Lucia Colombo has had her doubts about fascism for years, but as a single mother in an increasingly unstable country, politics are for other peopleshe needs to focus on keeping herself and her son alive. Then the Italian government falls and the German occupation begins, and suddenly, Lucia finds that complacency is no longer an option.
Francesca Gallo has always been aware of injustice and suffering. A polio survivor who lost her father when he was arrested for his anti-fascist politics, she came to Rome with her fiancé to start a new life. But when the Germans invade and her fiancé is taken by the Nazis, Francesca decides she has only one option: to fight back.
As Lucia and Francesca are pulled deeper into the struggle against the Nazi occupation, both women learn to resist alongside the partisans to drive the Germans from Rome. But as winter sets in, the occupation tightens its grip on the city, and the resistance is in constant danger.
In the darkest days, Francesca and Lucia face their pasts, find the courage to love, and maintain hope for a future that is finally free.
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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)|
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Rome, July 1943
It wasn't until Lucia stepped into the streets, with Matteo's hot little palm gripped in her own, that she noticed the leaflets. Squares of paper spattered the cobblestones like windswept petals. One, caught in a breath of air, still drifted. She shaded her eyes and studied the strip of sky between buildings. Allied planes must have flown over Rome, dropping their propaganda, but when? Could she have slept so hard last night, with Matteo curled in her arms, that the sirens failed to wake her? Of course, air-raid sirens failed to rouse most Romans these days. They were used to planes passing over, destined for some other populace. Rome was the Eternal City, home to the pope. It would never be bombed.
She glanced at Matteo, who tugged on her arm so he could snatch up a leaflet. His cheeks were red, his eyes still bright with fading tears. Moments earlier, Lucia had mentioned, unwisely, that he had an appointment with the pediatrician after errands. Matteo had sat down on the stairs, refusing to budge. She'd insisted and then pleaded with him. Their cupboards were empty, and the lines for bread and eggs and flour would stretch with the morning. Eventually, she carried him down the steps and through the door, and now here they were: already exhausted.
"Mamma, what does it say?"
She plucked the leaflet from his fingers. "Did you hear sirens last night, Matteo?" She scanned the printing on the square of paper. He shook his head, sniffing. The final sentence rose from the text and hung, for an uncomfortable moment, in Lucia's mind.
Italians shall die for Mussolini and Hitler-or live for Italy and for civilization.
She frowned. "Never mind," she murmured, dropping the leaflet and squeezing Matteo's hand, prompting him to match her stride. The sun was barely up over Rome's rooftops, but her lower back trickled sweat. With her free hand, she adjusted the itchy waistband of her skirt and gathered the hair off her neck, a handful of black curls, savoring the air on her skin. Die for Mussolini? That's exactly what she, and especially her brothers, had been raised to do.
Matteo skipped along in his short pants, his arm yanking on hers as he hopped at random intervals, playing a game with the cobblestones. The message on the leaflet wasn't new. Just the other night, Churchill had slipped through some gap in the state-controlled radio, imploring Italy's people to shake off the yoke of fascism and secure a separate peace. Lucia puffed air through her lips. Right now, she was more concerned with securing bread.
"Think we'll get some eggs today, piccolo?"
He looked up at her and shrugged, blinking under his fringe of curls. He matched her completely, a lighter version of her with his thick hair, nut-colored eyes, and double dimples.
"We need at least four eggs," she said, composing a mental list. "And perhaps we'll find a fish for supper. What do you think, Matteo? Will we be lucky today?"
He wiped his freckled nose. "You have cigarettes for the man?"
She laughed. "Yes, for the fisherman." She did have some, saved from her rations, but who knew if she'd catch someone along the Tiber who would make a deal?
They rounded a corner onto a wider street, and Signora Bruno, sweeping her front steps, glanced up. A stripe of sunlight fell over the stoop, brightening the old woman's hair. She was nearly always outside, either pruning the bougainvillea that swept over her ground-floor apartment, or feeding stray cats, or propped in a chair to watch the world trot by.
"Buongiorno, Lucia. Why are you out so early?"
Flowers fluttered over Noemi Bruno's head like butterflies. Matteo dropped Lucia's hand and ran to the elderly neighbor, thumping against her belly. He wrapped his arms around her waist, and her arthritic hands patted his back. Lucia followed suit, kissing both of Noemi's papery cheeks before answering her question.
"Just trying to get some shopping done before an appointment." She glanced at a pile of leaflets stacked neatly on her neighbor's step. "I see you, too, heard from the enemy last night?"
Noemi shrugged. "I don't know who the enemy is anymore, cara mia. But, by the look of it, they dropped their entire bundle on our neighborhood." The old woman laughed, the map of her face transforming.
Lucia smiled, but her chest tightened like a fist. Nobody seemed to know who the enemy was anymore. Her father, a Fascist official, and her mother, German by birth, were steadfast. Their rhetoric against the Allies was like a wall; every time a plane passed over Rome, they added another brick. But in the streets? There, she heard everything. People whispered in cafés, hoping for a coup d'Žtat and peace with the Allies. Anti-Fascists plastered posters on walls and ran. People blamed the air raids on Mussolini himself, whispering that if he hadn't sided with Hitler, if he'd stayed out of the war, their sons and cities would be safe.
Noemi fingered her silvery bun. "I, for one, think we should break with Germany and stop fighting the Allies. The minute they landed in Sicily, Il Duce lost his war."
Lucia hitched her shopping bag up on her elbow. With the Allies pushing into Italy on one side and the Germans on the other, wasn't every path a gamble? She opened her mouth to say so but stopped mid-breath. Because what did she know? Her mother's voice murmured in her thoughts. Leave opinions to the men.
"Honestly, right now I'd rather worry about filling my cupboards than war and politics." She reached for Matteo's palm, but he ducked into the frothy shade of the bougainvillea. She tried to give him a scolding look, but a smile crept in. She'd have to catch him if they were to beat the lines. The stones of the city, wrapping under their feet and over the ancient walls, were heating up. "Can we get you anything from the shops?"
The old woman clutched the broom as if to hold herself up. She shook her head, pursing her lips and squinting at Lucia, caught in thought. Matteo squatted behind her, elbows on his knees, and extended a hand toward a cat as thin as a whisper. The creature eyed him, hesitating from a safe distance.
"Noemi?" Lucia knew Noemi Bruno well enough to know she had more to say.
"Cara mia. There's something I need to tell you." She shifted the broom and hesitated, looking up and down the street. Then she beckoned Lucia closer, lowering her voice. "I saw Carlo. Last night."
It was like a rock dropped into Lucia's stomach. She shook her head, whispering, "No. No, you couldn't have." She glanced at Matteo. He hadn't heard, or didn't know what he was hearing, because he was still crouched under the flowers, his hand cupped toward the cat in offering. Lucia shook her head again. "It must have been someone who looked like him."
"It was Carlo." Noemi reached out and gripped Lucia's wrist with her crooked fingers. "I don't want to upset you, cara, but I thought you should know."
A tiny cyclone started to spin in Lucia's heart, yet she persisted. "Noemi. It's been six years. Perhaps you've forgotten what he looks like?"
"Few men look like him. And he stood right outside my window, close to where you are now, staring at your street corner. He's back, Lucia."
Matteo rose into a half crouch and tottered a few steps across the cobbles. The cat curved like a fish and darted away. Matteo frowned, scuffing his shoes as he walked over and placed his palm in Lucia's, resigned. "I wish I could pet that cat. Mamma, why was he scared?"
"He's wild, piccolo," Lucia said, still holding Noemi's stare. She shook the questions from her mind. "We'd better be on our way. Grazie, Noemi. And tell me if it happens again, won't you?"
The old woman nodded, and Lucia tugged Matteo on down the street, her thoughts swimming while doors opened here and there and people spilled into the growing heat. The cyclone continued to spin in her heart, kicking up a swirl of doubt. What was Noemi talking about? Carlo couldn't be back. Back from where? She waved her hand as if arguing with someone. No. Noemi Bruno was old, her memory couldn't possibly be that sharp, and for all Lucia knew, her eyesight wasn't sharp, either. It couldn't have been Carlo.
"Mamma? Can we see Nonna again today?"
Lucia glanced at Matteo. "Signora Bruno isn't your nonna. You know that, piccolo." She tousled his hair, but his eyes dropped to the ground, and her heart dropped with them. He was only five-how could he possibly understand such distinctions? He saw Signora Bruno every day, when his real grandmother across town couldn't be bothered to see him.
She stopped, bending to cup his chin. "Listen, Matteo. Let's hurry through everything we have to do. When we get home, we can read stories on the terrace, all afternoon if you like. S“?"
He nodded, eyes down, scratching a mosquito bite on his elbow. "Can we read the zoo book?"
"Certo." He met her gaze, and she forced a smile, squeezed his hand, and they resumed walking. If only she could bundle him up and take him home. If only they could hide away, reading and laughing and pretending that the world wasn't descending into chaos. But there was no food in the cupboard. The cyclone expanded beyond her heart as they resumed walking. She didn't want to stand in lines, struggling to buy food. She didn't want leaflets to rain down, whispering warnings from the sky. She didn't want to think about the war, about the approaching Allies and Mussolini and the Germans breathing down Italy's neck. And, more than anything, she didn't want to think about Carlo.
Lucia dabbed the corners of her eyes. She wished nobody remembered him, that his name would never be uttered by another neighbor or friend. Because when Carlo left, he'd destined them to a life that never quite added up, no matter how hard she tried to stretch herself to cover the gaps. It was like pulling a small sheet over a large bed: just when one corner was smooth, another came untucked.
Still, Lucia did her best. She cobbled together decent clothes and styled her hair and went about her days, flashing her dimples at shop clerks and giggling with her son, as if her life hadn't fallen apart, as if everything wasn't a struggle. Through it all, she kept Carlo from her mind. If an object reminded her of him, she threw it away. If someone mentioned him, she changed the subject. When his mother wrote in the beginning, she sent the letters back unopened until eventually they stopped coming. She'd told Matteo, from the beginning, that his father was dead.
Because Carlo had abandoned them. The note drifted through her memory like a leaflet, his last words a mere scrawl. Lucia, I can't do this any longer. Resume your life, your old life, as if we'd never met. I am truly sorry.
She inhaled and looked up at a church as they passed, its spires splitting the sky. He'd vanished, but of course she couldn't resume her life as if she'd never known him. Not only because she still loved him, despite herself, but because in the wake of his departure, cells had divided in her womb. Eight lonely months later, those cells became a boy, and war broke out, and the world crumbled, and when Lucia's long days were over, she lay awake into the night. Alone.
It was nearly 11:00 a.m. when Lucia and Matteo finished their shopping, just in time for his appointment.
"Why do I have to see the doctor?" he fussed as they boarded a crowded bus, holding on to the handles while it swayed into motion. She lifted her eyes, trying to muster a patient response. But the canvas bag dug into her forearm as the bus swayed around a corner, and her blouse was drenched in sweat. She herself didn't want to travel across town in this heat, only to urge her reluctant child to cooperate while he was poked and prodded.
She glanced at Matteo, tiny where he stood between two middle-aged women, and her heart stirred. "It's just a checkup, piccolo."
He scowled, and she chewed the thumbnail of her free hand, studying him. His legs were sunbrowned, scuffed at the knees, and slender as reeds. Was he abnormally thin? And did other children swing a pendulum between coughs, fevers, runny noses, and vomiting? Was it because of rationing, the scarcity of fat and protein? Or-her stomach hollowed-was something wrong with him? She inhaled around her thumb. This was why they had to cross Rome to see a doctor. She needed to know she wasn't missing something, that Matteo was all right. He was all she had.
They stepped off the bus near the train station and started up the street.
"I want to go hoooome, Mamma."
His heavy curls plastered his forehead. His face was pale everywhere except the cheeks, which mottled like a bruised apple.
"We will," she said. "And remember? We'll eat and read on the terrace, caro mio."
They passed a family playing in the shade of a small piazza. A father kicked a ball toward a boy in a red jersey. Was he nine? Ten? The boy ran, stopped the ball, and lobbed it across the cobblestones. The father pumped his fist, and a pair of grandparents, watching from a bench, cheered.
Lucia smiled, despite the sting in her belly. If only Matteo had a father and cheering grandparents. Uncles. Someone to teach him how to play ball. They turned a corner, walking into the shade of an umbrella pine, and the Policlinico hospital loomed down the street. She squeezed Matteo's hand, and was about to comment on the breeze and the shade and the fact that they were nearly at the clinic, when her thoughts broke apart. Overhead, air-raid sirens wailed to life.
Matteo's eyes flicked upward. Lucia glanced from him to the blue sky, fragmented by branches.
"They're going somewhere else, Mamma?" The first bomber slid into view. It lumbered in from the horizon, heavy as a new bee.
"They always are." A dozen more planes appeared, slicing through the hazy atmosphere over Rome. But they lived in the pope's city, and who would risk the pope? She thought briefly of all those people, in northern cities lacking a Vatican, who weren't safe. They would soon see bombs from these planes. She placed a palm on her heart, as if she could send them strength.
And then a sound like thunder shattered her thoughts.
"Mamma!" Matteo screamed, spinning on the sidewalk. In one breath she gathered him up, holding his little bird bones tight against her chest, while another thud and explosion hit somewhere nearby.