In September of 1943 Hector Adonis was a Professor of History and Literature at the University of Palermo. His extremely short stature caused his colleagues to treat him with less respect than his talents deserved. But this was foreordained in the Sicilian culture, which commonly and brutally based nicknames on physical shortcomings. The one person who knew his true value was the President of the University.
In this September of 1943, Hector Adonis' life was about to change. For southern Italy, the war was over. The American Army had already conquered Sicily and gone on to the mainland. Fascism was dead, Italy was reborn; for the first time in fourteen centuries, the island of Sicily had no real master. But Hector Adonis, knowing the ironies of history, had no great hopes. The Mafia had already begun to usurp the rule of law in Sicily. Their cancerous power would be as deadly as that of any corporate state. From his office window he looked down on the grounds of the University, at the few buildings that could be called a campus.
There was no need for dormitories, there was no college life as known in England and America. Here most students studied at home and consulted with their professors at stated intervals. The professors gave lectures which students could ignore with impunity. They needed only to take their exams. It was a system that Hector Adonis thought disgraceful in general and stupid in particular as it affected Sicilians, who, he thought, required a pedagogical discipline even more severe than students in other countries.
Watching from his cathedral-like window he could see the seasonal influx of Mafia chiefs from all the provinces of Sicily, come to make their lobbying calls on the professors of the University. Under Fascist rule, these Mafia chiefs had been more circumspect, more humble, but now under the beneficent rule of American-restored democracy, they had risen like worms struggling through rain-broken earth and resumed their old ways. They were no longer humble.
The Mafia chiefs, the Friends of the Friends, heads of small local clans in the many villages of Sicily, came in holiday finery to plead the cause of students who were relatives or sons of wealthy landowners, or sons of friends, who were failing in their courses at the University, who would not get degrees unless some firm action was taken. And these degrees were of the utmost importance. How else would families get rid of sons who had no ambition, no talent, no intelligence? Parents would have to support sons the rest of their lives. But with degrees, slips of parchment from the University, these same rascals could become teachers, doctors, members of Parliament, or if worse came to worst, minor administrative functionaries of the state.
Hector Adonis shrugged; history consoled him. His beloved British, in their greatest days of Empire, had entrusted their armies to equally incompetent sons of the rich, whose parents bought them commissions in the army and the commands of great ships. Still the Empire had prospered. True these commanders had led their men to unnecessary slaughters, yet it must be said that the commanders had died with their men, bravery had been an imperative of their class. And that dying had at least solved the problem of incompetent and feckless men becoming a burden to the state. Italians were not so chivalrous or so coldly practical. They loved their children, saved them from personal disasters and let the state look after itself.
From his window, Hector Adonis could spot at least three local Mafia chiefs wandering around looking for their victims. They wore cloth caps and leather boots and carried over their arms heavy velvet jackets, for the weather was still warm. They carried baskets of fruit, bamboo-jacketed bottles of home-grown wine to give as gifts. Not bribes but courteous antidotes for the terror that would rise in the breasts of the professors at the sight of them. For most of the professors were natives of Sicily and understood that the requests could never be refused.
One of the Mafia chiefs, in dress so countrified he could have stepped onto the stage of Cavalleria Rusticana, was entering the building and ascending the stairs. Hector Adonis prepared, with sardonic pleasure, to play the familiar comedy to come.
Adonis knew the man. His name was Buccilla and he owned a farm and sheep in a town called Partinico, not far from Montelepre. They shook hands and Buccilla handed him the basket he was carrying.
"We have so much fruit dropping to the ground and rotting that I thought, I'll carry some to the Professor," Buccilla said. He was a short but broad man, his body powerful from a lifetime of hard work. Adonis knew he had a reputation for honesty, that he was a modest man though he could have turned his power into riches. He was a throwback to the old Mafia chiefs who fought not for riches but for respect and honor.
Adonis smiled as he accepted the fruit. What peasant in Sicily ever let anything go to waste? There were a hundred children for each olive that fell to the ground, and these children were like locusts.
Buccilla sighed. He was affable, but Adonis knew this affability could turn to menace in the fraction of a second. So he flashed a sympathetic smile as Buccilla said, "What a nuisance life is. I have work to do on my land and yet when my neighbor asked me to do this little favor, how could I refuse? My father knew his father, my grandfather his grandfather. And it is my nature, perhaps my misfortune that I will do anything a friend asks me to do. After all, are we not Christians together?"
Hector Adonis said smoothly, "We Sicilians are all the same. We are too generous. That is why the northerners in Rome take such a shameful advantage of us."
Buccilla stared at him shrewdly. There would be no trouble here. And hadn't he heard somewhere that this professor was one of the Friends? Certainly he did not seem frightened. And if he was a Friend of the Friends, why had not he, Buccilla, known this fact? But there were many different levels in the Friends. In any event, here was a man who understood the world he lived in.
"I have come to ask you a favor," Buccilla said. "As one Sicilian to another. My neighbor's son failed at the University this year. You failed him. So my neighbor claims. But when I heard your name I said to him, 'What! Signor Adonis? Why, that man has the best heart in the world. He could never do such an unkindness if he knew all the facts. Never.' And so they begged me with tears to tell you the whole story. And to ask with the utmost humbleness to change his grade so that he can go into the world to earn his bread."
Hector Adonis was not deceived by this exquisite politeness. Again it was like the English he so much admired, those people who could be so subtly rude that you basked in their insults for days before you realized they had mortally wounded you. A figure of speech in regard to the English, but with Signor Buccilla, his request, if denied, would be followed by the blast of a lupara on some dark night. Hector Adonis politely nibbled on the olives and berries in the basket. "Ah, we can't let a young man starve in this terrible world," he said. "What is the fellow's name?" And when Buccilla told him, he took up a ledger from the bottom of his desk. He leafed through it, though of course he knew the name well.
The failed student was a lout, an oaf, a lummox; more a brute than the sheep on Buccilla's farm. He was a lazy womanizer, a shiftless braggart, a hopeless illiterate who did not know the difference between the Iliad and Verga. Despite all this, Hector Adonis smiled sweetly at Buccilla and in a tone of the utmost surprise said, "Ah, he had a little trouble with one of his examinations. But it is easily put to order. Have him come see me and I will prepare him in these very rooms and then give him an extra examination. He will not fail again."
They shook hands, and the man left. Another friend made, Hector thought. What did it signify that all these young good-for-nothings got University degrees they did not earn or deserve? In the Italy of 1943 they could use them to wipe their pampered asses and decline into positions of mediocrity.
The ringing phone broke his train of thought and brought a different irritation. There was a short ring, then a pause before three curler rings. The woman at the switchboard was gossiping with someone and flipped her tab between the pauses in her own conversation. This exasperated him so that he shouted, "Pronto" into the phone more rudely than was seemly.
And unfortunately it was the President of the University calling. But the President, a notorious stickler for professional courtesy, obviously had more important things on his mind than rudeness. His voice was quivering with fear, almost tearful in its supplication. "My dear Professor Adonis," he said, "could I trouble you to come to my office? The University has a grave problem that only you may be able to resolve. It is of the utmost importance. Believe me, my dear Professor, you will have my gratitude."
This obsequiousness made Hector Adonis nervous. What did the idiot expect of him? To jump over the Cathedral of Palermo? The President would be better qualified, Adonis thought bitterly, he was at least six feet. Let him jump and not ask a subordinate with the shortest legs in Sicily to do his job for him. This image put Adonis into a good humor again. So he asked mildly, "Perhaps you could give me a hint. Then on my way I might prepare myself."
The President's voice sank to a whisper. "The estimable Don Croce has honored us with a visit. His nephew is a medical student, and his professor suggested he retire gracefully from the program. Don Croce has come to beg us in the most courteous way possible to reconsider. However, the professor in the Medical College insists that the young man resign."
"Who is the fool?" Hector Adonis asked.
"Young Doctor Nattore," the President said. "An estimable member of the faculty but as yet a little unworldly."
"I shall be in your office within five minutes," Hector Adonis said.
As he hurried across the open ground to the main building, Hector Adonis pondered what course of action to take. The difficulty lay not with the President; he had always summoned Adonis on matters such as these. The difficulty lay with Doctor Nattore. He knew the Doctor well. A brilliant medical man, a teacher whose death would definitely be a loss to Sicily, his resignation a loss to the University. Also that most pompous of bores, a man of inflexible principles and true honor. But even he must have heard of the great Don Croce, even he must have a grain of common sense embedded in his genius brain. There must be something else.
In front of the main building was a long black car and leaning against it were two men dressed in business suits which failed to make them look respectable. They must be the Don's bodyguards and chauffeur left down here out of respect for the academics Don Croce was visiting. Adonis saw their looks of astonishment and then amusement at his small stature, his perfect tailoring, the briefcase under his arm. He flashed a cold stare which startled them. Could such a small man be a Friend of the Friends?
The office of the President looked more like a library than a business center; he was a scholar more than an administrator. Books lined all the walls, the furniture was massive but comfortable. Don Croce sat in a huge chair sipping his espresso. His face reminded Hector Adonis of the prow of a ship in the Iliad, warped by years of battle and hostile seas. The Don pretended they had never met, and Adonis allowed himself to be introduced. The President of course knew this was a farce, but young Doctor Nattore was taken in.
The President was the tallest man at the University; Hector Adonis was the shortest. Immediately, out of courtesy, the President sat down and slumped in his chair before he spoke.
"We have a small disagreement," the President said. At this Doctor Nattore snorted with exasperation, but Don Croce inclined his head slightly in accord. The President went on. "Don Croce has a nephew who yearns to be a doctor. Professor Nattore says he does not have the necessary grades to be certified. A tragedy. Don Croce has been so kind as to come and present his nephew's case, and since Don Croce has done so much for our University, I thought we should try our best to grant him some accommodation."
Don Croce said amiably without a hint of sarcasm, "I'm illiterate myself, yet no one can say I have been unsuccessful in the world of business." Certainly, Hector Adonis thought, a man who could bribe ministers, order murders, terrify shopkeepers and factory owners did not have to read and write. Don Croce continued, "I found my path by experience. Why could not my nephew do the same? My poor sister will be heartbroken if her son does not have the word 'Doctor' in front of his name. She is a true believer in Christ, she wants to help the world."
Doctor Nattore, with that insensitivity so common to one who is in the right, said, "I cannot change my position."
Don Croce sighed. He said cajolingly, "What harm can my nephew do? I will arrange a government post with the army, or with a Catholic hospital for the aged. He will hold their hands and listen to their troubles. He is extremely amiable, he will charm the old wrecks. What do I ask? A little shuffling of the papers you shuffle here." He glanced around the room, contemptuous of the books that formed its walls.
Hector Adonis, extremely disturbed by this meekness of Don Croce, a danger signal in such a man, thought angrily that it was easy for the Don to take such a position. His men immediately shipped him to Switzerland at the slightest indisposition of his liver. But Adonis knew it was up to him to solve this impasse. "My dear Doctor Nattore," he said, "surely we can do something. A little private tutoring, extra training at a charity hospital?"
Despite his birth in Palermo, Doctor Nattore did not look Sicilian. He was fair and balding and he showed his anger, something no true Sicilian would ever do in this delicate situation. Doubtless it was the defective genes inherited from some long-ago Norman conqueror. "You don't understand, my dear Professor Adonis. The young fool wants to be a surgeon."
Jesus, Joseph, our Virgin Mary and all her Saints, Hector Adonis thought. This is real trouble.
Taking advantage of the stunned silence on his colleague's face, Doctor Nattore went on. "Your nephew knows nothing about anatomy. He hacked a cadaver to pieces as if he were carving a sheep for the spit. He misses most of his classes, he does not prepare for his test papers, he enters the operating room as if he were going to a dance. I admit he is amiable, you couldn't find a nicer chap. But, after all, we are talking about a man who will someday have to enter a human body with a sharp knife."
Hector Adonis knew exactly what Don Croce was thinking. Who cared how bad a surgeon the boy would make? It was a matter of family prestige, the loss of respect if the boy failed. No matter how bad a surgeon, he would never kill as many as Don Croce's more busy employees. Also, this young Doctor Nattore had not bent to his will, not taken the hint, that Don Croce was willing to let the surgeon business go by, that he was willing for his nephew to be a medical doctor.
So now it was time for Hector Adonis to settle the issue. "My dear Don Croce," he said, "I am sure that Doctor Nattore will accede to your wishes if we continue to persuade him. But why this romantic idea of your nephew to be a surgeon? As you say, he's too amiable, and surgeons are born sadists. And who in Sicily voluntarily goes under the knife?" He paused for a moment. Then he went on. "Also he must train in Rome, if we pass him here, and the Romans will use any excuse to demolish a Sicilian. You do your nephew a disservice to insist. Let me propose a compromise."
Doctor Nattore muttered that no compromise was possible. For the first time the lizardlike eyes of Don Croce flashed fire. Doctor Nattore fell silent and Hector Adonis rushed on. "Your nephew will receive passing marks to become a doctor, not a surgeon. We will say he has too kind a heart to cut."
Don Croce spread wide his arms, his lips parted in a cold smile. "You have defeated me with your good sense and your reasonableness," he said to Adonis. "So be it. My nephew will be a doctor, not a surgeon. And my sister must be content." He made haste to leave them, his real purpose achieved; he had not hoped for more. The President of the University escorted him down to the car. But everyone in that room noted the last glance Don Croce gave Doctor Nattore before he left. It was a glance of the closest scrutiny as if he were memorizing the features, to make sure that he did not forget the face of this man who had tried to thwart his will.
When they had left, Hector Adonis turned to Doctor Nattore and said, "You, my dear colleague, must resign from the University and go practice your trade in Rome."
Doctor Nattore said angrily, "Are you mad?"
Hector Adonis said, "Not as mad as you. I insist you have dinner with me tonight and I will explain to you why our Sicily is no Garden of Eden."
"But why should I leave?" Doctor Nattore protested.
"You have said the word 'no' to Don Croce Malo. Sicily is not big enough for both of you."
"But he's gotten his way," Doctor Nattore cried out in despair. "The nephew will become a doctor. You and the President have approved it."
"But you did not," Hector Adonis said. "We approved it to save your life. But still, you are now a marked man."
That evening Hector Adonis was host to six professors, including Doctor Nattore, at one of Palermo's best restaurants. Each of these professors had received a visit from a "man of honor" that day and each had agreed to change the marks of a failing pupil. Doctor Nattore listened to their stories with horror and then finally said, "But that cannot be in a medical school, not a doctor," until finally they lost their temper with him. A Professor of Philosophy demanded to know why the practice of medicine was more important to the human race than the intricate thought processes of the human mind and the immortal sanctity of one's soul. When they were finished Doctor Nattore agreed to leave the University of Palermo and emigrate to Brazil, where, he was assured by his colleagues, a good surgeon could make his fortune in gall bladders.
That night Hector Adonis slept the sleep of the just. But the next morning he received an urgent phone call from Montelepre. His godson, Turi Guiliano, whose intelligence he had nurtured, whose gentleness he had prized, whose future he had planned, had murdered a policeman.