Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Case Study

Kathryn A. Kopple

            My ancestors come from the Lombard town of Mortara. The Romans called it Pulchra Silva. With the coming of Charlemagne, it became known as Mortara. Roughly translated, Mortara means “place of death."  These days, people go there for risotto and goose sausage.  In the late '70s, I made the trip with Sofia.  I put on so much weight that she teased me, saying I looked like a goose-stuffed sausage.  Now, my hair is white. There is hardly enough meat on my bones for the hyenas to make a decent meal of me. And yet, even in this decrepit state, I am fond of this body. I am not at all eager to part with it.              
Often I think of Edgardo. I wonder if I haven’t walked in his footsteps my entire life.  I don’t mean to say I have attained Edgardo’s transcendence. I mean only to say I have also suffered. 
 Edgardo was removed from his parents’ home as a young boy and adopted by Pope Pius IX.  I too was adopted as an infant. We share this early separation from our birth parents. At the time he was taken, Edgardo's parents fought to have him returned.  They pleaded with the authorities.  They contacted powerful leaders. The Rothschilds came to their aid. The French government tried to broker Edgardo’s release.  Across Europe, people took to the streets in protest. Steadfastly, Edgardo refused to return to his mother and father.
Edgardo possessed rare courage. In sermon after sermon, he spoke of his miraculous conversion.  He asserted under oath that demons tortured him day and night.  He blamed his mother, claiming that she was possessed.  Only his faith could protect him from her.   
I learned I was adopted when a group of boys spied on me in latrine at school one day.  Mortified, I vowed I would tell no one.  Noticing my pensive mood and poor appetite, my mother devised a simple scheme to get me to tell her my troubles.  She set out a bowl of cherry ice, handed me a spoon, and sat—smiling, patient—until I broke down. How I managed to communicate the details through my shame and blubbering I will never know.  Worse yet, by the time I had finished spilling the sordid details, she could scarcely look me in the eye.  She lived her faith so genuinely; the slightest stain on her spiritual life was a source of affliction.
            Her piety, humility—the twin pillars of her faith.  I did my best to follow her example, filling my hours with devotion and liturgy, the smell of chapel incense clinging to me wherever I went.  I reminded myself daily that I lived in a loving home.  My father was a simple but good man.  My mother was caring.  Of course, there were moments when I was plagued by curiosity. I considered confronting my mother.  On second thought, confront is too strong a word. I only wanted to hear the truth--told to me simply and directly.  The essence of who I was came from another place, in the history of another people.  What did I know of those people? 
When my mother passed away, I confess I felt liberated.  The time had come for me to leave home and pursue my studies.  I decided to become a history major, not an unusual choice for someone with an uncertain sense of his own past.  In the middle of a rather dull class on the Battle of Lepanto, a young woman sitting next to me passed me a note.  She wished to get to know me better.
Her name was Sofia.  She was the daughter of a prominent family, several of her kin high-standing members in business and politics.  Over coffee and  pastries, she told me that she was drawn to me because I had a kind face.  I returned the compliment, adding that I thought her very pretty.  When she reached for my hand across the table, the touch of her skin against mine reminded me of how little physical contact I had experienced.  I was a stranger to the most basic expressions of human affection.  For more years than I could count, I had held myself back, unable to touch or be touched, frozen inside. 
          We married and moved into a house with a sunny kitchen. Pots of marjoram decorated the windowsill. The extra bedroom became my study.  With Sofia at my side, I felt I could do anything.  I graduated from college and attended law school. I earned accolades and stellar grades, as well as some undeserved notoriety for a paper I published on Edgardo’s case.  What can I say?  The legality of the case intrigued me.  I remember spending a hot and muted summer in the library buried in scholarly tomes.  My article was accepted by a prestigious journal. I received reviews—not all of them flattering; some will always take pains to go that extra step. I was vilified by a prominent newsletter on religious affairs.  Looking back, I realize that it is not an easy thing to review the catalogue of human suffering and maintain one's objectivity.  I felt for the boy's family.  I suppose with a slight twist of the facts I might have argued in their favor.  And yet I never doubted that the authorities had scrupulously observed the law.
            I graduated and found myself out of work.  Many years would pass before I was able to set up my own firm.  Sofia never complained, although the same can't be said about her family.  They opposed our marriage from the start, and when their objections failed, they tried to use money to get what they wanted.  My poor wife.  The family pressured her mercilessly, and there came a point when she threatened to break with them entirely.  I tried to act as a mediator (after all, isn't that what lawyers do?) I believed she would regret turning her back on her mother and father because of me.  Never--no matter how much I cared for her--did I wish to be the person who came between Sofia and her family.  
          Regardless of my in-laws, ours was the happiest of partnerships.  Sofia was a wonderful mother to our children.  We had three of them.  I couldn't have imagined that our marriage would end as it did:  my lovely Sofia murdered and I, a condemned man.
             Wrongly condemned, I insist.  Although I can’t name the man who killed Sofia, he exists.  I would recognize him immediately; you can’t say that of everyone; that, a man you met once occupies your mind, not as mere memory, but as a fixture.
What do I recall?  I recall that, the night of the murder, I stayed past five at the office tying up this and that—the sorts of chores that keep us lawyers with our shoulder to the grindstone.  By the time I was able to get away, the streets were quiet. Such a gloomy evening, cold and damp, and as I walked home I recall in sharp detail the branches of the trees scraping in the wind and the spires of the Cathedral dark masts against the sky.  These sights added to my gloom.  A man hurrying in my direction asked me the time.  He was tall and gaunt, with a woolly black beard and long hair that gave him a prophetic air.  An odd bird if there ever was one. I glanced at my watch.  It read 11:00 pm. 
I made it home without further incident. Not wishing to disturb Sofia, I ate a ham sandwich for supper, got a fire started and settled in a chair with a good cognac for company.   I closed my eyes and drowsed.  A loud bang, a shot, woke me.  I ran up the stairs.  Immediately, I recognized him—the same man who stopped me in the street.  He dropped the gun and rushed for me.  Why he dropped the gun I can only guess.  I had the impression that he wanted to get his hands on me.  He was tall, tough as shoe leather, and his bony fingers dug into my neck.  My trachea buckled, the blackness of his eyes grew wider.   I was disappearing into that blackness when he lost his grip and the light rushed back in.  I grabbed at him and we stood, locked in each other's arms, imprisoned there. What a monster!  And then, he pulled back his head and spat at me, the saliva stinging my eyes.  I let out a cry of rage, broke loose and lunged for him.  We tumbled, first he over me, then I over him, our bodies landing hard at the bottom of the steps.  I never doubted that he wanted to kill me.
            The next thing I remember is the bright sunlight through the window.  I didn’t know it at the time but Sofia lay dead in the upstairs bedroom.  The intruder was nowhere to be seen.   
­­­­­­­­­            I have been convicted of killing my wife.  How is such a thing possible? I loved my wife.  No one believes me when I say that she was murdered. From start to finish, the case brought against me is preposterous. Men do not kill their wives on a whim.  If the police had done their job and searched the house for the murder weapon, they would know that I am telling the truth.  The beard was discovered; it achieved a certain mythic status, a prop in a drama staged for the jury's entertainment.  It was said that I had worn it the night of the murder to disguise my features.  Absurd!  Even if I had tried to disguise myself a beard is not the first thing that comes to mind. 
            To be wrongly accused is a terrible thing.  I suppose it is my innocence that causes me to think so often of Edgardo.  Few people take his side of the story—would defend him as I have, and not for purely legal reasons:  only love explains his refusal to return to the arms of his grieving mother—just as love proves that I could not have killed Sofia.  Edgardo and I differ simply in our devotion to God.  When I step into the execution chamber, I will die as Stefan Mortara. It is terrifying. I wish had Edgardo’s faith but I am human, made of skin and bones, in need of air to survive.  And yet, even at this dark hour, I have no taste for miracles.  I do not need the water to turn into wine.  Instead, I ask myself:  if man solved every mystery related to his physical reality, would he still yearn for transcendence?  If God is the ultimate mystery, he must be the solution to all mysteries.  Like most men, I am a mystery.  I would like to live in this condition of ignorance a bit longer.  Forever, if you must know the truth.

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