The door closed, and Father Giacomo placed the long stone in a small, felt-lined case before shuffling back up the hallway. His feet ached already, and the day had barely begun. But at ninety-three years old, he felt he was lucky to feel his legs, much less balance on them.
He attributed his continued mobility to the 76 push-ups he did each morning. He had once heard that the American actor Don Ameche did 75 push-ups each morning, and Father Giacomo knew a man of God should be able to outperform an actor. Hence, 76.
His nights were broken affairs, with frequent trips to the bathroom for a bladder that no longer held as much water as once it had. I need the Venetian government to come and inflate a support below my belt, he mused.
He was always a-musing, and often amused. Having worked in the Vatican for fifty years, holding the same thankless, ridiculous, yet priceless job, he could not have survived without a sense of the absurd. Other men scoffed at him.
He’d had assistants once. But when those men rose to become bishops and cardinals, while he remained doggedly in place, he had declined to have any more. He couldn’t stand being pitied, or mocked, or looked down upon. In his small way, he was restoring sanity and beauty to the world. A task he had undertaken over fifty years before. And if he died before his work was done, well, that was God’s will.
Here was the first one. Opening his small felt-lined case, he lifted the stone up and saw at once that it was not a match. A different colour stone altogether, alabaster, not dusty grey. Yet he still tried, knowing that the stone had been locked in that chamber for nigh-on five hundred years, without light or polish, covered in the dust of ages. He turned it this way and that, from every conceivable angle before concluding that, no, it would not fit.
Already there was a giggle from down the hall. Tourists. They always laughed when they saw Father Giacomo. He normally tried to visit each gallery when it was closed to the public. But this hall was always open, and it was best to get through it before the flood of visitors engulfed it.
Tucking the stone away in the felt-lined case, he moved on to the next one. He had long ago memorized the location of each monument, and there was something comforting about his routine. Each morning he would take a stone from the room and set out, like a pilgrim, to make his circuit, not just of this museum, but of the whole of Vatican city.
Museum, he mused as the morning wore on. A fascinating word. A repository of Muses, a place for them to gather. Muses inspired art, they said. Euterpe for Music. Erato for Love poetry. Urania for Astronomy.
Once more tucking the stone away and shuffling to his next station, Giacomo wondered which muse guided his life. At once he gave himself a mental yellow card, for his life was guided by Christ and his Apostles, not the pagan muses. But the question interested him, so he reframed it. Were his life guided by a muse, which muse would it be?
His fellow priests would all clearly say Thalia, the muse of Comedy. And on most days Giacomo might be seen to agree. He was an agreeable man.
But he was also devout, and devoted. He had undertaken this monumental chore in 1962, never suspecting it would become his life’s work. Risible, mockable, yet dogged and indefatigable. Perhaps his muse was Melpomene, the muse of Tragedy. Fifty years, for one unfinished chore. One that could have been finished years ago, had the Vatican cared enough to actually devote some resources to this.
But then, thought Giacomo wryly, what would I have done with my life?
At noon he carefully lowered himself onto a bench out in the yard. Setting the felt-lined case between his feet, he opened the satchel that hung at his belt. Besides the tools of his trade, he also had a bag of apple slices, and a small juice-box, the kind children are given with their meals. As men begin, so they end, he mused. Will I die a child? Just please, no diapers.
He also had a small container of peanut butter. He spent the hour quietly chewing, careful of his dentures, watching the people go by him.
I see more art in a day than men see in their lives. I see more people in a day than live in most towns. I may not be the most respected man within these walls. But it is possible that I am the most blessed.
His afternoon carried on as his morning had, until he reached the second floor of the east wing. Opening his small felt-lined case, he experienced one of those rare moments where his heart began to race. The colour was a perfect match. Careful not to let the stone slip from his shaking hands, he raised the stone into the gap just above his head. It only took a moment before he had it fitted perfectly. There was almost no seam, even.
Lowering the long stone in his hand, he looked about him with proud satisfaction. He was quite alone, save for the other statues. But he imagined they approved of his task, his care, his skill.
Skill. Yes, no time for crowing, peacock. Placing the stone back in the felt, but not closing the case, Father Giacomo opened the satchel at his belt and began to work. He dusted, he examined, he dusted again. Then he opened the apoxy, carefully filling the vacant end with a coat that was neither too thick nor too light. Too light and it would fall off. Too heavy, and there were be a sign.
Raising the stone again, he carefully, lovingly, set it in place, restoring what had once been piously lost. He still held his brush in his left hand, and now swooped it around the seam, adding a layer of glue to the outside. Invisible, yet firm. Like the hand of God.
Now came the awkward part – standing here and holding the broken stone in place. How often had he been doing just this when the doors opened and tourists entered, only to laugh at him. Many women were scandalized. There had been complaints, even. But his was a spiritual task – restoring what once was lost. Making the world whole.
After ten minutes he gently released his fingers and stepped away. Looking at the whole, it was like seeing something new. Like Venus stepping out of the sea foam that had birthed her. Though this was as far from Venus as was possible. This was Adonis – or could have been. His right arm was still missing, and his left hand. His hip was cocked to one side and his head canted down and to the right. But, in Father Giacomo’s mind, he was whole.
Though his feet ached terribly, Giacomo did a little dance. In that moment, he knew which muse guided him. Not Thalia, not Melpomene, but Calliope – the muse of Epic poetry. For he had laboured longer than Odysseus, harder than Hercules. His was an epic task, and today he had conquered, traveled one more step towards victory.
He could have gone home then. A success was all too rare. Another man might have proclaimed his work complete and gone back to savour his triumph. But Giacomo knew that God favoured work and rewarded dedication. Tucking away his brushes, glue, and picking up his now-empty case, he hobbled back across the whole of the Vatican to where he had started. Opening the door, he turned the knob for light.
There before him, in a pile that reached for the ceiling, were countless stone penises. Father Giacomo selected one at random, a bulbous one with spidery veins of grey through the chalky marble. Dusting it off, he placed it in his felt-lined case. Then, extinguishing the light, he shut the door and shuffled off once more to make the rounds of ancient stone men longing to be whole once more.