One thing was for certain, she never wanted to go. She never wanted to go to Santa Chiara.
Francesca stared out the huge windows of the dining hall; the rain beat harder and harder against the window, making it almost impossible to hear the nun as she said grace. The ancient Madonna in the painting over the fireplace looked as tranquil as ever.
As the girls started their dinner so did their chatter, almost drowning out the sound of the storm.
Francesca sat secluded in a corner, thinking, in self-pity.
She was suddenly woken out of her reverie by Sister Angelica, who was standing over her.
“If you are done, I will show you around the school. Put your dishes in the kitchen and follow me,” she said.
Francesca did as she was told and followed Sister Angelica out of the dining hall.
“These are the classrooms. You will be paired with one of the other girls so they can show you to each of your classes,” Sister Angelica informed her.
Sister Angelica showed her the nuns’ hallway with the nuns’ rooms and the office. She showed Francesca the courtyard, the student lounge, and the kitchen. Finally, Francesca was shown the room where she would be sleeping with the three other thirteen-year-old girls. Her room looked out over the courtyard and the courtyard looked over the Tuscan countryside and a castle pricked the sky on one of the highest hills.
Francesca sat on her bed, staring out the window, wondering why she was here, but she knew why she was here. It was her paintings. Francesca was the daughter of the owner of the largest bank in Rome, and her parents thought it hardly suitable that she should paint. They considered painting a useless occupation, so she was sent to a highly recommended boarding school in the tiny town of Castiglion Fiorentino. And here she was in Santa Chiara where the school was taught by nuns.
It was about an hour before the three other girls came in. As they got ready for bed, they laughed and talked, almost completely ignoring Francesca until they were almost in bed. A girl named Sofia told Francesca that she would be showing her around the next day.
It took a long while, but finally the stars calmed Francesca and she slipped into the dark folds of sleep.
The next day was very uneventful, as was the rest of the week. Surprisingly, Francesca was quite happy. She liked the quietness of Castiglion compared to the buzzing streets of Rome. The classes were good and the nuns were tolerable. The only thing she really wanted was a friend, but that could wait. She quickly established that her favorite spot was under the huge shady tree in the courtyard. She liked to look out over the countryside. She drew too, but she was not entirely certain she was allowed to.
One day Francesca was again sitting alone in a corner of the dining hall at lunch. She was eating mechanically, not really seeing or tasting what she was eating, when a flash of color caught her eye. It was the Madonna that was always at the head of the dining hall. Francesca had never noticed, but the painting had a placid sort of beauty about it. She whipped out a piece of paper and pencil and started drawing the beautiful Madonna. She was so involved in her drawing that she didn’t even notice Sister Lucia standing over her.
“Although I am glad to see you take an interest in the Virgin Mary, your parents specifically sent a note saying that you are not to draw or paint in any form,” she said and whipped the paper out of sight with one sweep of her gnarled hand.
* * *
On Saturday morning, Sister Angelica took the girls to the town plaza.
“You may go around the town,” she announced, “but be back here by one o’clock.”
As soon as Sister Angelica had finished her announcement, the girls scattered. Francesca wandered down a narrow alley and came out two blocks away from the plaza. She did not think about where she was going, she just simply wandered along the cobblestone streets.
She stopped to rest in a plaza that overlooked the Tuscan countryside.
The tiny plaza was wedged between two stone buildings. There were only a few people in the plaza; a woman and her baby, two boys play-fighting and an old man. Francesca sat on the stone wall and watched the old man intently. He was painting a picture.
He seemed oblivious to the world around him, only concentrating on the stroke of his brush and the sound of silence.
Francesca approached him and stood looking over his shoulder. He didn’t notice her standing there and she might have thought him asleep if it wasn’t for the fact that his eyes were open.
“What are you painting?” she asked timidly.
“Life,” he answered without looking up.
The countryside that he was painting did look like the definition of life. The hills were green and dotted with houses and his painting looked as perfect as the real thing.
I could never paint anything as beautiful as that, she thought. Suddenly, with practically a physical jolt, she was struck with an idea.
“Could you teach me to paint?” she burst out in a rush and clapped her hand over her mouth in horror.
Finally he looked up at her. His face was a mass of old memories and old smiles. He stared at her for several moments and Francesca stared back, mesmerized by his gaze. “I will teach you,” he said finally, “under one condition. You will paint forever, no matter what.”
Francesca thought it an odd request, but she agreed and sat down on the wall next to him. “Now before you ever start to paint,” he began, “you must learn the rules before you start to break them.” He handed her a pencil and a paper and said, “Show me what you can do.”
She obeyed and started drawing the little café in the plaza. When she was done, Francesca handed him the sketch. She was quite proud of herself and thought it was one of her best ones yet until he announced, “This is awful, although I have seen worse.” In the end, he ticked off seven things that were wrong about it.
Francesca was mortified but managed to obtain a half-decent expression. Before they were done, the old man had criticized Francesca’s work about seventeen times. At about 12:45 the old man said, “Today was good, but next week will be better.” Francesca nodded and took off quickly back to Santa Chiara.
* * *
Francesca went to the little plaza every Saturday and the old man was always there, painting placidly. If there was one thing Francesca had learned about the old man, it was don’t talk to him, let him talk to you, which was occasionally, and only when he had to. He never said anything about his past or anything about anything besides art. There were times when his eyes clouded over and he became more oblivious to the world around him as though he was remembering something. Other than that, his face resembled one of the stones that made up the street.
Francesca’s life fell into a pattern: school, eat, sleep, old man; school, eat, sleep, old man. And she went on very happily for about five months. She grew very attached to the old man and, even though he tried hard not to show it, she knew that the old man was attached to her too. She never learned the old man’s name but every time they departed, he said, “Today was good, but you’ll do better,” and he was right. Every day she improved until the day came that she was to go back to Rome.
Francesca ran crying into the plaza that she had come to love so much. She sat down heavily next to the old man and choked out, “I . . . I have to go back to Rome. I d-don’t want to. I’ll . . . I’ll . . . I’ll have to stop painting and . . .”
“Now you listen to me, young lady, you are not going to stop painting. That was our bargain. Now dry those tears and let’s talk this out.” Francesca had never heard him be so kind. If someone had been looking down on the plaza they would have seen an old man and a young girl whispering in a corner.
The next day, Francesca could be seen in the courtyard waiting for her mother to arrive to take her away from Santa Chiara. When Francesca’s mother arrived, she was marched straight to the courtyard where Francesca was waiting. Francesca stood and confronted her mother.
“Are your bags packed, Francesca? Your father has an important meeting with some business associates coming over for dinner and I want to be home by six at the latest,” she said without looking at her daughter.
“Mother,” Francesca said, her voice shaking, “I’m not going back to Rome.”
Finally her mother looked at her daughter’s white face. “What?” she said, confused.
“I’m not going back. Here I learned to paint and it’s not the nuns’ fault. It’s mine. An old man taught me,” Francesca said into the silence. “And look,” she began again, “look at this painting.”
It was one of the last paintings she had done, and the old man had said some very good things about it. The painting was one of the castle on the hill. Its dark intimidating figure contrasted well with the bright sky.
Francesca’s mother sat down on a bench, for once at a loss for words.
* * *
That night, Francesca was staring out her bedroom window in Santa Chiara. Her mother had finally consented after much haggling, and Francesca was staying at Santa Chiara. She couldn’t sleep, but as she looked down from the window into the countryside, and finally at the tree in the courtyard, sleep overcame her. The last thing she remembered seeing that night was the view from Santa Chiara.