From Chapter 3: The Fairy ...The town was situated in the north, in north-eastern Italy, in the Alps of the region of Venice, at the top of a narrow valley that, descending to the south, became ever wider, finally merging with a large plain. In the last section of the valley, just before the plain, one hill on the left revealed the remains of two castles, one in front of the other, which, it seems, had inspired the story of Romeo and Juliet on which Shakespeare’s tragedy was later based. The hill was situated not far from Verona, while the town below the two castles bore, and still bears, the name that coincides with that of Romeo’s family (Montague). The attribution of those two residences to Romeo’s and Juliet’s aristocratic families (whose existence is not disputed) was controversial. But the peculiar relative positions of the two castles (situated on the same hill, close to and facing each other), the wonderful view from the hill, the name of the town below, and the proximity to Verona, appeared to have inspired the local writer who first wrote the tale while he was resident in a nearby location, a tale published before Shakespeare was born... ...Gi was still in his mother’s womb when his father left for Australia. A few years later, the family was reunited: after a month-long sea voyage with his mother and his sixyear-old sister, the four-year-old Gi met his father for the first time in Melbourne. One year afterwards, they sailed back to Italy, but his father remained behind in Australia. Gi’s mother was eight months pregnant, and the ship’s captain used to warn her, with a pretence of seriousness, not to give birth on the ship. The return voyage lasted longer, forty days or so, because there was a war in the Suez Canal and they had to circumnavigate Africa... ...For many days Gi had seen water, water and water, until the ship had finally reached a port. With his mother and sister, and several other passengers, Gi was on the bridge, looking at the pier below, which seemed to him extraordinarily far away. On the pier were some half-naked men with ‘weird’ dark skin, and beside them other men of fair complexion, like him, wearing nice uniforms. The white policemen held big batons. Beside Gi and the other passengers were large baskets of bread and fruits that the captain had ordered the chef to bring to the bridge. To Gi it was like a game, and so perhaps it was for the other passengers: they threw pieces of bread or apples down below, and the half-naked men rushed to catch them, threw themselves to the ground to pick up anything that rained from the ship. It was like a competition, as funny as it was inexplicable. Gi was poor, but he had never thrown himself that way on a piece of bread. Then his mother explained that those wretched men were starving, and Gi felt sympathy. Yet that feeling was mixed with the excitement of what, to a child’s mind, still seemed a funny game, even if it had now acquired a different value. But then, from the bridge began to rain some objects that, bouncing on the pier, gave out a different sound. They were coins, and the scene suddenly changed. The dark skin of the natives merged with the nice uniforms of the policemen, who began to put their batons into action. The game was over, and one image was stamped forever in Gi’s mind: one policeman whirled his baton like a juggler in a circus, while he quickly approached one native bent down to pick up something from the ground; the policeman then kicked the native to the ground to eat the dust, he picked up the coin, put it between his teeth, looked at it carefully and put it in his pocket, resuming with natural demeanour the bizarre game of the baton...
...Despite the contrasting joy and pain produced by that local culture, Gi subsequently realized how close to the cycle of life he was. In those uncontaminated places everything was permeated by the rhythm of the seasons, and people were an integral part of the natural world. Joy and despair were daily visible, in ordinary human activities and in unthinkable disasters. Thanks to the small size of the town and the mountainous terrain, one could look down at any time to the main square in front of the church and witness, sometimes in one and the same day, the joy of the baptism of a newly born child, the excitement of a couple celebrating their wedding, or the sadness of a funeral, with the procession to the nearby cemetery at the foot of a forest just outside the centre, all events announced and identified by the church bell’s different ringing. This conveyed a sense of sharing and, in a way, solidarity. When someone was born, you were a little bit reborn, when someone got married, you felt part of a new project and a renewed hope, and when someone died, you died a little... From Chapter 7: Maria Rosa ...On those mountains, the soldiers had built with their own hands a network of paths and roads, by cutting the hard rock, metre by metre, by carving more than fifty perfectly shaped tunnels, still visible today. They had manually built several kilometres of trenches, innumerable strategic positions and barracks. And the two sides were now cancelling each other out. It was a stalemate, a daily macabre perpetuation of death without foreseeable end. Today, long-range laser-guided weapons sometimes make death anonymous, reducing in the process the sense of guilt and shame. But in those days, it was often bayonet attacks, when men brutally met face to face and looked into each other’s eyes before thrusting the bayonet into each other’s heart. There were two small pieces of emblematic rocks, each held by one side: they were called the Italian Tooth and the Austrian Tooth, in reference to their shape. One day, one side launched an assault on the little piece of rock held by the others, and took over; the following day the other side took it back, both losing many men in the process. And this had happened so many times and for so long that, after the war, this story was repeatedly told over many decades, ironically and sombrely, as a symbolic warning to future generations of the futility and absurdity of war. A mausoleum had also been built on the Alpine pass below, to house the bones of both Italian and Austrian soldiers, a memorial and a reminder of the atrocity of war, men of different nations finally resting together, which they were unable to do when they were alive... ...An ancient superstition, still believed in Maria Rosa’s days, was that on the first of January, especially in the early morning, women had to lock themselves up in their homes, because they were a bad omen and any person that they might come across would be cursed and would be the victim of tragic events, and that, if this unfortunate meeting with a woman took place, she should pee on the spot to break the spell. Now, for the contemporary man it is relatively easy to go out on the street, protest and demonstrate. But in those days it was forbidden, it was nearly impossible to break with tradition. That early morning of the first of January 1918, though, Maria Rosa made her little revolution. She got up early in the morning, as usual, to milk the cows, she had her breakfast and then she decided to take the milk to the dairy house, because Cristoforo was fighting a war, there was nobody else to send for at that time of the day, and, finally, because she was tired of those stupid prejudices.
Along the path that led to a nearby hamlet, where the dairy house was situated, she came across an old man, who, with a grim look, assailed her with insults and abuse. “Are you crazy?” he finally shouted. “Couldn’t you send a man to the dairy house? Now pee here, in front of me!” he ordered. “If you hold out your hat,” replied Maria Rosa... ...After exchanging with Maria Rosa a warm hug, Carlo looked at one corner and said, “Put those things away, I beg you!” In the last few weeks there were rumours of an imminent Austrian advance, and people in the valley had made plans to leave, putting together some essential domestic items. Maria Rosa too had prepared a few bags, indispensable things that she had stowed in a corner near the door. “You have five children,” added Carlo, “they may get lost with all the chaos that will reign.” “Listen,” he finally advised, “if the Austrians advance, hide in the cellar with Giovanna and the children. Let them come, then give them food and drink and make them comfortable, and you’ll see, nothing will happen to you.” “A few days ago,” Carlo began to recount after a brief pause, “with my company I was overtaking a large unruly crowd of refugees gathered at the entrance to a bridge. I saw a lonely little girl who looked lost. I walked a few metres up the bridge, but I could not help thinking about her, so much so that I finally decided to go back for her. I found her crushed under the wheels of a cart.” ...Maria Rosa approached the bedside, arranged the blanket, sat on the bed beside him and began to narrate a fairytale. “Once upon a time, there was a wicked man who lived with his old mother. One day, his mother died and he, her son, took her out the house and laid her on a chair in the porch near the main door, as if she was still alive. Soon after, a very rich man who was passing by said hello to the old lady and, not hearing any reply, he touched her with one hand, as though he wanted to see if she was all right. The old lady, who of course was already dead, fell down to the ground, and her son, who had in the meantime appeared on the threshold, accused the rich man of having killed his mother. “‘If you don’t want me to report you to the police,’ he said, ‘you must fill up my house with money.’ “The rich man complied. “Bewildered by the wicked man’s sudden fortune, his friends asked him for an explanation... ...Margherita had pretended to sleep, and was now instead asking for another fairytale. Maria Rosa looked tenderly at her daughter, reached the bedside, sat down on the bed and stroked her hair. She was so tired that she longed to go to bed, but asked instead: “What fairytale do you want me to tell you?” “That of the wolf and the fox,” promptly replied Margherita, who had heard that story so many times. “Once upon a time,” Maria Rosa began, looking at her daughter who was waiting with great anticipation, “there was a wolf and a fox that set off for a farm far away, to steal some chickens. The fox was accustomed to let the wolf go first, but not out of generosity. Instead, she made the wolf her scout.
“And that night the wolf raided the farm far away, unaware that the farmer was waiting for him. The poor wolf got such a beating that at the end he was bleeding all over. “Hidden around the corner, the fox had witnessed the scene. But she was not yet content with having escaped the beating. Since she did not want to walk all that long way back to her den, she planned a clever trick: she rolled on the muddy red ground so that, when finished, she looked to be bleeding more than the wolf himself. Then she begged the unlucky wolf to carry her home: ‘Don’t you see how much I am bleeding? I cannot walk,’ she cried out. “Touched by those laments, the ingenuous wolf... From Chapter 9: Caterina ...And, ironically, the war had secretly left the Caile community with two new lives. Two soldiers passing by on their way to the front had forgotten for a little while the horrors of war, and now two local women gently rocked their fatherless babies, branded and rejected by the community. They were deemed to have lost their dignity, were treated as whores, and this, in turn, had repercussions on their children and families, because the fathers were bound to reject their ‘sinful’ daughters to save their honour. But not all men followed the flock, and it is surprising to see how much rebellion against conformism there has been in history, at a time when a stance by individuals or groups could get them into serious trouble. His love for Giuliana, one of the two single mothers, had defeated her father’s egoism. Not only had he taken daughter and baby into his house, but he walked around the hamlet with his head high, and he ironically replied to the malicious smiles of the nastiest members of the community by stating with pride: “Ladies and gentlemen, at least my daughter has demonstrated that she is not sterile.” The other father, though, heir of the ancient ‘untouchable’ traditions, repudiated his daughter and the ‘fruit of her sin’. Lucia and her newborn child slept secretly in different barns in the hamlet, and, her breasts being short of milk, by night she sneaked into her father’s cowshed to milk the goat to feed the baby. In the meantime, Lucia’s father, Michele, went around complaining, “I do not understand why my goat does not produce milk any more. I may have to sell her…” One day, Lucia took her baby in her arms and, wearing her only clogs, climbed the steep slopes up to the foot of the rocky mountains where, near an Alpine pass, a military camp was still set. There, she looked for the baby’s father and she found him. Lucia looked the embarrassed soldier in the eyes, laid a strange bundle in his hands, and said boldly, “This is your son too. You keep him now, I am tired.” She left and hid behind some rocks... From Chapter 10: The Pumpkin ...So, just as other generations had been forced to do by previous authoritarian regimes, children of this generation were being indoctrinated accordingly by the regime of the time. They marched and sang to the rhythm of patriotic tunes imposed by the Fascists. Caterina and Eugenio were obliged to attend the passage of Mussolini down in the town centre and give him the ritual Fascist Roman salute. At school the preparation for the great event was in full swing, and the schoolchildren underwent meticulous daily training, so that embarrassing mistakes would be avoided and all instead would be perfect.
However, one day, something hilarious and grotesque took place. In those days, it was not unusual for pupils to repeat the same school grade over and over again, and this was due to the difficulty of attending school on a regular basis, since they were often called to help their family in seasonal agricultural activities. One day, during a training section, Luigi, who, thanks to his age and physical constitution, was as tall as the teacher, instead of shouting “Long live Il Duce!”, screamed “Snout of a dog!” At that point, overwhelmed by the schoolchildren’s laughter, to avoid further trouble, the teacher decided to break ranks. Then, to ease the tension and make the children forget the episode, he played a game, a sort of treasure hunt. The teacher hid a fresh egg under his hat and told the children to find it. And, Luigi, the rebel, who had sneaked a surreptitious look, pretended for a while to search for the hidden egg, including around the still standing teacher, then suddenly shouted: “Here’s the egg!” And his big hand came down firmly on the hat, smashing the egg on the poor teacher’s head in the process... ...It happened that Anacleto, who was married with children, fell in love with an attractive single girl, Gloria (also known as Glory). Love was reciprocated by the girl to the point that the two decided to run away together. But before leaving, they consecrated their union by binding it to witchcraft. They buried a toad alive with a ritual that ended in an oath: whoever of the two exhumed the toad would die, while if the toad remained buried, Anacleto’s wife Amalia would die, paving the way to their wedding. Then, they set off for the reclaimed Roman marshes to make a new life in that promised land, and nobody heard from them until three months later, when the adventure came to an end and both returned to their home in the hamlet Caile. Glory was pregnant, but so was Amalia, who, alone and in despair, had in the meantime found a lover. Anacleto returned to being madly in love with his wife. But now he faced an unsolvable dilemma: if the toad remained buried, his beloved wife would die; on the other hand, if he exhumed the toad, he would die. In the meantime people sniggered and went around saying with a sardonic smile: “Anacleto brought ‘Glory’ to the Roman land!”... ...Eugenio was then fourteen years old, already quite tall for his age and, in contrast to his brothers Enrico and Emilio, looked more like his father. He was the same age as Remo and the two were close friends. But they were not of an age to cement their friendship, they were instead sharing a common ideal and objective: defeating boredom at all costs. They had recently decided to take the unusually big pumpkin from Adelmo’s field, which had for some time drawn their attention. Eugenio was initially reluctant, for he still had in his mind the painful consequences of the last prank. Eugenio had inherited his father’s craftsmanship and passion for woodwork. He had recently spotted a tree with a wonderful straight trunk. When Eugenio looked at it, he did not see a tree, he saw a pair of skis and him wearing them and whizzing down the steep slopes of the valley at full speed. The problem was that the tree was situated in the wrong place, namely on a piece of land that did not belong to his family, but that his family had on lease. He could ask the owner first: but what if the owner said no? He therefore decided to go ahead and deal with the consequences later. And while the skis were taking shape under his skilful hands, there came the aftermath in the form of Maria Rosa’s inquisitive questions. Maria Rosa never used physical punishment on her children and never raised her voice at them. There was so much respect for her that one reproachful look was like a big slap in the face. This happened to Eugenio when his mother discovered what he had done, and it was for Eugenio such a humiliating
experience that he promised himself never to repeat it. Maria Rosa had then taken Eugenio to the owner to apologize, and the owner had said that it was absolutely of no consequence and requested her not to punish Eugenio. However, after a moment’s hesitation, Eugenio had decided to join his friend in this new prank, also because this was not as serious as cutting a tree that takes many years to grow to a good size. As soon as Eugenio joined his friend Remo that day and got a glimpse of what he was working on, he exclaimed: “That’s Adelmo’s big pumpkin! Didn’t we decide to take it together? What are you doing now?” Remo had already emptied the big pumpkin, and at each stroke of the knife a brilliant idea had gradually taken shape in his mind, completed in its tiniest details now that the work was nearly done. He was now making a few holes, which had to look like eyes, nose and mouth. Remo turned to his friend with the calm demeanour of an artisan who, concentrating on the creation of an immortal masterpiece, disdainfully answers an inopportune visitor to his workshop. And so he rhetorically asked Eugenio, pointing to the holes in the pumpkin: “What is this?” “I see,” replied Eugenio, “you are making a mask out of it.” “What is it, carnival time?” asked Remo impatiently. “Don’t you see that these holes form a cross?” He continued. “Now we place a candle inside…” “Ah, I understand,” interrupted Eugenio with a smile on his face, “you are going to take the pumpkin to your bedroom, in the evening you light the candle and you say your prayers.” But Remo did not lose control. While his eyes were staring at his friend, his mind was wandering and watching exciting images of epic proportion. Then he resumed his speech with fresh enthusiasm: “Listen, now we apply to this pumpkin some nice wooden teeth. Then…”... From Chapter 11: The Loan Shark ...people went around gossiping: “They say they are destitute, they need help, but they have enough to feed a dog…” In such appalling situations, a dog was considered by most to be a luxury. Finally, the pressure was such that the family took the ultimate decision. Early one morning, Cristoforo put the gun on his shoulder and walked the dog to the forest. Moro immediately acted as he had done all his life, showing as much human emotion as one can imagine. He seemed to know his fate. He crouched down, with his chest lightly touching the ground, slowly creeping towards Cristoforo with his ears flat, his soulful big eyes looking up at him and whining. In this submissive demeanour, tail between his legs, his head slightly to one side, Moro seemed to beg for mercy. Moro was another member of the family. Cristoforo could not take it any more: it was now or never. The sound of the shot came more as a surprise to him than it did to the dog. Moro fell on his side and died instantly, as a tear ran down Cristoforo’s cheek... From Chapter 12: The Mother of the Partisans ...The valley was situated in a crucial strategic geographical position. To the north, in the north-eastern part of the peninsula, it bordered an area where the Germans, it seems, were already secretly implementing preliminary plans that envisaged that those particular regions would be under the civic administrative control of Nazi Germany, especially after the arrest and replacement of Mussolini in the summer that same year.
The plans seemed ultimately to envisage the annexation of those regions to the Third Reich (there are suggestions that this might even have included the region of Venice, of which the valley was part). The possibility of an Italian agreement with the Allies was in the air and a bigger plan to respond to such eventuality had also already been drawn up. The announcement of the Armistice on the eighth of September 1943 eventually triggered the full-scale implementation of the German plans, with the full military control of those areas of the peninsula not yet taken by the Allies. Mussolini was freed by the Nazis, and Fascist authority was re-established (under German supervision) with its headquarters in an area bordering the valley, on the shore of Lake Garda (some headquarters of the reinstated Fascist regime were established for a period of time in the town centre below, not far from Maria Rosa’s home)... ...Then, another day, during an air raid, he left his working tools and, instead of running to the shelter like the others, he ran along the streets of Berlin in search of something to eat. His hunger was so great that he disregarded the risk of dying under the bombardment. Emilio entered a courtyard and ransacked a waste bin. He was eating potato peelings, when he heard a strange, sharp regular sound from his back, like tapping on a hard surface. While waiting for the discharge of an automatic gun, perhaps he thought that at least he was dying a little reconciled with his stomach. He turned and saw an old couple tapping repeatedly on the glass of a window from behind and making signs to him to enter their house. Emilio went inside. The generous German family pressed him hard to take the potato peelings out of his pockets and replace them with a piece of bread. They could not give more, because they too were struggling against the lack of food caused by rationing. Before parting company, they told Emilio in broken Italian: “Our son… is in Italy… Italian mother gives food to him…”... ...the position of the valley, well hidden by a natural enclosure of mountain barriers (the first Alpine mountains facing the Allies’ advance from the south after the Gothic Line of the Apennines), and the ready availability of facilities in the spa town, made the place an ideal strategic location. The valley was also at an important juncture of the south–north networks of roads and railways connecting Italy to Germany, which should secure supplies and, if necessary, a fast strategic retreat. Consequently, near the town centre below, in the Main Springs SPA facilities, the Headquarters of the Nazi armies in Italy was later established, headed by General Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, from which they coordinated the German war against the advancing Allied forces from the south; just above, hidden in the forest, not far from that strategic Nazi centre, was Maria Rosa’s house, now often used as the Headquarters of the Resistance: the whole area was therefore swarming with Nazis and Fascists, who had to guarantee the highest security of that strategic site. Owing to the significance of the area, in Maria Rosa’s house important developments in the structure of the Resistance took place, and important strategic decisions were made. In her house, the Allies’ mission code-named Dardo was based. Among other tasks, this mission envisaged: the monitoring of the Supreme Command of the German Armies in Italy headed by General Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, situated below, near the town centre; the liaison between the Allies and the Resistance; the Allies’ air drops of weapons and other supplies... ...For security reasons, all members of the Resistance assumed code names. So did the members of Maria Rosa’s family. Caterina assumed the code name Lenia, Mario the code name Marco, Eugenio was called Disma, and Maria Rosa had a special name: Mother. Maria Rosa’s code name had particular significance, since she was soon really
considered the mother of all partisans, and so she was known in the Resistance as ‘the Mother of the Partisans’... ...The good believers Mother, Lenia and her girl friends obtained a large quantity of small religious medallions with the image of the Virgin Mary; they tied a thin ribbon on each to hang from the neck, and they gave one to each partisan, believer or not, to protect them from danger. But there was an ingenuous and regrettable omission: they did not give the medallions to the Russians, fearing to offend them. “You, Mother, do not love us, you do not want us to live,” sadly observed one of the Russians, Nikolai, who, like his countrymen, spoke Italian fluently. “Why? I do love you all,” replied the Mother with surprise. “Why didn’t you give us the medallion with the Virgin Mary?” asked Nikolai. Lenia then explained apologetically: “Here they say that you Russians are all atheists, and that in Russia religions are banned.” “No… no…!” Nikolai tried to explain: “In Russia there are many churches and everybody is free to practise religion. We believe in God,” Nikolai went on, pointing to his Russian countrymen, and then added: “Priests are not allowed to take part in politics, this is true… and it is also true that, if priests commit crimes, like stealing, for instance, they are judged and condemned like any other man.” All foreign fighters spoke the Italian language reasonably well, except the American pilot, who only managed to utter a few words. For this reason, it often happened that he was a little left out of the conversation. The Mother had soon noticed this, and she often told Armonica, who spoke English fluently, to talk to him. Then the American, made aware by Armonica of the Mother’s caring invitation, thanked her with words that were only just understandable, and he caressed her hand with the affection of a son, calling her “dear mom”... ...Usually the partisans received advance warning of Nazi and Fascist raids and search operations in a particular area: some members of the Resistance had infiltrated the enemy ranks to become precious informers. Nikolai, the Russian, also carried out the same task, after he was captured by the Nazis and pretended to collaborate with them. But there were always unforeseeable moments, sudden attacks, when they were least expected. One raid happened on All Saints’ Day, a sacred day that it was unthinkable to disrupt in such a way. It was raining heavily, as often happens in November in the valley. It had been pouring for days, a persistent endless deluge. No strong wind, no clash of hot and cold air, no thunder and lightning (these were almost exclusively restricted to late spring and summer), just a continuous heavy rain hammering, monotonously and noisily bouncing up from the roofs and the stony ground, now running in streams down the steep slopes and small alleyways. It ended, eventually, with a dramatic turn of events... ...That first of November, once again people seemed to have forgotten the transient status of the natural world, the rain having become an eternal occurrence, so heavy and persistent that even the frogs had run away from their natural watery habitat and were now jumping along the narrow paths of the hamlet, up to the very thresholds of the houses looking for shelter. Twenty partisans were in the Mother’s home, convinced that on that special day they could relax and enjoy the warm environment, protected from the torrential rains. Surely, even the Fascists and Nazis would be celebrating that holy event and would not venture out in that terrible weather.
But they had just finished lunch, when the front door burst open and they heard a voice broken by deep gasps shouting breathlessly: “Run…! Run…! The Fascists are coming…!”... From Chapter 13: The Rope ...The previous day, twenty-two partisans had dined at the Mother’s home. Dante and Pino had been there for a while, when, at around nine in the evening, the other twenty partisans arrived. They decided to cook the spaghetti that they had brought with them. They ate and they talked. And the talk turned into songs, as often happened. Mountain songs, revolutionary songs, love songs… But among many, ‘Bella Ciao’ stood out. It was the Resistance’s unofficial anthem, because that song expressed the fight for freedom combined with the love represented by a woman. That evening, Lenia had received a photograph and a poem from Tarzan, and she had composed a song about the arrival of the enemy in the hamlet Caile, and the subsequent narrow escape of her fellow partisans. She could not have been more prophetic. It was the small hours of the night when the group left the house and everybody went to bed. Dante and Pino went to sleep in the barn situated at the centre of the hamlet, which the Mother had rented to increase storage: a wooden ladder led to the barn proper on the first floor, while on the ground floor the Mother had set up an additional henhouse. The other twenty partisans took a fifteen-minute walk along the path that passed by the second fountain, crossed a narrow small gorge and a large wood, to finally reach an old disused barn. There they slept: seven on the ground floor, thirteen on the first floor. The normally prudent and rigorous Pino had been unusually negligent that night: he had left his jacket full of important documents hanging from the back of a chair and a rucksack full of grenades under the table. It was at break of dawn, just a few hours later, when Dante left the barn to go to the first fountain, at the entrance of the hamlet, for a drink. The quietness of the early hours of the dawning day, married with the fresh air of the dying night, was an invitation to contemplation. With its impressive red colour, the rocky amphitheatre was announcing the new day to the world below still plunged in shadow. The silence was almost absolute, broken only by the first timid notes of the birds from the nearby forest. The novelty and the sense of anticipation for the new day, the almost unreal faint light, the scent of hay and flowers from the surrounding barns and meadows, everything emanated a sweet, imperceptible, almost mystic atmosphere. Dante was about to put his lips to the stream of water, when he saw the first Fascists climbing up from the slope below, and they were already approaching the first houses. He flew towards the barn, he climbed the ladder, two rungs at a time, and shook Pino, who was still asleep. “The Fascists are coming – run!” said Dante, leaning forward, and he then jumped... ...A multitude of Blackshirts burst into the room, one of them uttering an ugly yell. “Why didn’t you open the door immediately?” the Fascist commander shouted in anger. The dialogue that followed consisted of a cold and contemptuous exchange of words. “I took a glass of water to my mother, who nearly fainted hearing the shots and your thumping at the door,” replied Lenia scornfully, and then continued with rage, “Are you crazy to shoot and frighten people at this hour of the night?”
“Be careful what you say!” said the Fascist commander with an arrogant sneer. “We are not crazy. Who were those men that ran to the forest?” he asked, after a brief pause. “I don’t know. You should have caught them, then you’d know,” replied Lenia with indifference, going to the kitchen sink to wash her face and comb her hair. That last question was, nevertheless, a relief for her, because it meant that Pino and Dante had been able to escape. The officer went out to the courtyard, while the Mother and Marco had also joined Lenia in the kitchen. In the meantime, Giovanni had come down from the bedroom and gone out without anyone realizing. The Fascist commander had pointed the barrel of a gun at his chest and asked for his identification. Giovanni was only able to mumble a few unintelligible words, so scared had he been by the shots, the Fascist demeanour and, above all, by the gun pointed at his chest. The officer took it as a refusal and ordered a Fascist subordinate to take Giovanni to the rear of the building, put him against the wall and shoot him... ...The commander went out. So did Lenia, to go to the cowshed to milk the cows. She was followed by a very gallant Fascist with the air of a suitor, who offered her his help. “Oh… Miss,” he said courteously, “you can milk the cows, may I help you?” “Yes – hold up the tail of the cow,” she replied coldly. He was probably born and raised in town, and there he must have spent his entire life, unaware even of the most elementary aspects of rural life, because he immediately carried out Lenia’s instructions to the letter, but using a dry leaf that he carefully picked up from the floor, not to dirty his hand in the process. He was there, standing with a deferential and smug air, with his right hand hanging in mid-air holding up the tail of the cow from its tip, while from beneath the tail a stream of chocolate-coloured dung flowed and fell on the ground, which made his nose turn up and his face turn towards the entrance in a grimace of disgust. He did not let go his grip, though. He still had an oddly dignified air, when one of his colleagues appeared on the threshold. “What the hell are you doing!? Are you out of your mind!?” the colleague asked in sheer bewilderment. “I am helping the girl,” replied the other confidently, still unaware. The new arrival looked at Lenia, who was smiling with amusement. “Don’t you see that she is making fun of you?” The Fascist suitor’s hand let go its hold, the arm fell heavily, like that of a corpse, his face blushed with embarrassment then, turning bright red with rage, he ran out of the cowshed... ...The commander was now observing Lenia, who had stopped to look at the group of prisoners, and suddenly pressed her with a question, at the same time trying to detect in her face a reaction that might betray her. “Do you know these men?” he asked, pointing at the seven men who had just arrived in the courtyard. “Never seen them before,” replied Lenia, a little bit too quickly. “Wait, not so fast,” said the commander, grabbing her left arm and dragging her in front of the row of prisoners, all of them with blank looks. “Look a little bit closer,” he said, while still slowly pulling her along to look at each man face to face.
Lenia looked at those faces and shook her head in denial: “Never seen them before,” she repeated. “And you, do you know her?” the commander asked the partisans arrogantly... ...So the nine men lay in wait along the road, watching for the military vehicle with the prisoners. At the crucial moment, one partisan let off a round of automatic gunfire in front of the approaching vehicle, which came to a halt beside a tavern. The driver and the escort quickly ran into the tavern, dragging the prisoners with them. Taken by surprise by the rapidity of the action and hastened by their own anxiety, the Fascists did not have time to evaluate the real strength of the partisan group. In the meantime, the train from the province heading to the town centre was fast approaching – an unexpected mishap. They could not allow the train to proceed to the town centre where someone could raise the alarm. It was quick thinking: Tarzan discharged his automatic weapon in the air, placing himself in the middle of the railway track. The train stopped a few metres from his body. Tarzan got on the train to search it, while in a carriage the only Fascist on board hid himself under the long skirts of an old lady: he found no trace of Nazis and Fascists and got off the train to rejoin his friends. Rapid action was crucial for the success of the attack, because the partisan group was small and they had to prevent the Fascists barricaded in the tavern from becoming aware of their real strength. So Dante began to shout orders: “First battalion to the left! Second battalion to the right! Third battalion to the centre! Surround the house!” Then he shouted an ultimatum: “The building is mined. If you do not set the prisoners free in five minutes, we blow it up!” Less than one minute went by. The front door of the tavern burst open and the partisans came out, one by one. They were untied by their friends and all together they ran up the grassy slopes towards the forests, just as the first Fascist military reinforcement vehicles were approaching... From Chapter 14: The Holes ...the spy was a woman from a nearby village. She had been a guest at the Mother’s home and in other places in the area. In those days she led to the capture, torture and execution of several people, partisans and supporters. The cruelty of that woman was inconceivable. One day, she took her fellow Fascists to search a partisan hiding place situated down the valley, which they found empty. Then she grabbed a mentally retarded boy by the neck and demanded that he told them the partisans’ whereabouts. The boy gave her a blank look and was unable to utter a word. The spy took a handful of cotton, soaked it in alcohol, placed it in the boy’s mouth, and then set fire to it. Maybe it was compassion, or perhaps simply the unbearable screams that convinced a Fascist to shoot and kill the boy, who had turned into a blazing human torch... ...When possible, the partisans tried to avoid enemy casualties in residential areas, to forestall any retaliation on local people. In Caile and its surroundings, there was a tacit collaboration and agreement with the population that this policy should be followed to the letter, and it was. But it was not always the case in other areas, where not everybody was endowed with the necessary lucidity and sensibility. One such case took place in one of the secondary valleys that cut through the slopes of the amphitheatre of grassland and forest, joining the main valley like river tributaries. One day, a few partisans were having a drink with some locals in one of the hamlets, when a German soldier passed by, walking down the road on his way to the town centre.
Feelings must have run high against the occupiers, because the locals began to incite the partisans to kill the German soldier: “Kill him! Kill him!” they kept saying, “Kill the bloody Nazi!” At first, the partisans did not give in to the popular demand. But, finally, people’s persistent pressure, perhaps in combination with the drinking, gained the better of them, and they did kill the German soldier. At that point, the local population got scared and panicked. Nobody wanted the dead body of the German near their hamlet, for fear of Nazi retaliation. So, in an attempt to escape danger, people from each hamlet in the area kept moving the German body to other sites. And the hand-washing game went on and on, dragging the German corpse from one place to another, up and down the side valley, the whole day. When the Nazis found their dead fellow soldier, his body was still in the same area and was in a pitiful state. The retaliation arrived like a storm. The settlements of the side valley, consisting of two hamlets and a small village, were all mercilessly burned to the ground... ...The Resistance activities in the area had compelled the Nazis and Fascists to call on resources that could be used elsewhere, in other front lines. And now the German detachments that had to be established represented yet another burden, removing resources from the overall forces employed against the Allies. Nothing in life seems to happen without affecting the surrounding world, and it is often the accumulation of a myriad of small events that causes big changes in the overall picture, although historians may sometimes overlook this kind of fragmented but significant reality. After all, the setback to the Resistance was producing indirect success: weapons, ammunition and manpower originally destined to kill Allied soldiers had now to be diverted, ready instead to kill members of the local Resistance... ...Lenia had wrapped around her waist a blanket that a family had lent her during her wanderings as a fugitive, and on top of this she wore a winter coat. She looked like a pregnant woman, since the blanket had formed a big belly on her small body. The two girls turned the barn corner and took the main path that they had walked the previous evening: they passed by the frightening porch stamped by the sentries the night before, they passed by again the second painful porch of the familiar wheelbarrow, and, just as they were thanking God for their good luck, two German soldiers appeared on the horizon, helmets down on their eyes, advancing towards them. The two soldiers were coming up from the town centre to join the detachment and were now about twenty metres from the girls. Lenia was increasingly worried about the possibility of being captured, a possibility increased by Karemis, who, distressed as she was, might betray them both. “Stay cool!” Lenia told her. “Let’s play it casual!” Of the two, Karemis looked like the daughter, because Lenia seemed much older with that deforming clothing wrapped around her body, and because the other girl had grabbed Lenia’s coat tightly, and was leaning on Lenia’s left shoulder as they walked arm in arm. The two soldiers stared at Lenia, then at her big belly... From Chapter 15: Armonica ...It was now spring 1945. Lenia was just twenty years old, an age when today women are often considered still to be girls. But then, in those days, in those remote harsh environments, children became boys and girls and then men and women very quickly.
For Lenia, even that fast-track process had been abruptly removed. The family’s adversities during the last few years before the war had erased several stages of Lenia’s life altogether, curtailing her childhood and youth. Then, Lenia had lived a double life for a period of the war, as if, in a strange way, two lives could compensate for the one she had lost, lost when she had been forced to grow up overnight. She sometimes thought of how she was known as Caterina at the workplace, and down in the town centre where the Fascist Headquarters were located, and at the Main Springs SPA facilities, where the Supreme German Command was situated and where she had sometimes worked and seen the German commander General Albert Kesselring, and she had reflected on how history sometimes played the strangest games with people. Seeing him walking the garden paths, she sometimes smiled to herself ironically: “If only you knew…” Then, on her return up there, to the mountains, she was Lenia the partisan, member of the Resistance. Now, she had one life only again, not the ‘normal’ one, the clandestine, now she was just Lenia, the partisan wanted by the Nazis and Fascists... ...“The curls… the curls…!” Marco shouted to his friend Lino, the famous ‘Dad’, thinking about the pretty fluttering objects that were often spewed by the aeroplanes flying over the area. The curls were straw wrappers that had sheathed the bombs and which the bombers often released on the area. The youngsters Marco and Lino enjoyed running up and down the meadows after those kinds of kites, strange butterflies slowly falling, suddenly changing direction, moving up and down carried by the wind, which made the whole game funnier; they liked catching and collecting them, playing with them together to make life a little bit more cheerful in a world that seemed to have gone crazy, while the content of those toys had elsewhere caused death. But that day, the two boys soon realized that they were not curls. The black things were falling too fast, and they seemed to be falling right on them. But then they saw that, strangely, they were instead following the aeroplanes, losing height quickly, until they disappeared beyond a slope, where the valley narrowed and turned sharply left towards the town centre before opening up in an amphitheatre-shaped view of forests, grassland and jagged rocky peaks. A moment later they heard the message brought by the April wind. The deafening roaring explosion of the black objects shook the earth, echoing along the valley, amplified by the natural acoustics of the amphitheatre of vertical rocky peaks. It was Friday the twentieth of April 1945, Hitler’s fifty-sixth birthday. More than one hundred bombs fell, released in three quick successive attacks... From Chapter 16: Enigma ...Gi’s screen on which the images of the stories of Caile had run freely had faded away. He was looking once more at the rotten wooden door and the surrounding ruins: the remains of the hamlet Caile... ... Gi then looked up at the sky. There was a full moon, which was now setting behind the cracked wall, sad remains of Maria Rosa’s first home. The first stars were already shining, lively, contrasting with the desolate landscape that he was sadly watching. Men’s knowledge had ruined the stars too. They, too, had lost their eternity: they were born, reached their greatest brightness, to then explode, or implode, or gradually fade and die. “Nothing is created, nothing is destroyed, everything changes, turning into
something else, matter or pure energy,â€? this was a nice, familiar statement: but how bitter and unacceptable was that transformation processâ€Ś ... It was now time to compare his truth with the lives and deeds of the people whose images had just run on the screen of his mind: they had to be witnesses and judges of the absolute truth that he had recently formulated, by confirming or denying it...