Courtyard and Piazza
April 29, 1945
In an aerial view, thought Sara Levy, standing breathless at the end of the dark access lane while looking at the mass of bodies before her eyes, it would look like a gigantic Petri dish overflowing with lively cells. She wiped the sweat from her forehead, wincing at her own thought. She was pathetic at times like these, her mind going mad, running off on senseless tangents, grasping at wildly irrelevant thoughts whenever feelings of dread encroached. It was her way of neutralizing panic, engendered in this moment by the manic scene before her eyes. She had to distance herself from this scene, coming as it did on the heels of her frantic, solitary race through Milan’s deserted sun-drenched streets, when there had been no one and nothing but her and her fear.
She should, of course, have expected the throbbing mass, the thick tide of bodies. But she never got it right when panic was involved. It took her over completely, she surrendered to it without a fight. Besides, other thoughts, more important ones, had invaded her head the moment she’d heard the news two hours ago, and that was only natural. Why should she—would she—have thought of anything else but him? The mayhem, the men, women and children, bodies of all shapes sizes and ages pullulating elbow-to-elbow under the fierce sun…so what?
On the other hand, how could she ever have imagined that she would find him here? She hadn’t thought past her arrival, his face had been the guide in her mind’s eye, pure instinct had propelled her forward. Now she saw the next move as impossible. Finding one face—one man…. How? She shuddered with a sudden chill due as much to the cool shade where she stood in a daisy-patterned sundress soaking with sweat as it was to her daunted mental state. She felt she would soon weep, and lowered her head.
“Signorina?” It was a hoarse and old voice followed by a gentle touch of something rough on her forearm. She opened her eyes. The hand was gnarled, with grimy nails and black knuckles. She looked up. It was a small, gnome-like man, barely her own height, his face ancient and cut with wrinkles both fine and deep. He had on a tattered army jacket studded with medals, and hanging from a frayed strap around his neck was a concertina which displaced, with his every breath, the medals strewn across his lapels.
“You all right, Miss?”
She drew back at the stench of stale sweat and sour wine. His eyes were watery and bloodshot, the greasy, salt-and-pepper hair stuck up, pointy, from a dirty bandanna around his temples. He was wobbling dangerously, too, on a peg leg that stuck out below the right knee of his Zoave trousers as he tried balancing the good leg on the cobblestones.
“Signorina?” he repeated.
“I’m fine.” She swiped at her tear-streaked cheeks. On some level she’d heard the squeaky concertina music as she had stepped out of the lane into the square. He’d been playing the Va Pensiero. My country, so beautiful, so lost... .
"You don't look any so fine to me,” he said. “Beautiful, yes indeedy. Nice, that red hair all curly and frizzy-like, but you’re white as a ghost under them freckles. And sad! Didn’t you come to celebrate with the rest of us?"
A straggly group had formed around them. Sara said, "I... I came to see....”
"OVER THERE!” he shouted, yanking a thumb over his shoulder toward the square behind him. On reflex, Sara rose on tiptoe. In what seemed the center of the square, its bulls eye, were dark, hefty lumps swinging from girders like so many prosciutti in a dry pantry. “They brought ‘em in this morning,” the old soldier barked. “Before dawn. Seventeen. All fascisti, all of ‘em stone dead.”
“Best kind of fascisti,” piped a fat, red-faced Signora who had poked her head between them. “Stone dead,” she cackled.
The malignant cells at the center of the Petri dish, Sara thought madly.
“They only strung up seven over the gas station,” the old vet said. "Feet first. The other ten couldn’t fit on the rail.”
“Weren’t important enough,” the woman said. “They stayed piled up dead on the ground.”
"There’s live ones sitting on the wall under the ones they hung up, ” the vet said, “but you can’t see them from here.”
"Our heroes, the live ones,” the woman said. “The partisans—the ones that killed the fascisti and brought them here. They’re havin’ a rest, God bless 'em!”
Snapping to precarious attention, the vet saluted. “Viva i partigiani!"
He would be with them. In the center, at the station. He wasn’t just a partisan, he was better than a partisan , he was an American, a secret agent, sent in to help the partisans, to do no less than make sure that Mussolini, the Duce himself, was taken alive for the Allies. That was his real mission; he’d had told her so himself not three nights ago when they were last together, and he had told her the real truth because he loved her, because he trusted her, and the fact that the Duce was dead now, swinging there off in the distance, might still be only a detail and not a signal of any failure or of....
The point being the partisans had won. The war was over, and her best chance of finding him in this maelstrom was to get to the gas station where live partisans were sitting on the wall below the dangling bodies.
“Go have a look! ” the old vet urged, “it’s a sight, I tell you! Not every day’s a day like this when...”
But she was already on her way to the gas station.
* * * *
She’d done as he’d asked. For the first three days after he left—three days of steady, drilling rain—she’d stayed in the flat. But this morning the sunlight had been so dazzling, so promising. And she hadn’t broken any promise by going out onto the landing early to hang out some laundry--a pretext, of course, to stand outside facing the wide-open carriage gates directly opposite and wait for him to come striding into the courtyard safe and sound. And so a perfect start to what should have been a perfect morning:
graced with brilliant light after the storms and showered by a luminescent, if somewhat eerie, quiet: no loudspeakers hounding the populace in heavy, German-accented Italian, no sirens. Just silence and hope. In the courtyard below, the concierge sweeping the cement near the open gates and her cat dozing in a patch of warm sun. Down the landing fat busybody Signora Meanzi, sitting with her darning in her lap and beyond Meanzi the very young Signora Fiala, her newborn asleep in her lap. Milan
And then it all changed when the Turani boys, her sometime tutoring pupils from the building, came careening into the courtyard screaming bloody murder.
“E morto il Duce! Mussolini e’ morto, correte tutti a vederlo! A Piazzale Loretooooo....”, they shouted over and over, “A Piazzale Loreto, correte, correte, Mussolini è morto,” stomping and prancing in place like dervishes until, with a lightning about-face, they raced out the gate again and back into the street, chased by Signora Grimaldi, broom in hand. The Fiala infant was screaming, the cat was scrambling bushy-tailed for shelter, and in that split second Sara knew something terrible and irrevocable had happened--something that countermanded everything he had told her three nights before. Frozen, hands gripping the balcony railing as she stared out the open carriage gates, she knew one thing for certain: she knew that she couldn’t keep her promise to him. She had to go to Piazzale Loreto.
* * * *
The crowd swam outward from the center, so her progress was a sort of halting tarantella, one step back for every two forward. "Scusi, permesso; scusi, permesso," was her chant as she patted children's heads, touched backs, and moving forward under the lava-hot sun. The hot bodies crammed so tightly against hers that her mind soared again to the manic aerial view: the giant Petri dish filled to the brim with lively, healthy cells swarming every which way, ebbing and flowing toward and away from the cancer at the center—the gas station where seven bloodied torsos, legs tied with thick ropes, had been strung by their ankles from the steel girders over the petrol pumps.
Since early childhood she had detested crowds. She was an islander and an only child who required nothing more than the exclusive love of her older, doting parents. Yes, she’d had friends. But she had never envied those with siblings or desired a clique of friends. Unlike most children, she had never even liked village fiestas. She was the bookish professor’s daughter who loved her solitude and not even the war had changed that, not even this festa nazionale without a nation, this street fair without peddlers.
By now she was midway to the station. Her forehead and scalp were drenched in sweat and she was dizzy, and when she squeezed her eyes as though to power her body’s forward charge, she saw bright flashes of red and green under her eyelids and wasn’t reassured even when she opened them and the same bright flashes persisted-- until she understood that the colors were the day’s motif: wild bits of red, white and green skimming above the sea of heads, colored placards urging "Viva l'Italia," and "Libertà", mini-flags waving on balconies and windowsills, tricolor boutonnieres blooming in lapels, tiny stiff flags clutched by children perched on their fathers' shoulders. Then, skirting a gaggle of shuffling nuns, she came face-to-face with an unexpected opening in the throng through which the gas station was in full view.
On the ground, the station was encircled by dark blotches that were the spattered, canvas-covered trucks that had transported the corpses. Pressing her hands hard against her soaking midriff, Sara fought to quell a surge of nausea and moved ahead. Passing two mustachioed carabinieri towering over the fray, regal as their swords, she heard an older, professorial type in wire-rimmed glasses hectoring them : "... worse than Piazza della Signoria when they burned Savonarola! Worse than the forum after Caesar's murder! Barbarians!" In her mind’s ear she kept hearing the refrain: My country, so beautiful, so lost; and thoughts of country, soldiers, old men, professors, flags, and microcosms of nations teased her along on her progress until she realized she was nearly at the center, and some part of her remembered what she had brought with her.
She touched the side pocket on her sundress and felt the paper stashed inside the poplin fabric. It was a photo. She’d retrieved hours before from inside the lining of the suitcase that she kept on top of the armoire in her room. The second object in her pocket, a tiny brooch, almost pricked her forefinger when she squeezed it. But touching her talismans gave her new courage. Through aching eyes, she glimpsed eight or ten cowled nursing friars who raised their heads as they shuffled, gawking, past the carnage, crossing themselves so hurriedly that the wide sleeves of their dark habits flapped like ravens' wings. Finally, only four or five red-bandannaed men foisting handbills stood between her and the large vehicles. She smashed through.
She was at the trucks at last, with a clear view of the station from the gaps between them.
People were throwing garbage at the dangling corpses. Happily. As if they were carnival goers pitching for a teddy bear of kewpie doll.
She entered the inner circle and wove between the trucks, purposely avoiding looking up at the hanging corpses or the pile of dead bodies on the cobblestones. Round and round the trucks she walked, circling the circle, ducking the garbage hurlers. What good sports people were, she thought giddily; two decades of betrayal at the Duce’s hands, yet they were almost as well behaved at his death as they had been at Fascism's birth. All they wanted, it seemed, was one decent eyeball-to-eyeball with the defunct leader before re-entering the larger mass that was ebbing and flowing and swelling and partying and generally ignoring the dead rot at the nation's core.
When she finished checking the readily visible living--those around her and those partigiani sitting on the wall—she focused on the motley civilian army crawling amongst, between and around the trucks like insects pestering rhinoceri at a waterhole. Her nerves were raw, her limbs shaking, but she checked even the mechanics, whose legs protruded from under the vehicles like grasshoppers’ appendages.
He wasn’t there.
She straightened up, feeling her insides sink into another excruciating void of dread that spread through her like a cramp. It occurred to her that she might have missed him; was he sitting on the wall after all? She turned again, resolved to look only at the "live ones." But even upside down and dead, Mussolini was commanding. His blood-stained, bullet-ridden shirt was scrunched around his shoulders and rigor had frozen him into a posture more ridiculous than any he had assumed in life. Because this time, unlike his stiff, classic, one-armed Fascist salute, both his arms were stuck out stiffly. And he was upside down. A commedia dell'arte figure, a buffoon even in death. Or like one of the puppets in the shows in the park when she was a child. But his ghost, she realized with jangled insight, will haunt
forever; the country would never quite be free of the saggy-jowled poseur. Italy
The corpses overhead were filthy, their clothes tattered and stained crimson. She recognized none of them, and was not to know until much later who they were and that they had been chosen at random from the partisans’ prisoner lists. Finally, when she was certain that some hideous mistake hadn't placed her lover among them, she at last brought her eyes to rest on the woman hanging next to the Duce. In a macabre gesture of modesty, someone had tied an old rope around Clara Petacci’s skirt so it wouldn’t fall upwards. Slut, they called Petacci; slag. Harlot. Twenty-nine years younger than the Duce, she was now only thirty-three and on this day, with her face fully visible and her rich, dark hair cascading downward to her shoulders, Clara Petacci, the Duce’s long-time mistress, looked less a whore than a sweetly serene young woman who had finally gotten what every woman in love wants: Her man all to herself.
"The cunt died first."
Sara turned. The man was tall, his profile lean and sharp, his arms folded across his chest. "When we lined them up against the wall, la puttana knew, and she blocked his body with hers.” He shrugged. “So more bullets for her. Before they strung them up this morning, they laid the Duce face up, with his head flat on her boobs like he was her baby. And stuck his baton in his hand. Like it was the baby’s bottle. He still had his jacket on then.” He cocked his head to one side. “Then just as they were about to string her up, some Englishman tied her skirts.”
"Englishman?” Her question was immediate. “An Englishman tied her skirts?” But then, how would this man know the difference between an Englishman and an American?
"A Brit.” He sneered. "Faggots, the British. All manners, no balls."
"But …you’re sure he was British? Could it have been an American?"
“British uniform, British accent. You ask me, they should have left her cunt wide open. Teach you women to be careful who you fuck," the man said, and ambled off.
She stalked the wall. The living partisans were anonymous spectators with dirty hands, bored expressions, and slumped bodies. Killing being such hard work, it was astonishing how many relished it. She felt sluggish, diminished by her dread and past its pain. Where he had been when the killings happened? He may have failed to bring Mussolini back alive, but had he gotten anywhere near the Duce? Dear God, where was he? And why was no one here from her own group? No
Lena, no Peppe, no Flavio.... Or Silvio. At least the courier....
A hand tugged at her shoulder and she turned, but it was a moment before she could place the smudged face, the guarded black eyes, the fine, small, sad features as belonging to Silvio Roncalli. He was the group's courier; and he was alone, it seemed. "Sara...," he said, moving to embrace her, "come with me.”
The pity in his eyes frightened her. “Not now,” she said, backing up against one of the trucks. “I have to find Simon, I....”
He reached for her hand but she put it behind her and gripped the truck's wheel guard tightly to steady herself against the roaring in her ears.
"Sara..." He would have said more, but he started coughing. She thought of
Lena--Lena Servadio, her best friend. Lena was Silvio Roncalli’s padrona, and Lena was sure Roncalli had TB, and was always saying that when the war was over, she'd see to it that he got proper treatment. Which was only right. Lena should take care of Silvio, he was her responsibility because he was her faithful servant and retainer whose family had been overseers on Lena's family's estate for generations. Besides, it was Silvio who had cared for Lena all through the war. So now Lena, as the only surviving Servadio, must care for him—the only surviving Roncalli. Back to noblesse oblige in the grand Italian tradition, Sara Levi blathered to herself.
The coughing abated. "I came to get you,” Roncalli gasped, “but Grimaldi said you'd already gone out. Did you go to
She had to smile at this. Why would she go to
Lena—who detested Simon—to find Simon? Then again, where was Lena? Maybe she'd refused to come. Lena hated crowds too, not because she was a loner, but because she was a snob.
"Where is Simon?" Sara blurted.
Silvio Roncalli stared at her as if she were the village idiot. Well, he wasn't terribly clever, was he? He was quick and trustworthy and loyal, an excellent protector. But he wasn’t clever. So she spoke patiently and deliberately, the way she would speak to one of her little students.
"Silvio,” she said, “you can tell me where he is, because I know everything now. I mean, I know why he was really with us—why he was sent in to work with our group. I know why the Americans sent him. He told me about Mussolini; he told me all of it, even though it was a secret. You didn’t know, did you? Of course, it's no secret anymore now, not with that.” Her head jerked toward the Duce.
Roncalli just looked at her strangely. As though she were hysterical, she thought; he thinks I am out of control.
"I know Simon wasn't supposed to tell anyone,” she continued patiently, “but he told me anyway. I even know his real name, and I know he’s from
. He’s not Roberto Simone, that’s only his code name. Of course, to me he’ll always be Simon, even if his real name....” Providence, Rhode Island, America
She’d run out of steam.
After a deep breath, she went on.
“I never, ever cared about any of this,” she said, waving her arm. "Mussolini, the war, the partisans.... I was never like Lena or the others, I was only in the group because
Lena...because.... All I care about is Simon, " she finished lamely.
Silvio Roncalli said nothing. But the shocked and woebegone look on his face made Sara wonder if he'd gone mad. On the other hand, he was a peasant, and like all peasants, he treated women of his own class like dirt and women like
Lena and herself like queens. Peasant chivalry, that’s what it was. I hate him, she thought, on some level knowing that unless she rejected him and his odious pity, she’d perish; there was no other choice, not in her state, not with the cramp of dread squeezing breath from her. A useless runt, that’s what Silvio Roncalli is, she thought. Some courier. He can't even speak.
"Come,” he said gently, kindly, extending his hand. “Come with me.”
Was he being sneaky? Trying to trick her? Or could he really take her to Simon? Maybe Simon was wounded and needed her, maybe he was waiting somewhere nearby for her.
They cut eastward through the crowd, Roncalli leading and she walking behind him, her eyes on the greasy curls twining over his yellowed shirt collar, her thoughts on what a fright she must look, hair damp, face pasty, hands covered in rust and mud. Over and over and over she wiped her palms on the daisy-patterned dress that had started off so fresh, so full of hope yet again. It had been the last of so many garments in the ‘trousseau’ her mother had ordered for her from the dressmaker before she left the island for
to begin her university studies. A special gift from her mother, and still brand-new, never ever worn, not once in all the years of her Milan exile. It had lived for years stashed in her suitcase on the armoire, waiting for a joyous occasion. After meeting Simon barely a month ago, she’d resurrected the dress from the suitcase and was amazed that it still held the aroma of Milan Sardinia: the dry sage, the curry-like fragrance of that hot, arid island steeped in sun and melancholy. The aromas had reminded her of the day she and her mother had walked home from the dressmaker, laughing together, with the finished sundress, which her mother had insisted on carrying, swaddled like a baby in crisp white paper.
A week ago she had carefully washed and ironed the dress, her heart singing. She’d felt sure the time had finally come, and somewhere her mother was witnessing her child’s happiness at long last. What else, then, could she have worn today, but this dress, soiled and wrinkled and moist now, but still right to clothe her joy?
She and Silvio were nearing the spot where she had first entered the square, and all at once the old soldier and the lost homeland and dear, fatal memory, and Roncalli and the old veteran got mixed up in her mind and she felt pity for the courier. After all, Silvio Roncalli had only
Lena left; he was so vulnerable, just another victim. Or were all men victims? Simon, her own father, Peppe, the group’s leader.... Even the mad, dapper Flavio.
No, she decided arbitrarily, that was wrong. There were two kinds of men in the world.
The first—the quick, clever, educated men—were the leaders, Men like Simon or like
Lena's brother David. Or even Flavio. And they were the worst, especially if they were bright and good, because then they were doomed to lose because they saw too much and never clearly. They couldn’t separate the ideas in their heads from the love in their hearts, thinking confused them and they messed up every time. So the best men were the second kind, the slightly thick, good-hearted men, the inarticulate, loyal, humdrum infantry in love's army who toed the line and didn't ask questions, didn't try and change things, didn't reason too finely, just took care of those they loved. No quibbling, no divided loyalties, no desertion in the ranks, she concluded, frazzled, tagging behind Roncalli as he entered a side street.
The shaded lane was far from the mob in the square, and walking calmly now beside Silvio Roncalli, Sara saw immediately that he was ill. His face was sodden and doughy, and he rubbed his chest continuously, as if manually pumping his heart. Finally, halfway down the lane, he had to stop. She brought him a kitchen chair; he straddled it backwards, his head slumped on his arms. "Keep your head down,” she said, touching the clammy nape of his neck. It had occurred to her that Simon might be in one of these tiny stucco townhouses. Wounded, perhaps. She would have to stop her disjointed thinking and keep her wits about her so she could take care of him, make him well. And
Lena will make Roncalli well, she thought. The courier raised his head and took a dirty rag from his pocket. Now he was mopping his forehead with it. That was when she noticed the deep, dark red splotches on the sleeve of his jacket, and she looked away quickly, looked up at the clotheslines overhead where sheets as gray as Silvio's face swatted the air.
"Is Simon nearby?” she finally asked.
Roncalli shook his head.
"Tell me where he is," she said, "or I'll have to leave you here and go to
Lena.” He looked up, and his dirty cheeks were smudged with tears. “No, no,” he said, “you mustn’t go to Lena.”
So she took a second chair and sat down alongside him. It was quiet in the lane except for the background music drifting in from the square and the sheets above, puffing like giant sails. What an unlikely duo we are, Sara thought. Preposterous, even. The cultured, Jewish, professor’s daughter in her party dress and the consumptive peasant in his bloodstained jacket. But she was objectifying again, staving off the panic inside.
She put her hand in her pocket and took out one of the two talismans Simon had entrusted to her on the night before he left—the objects she had hidden in her night table drawer as rain beat the shutters.
The crinkly borders of the snapshot framed a family photo: mother, father, and two sons mugging on the sidewalk under a shop awning that said, Panetteria Belbosco. It could have been any family in front of any bakery anywhere in
. But it was Simon’s family, and it wasn't Italy Italy but an Italian neighborhood he’d called Federal Hill, in . In the photo, he was a boy of fourteen or fifteen, standing between his mother and younger brother, and he was his parents' height. But as he’d pointed out the other night when they hid the snapshot—he had been munching an apple at the time, and she had leaned over, and, in a kiss, taken the bittersweet fruit pulp from his mouth with her tongue—he was now at least a head taller than they. Providence
The second object, the pin, was a small ruby octagon that nestled in her palm like a dry berry. She poked at the twisted gold chain attached to the octagon until the pearly letters Tau, Beta, and Pi were righted. He had boyishly confessed that this was the name of an M.I.T. engineering honors fraternity, and she’d thought, How American, how typically juvenile. But how endearing he had been, his breath warm on her cheek as he explained the pin's clubby, male significance. She had wanted him again inside her right that moment: no fuss, just him inside her.
He told her he had smuggled the pin and photo in against orders; risked his life for mere objects, some might say. But only those who took reality at face value.
Roncalli seemed to be napping now. Maybe, she thought, it was fitting after all that she and the courier should be together here, at this moment. Roncalli had been the first of the group to meet Simon, she the second. Also, despite their differences, she and the courier had another thing in common: both preferred silence to speech. And never, she thought, had silence been more appropriate than now. Because if no words were heard in the private, still world of the lane, no tree had fallen. But maybe, she thought, Roncalli wasn’t napping. Maybe he was remembering, as she was, the when and the why and the how of this long month. Rembranza sì cara e fatal. Like her own memory scurrying back and forth over every lavish detail that had been this cherished April. And memory was the great consoler. Now, for example, it gave her the patience to wait silently in this lane with the peculiar little man beside her while she thought of the past weeks. They had marked her own rebirth. Love had come to her and she had been happy—joyous—for the first time since the war began. There had been other rebirths too this month: of a season; of a nation; of a continent. Perhaps—why not?--of mankind itself. And any moment now, the slight, ailing man beside her would speak and fill in the blanks; he would reveal how the passionate parade had ended with this absurd twosome alone in a forgotten alley on this bright, last day of April but one.