Christ, you're homely.
Schramm wipes his mouth on his sleeve, wondering if he has spoken aloud. For years, words have threatened to pour out, like blood from his throat. He fears hemorrhage.
Shivering in the heat, he makes a move toward the door. The nun bars his way. "La chiesa è chiusa!" she says, but Schramm pushes past her.
The baptistry reeks of carbolic, incense, explosives, and charred stone. Three novices scour its limestone floor. The prettiest sits on her heels, her face smudged with soot from the firebomb's damage. Calmly, she studies the Luger dangling in this German's right hand. Behind him, Sister Beer Keg snaps her fingers. Eyes drop. Work resumes.
Schramm shoves the pistol into its holster, pulls off his campaign cap, and rubs a sweaty palm over cropped brown hair. The nave is empty apart from a single man who ambles down the center aisle, neck cranked back like a cormorant's, hands clasped loosely behind his back. This personage studies the swirling seraphim and whey-faced saints above, himself an allegorical portrait come to life: Unconcern in a Silver-Gray Suit.
Distracted by the tourist, Schramm takes a step toward the confessionals and trips over a bucket of water. "Scheisse," he swears, hopping away from the spill.
"Basta!" the fat nun declares, pulling him toward the door.
"Io need ein padre!" he insists, but his Italian is two decades oldthe fading souvenir of a year in Florence. The Beer Keg shakes her head. Standing his ground, Schramm points at a confessional. "Un padre, understand?"
"La chiesa è chiusa!"
"I know the church is closed! But I need"
"A strong black coffee?" the tourist suggests pleasantly. His German is Tyrolean, but there's no mistaking the graceful confidence of an Italian male who employs a superb tailor. "A medical officer!" he says, noting the insignia on Schramm's collar. "You speak the language of Dante most vigorously, Herr Doktor, but the people of this region generally use a Ligurian dialect, not the classical Italian you are"
"Butchering," Schramm supplies, with flat accuracy.
"Striving for, one might have said. With your permission, I can explain to Suora Marta that you're seeking a priest who speaks German."
Schramm listens hard, but their dialect is as thick as an Austrian's head, and he gives up until the tourist translates. "Suora tells me Archbishop Tirassa's assistant speaks excellent German. Confessions, however, will not be heard again until Saturday." When Schramm begins to protest, the Italian holds up a conciliatory hand. "I shall point out that in time of war, the angel of death is more capricious than usual. Preparation for his arrival should not be delayed."
The man's voice becomes a soothing melody of persuasion and practicality. Schramm watches Suora Marta's face. She reminds him of his mother's sister, a Vincentian nun equally short and dumpy and ugly. "Like Papa used t'say, Christ'll take what nobody else wants.' "
"And so there is hope, even for pigs like you," the nun replies.
Schramm's jaw drops. A stunned laugh escapes his interpreter. Eyes fearlessly on Schramm's own, Suora Marta removes her rubber gloves and apron. Without hurry, she untucks her habit, straightens her gown, folds her outer sleeves back to the proper cuff length. Hands sliding beneath her scapular, she gives Schramm one last dirty look before gliding away with chubby dignity.
Schramm tips a mouthful of brandy down his throat. "Verdammte Scheisse! Why didn' you tell me she speaks German?"
Excerpted from A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell, pages 9-16. Copyright © 2005 by Mary Doria Russell. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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