The most curious of all St. Nicholas’ legends is the well-known story of the three schoolboys. These children, coming to an inn in a time of famine, were murdered by the innkeeper, who, having no other meat to set before his customers, cut up their bodies and pickled them in a brine tub…Saint Nicholas, guided by God, discovered the murdered children. He blessed them…and at once the separated parts of the bodies were miraculously joined together. Life was restored to the dead boys and they rose up whole and active once more…
—Saints in Folklore by Christina Hole
The innkeeper drugged us first with free wine, and chopped us up, one at a time, while we were asleep. I woke while he was stirring us. After a dark, unsettling tohu-bohu, a whirlpool of mixed-up parts, finally my left eye popped briefly up to the surface. Then there was light, and this light on one eye—let’s call it the left—helped the other one see. My right eye was still in the middle of the maelstrom, and it was darker down there and everything was moving. A hand would float by. Was it Beppo’s? Or Leonardi’s? (It couldn’t have been mine, I thought, since I would have recognized my own hand instantly. But my brain was bumping against things too, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been so sure.) Then a leg would go by, or a kidney or a shoulder, but before I could identify it it would have passed on and a new body part would come into view, as in a kaleidoscope. I tried to stare at the innkeeper at the end of that long-handled spoon, but I saw no evil; just weakness and a failure of self-control. Then—whoops—one eye tumbled down, the other bobbed up, switching places in a rolling fluid motion, and along the journey every piece of me was jostled by disturbing mats of loose flesh and bone: Beppo’s, Leonardi’s, mine, Beppo’s, Beppo’s, mine, Leonardi’s, Beppo’s, Leonardi’s, mine. It was impossible to take in. Then he withdrew the spoon and went away, and the swirling slowed down.
My ear floated to the top at one point, tympanum exposed to air, and I heard Leonardi call out in the hollow whisper of a voice with no throat, “Antonio! Are you there?” I couldn’t answer him, since my mouth was underwater, and by the time it spun to the surface, my ear had gone under. I called out, “Leonardi!” and then “Beppo!” on the chance that Beppo’s ears had surfaced as well. When my ear swirled up again, I heard Leonardi gasp, “Antonio! Are you here?”—a slight change that signified nothing, since “there” and “here” were the same thing. Then my ear went under again, and while it was underwater I thought I heard Beppo’s thick, burbly voice call out “Antonio!” but the water so clouded both his voice and my hearing that he might have just as well been saying “housecoat!” and I could only assume it was my name because we were all in the same fight for identity, yelling out labels at random in the hopes that something would stop moving long enough to receive one.
I am not especially strategic—that was more Beppo’s line—but perhaps in exceptional situations we learn exceptional skills. So, I tried to wiggle a finger on one of my hands, and it felt like it was working. I flapped a hand, like a fish, and I thought I saw something wiggling differently than the whirling all around us. Finally, an experiment: I held my hand open in the hope that my eye would see it and they would run into one another. Then, I thought, my hand would be able to hold my eye and I could be assured of some measure of control over my perceptions. (Wouldn’t Beppo be proud of me!) I saw, with one of my eyes, a hand approaching through the gloom, tumbling end over end and slowly oozing blood and bubbles of oxygen. I tried to move that hand, and I felt an eye hit my palm and I instinctively closed my hand, but the hand I was seeing didn’t move at all. Horrified, I flung open my hand with a shudder that rippled the water. To think that I had been holding someone else’s eye!
Leonardi’s voice called out in its awful whisper, “You! Antonio! This is all your fault!” It seems my ear had stopped on top of the brine again, like a tiny punt on the ocean. Leonardi’s mouth floated nearby—right about where my cheek would have been, if our bodies made sense anymore. I tried out my mouth, but it was underwater. I could taste the salt as I shouted as loud as I could, “Why is this my fault?” As if I could shout through that much water! As if Leonardi could hear through his mouth! But as it happened, Leonardi’s ragged ear was bobbing against my very own lips, about halfway down, so he heard and was able to reply.
“You brought us here!” he said. “You were the one who said we should leave!”
Infuriating! Leonardi was the leader. And in our present state, how could he be so petty as to try to assign blame?
“I didn’t make you come with us. You could have stayed where you were and starved.” My eye surfaced just then, so I saw the bubbles containing my words pop as they breached the meniscus. It was my left eye, I think.
“I wish I had!” growled Leonardi. “Then we’d be with our families now.”
“Yes, and you’d be dead there, too, so what’s the difference?”
Leonardi sniffled, then his nose sneezed up water that caused ripples from somewhere behind my eye. “I want to go home.”
Though we were three unbearded youths, Leonardi had always been the big one, the one who Beppo and I had to convince so we could feel safe on the journey. Of course, we were all the same size now. But still, It was alarming to hear Leonardi crying. Too much salt in his eyeballs, perhaps.
Still, he had a point. It was Beppo’s idea, actually—he had made the plans, got the provisions, and decided on a day to leave. But I was the one who sold it to Leonardi, convincing him that our youth made us different, that a better land lay over the next horizon, etc. I had also kept our spirits up along the journey, spinning tales of what food we might find in the next town, or how we would look back on this in forty years as a great adventure. All Beppo had was charts and timetables, and he had no courage to even move himself. So Leonardi had a point. I was partly to blame for where we were now. But it surely couldn’t be all my fault.
“Anyway,” I said, “you were the one who wanted to talk to the innkeeper. Not me. You could tell he was crazy just from looking at him. I told you so.”
“The worst thing is,” said Leonardi, “I suspect we’ll wind up being fed to old people, who were just going to die anyway. It’s not fair. It’s like the world flipped over.”
It sounded like his lips had floated a little, to where the back of my head would have been. He emitted a bubbling noise by way of a sigh.
“Shut up,” said Beppo’s voice. I saw the water ripple in front of me, so his mouth must have been in front of my eye at some distance, behind a floating shoulder that blocked a lot of my view.
“Beppo!” I said. “Where have you been?”
“Is anyone there?” Beppo asked. “I can hear you, Leonardi, you sudden crybaby. What are you yelling for? How stupid you are!”
“Beppo? Where are you?” said Leonardi.
“I waited until everything settled down after the stirring,” said Beppo. I wasn’t sure he could even hear us. He might have just been yammering. That’s usually my job.
“I know screaming never does any good. I’m not going to waste my energy like you.” What Beppo meant was, he was lazy. He was slow and calculating and he dragged his feet. Left to his own, Beppo would have died on a roadside, too shy to ask for anything, and no one would have even noticed.
“Oh, I wish I was home!” called Leonardi, his voice filled with longing. “I’d rather starve than get chopped up. Starving is slow, and you can do it with your friends around. But this! This has been so scary! No one would have killed us in our home town…”
“Shut up, Leonardi,” said Beppo. “You’re giving me a headache.” I had been about to say the same thing. So now he was yammering too. What a time for this to happen.
“…I’d rather have my friends kill me. No, wait. I’d rather just drown some time while I was having fun…” Leonardi went on, and I realized that he couldn’t hear Beppo at all. Nor could I speak to Beppo directly.
“Leonardi!” I yelled. “Listen! We have to find your other ear and put it next to Beppo’s mouth. Are you listening?”
“Yes,” said Leonardi.
“Can you do it? Can you move things? A hand or a finger?”
There was sloshing. Something was moving, at least. Leonardi muttered, “Another of your sales pitches, another of Beppo’s plans.” I gritted my teeth–it was my plan–but let it go.
“Shut up,” said Beppo, even though Leonardi already had. Leonardi was the most pious of us, and hence had been the hardest to move. He had been convinced that the famine was God’s judgment, and it might be a sin to even try to escape. Actually, we think he was afraid because he’d never been away from our village and didn’t know the roads. Beppo did. I got Leonardi moving with us by calling on the examples of Abraham and Moses, called out of a bad situation into a better one. It was a shame that it looked, from here, like Leonardi had been right: we died anyway.
Anyway, Beppo picked up on what we were doing, and so all three of us contrived to move our severed hands. This is how it was: the water trembled as our thirty fingers worked at once, guided by the eyes still underwater, to find our mouths and ears. If a mouth was too far away, we pawed the water until it came into someone’s hand. Once it was in our hand, one of us would toss or fling it to the surface, since ears and mouths were useless underwater with the hands. It was confusing, and either I lost control of my own hands or I had misidentified them in the first place, because when I tried to move a hand I could see—one that I was sure was my hand because of the scar below the thumbnail—another hand would move instead, and after a while it would balk and either start up again or another one would move to replace that one, and so on.
While this was happening, I used my other eye to look around. There were three hearts suspended between the flesh above and the saltwater below, and I tried to distinguish which one was mine. Of course, I had never seen my own heart, but I could tell already that mine couldn’t be the one in the middle, grotesquely large and marbled with fat. That had to be Beppo’s, since he was always eating. That left two others, and though I couldn’t distinguish them at first, as I examined more carefully, I could see that, of the two that remained, one of them was smaller and frailer. Its aorta had been severed raggedly instead of smoothly (the other heart was a dissectional marvel) and there was a slight dent in it, probably made by the innkeeper’s thick clumsy fingers when he had grabbed it and tossed it in here. That weak heart was probably Leonardi’s, since he was always complaining anyway, and was often short of breath despite his size. I say this without intending to be prideful–my heart seemed to be the healthiest.
Also floating down there were three brains, looking soft, gray, and unimpressive in the extreme, like dead fish. They looked so helpless that I didn’t want to identify with any of them.
“What do we do now?” I said, when the operation was completed and all our mouths and ears were floating on top of the water.
“We’re not done yet!” screamed Leonardi. “My mouth is over here and my ears are over there!”
“What difference does that make?” I said.
“They have to be together!” he said. “That’s what we all have to do. I’m not going to be finished until my ears are floating on either side of my own mouth, with my eyes bobbing above them, and my nose in between, and…”
“You’re talking nonsense,” snarled Beppo, with mockery in his voice. “‘My mouth, my ears, my nose!’ Does that really mean anything here? No, right now we’re all one big same thing. Everything is ours, and all of us here are one big I. There’s no other way to talk about it.”
“You’re lying!” said Leonardi. “God made us separate before, and God wouldn’t want us to get mixed up in death. We have to divide up.”
“That’s ridiculous!” I said. “You’re just upset because you thought God wouldn’t kill you if you left and He did anyway.”
“This is all your fault,” said Leonardi.
“Sure it is,” I said, and by now I was bitter. “Why don’t you blame God instead of me? I didn’t cause the famine.” I believe in God, but I know better than to expect miracles.
“Because Leonardi still wants to be saved, the big baby,” Beppo said. “He’s expecting bright light from above and hands coming out of Heaven and such. Well, it’s not going to happen, Leonardi. If there were a Heaven, we’d be there by now, right? There is no God. We are what we are. And right now, we’re like a…a trinity, only of us! We better get used to it.”
“Blasphemy! I want my legs!” cried Leonardi. “I want my whole body!”
I did not find Beppo’s philosophical argument reasonable—we weren’t one big blob, were we?—but Leonardi’s plan to grab out body parts seemed ridiculous as well. There just wasn’t room. My thought was more practical: we were dead, after all, and the sooner we could all learn to live together, the sooner we could prepare ourselves to confront whatever happened next. We just needed to convince Leonardi.
“Uh, Leonardi?” I said, “Your way isn’t going to work. How do you know which hand is yours? And all those internal organs. I can’t even tell them apart.”
“I can tell,” he said, and the water started agitating as he moved his hands around.
“Let him go,” said Beppo. “He’s just stuck up and foolish, and as soon as he realizes that, we’ll all work together more smoothly.” He was silent a bit, and then added, “But what an idiot! I wish he didn’t have to be part of us.”
But instead of leaving him alone, I looked with an eye or two and I saw that Leonardi was grabbing things and pulling them to one corner of the vat that he had evidently decided was his. He had his arm with its stump of a wrist tied with blood vessels to a hand he decided to favor, and with this he was reaching deeper and deeper down into the flotsam that used to be us. And he was reaching for the good heart!
“Stop that!” I said to him, and I mimicked him, but with less time to organize, grabbing the nearest hand I could find and tying it with the closest thing (hair—it was certainly Beppo’s) to a long thing that turned out to be a leg, who knew whose. “That’s my heart!”
“It is not!” said Leonardi. “I saw it first! And anyway, what if it is? We’re going to see God soon, and I’ll need a pure heart to see Jesus and Mary and all of the saints. We’re separate souls. We can’t all get in. It’s too bad, you know, but it’s true. My mom told me.”
I doubted this. He was just citing the highest authority he knew.
“You won’t get into Heaven!” I said. “You’re too greedy, and you’re a thief for stealing my heart. Give it to me!”
“You’re guilty of murder, Antonio,” said Leonardi coldly. “I lived a good life. I’m just fighting for what I deserve.”
“Hah!” I said. “If I’m guilty of murder, then we’re all guilty. When we got mixed together, the guilt got mixed up too. You’re doomed.”
“No!” said Leonardi. “God will know the true me.”
“Then he’ll know that I’m not to blame for our murder.”
“Shut up! Both of you!” said Beppo.
Ignoring him, we struggled, and I found that with my hand tied to a leg, I could kick far better than he could grab. I struck the heart from his hand, and it sailed silently through the water and bounced against the side of the tub, casting bubbles in its wake. From where it landed there were more grabbing motions, and it wound up in someone’s hand.
“Let go of it, Leonardi!” I said.
“I don’t have it,” said Leonardi, and his voice sounded broken.
“Let go of my hair,” he said, “and I’ll give you your heart.”
“You hypocrite! What do you mean, your hair? You said we were all one thing.”
“With hair, you can tell.”
“Well anyway, I’m not grabbing your hair.”
“You’re using it to tie your hand to a leg. I don’t want my hair treated like it’s something else instead of hair.”
“What does it matter to you?” I said, afraid that if I untied my hand from its leg, Leonardi would have an advantage against me if he tried to intercept my heart with his arm. “It’s all the same, isn’t it?”
“We are all one thing, that’s true, but hands are supposed to be hands, and hair is supposed to be hair. If we’re going to live like three bodies, we have to respect their parts and use them right. Or it’s just going to get crazy and…and weird,” he said, as if weird were a worse word than dead or damned.
“All right,” I said, and sighed. It was hard because I was confused, and the hand I used to untie the hair was trembling with fear. I could hear Leonardi’s breath catch in lungs somewhere below my ears, and I knew he was waiting for the moment of release, when Beppo would give me my heart. He would spoil it somehow.
The hair untied, and the hand and leg floated free. “All right,” I said to Beppo. “Give me the heart.”
“You already have it,” said Beppo. “That’s your hand.”
I concentrated and discovered that he was right. He had taken advantage of my confusion and gotten me to loosen the hair. On the surface, I smiled, though only I could see it. I hadn’t checked the brains closely, but it was pretty clear that Beppo’s must be the biggest one.
“Give me that heart, you thief!” said Leonardi.
“To hell with you,” I said. “It’s my heart! You took it by stealing.”
“And you took it back by violence! You may have even damaged it so much that now it’s the worst heart of all! It’s like you’ve committed another murder!”
“It’s not your heart!”
“God will know!”
I kicked him in the back of the mouth with the ankle of my footless leg. He grabbed my liver and started squeezing. “Help!” I cried. “Beppo, help me!”
“Quiet! Both of you!” said Beppo. “Listen!”
Outside, we could hear two people talking. The first was the innkeeper’s voice:
–Hello, sir. How may I help you today?
The other voice mumbled something we couldn’t hear.
–Certainly. What is your name, sir? Nicholas? Fine.
“What’s going on?” said Leonardi.
“Shut up, ” said Beppo.
—Here you go, sir. It’s upstairs and to the left. Second door.
The other voice raised in tone, as if asking a question. The innkeeper sounded nervous.
—The young men? What young men?
There was more mumbling.
—Oh Jesus…Sweet Mary…
Something fell to the floor. (We found out later it was the innkeeper, fainted dead away from guilt.) There were footsteps, coming closer. My eyeballs were still on top. I couldn’t squint to see better, so I was all but blinded, but I did manage to make out that the man had a long white beard and rosy cheeks. I heard him say one word:
He held his hands over us and muttered something that sounded like a prayer, and the water started moving, shifting, boiling. With a nauseating sensation that was actually worse than the death, and worse than the stirring, we were upgorged, all of us, onto the cold floor of the larder, and lay helpless as our parts started sorting themselves out. My eyes entered sockets, and were wrapped in lids that clamped shut in pain. I could feel a spine enter my back, my legs find feet, my brain slip back into my newly re-formed skull. Worst of all, I felt the heart slip out of my hand. I clutched fiercely, but to no avail. All I held was cold moisture. Was it going into my own chest, or into someone else’s? (It must have been easier on Leonardi than on Beppo and I, because he at least had believed in miracles before this. I just hoped my brain would survive all right.) The whole process was indescribably agonizing, and we all lay helpless for minutes after it was all over. I felt tears blurt from behind my eyelids, though it might have been brine.
When I opened my eyes, the light was still blinding, so I couldn’t clearly see the man who had saved us, but from the name and the miracle I knew that it must be Saint Nicholas. I recognized everything around us: the kitchen, the windows, the innkeeper (who looked at me, fully formed, and ran in panic from the room. We never saw him again). We were all in fetal positions, naked.
“We’re alive,” said Beppo, without enthusiasm. “Back in the famine.”
Leonardi rolled to a kneeling position and said, “I’m sorry, St. Nicholas! I was frightened, and I acted cruelly to my friends. Please forgive me.” But Nicholas was gone. He had already blessed us, apparently.
Beppo found our clothes in a corner and got up and tossed them to us.
“I’m sorry for the way I acted, friends,” said Beppo, looking shaken. “I should have known God would save us.”
“And I’m sorry I said those things to you,” Leonardi said to me.
I too felt a sense of relief at at least being alive again, and this washed away all my resentment. “It’s okay,” I said to Leonardi. “I said some harsh things, too.” And we shook hands. Then I noticed that he had a scar on his thumb, right below the nail.
“Let’s get out of here,” said Beppo.
“Which way?” I asked, but I didn’t know what I was saying. I was too shaken to pay attention to my own words, and I just rattled off whatever came to my (?) lips.
“Forward!” said Leonardi, leading the way. “God will take care of us!” So now Leonardi was leading. And it looked like he’d put on some weight.
Beppo nodded and said, “I’ve never been very religious, but now I know that God really is fair!”
I felt dizzy and sick. But they wanted to go, and I couldn’t leave them. We were inextricable now.
“Let’s just find someplace home. I mean safe,” I said, and I followed them through the rest of the village along the main road, taking in sights with maybe Beppo’s eyes, walking with possibly Leonardi’s legs, and with anybody’s heart juddering hard within my chest.