To Find a Mountain (6 page)


n the morning, my father left with the Germans, naturally, for the front. We kissed him good-bye at the front door. Iole and Emidio were in tears, as was I. He hugged Signora Checcone, which surprised me, and then walked out with the tread of a condemned man. Seeing him climb back into the truck sank my heart like a stone. The only hope I could cling to was that he would somehow manage to escape, somehow manage to find a mountain.

It had taken me quite awhile to get used to the Germans’ big guns booming at night. They kept me awake until I finally got the best sleep aid of all: complete and total fatigue.

Things had started to change, though. Gradually, the explosions began to occur sporadically throughout the day; now it seemed like the big guns were firing nonstop. It didn’t take a military expert to figure out that the Americans were trying even harder to capture Mt. Cassino, to wipe out the enemy that had dug in like a weed and refused to be yanked out, the dark force that had killed so many of their friends and maybe even family.

These mountains were strange to the Americans and the Germans, but had been home to my family for generations. I wondered if the families of those who died would ever see the hard ground upon which so much of their children’s blood was spilled. I wondered if the families had ever even heard of the region of Frosinone.

After lunch on the day my father left—a meager lunch consisting of thin menestra and dry, crumbling bread—I walked and tried to shake the image he’d left with me of roads strewn with dead bodies being torn apart by wild dogs. It made me wonder: If Papa did manage to find a mountain, would he really be safe even there?

When I got back home, I put on a happy face that felt like it had no right being there, like wearing a colorful dress to a funeral.

In the kitchen, Iole was helping Zizi Checcone peel acorns.

“Benny!” Iole cried. “You’re just in time to help us!”

Zizi Checcone smiled and patted Iole on the head. “Your little sister here sure knows her way around the kitchen, Benedetta.”

“Really? It’s a side of her I believe I’ve yet to see,” I said, giving Iole a playful pinch on the arm.

“Very funny,” Iole said, sticking out her tongue at me. I made a grab to catch it between my fingers but she sucked it back in.

“What are you doing with all these acorns?” I asked. “Trying to starve out the squirrels?”

“Making bread,” Iole said, like she had some great secret she was dying for me to ask about.

As I watched, Zizi Checcone painstakingly cracked open an acorn and pulled the small portion of “meat” from its shell. She gave the thumbnail-sized chunk to Iole, who then placed it on a chopping board. Iole took a small tenderizing hammer with a milled face and pounded the acorn meat until it was pulverized into something resembling a miniature pancake.

“It’s an old recipe, Benny, and a terrible one at that,” Zizi Checcone explained. “But the word is that food shortages are getting worse everywhere. We’ve got to start finding ways to conserve the food that we do have. These acorns will make a bread that is impossible to eat—unless you are starving. Even then it won’t taste good, but it will keep you alive.” Like so many Italian women, Zizi Checcone tended to think the worst was going to happen. It was an attitude my mother had shied away from. She had always been by nature a happy, positive person. But now, with the war raging, I didn’t think it was such a bad thing to think the worst. The worst would probably turn out to be reality.

The small pile of crushed acorn in Iole’s mixing bowl did little to convince me that bread would actually come out of all this.

“What’s next?” I asked.

“We add salt and a little bit of olive oil, and then we bake it.”

“Tell her about the dandelions!” Iole insisted, beaming.

“Dandelions?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Emidio is getting more acorns, and all the dandelions he can find,” Iole informed me.

“What will you do with the dandelions, Zizi Checcone?”

“The leaves have some nutrients, not much but some. Again, terrible if you’ve got plenty of food on the table, close to edible if you’re starving. Some people even use them to make a crude wine.”

“Maybe we’ll all get drunk and not even notice that we’re starving,” Iole offered.

I laughed at Iole, then smiled at Zizi Checcone’s ingenuity.

“I know, Benedetta,” she said. “Not a dish the great chefs in Naples would serve to their worst customer, but it can help us survive.”

“Let me help . . .” I said.

Zizi Checcone pointed to a small burlap bag. Inside was a considerable cache of fresh dandelions. I set to work, pulling the roots off each plant, followed by the stem and flower, if it had any. Once I had a sizable amount of leaves, I threw them into a small pan of oil, garlic, and a little bit of water. They were to be sautéed.

The back door opened and Emidio walked in with another burlap bag over his shoulders. He held out his hand.

“Look what I found, everyone!” he exclaimed.

It was a hand grenade.


he bread oven looked more like a small shed. It had about as much room as a tiny closet. The fire pit was underneath, and above it, several racks for the bread. It was made of stone and sealed with clay. I once tried to estimate how many loaves of bread had been made in this oven, but found the task impossible. For starters, I didn’t know how old the oven was; it had been here before either my mother or father had been born.

I opened the oven door and pulled out the wooden rack upon which four loaves of bread sat, their golden crusts still glowing over the red embers below. The scent of fresh-baked bread washed over me; it was the best smell in the world and made bearable the sometimes mundane task of making bread, baking it, retrieving it from the oven, and starting the whole process again the very next day.

The advertisement was deceptive. I knew this batch, made of a mixture of Zizi Checcone’s acorn surprise with more traditional ingredients, smelled like good bread but tasted more like burlap. I would have to use the opposite of the expression used by so many mothers to get children to eat food that tasted good but looked bad: “Iole! Emidio! Eat it! It’s not how it tastes; it’s how it looks!”
I joked that if we didn’t eat the bread, we could use it to scrub the pots after dinner.

I was almost glad to eat this kind of bread, because it meant most of the Germans were eating it, too. And I felt there was some justice there—not much, but a little. They too would understand the challenge of the moment: to stretch the ingredients as far as they could go while preserving the food’s ability to sustain. The first thing to suffer? Taste. Who cared what it tasted like as long as it filled the belly?

Becher had told me earlier in the day that a convoy from the front would be returning, carrying the dead, the wounded, and what remained of the living. When I saw the trucks pull up, the living and the wounded looked dead, their eyes staring off, oblivious to the fact that the truck had stopped. Sometimes the driver would have to tell them, gently at first, to get out, but some of them needed to be shouted at. And then they would jump, startled, as if their brains were still back on the bloody slope of Mt. Cassino.

It had been several weeks since my father left for the front and now I desperately hoped he would return, despite his plan to escape to a mountain. I wanted to see him, to hold him, to know that he was alive and well. It had been too long to go without him; Iole’s and Emidio’s questions about what he was doing were becoming more frequent and insistent. It was tiresome to have to lie to them day in and day out during a time like this, when we needed each other the most.

Back in the house, I poured the last of the espresso from the small copper-lined pot next to the hearth. It was weak and watery; I had used just enough of the beans to get a hint of the flavor and not much more. As I sat at the table, thoughts of the war went through my mind. Images of the barren fields, homes empty except for the women and children, Italian men dying on the front in a war they wanted nothing to do with. It was too much to comprehend. The life of the village before the war had been hard, and not just for me because of the loss of my mother. Many families hated it in the mountains, dreamed of going to Naples, Rome, or north to the wealthier cities. It was a life from which to escape, not to enjoy. But now, everyone longed for that previous life. It was like a youth that had ended abruptly, even for the oldest men and women of Casalvieri.

And for what was all this suffering and death? The Germans would not win the war. I had watched Wolff and Becher listen to their precious radio late at night and hang their heads afterward. They did not look like triumphant generals of a conquering army. They looked like parents hovering around the deathbed of their child.

No, the Germans would not win. They would simply return to their country and all they would succeed in doing here was to destroy families, villages, and, temporarily, a way of life. But like weeds, everything would grow back eventually. The Germans would no more be remembered than a bad storm that knocked down some trees.

At least, I hoped that would be the case.

The sound of a rumbling engine drew closer and I set down my cup, then moved to the window next to the front door. A truck came slowly into view and somehow I knew my father was not on it. It stopped in front of the house and Wolff swung down clumsily from the front passenger seat, his bulk not permitting him to move gracefully. He did not look back at his men in the truck but came directly to the house.

I stepped away from the window and stood in the open doorway.

A few men jumped out from the back of the truck bed. They walked silently away in different directions, averting their gazes. I recognized most of them, had served them bread, but for some reason they did not wish to look me in the eye.

“Benedetta, come sit with me,” Wolff said.

Wolff put his arm around my shoulders and led me back into the house. He sat me down at the table and I knew what was coming.

“There’s only one way to say these things.”

I started crying, the first tears pooling at the edges of my eyes and then dropping down my cheek.

“Your father is dead.”

The words struck like hammers on hollow wood inside my head. They were words I had heard before, spoken by my father. Except that time, it was about my mother.

I sobbed unashamedly.

“Benedetta, he and another man were in a truck, going back to the front to get more wounded. There was an explosion . . .” He held his hands out as if to say there was nothing he could do. “There is no doubt.”

It answered all of the questions but one, and I knew then that it was a question I had to ask.

“Did you find his . . . did you see him?” I asked.

He pulled a bundle from a bag at his feet and I recoiled, screaming, imagining body parts inside. Seeing my father’s hand or foot would be too much.

“No! No! Benedetta, calm down,” he said, and quickly pulled an article of clothing from the bag. “Is this your father’s?”

It was Papa’s shirt, covered in blood and nearly torn to shreds, but still recognizable.

“We found it along with other . . . parts. There was no way he could have survived, Benny. They both died quickly and painlessly. I’m sorry.”

I ripped the shirt from Wolff’s grip and hugged it to my chest. Anger ignited inside me at the sound of the apology.

“Sorry? Sorry? You are not sorry!” I yelled and jumped to my feet. The chair flew backward and toppled over with a loud crash. “We are not people to you! You think of us as mules!” My face was hot with fury. “When one of us dies, all it means to you is that another precious German will live to fight another day!”

Wolff looked at me coolly, almost appraisingly.

I raced up the stairs and flung myself on my bed, still hugging my father’s shirt. I don’t know how long I cried, but when I finally stopped, it was dark and the house was silent once again.

A gusty wind picked up outside, sending small pebbles bouncing off the side of the house. If Papa had orchestrated the accident, the explosion, would he really have left his shirt? Or was that part of the plan? Did the men who escaped to the mountains ever try to fake their deaths? I’d never heard of such a thing. Papa was a slow, steady man, not given to great dreams or revolutionary ideas. He was a good man, but a conventional one. I did not see him planning something so elaborate and dangerous.

Hours later, almost with no conscious decision made, I walked back downstairs into the kitchen. My feet were heavy, and I felt like I was floating above myself, seeing the top of my head, my slow shuffle.

I opened a far cabinet and reached in the back, behind many plates and glasses. My hands closed around an object and I walked back into the middle of the room.

The grenade felt heavy in my hands.

When Emidio had come in the back door we were all in shock, but I had decided to keep it; why, I don’t know. We didn’t have any guns in the house, and a kitchen knife was only so useful. It seemed like the right thing to do; after all, hand grenades were for wars.

But right now, I wasn’t thinking about self-preservation. I was thinking about revenge. An eye for an eye. A father for a father. A handful of filthy
for one good man. It would be so simple. After the soldiers were fast asleep, I could just walk to their door, open it a crack, pull the grenade’s pin, and roll the grenade in.

I hefted the instrument of death in my hand. It was green like an olive, with a thin band of yellow around the top. There was a silver handle along with a pin that I was sure not to touch. The whole thing was much heavier than I thought it would be. At least a pound or two.

It was amazing to me that such force could all be contained in an object of this size. Just like a bullet. I looked at my hand, so thin and so weak compared to this . . . this thing. Muscle, tendon, and bone. They were nothing compared to explosives, gunpowder, and bullets.

Suddenly, I felt my soul, my consciousness, float back down and come back into my body. When it happened, reason came with it.

No, I didn’t want to kill anyone.

Germans dying in the Carlesimo house would mean many people in Casalvieri dying also. A grenade like this could set off many other explosions and reactions that would probably kill many more people than this initial blast. Plus, like so many of the Italian men and women in the rugged farming countryside, hope refused to die that somewhere our loved ones were still alive.

I put the grenade back in the cupboard. Iole, Emidio, and Zizi Checcone would be returning soon.

There was food to be made and laundry to be washed.

I got to work.

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