Caught in a perilous divide between life and death, Mrs. Rundel is both a woman struggling to catch her breath, and the child she was 60 years earlier who struggled to survive the violence of the liberation of Italy and experienced the everlasting innocence of first love from an enemy soldier.
|Little, Brown and Company
|5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.69(d)
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By Joanna Scott
Little, BrownCopyright © 2005 Joanna Scott
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SHE REMEMBERS HEARING SHOES SHUFFLING, HICCUP OF her mother's stifled sneeze, water trickling down a pipe, soft breathing, whispers like pages of a newspaper blowing across a deserted piazza, the neighbor's dog barking in the field, grunt of a curse, click of her teeth on her thumbnail, rattling of rain or water boiling or bicycle wheels turning, creak of a chair as whoever had been leaning back replanted its front legs on the floor, crackling of gunfire across the harbor or maybe someone had thrown a fistful of pebbles in the air, "ssss" in place of stai zitta, "ssss" in place of silenzio, strike of a match, her uncle clearing his throat, three quick coughs, suck of a cigarette, murmur of prayer.
What time is it now, now, and right now? Huddled in the cabinet beside the kitchen sink, she cared about nothing else but the time. If only she'd known the exact time, she could more easily have endured the night. She pressed her fingers between the hinges of the cabinet door and stared into the darkness. Even without any trace of light, she persuaded herself that she could see the outline of the door. The more intensely she stared, the more transparent the darkness became. A soft glow began to pulse through the crack between the hinges-she imagined that this was the motion of time. She'd made herself forget that the lamp on the kitchen table had been put out. And then she realized her mistake.
Understanding everything and nothing. She didn't even know what questions to ask. She didn't know why the Germans had come without warning and bombed Portoferraio in September or why a week later a submarine had torpedoed a ferry full of islanders on their way home from the mainland or why the bombs had fallen again one day in March. And now again.
How easy it would have been to knock on the cabinet door and ask for the time. And how stupid. They had already spent half the night up in the orchard-or had it been less than an hour they'd sat wrapped in blankets while planes strafed the ancient port across the bay and gunboats poured fire onto the coast east and west of La Chiatta? At one point there had been a great thud of an explosion that lit up the southern sky, then a grayish, bitter-smelling haze spread inland across the island, shrouding the moon. The steady pounding and crackling of artillery had continued in the distance, but eventually the aerial assault had ceased and the planes disappeared back out to sea. Once the sky overhead was quiet, Adriana, with her mother and their cook, Luisa, had returned inside. Amazingly, she had managed to fall into a deep sleep. How long had she slept before her uncle had arrived from Portoferraio, and her mother yanked Adriana from her warm bed and dragged her into the kitchen and stuffed her into the cabinet?
Her uncle had made it clear that any noise would be the end of them all, so Adriana only pretended to hum, holding a finger against her lips to feel them move in the darkness while she imagined treating her ears to a trace of a melody, her voice too quiet for anyone else to hear. They could go on assuming that she was a good girl doing just as she'd been told. You mustn't make any noise, Adriana. You must stay inside the cabinet until it is safe to come out. When would it be safe? Only when her mother said it was safe. Sooner or later it would be safe. Unless the Germans made her mother and uncle and Luisa disappear, just as they'd made General Gilardi disappear last September, and Adriana would be left to rot inside the cabinet. This was a possibility that her mother hadn't considered. Weeks would pass, months, until one day Lorenzo's Angela would at last come to clean the kitchen and unlatch the cabinet doors in search of rags, and out would fall Adriana Nardi's dusty bones.
Didn't it occur to anyone to ask her how she was faring? She was thirsty and hot and had done nothing to deserve such misery. She wanted to remind her mother that she would be eleven years old in two weeks. Eleven years-undici anni. Undici, undici. It was a number that deserved a melody. Music was always a good way to pass the time. She imagined singing all the songs she'd been taught in school. Caress the music with your voices, ragazze. Not too heavy down below, not too reedy on top. Do not sweep between two notes. Balance the tone. Now sing. Color the sound with memory. Every note signaling the passing of another second. She imagined humming the songs she couldn't sing aloud. She hummed silently to keep herself from asking what her life would be worth if she were to be killed before dawn. The dives she'd been perfecting off the rocks at Viticcio. How could her life end before she'd become a champion diver?
Her grave a cabinet beside the kitchen sink. Her mother and Luisa and her uncle Mario keeping watch in the kitchen of La Chiatta. Each world inside another world. The music she was hearing in her head matched the music she would make if she'd been humming aloud. It was as real as the fact of her growing. Luisa had predicted, judging from the size of Adriana's grandissimi feet, that she wouldn't stop growing until she had reached two full meters. She was growing continuously, irreversibly. As she grew bigger, the cabinet grew smaller, and her knees poked against her chin. She was like a hen packed in a hatbox. She couldn't stand it. Either she had to stop growing or she would suffocate. Hiding from the fighting wouldn't do her any good at all if her confinement made it impossible to breathe.
What, she wondered, could be worse than death? She was old enough to be able to imagine a multitude of brutal endings. The worst, she'd been taught, was Christ's suffering on the cross. A crucifix was a reminder that dying wasn't easy. She didn't want to die. There was nothing she wanted less to do than to die. What could surpass the misery of dying?
Whatever it was, it seemed to be something that could only happen to children-to girls, in particular, of a certain age. Only she'd been hidden in a cabinet. The adults were sitting comfortably in chairs around the kitchen table as though they'd just finished a meal and were waiting for visitors.
Deep inside her growing body, inside the cabinet, inside the kitchen, inside the walls of La Chiatta, she let herself consider what could happen. She could guess that it had to do with the advantages of strength over the stupidity of innocence. Adriana Nardi wasn't stupid. She'd always considered herself exceptionally knowledgeable and didn't find it difficult to surmise at least a part of the truth from which she was being protected. It had to do with young girls and soldiers and how, if a girl's growing body was too little for their pleasure, they had to make it bigger. Even as she was wishing to fit more comfortably into the cramped space of the cabinet, she imagined expanding like a balloon. She thought about how the soldiers would make this happen.
She was a girl, worthy enough to be hidden in a cabinet. Yet no matter what might be done to her, she couldn't imagine choosing death. Having long been assured by her mother that there was no such place as hell, she could believe that even the worst suffering wouldn't last forever. When the suffering ended, she wanted to be alive. She was as deserving as any child and had a right to live past tomorrow. She'd rather have faced a hundred Barbarossas than end up dying in an effort to hide from them. Was it really necessary for her to stay where she was? Did her mother think that death was preferable to defilement? Did she realize that her daughter was desperately uncomfortable?
"Mamma," she whispered through the crack in the door. Actually, she didn't even whisper. She made the sound of blowing out a candle flame, and her mother couldn't have heard her. And she made the sound of z, for her zio Mario, and the murmur of Luisa's name. Didn't they understand that Adriana wanted to be with them?
There was a muffled, rhythmic knocking, maybe of someone nervously tapping a shoe beneath the kitchen table. The smell of cigarette smoke seeping into the cabinet had the coarse sweetness of automobile exhaust. The adults, unable to come up with anything better to do, must have passed a pack of cigarettes among themselves.
Tired of her troubled thoughts and the necessity of hiding, Adriana let herself feel angry at all of them for treating her as though she were some sacred vestment being hidden from the Turks. Let me out! She tried to think the demand forcefully enough for them to understand. But still no one bothered to check on her or offered her as much as a sip of water.
And then, abruptly, all activity seemed to stop, or at least the sounds of activity ceased. Adriana prepared to emerge into the open space of the kitchen. But for some reason she was not released. The darkness remained absolute, and the adults didn't move from their chairs. She wasn't sure whether it was after dawn or still the middle of the night. She listened for some evidence that the danger had passed, if only temporarily, but all she heard was the silence of inertia. The adults, having abdicated all responsibility, could do nothing else but sit and wait for someone to tell them what to do. Adriana would tell them what to do if they'd just let her out.
She was preparing to bang on the cabinet door, but right then she heard the far-off sound of the piano, notes of a fifth played separately, a tinny A and E, then E and B, then the slam of a chord.
For God's sake, why had the piano tuner come now, in the middle of the fighting? Adriana wasn't insane. She was the only sane one left in the world. The island was burning, soldiers were prowling for young girls, and the adults were sitting around the kitchen table while Rodolfo tuned the piano.
It didn't occur to her that she was asleep. As far as she knew, her eyes were open, and she was a good girl doing just as she'd been told to do while everyone else went mad. Pazzo Rodolfo, go home. Someone let her out. Mamma, what is going on?
The hammer hitting the string, again, beat of two notes, and then another note, and another. Trill down, trill up. The strange sounds of human ingenuity. With this that our ancestors have made for us. Pianos. Bicycles. Books and microscopes and airplanes. Bombs and vaccines and grammar and ink and radios. The challenge is figuring out what makes sense in the long run. Never knowing whether the most fundamental expectation will prove reliable. Unable to estimate what is happening simultaneously. She being a young girl wanting merely to assure herself that she would survive the war and be blessed with a good long life but knowing all the while that she couldn't even guess what would happen or what was happening elsewhere, no more than she could see through the door of the cabinet. Thinking of something while something entirely different occurred. Listening to the imaginary sounds of the piano while the Allied troops spread out across the island, following the road beside the Fosso Galeo toward Procchio, from Procchio to Portoferraio. Not seeing into the future or even into the recent past. Not seeing anything but the dim form of herself and the drainpipe. Not knowing that the soldiers had taken turns with the fourteen-year-old daughter of Sergio Canuti, whom they'd dragged from her home on the outskirts of Marina di Campo, and then they'd finished the job with bayonets, so by the time other troops had reached the Ambrogi estate next to La Chiatta and shot one of Lorenzo's pigs, Sofia Canuti was already dead.
She could only be wrong if she tried to wager a guess. But at least she could vaguely sense the confounding scope of what she couldn't know, and even as she dreamed about Rodolfo tuning the piano, she had a dim notion that beyond the confines of her perception almost anything was possible.
In the mysterious night surrounding La Chiatta, the war raged on, and in her sleep clever Adriana Nardi knew not to be surprised by what she didn't understand. It was a lesson she'd begun learning when the Germans had bombed Portoferraio back in September. After that first attack, Adriana had found a woman's slipper when she was sweeping behind the men clearing the rubble from her school. She didn't understand what the slipper was doing there, since the bombs had fallen when the school was empty. And there was more: her friend Claudia had found the crushed carcass of a cat, and two boys claimed to have found a finger, though they dropped it and lost it when they were running to the office of the carabinieri. They reported that the finger still had the indentation of a ring encircling it, although the ring was gone. Adriana believed them.
She believed many things. She believed that there were diamonds on Volterraio. She believed in God. She didn't believe in hell, but she believed in the devil, and she blamed the devil for the fact that the sea was full of the souls of the dead. When she was swimming in the sea and her hand brushed up against something that felt like a spiderweb, and when afterward she found that the back of her hand was streaked with red, that meant she was almost caught by the souls of the drowned. If they ever got a firm grip on her, they would pull her under. And then she would have to do the same to others.
She remembers wanting to stop believing everything she was told. But how did she know what to believe as long as anything was possible? It was possible that the war would never end. It was possible that she would never see the light of day again. It was possible that the entire island would be blown to pieces during the glorious liberation.
When she was a young girl hiding in the cabinet, she didn't yet know that it would be called the liberation, nor would she have understood what was being liberated. She'd come to think of the Germans who had occupied the island for nine months as tourists-untrustworthy, to be sure, known in particular to have such a fondness for silk shirts that they would steal them right off the clothesline. Adriana had only seen the German soldiers from afar, though she often dined on their rations, since her mother sent Ulisse into Portoferraio to trade with them: eggs, dried figs, and cured olives in exchange for canned beans and salt. And occasionally Uncle Mario would arrive with a huge beefsteak-a gift from a German officer he'd befriended-which Luisa would cook in a stew to make it last for a week. Life may have been more dangerous because of the Germans, and it was even more dangerous if you were a partisan or a Jew. But there weren't many partisans left on Elba, as far as Adriana knew, and there definitely were no Jews. Anyway, visitors never came to the island to stay. They left when they grew bored, usually when the autumn rains started.
The first night of the Allied liberation of Elba would turn out to be only the beginning. The night she spent hiding in a cabinet beside the kitchen sink. Let me out! Cracks of light graying the darkness. Hating to be where she was but grateful not to be somewhere else. Where?
Shrieks of a dying pig. Intake of breath. Thudding rush of blood in the ears, reminding her of the few times she'd cut her finger and sucked the wound: she imagined that lemon mixed with the pulp of a rancid tomato would taste like blood. How disgusting! Ragazze, attenzione! Ah-eh-ee-oh-oo. Please, Mamma, when would Rodolfo finish his work and go home? The sound was giving her a headache. Try to sleep, Adriana. She couldn't sleep. She was asleep. She didn't hear Sofia Canuti screaming. Of course she didn't.
She imagined hearing the gurgle of milk spilling from a bottle tipped over by a cat. She imagined hearing the snapping sounds of someone gathering kindling. And Rodolfo playing scales. She thought about all the sounds that a violin could make in a half step. Once upon a time she'd wanted to learn to play the violin. But her mother had insisted on the piano.
She thought about the sweet smell of bonfires. She thought about a flip book she'd bought at the market last week showing a man blown from a cannon to the top of the Tower of Pisa, his weight bringing the leaning tower crashing down. What about all the good jokes she'd retold? Or climbing up to the rocky summit of Monte Capanne? Or the restless tapping of a pen on blank paper?
Excerpted from Liberation by Joanna Scott Copyright © 2005 by Joanna Scott. Excerpted by permission.
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