Authors: Dani Amore
left Lauretta’s house and walked along the outer edge of Casalvieri, the part of the village that hugged the side of the mountain. I walked past houses where people waved to me, wearing apprehensive expressions that told me they were carrying on because that’s all they knew how to do.
I looked down to the valley below, normally a peaceful, sleepy view. Now clouds of dust wafted to and fro, and I could hear the sound of machinery, tanks, and jeeps as they went about their business, destroying everything in their path on the way to Mt. Cassino.
Men had been fighting over this land for thousands of years. These rocks, this dirt, all of it would still be here long after the blood from these men had been covered in dust. Only their bones would survive, and those too would be buried for eternity in the dank tomb of the soil, while the trees and the rocks would feel the warmth of the sun thousands of years from now.
A breeze blew around me, taking the edge from the sun’s hot rays off my shoulders.
My foot kicked a small pebble and it rolled in front of me, going down a small hill before trickling off to the side of the path. I circled the village, saw my own house in the distance, then walked farther up the mountain, veering off the path to a small plateau, a shelf with a small grove of trees and flowers.
An iron gate marked the entrance to the cemetery.
Thick oak fencing, falling down in some places, encircled the rows of tombstones and crude markers. The first headstones to greet visitors were the oldest. They were uneven—some sat high, others were sunken as the ground continued to shift over the years. These stones marked the village’s ancestors, some going back hundreds of years.
The farther you walked in, the more recent the dates on the headstones became.
My mother’s grave was on the last row.
Next to her was an empty space, probably for my father. On the other side of her were the two Vito children, twins, who had died the year before of food poisoning.
The entire village had turned out for their funeral, even the weak, old, and crippled.
Whenever I visited my mother, I wondered if she was taking care of the Vito twins in Heaven. Probably. If there were children who needed to be taken care of, I was sure she would be the one to step in and give them what they needed. One time, in an old book about animals, I saw an illustration of some kind of bird who was ripping chunks of flesh off her own body to feed her children. That was Mama.
On the walk over, I had picked a flower for her, and now I placed it next to her headstone. It was a modest marker, plain granite with simple block letters carved into the stone. Sofía Carlesimo. 1901–1941.
Mama was born in a small town about ten miles away called Agavita. Her family had been farmers, and at a festival put on by all of the churches of
the area, she had met my father. My mother was a year away from being of proper age, so they courted and then married on her birthday.
She listened now, I was sure, as I told her all about the arrival of the
. Sometimes I said the words out loud; more often than not I sent the thoughts to her from my mind rather than through the air. She heard about my fear for Papa, my anxiety over what they would do to us if they ever left Casalvieri. Or if they stayed too long.
I traced the grass over her grave with my hand, imagining our hands connecting through the many feet of dirt and rock. I wanted her strength to rise up and flow through me.
Instead, a wave of anger, fear, and confusion washed over me. Like the sea in a rising storm, it grew in intensity. A cold sweat broke out along my brow, and the cemetery began to spin around me. I could feel my heart beating quickly; my breath was shallow. I clenched my fists, felt cold dampness on my palms, like wrung-out dishrags.
From my mouth came a sound, not a scream but a twisted, guttural moan that rose from the back of my throat.
Slowly, I felt the terror pass, and then my body sagged, fatigued and spent. The experience was not new to me; I’d been having these fits on and off since Mama passed away, but I told no one.
A twig snapped behind me and I twirled, expecting to see a German soldier coming at me. But nothing was there, just granite witnesses watching me impassively.
A bush rustled to my left and I looked but saw nothing. Then I heard, or thought I heard, the sound of boots on the dirt path receding farther away from me. The trees behind the last row of headstones swayed gently with a breeze and I looked at their leaves fluttering. In order to fit the next row of headstones, those trees would need to be cleared.
I wondered if, after all this was done—after the Germans were done with us—there would be enough room, even with all of the trees cleared, to fit the many new headstones that would need to go here.
And if mine would be among them.
n I got back home, the house was empty. Iole and Emidio were probably off with Papa, helping him talk to everyone in the village about what to do now that the Germans had taken over. I was sure Papa had his hands full dealing with the questions that were bound to be asked as the shock set in that the village was really no longer ours. On top of that, Papa had to deal with Emidio and Iole; Emidio had a knack for breaking things in other people’s homes.
I went down into the cellar to get a jar of tomatoes to begin making lunch. One of the last things my mother had taught me was how to jar tomatoes. She did it a special way, separating the size of the tomato chunks. She would put the biggest ones in one jar, the medium-sized in a different jar, and the smallest ones, as well as the smashed pulp, into another. Then, depending on the importance of the occasion, she would retrieve the jar to match. The more special the occasion, the bigger the tomato chunks. I don’t know if everyone in my village did it that way, but my mother was adamant that we should.
It was disappointing to see how low our food reserves were. We should have been stockpiling and hiding food in anticipation of the Germans’ arrival, but the summer had been a dry one, and the one before that, too. Besides, no one had known with any certainty that the Germans would come. Up until now it had been speculation. But the hard truth was looking us all in the face and, with the men leaving for the mountains, the shelves were only going to get emptier.
I brought the tomatoes upstairs. I had chosen a jar that held the smallest chunks and pieces of pulp in honor of the
, knowing they wouldn’t realize the significance. I put the jar on the counter next to the eggplant that I had cleaned yesterday, poured olive oil into a cast-iron skillet, then placed it over the small fire I had built in the oven. I chopped onion and garlic, then tossed them in. When they were browned, I poured the tomatoes and eggplant in also, stirring them until the flavors were well mixed. The sauce would be hearty and versatile, something I could use with pasta or as a base for stew.
Suddenly, I felt someone’s presence in the room with me, and I turned, startled to see a man standing halfway between the big table and the kitchen. Somehow, he had made no sound entering the house.
He was a German soldier. He had blond hair and washed-out blue eyes that were rimmed with red. I guessed his uniform might have fit him when he joined the army, but now it looked a size too big for him. Judging by his face, he had seen some of the worst war has to offer.
His eyes were on my legs, and the look on his face scared me.
It reminded me of when we used to have an old dog named Fleek. One day, Fleek had managed to catch a bird in the backyard. I was outside doing laundry when he ran up to me, the bird struggling in his mouth, flapping its wings and kicking its feet in the air. Old Fleek’s usually gentle, tired eyes made contact with mine and there was a hungry, wild gleam in them that I had never seen before.
The soldier continued to look at me and I tugged on the bottom of my dress, trying to force it down farther over my thighs, but I knew it wasn’t helping. I had grown so much in the last year that my legs had shot out from under the dress, but we didn’t have the money to buy more material so I could make a new one. Stupid.
My breasts had grown considerably, too. My dress had been made for me when my chest was flat, breasts just slight bumps in the pleat. But now they strained against the flimsy fabric, the very top of each breast barely visible over the hemline.
I should have changed immediately when the Germans arrived, or at least thrown one of Papa’s shirts over the top of my dress. Things were different now; I had to be more careful, I told myself. In this outfit, I was an advertisement for something I didn’t want to be.
“Oh! I didn’t hear you come in,” I said, after a struggle to come up with something that would break the silence.
He didn’t answer, but seemed to mumble something under his breath.
I moved to get the platter of bread that sat on the edge of the hearth to keep warm. The soldier followed me with his eyes, not responding. My heart was thudding in my chest. Next to the bread was a knife, designed to cut bread, not men, but it made me feel better to be close to it.
Instead of responding to me, the German looked behind him. My breath caught in my throat at the slow cunning of the movement. He was considering something that he didn’t want the rest of the men, probably the two officers especially, to know about.
I picked up the bread knife and started cutting slices off the thick loaf. When he turned back to me, I’d put several on a plate and turned to him, the plate in one hand, the knife in the other, pointed directly at him.
His eyes were like rough hands on my breasts, then they moved down to my legs and thighs. He was fondling my entire body without actually touching me.
I could see his nostrils widening and narrowing as his breath came faster. There was sweat on his forehead.
For the first time since he’d entered the room, he looked at my face. He smiled, his lips revealing yellow, stained teeth. I felt like that bird that had been in Fleek’s mouth, kicking and flapping but getting nowhere, no chance of escape.
I backed tighter against the counter and he came closer. He was almost within arm’s length and I could see that his eyes were even more bloodshot than I had first noticed.
“Don’t . . .” I started.
He laughed, a mean, hungry laugh. I got the feeling he was a man who would enjoy fighting a woman.
Then the house’s main door scraped open, and the German froze. Heavy bootfalls crossed the threshold and then Colonel Wolff came through the entryway from the main room. He stopped when he saw us. His eyes went from the soldier to me, where they lingered, then softened, and I knew that he had recognized my fear.
The German reached past me and I involuntarily flinched. But his hand grasped the bread on the counter and he tore off a chunk, then held it up to Wolff by way of explanation.
Wolff looked at me, then back to the German. I eased away and stood as still as I could, but my knees were trembling.
Colonel Wolff said something to the soldier in German, and I heard the name Schlemmer. The soldier, Schlemmer, held up the bread again and pointed at me. Wolff responded angrily and I could tell he didn’t believe whatever story Schlemmer was giving him.
With a final bark from Wolff, Schlemmer strode quickly from the room, never looking back at me.
Wolff walked over to the counter and got a piece of bread for himself, and poured a small cup of wine, then gestured for me to sit with him.
His Italian was broken and not my dialect, but I could understand him.
“My men are tired,” he said. He shrugged. “But that is no excuse.”
He sipped his wine and looked out the window.
I again tried to cover my thighs with the hem of my dress.
“They have seen too much death,” he said. “They have been pushed too hard. And they are too young. Not as young as you, but still too young.”
“He was going to hurt me,” I said.
Wolff shook his head.
“No. Do not worry. My men will not touch you. I promise that to you, and I have promised that also to your father. We do not wish to harm anyone here, nor do we want anyone here to try to harm us.”
“But they are a long way from home, a long way from their girlfriends . . .” I said, trying to explain and understand at the same time what had just happened.
“That’s true, but that is not the reason for . . .” He waved vaguely at the part of the kitchen where Schlemmer had approached me.
“Schlemmer is a good boy,” he said. “He was close with another boy. That boy had his head caved in by an American’s shovel. Split the skull from the top all the way down to the neck.”
I remembered the way Schlemmer had looked at me.
“He hasn’t been the same since. He is scared. It just depends on what he chooses to do with that fear. It can make him grow stronger or it can destroy him.”
Or it can destroy me,
“This bread is very good,” he said.
I tried to smile, but my face felt tight.
He pushed his chair back and stood, stretching and grimacing as he did so. I picked up his empty cup and took it to the counter.
“Are you going to the front?” I didn’t so much want to hear an answer. I was more scared of being alone again, despite what Wolff had promised to my father and me.
“Soon. Soon enough.”
He made his way to the doorway and then looked back at me. I let my eyes fall to the floor, noting the rough-hewn wood, the flaws, the knots. So old, so much use.
“It gets drafty in here, no?” Wolff asked, gesturing around the kitchen.
“No, not . . .” I started, but then saw his look before he directed it elsewhere.
“Well, yes, yes, it can get breezy,” I said, “what with the strong winds and the cracks in the rock.”
He nodded at me. “Perhaps a shirt with sleeves . . .”
I nodded. “I think I will be much more comfortable in something like that.”
He looked at me and a tired smile came to his face, and then he left.