Read To Find a Mountain Online

Authors: Dani Amore

To Find a Mountain (2 page)

C
HAPTER TWO

W
hen I was excused, I flew up the stairs two at a time and rushed into our room, where Iole and Emidio were rolling on the bed, wrestling and giggling. The look on my face must have terrified them, because Emidio’s lower lip started to tremble, like it always did just before he burst into tears.

“Iole,” I said to my sister. “Put Mama’s crucifix behind the dresser, and get her jewelry box—put it under the loose floorboard in the closet. You know the one?”

She nodded but stood still. They both looked at me, eyes wide, and then a big tear slowly slid down Emidio’s cheek.

I forced myself to relax, then went and got Mama’s jewelry box myself, lifted up the floorboard in the closet, and slid the box inside.

“I’m sorry about that, you two.”

Just then, I heard footsteps coming up the stairs. I hugged my brother and sister to my chest and listened.

Papa stepped into the room and closed the door behind him.

I fought it desperately, but my lower lip was determined to tremble like Emidio’s. And when Iole saw me, hers started, too.

“Shush, you three,” my father said. He knelt in front of us and his expression was calm, his big brown eyes warm and smiling. My heart burst with love at the sight of his gentle face, reassuring us as always.

“Listen, the Germans are not here to hurt us,” he said. “They have chosen our house because of its position on the hill.”

“Chosen our house . . . for what?” Emilio said.

“They will be living here with us,” I said.

“In our house?” Iole asked.

“Yes. It will be fine,” our father said. “It is no surprise. Here, they can watch people coming through the valley. Most of the soldiers will be on Mt. Cassino. They will only use Casalvieri as a place to bring the wounded. They will probably set up a makeshift hospital at the Ingrelli house. Colonel Wolff, Lieutenant Becher, and a few men will stay with us. They’re going to be staying in the rooms downstairs.”

“For how long?” Iole asked.

“Until they win the war,” I answered.

From outside, we heard the sound of a vehicle starting up.

Papa went to the window and looked out, then came back and knelt in front of us again. “They say that if we help them, they will help us. And I believe them. They have food and, more importantly, good medical supplies.”

I immediately thought of Mama, and I could tell that Papa did, too.

“We just have to be careful.” He fixed his eyes on my younger brother and sister. “Iole. Emidio. I want this room spotless before you come downstairs,” he said. “Benedetta, come with me.”

We went next door to his room. It smelled of Papa: a mixture of wine, garlic, and a man who works hard every day. Every once in a while, though, when a soft breeze made its way through the house, usually in the springtime, I could smell my mother. I often came into Papa’s room on those kinds of days, just to see if I could detect her scent.

I sat on his bed and Papa pulled an old wooden chair over and sat in front of me.

“Benedetta, you have to be strong.” He took my hands in his. “They are scared of us. The people who live here, all Italians. They don’t know who are
ribellí
and who aren’t.” The
ribellí
were the rebels, young Italian men and a few women who opposed Mussolini and vowed to do everything they could to kill Germans.

His eyes clouded over. “But it is not a good thing that they fear us. With fear comes danger. You know how a wild animal attacks viciously when backed into a corner? That’s what these
Germanesí
will do—if we fight them. Colonel Wolff said that if one of his men dies, ten of us will die.”

I flinched at the idea of the Germans killing ten of us, but my father’s grip on my hands tightened.

“If we feed them, wash their clothes, their bedding, help them find their way around, they will treat us right,” he said.

“But Papa,” I said. “Will they make you go to the front line? That’s what I heard they do.”

His smile was different this time, not relaxed like always, and because of that, I knew he was afraid.

“Benny,” he said, “listen to me. I am not going to the front line. The Germans need me to help them with the people here. They consider me the leader of the village, and as soon as I’m done talking with you, I need to go around and start collecting food for them until their supplies arrive.”

“What happens then?” I asked.

“What do you mean?”

“What happens when they are organized, the village is giving them what they want—they won’t need you anymore. What then?”

Now he made no attempt to smile.

“Once they are here and are organized, it is true they may not need me as much. When that time comes”—he shrugged—“we shall see. I may have to find a mountain.”

Fear struck at my stomach like I’d been kicked by a mule.

“Papa, if you go, who will take care of us?” I asked, gesturing at the next room, where Iole and Emidio were probably already wrestling once more.

Papa rose to his feet and looked down at me. His brown eyes revealed nothing.

He answered matter-of-factly.

“You.”

C
HAPTER THREE

I
n a small village like Casalvieri, word traveled fast. It seemed like my father had been gone no more than five minutes when people started bringing bundles of food to the house. And, of course, along with their bundles of sausages, bread, eggs, cheese, and wine, they brought plenty of questions.

“Will they kill us?”

“What are they like?”

“Why did they pick your house?”

“Will we have to go to the front?”

“Will they burn down our houses and rape the women when they leave?”

It was almost too much to bear. I answered the questions I could answer, and to the ones I couldn’t I said, “Why don’t you just ask the
Germanesí
yourself?”

I usually got a blank stare, followed by a peek around my shoulder.

For the next hour, people continued to bring baskets of food to the house, and I struggled to organize them. The big table was piled high with bundles by the time visitors stopped coming.

At long last, Alberta Checcone stopped in. She was a short woman, my father’s age, with a round face and varicose veins in her legs. She was thick, but not fat, and at one point in her life had probably been somewhat pretty. But time had not been kind to Signora Checcone. She had lost her husband to tuberculosis, an illness that had taken many years to blossom before killing him suddenly, leaving his wife no children, a small house, and a small patch of land.

She took care of herself: She planted the crops, harvested, made her own wine, and did the hundreds of things a woman by herself needs to do. She was loved by everyone in town, and perhaps pitied by a few. I adored her, as did Iole and Emidio. Since my mother’s death, she came to the house more often, helping my father and us. And when she needed a man to help her, usually my father was the one.

We had gotten to know and like her so much that we called her “Zizi” Checcone, a more familiar form of “Zia,” which meant aunt.

Now, she placed her own small bundle on the table.

“Come walk with me, Benedetta,” she said. “I have another bundle at home I need your help with.”

We walked out in the midmorning sun and I slowed my pace to walk beside her.

“How are they treating you?” she asked, as soon as we were out of earshot of the house.

“They have hardly spoken a word to me. This Colonel Wolff told me to bake bread. Other than that, they have left me alone.”

We quickly reached her house and went inside. She turned to me and held my hands tightly.

“Listen to me, Benny, you must be careful. You must be strong. You must be brave. But above all, you must be careful.”

“But Papa is here . . .”

“For now. But he must leave soon. Like the other men,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“Have you not noticed?” she asked.

I shook my head.

“The fields? They are empty.”

Suddenly, I realized how silent the village had been this morning. Without really thinking, I had perhaps assumed the Germans had forced people to stay in their homes, or maybe that the people of my small village were hiding, but the opposite was true.

“The men . . .” I began.

Zizi Checcone sighed, a heavy, tired sigh.

“The men have gone to the mountains.”

The men. No one was going to work in the fields.

“But how will we survive?” I asked.

My mind was whirling. If the men weren’t working in the fields, there would be no crops. With no crops, there would be no food. With no food, we would starve.

“We will survive, Benedetta. But we must be crafty. Here.” She walked back to the stairway leading from the dining room to the upstairs. She pulled back a board and I saw a cubbyhole filled with a bag of flour, salted pork, and jars of tomatoes.

“You must find something like this in your house. If you are in charge of the Germans’ food, steal just enough to survive. But be very, very careful.”

Suddenly I felt nauseated and could feel the tears running down my face. I didn’t want to be left alone without my father. I had already lost my mother. I needed help. I needed someone to take care of me.

“Benny.” Zizi Checcone took me into her arms and patted my back. The cloth of her dress smelled clean. “Benny. I’m sorry if I scared you. But you need to be prepared. We need to be prepared.”

She released me and gathered up the bundle of extra food for me to take back home, back to the strange men living in my house.

“I am here for you. Even if your father does go with the men to the mountain, do not feel that you are alone. In fact, I will see if I can come and live with you. If the
Germanesí
allow it.”

I thanked her and walked slowly back to my house, my feet like slabs of stone. The sun felt even warmer and there was a hint of dust in the air. Despite what Zizi Checcone said, I felt alone. Completely and wholly alone.

C
HAPTER FOUR

I
used to have a lot of friends. After my mother died I began to see less and less of them. Most girls my age were just starting to take over some of the responsibilities their mothers traditionally bore. I had taken over all of them.

There was no point in complaining about it. What would Papa have said or been able to do about it? In my family, work was not something to be avoided.

Of all my friends, Lauretta Fandella was the only one who had truly remained so. She was a tall, big-boned girl with a long face and thick features. Pretty, but in a rough way. Her shoulders were broad and her feet were long and wide; it was the kind of body that generations of ancestors working in these fields and mountains had developed, then passed down to their descendants. Lauretta Fandella was already a typical farm woman and she was only sixteen years old. If there had ever been a girl born to work the fields and raise five or six children, working day and night, drinking wine and living life without a care in the world other than pure survival, it was Lauretta.

The door to the Fandella house was open and I knocked, heard a voice call out, then I went inside.

Lauretta had three older brothers, all of them tall and lanky like her; they were rumored to be
lazzaroni
,
kept in check only by their father, who was bigger and tougher than all of his sons. At least for now. But when I went inside the house, only Lauretta’s mama was there, sitting at the table sewing a sweater. She nodded her head upstairs and I climbed the rickety staircase, then went down the short hallway to Lauretta’s room. The door was closed and I knocked. She opened the door immediately, able to reach across the small room from her bed and grasp the doorknob without getting up.

Her room, not much bigger than a closet, was taken up mostly by her bed and, in the corner, a small table upon which sat her clothes. The only other objects were a crucifix over her bed and, on the opposite wall, a poster of the singer Enrico Caruso.

There was no doubt in my mind that Lauretta was obsessed with boys. She talked about them, thought about them, even, according to her, dreamed about them.

Lauretta was sitting on the edge of the bed, a mirror propped on the small table in front of her. She was doing her hair, braiding it back in a long ponytail. Lauretta’s beautiful long black hair was probably her best feature.

“Let me guess,” I said. “You heard about the
Germanes
í
?”

She smiled and rolled her eyes at me, continuing to work on her hair. I noticed she had on a short dress that looked like it had been recently pressed.

“What, are you getting ready for an inspection?” I asked.

“I just figured the Germans would want to see some of the sights, if you know what I mean.”

“You’re terrible.”

“It’s a duty—we need to represent our country properly,” she said, pushing her breasts up higher in her bra.

“Lauretta, these aren’t the local boys. These are men who have seen much fighting and death. You should be careful how you act around them.”

“What are they like, the officers who are staying at your house?”

“Two officers, a couple soldiers. The officers seem pleasant enough. One is a big, older man, very nice. The other is thin and wiry. He looks kind of mean. I wouldn’t want to be his enemy.”

“Do you think they will treat you—”

“As long as we do what they want, they will tolerate us,” I said. “Nothing less, nothing more.”

“Be thankful, Benedetta,” she said. “They already took over the Ingrelli house and are turning it into a hospital. The family had to move in with the Carbonis. At least you are still in your own house.”

“I don’t feel it is our house any longer.”

I sat down on the bed next to her and helped her put the finishing touch on her braid.

“My father has left,” she said. “He told us it was time for him to find a mountain.”

“I heard that many of the men are doing that.”

“It’s that or die holding a German gun.”

“The Germans think we are dogs,” I said.

“Then my father is a dog who bites the hand that feeds him,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean he hates the Germans,” Lauretta said. “His brother was killed by some of Mussolini’s
fascisti.
Ever since then, he has hated Mussolini and his black shirts, and when Il Duce joined up with Hitler—well, now my father hates Germans.”

“Don’t say that so loud,” I said. “They told my father that for every German soldier who dies, ten of us will be executed.”

Lauretta looked at me as if I were ten years younger than her, not two.

“Well, Benedetta, I don’t think Papa is foolish enough to kill any of
these
Germans.”

“I’m not sure that matters.”

“Just make sure you don’t repeat anything I’ve said—Papa would not be pleased with me, or with you,” she said.

Lauretta stood up, smoothed her dress, then turned and twisted several times in front of the mirror. She put her arm around me and pulled me over so that we were both reflected in it. I looked small and worried compared to Lauretta.

“What do you think?” she asked.

“Unfortunately, I think the Germans will be more than happy to try to take in some of the local color.”

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