TWO CHILDREN LIE QUIETLY in their small bedroom in a town in southern Italy. A car rumbles across the cobblestones outside. The dim light from the streetlamps in the town square leaks though the shutters and casts a starry pattern on the wall.
On a shelf near the window, some dolls sit in a neat row, staring at the boy in the rumpled bed across the room. The boy puts his hand in front of the dots of light on the walls, making some go out in the shadow.
“Marina, are you awake?” he whispers to the girl in the bed near the window.
“Yes, Pietro.” Marina turns over and rests an olive-skinned cheek on her hand. “But four-year-old boys should be sleeping.”
“Big sisters, too.” Pietro sits up on his knees. “I heard Papa say he’d spank you if you get up again.”
“Hush! I don’t want to talk about it. Why aren’t you sleeping, anyway?”
“The Befana.” Even in the half-light, Marina can see the excitement in his round face. “Will she really come?”
“Of course, Pietro, but only if you go to sleep.” Marina has never seen the Befana, but she is not ready to stop believing.
“Tell me again what she looks like.”
“Like a witch. You know, an old woman with a wrinkled face, grey hair, and a big nose. She wears a bandana under her cone hat and a white apron over her peasant skirt. She wears several sweaters of different colours.”
“How can you tell she’s a good witch?”
“Because she smiles a lot, and, besides, a bad witch wouldn’t carry a big sack of toys, would she?”
Pietro shrugged. “Does she really visit all the children in one night?”
“Yes, and this is it – January fifth.”
“How does she do it so fast?”
“On her broomstick.”
“I want to peek—”
“If you don’t go to sleep, she won’t come at all.”
“But we stayed up on Christmas Eve when Babbo Natale came.” Daddy Christmas is what Italian children call Santa Claus.
“That was for Midnight Mass at the church, not for Babbo Natale. Papa says we fell asleep halfway through the service anyway.” She slips from her bed and reaches to the floor by his bed. “Here, you dropped your teddy. Now lie quietly and try to sleep.”
Moments later, Pietro’s steady breathing tells her that she is alone with her thoughts.
The Befana has her worried. The good witch only brings gifts to those who have been good. Naughty children get lumps of coal.
Lying in her bed, Marina thinks of the good things and bad things she has done. She remembers the time she hit her little brother. She was so sorry she hurt him that she cried even after he stopped. She helped Mamma clean up after Christmas dinner, but she dropped a plate, and it broke. She went to fetch her father’s toolbox but spilled the contents down the stairs. Papa never did find the set of tiny screwdrivers.
The more she thinks, the more it seems that all her good deeds were cancelled out by mistakes. She wonders what the Befana will bring her.
The dots of streetlight over Pietro’s bed remind her of stars. She likes stars; they help her think happy thoughts.
Well, Befana, she says to herself, you know I tried. Can’t change anything now. She rolls over with a sign and lies as still as she can.
Signor Visone’s rooster next door wakes her with its crowing. Bright pencils beams of sunlight cross the room and burn white dots in the wall. She smells fresh bread from the bakery in the square.
Pietro is still sleeping.
It is the sixth of January. “Befana!”
Marina jumps from her bed. The aroma of freshly ground coffee and her parents’ voices draw her to the kitchen. She stops at the door.
“Mamma, did the Befana come?”
Her mother smiles. “See for yourself, Marina.”
Marina’s heart races like a motorcycle as she opens the living room door. She gasps. The prettiest bicycle she has ever seen glitters in the sunlight. Shiny pink, with white tyres and a woven white basket on the handlebars.
“Mamma! Papa! Come see!” She spins around to face her parents, who are already in the doorway. “Isn’t the Befana wonderful?”
Her mother crouches down and hugs her. “Not as wonderful as my good girl. You earned the bicycle, dear.”
“But I broke and spilled so many things.”
“You keep trying, Marina,” says her father. “That’s what counts.”
© 1987, 2022, JT Hine
First published in the Pennywhistle Press.