This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2014 Dani Amore
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Lake Union Publishing, Seattle
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Cover design by Mumtaz Mustafa
Library of Congress Control Number: 2014939986
This book is dedicated to two of the bravest people I have ever known: my mother and my father
Estero, Florida, 2011
y name is Benedetta. In Italian, in the dialect spoken around Casalvieri, where I’m from, it means “blessed.” Can I say my God-given name was a wise choice, that my mother and father accurately predicted the life that I would lead? Yes and no, for I have known great joy as well as great tragedy.
I know that I have six beautiful children. Children who grew up in a household full of love, where there was always plenty of food, good food, on the table, and plenty of laughter. Some pain, too, but that is unavoidable. Your life cannot be full without pain.
I know that I have lived a long life. I consider that a very blessed thing, for I have known too many people, people I have loved, who did not make it nearly as far.
Today I laid my husband of fifty-one years to rest. He took good care of me and our children. I will miss him. The priest talked about the duty of the living to carry on the memory of the dead. I do that every day. I have done that every day of my life.
It is late now. The sun is dropping behind the Estero River, sinking like a giant orange stone. The warm breeze is making small ripples in the water. A boat putts up the river, its driver looking at the houses that line the river’s banks. He occasionally turns his head forward to see where he’s going. He should be more careful. There are many stumps in this stretch of the river, stumps that can rip a hole in the hull of a small boat. It’s a sound the big river alligators look forward to.
The driver of the boat looks at my house as he passes but registers no expression. He probably sees the pool on the lower level of the screened-in porch, and most likely does not see the old woman sitting on the upper balcony, a small cup of espresso next to her, as she scribbles in the small, leather-bound journal.
My children are asleep, and so are their children. We are all tired from the exhaustion of the funeral, the crying, the chasing after the younger children who did not realize the meaning of the occasion that has brought us all together for the first time in many years. As I watched my children try to explain to my grandchildren the concept of death, it hurt me. We should all try to put off learning what death is for as long as possible.
A significant part of me died with my husband. I believe that whenever someone you love dies, a part of you goes with them. I also think that every time someone new is brought into your life, a part of you is reborn. The circle of life and death is a balancing act, God’s way of making things even.
I have six children and eleven grandchildren now. From the looks in the eyes of my children and their spouses at the funeral, I’m sure there will be more on the way. There is something about a funeral that makes people remember the fragile nature of life, and in turn makes them want to create life again.
It was that way after the war in Italy. Entire towns laid to waste. Families destroyed. Dreams shredded by bullets and shrapnel. My children know very little of what happened to me during that time. The parts I have told them are the truth, but I have not told them everything.
They know that their father and mother met during the war. I was just a girl then, a young teenager, and their father was only a little older. My children know that their parents fell in love during that time, and although they think they know all the details, they don’t. They will learn here, for the first time, all of the incredible, painful, unforgettable truths that I now feel it is time for them to learn.
They do not know how close to death I came. They do not know how close to death their father came. They do not know how close to death my entire village came—all because of the events that took place in my house the year the Germans arrived.
My children will learn that wars are fought not just on the front lines, but also in the dirt streets of poverty-stricken towns like Casalvieri, Italy.
They will learn that their mother killed a man during the war.
That is the purpose of this journal. I first want to get everything on paper, bring it out from the dusty parts of my brain. Once it is organized, I will let them read it for themselves.
I loved my husband with all my heart, and there is an emptiness now inside me that will forever prevent me from being whole again. And that is the way it should be. I look around my house and I see him. His eyes. His smile. His voice. I can hear him calling my name.
When my children scatter tomorrow, the silence in the house will be difficult, no matter how busy I make myself.
It is late. The memories are already coming back to me. The sounds of machine guns, airplanes, and bombs dropping from the sky. Remembering it all makes me feel both old and young, the way I felt so many years ago, when the Second World War came home to us in Casalvieri.
Casalvieri, Italy, 1943
he Germans arrived one fall morning and took control of Casalvieri without a single shot fired.
I woke up to voices coming from downstairs. I was close enough to understand parts of the conversation, but some of the words were spoken with a thick foreign accent that I had never heard before. It was not a strange thing for me then; my father was the unofficial leader of the village, a village too small really to have any kind of government, and he frequently had visitors coming to him, some at all hours of the morning or night.
There were two rooms upstairs; one was for my father, the other for me; my sister, Iole; and my brother, Emidio. Looking over at their bed, I could see they were still asleep, huddled together for warmth.
I kicked off the sheets and put on a heavy sweater, then my shoes. Halfway down the stairs, I could glimpse the big table in the kitchen where our family ate all of our meals. It was a sturdy table with dents and scrapes that lightened the dark, rich wood and marked the many years of use it had seen. My father had been born on that very table, and we had literally grown up around it.
My first image of the visitors was the shoulder of a gray uniform and a matching gray hat with a black visor. Not knowing much about armies and uniforms, I nonetheless knew enough to recognize the clothes as belonging to a soldier. And then I heard another language that was guttural, with occasional sharp-sounding words.
And I knew.
There had been much talk recently of the Germans establishing a line of defense across the middle of Italy. Casalvieri was several miles north of Mt. Cassino, the highest point in central Italy, with a commanding view over the Mignano Gap, the most direct route north to Rome. Whoever owned Mt. Cassino owned the Mignano Gap. And whoever owned the Mignano Gap owned the right of passage from southern Italy to Rome. And whoever owned Rome owned Italy.
This is what the men talking with my father had said. I hadn’t completely understood it all, but I felt like I knew the basics.
The talk had centered on the threat of an Allied capture of Sicily and other islands in the Mediterranean, and how they would work their way up to us.
If it was true, the Germans would be taking over small towns like Casalvieri along a line cutting east to west across Italy.
Judging from the presence of German officers in our kitchen, I assumed the talk was true.
As I continued down to the bottom of the stairs, my father’s voice boomed out. “Benny! Come, come meet our guests!”
I walked into the kitchen and eating area, one long room that functioned as our primary living space. At one end of the rectangular room stood the table, and at the other end was the fireplace, over which we cooked all of our meals. On an iron rack next to the fireplace hung the pots, pans, and cooking utensils.
My father was standing next to the kitchen table with two men. One was a big man with a full belly, silver hair, and a ruddy complexion. He was tall, well over six feet, and I could see small veins in his cheeks, usually the sign of too much drinking. The other man was thin and pale with fair hair that matched the colorless gray of his eyes. He was tall, but not as tall as the first. Next to them, my father looked even shorter and rounder than he normally did.
“This is my daughter Benedetta,” my father said. “Benedetta, this is Colonel Wolff.” I shook hands with the large, ruddy man. “And this is Lieutenant Becher,” my father said, and I shook hands with the thin German soldier.
“A beautiful daughter,” Wolff said, as the men took their seats at the table. “How many children do you have, Signor Carlesimo?” He had a heavy accent, but his Italian was surprisingly good. His voice was gravelly, and he sounded tired, but there was a pleasant smile on his face.
“Three,” Papa said.
“And your wife . . . ?”
“She died with the fourth.”
I had retrieved the coffeepot from the small wire hook that held it over the fire. The metal was chipped and dented, scratched here and there, but it still worked. Like my father, it had survived, and showed its years, but kept its history to itself. He rarely spoke of Mama, and I knew that he wished not to speak of her now.
“Here’s your coffee, Papa.”
I refilled his cup and offered to do the same for the Germans, but they waved me away. I turned my back on them and felt their eyes follow me.
“It will be nice to have such beauty with coffee in the morning, Signor Carlesimo,” the thin one, Becher, said. His Italian came out stilted and awkward, but his message was easily understood.
I turned and watched my father struggle to maintain an impassive expression. My head swam.
The Germans would be living with us.
In our house.
My stomach churned as I worked out the logic of it. Our house was on the highest hill overlooking the valley of Cassino below. From here, the Germans could watch anyone coming or going. Plus, there were more rooms on the other side of the house that were spacious but drafty; we had basically sealed them off and turned them into storage areas. My father had spoken of emptying them out and turning them into living quarters, but it was too big a job for us. The Germans certainly had enough hands to get the job done.
I already feared for my father’s safety. The Germans were known to force Italian civilians into the hardest, most dangerous labor on the front. Carrying ammunition and gasoline, retrieving the wounded. They saw the Italians as a good way to conserve their own forces. Better an Italian man died on the front than a German.
Trying to sound casual, but certainly not succeeding, I managed to utter one short sentence. “And you will be staying until . . . ?” There was an awkward silence as I gestured, but no other sound came from my mouth.
Wolff looked at me curiously, smiling slightly, but it was Becher who answered, with ice in his voice.
“Until we have won the war, of course.”