When you read this book, you are the main character, and you will make the choices that direct the plot. It is 1951. During the war, you rescued and hid an Australian airman near your small Italian village. He told you that you could be anything you dreamed of—but those dreams are fast slipping away. As you make the leap for life in a new land, you'll be asked to stand up to bullies, stage a mutiny, and make your contribution to one of the greatest engineering projects the world has ever seen. How far will you go for freedom?
About the Author
Emily Conolan is a writer and teacher who is also known for her humanitarian work. For her role in establishing a volunteer support network for asylum seekers in Tasmania, she has been awarded Tasmanian of the Year, Hobart Citizen of the Year, and the Tasmanian Human Rights Award. She is the author of Break Your Chains and Touch the Sun.
Read an Excerpt
No one leaves their house at night-time. That's one of the Germans' rules. Their soldiers and trucks are everywhere in Lenola. Their uniforms are so grey and crisp that they look like figures snipped out of metal. When they speak, it sounds to you like green wood spitting and cracking on a fire. It makes your skin crawl to watch these soldiers, and you wish they would go away ... but they won't. They're here because Italy changed sides in the war, and then the Germans captured the whole country. Now, anyone who fights back is killed.
Mamma says they follow a leader called Hitler, and that he's as bad as the devil. She says the Germans are only good for making rules and shooting people – but that one day the fighting will stop, and the soldiers will leave Lenola, and Papà will come home for good, to share your little stone cottage on the hills overlooking the town again.
You can't imagine the war ending. It's 1943, and the war is half as old as you are – you're eight, and it started when you were only four. The war is older than your sister Giulia, and your brother Tommaso, and baby Alessandro. Maybe it will never stop.
Tonight a summer storm has woken you in the middle of the night, and you want to wake Mamma too so she can sing one of her songs, but you know she's tired from always needing to wake in the night to feed Alessandro. You want to stop thinking about soldiers and the war, so you multiply numbers in your head, which makes you calm and happy.
Suddenly you hear another noise: the growl of a plane's engine. You kneel up in bed and press your face to the small window above your bed. There's a loud boom in the sky, and a burst of orange light. The plane's been hit! It must have been an Allied plane: they're the ones fighting against the Germans. A plume of flame trails through the sky towards the ground. One hit plane means three dead people: a pilot, a navigator and a gunner. You cross yourself like Mamma does when she prays and shut your eyes tight for a moment, trying not to picture the dead Allied soldier you saw last month when you were out on the hillside herding the goats.
Just then, you see something pale and semicircular, like a second moon in the sky, drifting down towards the earth. It's a parachute, from the plane! It's getting closer!
Your heart starts to pound. If you ever find a parachute, bring it home, Mamma told you once. They're made of silk. I could sew us all new clothes.
You picture your new dress falling out of the sky; imagine how nice it would feel against your skin, and how envious the other kids would be, dressed in their scratchy old sackcloth clothes. You'll be able to get it, if you're fast. It's going to land just over the next hill.
In a flash, forgetting the Germans' rules, you're tiptoeing out the door. Dawn is close, the sky aflame. You sprint barefoot across the hillside towards the sinking second moon – but there's a silhouette of another kid running in front of you. Someone's trying to beat you to it! You lose sight of the kid, then of the parachute as it falls below the trees, but you keep running.
Soon you hear a moan, low and guttural. You freeze. Usually, if a parachutist lands in enemy territory, they will slash the ropes to free themselves, quickly bury the parachute, then run and hide. But this one must be hurt. Your stomach lurches with fear, and you panic. Being out at nighttime is enough to get you killed. Helping an injured Allied soldier is enough to get your whole family shot. You remember the gallows in the town square, where the German soldiers execute any Italians who dare to disobey them.
Then you hear a boy's voice – a voice you know. It's your cousin Mario. 'It's all right, I won't let them get you,' he's saying. 'Where does it hurt the most?'
You tiptoe over the crest of the hill and see a tangle of ropes; a swathe of silk like the skin on hot milk; a crumpled dark figure; and Mario kneeling over him. Mario looks up and sees you standing there.
'Get down here!' he hisses. 'Now!' You scramble over loose rocks, your hand against the hillside for balance, until you arrive, skitter-bump, at Mario's feet.
The parachutist looks pale and sweaty. One leg sticks out at a bad angle, making you feel sick. He's gripping his thigh and, under his hands, a dark stain spreads. He groans through clenched teeth. There is no sign of anyone else from the plane.
'This is bad,' you hiss at Mario.
'I know. Shut up!' he snaps.
'That's blood,' you say, feeling a shiver of fear as you realise that the parachutist's thigh bone must have snapped and pierced his skin.
'I know. I said shut up, all right? Let me think!' You hop from one foot to the other, glancing nervously at the lightening sky. If you stay, you might get caught by a German dawn patrol. They'll be combing the hillside soon enough, looking for the plane they shot down. You want to help this man – and if you're honest, you still want his parachute too – but you don't think you and Mario can save him alone.
'I'm going to get our mammas,' you say, turning for home. Mamma is a midwife, used to the sight of blood, and Zia Rosa is strong as an ox. They can decide if it's worth the risk to carry him home.
'Stop, no!' cries Mario. He grabs your wrist. 'I need you here – I think the two of us can do it together.'
'Help him to Cat's Mouth.'
The cave Mario's talking about is only a few hundred metres from here, with needle-like rocks all around the rim, which is why it's called Cat's Mouth. The winding tunnels inside are known as the cat's guts.
'No, I'll get our mammas to help,' you insist.
'We can't wait that long!' cries Mario. 'By the time you get back, it'll be dawn. Help me now!'CHAPTER 2
You break free of Mario's grip and run for home. 'I'll be really quick,' you cry. 'I promise!' Behind you, you hear Mario swear and the parachutist grunt in pain.
Your lungs are burning, but you push past the pain, also ignoring the rocks that bite at your feet. Every time your energy starts to flag, you remember the dark bloodstain and the parachutist's anguish and keep running.
Everyone is just waking as you bang through the door. Mamma stares, astonished, then scrambles up off her bed, baby Alessandro still attached to her breast. 'Where have you been?' she demands.
'An airman,' you gasp, 'was shot down in the night. Mario's with him.'
Mamma turns pale. She hesitates for just a moment, and you know she's thinking of the gallows in the town square too. But when she speaks, her voice is determined. 'Giulia,' she says firmly to your little sister, who's peeking out from under her bedcover, Tommaso snuggled in beside her, 'you mind the other children. I'll get my things.' Mamma hasn't lost a mother or a baby in ten years, apart from the babies born months before their time. You know it was right to fetch her.
But, oh God, now you have to run back. You stumble, and Mamma takes your hand and yanks you along. The sun is rising and the clock is ticking: a troop of German patrol soldiers will have already set out. Finally, you and Mamma reach Mario and the crumpled figure.
The airman is wrapped head-to-toe in his parachute. He looks like a fly swathed in spider's silk.
Why did Mario do that? you wonder, and then you see the blood all over Mario, and the tears running down his face. Your mamma takes him in her arms while you stand mute and exhausted.
'You did everything you could, Mario,' says Mamma soothingly. 'You were so brave.' She turns to look at you. 'And so were you, my tesoro. But the parachutist ... he's dead.'
Your knees buckle and you start to cry, your sobs scraping at your throat.
'The Germans will be on their way,' Mamma says. 'We have to go.' She wraps an arm around your shoulders, and Mario stumbles beside you, grim and haggard. You leave the parachutist where he lies. If a patrol finds him, they'll know someone cared enough to wrap him in his shroud. But they'll never know it was Mario.
You finally reach home, safe from the soldiers' patrol. 'One day the war will end,' says Mamma heavily. 'One day, you kids won't have to suffer anymore, and our home will be peaceful and safe again.'
Whether she's right or not, you know that you will never forget the airman who fell from the sky.CHAPTER 3
'Okay.' You nod to Mario, swallowing your fear. 'I'll stay. What do I have to do?' He hands you a knife. 'Cut his parachute off and tear some strips up for bandages. We'll use the rest to carry him, like a hammock.'
You get to work with the knife, noting gratefully that there's still plenty of fabric left for when this is all over – if you survive.
Mario is eleven, and he spends most of his time devising practical jokes, stealing food, and finding ways to drive you crazy. He's tied your shoelaces together in church so you fell on your face when you got up to take communion; he's tricked you into drinking muddy water, which he said was hot chocolate; and he's spoiled plenty of games with your friends by pelting you with pebbles from a secret hiding place. He can run faster, fart louder, and spit further than you. You wish you could beat him, just once.
But here Mario is now, working seriously and carefully. He's like the heroic army doctors you've read about, working in the field to save their men. He cuts away the clothes around the wound and ties the bandages you've made firmly in place. The parachutist is groaning and saying things in English. You catch him slurring an Italian word – is it 'water'? – before his eyes roll back and his head drops to the ground.
'He fainted!' you tell Mario.
'Oh damn, that's not good. People can die if they lose too much blood. Help me roll him.'
Feeling shaky, you roll the man's heavy, limp body onto the parachute. His arms flop like a doll's.
'Is he already dead?' you whisper.
'No, I can hear him breathing, but we'll all be dead if the Germans find us, so hurry up.'
The parachutist is too heavy to lift, so you and Mario have to drag him along the ground. The parachute is slippery in your sweaty palms, and you think, This is ruining the fabric, then immediately berate yourself: Don't be so selfish. Pull harder!
The fabric is wrapped so tightly around your wrists that your hands go numb. How can one man weigh so much? You struggle to pull until your muscles burn and tired sobs rise in your throat. Cat's Mouth isn't that far away, but your progress is painfully slow. Every so often you startle – was that the stamping boots of an approaching patrol? – but it always turns out to be a falling stone or a bird landing in a tree.
The sun is beginning to warm the stones by the time you reach Cat's Mouth. 'The most dangerous bit is over,' says Mario, hoisting the parachutist's body over the pointy rocks at the entrance. You haul his legs over, and Mario leads the way down a clay bank that is the cat's throat. The light dims to black as you slowly weave on, twisting and turning through the labyrinthine passages. You stumble along, trying not to let the parachutist's back hit any rocks.
Surely he's dead by now, you think grimly. Occasionally you bang your head, or twist your ankle in a pothole full of freezing water, but Mario navigates these tunnels as easily as a bat. It's as if he can see in the dark, but he's probably explored down here so many times he knows it by heart.
After a while, he stops. 'This'll do,' he says. His voice echoes and you can hear a drip ... drip ... drip.
You're in some kind of cavern – you feel all around you for a wall or ceiling, your arms waving like antennae, but you can't connect with anything. Shivers run over your skin as your sweat cools in the frigid air. You've never known blackness like this.
'What are we going to do now?' you ask Mario. 'We can't just leave him here.'
'We won't,' says Mario. 'I'll be back in a few hours with some food.'
'Wait, what?' you cry. You hear him leaving the cave and you scream, 'Stop, Mario!' The footsteps pause. 'Don't go ...' you say, feeling like a baby. Your mind is a blur of fears. You don't even know if the parachutist is alive. You just want to be back home, not abandoned here in the cat's guts.
'Well, do you know your way out of the cave to go home and get help?' Mario asks. 'One of us has to wait here.'
You try not to cry as his footsteps fade away.
On hands and knees, so you can feel and balance better, you crawl back towards the parachutist. The floor is smooth and cold, mostly clay and puddles, with a few slabs of rock. The parachutist's echoing breaths, and a constant drip, are the only sounds. You bump into his body, and cautiously pat it all over. He's shivering slightly, and you are too. He's not going to survive if you can't keep him warm. Gingerly, you lie on the damp floor, press your body against his, and wrap the parachute around both of you as tightly as you can manage.
Time seems to stretch. Your thoughts become vivid daydreams. Has Mario been gone an hour yet? Or longer? You wonder what will become of the parachutist if he recovers. Mamma says some of the southern parts of Italy are safe now – but to get there, he'd have to sneak past thousands of Germans.
How can you possibly keep him here, though, without light or warmth? Surely it would send even the strongest person mad. You don't want to stay here a minute longer yourself, and it's only been an hour ... or perhaps two?
Suddenly the parachutist's body jerks behind you. He splutters something in English, and you scramble to your knees as he swings his arms around wildly. You catch one of his arms as it knocks against you, holding it still, and he reaches out to touch your face.
'Hello,' you say to him. 'It's okay.'
'Uh ... hello,' he replies in heavily accented Italian. 'My eyes is ... disappear? It is black.' He's speaking slowly, in a voice choked with pain.
'Yes, because we're in a cave,' you tell him. 'It's all right, the Germans can't find you here. My cousin Mario will be back soon. Your plane crashed, do you remember?'
There's silence. Maybe he couldn't understand that much Italian, but you don't know any English. He's probably British, or American. Eventually he croaks, 'You are ... a little girl?'
'Not that little,' you tell him. 'I'm eight.'
'Eight,' he says. 'One, two, three, four, five, seven, eight.'
'No.' You laugh. 'Five, six, seven, eight.'
'Ah,' he says. 'Sorry, six. I forget you.' His voice is warm. It's a relief not to feel so alone in the cat's guts. He says something in English, as if to himself; then he lets out a long, shaky breath, and you feel so sad for him. He's a long way from home, and even though he's a grown-up man, he must wish he could just go home. His leg must be causing him agony, and he's probably thinking about his missing companions from the plane.
You find his hand and squeeze it. 'I'll be your friend,' you tell him.
'My friend,' he replies, and you can hear the smile in his voice. 'My very good friend, thank you.'CHAPTER 4
It's been six months since you and Mario found the navigator, Charlie, and hid him in the cat's guts. His thigh bone still has a lump in it, and he's bearded and as skinny as a shipwreck survivor, but you and your family have kept him alive all this time.
'Off to school?' Mamma asks, smiling as she sees you packing food rations, a candle and a pencil into your schoolbag. She sighs and ruffles your hair. 'I'm proud of you, my tesoro – I just wish it wasn't so cold in there.'
'I have the best classroom, and the best teacher, in the world!' you tell her. Although the village school closed at the start of the war, you and Mario have a class of two in the cat's guts – with Charlie as your teacher. Except for an occasional patrol, the Germans rarely come up into these hills, so you can get in and out of the cave without arousing suspicion.
'How does Charlie manage to teach you anything in the dark?' Mamma laughs.
'Oh, Mamma, it's never dark in there, not really!' you tell her. 'Yesterday Charlie told us all about his home at Sandford's Rise in Australia, and I could just feel the warm sun, and see the kangaroos bouncing by!'
Your English is good enough now that you understood nearly every word Charlie said. Mario's is too. You told Giulia, Tommaso and Alessandro all about Australia as their bedtime story last night, and they were entranced.
'Just mind a German never follows you there,' Mamma cautions. 'And if they ever overhear you speaking English ...' She shudders.
* * *
'I wish the Allies would hurry up and win,' mutters Mario as you cross the hillside towards Cat's Mouth. 'If I were older, I'd join the Italian resistance and – ker-blam! – blow them all up. I'd be a hero.'
'Charlie's my hero,' you reply.
'You have to do stuff to be a hero,' argues Mario. 'Not just sit around talking and freezing your bum off. You have to rescue people.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Move the Mountains: The Freedom Finders"
Copyright © 2019 Emily Conolan.
Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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