray, including the stoup, he looked at them with compassion, tight as they were in the embrace between the life of the still unburned wood and death of the head twisting around itself, as if in a final spasm.

Don Fiorentino liked two things more than anything: his Tuscan cigars (for nothing in the world would he have given up the pleasant scent that came from that incident of semi-rotten American tobacco, wet and left to dry by the expert hands of the cigar makers) and the books that kept in the sleeping room. They were certainly not books of particular antiquarian value, that much must be said. He was not interested in the object itself, he was not willing to commit crimes to get hold of a very rare first edition of some novel from the past, whether distant or near, as a corrupt mobster close to the Government had done, as he had heard the radio – Because Don Fiorentino did not even want to hear about television. He was a devil tool. However, while for all the other tools of the devil, whether he was called Beelzebul or Satan, he felt an irresistible attraction of knowledge, not considering them harmful to anyone and not seeing anything in them that was not good in and of itself, that convex glass thing bored him to death.

That is what books were like for Don Fiorentino. He could not wait to join them, especially in the evening, when the darkness fell restlessly and humidly over that parish of a village whose name he would have liked not to remember. He distractedly crushed a rosary, satisfied himself with some leftovers from the day before, took a couple more puffs of blond Kentucky tobacco (how could a cigar made in those parts with a name like a mechanical code be called “Tuscan”, Don Fiorentino not had still understood it), he turned on the radio which was broadcasting the Notturno Italiano, tuning it very well to the medium waves and, after having provided for a not embarrassing stripping of his clothes which were unwiedly with fabric and dirt, he finally got into bed and began to read in the long but comforting and productive hours of the night.

Not the breviary, or the office of the liturgical hours of ordinary time, but rather the volumes that piled up on his bedside table falling, sometimes, now one way and now the other, onto the floor, getting dipped in the ash that fell where deposited in turn, by surrendering to the weight accumulated because of the slow but inexorable combustion of the cigar, now devoid of its periodic puffing and inhalation.

And just as he turned his enormous and slightly curved back to the providential closing of the enormous door (it was written Domus Dei et porta coeli), he remembered Father Fulgenzio, a good Jesuit who knew Latin and Greek, and who night surprised him in the dormitory when, instead of sleeping, he was reading “Dangerous Liaisons” by Chlordelos de Laclos.

Don Fiorentino had to reconstruct carnal love, that between a man and a woman, starting from that reading, trying to understand, with his limits as a beardless young man from the Church, what were the dark dynamics that made Adam meet Eve. Father Fulgentius was strict but understanding and tolerant. He limited himself to confiscating the obscene publication and, sparing him the ritual lectures, he limited himself to replacing it with a yellowed copy of the “Spiritual Exercises” by Ignatius of Loyola which even the junk dealer would have rejected, who certainly would not have known who to resell it to. For his part, he had purchased a copy in the original French language in a bookshop of Lourdes, during a pilgrimage. An unseemly act, yes, but not a sin. Or, at least, that is not how it appeared to him.

He would have liked to say, as an adult, to Father Fulgentius, who Solomon also spoke of that carnal love in the Song of Songs: “My beloved slips his hand into my lap, my insides tremble for him. Myrrh flows from my hands, myrrh flows from my fingers onto the latch I hold.”

However, Father Fulgenzio ended up at the age of eighty-six on a torrid day in the middle of August, suffocated by a fragment of peach stone, the fruit of which he was fond of. They buried him dressed in the cassock, with his face pitifully covered by a white linen cloth embroidered for the occasion, in order to obscure the purple blackness of those dying from lack of air. And he never spoke about it again.

Taken a few steps and came back to the altar, Don Fiorentino stopped to contemplate the wooden crucifix, a work by an unknown person from who knows where, who ended up there by chance or necessity, probably as atonement for the great and many sins committed by the sculptor during his lifetime, a republican of the worst kind. It seemed to Don Fiorentino that the Christ inlaid in the olive tree was looking in different directions depending on the shadow cast on his face. Guareschi’s Don Camillo with the crucifix spoke to us, and the latter also responded to him, except when it was the voice of his pride that spoke.

The absence of words like divine punishment was the most excruciating thing Don Fiorentino could imagine. Without words, how would St. John the Evangelist have written “In the beginning was the Word?” He even thought that the translation of John’s text for use by the faithful was wrong. It was not the Word, it was precisely the logos, the speech, the sentence, the Word in its incessant flow. God speaks to Man continuously, if his Son was silent, where were the consolation and forgiveness?

He was distracted by the muffled voices of children’s games coming from outside. They were overlapping and indistinguishable cries, greatly charged by the shrill calls of their mothers who invited them, not without a certain insistent and annoying petulance, in order to stop playing football. However, they did not give up and continued to sweat like madmen, chasing those strips of leather sewn together and inflated like a sphere. Moreover, while any of his other brothers would have underlined that scene of playful disobedience with the smile on their lips that priests have as they delight in the world (or rather, in themselves),

Don Fiorentino found that the boys were growing up increasingly uneducated and arrogant. The little time he could dedicate to playing and grazing his knees on the dirt while chasing an uncertain pile of rags, as a child, seemed to him never to have been filled with such imprudent presumption.

Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to them.”

Don Fiorentino faltered a little. Was it possible that to access the kingdom of God one had to be reduced to behaving like those suburban thugs? Was that all the salvation, the promise of Eden, that of living forever in a paradise earth? It could not be. The Gospel must have been wrong about something. However no, on the contrary, he insisted, obstinately:

If you do not convert and become like little children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever makes himself small like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one child like this in my name, welcomes me.”

Well, even welcoming one of those rascals in the odor of habitual delinquency seemed exaggerated to Don Fiorentino.

The evening before, he had begun a book that proved to be far superior to his wildest expectations. It was an unpretentious edition of “Illustrissimi”, written by Albino Luciani, later Supreme Pontiff with the name of John Paul I, when he was still Patriarch of Venice, regent of the Chair of Saint Mark.

They had called him “the Pope of the smile”, and Don Fiorentino had to agree that it was a definition that corresponded to the truth.

However, the smile, in the Church, unless it is a reaction of mere circumstance and prone compliance, is not a good that can be enjoyed and spent so easily. So, when Luciani pronounced the words “God is mother” someone noticed and, as it were, as it was not, on the thirty-third day of his pontificate his private secretary found him lifeless in his bed at 5.30 in the morning. The same time in which Santiago Nasar, the protagonist of “Chronicle of a Death Foretold” left his house on the day he was killed, in order to wait for the boat on which the Bishop would arrive. And, ultimately, Pirandello said, life is either lived or written. Or so he remembered.

And it occurred to him that he too would have liked to die like this, with a book in his hand. But not the “Imitation of Christ”, as had happened with the holy man. Rather Joyce’s “Ulysses”. Or, if it were really that inconvenient, Bernanos’s “Diary of a Country Priest”.

Luciani had fallen into the habit of writing very long letters to the greats of the past, exposing the issues of the present to their imaginary attention.

Among the recipients was Saint Luke, the author of the only Gospel that tells of Jesus’ childhood. However, even Dickens, whose “Oliver Twist” Don Fulgentius had devoured with voracious avidity. They were letters of extraordinary depth, permeated by a rare erudition, complicated to find in those who quoted Trilussa to the Roman faithful with a strong Venetian accent.

He published them, the poor guy, on a monthly basis in the “Messaggero di Sant’Antonio”, and someone had the happy idea of collecting them in a volume. And so it was that the determination to do the same dawned on him, quickly and clearly.

He took off the rough and heavy white sheets, relit the cigar that had gone out, by avoiding a premature death (another sign of the fact that God sees and provides) and walked confidently the three steps that separated him from the large desk in front, starting to write:

Dear Professor Antonio Tabucchi,

a village priest is writing to you with a passion for books. I read your “The last three days of Fernando Pessoa”, published by the estimated Sellerio publishing house of Palermo, on that paper so soft that it is almost a mortal sin to leaf through it with fingers moistened with saliva.

Please take my word for it if I tell you that I am sorry to bother you, now that you will be conversing amiably with some Portuguese writer, one of those he loved so much, sitting at the outdoor tables of the “A Brasileira” café in Lisbon, sipping with thoughtful ease a ginginha, the kind produced by the noble house of Espinheira and which tastes like almonds. Have you ever tried the pastéis they make in Belém? Oh, they are delicious, you know? The crunchy pastry, the warm and delicate egg cream, and the streams of freshly dissolved cinnamon powder. You will remember me when you taste them, I assure you.

I have read some Portuguese literature too. At least the essentials. The Lusiads of Camoes, for example. The Inés de Castro episode moved me to tears. Poor Donna Inés, who was harvesting the sweet fruit of her years, dead of love and politics. And then “I Maia” by Queiroz.

I am writing to you because your short but intense book raises some questions for me. You describe the pilgrimage of the heteronyms to the bedside of the dying poet for the last farewell greeting. However, can only poets afford heteronyms or even ordinary mortals like me and you? Are we not ourselves, maybe, someone else? And it cannot happen that this is precisely someone else who visits us one day. And maybe the people we invent are nothing more than ghosts to whom we delegate our restlessness, that “desassossego” whose book You and Your Lady you have so admirably translated? Worry is such a heavy burden to carry! This may be why people prefer truths revealed or solutions pre-packaged by others.

Regarding this, I read something by the Brazilian Paulo Coelho, finding it absolutely detestable. Is not it any wonder that it has such undeserved success? What do you think?

Your servant takes leave of you.

He re-read it and thought it came out well. He carefully folded and placed it in the desk drawer. It was dawn outside, it was almost time for morning praise and he felt a sudden pang reach his liver.