Read To Find a Mountain Online

Authors: Dani Amore

To Find a Mountain (9 page)

C
HAPTER SEVENTEEN

F
inally, when I thought my kidneys were going to come flying out of my mouth, we branched off from the main path and my guide set me on the ground, then took off walking ahead of me. I followed him along a fainter trail that seemed with every step to be on the verge of disappearing altogether.

Weaving his way through the forest with an obvious ease of familiarity, my guide seemed less preoccupied with remaining silent. He walked with a lightness in his step and from time to time, I thought I heard him whistling. The pauses to listen were also becoming less frequent.

After another ten minutes of walking, we went through deeper woods that spilled us out into a small clearing. The man paused at the forest’s edge and whistled softly. Instantly, a soft whistle answered him from the other side of the clearing.

Now there was no thought to hiding as my guide walked quickly, brazenly across the small mountain meadow to a low, long cabin. It looked like the kind of structure used by farmers during slaughter season, or a building used for extra storage.

It was a squat structure made of thick stone and featured a heavy wooden door at the front. A crude roof that looked like it was falling apart hung down in places over the edges of the walls. No smoke curled from the chimney and the windows were black.

He rapped on the door, a series of quick raps followed by a long pause and then one more knock.

The door swung open and a face appeared from the darkness.

“Papa!”

His image blurred as the tears came and I felt myself being picked up off the ground, the thick wool of his sweater on my skin, the stubble from his newly grown beard scraping against my cheek. Bright flashes of color exploded inside my closed eyes as the world swirled around me. I sagged in his arms; relief and exhaustion both swept over me in a torrent. It was over. The not knowing, the wondering if I had lost another parent. I wept for myself, for him, and for my mother, with whom I would never have this kind of reunion. He was alive. He was in my arms and I in his. Life was suddenly alive again within me.

Every time I thought the tears were about to stop, they started again. I was dimly aware of others watching, but there was no way I could stop. It had all been too much.

The tears were still coming in ragged sobs and I began to hyperventilate.

“Shhh, Benny. Shhhh.” I felt his strong hands on my back, patting me. “Everything’s okay.” I felt him carry me across the small room and we sat down together. Just when I thought I was calm, a breath would reach out and snatch itself away and I would shudder.

As my eyes adjusted to the dark interior of the cabin, I could make out the primitive cot upon which my father and I were sitting. There were other cots in the room with men either sitting on them or sleeping in them. There were also men in blankets on the floor. Most of them did not look at us, affording us what little privacy was possible in this setting.

Gradually, the time between sobs grew longer and the last one left me with one long, rattling sigh. My father sat me upright next to him, his arm around my shoulders.

He was smiling.

“Tell me . . . how,” I managed.

He talked then, because he was able to and I wasn’t, and explained how he had been told that it was his turn to go to the site of the last shelling and scavenge the corpses of the Americans.
Ordered
to scavenge, he said bitterly. “Like hyenas. That’s what we are to them.”

By then, he told me, the fighting was so intense, he knew there was no way he was going to make it back to Casalvieri alive. “All I could think about was being brought back into the village dead in the back of that filthy, bloody truck.”

After he had been ordered to scavenge the bodies, he came up with a very simple plan. After making it to the battlefield, strewn with dead bodies, he and the man sent out in the German vehicle with him found fresh corpses that had not yet progressed to rigor mortis.

“They let you drive alone?” I broke in. “Why didn’t you drive away?”

He shook his head. “There was nowhere to drive. There is only the one road coming down from the gap, and the Germans controlled it. We had another, awful plan, and it involved those recent dead that we discovered.

“The whole time, I was convinced a sniper was going to put a bullet in my head. I kept ducking down at the slightest sound and I probably took twice as long because of it.”

They switched clothing and scrounged up hand grenades to put with the German landmine they had stolen before leaving that morning.

“All we had to do then,” Papa explained, “was hide among the bodies at a safe distance, throw the grenades at the truck, and listen to the explosion.”

During the telling of the story, several candles were lit, throwing light on the interior, making my father’s face look dark and haggard.

“It was gruesome, but effective. When the Germans came to investigate, body parts were everywhere, and even if they hadn’t discovered our clothing on some of the pieces, the explosion would have been enough to convince them we couldn’t possibly have survived. So then we were able to escape into the woods and circle back.”

He took a drink from a small cup of wine.

“We had been able to keep in touch with the other men from the village,” he continued. “That’s how we knew about this place and how to get here, but it was still awful, finding our way back, waiting to run into the Germans, who would have been more than happy to execute us on the spot.”

He stood and paced in front of me, the nervous energy coming back to him from the experience.

“The biggest fear we had, though, was that we would stumble across American soldiers, very much alive American soldiers, and they would see us in their fallen comrades’ uniforms. They would not have treated us kindly.”

I shuddered at the thought.

“As soon as I could, I tried to send word to you that I was all right, but communication with the village can be a risky thing, Benedetta. There are dangers. The Germans know men are in the mountains, but for now they leave us alone; they have bigger fish to fry. We must be careful not to draw their attention.”

“How did you send word to Zizi Checcone, Papa? And why did you send for me?”

Papa smiled. “We got word to Signora Checcone several days ago . . .”

“Several days!” I was shocked. “She didn’t say a word to me!”

“She’s a smart woman, Benedetta. She was worried your emotions might give you away, so she waited and told you only what you needed to know.”

I couldn’t help but laugh; she had been right to do it. I filed away the feeling I had that Papa’s voice had warmed dramatically at the mention of Zizi Checcone.

“And Dominic brought you here all right?”

“Dominic?” I asked.

But Papa was looking toward the door, through which walked a young man. He looked thin and gawky, his face pale. Surely, there was a mistake, I thought. This could not be the man who brought me up the mountain.

“Dominic Giancarlo,” my father said, gesturing toward the young man. “From Roselli.” Roselli was a village even smaller than Casalvieri, about fifteen or twenty miles to the north.

“It is nice to meet you properly, Benedetta,” he said, shaking my hand, and I looked into those eyes, those eyes that were forever burned into my memory, and I knew that yes, this was the man, the boy, who had brought me up the mountain.

His dark pants were in tatters, and his shirt was much too small for him, his hands and wrists jutting out from his sleeves. His face was classically lean, his forehead full, and I thought back to the poster on Lauretta Fandella’s wall. Yes, he was much better looking than Enrico Caruso.

Right then, I made a vow never to introduce him to Lauretta.

He took my hand.

“I did not hurt you, did I?” he asked, his voice deep and rough, completely at odds with the gentleness of his manner. The movement of speaking transformed his lean, angular face, softened it somehow and revealed the white teeth behind narrow, sensuous lips. And those eyes.

I looked at Papa, caught the curious expression on his face as he noted that Dominic had still not released my hand.

“Hurt?” Papa asked.

“I’m fine,” I answered.

“We ran into a German on the path. I knocked him out and we ran. But in the process, it got a little rough getting Benedetta out of there.”

It seemed then that Papa saw the scratches on my face, but the sleeves of my sweater hid the bruises.

“Dear Jesus,” he said, crossing himself.

“Papa, I’m fine. Dominic took good care of me.”

“Thank you, Dominic. Thank you,” Papa said. He got off the cot and embraced Dominic. “I knew I was right to send you. You are the best of us on the mountain. I knew you could handle anything.”

Dominic nodded. “It was my pleasure, Alfredo.” He smiled at me and there was a twinkle in his eye. “It’s not every day that a beautiful girl throws up on me.”

I burst out laughing and my father looked from me to Dominic and then back to me. He didn’t know what we were talking about but joined in the laughter anyway.

My eyes went back to Dominic. I wondered if at that moment he could tell that, high on a mountain in an ancient stone cabin surrounded by war and death, I had just reached one of the most important milestones in my life.

I was in love.

C
HAPTER EIGHTEEN

I
n the very early morning, when it was still dark outside, the men inside the small cabin began to stir. A pot of coffee brewed over the small, crude fireplace. A man in a torn flannel shirt and thick, striped pants quietly shuffled cards at the lone table in the center of the room; he proceeded to lay the cards out on the tabletop for a game of solitaire.

I sat up and the pain in my back shot through me; these cots were awful. Even as tired as I was from the walk up the mountain, getting to sleep had been a major effort. Next to me, Papa swung his feet off his own cot and stood slowly. He put his hands in the small of his back like I had seen him do thousands of times, and stretched, letting out a low, deep groan. He caught my eye and smiled. There wasn’t a lot of talking done last night; after Papa had told me about his escape, the shock of the trip up the mountain had worn off and I had at last fallen asleep.

“Now it is your turn to talk, Benedetta.” Papa’s eyes, full of concern, looked into mine. “How are you? How are the Germans treating you?”

I hesitated and my father placed a finger under my chin and raised my face, forcing me to look him in the eye. Images of Wolff, Schlemmer, and even the bishop flashed through my head, but I answered quickly.

“As to be expected. I cook. I clean. I do what they ask. They do not bother me.”

“Good. Good. Do not be frightened. I have eyes in the village who are helping. You are not alone. How are Iole and Emidio?”

“They miss you, but we keep them busy, and I try to make up for you being gone, but I don’t know how much that helps. In some ways, it is good that they are young; there will still be much time for them to recover.”

His look was not the reaction I had hoped for; he seemed saddened by the thought of Iole and Emidio. “War changes everything, doesn’t it, Benny?”

“Will things ever be the same? Will they ever go back to normal, Papa?”

He considered the question for a moment.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “I don’t think so.”

He shook his head sadly and then looked around the cabin. “Let me introduce you to the men.”

I recognized some of the faces of men from Casalvieri.

Father led me to a man with a dark beard and a dark red hat. He wore thick black glasses and was in the process of cleaning the lenses.

“Benny, this is Vincenzo Benucci. He is from Roselli.”

We shook hands.

“Nice to meet you, Benedetta. I’ve heard a lot about you from this
scarpencia
,” he said, gesturing to my father. In our dialect,
scarpencia
means a parent who is too proud, going on and on about his children. In this instance, though, it wasn’t meant to be insulting. It was a compliment to me.

“Alfredo,” Benucci said. “You have a beautiful daughter.”

“Thank you, Vincenzo. She’s just like her mother.” I looked at the floor, embarrassed for many reasons.

“How are things in Casalvieri, Benedetta?”

“Food is in short supply, but we are surviving. The German supplies, when they come in, are good, but they are not coming in very often anymore. Not like at the beginning.”

“They are being stretched too thin,” Papa said.

“Everyone thinks the Germans are beginning to lose their enthusiasm for fighting,” I said. “They are not as proud as when they first arrived. They look tired.”

“They may be losing this war,” Benucci replied. “But they will never lose their will to fight. It is why the Germans were put on this earth. They are a stubborn, arrogant people, bred to conquer or to die trying. They will never change; they will never give up until they are dead or control the entire world.”

“They are not like Italians,” Papa said. “The Germans are cold and metallic as their armored tanks; their only passion is war.”

“And us?” Signor Benucci asked my father.

“We are passionate about everything but war. Food. Wine. Art. Music. We are alive!”

“Don’t forget cards,” the man from the table said, slapping down another card to the sound of laughter in the room.

Papa and I continued to make our way around the room. Many of the faces were familiar, men from Casalvieri who asked about their families. I was able to tell them what I knew, which wasn’t a whole lot.

Breakfast was a thick slice of stale bread and one more cup of coffee. Faint shafts of sunlight began to filter into the room and one by one, the men started to leave.

“Where does everyone go?”

“We try to get some of our work done, but we also all have our own places,” Papa replied. “It is good not to know where everyone is, just in case.”

Just in case the Germans find one of the men and torture him into telling about the others
, I thought to myself.

“Even though we don’t have to be too concerned about the Germans up here, it is better to be safe,” Papa said. “An old man was shot last week near Montattico, just a few hours’ walk from here.”

“So is it safe here or not?”

“It is not safe anywhere in Italy.”

“Do the Germans know about this place?”

Papa shrugged.

“It is safe to assume they do, but they would waste a lot of time and effort coming up here. Still, it is better not to gamble; that’s why we leave during the day and go deeper into the woods. The Germans do not come out at night; they are scared of the
ribellí.

“The men here . . .” I started to ask.

Papa shook his head.

“We are not part of the Resistance. There have been many talks, many arguments in this very room about this matter. Some of the younger men want to fight, to sabotage, but the older men like me fear too much for their families.”

He washed down the last hunk of bread with his coffee. The look on his face betrayed his dislike for the flavor.

“If we were to raid a German supply convoy and men from Casalvieri, even one man from Casalvieri, were captured—ten people in the village would be executed. Colonel Wolff told as much to me. I believe him.”

Papa looked into his empty coffee cup.

“The men here, we are ashamed.”

“Papa . . .” I started to object.

“It’s true, Benedetta. We are ashamed. We are men. We all, young and old alike, want to fight the
Germanesí.
I love my country as much as the Americans love theirs. But they don’t have Germans in their homes, with guns pointing at their families.”

He tried to pour any remaining coffee from the pot, but dregs plopped out into his cup.

“It may be dishonorable, but blowing up a German truck is not worth the price of my family, or anyone else’s family in Casalvieri.”

I went to him and sat on his lap, throwing my arms around him.

“It is your duty to be a father, to make it through this war in one piece,” I said. “Fight to stay alive, Papa. That is the battle you need to win.”

He kissed my forehead.

“Are you ready to go?” he asked, pulling on his boots.

“Where to?”

“I’ll show you.”

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