Friday, February 03, 2006

A Grave Promise

The Intriguing Man

The train jolted to a stop and Penelope wiped a cinder from her eye. The Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad had just hauled the Christian romance writer and a couple hundred tourists through the splendid Colorado San Juan mountains and up almost 3000 feet in elevation. She knew that because she’d bought the guide book.

Her research trip started in Durango when she left her car in the secure parking lot at the train depot and hopped onto car number 402. The renovated box car had two rows of wooden bench seats running its length, with an aisle down the middle, reminding Penelope of church pews. The seats faced out, providing a panoramic display out the open windows on both sides.

As people began to file out, Penelope stayed seated, reflecting on what she’d just seen. Once the train pulled out of Durango, leaving civilization behind, God’s handiwork unfolded before her. They wound in and out of valleys, flirted with the Animas River, marveled at mountain peaks that appeared to touch heaven...Ooh, that’s good.

Penelope searched in her backpack for her notebook. She should have taken notes on the trip up to Silverton, but the beauty before her claimed all her attention.

A dark, wavy head of hair bobbed past the window. Penelope forgot about the notebook and leaned out to get a better look at the fellow underneath the luxurious locks. His clothing suggested a European influence, not the western garb of jeans and a T-shirt.

She dove head first into her backpack again, and came up holding the digital camera she’d put away when the trip ended. She managed to click off a couple of shots before he disappeared with the sauntering tourists.

When she finally hopped off the train, her backpack snugly in place and the strap of her laptop slung over her shoulder, she viewed the pictures on the screen of her camera. The stranger carried a small, worn leather suitcase. The next picture showed his face. Oh, yeah. That’s what I’m talkin’ about. He was as beautiful as she’d imagined when she first saw that thick ebony hair.

But the set of his jaw and the glint in his eye seemed to set him apart from the other tourists. This was a man on a mission.

“This will do,” Penelope said as she looked around the suite in The Alma House Bed and Breakfast. It had a living room with a comfy couch and a table for her laptop. A queen sized bed took up most of the bedroom, but an antique dresser sat in the corner. She had a bathroom all to herself instead of having to share the one down the hall. “Yes, this will do nicely.”

She opened her computer and started typing. Oh, how she hoped this trip would unjam her creative juices. Two years ago, she gave her life to Christ. Before that she’d been a semi-successful romance writer. Now, she wanted to switch to the Christian market, and found that her imagination had stalled somewhat. She thought she’d heard a clear directive from God. But now she wasn’t so sure.

Her thoughts turned to the mysterious stranger. She shrugged. “Just as good a place to start as another, I suppose.”

The man leaped from the train, she typed, clutching his last possession, a worn, leather suitcase. His eyes shifted about him. Had he been followed? He hoped not. No one must know about—her.

Man on the Move

She had written half a chapter when she looked out the window. Her mystery man was leaving the bed and breakfast.

“Is he staying here?”

Frantically, she threw her camera and notebook into a tote bag. An irrational urge caused her to run into the bathroom to comb her hair and swipe on some lipstick. “Just in case,” she told her reflection.

She scooted down the stairs, but it was too late. “Only one way he could have gone.” There wasn’t much to her left in the way of touristy things, so she headed right toward the gift shops on Blair Street.

“Blair Street was once the red-light district,” Penelope read from her guide book. “Dance halls, parlor houses, and saloons helped Silverton prosper. But the respectable folks living on Greene Street rarely walked the one block over to grace those establishments with their presence.”

The mysterious man walked the length of Blair Street. This was where it had started. This was where he’d first met—her.

Speaking of Mystery Man, where was he?

Not in the rock hound shop.

Not in the pottery shop.

Not eating anywhere.

Okay. He was a product of her overactive imagination. Mystery Man didn’t exist.

She decided to leave the “red-light district,” charming as the little shops were, and look for him on Greene.

“Yep, there he is.” The man was coming out of a general store, clutching a small paper bag.

Click. Click. Her camera caught every movement. He reached into his jacket and pulled out an envelope. People passed him on the sidewalk, but he seemed to be in his own world. He looked lovingly at the envelope, bulging and nearly as worn as his suitcase had been. He kissed it and placed it back inside his pocket.

She suddenly felt like aa trespasser. How many years could a person get for stalking?

The store clerk came out and tapped him on the shoulder. “You forgot your receipt, sir.”

“Oh. Grazie.”

“He’s Italian! Cool!” Penelope clapped her hand over her mouth. Did she really say that out loud? Thankfully, he never heard her.

The Italian man made his purchase, slowly counting out the American change. It hadn’t been stick candy that drew him into the store. Information. That’s what he sought. Information about—her.  

“What’s his name? Nunzio? No, that sounds like a mob boss. Francisco. Hmm.” That may be too pretty for this man who apparently was an athlete. He’d left town and was now marching up the hill to the Jesus statue.

Penelope’s book explained the statue as a twelve-ton marvel made of Carrara marble. Crafted in Italy to honor the  miners of the San Juans, it arrived late in the summer of 1959. Only a few months afterwards, a renewed mining operation began one of its most profitable periods ever.

“Then, in 1978,” she read aloud, trying to keep her heart rate normal while trudging up the steep path, “Lake Emma, located above the Sunnyside Mine, bottomed out and flooded the mine. It was a miracle that this happened on a Sunday evening when no one was in there.”

Penelope found it impossible to keep up. “I gotta get back on my Stair Master and quit using it as a clothes rack.” She had to stop several times to catch her breath. He, on the other hand, only stopped to scoop up wild flowers in what was beginning to look like an impressive collection.

Her Italian finally reached his destination. She grabbed her camera again and using the zoom, managed to find him sitting at the base of the Jesus statue. No, he was kneeling. Was he praying?

Penelope slowly lowered her camera. This was intruding. She’d let the man have his privacy. No pictures.

While the Italian was praying, Penelope sank onto a rock and began praying, too. She thanked God for saving her two years ago, praising Him for keeping her pure, even while writing the worldly scenes that made her books so popular. She’d never found the right man.

“Not that I’m complaining, Lord.” Well, maybe she was a little. “All I ask for is a small light in this darkness. Just a glimmer of hope that there is someone out there for me.” But she knew her main priority was to figure out how to write a Christian romance.

It will happen, my Beloved.

“Which, Lord? The husband or the book?”

Her Italian was on the move again. He’d placed something at the statue, and curiosity got the better of her. She didn’t mind giving the man his space, but if he placed it in plain view, that meant he didn’t mind people seeing it, right?

With her second wind, she managed to plod up the last few yards as the man sprinted down, heading off to the left, taking a path that skirted the back of town.

The wild flowers, those he had pulled on the way up the hill, lay reverently at the feet of Jesus. A folded note with the word “Grazie” was tucked underneath. He was thanking God for something. His trip to America? His incredibly good health? What? She opened the note. His handwriting was neat, bold, but oh, so Italian. She couldn’t read a word of it!

She peered off to her right, down the hill. Now where did he get to so fast? Maybe she should write this book about an Italian decathlon winner.

After placing the note and flowers as she found them, she hoofed the path he’d taken, which meandered through a forested area. Finally Silverton came back into view.

There! He disappeared between some buildings at the edge of town. She nearly rolled down the hill as gravity helped her the rest of the way.

She found herself back on Greene Street, standing in front of a stately building with a clock tower. Quite a different neighborhood than the red-light district. Her paper tour guide told her it was the San Juan County Courthouse. A red brick building near it was formerly the county jail. “Now it’s a museum. I’ll have to check it out... Later.”

A quick look up and down the street proved to be futile. Did he go into one of these two buildings?  “Where are you my illusive, mysterious, Italian man?”

A movement caught her eye. “No! Please don’t tell me you’re climbing another hill.” This one led out of town to the Hillside Cemetery.

Mystery Man Revealed

When she finally made it to the cemetery, she was shocked to see it wasn’t like those back home in Denver. No lush green lawn carpeting neat rows of marble headstones. This literally was on a hillside, with natural rock and pine trees as decoration. Wooden markers were rotting in the ground, some so weather worn you had no idea who was buried there, or when. Mixed in with the sad, forgotten markers were ornate stones of marble as well as simple memorials.

She wound her way through, getting lost in the stories embedded in the epitaphs. She could soon tell that 1906 must have seen a bad winter. Many people were killed by snowslide or exposure to the elements—freezing to death. Too many infants and children died that year, too. Then she learned that in 1918 there had been a devastating epidemic. Marker after marker, people of all ages died, but especially the very young and the very old. A quick look at her book informed her that Silverton had lost ten percent of its population that year to the Spanish Influenza, all within a three week period. Between 1918 and 1919, an estimated twenty-one million people died worldwide.

“How awful.” She said a prayer for the lost, not knowing what else to do.

Some graves were marked with simple wooden crosses. Others were more ornate with wrought iron fencing that looked eerily like a bedframe with no mattress. Clearly, Silverton in its day had been a mountain haven to affluent and poor alike. Eventually, they all ended up in the same place. Hillside Cemetery. Penelope shuddered and again lifted a prayer of thanks to her Savior.

Among the alpine sounds of wind rustled pine, chattering chipmunks, and squawking blue jays, came a steady stream of Italian words, pouring from a soul as if they had been pent up for a long time.

The Italian man, on his knees at the grave, had finally found—her. Too late.

He opened the paper bag and Penelope was surprised to see it was merely an empty mason jar, the kind pickles are made in. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the envelope. Kissing it as he had outside the store, he placed it inside the jar. Then he made sure the lid was screwed on tight. He set it aside and began digging in the hard dirt next to the grave with his bare hands.

Penelope thought about leaving him, but saw how he struggled. He’d never dig deep enough to bury that jar.

She approached him, her heart in her throat. It had been one thing to follow him, remaining anonymous. Quite another to have him look up at her with those black-brown eyes. She quickly looked around at the ground and found two jagged rocks. She knelt down and offered one to him. His smile illuminated the entire cemetery. And a place in her heart as well.

“Grazie.” He jammed the rock into the earth next to the grave marker. Minnie Elizabeth Butler Pedrini, born April 6, 1877, died October 30, 1918.

Neither spoke during the process. He worked until a bead of sweat escaped the dark curl of his sideburn. She scraped the dirt he loosened out of the deepening hole. When the jar was finally submerged in the earth, and covered over by large, calloused hands, he smiled at her and then helped her stand.

He pointed to his chest. “I am called Lucio Pedrini. And you?”

“I’m Penelope George.”

“Pen-EL-opee Gee-Or-gia.” She loved how her name danced when he pronounced it.

Should she pry into his activity? She glanced at the grave marker.

“She is my, grandmother.” He pointed to another wooden marker. “This is my grandfather.” He held up two fingers. “Two times great.”

She noticed the years they had died, his great-great grandfather Luciano Pedrini in 1907, the year of the great storm. His great-great grandmother Minnie in 1918, of the flu. Whatever Lucio had buried, he’d placed it between them.

“Allow me to explain.”

“Oh, it’s none of my business. You don’t need to tell me.”

He placed his dusty, callused hands around hers, and shook them as he spoke. “I want to tell somebody. You see, it is such a lovely story, and should be told to a lovely person.”

Penelope felt blood rush to her ears. She nodded and reluctantly pulled her hands from his gentle grasp.

“My grandfather...” Again he held up two fingers.

“Two times great...” she helped.

“Si.” His smile caused her heart to dance. “He came to this country to work on the railroad. Many people from Italia came to help.” He motioned to the other graves, and Penelope realized this was the Italian cemetery. They were standing in the Pedrini family plot.

“He met Minnie,” he continued, motioning to the first grave. “She was not, how you say, acceptable.”

Ah, they did meet on Blair Street.

“He loved her so, that he gave her his name. He talked of Christ and brought light into her dark world. Together, they started an American legacy, making many babies, some who did not make it,” he said, looking around at the tiny grave markers. “Others who had families of their own.”

Lucio walked over to another set of graves. “My grandfather, one time great,” he said holding up one finger. “Bennedetto. He worked the mines. He and my Nonna Rose wanted many babies, but only had two. He was also a victim of the terrible flu, only a few days after his mama.”

Penelope didn’t know if she could take much more. All the heartbreak. These people loved each other, and yet were separated too soon. And here she wondered if she’d ever meet anybody. How selfish.

She glanced around Bennedetto’s grave. “Where’s your great grandmother? She couldn’t still be living, could she?”

Lucio put his hand over his heart. “Sadly, no. But I did know her. My Nonna Rose,” he said with a smile. Clearly, this had been a special person in his life. “She called me Luke. After my grandfather died, she joined the army and worked as a nurse during World War II. By God’s grace, she was stationed in Italia. After the war, she stayed and found her husband’s family. She died in 1994 at the age of ninety-eight. I enjoyed her for nineteen years.”

“Well,” she said, nudging a stone with her foot. “You’ve got me curious. What about the rest of your family?”

“My grandfather Charles,” he said, this time with no fingers. “He worked the mines like his father until he also joined the army. He spent the war in Germany and became angry with God over the bad things he saw. His mama wrote letters telling him about the beautiful place she was living. Carrara, Italia. Lying near the Carrione River, in the Apuan Alps. He joined her after two years. But for him, it was not family that made him stay, but a beautiful girl named Leonora. She brought light into his dark world.”

Penelope smiled. That’s what Great-Great Grandfather Luciano did for Minnie.

“So, my papa was born. His name is Gian. He married my mama, Serena. They had three bambinos. Three strong sons.” He laughed and tapped his chest with a sinewy fist. “I am the last.”

They began walking and he held out his hand to steady her as she maneuvered over loose rocks. He held up both their entwined hands apparently noticing the dried mud on both.

“I almost forgot. Were you wondering why we were digging in the dirt?”

Yes! she wanted to scream. But she managed a polite, “Only if you want to tell me. I’m sure it’s personal.”

His eyes twinkled. “I have already told you my genealogy. What could be more personal than that?”

“True.” She laughed. Lucio Pedrini had turned out to be an interesting Mystery Man. She guessed she couldn’t call him that anymore. “Please, tell me Lucio.”

“First, may I ask a favor? Call me Luke, like Nonna Rose did. She was American, and so are you. I long to hear the name with your accent.”

“Okay, Luke.” How funny. She thought he was the one with the accent. “But Lucio is such a splendid name. What does it mean?”

“Light, just like Luciano.”

Penelope praised God silently. Hadn’t she just asked for a little light, a glimmer of hope?

Lucio continued on, oblivious to the impact he was having on her. “Nonna Rose wrote more letters than just to my papa. She wrote to Minnie and Luciano, telling them about the family, how their children all grew, how they died.”

They were on the path leading away from the cemetery. Penelope was glad, she’d rather think of the living.

“It was more of a diary, really.” Lucio said. “But to her it was a promise. When she moved away from America, she promised God she would never forget her roots. She thought of her husband’s Grandfather Luciano, and how he loved an unacceptable woman living in darkness. This to her was the redemption story. So, she promise God to write down the history of the Pedrini family, in dedication to His faithfulness. In those pages we buried, she tells of miracles, such as the marble used to build the Christ of the Mines Shrine. A miracle because the Pedrini family still living in Italia worked in the quarry where that marble came from. The statue that honors the miners, many in our family, was carved by stone excavated by people who loved Luciano. This statue is also dedicated in thanksgiving for another miracle.”

Penelope nodded her head. “I read that on a plaque.” She blushed because the only reason she had been there was to spy on Lucio. “It was to thank God for deliverance of the entire work force when Lake Emma flooded the Sunnyside mine.”

“Si. My uncle was spared.”

“So,” Penelope said as they reached town, passing the courthouse with the clock tower. “You’ve come all the way from Italy to ride the rails that your Great-Great Grandfather Luciano built, thank Jesus at the statue that your family quarried, and visit your ancestors.”

“Si. And do not forget the jar.”

“Oh yeah. And to bury Great Grandma’s letters. Isn’t that a waste though? All those beautiful words buried in the ground where no one can see them?”

“I photocopied them before leaving Italia. They are in Nonna Rose’s suitcase. I also came back to America to find someone to tell their story.”

Here’s your Christian romance, Beloved. Live it.

Penelope placed her hands over his elbow. “Luke,” she said, already discarding the Mystery Man tale. “I’m a writer...”

Copyright: Kathleen E. Kovach, 2004. All rights reserved.
If you wish to share my work, please do not copy without express permission, but I do invite you to send the link to those you feel will benefit from my stories. Thank you for understanding.

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