Dirt crept like an animal through the streets of the Eternal City. Even in Rome, ageless nostalgia was accompanied by the filth and neglect of the modern. Salve walked with desultory interest passed the venders and their antique merchandise. Her nose caught the scent of olive oil wafting from open doors, snaking through the winding roads and soaking into her skin and hair. Reaching up with her hand, she imagined massaging the lubricant into her hair, brushing a loose strand behind her ear.
Her toe snagged in an unseen crack in the stone pavement and it forced her eyes to break from the surroundings. Her balance was offset, and she dropped her purse on the ground. The cracking sound that emerged told her that Nonna would be receiving a damaged little figurine of a Roman goddess for her birthday.
Reaching for the long shoulder strap, Salve lifted her eyes back up without breaking stride and almost collided into the back of a man. He was not there moments before and he didn’t notice her. As she halted in surprise, he continued his gangling stride. An abnormally large backpack covered the majority of him from view, allowing a pair of stalk-like legs to protrude from the bottom of the silhouetted mass. They were clad in grey, ending in accompanying white galoshes: pristine in every aspect with perfectly tied laces. The starkness of the color caught Salve’s attention.
Having a man was something she never had gotten around to – at least not permanently. Even though their contact was brief, Salve felt a tingling sensation shoot down her spine and sizzle around her fingertips. Curiosity washed over her. Being in a foreign country on a vacation that she really could not afford, she was desperate to escape from the mundane drag of life. Nothing else seemed important. She had no family – none that mattered anyway – or moral ties, so what did she have to lose? Salve followed in pursuit.
A Lancia rumbled uncomfortably close, splattering mud up onto the sidewalks. Dodging, she picked up her pace and watched as the white galoshes turned the corner and disappeared. A puddle on the sidewalk vibrated with the impact of rogue raindrops. Reaching past the crowded contents of her handbag, Salve pulled out an umbrella and propped it open with great effort. Despite the warped support rods, she somehow forced it into shape and reminded herself for the hundredth time that she needed a new one. It was one of those strange days where sun and rain somehow managed to come together in a temporary truce of friendship.
Rounding the corner, the tourist tailed the stranger to the next curb. He paused to access the traffic situation and then struck out into the unknown. He seemed to have a purpose.
“The story of my life,” Salve thought. “I can’t remember the last time I did anything that mattered to me. Well, I tried to last night. That waiter sure knew how to give a girl a good time. Maybe he’ll call me.” After saying the words, she felt an unseen hand clutch at her heart, forcing her to finally accept the truth: she had her first one-night-fling.
“Do not be not afraid!”
Salve could have sworn she heard someone whisper from behind. Her neck hairs stood up, as if they had been disturbed by a breath at her shoulder. Turning around, she was disturbed to see no one there. After circling a couple times, she noticed the man in the galoshes up ahead incline his head backward.
He wanted her to follow him.
“Per Favore?” A weak hand clasped onto the edge of Salve’s jacket and demanded her attention. Starting back a couple steps, she saw a small woman huddled against the side of a coffee shop. Her hair was slicked into a tight bun and her taunt hand was stretched out. “Per Favore, Signora?”
A torn cloth – the same color as the ash in the street – was draped about her shoulders, and she clutched the front closed. Her filthy appearance added blunt clarity to the universal gesture for charity. On a normal day, Salve would not have given the woman a second glance. But today, the plea in her eyes seemed all too human: disturbing, yet relatable. Shrinking from the smell that burned her nostrils, Salve hurried after the man with the galoshes, growing smaller in the distance. The moment her eyes rested on the figure, her ears were filled again.
“The worst prison would be a closed heart.”
This time a little panic stricken, Salve turned around, hoping that the old beggar woman had followed her. There was no one. Adjusting her bag with a trembling hand, she moved into a brisk walk.
The sun was sinking and its light cast eerie shadows on the shudders of dark houses. Some were swung open with dirty laundry hanging from the blinds. The homely sight caused her discomfort, as it brought back dreadful memories of the night before. “I did the same thing with my own clothes, hanging shamelessly on the shudders of his apartment – the first time I had ever done THAT.” It had seemed like the right decision at the time. But everything felt different now.
There was dirt everywhere.
She could feel it in the streets, in the olive-skinned faces all around her, inside her own soul – her dirty soul, looking out of tarnished eyes at an otherwise perfect world.
“Dirty soul! Dirty soul!” another voice taunted: a new, thick, and strange voice. It came from inside her, but she knew it wasn’t of her. An intruder. An intruder sewing lies. Salve walked faster.
“He has ruined you! No, you have ruined yourself!”
Now, she knew why she had to follow the man in the galoshes. He was clean; he was good. Somehow, Salve knew it. He could help her.
The raindrops came faster and the puddles swelled to mini lakes. The man had picked up his pace and was growing smaller in the distance. She lengthened her stride and put her foot down too hard, drenching her pants up to the knee.
“Put out into the deep.”
The gentle voice had returned, flooding out the other in a wave-like sense of peace. Salve’s wet hair now stung in her eyes, but she could still make out the dark form and the mysterious white galoshes. Without comprehending, she broke out into a desperate run.
Splashing through the last few puddles, she placed her first footstep on the marble stairs, washed white by the rain. Rolling her eyes upward, the expansive arms of St. Peter’s Basilica pitted against the clouded sky overloaded her perception. Rounding the column, Salve started in surprise to find that the young man was nowhere in sight. The wet footprints left by his pure galoshes stopped some distance into the plaza, disappearing into thin air. Stepping out from under the protective guard of the columns, she squeaked and slid her way through the puddles to the spot. There was something etched on the stone where the footprints had vanished.
It was just a date in old Roman lettering, but it brought back so many memories:
XIII V MCMLXXXI
The 13th of May, 1981 – the Wednesday the world stopped turning – the morning her Nonna stared at the television set, crying for hours – the day a bullet nearly snuffed out the brilliant light that was Pope John Paul II – that dark night when the Catholic Church held her breath.
There it was. That black memory, represented by a stone: so pure and white, as if it were kept that way so that the papal emblem inscribed on its face would never be forgotten. A near martyr’s blood, almost spilled on that exact spot – now washed white. A small pigeon scratched across the stone and pecked away at the lettering.
Sloshing in her own black shoes across the plaza, Salve lifted her eyes to the central obelisk. Towering over all, it’s apex stretched far up into the vastness. From behind the great cathedral dome, a final strip of light from the setting sun pierced through the clear air. Striking the marble facets, the radiance splintered off, leaving its own multi-colored inscription on the illuminated canvas of the heavens. It became a prism, splitting that solitary whiteness into various strands and sending them to every corner of the earth.
Placing her hands in her pockets, a drop of fruitful rain fell from her face to the cobblestones below. She was reminded of the home she had left – the heritage she abandoned – the faith she rejected. For the first time in years, Salve recognized the reason for her emptiness. She spun around once and the sight of the stone arms, reaching out to embrace warmed her to the depths of her soul. It washed away every memory of the night before, splattering into millions of unseen cracks.
In the caverns of her heart, now unlocked, she felt one final resonance of the man’s presence – those white galoshes, that warm smile, that peaceful echo in her ear, now recognizable as the voice of that Holy Father, Karol Wojtyla: Polish child, World War II survivor, priest, bishop, archbishop, cardinal, and Pope. Her childhood hero had not abandoned her, and she would never forget the parting lesson he bestowed – not with horns and trumpets, but whispered into Salve’s heart.
As she left that holy place, tears of joy carved memorial scars down her cheeks.
“The future starts today, not tomorrow.”