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A large cypress tree arched over the graves, and a few clouds the color of peaches. The horizon glowed. The Neapolitan sun hadn’t yet begun her climb. Gina Falcone surveyed the newest additions beneath the burlap on her cart.
Besides the midsized tibia, a rib cage, and a large femur,
there was a child’s skull. Male or female, the bone cleaner didn’t know. Nor did she care. The recent dead troubled her no more than the bones of the plague victims from centuries ago.
At Via della Piazzola, she entered the old section of the city. Most of the red paint was chipped off her cart. The bare metal wheels ground against the black flagstones.
Walking past tiny dark alleys, the vichi, she imagined the omnibuses draped in black that had waited, centuries ago,
for the priests and stretcher-bearers to carry out the cadavers during the plague epidemic.
It was a block more to the Church of Santa Maria delle
Anime del Purgatorio. Outside the flower shop, a middleaged tourist, her hair rumpled from sleep, was bent over the buckets, inhaling the jasmine. Gina passed like a shadow come loose from a building. She adjusted the bag on the cart as it banged along the cobblestones. Market stalls clustered under medieval arches. The fishmonger dumped mussels onto a bed of ice. Across the way, the cheese man hollered up to his wife, who scowled and lowered a basket from their window. He removed keys and substituted butter and a loaf of bread.
“’Giorno, Signora,” called a robust man arranging burntorange apricots in his shop.
“’Giorno, Nico,” she replied.
Near the back of the shop, Nico’s mother sat crocheting.
Everyone knew not to touch the fruit. You pointed to what you wanted and he made the selections, weighed and bagged the apples or grapes, and you paid. Gina Falcone disregarded the convention. Nico didn’t like it but never objected, even when she ate a piece of fruit without paying.
Or grabbed a pear to test its ripeness and sent a half dozen others rolling across the ground.
That she did holy work and could intercede for souls waylaid in purgatory—like Nico’s grandmother—kept him from saying anything to her. Gina Falcone was among the last of the bone cleaners. Officially, second burials had ceased decades ago. It was an ancient practice going back to the
Egyptians. The mourners waited a year for the flesh to decompose, then disinterred the bones. Some placed them in an ossuary, a bone box, for the second burial. Or the few remaining bone cleaners, like Gina, collected them from the grave keepers and carried them to their rest in certain Naples churches where the practice was still quietly tolerated.
“Ciao, Gina,” Nico said, charging her a token for the fruit she’d taken.
She crossed the street to the church, a dark structure amid the crumbling ochre buildings that surrounded it. A
sunflower, a rose, and a stem of mimosa rested in the iron gates. Four bronze skulls and femurs sat atop four short columns. The skulls gleamed, polished daily by the passersby who touched them. Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio.
Vagrants dozed in the shadows of the black stones,
the Church being too stingy to invite them in but not heartless enough to forbid them a concrete bed outside its doors. The odor of urine was strong.
Purgatorio was four centuries old, built around the time the Cult of the Dead took hold in Naples, when Jesuits celebrated sixty masses a day on its altars. They preached among skulls and skeletons laid out on black cloth. The priests hadn’t held ecstatic services here in many years.
Gina missed them and the large crowds of parishioners carrying torches and flashlights in procession, descending to the crypts where each would select a skull to pray over.
The faithful still climbed down into the crypts to wash bones and privately pray for those in limbo, souls that had left this world but not yet reached the next.
At the end of the Second World War, Gina Falcone had dug up the remains of her young husband and another fallen soldier and prepared them for their second burial.
She felt called to continue, and her work began. For a long time, business was brisk, but it had slowed during the past decade. Signora Falcone survived on a small stipend from the Neapolitan Burial Society and donations from the bereaved.
Church bells tolled eight times. The madwoman on Vico del Sole screamed “Attenzione,” as she had every morning for years. “Sono malata!” I am ill. “Il pericolo. Il pericolo.” The danger. The danger.
A dozen people waited to enter the sanctuary—two women for every man. Some fingered their rosaries, prayed under their breath. Tonio the Dwarf stood at the front. A
gang of pigeons pecked at scattered breadcrumbs around their feet.
“Away!” Gina cried, waving her arms. They warbled in protest, ruffling their wings, lifting a foot before alighting again. She knew who was responsible: Uccello Camillo.
“Bird” Camillo’s pockets bulged with crumbs.
The bone cleaner mumbled and grabbed her cart. The faithful moved aside to let her through to deliver the new bones before they entered and descended. Tonio stepped out of the line to help lift the cart up the steps to the narrow church entrance. Gina handed him a key. Tonio was barely taller than the keyhole.
“Needs oil,” he said, working it into the lock. He pushed open the wooden door in to the dark interior. The only bright spot was the white altar. At its foot, purple and white chrysanthemums wilted in a vase.
Gina rolled the cart inside and leaned it against the last pew, a simple wooden bench without a cushion. She made the sign of the cross and took the bag from the cart. Gina
Falcone could find her way anywhere in the church with her eyes closed. She dragged the bones past the altar and through a small door that led to the crypt. Bones in one hand, with the other she felt her way down the long narrow staircase. Her eyes adjusted. At the very bottom was a faint light. Candles, left perhaps by someone the previous day.
The crypt comprised several rooms. In the first, skulls were piled and stacked everywhere: on the ground, in niches cut into the walls. A shrine with a lone skull strewn with dead flowers rested atop a mound of leg bones. Gina
Falcone shifted a decayed sunflower to a flat tin tray layered with finger bones and more skulls. She passed through a hallway of tombstones into the larger burial room. This gallery was filled floor to ceiling with yet more skulls and bones piled neatly in niches. Some eye sockets held slips of paper: messages from worshippers, personal information about the deceased gleaned in dreams about them.
In the room’s center was a bench carved from volcanic stone. There was an armrest and a hole in its seat. In times past, the body was placed there, for the flesh to rot away,
the putrefied fluids to pour into the drain below. Puozzà
Sculà! May you drain away—a taunt still heard in the streets.
It was quiet. Dank and peaceful. Gina stopped short before a stack of skeletons. Half reclining on the bench,
resting her chin on her hands, was an angel, her face pearly and framed in wavy red hair. Lovely, all in pink. At her pale throat, a beautiful necklace glinted with rubies and pearls.
Gina stepped closer to gaze at the red blossom near her heart. There were no petals, only the hilt of a large knife.
The call came in to the Carabinieri regional station on Via
Casanova, as Captain Natalia Monte finished her twentyfour-
hour sleepover duty. She swung her feet to the floor and tried to clear her vision.
“Why not the police?” she demanded of her dispatcher.
“The body was found at a cultural shrine.”
“Damn,” she muttered. Protection of cultural institutions was one of the Carabinieri’s odd areas of responsibility,
answering as they did partly to the Ministries of the
Interior, Exterior, and Defense.
Cursing, Captain Monte pulled on her uniform jacket and closed the knot of her tie, splashed water on her face, wet her fingers again, and tamped down her curls. They had sprung back up by the time she descended the three flights to the street and her duty car and driver. Getting in beside him,
she closed her eyes and tried to doze as they headed for the crime scene.
Father Cirillo, the monsignor, was waiting for her at the entrance to the church, his ample stomach straining against the mended cassock he’d donned for this task.
“Thank God you’re here,” he said, coming up to Natalia as she buckled on her holster. “I was at breakfast when I
heard the commotion.”
Together they entered the church. Near the altar, he pointed to a door, hardly noticeable. Natalia ducked to avoid hitting her head passing through. “Careful,” he said,
turning to her as they felt their way down the dark stairs toward the lantern light below.
“Wait,” she ordered. Someone was coming up the stairs toward them. Natalia drew her pistol as a small man came around a turn in the stairwell.
“Don’t shoot!” he screamed.
“Luca, you idiot. I ought to put you out of your misery.
If you’ve disturbed anything—”
“Nothing, Captain. Not ever.”
Natalia holstered her weapon. Luca was an old freelance photographer with a lens for a brain. A nocturnal creature,
he lived for a good murder. Half the time, he arrived at the scene before the police or the Carabinieri. Luca pressed past them in the stairwell.
“Monsignor,” he touched his cap. “Captain Monte.”
Natalia glared at him.
“Oh,” he said, stopping. “Where was she killed?”
Natalia pointed upward, saying nothing. Luca scurried toward the surface.
They passed through a large cavernous room, through a long hallway, and into a third room, each decorated with centuries of bones piled onto one another, some organized into categories, some arranged in eerie patterns.
“She’s in here,” the monsignor said. Natalia paused to brush dust from her uniform. Despite the Armani design,
it was wrinkled from the long night and now covered with grit. The red bands running down her pant legs were grimy, like her, like the cuffs and collar of her white shirt.
A beautiful girl sat on a stone bench in the center of the room. Ethereal. Pre-Raphaelite. She did look like an angel—a bloody one.
“As you may have gathered,” Father Cirillo said, “this chamber was used several hundred years ago for burials during the plague outbreaks. She’s posed like someone might have been in the seventeenth century. I’ve never seen anything like this except in illustrations.”
He was babbling. Natalia wished he wouldn’t. She stepped closer, examining the ground.
Communing with the dead. Many in Naples still did it.
When Natalia was a girl, her mother’s mother—Natalia’s
nonna—had gone weekly to the crypt where her sister’s bones were displayed. Sometimes she took her granddaughter.
Nonna made herself comfortable on a chair provided there. If there were no other visitors, the clicking of her knitting needles was often the only sound.
Such a gloomy city, Natalia thought, but what could you expect in a metropolis where people actually dressed in black so as not to be mistaken by the dead as living souls ripe for haunting? A miracle that anyone got out of bed in the morning at all.
The monsignor was still lecturing. Cirillo was an amateur scholar and led occasional tours of his church and the surrounding neighborhood. Natalia had seen him holding forth outside the church just the past spring.
“You’re too young to remember World War II. Bombs dropped on Naples every day. Twenty thousand people took refuge down here and in passages and cisterns carved by the Romans in the volcanic rock beneath the city.”
There was not much evidence of blood anywhere in the room. Murdered elsewhere. Maybe choked at the same time, given the marks under her jawline. And seriously stabbed. Twice. The back of the dress was as red with dry blood as the front was pinkish white.
Skulls ringed the victim in a half circle. Lilies rotted near her feet, their scent cloying. A candle burned. The victim was fair with a smattering of freckles, traces of lipstick visible on her mouth. A girl adorned for life’s pleasures.
Natalia walked the perimeter of the room, peering behind stacks of leg bones, wrist bones, finger bones, and skulls. No weapon; only bones and crumbled rock. Something glinted from the rubble. Natalia stepped closer. She slipped her gloves on and picked it up. A small silver heart,
untouched by the dust—an ex-voto, a votive offering.
Sixteenth-century worshippers had left them as offerings to the saints in gratitude for healing a broken limb, a diseased lung. Clerics as well as laypeople believed in them.
Nowadays, most considered them quaint. Most, but not all.
Ex-votos were usually miniature replicas of hands and feet or lungs. A heart was unusual. It suggested someone unsophisticated. Or was that a ruse? Did this poor girl’s death cure someone of heartbreak? A spurned lover? Or a mad person? Maybe both and the same.
“‘The Cult of the Dead,’ the worshippers of the bones were called,” Father Cirillo began.
When Natalia had been a girl, on All Souls’ Night her father would put a bucket of water outside their front door.
“So the dead can drink as they enter the house,” he’d say.
The next morning, when she would point out that the level of the water was unchanged, her mother had spat to make sure her daughter hadn’t aroused the evil eye.
“They get thirsty,” her mother scolded. “Mix this.” She pushed a bowl of dough to her daughter.
It was to make fave dei morti—the broad beans of the dead, the dough molded into the shape of bones. Not a
Neapolitan tradition. Natalia’s mother had learned to make the cakes from her cousin Rosalia, married to a carpenter from Tuscany. Long after Cousin Rosalia passed and every November until her own death, her mother continued baking them. To honor Rosalia’s memory, she said. And hedge her bets, Natalia thought.
Before they kneaded the dough or enjoyed the tasty cakes, Natalia’s mother repeated the prayer from the Cult of the Dead: “Sante Anime del Purgatorio pregate per noi che pregiamo per voi.”
Holy Saints of Purgatory, we beseech you to pray for us as we pray for you.