my name is luca and i am dying. It's true that every man dies, that cities fade and principalities ebb and whole brilliant civilizations are snuffed out into thin scrims of gray smoke. But I have been different-the blessing and the curse of a Laughing God. These last one hundred eighty years, I have been Luca Bastardo, Luca the Bastard, and if I knew little about my origins, I knew about myself that I was exempt from death's call. It was not my doing; my life simply flowed on through the shining city of Florence like the volatile river Arno. The great Leonardo da Vinci once told me that capricious nature took pleasure in creating a man with my lasting youthfulness, to watch the spirit imprisoned within my body struggle with its longing to return to its Source. I don't have the Maestro's brilliance, but in my small opinion, my life has amused the Lord. And if it weren't for the hand of the Inquisitor claiming to do His work, life would use me still.
But now the burns and broken bones, the gangrene putrefying my leg and nauseating me with its odor, curtail my time. It's just as well. I have no wish to ramble on like a braggart, boasting about the great men he befriended, the beautiful women he touched, the battles he fought, the marvels he witnessed, and his one incomparable love. Those things are true, and they mark my life, as have wealth and hunger, sickness and war, victory and shame, magic and prophecy. But they are not the reason for my story. My story must be told for other purposes. I offer it to those whose souls long to know the soul of the world. From almost two centuries of living may be learned what matters in life, what is truly valuable upon this earth, and in what music the voice of the Laughing God leaves behind irony and becomes immortal song.
i never knew where i came from. It was as if I woke up on the streets of Florence in 1330, a boy already grown nine years. I was smaller than most physically, perhaps because I never had enough to eat, but alert, of brutal necessity. In those days I slept in alcoves and under bridges and scrounged for dropped soldi during the day. I begged alms from rich women and slid my fingers into the pockets of well-dressed men. I spread a rag at the feet of elders alighting from their carriages on rainy days. I emptied chamber pots into the Arno and cleaned brushes for grooms and chimney sweeps. I climbed up onto high roofs and repaired terra-cotta tiles. I ran errands for a peddler who knew me to be quick and dependable. Sometimes I followed a priest around, chanting Hail Marys and long sections of the Mass in Latin, because I was a natural mimic who could repeat whatever I heard, and it amused the priest into rare Christian charity. I even let some of the older men pull me under the bridge and stroke me, holding my breath while their greedy hands roamed over my back and buttocks. Anything for a coin for a meal. I was always hungry.
One of my favorite activities was scouring the ground at the market for fruit that rolled off carts and stands. Usually it was abandoned as bruised, dirty, and worthless, but I was never that finicky; I always thought a few dark spots made anything more interesting. Sometimes I found dropped coins, and once a pearl-studded bracelet that, sold, kept me in bread and salted meat for a month. I couldn't visit the same market often, because the ufficiale della guardia were always on the lookout for ragamuffins like me and would beat us, or worse, if they caught us. But every week or so I would go early to one of the dozens of markets that served the hundred thousand inhabitants of Florence and let myself be dazzled by the wares. The markets were voluptuous in both scent and appearance: sweet-smelling red apples and piquant speckled apricots, golden rows of thick-crusted breads exuding the warm fragrance of yeast, herb-cured haunches of pig and pink ribs of beef and pale, soft cuts of lamb that smelled like field lavender, thick aromatic wedges of cheese, and clots of yellow-white butter. I glutted my gaze and my nose, promising myself I would one day feast until sated in all of my being. I also calculated how to score precious morsels immediately. Even a few crumbs would stave off the restless night of a groaning belly. Every bite mattered.
My family in those days consisted of two other street urchins of whom I was fond, Massimo and Paolo. Massimo had a clubfoot, droopy ears, and a milky eye that spun off in all directions, and Paolo had the dark cast of a gypsy, reason enough for them to be cast out onto the street. Florence never tolerated imperfection. I myself never knew why I'd been abandoned. Massimo, who was clever, claimed I must be the son of a nobleman's wife by the family friar, a not uncommon mishap. It was he who laughingly dubbed me "Luca Bastardo."
"At least they didn't suffocate you!" he teased me, and we had seen enough dead infants tossed into the gutters to know the truth of his words. Whatever my history, I was lucky to live. Physically, there was nothing wrong with me, other than being small and scrawny. I was perfectly formed in all my parts. My appearance was even pleasing. I'd been told many times that my yellow-red hair and peach skin were beautiful, that their contrast with my dark eyes was compelling. It was not the kind of thing I listened to when the old men were stroking me. I kept myself occupied dreaming about food, then I took their soldi and bought warm rolls and chunks of cured fish to salve my hunger and my unease.
Those early days were filled with simple intentions: to feed myself, to stay warm and dry, to laugh and to play whenever the opportunity arose. There was a purity to my life that I would experience only one other time, more than a century later, and I would prize those later years fiercely because I knew how life could be despoiled.
I often diverted myself by playing board games with clever Massimo and wrestling with strong Paolo, who had a fierce temperament that matched his gypsy heritage. I always lost to my adopted brothers, until one day when the three of us were playing in the grassy Piazza Santa Maria Novella in the western end of the city. It was a fine spring day, with a faint breeze puffing beneath an endless blue sky and playing in ripples across the silvery-blue Arno, the afternoon before the festival of the Annunciation. The powerful and zealous Dominicans liked to preach there, but that day the piazza had been taken over by throngs of people: boys running and playing; mercenary soldiers called condottieri gambling and catcalling; groups of women gossiping, with their girlchildren hanging on their full brocade skirts; wool-workers and shopkeepers strolling out for the midday meal; notaries and bankers manufacturing errands just so they, too, could enjoy the rare day of warmth and high sunshine during Marzo pazzo, crazy March. A group of noblemen's sons raced about, practicing swordplay with the sure prerogative of their station. I couldn't help but envy them, they had what every Florentine wanted: good food and well-made clothes, skill with swords and horses, and the certainty of a fine marriage to strengthen their position in society.
The boys wore fine woolen mantelli and were thrusting and feinting with blunt wooden swords under the watchful eye of their master, who was famed in Florence for his strategic swordplay. I scooted around to better hear his instructions-I had a thirst for learning, and I remembered whatever I heard. Paolo had other ideas. He picked up a stick from the grass and charged at me, chortling wildly and mimicking the boys.
"Bastardo, defend yourself!" Massimo called from a short distance away, tossing a stick to me. I caught it and spun around just in time to deflect Paolo's thrust. It was a lucky save; Paolo hadn't meant to hurt me, but he was slow in the head and often left bruises. He grinned and I gathered he meant to have some fun at the rich boys' expense, so I bowed, and he bowed back. We lofted our fake swords and danced around each other, pretending to be noblemen's sons, mocking them with exaggerated flourishes and foppish prancing. A nearby group of condottieri laughed, a coarse sound full of derision, and the noble boys bristled.
"Let's teach these street bastards a lesson!" the tallest boy cried, charging. Instantly Paolo and I were surrounded by five wooden swords chopping at our sticks. The condottieri cheered. Paolo had a bull's strength and he knocked down two of the boys. I didn't have his brawn, so I ducked under the blows, leaping out of reach. Paolo fell, blood spurting from his nose, and anger flared through me. I swung my stick at the boys in front of me, hacking futilely, and the stick broke in half. Taunting laughter rose up. Now the condottieri were laughing at me. It made me angrier and I lashed out wildly with what was left of my stick. It was a stupid move. Two boys cut sideways at me at the same time. I was thrown onto my back, ribs sore on both sides and the breath frozen in my chest. The condottieri guffawed.
"Boy, you're going to get yourself killed," said an old man, bending over me. By then a sizable crowd had gathered. Florentines relished nothing more than a lopsided brawl.
"Those boys hurt my friend!" I cried. "And they're laughing at me!" I pointed at the condottieri.
The old man was short and stout and homely, but had lively eyes that seemed to take in everything at once and to understand it all instantly. "Men laugh because God laughs, and right now, God is laughing at you," he said, with a clear-eyed look of empathy. It was a look I'd never before received, a look that made me almost feel like a real person, and his words were graven on my heart. God laughs, I thought with wonder. Yes, that makes sense of what I've seen on the streets. Those long-ago words have, in fact, made sense of my entire life.
"I don't like when anyone laughs," I sniffled, "and I want to make them stop hurting me and my friend!"
"That broken stick of yours is pitiful." The old man shrugged.
"It's all I've got!"
He shook his head and squatted beside me. "Boy, the solid things you can hold in your hands are never all you've got. They're the least of what belong to you. The qualities inside you, those are what you've really got to defend yourself with."
"All I've got inside me is the street!"
"If that's true, it's a Florentine street! We Florentines have great souls. We're imaginative, creative, spirited; we make the best artists and merchants. That's why we're famous for our sharp wit and intelligence, our ingegno. You have it, too, or you wouldn't survive on the streets!" His eyes twinkled, taking in without judgment my rags and filth. "When you're faced with superior strength and numbers, when you're faced with a challenge, you must go inside yourself, find that ingegno, and use it."
"How?" I asked suspiciously, wrapping my arms around my aching rib cage.
"I saw you listening to the sword master before this fracas started. You're clever, if you pay attention to people who know more than you do. You can come up with a sideways strategy, something unexpected, to defend yourself. Surprise, strategy, and subterfuge, those are your weapons!" He gripped my shoulder in warm encouragement.
"Come on, bastarda girl," sneered one of the noble boys who'd knocked me down. "Let's see you wield your broken stick!"
"Against three of them?" I said sotto voce to the man. Fear rippled in my gut and I had to fight to still the quiver in my chin. "They're big and well fed!"
"Ingegno." He shrugged. I nodded and lurched to my feet. He patted my shoulder.
"Here you go, girlie!" One of the boys kicked the broken stick to me. I eyed it and instead of picking it up, I mimicked panic. It wasn't a stretch; I was terrified. The three boys would thrash me to gore if they caught me. A crowd of onlookers circled us, with the ragged line of condottieri standing to the side. Shrieking like a girl, I ran around the boys and behind the condottieri as if fleeing. The crowd railed with hilarity to see me running away, and I took the opportunity to relieve an unheeding condottiere of his dagger. It was a quick, practiced lift out of his belt. Then I charged out from behind the soldiers with the dagger raised high.
"Look, the little bastard's got a tiny bastard sword," quipped one of the condottieri. The dagger I held was kin to the mighty spada da una mano e mezzo, the longsword also known as the bastard sword. The other mercenaries howled with laughter at his wit.
The three noble boys simply stared at the dagger, while I ran over to stand beside blood-spattered Paolo, who still lay on the ground, moaning. "Come on!" I challenged, gesturing with the sharp point of the blade. "Who wants to feel my broken stick now? Wary and suddenly unsure, the boys stood frozen and mute. None of them wanted to feel the dagger's prick. It was a standoff.
"Come, boys, you've had enough fun; your master will want to school you," the old man called dryly, allowing the boys to stand down with dignity. They muttered sullenly but dropped their swords and knelt to help their comrades. The sword master, a big, bearded man with hulking arms and thighs, walked by and thumped my chest so hard that I rocked back on my feet.
"Clever." He smiled. "You can come watch whenever I'm training these dunderheads. From a distance, though." He bowed his head to the old man and murmured, "Master." The old man inclined his head, and then turned to me.
"What's inside you is the gate to everything." The old man smiled. "Remember that."
"Maybe God won't laugh at me so much if I use my ingegno," I said shyly, awed at the attention from this stranger who commanded even a famous sword master's respect.
"God just laughs, boy, it's not about you. It has something to do with how life is a divine comedy." He stroked his beard. "Now give the dagger back to the soldier, or your ingegno will win you some fine blows to the head." I laughed and ran over to the hapless condottiere, who hadn't even felt me lift his dagger. I offered it to him hilt first, and he took it with an elaborate bow to me, hand over his heart and head swept low. I bowed back, copying him, and the condottieri laughed again, this time with approval. Almost dizzy with pride, I ran back to help Paolo, who was struggling to sit up. I gave him my hand and he rose to his feet grinning.