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[personal profile] belphegor1982
I say I'd come back with a story, didn't I? I just hope the cross-posting thing with LJ works this time. While I did draw a lot in 2016, I published no story at all (not even a drabble) and only tweaked existing WIPs. Yet another thing I'll have to work on this year :o)

This is the first of four (so far) vignettes I wrote in late 2015. The tone is mostly neutral leaning on humour, but since it's set during WW2, drama does sneak in.

Title: Between the Mountains and the Plains
Fandom: Giovanni Guareschi's The Little World of Don Camillo stories
Genre: Humour/drama
Rating: G
SummaryWe only ever get hints in the books and films of what Don Camillo's and Peppone's clandestine activities were during the German occupation. Here's my take on the idea.
Chapter: 1. 
The Nazis didn’t spare sleepy little villages when they invaded Northern Italy. Hard times means hard decisions have to be made.

Una mattina, mi sono svegliato
O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao, ciao, ciao,
Una mattina, mi sono svegliato
E ho trovato l’invasor

 

(I woke up one morning
Oh lovely farewell, farewell, farewell
I woke up one morning
And found the invaders on my land…)

Unknown composer/lyricist, Bella Ciao

September 1943

When the German tanks came rolling through the village after ripping through the fields and leaving deep furrows in the gravel roads, some of the people took up their children, locked their doors and peered out from behind the blinds, while the rest stood in the streets, dismayed, wondering whether the world was ending.

Don Camillo stood near the door of the church with his hands on his hips, smoking his usual half-cigar, staring at the river of verdigris and dust with narrowed eyes.

Then he strode to the bell tower to sound the death knell.

The gloomy song of the bells was nearly loud enough to drown out the racket of the armoured cars and tanks that rattled every window in town.
* * *
In the end, most of the trucks passed on to other towns, leaving behind a cloud of dry dust, damaged roads, and a German captain with a detachment of about seventy soldiers. They took quarters in one of the best (and only) villas around, the villa Docchi, while the Docchis took quarters in their own basement; then the captain summoned Signor Torconi, the mayor, to explain that the town’s and surrounding farms’ and rural areas’ business activity would remain unimpeded.
“Just go about your normal business,” said the captain. “We’re only here to make sure things are run smoothly.”

The next day, they arrested two of the more virulent subversives that the Fascist authorities had either overlooked or left alone so far.

The day after that, they arrested three more.

The prisoners were kept in the villa for a while, then put on a truck and sent to the city. Or so it was said. Nobody could check.

People who had, at some point in the past twenty years, found themselves in even the slightest bit of trouble with the Fascists quickly caught on and started to disappear. The Germans knocked down their doors, interrogated their families, and searched their houses from basement to attic (when they had one); they were gone.

Those who had the most luck managed to take refuge in the mountains some fifty or sixty kilometres in the south, where small bands of guerillas were beginning to form against the Nazi invaders and the Fascists authorities. The poor devils who were caught were shipped north to the border on trains people only talked about in whispers.
* * *
Of course, soon enough, the Germans came for Peppone.

Peppone had always been a staunch Communist, which was a dangerous position to have in Mussolini’s Italy, even in a little village where everyone is grateful not to have to go kilometres away for a blacksmith or a mechanic. Since Peppone was both, and damn good at both jobs at that, the local Blackshirts had mostly left him alone so far.

He had taken a few beatings, seen the inside of a jail a few times, and often wondered if the prickling sensation between his shoulder blades was just paranoia or somebody waiting at the next corner with a gun and a bullet with his name on it, but he had never changed his tune.

Peppone was in the habit of going to the Osteria della Secchia, a small tavern just outside the village, and challenge people to scopa for a bottle of cognac which the loser would buy. Usually it meant that whoever played against him ended up sharing the bottle and paying, because almost nobody could beat Peppone at a game of cards.

Nobody, except Giacomo, one of the village’s most prominent Blackshirts, who was responsible for quite a few beatings around town and was very liberal with a truncheon and a bottle of castor oil. He had never paid for a single bottle of cognac in fifteen years.

This drove Peppone crazy even more than the beatings. Those could be chalked up to politics; cards were a sort of duel of wills and poker faces, though, and that was another matter entirely.

Also, every time he played against Giacomo and lost, people laughed behind his back for a while. This hurt worse than any truncheon.

Giacomo had made himself very scarce since the Fascist débâcle in July, but he was still around. A couple of days after the Germans invaded, Peppone went to the tavern, hoping to find him and take his revenge. The only potential challenger he found was Don Camillo, who was sitting at a table outside in the shade of a trellis covered in grapevines.

They stared at each other, glowering half-heartedly – it was still too hot to glare with the proper fire anyway – and Don Camillo gave a small nod. Peppone drew a chair, sat at his table and drew a pack of cards.

“Scopa?”

“Be my guest. For a bottle of cognac?”

“Eh.”

They played fiercely for a long time. Peppone was a master, but Don Camillo was a formidable adversary. Every now and then they muttered darkly what the innkeeper thought were imprecations and taunts. He shrugged it off, thinking that at least they weren’t throwing benches at each other.

He would have been at the very least mildly surprised had he been able to hear their conversation.

“The mountains wouldn’t be a bad idea if you can reach them. I think Bicci has a cousin who has a little farm outside of Roccaverde. If she can be trusted, she might be able to help with food and supplies.”

“Don Camillo, I can’t leave now with Germans still crawling all over the countryside. And what about Maria and the kids?”

They’ve never been members of the Communist Party, have they? Peppone, you won’t be of much help to them if you get arrested.”

“The way things are going right now, I’ll be lucky if I just get thrown in jail again,” muttered Peppone. “One of these days you’ll hear someone found my body in a ditch somewhere.”

“Don’t be absurd,” said Don Camillo sharply. “If it’s the Germans who arrest you, no-one will even find your body.”

Peppone wiped the sweat off his brow and focused on the cards in his hands.

He won, and Don Camillo paid for the cognac. Each man drank his half of the bottle and went off his own way without a word.

The innkeeper sighed with relief, satisfied that nothing had got broken this time.
* * *
A week later, the Germans came to Peppone’s workshop; it was closed, so they went to his house and searched everywhere. Peppone’s wife stood very straight in the middle of the kitchen, watching her home being torn apart, with Tonino gripping his little sister Lucia’s hand, Beppo trying in vain to hide in her skirts, and Marco squirming in her arms. It was difficult to say whose face was whiter.

The Germans didn’t find anything. Peppone had been gone for four days and nobody had seen neither hide nor hair of him since.

Then a helpful soul or two – as there usually are in that kind of situation – wrote an anonymous letter to the German Kommandantur to point out that one of the last people seen talking with Peppone had been the parish priest.

That afternoon, a German sergeant knocked on the door of the rectory. When the door opened he saw a giant of a man in a black cassock with a half-cigar in his mouth and a dark look on his face. Nobody would have blamed him for taking a step back in alarm. Which he did.

Then he took a piece of paper from his pocket and read out slowly, “What do you know of a Giuseppe Bottazzi?”

The effort of translation was commendable, even if the verb didn’t match the pronoun and the pronunciation was painful on an Italian’s ears. Don Camillo shook the ashes off his cigar and spoke slowly, detaching his syllables.

“I know I lost a bottle of cognac to him last week. Why?”

The German blinked and looked down at his paper again.

“We have received word that you may know the whereabouts of a Giuseppe Bottazzi or may be conspiring to hide said Giuseppe Bottazzi to the German military administration.”

Don Camillo laughed in his face.

“Me, hiding that godless Bolshevik? What does this look like to you,” he added, pointing to the church with a large gesture that almost knocked the German sergeant down, “the Kremlin? Do you have any idea what the Soviets did to priests in Russia?”

If the German sergeant had understood everything, he might have remembered old Pater Stefan, from his native town of Illesdorf, whom the Gestapo had come for one day and whom nobody had ever seen again. But since he only caught one word out of three, he stared up at Don Camillo and held up his paper again in a hand that was trembling slightly.

Don Camillo took pity on him and took the paper from his hands.

“May I? It’ll be quicker.”

He rummaged in his pockets and found a pencil stub with which he wrote on the back of the paper, If you ever find that individual, please make sure to hang him publicly as I promised him I would be there to watch him get strung up from a lamppost. He would do me the same courtesy and told me so many times. Signed, Don Camillo, parish priest of Brescello.

The German sergeant looked at the paper, then at Don Camillo’s face, then fled as quickly as his dignity allowed.

Don Camillo watched him go and went up directly to the rectory attic where he had been hiding Peppone since his disappearance.

“I think I bought some time, but they’ll probably be back tomorrow. I have to get you out of here.”

Peppone, unshaven and pale with dark smudges under his eyes, looked a fright. Worry for his wife and children had been eating away at him so much that he had scarcely slept or eaten for four days.

“What about them?” he asked anxiously.

Don Camillo didn’t have to ask who ‘they’ were. “They’re shaken and worried sick, but the Germans don’t seem to do anything other than keep an eye on them. Might be that the Germans think you’re gone for good; or maybe they don’t consider you important enough to be worth reprisals.”

Any other time, this would have drawn an explosive reaction out of Peppone. This time, though, he just kept staring into space with such a haunted look in his eyes that Don Camillo felt sorry for him. He drew up a dusty crate and sat down in front of his old enemy.

“They’ll be fine, Peppone,” he said gently. “They’re at your mother’s. You know she’s always glad to have her daughter-in-law and grandchildren around.”

“Father, if anything happens to them, I—”

“I know. Nothing will happen to them as long as I draw breath.”

“You swear?”

“I swear.”

Don Camillo had never made a promise he couldn’t keep and Peppone knew this. He drew a shaky breath. The next one came easier.

“What’ll you do, once you leave town?”

“A week ago I told Brusco to meet me at the train station in Reggio at noon on the twenty-first if things got ugly.”

“I should have known that old rascal would be in on it. He’s always followed you everywhere. You’re not thinking of taking the train, though, are you?”

“No, I’ll cut across fields. It’s just a matter of five or six hours. Then same thing to Marola, and I know someone there who can get us in touch with someone else.”

“Good.”

There was a pause.

“So… You’re going to stroll through the countryside for five or six hours to get to Reggio before noon tomorrow.”

“What’s your point, Father?”

“You’re not exactly inconspicuous, you know.”

“I know,” muttered Peppone, who was well aware that, between his hefty figure, bushy moustache, and, admittedly, his temper and his big mouth, he was instantly recognisable by a lot of people within a six or seven kilometre radius.

Don Camillo rubbed his chin and looked at him thoughtfully.

“I might have an idea. But you won’t like it. Neither do I, come to think of it, but it just might keep you from being arrested between here and Reggio.”

“Let’s hear it, then.”

Don Camillo told him. Peppone jumped on his feet, fists clenched tightly.

“Ah, no!” he almost yelled, but checked himself in time. The effort he had to make in order not to shout was making him red in the face. “Not a bloody chance!” he said fiercely when he was sure his voice wouldn’t come out too loud. “I won’t disgrace myself like that!”

“Disgrace yourself?” Don Camillo hissed back, standing up as well and coming practically nose-to-nose with Peppone. “That’s the least of my worries! Do you know how many of my principles this would go against? Not to mention the rules!”

Peppone’s anger unexpectedly faded as quick as it had come, and he smirked.

“You’ve never been much of a stickler for rules, though.”

“Depends which ones,” muttered Don Camillo. He crossed his arms and looked Peppone in the eye. “So. What do you say?”

“I don’t really have a choice, do I?”

Don Camillo shook his head with a wry expression.

“Then lend me your razor and let’s get this over with.”
* * *
The next day, Brusco was standing on the quay, waiting. Every now and then, he shot a discreet look at the clock on the wall.

Five past twelve. Peppone was late.

Brusco resolved to wait at least until the 2:15 train arrived. He dug in his pockets for his pack of cigarettes and turned downwind to light a match, almost bumping into a big man all in black coming from inside the station.

“Sorry, Reverend,” he said distractedly, taking another match to replace the one he’d dropped in the near-collision. Then he looked up. His jaw dropped and this time both cigarette and match fell to the ground.

“Boss!?” he whispered, thunderstruck. “What… Why are you dressed up like that?”

“Covert operation tactics. Now come on.”

“But where did you find that cassock?”

“Mind your own business!”

Brusco, despite his nickname, knew when not to push a sensitive matter. He fell into step behind Peppone and, to save breath and avoid unpleasant reactions, didn’t bring up the subject of Peppone’s moustache once during the long walk to Marola.
* * *
After Peppone had gone, Don Camillo went into the church to kneel in front of the crucified Christ on the main altar.

“Lord,” he said earnestly, “please watch over them. I know them; they have good hearts, for all that they’re Communists. They’re good men, who have families depending on them, and I have a feeling things are going to get ugly before this mess is over.”

“I will, Don Camillo,” said Christ with a smile. “I always do.”

“And I hope You’ll forgive me for lending Peppone my spare cassock. Clothes don’t make the man, not really. As long as he doesn’t try to marry or baptise anyone, he’s not really impersonating a minister of God.”

“There is nothing to forgive, Don Camillo. You were only trying to save a man’s life.”

Don Camillo smiled. He stood up, made the sign of the cross, and walked to the door; but Christ’s voice called him back.

“I have one question, though.”

“What’s that?” asked Don Camillo, spinning on his heel to face the crucifix again.

“Was it really necessary for Peppone to shave off his moustache?”

“Well,” said Don Camillo seriously, “he had to look authentic. Besides, everybody who knows Peppone knows he has a moustache and hates priests, so they’re not going to look for a priest without a moustache, are they?”

“Those are very good points. And I know you are a good man who would not laugh at his neighbour’s misfortune.”

“Absolutely,” said Don Camillo, who had barely had time to duck into another room before he burst out laughing at the sight of a moustache-less Peppone. Since he had not closed the door, however, and come back wiping his streaming eyes, Peppone had glared at him almost right until they parted ways at the crossroads between the road to Molinetto and the old path to Reggio, around three o’clock in the morning.

“I’ll want this back,” he had said to Peppone, poking at the old, faded cassock. “You know it’s the only other one I own.”

“You’ll have to come up there and get it, then,” Peppone had said gruffly, his tone almost hopeful.

“Maybe I will.”

“Until next time, then.”

Peppone had walked off determinedly, and Don Camillo remained at the crossroads for a long time, long after his bulky figure had faded into the darkness.

“You’d better make sure there is a next time,” he mumbled, not really knowing if he was addressing Peppone or himself.

Then he went home to his bed, but couldn’t get any sleep until it was time for morning Mass anyway.
______________________________________________________
Under the Fascists, cities were run by a “podestà”, appointed by the National Fascist Party, instead of an elected local government. With the end of WW2 and the return to democracy, citizens went back to electing a mayor (“sindaco”, in Italian) and a city council.

I'm still figuring out the formatting - lost the habit of having to tweak it. I hope you like the story!

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