The gift arrived for Alfredo's seventh name-day. It wasn't like his other giftsthe basket of candied cherries, the hobbyhorse, the toy drumnot a gift for a child at all. He opened the little leather pouch and pulled out a fine yellow chain, like the one his big brother, Giorgio, had been given to wear round his neck for his First Communion, but instead of a cross on the end this one had a funny little animal, made of the same yellow stuff as the chain.
He stared at it. The body was like that of one of the little brown lizards that lived in the cracks in the brickwork of the bakehouse, except that it had a long tail that curled under its belly, right round behind and over, with the end hanging down beside its front leg with a sharp hook at the tip. And the spread toes had small hooked claws, and not the sucker pads of the bakehouse lizards.
The head and face were even more different, not like any lizard's, but round and wrinkled, like the face of the little gray ape Alfredo had seen at the great Shrove Tuesday fair, sitting on a hurdy-gurdy with a leash round its neck. Except that the monkey had had a huge wide grin, but this thing's mouth was a little round hole.
"That's a funny animal," he said. "What is it?"
Nobody answered. He looked up, puzzled, aware of an uncomfortable silence in the room.
"What is it, Mother?" he said again.
Mother sighed and looked questioningly at Father.
"It's a present from my brother, your uncle Giorgio," said Father. "To bring you luck."
"You're not going to let him wear it?" said Mother.
"Better than not letting him," said Father, in the voice he used to settle an argument.
"He came to my christening too," said Giorgio, "but he never came to my name-day, or gave me a present, and I'm named for him. He could've brought one when he came to Alfredo's christening, but he never even looked at me. I knew he was my rich uncle so I was set to charm the heart out of him, but he pushed straight past in his posh getup and kissed Mama's hand, all la-di-da. Then he hung over the cradle for a bit, and went off and stuffed himself at the sideboard like he hadn't eaten for a month."
"He didn't pay much attention to anyone," said Mother.
"Never does," said Father. "Better that way. And you are named for my grandfather, not your uncle."
There was an edge in both his parents' voices that Alfredo didn't notice but remembered later, looking back to what had happened on his name-day. At the time he was busy puzzling over the gift his uncle had sent him.
"Yes, but this animal," he said impatiently. "What is it?"
"It's a salamander," said Father, with a chuckle that Alfredo, also later, realized must have been forced. "Perhaps it will bring you luck, little son of mine."
After the excitements of his name-day Alfredo found it hard to sleep. Restless, he crept down to the kitchen for a mug of water. There were cracks of light around the kitchen door, and the sound of Father's voice from beyond it. He hesitated. He caught a few words here and there.
". . . has no children, as far as I know . . . renounced my own birthrightI can't do that for him . . . make up his own mind when he is old enough to understand . . ."
Mother said something, too softly for Alfredo to catch, apart from the note of deep anxiety. Father sighed heavily and answered.
". . . must have its Master. That is the one thing on which he and I ever have been able to agree."
Alfredo crept back upstairs without his drink.
But perhaps the salamander did bring Alfredo luck. Nobody had been able to tell him much about salamanders, except that they lived in the fire in the heart of certain mountains, and that if questioned they would tell you the truth. He was pleased by the bit about the fire. Though he lived in a hot country, he had always loved the bakehouse, especially the glorious moment when Father opened one of the fire-pit doors to add a fresh log, and the huge orange energy, a power like that of the sun, came streaming out. Oh, to live in the heart of such a fire, like a salamander!
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