The Angels of Bardi

Bardi is a small medieval village set on a mountain above the junction of three intersecting river valleys. It was for that reason, and because one of the valleys was a well-travelled trade route, that a farsighted and ambitious 12th-­century Italian duke who recently had been expelled from Florence for questionable banking practices, along with some lesser de Medicis and Borgias, had built a modest summer keep on a commanding volcanic outcrop and set himself up in a new business. He named the watchtower Castello Bardi, after himself. The business was freelance tax and toll collection.

Later when he, the de Medicis and the Borgias returned to political favor in Florence, the duke left a few trusted family members to mind the shop. He returned to the intell­ectual stimulation of early middle-ages banking, and they continued to extort pike fees from merchant travellers for walking-around money.

It was about then that double-entry bookkeeping was invented. Some say it was due to a lack of provision for a zero in Roman numerals. Some say the Duke Bardi may have had a hand in it - that he and other civic-minded Florentine bankers didn't hold with that Arabic shit. Some say it was all just coincidence.

In the event, Castello Bardi turned out to be as lucrative as big-city book-cooking and money laundering. The country cousins prospered, and like good business people everywhere, plowed their profits back into improving capital assets and equity. They gradually expanded the original stone keep into one of the largest fortresses in southern Europe, replete with massive ramparts, parapets, chapel, bell tower, grand hall, porti­cullis, and a hell of a lot of little slits in the outer walls, through which many dozens of paid retainers could rain crossbow bolts upon anyone of whom the Bardi family didn't approve dropping by for a casual siege.

The town that sprang up outside the walls prospered to the point where, although its population never grew much beyond 4,000 people, it boasted four largish churches and three bell towers. By a complicated set of negotiations between the religious orders attached to each of the churches, monks took turns ringing the Angelus, hours, half hours, quarter hours, and a little carillon lullaby modelled after "Ave Maria" before they booked it and turned in at midnight.

It had been a diplomatic process worthy of a renaissance United Nations. It had taken a century to settle. And as a result, Bardi was a very noisy little village. Every 15 minutes, bells rang. Then startled roosters dozing on the hillside would crow confusedly. Then dogs all over the valley, disturbed by the crowing, would howl.

This was the first reason Molina regarded Bardi as his spiritual home.

"You never have to wear a watch in Bardi," he'd told Joe McCarthy one night in a Virginia roadhouse, during a rare moment of drunken, apparently complete, candor.

The second reason was that there was, in the medieval section of the village, a low Roman stone wall his father had been particularly taken with, before he had married Molina's mother. Molina the Elder had furtively taken his son aside one day and rhapsodized about it in tones usually reserved for regretfully lost romantic opportunities brought on by looking through old high school yearbooks. The boy was forever impressed with both the extreme unlikelihood of his own birth and the staying power of Roman architecture.

The third and last reason Molina regarded Bardi as his spiritual home was the bell tower of the most impressive of the medieval stone churches, set on a volcanic outcrop across a small valley from the one that held the castle.

The tower was tall for such a small village. It was a square spire of reddish-gray volcanic rock, topped with a slate-shingled dome that looked like nothing so much as the top of a giant petrified acorn. It had survived innumerable earthquakes, some of which had set the bells ringing faintly, looking no worse - and certainly no better - for the wear. The masons who had built it were rough and practical, given more to trued foundations and thick walls than to spitshined exteriors. The tower could charitably be described as craggy. It had been since day one. Day one was probably sometime shortly after the castle was built.

In the tower were four monumental cast bronze bells on worm-riddled hardwood mounts. Around the mounts lived pigeons, bats and swallows. The pigeons were common.  Nobody saw the bats. The swallows circled and played around the tower top each sunny afternoon, like small dark shadows of angels.

Angels congregate in many guises and places in northern Italy. For example, there are the quiet and patient shaggy dark ponies that live wild, high on the mountainsides above Domodossola near the Swiss border; there are the hundreds of pure white cats which inhabit a blind side-alley just off the Chiesa di San Giovanni Chrisostomo, near the Grand Canal in Venice; and there are the myriad tiny quick swallows in the medieval church tower of Bardi.

So in fact they were angels. Only Molina and one ancient Italian priest knew.