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Bill Bucko

THE OUTCASTS -- Chapter 4

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Chapter 4 — Slavery (part)

He was bitter, with the hatred rising up to stick in his throat, and he thought he knew what it was like to be a prisoner led to a place of public shame. He gritted his teeth, fighting back the tears. He had been pilloried, all right, as Messer Agostino forced him out into the street, through the noisy afternoon crowds of the Via Santa Reparata who stared and pointed and hooted all the way to Sant’ Apollonia, where his father pushed their way up the old worn steps and sought out a priest.

“You, there!”

“Yes, messer?”

“You’re hearing confession today?”

“Yes, messer.”

“Confess us, then. The boy goes first ... and see that he makes a good confession,” he added.

He shoved Marco into the stall, glaring after him, and left him there with the emaciated cleric whose poorly trimmed beard half-hid a weak mouth and chin, and who stared past him at the panels of the wall with eyes glassy and dead as a fish’s.

Slowly the boy sank to his knees, feeling sick to his stomach.

“Are you ready, my son?”

He gulped. “Yes, father.”

“That is, have you prepared your soul, my son?”

“No, father.”

“Then do so now.”

The priest waited indifferently, as though he had all the time in the world. He was seated above the boy in a chair, with silver crucifix and beads dangling like a pale ghost from his office book onto a stiff black cassock. Marco, breathing with difficulty, was too numb to think of anything but his own horror at what was happening. But after a suitable length of time he somehow managed to stammer, “I’m ready, father,” and the next few minutes were almost too painful to remember as he hummed and hawed, making up imaginary lies and derelictions of duty, adding truthfully the many prayers and Masses he had missed, and then not knowing what to say. He shook his head. He couldn’t force his mind to it no matter how hard he tried. His reflection in the polished wood of the stall looked inhuman, like a tortured animal’s, and he was pleading inwardly for all this to stop, he was almost shouting but there was no one out there to hear. Echoes rang from distant corners of the church, not to comfort but to mock him. He squeezed his eyes shut. What did they want from him, all those hostile, foreign people? ... Lower yourself, debase yourself, that was what they wanted—their nameless, faceless evil was all around him, a bodiless enemy he couldn’t take hold of or fight against ... Don’t imagine you’re any good, don’t try to hold your head up, the voices said ... just spit in your own face, while you beg on your knees for mercy ... our God says you’re nothing but a miserable sinner ...

“What?” Marco said, noticing the priest was questioning him again.

“Is that all you have to confess?”

He nodded, dully.

The priest raised an eyebrow. “You’re sure? Seems very little for a lad your age ... very little.” He paused, while Marco felt the cleric’s foul breath on his face. “My son, tell me. Have you taken the Lord’s name in vain?”


“Broken the Sabbath?”


“Have you paid sufficient honor to your father?”

He shook his head. “Not always.”

The priest raised his voice. “My boy, do you know where fathers stand, as far as the respect their sons owe them? Why, next to God Himself! ... ‘Children, obey your parents in all things; for this is well pleasing unto the Lord,’” he quoted. “Nor should you hold a grudge against your father, when he chastises you. The Scriptures tell us: ‘Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell.’”

“I’ll remember that,” the boy answered.

“Have you stolen?”


“Inflicted injury upon another?”


“Have you committed sins of impurity, with others?”


“With yourself?”

“No,” he lied, sullenly, resenting this intrusion into his privacy. He squeezed his hands into fists. He wanted to shout, but somehow managed to control himself as the priest continued the litany of sins. “No, father ... I haven’t borne false witness ... I haven’t led others astray ... nor blasphemed ... no, I can recall nothing else.”

The priest turned to him, his eyes empty, unseeing pools of black.

“Then let me tell you for the good of your soul, what God wants you to do. Your life isn’t yours, my son. It was given to you. You owe it to your father on earth, and even more to your Creator in heaven. ‘Seek not after your own heart,’ we read in the Bible—important words, telling us what path to follow. The temptation to go our own way is always with us. But we must resist that and give our lives to God. From birth we are sinful and guilty in His sight ...”

He didn’t listen to the rest; he merely stared through narrowed eyes at his knuckles till he heard the closing words:

“... in God’s name. Amen.”

He bowed his head for the absolution that followed. But he didn’t feel sinful, at least not in the way they meant, and the whole act was degrading.

“In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen. Go in peace, my son, and sin no more.” The priest rapped on the wall three times, in dismissal. But his voice made it plain this was only a cynical ritual, the boy would keep on sinning and have to come back again and again, for the rest of his life.

For the rest of my life, Marco thought ... Not if I can help it.

He stumbled out into the light, blinking.

Messer Agostino glared as he came out, and got up heavily from his bench, a frown still darkening his brow. He spat, wiped his mouth, then went into the stall for his turn.

The boy waited in the alcove, wanting to run away but not quite daring to. He rubbed his arm where his father had bruised it. He shuffled from foot to foot, numbly, his mind on nothing. Or on too much. He leaned against a carved marble pillar, resting his back against the martyrdom of a saint.

He couldn’t help thinking—

If his father’s “virtues” were really sins, as he more than suspected, then what was the true virtue? What were real good and evil, he wondered? Should a man be proud and independent, as Aristotle wrote in his Ethics? Or a humble servant of a God Who demanded that he deny himself, for no reason he could understand? ... Shouldn’t good be something that was good for him, that helped him? And evil something that harmed him, that did him injury ... not just a meaningless word?

The questions sank down, somewhere deep inside, waiting to be answered, demanding answers, though it might take years to find them.

Messer Agostino emerged from the stall, chewing his lip, his eyes a little chastened, as though drained of some of his spirit.

“Come on,” he said, in a hoarse whisper.

Marco followed.

They walked solemnly down the aisle, past the crowd who knelt with glazed eyes and permanently bowed heads, to kneel together before the altar rail, in the coiling white cloud of incense from the deacon’s censer. The fumes sickened him, though somehow others seemed immune to them. A large wooden crucifix stared down from its niche on the wall high above, in mockery, an ugly corpse hanging from the nails with its paint peeling off. The minutes dragged on. The boy’s knees began to ache as the lights of the candles blurred before his eyes. After endless Latin phrases that rang from the vaults like curses, and meaningless responses that paralyzed the mind, a priest approached from the right with chalice and white napkin like a giant figure looming over him, the deacon held a gold plate underneath to catch any wine-blood that dripped, his father was crammed against his side and there was no escape.

He opened his mouth and took the wafer.

That was it.

He felt nothing at all, though he knew this was a mortal sin, taking the Sacrament unworthily. They called that piece of bread a God, they really seemed to believe it, and once a prankster who broke into a church and desecrated the Host had been torn apart by red-hot pincers. But it meant nothing to him. After it melted against the roof of his mouth and he felt nothing more with his tongue he got to his feet, then spun around to hurry down the aisle.

Messer Agostino turned.

“Where are you going?”

The boy kept on.


He ran down the steps.


He was out into the street before his father could stop him.

He ran down the Borgo San Lorenzo, losing himself in the crowd and then slowing down, and he didn’t know why but suddenly he was gasping for breath, his heart pounding wildly as unshed tears welled up in his eyes. He shook his head, squeezing his hands into fists. Some deadly poison was eating away inside of him ... and he felt as though he would never be clean again.

He looked up. The sky above the line of roofs and towers was gray and overcast and indifferent; a more dismal sky he had never seen.

He was alone.

He wandered aimlessly, far across the city, taking the narrowest alleys and avoiding people as much as he could, going past Santa Croce and down the Via dei Malcontenti as far as the brick tower of the old Zecca or mint at the edge of the city, then back through the Corso dei Tintori where the pungent smell of the dyeing vats escaped through open windows to linger in the street. At the warehouse district the broad stone arches of the Ponte Rubiconte stretched gracefully across the Arno, with several tiny huts perched on its piers where nuns were walled up voluntarily, perpetually mortifying the flesh. He turned away to walk past the cluster of creaking, whirring mills that lined the embankment, finally stopping just above the ancient Ponte Vecchio. He could hear people walking past the butchers’ shops that lined the bridge, or riding with a clatter of hoofs on the cobblestones, and talking or gossiping as though nothing had happened.

His head sank down, wearily. Several grain barges rode low in the water, tied to a wharf a few feet below him.

He leaned over the cold stone of the parapet. He saw his face in the water, though he didn’t want to, pale and grim with dark disheveled hair hanging down to his eyes. The wind stirred the surface, obscuring his features. The river was swollen from the spring rains, with patches of green scum fouling the embankment; rank smells floated on the air from the sewers that emptied downstream. A few rushes rose tall and straight from the mud, to break up the reflections of shops and towers.

He unlaced his doublet, with trembling fingers. He felt hot, and his arms ached, as though any touch, even the touch of cloth, would be repulsive.

He shivered.

Damn his father! Damn him to the deepest pit of hell, and to every torture there was! The insult he’d suffered was beginning to rankle, the numbness replaced by outrage. He felt almost as though someone had raped him. There would be bruises on his arm where Messer Agostino held him, and on his face from a blow for dragging his heels.

What could he do? Where could he go?

Evening settled over the city, as he stood there, darkening the streets, draining light from the sky, until torches were lit one by one across the river and in the shops on the Ponte Vecchio, making a pattern of sparks that grew across the blackness. Birds wheeled more slowly and began to vanish from the air, leaving it cold and empty. The evening star appeared far in the west, hanging over Pisa like a solitary lantern raised up into the sky.

The streets were nearly deserted, and soon curfew would toll and the watch would begin its rounds. He turned away from the river and started back across town, keeping an eye open for robbers. He laced up his doublet, hunching his shoulders against the chill. After he was sure Messer Agostino would no longer be waiting up for him he went to the house, knocked until a sleepy Cypriano came hobbling to unbar the door, and crept across the courtyard to his small bare room. Cypriano, still holding an oil lamp, put his head in after him. “Messer Agostino has gone to bed,” was all the old servant would say, coldly, and then he shook his head, muttering, for he had heard of the boy’s disobedient ways.

Marco threw himself down on the cot, wondering how much longer he could stay in a house where he had no place.

He pulled off doublet and hose, and shirt too, to lie naked under the woolen blanket. He propped his head on his hands, as though to steady the flood of thoughts that poured in, unbidden. Everything was up in the air, with no certainty to anything ... He was lost ... no, not lost but something far worse, he knew where he was but the rest of the world around him was lost or mad or malevolent, and it seemed he was the only sane one left. And it was wrong, there was no reason for things to be like this, no reason at all. He would have to face his troubles on his own ... alone ... with nothing but his own strength to guide him and keep him going. Others wanted to break him, to snap him like a stick, but he was firm in the knowledge that that would not happen, he would neither break nor bend. He felt the uneasiness of reaching manhood before his time, pressured by force of circumstance to grow into the place his elders had left vacant.

“Nature abhors a vacuum,” he mumbled, staring at the rough timbers of the ceiling through the darkness and cobwebs. “At least, that’s what Maestro Aristotle says ... but that doesn’t apply to souls, does it? I know plenty of people with empty souls ...”

Thoughts crowded into his mind, unbidden; but beneath it all the shame still lingered, and he couldn’t shake it off. He raised a hand to his brow. It was hot and feverish. The agitation of his blood would not let him sleep. He pressed his face to the wall.

Damn his father! He had no right to make him take the Sacrament. He hated the old man ... Hell was too good for him, hell with all the burnings by fire and gnashing of teeth that Christ had promised, and all the ingenious pains Dante had invented for his Inferno.

Damn him!

Hatred filled him like a venom, poisoning his mind, twisting his muscles into knots, throbbing through his veins with the fevered rhythm of his blood. He tossed and turned under the blanket helplessly, for another hour. But it did him no good to keep on brooding like this, he realized at last. Slowly he forced himself to breathe deeply. He began to fight down the tension of his body, making the muscles of his jaw relax, then the cords of his neck and the muscles of his chest and his weary arms and legs.

He stared into the night.

He wondered if Ser Bruno would dare to defy Messer Agostino and take him in. Under the circumstances, he wasn’t sure what his cousin would do. But he had to get away from here and make a start on his own ... somehow. He had to act, but he was like a man tied hand and foot ... wanting to be free, to live in a world that made sense, where right was right and wrong was wrong, not twisted all around as it was here ... a world where parents didn’t torture their children, or lie to them. He ached for it so badly, with all the unsatisfied longing of a boy of fourteen ... and there were other yearnings in the tension of his body ... other yearnings, as he stirred in the dark ... another secret to hide, he thought grimly ... another feeling they would hate him for, if they knew. He wondered, not for the first time, what it would be like to have a woman ... to gaze into a pair of bright shining eyes near his, taste her lips and feel the firmness and softness of her breasts as he entered into her, to feel the warmth of her body mingling with his, the thrust of her loins, the clasp of her arms, the touch of another bright, independent soul against his ... for there had to be another soul like his, somewhere in the world ... at least one soul, he thought hopelessly, please, let there be at least one! he pleaded to the God he could no longer believe in ... Don’t let me be the only one in the world who thinks like this! ... The darkness hid him from view, as he sought what comfort he could in his solitude ... the pleasure he could only have in private, furtive moments like this, hidden away from all others ... from the hostile, uncomprehending others ... he had to hide it ... he had to ... Messer Agostino would probably break his hand if he caught him doing this. He lay back on the mattress, denying the world around him and its hold on him ... rebelling against its ugliness ... and all its pain ... till his body gave the great, long spasm of release that was his own secret discovery, and he gasped and lay panting for breath, finally rising on one arm to wipe the sweat from his brow ... It was sinful to lust after a woman, they had taught him, a shameful sign of man’s lower nature ... but it was a sin they cynically expected him to fall into. And to feel guilt, to feel vile and low and hate himself ... He didn’t know whether to feel guilty or not. He couldn’t help his desire, it seemed only natural, so why should he feel guilty? Why did they call this evil, when it seemed so good? Why should God begrudge him this pleasure? Would the Creator of the universe really care where his hands strayed, under the covers? ... He was ready to become a man, after all ... a man ...with this day, his boyhood lay behind him ... his whole being cried out for freedom, like a thirst of the soul that couldn’t be slaked ... the freedom of adulthood ... of a man whose will was his own law ... he would stand alone ... against his father ... against his classmates ... on his own ... on his own, no matter what ... he thought, as he fell asleep at last.

Copyright © 2008 by Bill Bucko

All Rights Reserved

This is the last excerpt I plan to post. I hope I've whetted your appetite for the entire novel, which I expect to see published sometime within the next two years. Thank you for your comments.

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Wow, this is beautiful writing! I am very intrigued to find out how the story progresses, and especially to read more about the character Marco. I can't wait to read more (both of this novel and future novels)!

One aspect that I think is particularly deserving of being highlighted is the quality of writing style. From what I've read so far, this novel has the rare makings to achieve the oft sought literary goal of the integration of both form and content. Cheers to you, Mr Bucko!

For those of you who haven't read the chapters yet, I highly recommend them!

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