Villa Tristeby Lucretia Grindle
Soon Isabella and Caterina will test their wits and deepest beliefs as never before. As the winter grinds on, they will be forced to make the most important
Florence, 1943. Two sisters, Isabella and Caterina Cammaccio, find themselves surrounded by terror and death; and with Italy trapped under the heel of a brutal Nazi occupation, bands of Partisans rise up.
Soon Isabella and Caterina will test their wits and deepest beliefs as never before. As the winter grinds on, they will be forced to make the most important decisions of their lives. Their choices will reverberate for decades.
In the present day, Alessandro Pallioti, a senior policeman agrees to oversee a murder investigation, after it emerges the victim was once a Partisan hero. When the case begins to unravel, Pallioti finds himself working to uncover a crime lost in the twilight of war, the consequences of which are as deadly today as they were over sixty years ago.
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By Lucretia Grindle
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2013 Lucretia Grindle
All right reserved.
Florence, September 8, 1943
MY WEDDING DRESS SLID OVER my shoulders and hips, the ivory satin cool and slippery. It was barely noon, and already a blanket of stuffy air hung above the city, turning the sky a pale, dirty blue. I could feel my hair wilting and sticking to the back of my neck as the seamstress’s assistants, a cadre of silent young girls in pink pinafores, fastened the back, their deft fingers working the rows and rows of tiny buttons. When they were finished, they took me by each arm, like an invalid, and stood me on a stool.
A clock was ticking in the front of the salon, marking the time in thick, syrupy drops, and I tried not to count in my head. Crazy people count in their heads. Hysterics and lunatics. Thirty-two seconds passed before the signora herself came into the fitting room. She looked at me and made a clicking sound with her teeth. Then she went to work. With every tuck and prick, the dress tightened, until I began to wonder if this was how a snake felt just before it shed its skin.
My sister, Isabella, had vanished. Through the fitting room’s half-open door, I could see her hat, abandoned on a tufted pink settee. It was ugly and had been insisted upon by our mother. Today was Mama’s fiftieth birthday, and instead of coming with me she had stayed at home to oversee the preparations for the party we were giving and had deputized Isabella in her place. Before we left the house, Mama had reminded us that the signora was, under no circumstances, to have her way with the number of buttons on the cuffs of my dress, and then she insisted, almost as an afterthought, that we wear hats. Mine was pale green and matched my dress. Isabella’s was blue straw with a pin in the brim. Neither of us particularly cared for hats, but Isabella especially resented being told what to wear. She was nineteen and had just begun her second year at the university, where, she informed our mother, no one wore hats. As we left the house, she jammed the offending article down onto her forehead, muttering that she “wouldn’t be surprised if it blew into the river.”
But that had not happened. Because by the time we got our bicycles out of the shed and made our way down the hill and through the Porta Romana and along canyon of the Via dei Serragli and finally arrived at the river, we had forgotten all about hats, ugly or otherwise.
The moment we came out onto the lungarno, Isabella and I both realized that something was wrong. There was never much traffic anymore, due to the endless shortages of gasoline, but now there was none. Pausing, we looked both ways and saw that the long, straight avenue was eerily quiet. Below the walls the reed grass was dull and still, the Arno glassy and sluggish. Yet despite the heat, no one was walking on the bridge ahead or lazing against the balustrades. Instead people were gathered in tight little knots. Groups clustered and spilled off the pavements. Voices hummed like a swarm of bees.
Isabella and I exchanged glances. The strange electricity that hung in the air was not altogether unfamiliar. The city had felt like this before, as recently as six weeks ago, when Mussolini was deposed. In fact, ever since then the country had felt slightly stunned, as if it were wandering along trying to wake up from a very deep sleep. Now it appeared that something else had happened, but I couldn’t imagine what. It was true that the Allies had made a first attempt at invading the mainland in Calabria—but that had been days ago. Old news. And was so far away that it might have been happening in another country.
Without speaking, Isabella got off her bike and passed it to me. I propped the handlebar against my thigh and watched while she crossed to the nearest group of people. A few moments later, she came back, one hand holding the silly-looking hat, the other gesturing as if I were supposed to guess what it was she had to say. When she reached me, she became very still, her face turning inward, as if she were trying to understand what she had just heard.
“Issa?” I asked finally. “Isabella? What is it?”
I suppose from the look on her face that I thought the king had died, or Winston Churchill, or Stalin, or the pope. But it was none of those.
My sister looked at me, her blue eyes dark. “They’re saying it’s over.”
“Yes.” She nodded.
I stared at her. “The war?”
“At least for Italy,” she said, then added, “It’s just a rumor. But they’re saying Badoglio’s left Rome.”
Isabella took the handlebars of her bike but did not get back on.
Without thinking, I slipped off of mine. “Left Rome?”
I knew I was sounding like a parrot, or an idiot, or both. But I couldn’t take in the words. Surely the Allies hadn’t somehow reached Rome and chased away the prime minister? In less than a week? Without our hearing a word about it?
“Why would he leave Rome? What do you mean?” I asked. “What are you talking about?”
My sister began to walk. I fell into step beside her. As we neared Piazza Goldoni, I could see people coming out of buildings and milling about.
“An armistice.” Isabella looked at me, her eyes sliding sideways under the brim of the hat.
“An armistice?” The parrot again.
A look of exasperation crossed her face. “They’re saying that Badoglio has signed an armistice with the Allies,” she said, very clearly, as if she were speaking to someone deaf. “He’s supposed to make an announcement on the radio, at eight o’clock tonight. To say that Italy is no longer at war. With America or England or anyone,” she added, in case I hadn’t understood.
But I had. Too well. I stared at her. We were crossing the piazza by then, turning in to the street where the tiny and fearsome signora had her bridal salon.
“But—” I said.
Isabella nodded. She looked down, apparently concentrating on the toes of her shoes. “I know.”
We had now turned in to the street and stopped. Bolts of satin, a basket of white roses made of ribbon, and several pairs of small pink shoes surrounded by wisps of tulle were displayed in the salon’s window. Beyond them we could see the interior of the front room, soft and pink as a womb, and the door that led to the fitting rooms at the back, ajar.
“I know,” Isabella said again. She looked up, reading my face, finishing the thought I had barely begun. “I know,” she repeated. “If we’re not fighting the Allies, then what about the Germans?”
I felt my mouth go dry. My fiancé, Lodovico, was a naval officer, a medic on a hospital ship serving off North Africa. He was due into Naples any day. In two months he would have leave and come to Florence, and we would be married.
“You’d better go in.”
Isabella nodded toward the door of the salon and took the handlebars of my bicycle. But nothing happened. I stood rooted to the pavement. “Eight weeks,” Lodovico’s last letter had said. “Eight weeks. Here is a kiss for every one of them. Then I will be home.”
Now I tried not to shift, to stamp from foot to foot in my satin slippers like a horse bothered by flies. There was no point in asking the signora about anything. Her world was composed solely of seams and hems, of pleated lace and the exact placement of tiny rosebuds. Moreover, she had made it amply clear, more than once, that she did not care for “chat.” Mothers might occasionally intervene on matters of necklines and bodices. Brides, however, were to be poked, prodded, grateful, and silent.
It was almost a half hour before the little woman stood up. For the final ten minutes, she had been squatting on her haunches behind me. Oblivious to what might or might not be happening in the world beyond the salon—to anything but the quality of available silk and whether or not the right “foundation garments” could still be found in Milan or Paris—the signora muttered something, and two of the pale, silent creatures who shadowed her, handing out marking chalk and measuring tapes, stepped forward. They helped me down from the stool, one on each arm again, and stood me, like a giant doll, facing a standing mirror that was covered with a sheet. Without speaking, they arranged the train of my dress, smoothing it across the floor. A third girl appeared, carrying a swath of tissue paper, holding it in front of her with both hands. I heard a faint rustling as she laid it on the bench behind me.
Through the open door, I saw the hat, still on the settee. Isabella was nowhere in sight. I suspected she had gone to try to find a newspaper or listen to a radio, and I could hardly blame her, but all the same I wished she would come back. My heart felt strange, like something in a cage. A few more of the girls materialized. Then more rustling. Tissue paper whispered as they placed the veil on my head.
Standing behind me in a semicircle, faces full of studied expectation, hands folded in front of them, the assistants waited, until finally the tiny signora rose on her toes. Her hand reached up, fast as a cat’s claw, and whipped the sheet away from the mirror.
A tall girl blinked back at me. Her hair was hidden, covered in what looked like a spider’s web. Her eyes stared. Wrapped in white, she looked like a column of smoke. Like a woman in a shroud. Like Lot’s wife, who stopped, looked back, and turned to salt.
Isabella had found a newspaper, but it said nothing. Officially, there was nothing to say, because nothing had happened. But everyone knew that wasn’t true. During the almost three hours since I had entered the salon, the streets had changed. The stunned, electric feeling had gone. The storm had broken, and this time no one was asleep. As we cycled home, abandoning the hats—Isabella’s on the settee and mine kicked to the side of the changing cubicle with a viciousness it probably didn’t deserve—we found ourselves swerving. Braking. More than once we almost collided, trying to avoid people who ran into the street throwing up their arms, shouting, and grasping one another.
At home the house was in an uproar. Emmelina, who had been our housekeeper for as long as I could remember, stood in the kitchen marshaling delivery boys and three local women who had come in to help. In the dining room, her niece sat at the table. When I had come down that morning, I’d found the girl—a small, solid creature with eyes as black as river stones—polishing silver and arranging tiny spoons and flat-pronged forks in fans on the sideboard. Now she was folding white linen napkins, her square, blunt-fingered hands creasing them into triangles. On the terrace two men in blue overalls were setting up tables and chairs. A string quartet was coming. There would be dancing. In the driveway the grocer’s old horse stood resting against the shafts of the cart that had been called back into service since gasoline had become too expensive for tradesmen to use.
Our mother was not in evidence. According to Emmelina, as soon as she heard the news, she had gone upstairs to “turn out Enrico’s room.” My older brother had recently taken up his commission in the army and was stationed outside Rome. Emmelina said Mama was absolutely certain that, with the war now over, his arrival was imminent. She had told Emmelina that his dinner jacket must be gotten out of his wardrobe and aired.
I didn’t even bother to wash my face, much less change out of my rumpled, sticky dress. Instead I went straight to Papa’s study. Inside, I closed the door and leaned against it, savoring the dark, cool room that smelled of my father. Of his books and his dusty papers. And of the acqua di colonia he wore and the faint, heady perfume of the cigar he allowed himself every Sunday afternoon.
I took a breath and wandered across the dark patterned carpet. There was a photograph of our mother on Papa’s desk, a tall blond girl with a wide smile. It had been taken almost thirty years ago, but she did not look so very different. At fifty she was still a beautiful woman—strong-boned, with fine skin and the dark blue eyes she gave to all her children. Enrico and I had Papa’s dark hair. It was from Mama that Isabella got her lion’s mane.
Lodovico had cousins in Caserta, and I was sure—being close to Naples, which after all was his home port—that they would know where his ship was. I knew that it was due in, carrying its cargo of the maimed and dying. His last letter had promised that he would write or, if he could, telephone as soon as they arrived. But I couldn’t wait. On the bicycle ride home, I had become gripped again by the absolute certainty that they’d been bombed. That the Germans must have attacked them at sea as soon as even a rumor of an armistice leaked out. I sat down in Papa’s chair and picked up the telephone, my hand damp on the receiver. But all I could hear was a dead, empty buzzing.
Beyond the door, people tramped up and down the hall. I heard Emmelina fussing at her niece in the dining room. I put the receiver down, then tried and tried again. But on the one occasion I did get an operator, she assured me that it was futile. All of Florence, all of Italy, was trying to get a telephone line. It was past five o’clock when the door opened and Papa came in.
He stood with the light behind him, and I could sense rather than see his expression. My father was a professor at the university, a specialist in Boccaccio. He was, like almost everyone else we knew, anti-Fascist. And like all anti-Fascists across Italy, he’d felt the air move a little more easily in and out of his lungs since the twenty-fifth of July, the day Mussolini had gone. Papa had never been an agitator, or even what one might really call an activist. His resistance had instead been quiet—unflamboyant and rather sly. Still, the strain of it must have been considerable. One evening about a month ago, when we were sitting on the terrace, he had turned to me, his long face soft in the last light, and told me that he had never quite believed that the day would come. That he still felt surprised, as if he had found quite by accident that he’d been holding his breath for more than twenty years.
Now the straightness had gone out of his shoulders. His linen suit was as rumpled as my dress. Like my mother, my father had blue eyes. They were not as dark as hers, but they were wider, rounder. Behind the wire frames of his glasses, they looked like a child’s eyes. Mama had said once that she married him because he looked like a poet. These days his hair was flecked with gray. It still fell over his forehead. He was in the habit of pushing it away as he spoke.
“Caterina?” The signet ring he wore on his left hand next to his wedding band caught the light that seeped through the half-open curtains.
“I’ve been trying to find Lodo.”
I wasn’t sure the words actually came out of my mouth. If they did, they were not much more than a whisper.
Papa closed the door and came into the room. He smiled, but sadness blurred his face. He leaned down and took the telephone out of my hand. My father placed the receiver gently in the cradle, then placed his hand on the top of my head, stroking the snarled tangle of my hair that had long since escaped its pins and the tortoiseshell clasp I had tried to tame it with.
“Tomorrow,” he said. “If we don’t hear from him tonight, we’ll get word of him tomorrow.”
I closed my eyes, my head resting against Papa’s hip. The linen of his suit scratched against my cheek.
“Papa,” I said finally.
“Yes, my love?”
“Are the Germans coming?”
“They’re already here.”
I knew I sounded like a child, like anything but a twenty-two-year-old woman who was about to be married, but I couldn’t help myself.
I looked up at him. “No, I mean here,” I said. “To Florence. Do you think we’ll be occupied?”
For what seemed like a long time, my father didn’t answer me. Then he said, “Yes, Cati. I should think we will.”
That evening Isabella and I stood between our parents and greeted our guests as they arrived. Supper was served on the terrace by the women who had come in, all of them now in starched white aprons. Then, just before eight o’clock, the musicians stopped playing, more champagne was poured, and everyone moved into the sitting room to crowd around the big radio and listen to what we all already knew the prime minister was going to say. That the Italian government had asked the commander-in-chief of the Allied forces, General Eisenhower, for an armistice and that the request had been accepted.
There was dead silence as Badoglio spoke, his voice wavering from the radio. As a result, he said, Italian forces would immediately cease all acts of hostility toward the Allies.
Then the BBC announced that the Italian navy had been ordered to sail its ships immediately to the nearest Allied port. Standing beside me, Issa reached out and gripped my hand.
The quartet we had hired were four old men, their tailcoats and white ties impeccable and shiny with age. Not that you would have known it, because after the radio announcement the music became quite wild. High and fast, it was like Gypsy music, flung from the strings in bright, unraveling spools. Champagne corks popped. Down the hill in the city, the bells began to ring. A few minutes later, fireworks went off. Standing at the terrace wall, I watched the livid colors spiraling upward, snagging in the branches of the garden trees and tangling in the smattering of stars.
It was well past midnight before the terrace finally emptied. The guests flowed away, leaving nothing behind but tables covered with crumbs and drained glasses. A few of Papa’s friends, colleagues from the university, stayed on. As I went up, I paused on the stairs, listening to their voices rise and fall, lapping like waves from behind the closed doors of his study. Part of me wanted to turn the handle and slip through into the safe, grave world of men’s voices and cigar smoke. My father had always made me welcome, had always allowed any of us to join in his conversations. I paused. Then I realized I was too tired, and I slipped off my shoes and crept upstairs.
The curtains over the window at the end of the hall had been pulled, but light still seeped under my door. I pushed it open, realizing I must have left the dressing table lamp on, and almost tripped over Isabella’s dress. She had shed it like a skin. Dropped it on the floor, then drifted into my bed. The covers were pulled up almost over her face. A floss of hair spread across the pillow.
Standing there holding my shoes, I didn’t have the energy to be angry. Issa had done this when she was a child, floated from her bed to mine as if there were no real difference between the two. At least tonight she had left me some space. I bent down and picked up the dress. It was her favorite, an iridescent blue shot with green. The silk came from Como. Mama had picked it out. The bolt she chose for me was copper bronze. With my skin, Mama said, with my hair I couldn’t wear green. Even blue I should beware of. My colors were autumnal. Bronze, copper. Occasionally scarlet. I hadn’t said anything, but I didn’t like my dresses. I didn’t want to wear the colors of dying leaves. I, too, wanted to be a peacock.
Smoothing the skirt, I eased open the wardrobe and slipped the dress onto a hanger. Then I opened my bureau drawer and saw that Issa had helped herself to one of my nightgowns. My trousseau was locked away—otherwise she would probably have rifled that, too. Belongings didn’t really exist for my sister. She simply picked up what she liked.
Looking at her nestled in my bed wearing my nightgown, I wondered if Isabella would ever be forced to grow up. Probably not, I thought. Probably she would be one of those people who lived forever with the special privileges allowed to youngest children—the charm and skills bred of indulgence or just plain exhaustion. It was a joke in our family that Issa could get away with anything.
I was brushing my hair when I felt her watching me.
“Are you scared?”
Looking at her face in the mirror, I put down my brush. Then I stood up and cracked the window and closed the shutter. “Yes,” I said. “Move over.”
She wiggled sideways, and I climbed into bed. I threw my head down on the pillow and yanked the blanket. Issa waited a moment, then yanked it back and laughed, the sound, high and bright, sparking in the darkness.
By the time I woke up the next morning, Issa was gone. I lay in bed feeling the echo of her in the room and watching the sunlight slide through the shutters. I’d been dreaming of Lodovico. I’d heard his voice. Seen him smile. As I woke up, he was walking toward me in his officer’s uniform. I closed my eyes and tried to summon him back, to feel the touch of his hands. Then I remembered and leaped out of bed.
Downstairs, the debris of the party was still scattered about—dirty glasses, cigarettes stubbed out in ashtrays. I glanced at the hall clock. It was past nine on a Thursday morning. Papa and Issa would have left for the university ages ago. I could hear a dim murmur of voices from behind the kitchen door. The radio. I skirted the dining room table and pushed through the door.
My mother was standing in the middle of the room. Like me, she was still wearing her dressing gown.
“Mama?” I asked, my eyes straying to the counter where the radio sat. “What’s going on? What’s happening?”
All of us—Issa, Rico, and I—had learned over the years that our mother was not someone to turn to for reassurance. That Papa was the one who could be relied on to chase monsters from under the bed and thwack through the bushes to prove that Count Dracula was not in fact at the bottom of the garden.
Mama looked from the radio to me. “The Allies have landed at Salerno.”
“Late last night,” she said. “Early this morning. It’s still going on.”
So it had happened. I sat down suddenly, rocking the kitchen chair. As the voices had been lapping to and fro in Papa’s study, as I had been yanking the blanket with Issa and dreaming of Lodovico, the invasion—the real invasion—had begun.
After university I had started training as a nurse. But my skills were not such that I was in much demand at the hospital, so it had not been much of a problem to get two days off for Mama’s party. Once we’d recovered from the news of the invasion and Emmelina arrived, with her niece in tow to do “the heavy work,” I spent my day half helping to tidy the house but mostly hovering around the telephone. I still could not get a line, and no calls came in. Nervous as cats, Mama and I started every time we heard something in the street. We darted to the windows in case it was Enrico, or Lodo, or someone with a telegram. But the only people who came were the men who folded up the tables and took away the chairs, and for the most part they were morose and silent. Yesterday people had been jubilant, almost giddy. Now a watchful, almost sullen mood had set in. All day long the radio babbled.
Papa and Isabella finally came home, much later than usual. As we sat down to dinner, they recited the news of the day. But by then Mama and I had already heard it. The Germans had moved faster than anyone expected. In little more than twelve hours they had occupied Padua, Bologna, Verona. Milan would be next. Then us.
No one knew what was happening in Salerno, exactly, but Papa had spoken to colleagues who insisted they could hear the guns from Rome. Everyone expected another landing, possibly at Ostia, or even farther north, on the Argentario, or at Livorno. Badoglio and the king apparently really had vanished—signed the armistice and fled Rome. Despite his best efforts, Papa had not been able to find out anything more about the navy. There was no news about the movement of specific ships. He had not been able to get a line to Naples, nor had he been able to get any news of Enrico. Rumor said that the divisions based around Rome would attempt to defend the city, but as the country appeared to have no government, no one knew who would be in command.
On hearing this last piece of information, Mama, who had left her plate untouched, got up from the table abruptly. From the sitting room we heard the snap of the bar door, the clink of a glass and a bottle. After that, Papa stopped talking and pushed his food back and forth. I cut a potato into pieces, smaller and smaller and smaller. Only Isabella ate, methodically and without speaking, like a horse.
She was, she informed me after dinner, going out with a group of her friends, to a “meeting.” When I asked her what it was about, she shrugged and said, “Nothing.” Which I suspected meant a visit to one of the cafés around Piazza San Marco. I had joined these outings once or twice. But most of Issa’s friends were from the university’s mountaineering club—she shared that particular passion with both my father and my brother—and on the whole they were rather too hale and hearty for me.
“Answer the door, will you?” Issa said. “If Massimo comes? I just need my coat.”
“You’re going with Massimo?”
We were standing in the hall. She shrugged as she started up the stairs. “We all are,” she said. “He has a car.”
And gasoline to put in it, I thought. I had met Massimo once or twice. He was a year or so ahead of Issa at the university—in engineering, which was presumably how he had gotten out of being sent off to die for his country. His family came from somewhere around Siena and owned land, rather a lot of it. He was a beefy fellow, loud and opinionated, with a rather self-conscious booming laugh. The others had treated him with a certain amount of awe. I suspected he was used to getting what he wanted. Including fuel.
The doorbell rang, and I opened it obediently, wondering if Papa knew what Issa was up to.
Massimo stood on the doorstep with his hat in his hand. He looked a bit more subdued than I had remembered him. At least he’d cut his mood to suit the occasion.
“Caterina.” He took my hand as I invited him in, standing half in the open doorway. Behind him I could see the shape of a car in the drive and hear voices rustling in the warm night.
Massimo gave a little bow. “I hear,” he said, “that congratulations are in order. You are getting married. A doctor?”
He raised his eyebrows, as if I had just bagged an unexpectedly large deer.
“Your fiancé is very lucky.”
“Thank you. He’s in a very dangerous position. As an officer,” I said suddenly, sounding prissy, even to myself. “In the navy.”
I don’t know why I added the last remark, probably to highlight the fact that Massimo wasn’t—in the army or the navy or anything else, except the mountaineering club. And was therefore in no danger at all, from anything, except possibly twisted ankles. If he heard the insult, he was gentleman enough to ignore it.
Instead he smiled again and said, “Then he matched his good taste and courage in choosing someone as beautiful as you.”
I blushed, feeling as bad as I am sure he intended me to. And probably as I deserved.
Massimo had extravagantly lashed, rather pale eyes. Just then they flicked away from me, over my shoulder, to Isabella, who was coming down the stairs.
“Hello,” she said, and Massimo’s charm, so evident moments before, deserted him. Looking at her, he was simply tongue-tied.
Issa shrugged into her coat. “I won’t be late,” she told me, although I hadn’t asked. Then she slipped past Massimo and down the front steps, and they were gone.
Later, as I dried the dishes, Emmelina whispered to me that she’d heard that the city prisons had been opened. Cutthroats and murderers, she said, were on the streets. Prisoners of war and who knew who else. It was, she assured me, impossible to buy a lock or even a piece of chain or stout rope. There were none left in the shops. In all likelihood we would not have to worry about the Germans because we would all be slaughtered in our beds well before they arrived. She hoped I was going to lock my door and windows. As she left for home an hour later, I saw what I recognized as the tip of one of our bread knives sticking out of the folds of her big black coat.
I didn’t put much stock in the story—although it turned out to be perfectly true—if only because it was the sort of thing Emmelina loved. She had begun working for us since shortly after Enrico’s eighth birthday, when I was five.
Every afternoon Emmelina had collected us from school and entertained us while walking home with some dire tale or other, usually featuring automobile accidents or train wrecks. It was Emmelina who had invariably bandaged my scraped knees when Enrico pushed me over. Who had sat with me over countless cups of hot milk at the kitchen table while I related to her all the adventures and dramas of my days.
After she had gone that night, I felt suddenly bereft. Papa was in his study. I knew I could interrupt him, but I had nothing, really, to say. And he would be getting ready for a lecture. I went upstairs instead to check on Mama. The door to my parents’ room was ajar. Inside, my mother, still in the clothes she had worn at dinner, was curled on the bed, asleep, the picture of Enrico she kept on her dressing table beside her on the pillow.
Mama’s grandfather had made a fortune in mining. Her marrying our father had been considered a romantic concession to love, but one she could afford. We had a gardener who came twice a week and a man who helped with the car. When Rico and Issa and I were very small, there had been a nanny, eventually replaced by Emmelina. Until not long ago, there had been a live-in maid. Now, with Enrico in the army, me at the hospital, and Papa and Issa at the university all day, the phalanx of people who had surrounded my mother had dwindled. On most mornings she was left alone until Emmelina came just before lunchtime.
I don’t know if I considered whether or not she was lonely, but I had noticed that she had developed the habit, when she thought no one was watching, of running the tips of her fingers over the surfaces of our furniture, as if she could read their history like a blind person reading braille. A desk that had belonged to my great-uncle. The chair that Grandfather had been sitting in when he died. It occurred to me that when we were gone, she must drift through the too-big house picking up traces of ghosts and playing the piano while she waited for the day to unravel.
My mother was not an unkind woman; she was not even what could be described as cold. It was simply that she had made it clear, from the time we were very small, that she had a single reservoir of love and that it belonged to Enrico. I don’t know what my father felt about that, other than a vague sadness, but Issa seemed to have decided sometime ago that she did not care. I was not so lucky, not so good as my sister at being impervious. I reached for the satin quilt folded at the end of the bed and slid it over my mother, tucking it gently at her shoulder.
Back downstairs I wandered into the sitting room and picked up the telephone again, imagining that somehow I would hear Lodo’s voice. That he would tell me to put on my best dress because we were going dancing. Or say that he’d call for me in half an hour so we could walk down to the bridges and watch the lights on the river. This time, however, not only was there no voice—no promise of dancing or kisses in the dark—there was not even a reassuring hum or click. There was nothing on the line at all. Just silence.
I replaced the receiver carefully, suddenly afraid of making a sound. Through the glass doors, I could see the empty terrace and, beyond the balustrade, the city below. Crouched in its valley, it looked like a huge animal holding its breath.
I slept badly, heard Isabella creep along the hall sometime after midnight, and left early the next morning for the hospital. Despite my fractured dreams—filled with the sound of cars and Lodo’s voice mingling with my father’s and Massimo’s—I was glad to be back in my uniform and out in the new light. I cycled fast, allowing myself the fantasy that perhaps the Germans would simply decide to go somewhere else. Or that the landing at Ostia, or even Livorno, would happen today and it would be the Allies instead who came marching down the lungarno handing out cigarettes and chocolate bars.
The illusion was pleasant but fleeting. When I arrived, I found the ward I had been assigned to in chaos. Explaining anything to junior nurses was not a priority at the best of times, and it took me almost a half hour to get someone to stop rushing about long enough to tell me what was going on.
Sometime during the night, it had been decided that we should have a complete inventory of everything—all supplies, medication, linens—and then pack away and hide as much as we could reasonably manage—in the cellars, the isolation ward, even the morgue. A rumor was going around that the Germans, on taking control of Bologna and Verona, had requisitioned all hospital supplies and sent them to their own medics at the front. There were no swastikas hanging outside the Palazzo Vecchio yet, but the director thought we had at most twelve hours. After dithering through yesterday, the staff had broken out into complete panic.
I spent the remainder of the day carrying boxes downstairs, where they were being bricked into a wall that had been hastily torn down for the purpose. Picking my way through dust and rubble, I refrained from thinking about hygiene, or the lack of it, or the fact that any German with half his wits about him would surely recognize a newly bricked wall when he saw one. The decision had been made, and we slaved like worker ants. By the time I left, I was so tired I could barely cycle home. The heat had lingered. The sun was silver pink on the river. People were loitering in the warm evening, just standing on the bridges, staring into the water or up at the hills as if they were saying good-bye.
Winding through the Oltrarno, I passed groups, whole families and little crowds, pulling carts and pushing wheelbarrows laden with God-knows-what. Overnight we had turned into a city of burrowers and hiders—victims of requisition fever. Even Papa had been infected. The night before, on one of the few times he had spoken after Mama left the table, he had announced that he was having the mechanic come to take the wheels off the car. It would be put up on blocks in the shed. Common wisdom said that if you wished to keep your car at all, this was the only way to do it. I wondered if Massimo was busy doing the same thing at this very moment. Personally, I thought the Germans might find an entire city of wheelless cars somewhat suspicious. It also occurred to me that if Lodo was still alive and somehow managed to appear at the appointed time and hour, I would probably have to walk to my wedding. Or sit on the handlebars of Papa’s bicycle.
Turning up by Santa Felicita, I saw that the side gates to the Boboli Gardens were open and was half tempted to go in, see if there were digging parties interring knives and forks and pots and pans and whatever they could manage under shrubs and in the grottoes the same way we had bricked our precious supplies into cellar walls. But I was too tired and too dirty. My uniform was covered in dust. I could feel grime in my shoes. Even the pins in my hair felt dirty. I made my way out through the Porta Romana. Then my legs failed me. At the bottom of our hill, I got off my bike and trudged.
I don’t know what it was that made me stop and look up, but the moment I did, I knew that something was different. Even here, higher up where there was often a breeze, it was stifling. The heat pressed down like a broad, heavy hand, and in the thick evening light our house seemed to waver like a mirage. The ocher tiles on the roof looked as if they were melting. I half expected to see streaks, long and dull red, on the graying plaster. The gate to the drive was closed, which was odd. Behind it, the huge dull green pine tree, its boughs dripping toward the lawn, looked as if it were swaying.
At first I thought it was exhaustion—that I was so tired I could not keep the world around me still. Then I realized that my heart was running too fast. It was beating inside my chest, flailing its fists like something trying to get out.
I almost dropped my bike in the street. When I did get to the gate, I was in such a hurry to undo the latch that I left my bicycle propped against the stone column and heard rather than felt myself run up the drive. I must have looked wild, with my eyes wide and my mouth gaping, when I burst through the front door and then into the sitting room and saw them all. Mama, Papa, Issa, and Enrico.
I don’t remember what I said, if anything. What I do remember is the feel of Rico’s arms and the smell of his shirt, of mothballs and soap. I remember him lifting me off my feet and swinging me around, the way he did when we were children and he used to tease me about who was stronger.
“You’re not dead! You’re not dead!”
I do remember, idiotically, that I said that.
And I remember that Rico laughed and finally put me down and said, “No, I’m not dead.” And that that was when I looked around and realized there was someone else in the room, a tall blond boy I didn’t know. My hand went to my hair. Suddenly embarrassed, I was aware of my grubby uniform, my armband that had slipped.
“Cati,” Enrico said, “this is my friend and fellow officer Carlo Peralta. Carlo, my other sister, Caterina.”
“How do you do?”
He was a good head taller than I and, even in what I realized were a set of my brother’s old clothes that were far too short for him at the ankles and wrists, quite simply one of the handsomest men I had ever seen. People say this all the time, but Carlo truly did look as if he had been sculpted by the hand of God. His hair was almost as blond as Isabella’s. The features of his face were clear and strong without being hard. His smile was quick and generous, and in the shadowed light of the sitting room I could see that his eyes were hazel, almost gold, like a cat’s eyes. I dropped his hand abruptly and turned toward Rico.
“But how did you get here?” I asked. “What happened? When did you arrive?”
Papa put his arm around Rico’s shoulders; together they looked like a younger and an older version of the same person. Isabella, who was unusually quiet, was loitering by the terrace doors.
“Supper,” Mama said. Which was not an answer to my question. She smiled, reached out, and touched the side of Enrico’s face, brushing his cheek with the tips of her fingers as if she could not quite believe he was real. “I must get the supper.”
As she said it, I looked through the archway into the dining room and noticed that the table was not set. There was no noise and no smell of cooking coming from the kitchen beyond.
“Where is Emmelina?”
“I told her not to come.” My mother answered without taking her eyes off Enrico’s face, as if she were afraid that if she stopped looking at him, he would vanish.
“We thought it better.” My father looked at me, saying something with his eyes that I didn’t understand. “Now, who would like a drink!” He clapped his hands. “There’s something still, I’m sure, in the bar!”
“I’ll get the food. Everything’s cold,” Isabella muttered.
I followed her, waiting until the door was shut and we were out of earshot before I asked, “Issa, what’s going on? How did they get here? Where’s Emmelina?”
“I went around this afternoon and told her we wouldn’t need her for a bit. I said Mama had the flu and she shouldn’t come in case she caught it.” Issa didn’t look at me as she spoke.
I could barely remember a time when Emmelina had not been in the house. She even came in at Easter. The idea that she would not nurse my mother, or any of us, if we really were sick was absurd.
“Why?” I asked.
Mama could barely boil an egg, and Issa was not much better. Apart from anything else, the reality of this arrangement meant that preparing meals would be left to me.
“Issa!” I protested.
“For God’s sake, Cati!”
Isabella spun around, a serving plate in her hand that for a moment I thought she was going to throw at me.
“Don’t you understand?” she said. “They’ve left their regiment. They’re deserters.” She waved toward the sitting room. “If anyone sees them, if anyone says anything—”
“You can’t think Emmelina—” I stared at Isabella, amazed. And angry. “What?” I asked. “Inform on them. On Enrico? You think Emmelina would inform on Enrico? She loves him. She loves all of us. She would never—”
I was genuinely shocked.
“We can’t take any chances,” Isabella said grimly. “She might mention something. She might not mean to, but—”
I shook my head in disgust. “That is ridiculous.”
“It isn’t.” Issa looked at me. “It isn’t,” she said again. “You’ll see. We aren’t going to be able to trust anyone.”
So this was it, I thought. This was the real poison the occupation would bring to us.
“Well then,” I said. “What about him?” I waved toward the sitting room. “What about this… what’s his name, Carlo? Who’s he? For all you know, he might be a Nazi spy.”
Issa said it with a calm that suggested she had already considered the idea and rejected it.
“Oh, yes?” I ran my hand through my hair, shaking it loose of its dusty pins. “Well, how do you know?”
“Because,” Issa said turning toward the pantry. “He’s one of us.”
Dinner was not, in the end, an utter disaster. The strangeness of the menu gave the meal a slightly Dionysian air that was enhanced by the fact that Papa had gone down to the cellar and retrieved several bottles of his best wine while Mama had laid the table with our best china and silver. I had decided, while lying in the bathtub, where I had retreated after my argument with Issa, that I would fix the situation with Emmelina in the morning regardless of what my sister thought. In the meantime I intended to enjoy the fact that my brother was not only not dead but at home. Everyone else apparently felt the same way. We ate and drank with exuberance, expecting to hear jackboots in the drive at any moment.
It was in this atmosphere that Enrico told their story.
On the morning after the armistice, their commanding officer had called his junior staff together and told them to send their men home. He had received news that the Germans were interning Italian troops—rounding them up and herding them onto trains that would ship them east, to either German labor or prison camps. With Badoglio and the king having fled south to get behind Allied lines—we now knew that that was where they had gone—the country was effectively without a government and the army rudderless. Determined not to give in to the Axis, the army had no plan that enabled them to stand with the Allies either. With tears in his eyes, the colonel, who had fought through the previous war and through Russia and somehow survived both, told his junior officers that it had come to this. That the best he could do for them was give them the option of staying out of German hands by advising them to desert. He hoped they would carry their honor with them and join the fight that was to come in the best way they saw fit.
Within hours the barracks were empty. Enrico and Carlo managed to get a train as far as Chiusi. There they heard stories of German troops, of newly resurgent and invigorated Fascisti, and of POWs—Allied officers and soldiers who had either been released or stormed their way out of prisons, many of whom spoke no Italian at all, who were roaming the countryside trying to move either north, to get into Switzerland or France, or south to join the assault at Salerno. In light of all this, Enrico and Carlo decided it was wiser to stay away from both towns and train stations. They got a lift in a farm truck to Castellina, then another to Galluzzo. From there they walked.
It was an hour or so later when Enrico joined me in the garden, where I had gone to retrieve my bicycle and to close the gates. The others were on the terrace, talking quietly and smoking, the tips of their cigarettes glinting like fireflies as they watched the lights of the city.
He caught the handle of the shed as I was wheeling my bike inside, then held it as I came back out and slid the pin through the latch.
“I wanted to tell you,” he said, “what I heard about the navy.”
I searched his face, my eyes taking a moment to adjust to the dark, to find the familiar contours of his straight nose, his chin, his high cheekbones that were so like my own. I knew that his eyes, like mine and Issa’s, were dark blue, but I couldn’t make them out, couldn’t read whatever message they might be holding for me.
Enrico and I had not seen much of each other since I had started as a nurse and he had gone into the army. Standing there, I realized that I hadn’t known, until I dashed into the sitting room and saw him, until he had lifted me off my feet, how much I’d feared that he was dead. Or how much I’d wanted him to come home. He had always been the leader, even when we were babies. As adults we had the same hands, the same arch to our brows, the same frown. Yet despite our physical resemblance and the fact that barely two years separated us, my brother had always been closer to Issa than to me. They were alike and took after Papa in their love of all things outdoors.
“Have you heard?” he asked. “From Lodo?”
I shook my head, suddenly uncertain of my voice.
“Come.” Enrico took my shoulder. “Let’s walk.”
We climbed slowly up the slope at the side of the house, beyond the loggia and away from the terrace.
“I don’t know anything for certain.” His voice had dropped to a murmur, the words mingling with the soft fall of our footsteps in the grass. “But we heard that most of the fleet have reached Malta. They turned at once, as soon as the armistice was announced. They mean to put themselves under Allied command. That’s probably where he is.”
He stopped. We were beneath the drooping boughs of the big tree. When we were children, this had been our hideout. Even after the oppressive heat that had boiled up during the day, the soil was damp and cool and smelled of moss and pine needles.
“How is Mama?” He didn’t look at me as he asked the question.
I shook my head. “I don’t know. The same.”
The unspoken flowed between us. My brother had never said anything, but I knew that at times he found our mother’s love for him a burden, as if he carried a weight for the three of us
“Communication’s almost impossible,” he said a moment later. “Everywhere. Rome is cut off. And everywhere south. If Lodo doesn’t contact you, it isn’t because he doesn’t want to.” He looked at me. “Or because he’s dead. You mustn’t think that.”
Despite the stories I told myself, it was, of course, exactly what I thought.
“This is going to be bad,” Enrico said suddenly. “All of it. The Fascistoni will come back. The Germans will put them back, to make it look as if there is at least some support for the occupation, and they’ll want vengeance. They’ve been locked up. Humiliated. They’ll come after their enemies. Which is just about all of us.”
“But the Allies,” I blurted. “The next landing. Surely—”
Enrico shook his head. “It isn’t going to happen, Cati. A second landing. What we’ve heard is that they’re barely hanging on at Salerno. The Germans are fighting like demons. They have to. It’s their only chance. That’s why Hitler sent Kesselring. They’re not going to give up easily. They can’t.”
The glow of the wine evaporated like smoke. In its place I felt a sort of hollow sickness, as if everything inside me were turning cold and leaking away.
“What are you going to do? You and Carlo?” The question didn’t come out as much more than a whisper.
“You can’t tell anyone. I mean anyone outside the family. Anyone at all.”
I started to snap, You mean Emmelina, but something stopped me. I could feel as much as see Rico frowning. His voice was the same one he’d used when we were children and he was swearing me to secrecy over a slingshot that broke a neighbor’s window or a pennywhistle he’d stolen from the shop at the bottom of the street. I wondered if I should raise my hand, prick my thumb, and mingle my blood with his.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Cati, I’m really sorry. That I won’t be here. That you’ll have to take care of everything. Of Mama. And Papa,” he added almost as an afterthought. “And the house. I’ll contact you when I can. I promise.”
I wanted to beg him to change his mind. But I couldn’t. Enrico would not be much good to any of us interned in a labor camp in Germany.
I tried to take a deep breath. I tried to sound brave. “Where are you going?”
I imagined Switzerland. Rico had done a lot of climbing when he’d been in school. He had relished the summer vacations my father took us on as children, walking the drovers’ paths through the Apennines. I imagined a series of trains, trucks, farmers’ carts, hikes that would get them into the Alps and then out—over a pass higher, colder, more dangerous than I could ever face.
He paused for a moment. Then he said, “There’s a group—you’ll hear more about it—the CLN.”
Enrico smiled. “Il Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale,” he said. “It’s why we came. To join the fight.”
I don’t think I even spoke the words. I had heard them once already this evening, through a haze of wine and candlelight. Then, luxuriating in the fact that my brother was home, that we were having a family meal where even Mama seemed happy, I had not been paying much attention. This time the words sounded sharp and hard, something sitting in my stomach that I’d been forced to swallow.
“Carlo’s from the Veneto,” Enrico was saying. “He knows people. They’re already organizing there. We’re going to do the same thing here. In the mountains.”
One of the things my family professed to love about this house, supposedly the reason that Mama’s grand-father had bought it instead of one in the city or on the then-fashionable Poggio Imperiale, was the fact that you could see the mountains from the terrace. Rising behind the city, the slopes were dun, gray, or green. Above them, no matter what time of year, the peaks were tinged with white.
Enrico nodded. “We’re going tonight,” he said. “We won’t be here in the morning.”
He was as good as his word. When I woke up, they were gone. By noon the Germans had arrived. Standing in a silent crowd, I watched them, as they marched down the lungarno, their boots shined, the engines of their staff cars and trucks humming, their uniforms immaculate, their broken black spider hovering above them.
Just in case we didn’t understand, the news on Radio Roma that afternoon was broadcast in German. The next morning Kesselring himself spoke to us. Smiling Albert, as everyone called him, informed us that “for our own protection” we were under martial law. All communications and train lines had been taken over. Effective immediately, there would be no private letters. No “uncontrolled” telephone calls. And no resistance. Anyone going on strike or found “aiding or giving succor” to Allied POWs would face trial by court-martial. Former members of the Italian forces were to report at once to the nearest German command. Squadrons of Italian volunteers would be formed, he said, to continue the Glorious Fight. What would happen to those who chose not to volunteer was not mentioned.
And did not need to be. We might have been shocked by the occupation, stunned like animals startled by a large noise, but we weren’t stupid. It didn’t have to be spelled out. At the hospital the next day, a nurse who lived near Campo di Marte told me she had seen closed trains. Trains made up of cars like the cars used for transporting animals but with human hands waving through the slats.
That evening, just before I left, one of the doctors walked into our tiny staff room. He told us that since no one knew what was going to happen, all days off, all leave, had been canceled. Then he announced that the Germans had “liberated” Mussolini.
The first announcement did not surprise me, and I suppose that after what Enrico had said, the second shouldn’t have. But it did. Hearing Il Duce’s voice on the radio two nights later was like hearing a creature from a nightmare.
Without the possibility of a phone call or a telegram or a letter, I was reduced to hoping that Lodovico would somehow miraculously simply appear. He didn’t. But Emmelina did come back. I had gone to see her on my way to work the morning Enrico left, just as I’d planned, and told her that Isabella had been mistaken. Mama’s flu was not contagious after all. Really, it was just a cold. Overexertion after the excitement of her birthday party.
It was the first time I could ever remember lying to Emmelina, and I knew perfectly well that she didn’t believe me, any more than she had believed Isabella in the first place. As I stood in the doorway of her tiny house, shifting guiltily from foot to foot, Emmelina had given me her sideways look but said nothing. When she’d asked if we had heard from Rico, I simply shook my head. Then I said I had to go or I was going to be late, and I got on my bike and pedaled away, my eyes tearing because something infinitely precious had been broken.
Emmelina sensed it, too. The week that followed was almost worse than not having her in the house at all. She came exactly on time, laid the table and made dinner without comment, and was always careful to close the kitchen door while we were eating, something she had never done before. She did not ask after Rico or about Lodo or anyone. In fact, she barely spoke. There were no whispered conversations in the kitchen. I noticed that the bread knife had been replaced.
Then, one night toward the end of September, she was waiting for me when I came home, standing in her huge black overcoat at the bottom of the hill. I did not have to look to know that she didn’t have her uniform on or guess that she had not gone up to the house. When she handed me her key, I thought my heart would break.
“My brother,” she said. “He has a farm near Marzabotto, in the mountains, at Monte Sole.”
I knew about the farm at Monte Sole. I’d heard stories about it, mostly concerning dead animals and accidents. I nodded.
“Giorgio thinks it’s better if we go there,” she said. “While we can.”
Giorgio was Emmelina’s husband, a thin rail of a man who had a mule and cart and worked as a coal merchant. I knew he was born in Florence and had barely ever set foot out of the city. I also knew, because she had told me—warning of the dire internecine wars I should be prepared for when I married Lodo—that Giorgio hated her brother with a passion and hadn’t spoken to him for the better part of twenty years. The idea that they would go to sit out the war under his auspices seemed unlikely in the extreme.
I hugged her, breathing in the deep, earthy smell of her as if I could keep it forever, and told her that soon this would be over. That I understood, and even agreed, and that they had best go while they could, while the trains were still moving and they might get a pass to get on one. I told her that I would be fine. That we would all be fine and that I would see her again. Soon. Even as I said it, I knew that every word was a lie.
When I finally stopped speaking, Emmelina held my hand for a moment. Then she said, “Tell Rico I wish him luck.”
Whether I cared to acknowledge it or not, Emmelina’s leaving exposed a gulf between me and the rest of my family. It had probably always been there, but now somehow it seemed larger. I had been her special child, had known in my heart that she loved me best, and I was angry with them, all of them, for driving her away. But most of all, I was angry with Issa. The night Emmelina left, I could barely look at her.
Oddly, or perhaps ominously, things became rather quiet at the hospital once the Germans arrived, and at the end of that week I was given Sunday off. By that last Sunday in the month, September 26, I had come to terms with the fact that there was no longer any point in hovering beside the radio for reports that might tell me if Lodovico was dead or alive. A part of me still hoped that he might somehow appear in time for our wedding. But I no longer thought that I, or anyone else, could do anything about making it happen. In fact, by that time I doubted that anyone could do much of anything about making anything happen. The news seemed to get worse every day.
The Germans had cooked up a Fascist puppet government, and there was a new Republic of Salò. On the radio we were treated to nightly chants of I Believe in the resurrection of Fascist Italy, I believe in Mussolini, followed by that stupid song “Giovinezza.” You were supposed to stand up when you heard it. Il Duce himself ranted over the airwaves with monotonous regularity, and what news we did get from the BBC, which presumably we could now be arrested for listening to, was terrible. The Allies were bogged down in Salerno. It looked possible that Kesselring might after all push them back into the sea.
Yet despite all that we were having a run of beautiful weather. Silver mornings, followed by blue afternoons and blurred golden evenings. The days spun on, mindless in their sun and shadows, and I decided the least I could do, given the opportunity, was take advantage of just one of them. Directly after breakfast, a piece of toast that I ate alone in the silent kitchen, I went upstairs, got my paint box out from its hiding place at the back of my wardrobe, blew the dust off it, and took it down to the terrace.
My parents had given me the paint box for my fifteenth birthday. I’d done well at drawing in school, and although I had no real talent, I enjoyed making little watercolors. I had an album of them. That morning I decided to paint Mama’s birthday, the old men in their tailcoats, and the bright threads of music tangled in the trees.
I had been at it for the better part of an hour when Issa came up behind me.
I wanted her to leave me alone, but she didn’t. Issa had a way of demanding your attention, of absolutely insisting, when she walked into a room or came anywhere near you, that you look at her. Anger roiled inside me. Churned, like some unruly inland sea. I dabbed at a block of paint with the tip of my brush. Then I stabbed at it, and bent the bristle, and streaked the sky above my picture black.
Issa pulled out a chair and sat down at the table beside me. Without asking, she opened my album and began leafing through my collection of pictures. There were several paintings of Lodovico, none very good. In one he stood beside a dark-haired woman in a ball gown who might have been me.
Issa studied it for a moment, then said, “Massimo asked me to marry him.”
I didn’t want to be interested in this, or anything else she had to say, but I couldn’t help myself. “Massimo?”
The idea of Isabella being married to Massimo struck me as faintly ludicrous. But then again Venus had married Vulcan.
“Yesterday,” she said, although I hadn’t asked. “While I was sitting outside the library. He says that I ought to marry him because things are going to get worse. And that he loves me,” she added as an afterthought.
“What did you say?”
Issa fingered the edge of one of my pictures. “That I don’t love him. No matter how bad things get. That I would never love him.”
There it was, just like that. Cold as a stone.
I looked at her out of the corner of my eye. Isabella had had many beaux, none of them, as far as I knew, even remotely serious. She was beautiful, undoubtedly, like our mother, with features so perfect they were almost a statue’s. But underneath that perfect flesh, there was something hard. For all her laughter, all her game playing and dancing, I had never seen Issa melt. Not even for a moment. She had a heart, I knew. But she held it close.
“Was he angry?”
She thought about it for a moment, then shook her head. “I don’t think so,” she said. “Actually, I don’t think he believed me.”
“Didn’t believe you about what?”
“That I didn’t love him. I think he thought I was making it up.” Issa shrugged. “It won’t matter,” she added. “He’s gone now anyway.”
Back to Siena to hide on his family’s farms? To Marzabotto, like Emmelina, if she had gone at all? To Switzerland? Where did people go?
“Gone where?” I asked.
Isabella looked at me for a moment, as if she were weighing something. Then she said, “To join the partisans.”
Something contracted in my stomach. If I glanced up, I would see the mountains like a jagged line against the sky. I shook my head and concentrated on my picture.
“Do you mean,” I asked, as casually as I could manage, “the CLN—the Liberation Committee, whatever it’s called?”
“No.” She shook her head. Then she added, “Well, yes, but not really.” Issa looked at her hands for a moment, studying the pearly half-moons of her nails. “Here it’s called the CTLN anyway,” she said. “Committee Tuscan. But I mean GAP.”
I put down my brush and looked at her. “Issa,” I said, “what are you talking about?”
“GAP,” she said. “Gruppi di Azione Patriottica. The CLN will direct, coordinate everything. But GAP units will do it. The work in the field.”
I didn’t want to ask what, exactly, “the work in the field” was, and the look on my face must have said so.
Issa rolled her eyes. “For goodness’ sake, Cati,” she said. A patronizing false brightness rang in her words. I recognized it at once for what was, a marker of bravado. “You may not realize it,” she went on, rather pompously. “But we have to organize.”
“Yes.” She nodded, animation lighting her face. “The university. All of us. That’s what we’re doing. Organizing. For the fight.”
“The fight?” I was rapidly coming to hate that term. Hate everything about it.
If Issa heard the derision in my voice, she ignored it. Instead, riding a wave of enthusiasm she must have assumed was infectious, she said, “Against the Germans. The Nazis, of course,” she added, as if I might need the clarification. “But the Fascistoni, too. We’re going to have to fight them both.”
She nodded too eagerly. “Yes. That’s what the partisans are doing. They’re forming units, brigades, in the mountains.”
“Don’t you think,” I said, “that it would be a good idea to leave ‘the fight’ to the Allies?”
I looked at her. My sister was all of nineteen. Not much more than a child.
“Who do you think you are, Issa?” I asked. “What role are you playing, exactly? Nemesis? This may come as a shock,” I added unpleasantly, “but General Eisenhower just might know more about this than you do.”
Even if I hadn’t already been angry with her, this refusal to grow up, this readiness to treat everything as a jolly version of yet another game or outing with the mountaineering club, infuriated me. Enrico was one thing. He and Carlo were soldiers, after all. They at least knew what they were doing. Issa and her silly friends, on the other hand, had no idea what they were talking about. I doubted that Massimo had ever shot anything other than a rabbit, probably with his father’s fancy shotgun.
“So,” I said, “let me get this straight. These gaps, made up of you and your friends, you’re going to do what?”
“I told you.” Issa spoke too cheerfully, as if she were encouraging a stubborn child. “We’re going to fight.”
“We.” That word again. I laughed as nastily as I could. “A bunch of students? With pitchforks and rabbit guns? What are you going to do?” I asked. “Line up against the Third Reich? Take on Hitler’s army?”
Isabella looked at me. Then she stood up. The animation had gone from her face. Been replaced by something harder and much more frightening.
“Yes,” she replied, and walked back into the house.
A high scrim of clouds had made things dull. It was still warm, but I no longer felt the heat of the day. A clammy feeling washed over me. I started another picture, this one of Papa, on the terrace, wearing his old white hat and making notes at his table, but gave up when I got to the background. I didn’t want to paint the mountains. Instead I sat staring at them. I was still staring at them when the first bombs fell.
The Allies always insisted afterward that they had been trying to hit the train station at Campo di Marte. It was, one would have thought, rather a large target to have been missed so completely, and in the days that followed, a sort of sick joke went around to the effect that they must be hard up in America and Britain if their pilots couldn’t even afford glasses. Because although they did hit a couple of the factories at Rifredi, the station was untouched. Most of the bombs they dropped that afternoon fell in piazzas and streets. Where they hit houses. And the children’s hospital.
Of course, I did not know that at the time, while I watched it happen. All I knew was that there was a strange sound and then, in the east of the city, a flowering of fire.
I rose to my feet, almost hypnotized as petals of smoke blossomed and turned rapidly black, washing the sky like the sky in my painting. This is it, I thought. This is our Turin, our Cagliari, our Grosseto. There they had bombed the carousel at Easter. And killed the priest while he was giving absolution. And four little girls who were herding geese in a field.
Isabella came running out onto the terrace.
“Bombs,” I said stupidly, without looking at her.
It occurred to me that neither of us had actually seen a bomb explode before. Not that it mattered. I knew exactly what this was. I recognized it the way you recognize things in dreams.
“They’re bombing us.”
Issa gripped my shoulder, her fingers digging. I put my hand over hers. From the terrace we could see black specks of planes. Several explosions came, very close together. And there must have been sound, but the strange thing was, apart from the first droning, I don’t remember it. Then, finally, the afternoon was split by a high, repetitive whooping.
Later I would recognize it as an air-raid siren, the signal that was supposed to warn us. It began almost as soon as the last bomb fell.
“Come on,” Issa was saying. “Hurry! Hurry up!”
She was dragging my arm, pulling me across the terrace toward the house. I looked at her. Something was shaking. At first I thought it was the earth, that the whole city was rippling in the aftermath of the explosions. Then I realized it was me.
“Cati!” Isabella shouted. She took both my shoulders and shook me, hard. “You have to go to the hospital!”
I stared at her. I started to say I wasn’t hurt. And then, as if her shaking had rattled something loose in my brain, I understood.
In the next moment, we were running—through the house, out the front door, to the shed where we kept our bicycles. I had pulled mine out and was about to get on it when I stopped and shoved it at Issa, forcing her to grab the handlebars.
I started toward the house, but Issa lunged and stopped me.
“She’s in the cellar, with Papa. They put supplies in there a week ago.”
I looked down at her hand, grasping my dress, and noticed that something was wrong.
“My uniform.” The words came out as a mumble, the kind of muttering you hear crazy people making in the street. “My armband.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
Isabella thrust my bicycle toward me. She said something else over her shoulder that I couldn’t hear, and then, before I realized what was happening, she was gone and there was nothing for me to do but follow her, out the drive and down the hill, along our street and through the Porta Romana into the city.
By the time we arrived at the hospital, the first ambulances had come in. There were people running everywhere. Issa shouted something to me about a civilian defense group and pedaled away. I didn’t have time to wonder where she had gone. The moment I dropped my bicycle, a sister grabbed me by the arm. There was a woman holding a little boy. It took us the better part of ten minutes to convince her to let us look at him, to pry him out of her arms and discover what his mother must have known all along—that he was already dead.
The children’s hospital was not far away, and we got most of the casualties. Two nurses who had been trying to evacuate a ward that later took a direct hit died in the corridor because we couldn’t get them into an open operating room. There were babies screaming in bassinets. A little boy on crutches was looking for his father. A small girl with cuts all over her face was clutching a stuffed rabbit. And then the parents began to arrive, entire families looking for their children and grandchildren. One man ran up and down, a napkin still tucked into the front of his shirt because his family had been eating Sunday lunch in Scandicci when a neighbor came running in to tell them that the hospital where his daughter had had her tonsils removed the day before had just been bombed by the Allies.
The strange thing was that during all of that, as hellish as it was, I was not afraid. Standing on our terrace, I had been terrified. Literally rooted to the spot with fear. If Isabella had not dragged me, I doubt I would have moved a muscle. I probably would have stood there all afternoon and all night, shaking and staring like an idiot. But once I got to the hospital, once I had something to do with my hands—the fear fell away. It shattered like glass. And was replaced by a kind of nothingness. My fingers moved by themselves. My mouth spoke. My brain clicked and whirred. It chose the right instrument, moved methodically from one task to the next. During it all, if I had a thought, it was only this: Thank you, General Eisenhower. Thank you, Mr. Churchill, if this is how you set us free.
Sometime toward evening Issa reappeared. She was covered in dust. The university students had formed groups of civilian volunteers and were helping to get people out of the bomb sites, in some cases digging through rubble with their bare hands. Issa came in an ambulance, helping a very old woman and her husband, who was screaming like a banshee. His arm was broken in three places—painful, but he’d live. Trying to comfort his wife while they set the bones, Issa found me and kept insisting there must be someplace where she could make the old woman a cup of tea. There was no tea, and ordinarily I might have been angry with her for saying silly things and getting in the way—but not then. Right then all the anger I had felt toward her just hours before fell away, and for possibly the first time in my life I felt sorry for her. Because for all her bravado, Isabella was not used to blood, and bone, and flesh. If I’d had the time, I would have told her not to worry. I would have put my arm around her and told her we are all made of this.
The next morning I was informed of my promotion.
I had found a spare uniform in the linen stores and managed to tidy myself up enough to start my shift on time when the head sister, a small, stern woman whom I had barely spoken three words to since she’d accepted me at my interview almost a year before, called me into her office. I had no idea what I might have done, but all at once the preternatural calm I’d acquired deserted me. My hand was shaking as I lifted it to knock on the dark, glossy wood of her door. Somewhere in the back of my head, I think I must have believed that perhaps she’d somehow had word of Lodovico and was going to tell me he was dead.
I stood in front of her desk feeling like a schoolchild. I had always found nuns uniquely terrifying, and I was sure she would look at me and know I no longer believed in God, that I was too fond of creature comforts—things like perfume and engagement rings—and was an out-and-out coward to boot. It was all I could do not to look down and see if my socks had sagged.
She was writing in a large ledger. Reading upside down is something I have always been quite good at, and I realized she was making lists of who had died. When she put the pen down and looked up at me, I jumped.
Her eyes were quite large and very dark, her skin pleated with soft lines. Wrapped in her habit, she might have been anywhere from forty to sixty. I recalled something I’d heard once, about God’s children being ageless.
“Signorina Cammaccio. You must be exhausted.”
It didn’t sound like a question, so I said nothing. Actually, I did not feel tired. I had not even thought about feeling tired.
She considered me for a moment. Then she said, “You will understand, it is hoped that the children’s hospital will be reopened as soon as possible. Sadly, a number of the staff there were killed last night. Naturally, we will be sending some of our nurses to the new facility to make up the numbers.”
She paused. I knew nothing about children, and I hoped that she was not going to ask me to go—that she was not going to condemn me to weeks, or months, or even years of looking into the faces of parents as I had last night. Of trying to explain to them why it was that God—or the Allied Command, or the Germans, or the Fascists—had seen fit to break to pieces the bodies of their little boys and girls.
“This, of course,” she continued after a moment, “will leave us shorthanded.”
She rested her elbows on the ledger, steepling her small, pudgy fingers over the names of the dead.
“I have had excellent reports of your conduct,” she went on after a moment. “And so I am going to ask you to assume a new job. As of this morning, I will need you to take over as a ward manager.”
I stared at her. The relief I felt at not being sent to the new children’s hospital lasted for about five seconds before it was replaced by something close to panic. I was a junior nurse. Most of the time, I did nothing more than help with meals, sort linen that came in from the laundry, read aloud to patients, write letters for them, or occasionally hold their arm while they shuffled in baby steps up and down the ward and looked out the windows onto the garden. I held trays of equipment for the sisters, watched while injections were given, and occasionally changed a dressing. I had done some science at the university, and the position at the hospital had been secured for me through a friend of Mama’s. That was the sum of my qualifications. For the last year, I had appeared when I’d been told to, done what was asked of me, and gone home.
In short, my “nursing” was nothing more than an acceptably genteel hobby, something to keep me out of the house and occupied until I got married. The ward managers, on the other hand, were senior sisters. They arranged work shifts and controlled supplies, made decisions about beds and food. I had only the vaguest idea of how any of this was done.
“But, Sister!” I blurted. “I can’t.”
She cocked her head and looked at me. “Can’t?” she asked.
“But, my dear, you have two years of university education, do you not?”
“Yes,” I said. “But—” Flustered, I shifted from foot to foot. “I’m merely a junior nurse.” My voice sounded small and disturbingly childish. “I have no idea what to do.”
At this she smiled. Then she stood up, came around the desk, and took my hand.
“My dear girl,” she said. “In the days to come, none of us are going to have any idea what to do.”
It was late evening before I finally left. By the time I got to our street, I couldn’t even trudge up the hill. Instead I had the odd sensation that I was gliding, hovering an inch or so above the cobbles, as if I myself had also died but was simply too tired to leave the earth. As I put my bike away, I registered dimly that neither Issa’s nor Papa’s bicycle was in the shed. I knew that they had both taken to staying late at the university, but I didn’t have the energy to sort through what this might mean or why it niggled in the back of my brain. So I pushed the pin through the latch and walked back along the path.
Dusk was fringing the edge of the garden. In another lifetime, and if the car had not been hunched under its shroud, I might have thought Papa and Mama had gone out for a drive, up to Arcetri, or to Piazzale Michelangelo to watch the sun set over the city. I took out my key, but the front door was not locked. When I pushed it open, the house felt empty.
There were no lights on. I walked down the hall. Untouched by the last of the sun, the rooms on either side—Papa’s study behind its open door, the dining room and sitting room—seemed leached of color. And wavering, as if they were underwater and the furniture—the tables and chairs and photographs—might slip their anchors and float free.
I blinked, then crossed the dining room and pushed open the kitchen door. Plates from the breakfast or lunch my parents must have eaten had been washed but not put away. The canteen was closed and locked, its brass key bright in the shadows. The wineglasses sat ghostly on their shelf. There was a coffee cup on the counter, a dark outline of lipstick kissing its rim.
There was no answer. I said it again, a little louder, and this time heard in my voice the telltale high note.
My shoes clacked on the tiles. I let the door swing shut, crossed the dining room and hall, and went through the arch into the sitting room.
“Mama, are you here?”
The glass doors to the terrace were closed. The table and chairs beyond were empty. Suddenly I was gripped by the idea that no one lived here. That I had not been wrong after all when I looked in the mirror at the bridal salon. Because somehow I had slid through time and dropped into a future where all of us were ghosts.
I turned and ran up the stairs.
I banged open the doorway to my own room, to Isabella’s beyond, to my parents’ room across the hall, and finally to Enrico’s.
She was sitting on Rico’s bed, holding one of his sweaters, stroking it as if it were a cat, her hand moving back and forth like the pendulum on a metronome. The ring my mother always wore—the same ring that had been my grandmother’s, an aquamarine surrounded by diamonds—glinted in the light from the open window.
I was standing not ten feet from her, but she didn’t look at me. Instead her dark blue eyes were fixed on the windowsill, as if she could see something there, something beyond the branch of the tree and the roof of the house in the street below. A picture, perhaps of the children we had once been. Of the past we had lived, the one she traced, moving from object to object, with the tips of her fingers.
I turned and had started to leave the room when she spoke.
I hadn’t bothered to turn on the lights. It was nearly dark. I looked over my shoulder. My mother was not much more than a ghost herself. Her dress melted into the shadows. Her legs, her arms and hands, appeared so pale they shimmered. Her beautiful hair was colorless.
“I miss him.”
“Yes,” I said. “I know.”
“Are you afraid?”
The question hung between us.
I nodded, my hand lingering on the doorjamb.
“Every day?” she asked. “All the time?”
I nodded again.
My mother looked down at the sweater in her lap. Her hand hovered over it, floating in the half-light.
“I didn’t think it would be like this,” she said.
In the weeks that followed, I did not see much of my family. My new duties increasingly kept me late at the hospital and demanded that I arrive early. I even began on occasion to stay through the night, sleeping in a chair in the staff room, when I slept at all. Autumn deepened. The nights drew in and seemed, when I was at home, to bring ghosts with them. They clustered in the rooms I had grown up in. Flocked under the old cedar tree and lingered by the shed. But mostly they seemed to stare at me through my mother’s eyes, as if they had come to dwell inside her.
She left me plates of food. Pieces of cheese. An apple with a silver knife beside it. A slice of ham on the increasingly frequent nights when I did not get back in time to cook dinner. When I did, she often sat at the kitchen table watching and smiled at me, her face wistful, her fine features faintly blurred, as if she were looking out from behind a mirror. Her behavior, so strange and unexpected, made me feel so guilty that I began to fancy our roles had been suddenly reversed. That I was now the one who had never paid enough attention, never given enough love, and that my neglect had somehow left her prey to phantoms—allowed them to lure her into a lost, cold place beyond the glass.
The sensation was deeply uncomfortable. Yet in some odd way it drew us closer together. We never spoke of it again, but I became quite certain that—even though she had the luxury of knowing he was still alive—she kept Enrico close beside her just as I kept Lodo. More than once, when we found ourselves alone, I had the mad thought that there were not two of us seated over breakfast but four. That Mama and I were sharing our toast and our thoughts not only with each other but also with Lodo and Enrico. The angels who hovered at our right shoulders.
The children’s hospital was reopened in a borrowed villa. The arrangements were made quite quickly, thanks largely to the German command, who vacated one of the properties they had requisitioned in order to allow the children to move in. They were by all accounts exceptionally helpful, even volunteering to set up the makeshift wards, an act of generosity that left everyone involved feeling both grateful and confused.
By mid-October the Italian government-in-exile—in other words, the king and Badoglio, who were hiding safely behind Allied lines in the south—had finally gotten around to stating the obvious and declaring that Italy was at war with Germany. We had resented the Germans and been afraid of them before, of their marching and their flags and their tanks. Now they became officially our enemies. What they might do terrified us. But they were also on occasion capable of such civility. Even outright kindness. It was hard sometimes to understand exactly what one felt about them.
Rumors seeped from Rome—stories of raids on the Jewish ghetto, of sealed trains traveling east. We believed them and didn’t believe them. We told ourselves that most of the German soldiers probably loved this war and Adolf Hitler no more than we did and were just decent men trying to serve their country.
No such conflicting feelings, on the other hand, were aroused by our compatriots. Enrico had been exactly right in his prediction. The Fascists were not only back—they were bloated on triumphalism and bent on revenge and were, if anything, more loathed and more loathsome than before. Certainly they were more dangerous.
It became clear that the German command had more or less turned the policing of Florence over to the forces of the Republic of Salò—or, as we called them, the Repubblichini, the “Little Republicans”—and in particular to one Mario Carità. No one knew much about him at first. But as summer died and autumn dropped down, his black-shirted thugs, known as the Banda Carità, began to appear on the streets. Rumors traveled with them the way flies travel with corpses. There was a house on the Via Ugo Foscolo where it was said that screams were heard at night. And another, on the Via Bolognese, which people began to call the Villa Triste.
At the end of the month, the weather broke. There was a chill at sunset. The thick, honeyed light of late summer, the light of harvest and evening walks, vanished and was replaced by a succession of sharp, crystalline days. So sharp that one morning, when I had gotten up very early, I realized that I would be quite cold cycling with just my thin coat over my uniform.
It occurred to me as I laced up my shoes that I might borrow a coat of Issa’s or ask Mama if she had an old one. But no one else in the house was stirring, so instead of waking them I tiptoed into Enrico’s room, just down the hall from mine, thinking I would take one of his old jackets. But when I opened the wardrobe, it was empty. There was nothing in it at all. Not even on the rack where his shoes and boots had been lined up. I stood for a moment, confused, trying to push back the now-familiar feeling that time was not running in an orderly progression, that instead it had gotten all mixed up and tipped me into a future where we no longer lived in this house, no longer even existed.
Telling myself that these fancies were one thing when there were shadows—I had always been afraid of the dark—but altogether too stupid for the morning, I turned to the bureau and was more relieved than I should have been to find his box of shirt studs and cuff links in his top drawer beside the silver-backed brushes that had been my parents’ twenty-first-birthday present to him.
It was the night after that when I came home so late that not even a sliver of light was showing through the chinks in the shutters. For the first time I could remember, the house was completely dark.
I left my bicycle in the shed and crept along the path as quietly as I could, turning my key in the front-door lock and actually freezing, stopping dead when it clicked, as if I were a thief. Inside, I slipped off my shoes, then turned and locked the door again. My stockings whispered on the tiles. I started toward the kitchen, thinking that, unappealing as the offerings left for me usually were, perhaps I was hungry.
I had my hand on the door handle when something stopped me. There was no sound I could make out, no change in the shadows. But nonetheless I stood there, absolutely convinced that someone was waiting for me in the darkness on the other side.
I heard the faint huff of my breath. Or was it someone else’s?
My hand lowered slowly. I stepped backward, shuffling on the cold floor. I bumped into the dining-room table. The noise hung in the air.
Without thinking, I turned and darted across the hall. I grabbed the stair banister, no longer caring how much noise I made, took the stairs two at a time, and, once in my room, turned the key in the lock and sat on the edge of the bed, wondering if I was losing my mind.
Finally I stood up, went into my bathroom, and splashed water on my cheeks. When I looked in the mirror, I felt a pang of relief that Lodo was not actually standing beside me to witness the fear on my face. The thought made me smile. It wasn’t until I’d peeled off my uniform, pulled a nightdress over my head, and walked back into my room that I noticed the wardrobe door was ajar.
I stood for a moment, staring at it. Then I told myself not to be idiotic. Crossing the room, I yanked it open and jumped backward.
My wedding dress had been delivered. It hung in the dark on its padded hanger, swaying gently, as if it were dancing to unheard music.
It was the next afternoon that I heard about the train. By this time it was impossible to tell where stories came from. They traveled like seeds on the wind and took root. This one had sprouted and was even bearing fruit before I became aware of it.
I was standing in an upper corridor, looking down over the hospital’s courtyard. The building had once been a convent, and the square at its center was still ringed by a fine cloister and planted with brightly colored beds. The patients loved them, but a few days earlier it had been decided that we could no longer afford the luxury of a garden. At least not for flowers. I was watching as the last rosebushes were lifted out and the soil was turned and tilled and made ready for the planting of potatoes. And cabbages. And beans. Food was getting more and more expensive. While flowers were good for the soul, it was becoming increasingly obvious that regardless of when the Allies arrived or didn’t, we needed to survive the winter.
My thoughts were running aimlessly along these lines. I was considering carrots, and if I could afford to buy myself a new coat, and if it had been entirely frivolous to tell the old gardener when he sidled up to me that of course he could keep the clump of lilies in the western corner since they were the emblem of the city, when I sensed someone standing beside me.
It was the same nurse who had told me about the sealed trains at Campo di Marte. Had I heard? Her voice was hushed. She was close enough to touch my shoulder but was not looking at me. No, I murmured in reply, I had heard nothing. She nodded, a slight, almost imperceptible movement of her head. The she told me. Three nights ago the partisans had sabotaged a signal box on the railway lines just outside the station. A night train destined for Fossoli, the transit camp that was a first stop before worse to come in the east, had wheezed to a halt. As soon as it had, the cars had been stormed. Two hundred Allied POWs had been freed.
As she spoke, the courtyard below me vanished. I no longer saw the rosebushes, their root balls tied neatly in burlap, or the old gardener with his bent back and his hand hoe. Instead I saw Issa’s face. And Massimo and his rabbit gun. And heard Enrico’s voice and remembered his empty wardrobe.
Late that afternoon the radio announced that the rules had changed. From now on, aiding and abetting the enemy and any and all acts of sabotage that previously might have earned a court-martial and imprisonment would be immediately punishable by death.
That night I left the hospital early. It was just after seven when I got home. I abandoned my bike in the hedge by the gate and walked up the drive, sticking to the neatly clipped grass verge so I would not make a noise on the gravel. The upstairs windows stared glassily out onto the garden. Downstairs, the shutters were closed. Chinks of light slipped through the slats, winking against the dark.
Before I opened the front door, I stood for a moment on the step. Then I walked quickly back to the gate and glanced up and down the street. Nothing looked different. All the other houses looked like ours—still, and glowing quietly from within. A man was making his way up the pavement. I heard his footsteps before I saw him and instinctively stepped back. I watched as he turned in to a drive down the hill. The home of a new family, whom I did not know and who had been on our road for only a few years. The door opened. Light flooded out and was cut off. Then there was no one. I turned and walked quickly back, staying on the verge again, then slipped in through the front door, quiet as a cat.
From where I stood in the hallway, I could hear the murmured rise and fall of conversation coming from the kitchen. Straining, I tried to make out the words, but I was too far away. The door was closed. I considered taking off my shoes. Then, even as I bent down to unlace them, I realized that I was too frightened. And too angry. I heard Enrico’s voice in my head—You’ll have to take care of everything. Of Mama. And Papa. And the house. I stood up, my heart hammering. Then I took a deep breath, walked across the dining room, and shoved open the kitchen door.
I don’t know what I expected, but it was not what I found.
Isabella was standing at the sink. My mother was in the act of placing a very large pot on the stove. They turned toward me at the same time, their mouths open in surprise.
To say that this domestic tableau was uncharacteristic would have been generous. With their golden hair, their fashionable dresses, and their lipstick, my mother and Issa looked like bad actresses playing housewives. Beyond that, I knew for a fact that neither of them cooked.
Mama recovered first. She smiled, wiped her hands down the front of the apron she was wearing, and then, as though she were doing an imitation of Emmelina, said, “Cati, how nice. You’re home in time for dinner.”
Issa’s eyes caught mine, and I thought I saw her smile. Before I could be sure, she went back to whatever she was doing in the deep well of the sink. The radio babbled on the table. Mama turned it down.
“Racket,” she said, too brightly. “So loud it’s hard to hear yourself think. Supper’s nearly ready, if you want to go up and change.”
She picked up one of our largest bowls that had been brought out from the cupboard and was sitting on the counter.
“I’ll set the table,” Issa muttered. She took a stack of plates and slipped past me into the dining room.
“If I’d known you were coming home,” Mama said, “I’d have waited. So you could have had a bath. Papa’s in his study,” she added, for no apparent reason.
The brightness in her voice was almost as alarming as the apron. Without saying anything, I crossed the room and went into the pantry.
There was cheese on a cutting board. The bags of pasta and rice I had bought the week before were in their bins. Bread. Eggs. Milk, in the icebox. Two cabbages. A basket of onions. Another of carrots. All supplied thanks to the black market and Mama’s money.
I stood there, not sure what it was I was looking for. I had gotten very good, thanks to my new job, at doing inventories in my head, but recently I’d been gone so much from the house, and certainly from the kitchen, that I was no longer sure what had been taken or replaced.
I could sense Mama watching me. I looked around, taking in the shelves, and the mincer, and the icebox. My eyes stopped at the cellar door. The top bolt was shot. I reached out and put my hand on the porcelain doorknob. It refused to move. Locked. I looked up. Nothing hung on the little hook beside the doorjamb.
“Where is the key?” I stepped back into the kitchen. “To the cellar?” I asked. “Where’s the cellar key?”
My mother had relinquished the bowl and was now peering into the oven, so I couldn’t see her face. But I saw her back stiffen. Not much, just a reflex action, like someone bracing for a blow.
I was about to ask—no, to demand to know what was going on, when she closed the oven door, straightened up, and looked at me. The anger I had built up shattered. It fell at my feet like a broken shell, leaving nothing but the naked fear underneath. The same fear I saw mirrored in my mother’s eyes.
As I stepped toward her, Isabella pushed through the kitchen door. She stopped, looking from one of us to the other. No one spoke.
Then my mother smiled brightly. In the garish light of the kitchen, her lipstick was too red. It seemed slightly lopsided, as if she had put it on quickly, not bothered as she usually did to sit at her dressing table or bend in front of the hall mirror. A strand of hair had come loose, and she pushed it out of her face.
“Papa has the key, darling,” she said. “To the cellar. It’s in his desk.”
At supper Papa and Issa talked too loudly—about the university, a new series of lectures on Dante that someone or other was giving, and about the fact that although the Allies had finally broken out of Salerno and taken Naples, they were now bogged down again thanks to appalling weather in the south. Papa had heard that there were four hundred thousand German troops in Italy. Every bridge and road in Naples had been destroyed, and they had booby-trapped their retreat. A favorite trick, he said, was to bury a land mine in the craters left by other mines at the side of what had been roads, so when planes came over strafing, Allied soldiers who dove for cover were blown to smithereens.
I did not ask how he had acquired this gem of knowledge. I did not ask anything at all. Instead I sat watching my mother. She, on the other hand, avoided looking at me for the entire meal—which was suspiciously tasty—a chicken, a treat from the back room of the butcher down the road, that had been jointed and baked.
As I ate, I wondered when exactly either Mama or Issa had learned how to do this. But then, I thought as I looked around the room, there were a lot of things I wondered. Why, for instance, although I could see no visible change, our house was different. Why a vast pot of potatoes had been boiled when we would eat, at most, one apiece. Why Issa and Papa would not stop talking and Mama would not talk at all. Why, in short, I was suddenly a stranger in the midst of a family that looked and sounded like mine. In that instant I wished powerfully for Emmelina, or for Lodo. Or preferably for both of them. For allies in this alien territory I had somehow wandered into.
Mama went to bed immediately after supper, volunteering, quite abruptly, that she had a headache. When I offered to bring her a cup of chamomile tea, she shook her head, saying she was merely tired and was sure she would feel better in the morning. Papa stayed in his study. Issa insisted on clearing up by herself. I left her to it and attempted to read in the sitting room but finally gave up. Upstairs, I locked my door and sat on the bed, trying to push away the feeling that I should march downstairs and demand the cellar key. That I should slip the bolt and open the door and follow the stairs down into the dark.
The next morning, when I left very early, the house was silent. The cellar door was still bolted, the key still missing. The bowl had been put away, and the large pot had been scrubbed and hung up. There was no sign of potatoes.
Issa was waiting for me that night when I left the hospital. There was a thin mist, the beginning of rain, and it was cold. She was on foot and had a scarf wrapped around her head and her hands dug deep in her pockets. We walked in silence for the first few minutes, my bicycle between us. As we reached the Duomo, the bells began to ring. We stopped for a moment, looking up at the striped marble and the great red hat of the dome that seemed to drift above it. A squadron of pigeons clucked at our feet, then lifted and flapped into the gray light.
We had moved on, following a line of schoolgirls with long braids and holding hands, and had reached the Baptistery, which looked derelict without its bronze doors, like the hovel of a hermit, when I asked the question.
I spoke without looking at her, concentrating instead on the wheel of my bicycle, which was shiny with damp and glinting in the light of the lamp on the corner of Via Roma.
“How many are there?”
I felt rather than saw Issa glance at me, then felt the sharp jump of her shoulders as she shrugged.
It had been a long day. One of our patients had died. There was a rumor that Spanish influenza had broken out near Siena. I was tired and cold and had not yet had time to try to buy a new coat.
“How many what?”
The casual ring in her voice made my temper snap.
“For God’s sake, Issa!” I jerked the bike to a halt. “Are you going to tell me,” I hissed, leaning over the basket, putting my face as close to hers as I could, “are you honestly going to tell me that you had nothing at all to do with that train? That at this moment there is no one in our cellar? Eating our food? Wearing Rico’s clothes? Because if you are going to tell me that, I don’t believe you. In fact,” I added for good measure, “if you are going to lie to me, I don’t even want to talk to you.”
“Keep your voice down!”
She grabbed the handlebars of the bike and kept walking. I stood for a moment, feeling my heart thump in my chest, feeling the color rise in my cheeks, then scurried after her. Ahead of us a pair of German soldiers stood on the pavement, smoking, their greatcoats spangled with drizzle. We skirted them, stepping into the street.
“Three,” Issa said a moment later.
I had thought as much. The pot of potatoes on the stove last night had been enough for at least six people.
“Which one of them is the cook?”
Issa glanced at me and almost smiled. “One of the Americans. There are two Americans and one English. How did you know?”
“That they could cook?”
“That they were there.”
Excerpted from Villa Triste by Lucretia Grindle Copyright © 2013 by Lucretia Grindle. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Lucretia Grindle was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and grew up spending half her time in the United States and half her time in the UK. Continuing as she started out, she still splits her time, but now calls the coast of Maine home.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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This story left me in tears for the families who went through this time in our history. I wanted to read more by this author and was sad when the book ended. Told in a different way and including so many characters, it is pure poetic prose (is that a redundancy?) and I thoroughly recommend Villa Triste.
This is a wonderful novel! In Modern Italy a great Italian police chief investigates puzzling murders of 3 old decorated Italian WWII partisans. Through his investigation we go back in time to Nazi-occupied Italy and meet courageous young partisan sisters and agonize and admire as they and their families face torture and death and loss. I will read this novel again. I highly recommend it!!
Really enjoyed this book. The characters were well developed, and the interaction between past and present was also well done. Would have enjoyed more. Have recommended this book to several others already.
Once again I wasn't disappointed when I chose this novel based on customer recommendations. Set in Florence during WWII it weaves a tale of bravery and sacrifice that the average American could only hope they were capable of. Two sisters and their family members become involved in the Italian Resistance . Risking and loosing all that was their existence before the Nazi invasion. It also contained a modern day detective's search for the truth. This novel reminded me of yet another great one written in that time period called "A Thread of Grace."
I loved this book. The modern day mystery blended with the WWII history made for a wonderful read. I highly recommend this book
I wanted to like this book so much, but for me it fell flat. I loved the historical sections of the book but the modern day setting became very confusing and disjointed. I felt like there was plot lines added just because and too many similar/ varaitions of names. Overall it was an decent read but could have been better
Really enjoyed. Will be recommending to others!
Great read. Really gets you thinking about what it would have been like to live there during World War II.
The combination of the WWII Italian partisan efforts and the complex characters involved tied to a current day mystery and the great writing style make this one of my few 5 star reads in last few years.
A well written story connected the past and present. It also provides a glimpse of how life was in Italy during WWII. An excellent read, highly recommended.
Read this book! The characters are wonderful, and the plot full of twists and turns. Very poignant, and deep emotionally. DO NOT PASS UP THIS READ !!!!!
Are they serious! Sarah's Key is so much superior in craftsmanship!
I could not stop reaading this. It was fascinating. I am old enough to remember WWll but did not know much about Italys role in war other than about Mussolini. Now I know a lot more. The book also was somewhat of a mystery story. Best book I've read in awhile.
This is a real sleeper, and a great read! Well-written, with two converging stories, it's a thriller as well as an intriguing historical novel. MUCH better than 'Sarah's Key'!!!!
At first it was hard to understand as it started out in the year 1944 and the all of a sudden went to present time murder mystery. It was slow in spots and got better toward the end. A lot of names changed so you had to remember who the all characters were. But once I got into it, it held my attention and I couldn't wait to get to the end and find out "who did it." May have been easier to read in hard copy than Nook so you could go back to prior chapters, but I did enjoy the story.