Third snippet already! Hopefully by the next one I'll have figured how to post with a cut and get it right in one go. Honestly, it's like I lost every LJ skill I had D: Anyway.
Title: Between the Mountains and the Plains
Fandom: Giovanni Guareschi's The Little World of Don Camillo stories
Summary: We 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: 3. With December come bad news. Hope is not always found at the bottom of a box, but some people may find it there anyway.
A Natale, freddo cordiale.
(At Christmas, the cold is friendly [meaning, it gets colder afterwards].)
The second time Don Camillo went up to the mountains to celebrate Mass for the partisans, he almost stumbled on a German patrol and had to hide for an hour behind the bramble bush in which he had hidden Pasotti’s motorcycle. He spent a tense fifteen minutes while the Germans lurked near the old, rotting tree that Aldo had decided to use as a clandestine letter box. In the end, though, they headed back in the direction of Roccaverde, and Don Camillo could retrieve the directions to the partisan camp in the form of a piece of paper tightly folded in eight.
The camp was a half an hour’s walk to the North-West, almost in the plains. Don Camillo set off, holding the large and quite heavy basket he had brought close and praying that nobody would get curious enough to inspect the contents.
Fortunately nobody did, and once Don Camillo arrived safely – relatively speaking – at his intended destination, he wiped the sweat off his brow and put down the basket (and, admittedly, the altar box) with a sigh of relief.
Inside it were salami, fresh bread, a big chunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano and two bottles of Lambrusco, covered up with woollen scarves and gloves all knitted by loving mothers, sisters and wives, and half a dozen envelopes.
The partisans stared in wonder at the cornucopia for thirty whole seconds. It was hard to say what touched them most between the messages, the specially knitted items of clothing or the sacrifice of so much food, a magnificent gift indeed in a time of restrictions. The light that shone in their eyes as they filled their lungs with the aroma of the salami and the cheese, carrying the touch of warm sunshine on the river bank, the sound of threshers working in the fields, and the general feel of family and home, made Don Camillo forget about his aching back and shoulders.
Mass was interrupted at some point by the sound of gunfire, muffled by distance. Don Camillo, focused like he usually was, heard nothing, and only noticed something was amiss when everybody scrambled to their feet and grabbed the nearest weapon they could find. Nothing else happened, though, and a few minutes later Don Camillo could hurry through the rest of the Mass. He didn’t skip one word nor change one comma, and ended up completely winded.
During the trip back to the motorcycle his heart hammered in his chest as he listened for the sounds of gunshots and screams that, fortunately, never came.
Needless to say, he didn’t sleep a wink that night.
* * *
“Did our boy get the gloves?” asked Smilzo’s mother anxiously when she came to confession a few days later.
“I made sure he did,” said Don Camillo. “He sends his love and his thanks, by the way.”
“Thank you. It must be getting very cold up there.”
“Well, they have their ways of warming themselves up.” The last expedition Aldo had sent his men on had been to blow up a bridge on the Enza river near Castellana in order to stop an ammunition convoy from Parma to Reggio. Not only had they been successful, but they had got their hands on a substantial amount of weapons.
Smilzo’s mother smiled through the lattice.
“That’s good. And at least our boy isn’t a prisoner in Russia like the Bianchis’ Libero, thank the Lord. Or in Germany like the Morinis’ Giorgino.”
Don Camillo thought about the gunfire in the night, and said nothing.
* * *
The first snow of the year fell on Saint Lucy’s Day. Around the same time came rumours that the Germans had caught ten partisans in a nearby village and executed them. Not by hanging or firing squad, too; the Germans had just lined them up in the street, shot each of them a couple of times in the head, and left the corpses to rot for thirty-six hours before finally allowing the local people to bury them.
The falling snow might as well have been lead. The whole town was shrouded in a cold blanket of fear and silence. Every single person who had a relative in the mountains – a brother, a father, a son, a husband, a cousin, an uncle, a nephew – felt the sword of Damocles hanging over their hearts. The same harrowing question haunted their minds: Is he dead? Was he among the ten?
When a list of names was finally compiled somehow and it turned out that, while some of the men killed had been friends and acquaintances, they had no family ties with anyone in the village, whole families breathed a sigh of the terrible, guilty relief that comes with thinking, At least it’s not him.
And then five days later the Fascists caught and killed four more partisans in another town ten kilometres to the west, among whom was Giulio Accorsi, a young man from the village who had gone to the mountains to fight the Germans and the Blackshirts and avoid being drafted into Mussolini’s army.
His parents were tenant farmers at the Ciottoli, a farm about three kilometres from the town centre; they were quiet people who had worked hard all their lives and never shown the slightest bit of interest in politics. Nevertheless, they put on their best clothes and went to ask the podestà how they could retrieve their son’s body in order to bury him decently. Signor Torconi looked at them, embarrassed, and promised to do his very best.
Unfortunately, his very best wasn’t enough, so the Accorsis, still wearing their Sunday best, went to the Kommandantur and asked the German authorities for their son’s body – or at least the location of his grave. The German captain, in a civil enough but final tone, explained that this was a matter of political terrorism and that such matters did not come under his jurisdiction. And he had them escorted out.
When they showed up in church for Mass the next Sunday, with red eyes and solemn faces, along with their youngest – now only – son, people stared at them or avoided their eyes in a mixture of compassion and discomfort. They were not the only family in the village who had lost someone to the war, but they were the first whose child had been killed on Italian soil, and by Italians.
It was as though the grief had dug a trench between the Accorsis and the village: some of those who had family in the mountains gave them a wide berth, as though death of relatives was something you caught by standing too close to someone, while some of the others shook their heads sadly as if to say, ‘Here’s what happens when people value politics over common sense!’
That Sunday, Don Camillo ended his sermon by enjoining the assembly to pray for the soul of the “late honest Giulio Accorsi, may the Lord receive him in His kingdom.” Giulio’s little brother, eleven year old Matteo, glared at the ground during the prayer as though he meant to burn the tears away.
After Mass, Guglielmo Fantoni, who had remained faithful to the black shirt and the attitude despite what had happened in July through September, walked up to Don Camillo and said, “Reverend, that was very generous of you, but not very wise.”
“Well, the man didn’t fall off a ladder fixing a roof. He died as a consequence of his criminal actions.”
“Look, this whole thing is lousy with politics and you should do well to keep out of it.”
“I don’t do politics, my son, I do souls.”
And Don Camillo saluted Fantoni and walked away.
“Jesus,” he said later to the crucified Christ on the main altar, “must those poor devils be denied everything, even a Christian burial? That man’s family and loved ones can’t even accompany his body to the cemetery and bury him with his grandparents. How is that fair?”
“Of course it’s not fair, Don Camillo. But such is the will of the men in charge.”
“But Lord, surely Your will must account for something! Can’t You try to illuminate their minds, or at least tell them to do the right thing and allow grieving parents to bury their child? Qui habet aures audiendi audiat1!”
“There is none so deaf as he who will not hear,” said Jesus sadly. “You know that.”
Don Camillo threw out his arms and took a deep breath to rant properly, but at that moment, the door of the church opened and Matteo Accorsi slipped in.
“I’ve come to light a candle for my brother,” he said in a too-hard voice. The grief in his blazing eyes was almost hidden behind a dark defiance that was painful to see on his usually smiling face.
Don Camillo silently stepped aside. He watched the boy light one of the little votive candles and put it among the larger tapers. Matteo stared at the little dancing flame for a minute or two; then he wiped his eyes on his sleeve and looked pleadingly at Don Camillo.
“Please don’t tell anyone it’s for him,” he said in a slightly trembling voice. Then he took off almost at a run, as though afraid someone would catch him, and closed the door behind him.
Don Camillo stared at the door long after Matteo had gone.
“Jesus,” he said thoughtfully after a while, “if I was about to do something foolish, would You warn me not to do it?”
“Undoubtedly, Don Camillo,” said Jesus with a slight smile, “but would you listen?”
* * *
The first snow of the winter had been mild enough, compared to some other years; it held off on trees and grass, but had melted for the most part on the roads, turning them into long straight ribbons of slush and pebbles. Don Camillo had got used to riding these roads on his bicycle long ago, and knew the correct balance between speed and caution. It didn’t prevent him from getting his trousers and cassock muddy up to his knees, however.
He had let Matteo’s little candle burn, pocketed an unlit one, and set off on his bicycle for the village where Giulio Accorsi and the other partisans had been executed. The weather was the very picture of a gloomy winter’s Sunday afternoon, the kind that makes children depressed about the prospect of yet another school week and adults melancholic for reasons they often don’t fully understand. The fog, never quite gone in this season, lingered on, making the horizon slightly blurry every way you looked and leeching all colours from the landscape. Even the little blue or red houses of the town in the distance, so similar to Don Camillo’s village, appeared muted.
Don Camillo’s first stop was the church, but the parish priest was away. So he got back on his bicycle and headed for the cemetery.
He found the gravedigger bent over a tombstone, clipping dead flowers left over from All Saints’ Day.
“Excuse me,” said Don Camillo, “but I’m looking for a recent grave.”
“Of course, Reverend. How recent?”
“Sometime around last Wednesday? Actually, I meant graves. Four of them.”
The gravedigger put down his pruning shears and took off his hat to scratch his forehead.
“You won’t find them here,” he said finally. “Two days after the executions Don Antonio managed to get authorisation to bury the bodies, but the local Blackshirts wanted to make an example of ‘em and forbade us to bury them in the cemetery. So they made me dig a hole on the outskirts and dumped the corpses there.”
“Could you show me?”
The gravedigger looked embarrassed.
“I could, but… There’s not much to see. Just a heap of dirt without even a headstone and four unlucky buggers underneath. I did my best to dig a good, clean grave, but in the end, without the trappings that make it a tomb, a grave’s just another hole in the earth… Did you know these lads?”
“One of them was a parishioner of mine.”
“I’m sorry, then, Father. Maybe when this whole mess is over we’ll be able to bury them in hallowed grounds, but in the meantime, there’s nothing I can do for you.”
“You can still tell me how to get there,” insisted Don Camillo. The gravedigger put the pruning shears in his pocket and his hat back on his head, and muttered:
“All right, I’ll show you the way. But we’ll be making a detour. I don’t want the village gossips to see you, and I especially don’t want the Blackshirts to know I’ve helped you. They’d find me, and they’d find you, and we’d both end up in trouble.”
Don Camillo shrugged, and followed him, holding his bicycle by the handlebar.
As the gravedigger had said, the mass grave was on the outskirts of the village, almost in the fields; it should have taken them no more than five minutes to reach it from the cemetery, but the gravedigger was taking no chances. When they finally got there, he pointed at a fallow field.
“Here they are,” he said soberly.
It barely deserved to be called a grave.
Stretching in front of the two men was a vast meadow lined with hedges that, in the right season, must be covered in weeds and wild flowers. Now, though, it was a picture of desolation, with snow lingering on bare loam. The only sign of recent activity was a large patch of freshly-turned earth, darker than the rest, on top of which someone had placed six or seven small stones, similar to the ones children chose for ricochets, in the form of a cross.
Don Camillo thought about the expression in Matteo Accorsi’s eyes and on his parents’ faces earlier that day, and about these four men, one of whom he knew and three he didn’t, resting here without a name or a prayer, shunned as though they had the plague.
He swallowed the lump in his throat with an effort, opened his breviary, and whispered, “Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetuus luceat eis…”
The gravedigger, recognising the Mass for the Dead, took off his hat and bowed his head.
By the time Don Camillo made the sign of the cross and closed his breviary, four o’clock were ringing at the village bell tower. In the grey, gloomy afternoon the tolls were just mournful enough to sound like a death knell.
Don Camillo took the little candle from his pocket and dug a small hole in the soil to shelter it from the wind. When he lit it, the flame flickered and trembled, but quickly grew stronger; it was still burning when he got back to his bicycle and made to leave.
“Reverend,” said the gravedigger, frowning, “you’re going the wrong way if you want to go home.”
“I’m not going home yet. I’m going back. Where does the podestà live?”
“The pod—? What on earth do you think you’re doing?”
“These men must have had personal effects on them when they were captured then killed. Unless they were buried with them, someone must have them in their possession. These men’s families deserve to keep something of theirs. The podestà will know.”
“Reverend,” panted the gravedigger, walking briskly to keep up with Don Camillo, “you’re crazy.”
“Probably. Now where does he live?”
The gravedigger stopped, forcing Don Camillo to do the same, and remained silent for a while, as though weighing his options. Then he shook his head.
“The podestà won’t be of any help. He didn’t order the executions and he wasn’t there to witness the deaths. You’ll want to see Davide Marchetti. He’s in charge of these things here and he gave the order to shoot.”
“Where can I find him?”
“Strada San Felice, number 6. Please don’t involve me in any way,” he muttered.
“I still think you’re crazy, Father. But God help you all the same.”
“We’ll see,” said Don Camillo, and he got back on the saddle and pedalled away. Nothing short of a Panzer division could have stopped him now.
Number 6 on Strada San Felice was a small but respectable two-up-two-down with a little garden around it. Don Camillo knocked on the door; the owner turned out to be a thirty-something man with a boyish face and thin, hard lips, wearing a nondescript grey shirt instead of the regulation black uniform. He frowned suspiciously when Don Camillo introduced himself.
“What can I do for you, then, Reverend?”
“For me? Nothing. I’ve just come to retrieve the personal effects of the men killed here last week to give them back to their families.”
Marchetti’s expression grew darker.
“No men were killed here last week. Only bandits and terrorists.”
“Still, they had worldly possessions, didn’t they?”
“I fail to see how that concerns you.”
“It concerns grieving families, including some of my parishioners, therefore it concerns me.”
Marchetti crossed his arms and stood his ground. Not letting in a visitor in that manner was astoundingly impolite, but that seemed to be the last thing on his mind right now. His hand tensed on the door, and Don Camillo instinctively prepared to wedge his foot in.
“They were searched after they were captured,” he finally said haughtily, apparently painfully aware that his undone collar and the stain of grease from lunch on the lapel of his jacket made him lack a certain gravitas – although he appeared the kind of man who did not need gravitas to have authority as long as he had a gun. “But they had no personal effects of any kind. Probably in order to make it harder for us to identify them.”
Until then, Don Camillo had managed to stay calm and collected enough to push down the slowly-mounting anger that the sight of the sad ‘grave’ had sparked up. But now he was finding it more and more difficult.
“You’re lying,” he said with all the self-control he could muster. “I know for a fact that one of them had a tin cigarette case he had carved his initials on – G.A. – and a watch that was his most precious possession. There was a photograph of his parents and little brother in it and he carried it everywhere. He would have kept it to the end, and I’d be very surprised if the other men didn’t have keepsakes like that as well.”
Marchetti went pale.
“How dare you call me a liar! Do you have the slightest idea who I am?”
“You could be Rodolfo Graziani2 for all I care! These men’s families can’t even bury their children, fathers, brothers or husbands, on your order, and you won’t even give them what little they had in their pockets!”
“I should arrest you right now for subversion!”
“This isn’t about politics, it’s about basic decency!” shouted Don Camillo. “Would you loot the dead on a battlefield?”
Marchetti’s hand drifted instinctively at his waist where, presumably, his gun should have been. Before either he or Don Camillo could add or do anything, however, something bolted along the corridor and attached itself to Marchetti’s right leg. It turned out to be a round-faced little boy with a shock of brown hair and an excited smile underneath.
“Daddy,” he said, tugging at his trouser leg, “it’s your turn now.” Then he looked up at Don Camillo and added, as though it was the most natural thing in the world, “We’re playing soldiers and the King needs Leonardo da Vinci to win against Napoleon Bonaparte.”
The silence between the two men was charged with electricity. But the little boy was looking up intently at each of them in turn, so Don Camillo unclenched his jaw with an effort. “Of course he does,” he said, as neutrally as he could.
Marchetti put his hand on his son’s head and said quietly, “I’ll be a minute, Luca. Why don’t you have the troops rest a while? A good general knows when to spare his soldiers.”
“Oh, all right.”
They both watched the mildly disappointed boy trot away, then locked eyes again.
The anger was still there, bubbling up on the surface, but Don Camillo felt somewhat less inclined to grab a chair and break it on the man’s head. From the looks of it, Marchetti seemed a little less inclined to shoot him, as well.
“How old is he?” asked Don Camillo in a low voice.
“Just turned five.”
“No, his little brother is pushing two.”
The silence that fell then was leaden rather than explosive. When Don Camillo broke it, it was still on a much quieter tone than before.
“One of the dead men’s parents begged the local German authorities for their child’s body. They were denied. And today a little boy just twice your oldest’s age sneaked into the church to light a candle because he couldn’t do it on his brother’s tomb.”
“It’s not my fault if that boy’s brother threw his life away.”
“Maybe, but it’ll be your fault if that young man’s brother and parents don’t have anything to remember him by. Those are poor people who don’t even own the land they till. That watch wasn’t particularly valuable, but it had been in the family for three generations.”
Marchetti’s lips were still pursed, but some of the fire had gone out from his eyes. “Let’s say those men did have things like that. Watches, pictures – scraps. Giving them back to their families won’t make them any less dead.”
“No. But it will help them face the day and sleep at night. It might help you, too, in that respect.”
Marchetti scoffed at that. “I sleep very well at night, Reverend.”
“I really hope you’re lying again,” said Don Camillo coldly, “for your soul’s sake.”
Marchetti glared daggers at him and didn’t reply. He disappeared inside for a few seconds, then came back, took his coat and his hat off the peg and stormed out. Don Camillo followed him.
They stopped in front of an imposing two-storey building that looked nothing less than monumental compared to the smaller houses surrounding it. The current flag, the tricolore with the eagle and the fasces3, hung miserably above the door in the total absence of wind. Marchetti made a sudden halt on the threshold and ordered Don Camillo to “wait here” in a tone that brooked no refusal.
Don Camillo shrugged, and waited.
And waited some more.
Just as his toes were starting to curl from the cold despite his woollen socks, Marchetti came out, slamming the door shut behind him. He thrust a cardboard box into Don Camillo’s arms, snarling, “Now go back to hell or wherever you came from! I don’t ever want to see you here again!”
“You’d better make sure that you don’t kill more of my parishioners, then,” retorted Don Camillo imperturbably. “Have you ever thought of giving your prisoners fair trials instead of summary executions?”
Fury made Marchetti go so absolutely pale even his lips went white. He opened his mouth, but no sound came out; he clenched his fists convulsively, turned on his heel, and strode on back home. Don Camillo took off his hat with the hand that wasn’t holding the box and called after him, “My best to your family, of course.”
Marchetti didn’t even slow down his pace.
He disappeared round a street corner, and Don Camillo opened the box to have a look at the contents. Giulio’s watch and cigarette case were there, along with a yellow-cover penny novel, a few wallets emptied of any cash, some dog-eared photographs, one wristwatch and two pocket watches, and a pair of glasses.
Four men’s lives and deaths, reduced to intertwined bones in a common grave and odds and ends in a little box. Scraps, Marchetti had said.
It gave a sad and desperately lonely feeling.
The thought had Don Camillo gaze down for a long moment, half at the box and half at the ground, and sigh. Then he pulled himself together and walked off with renewed determination back to where he had left his bicycle.
Don Antonio, the local parish priest, had only just got back to the rectory when Don Camillo knocked energetically on his door. After the usual introductions and a quick explanation as to what he was doing there, Don Camillo gave the box to Don Antonio.
“Keep the contents safe,” he said, “and pass the word around for these men’s families so they may come and collect them. I’ll do the same to the best of my abilities, but they died here, so you’ll probably be the one their families will go to for answers.”
“But I don’t know who they were!” protested Don Antonio, looking at the names on the papers in the wallets. “I think this one was from a hamlet not far from here, but –”
“You mean a hamlet from your parish?”
“I believe so, yes.”
“And you didn’t know him?”
“I haven’t been in this parish for a very long time. I used to live further north. But I know what those people do to priests…”
Don Camillo frowned, perplexed. “I didn’t hear anything about partisans going after priests.”
“I mean the Germans, Don Camillo! And since they invaded the local Fascists are doing everything they can to ingratiate themselves with them. There’s… I’ve heard things…”
Don Antonio was a tall man with a somewhat square frame, but since he was a little flabby and currently quite pale, he gave the overall impression of having been carved out of a slab of butter. The sweat beads that ran down his temples only confirmed the mental image.
Don Camillo had heard things, too, and more. He couldn’t blame the man.
Nevertheless, he looked him in the eye and said calmly, “There are things that must be done and you’re the only one who can do them around here. Don’t be afraid.5.”
Don Antonio stared at him in disbelief, and Don Camillo quickly rectified: “Well, actually, it’s not bad to be a little afraid as long as it helps you keep on your toes. Just don’t let it show.”
Don Antonio let out a mirthless laugh. “And if… ‘disgruntled parishioners’ come knocking on my door?”
“Do you have a rifle somewhere? Grenades, maybe? You know, failing that, I’ve found that a very large stick usually does the trick.”
“No stick ever stopped bullets, no matter how large.”
“That’s why it’s important to make sure that people don’t reach for their guns in the first place.”
Don Antonio eyed Don Camillo as though he was not sure whether he meant preventing violence in the first place or exerting some pre-emptively, and, to be honest, Don Camillo himself wasn’t certain, either. Both usually worked for him equally well. But when he got out of the rectory and back on his bicycle, Don Camillo had Giulio’s watch and cigarette case in the pocket of his coat, and the box and its meagre but oh-so-precious contents were safely in the care of Don Antonio, who had sworn on the Cross to pass them on to the dead men’s families, no matter what.
Snowflakes were drifting down again on the road back to Brescello; the cold fell as humidity rose from the still damp ground.
In the bare meadow outside of town, the little candle burned on until well after sundown.
* * *
The next day, Don Camillo went to the Ciottoli and gave Giulio Accorsi’s parents their elder son’s watch and cigarette case. They stared at the two objects and thanked Don Camillo in a low voice that trembled with tears.
Young Matteo looked at them, too, his expression even darker than it had been the previous morning. Clearly he had had time to do a lot of thinking.
“Did you find out who killed Giulio?” he asked on a tone that was a perfect mirror of his face. Don Camillo stared at him, preoccupied.
“No,” he finally answered. It wasn’t even a lie; it had been Davide Marchetti who had given the order, but he had no idea who had pulled the trigger. “But they won’t evade justice forever.” And should they manage to slip through the net of human justice, he thought, at least they will never escape divine retribution.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Matteo in a cold, clipped voice that sent chills down Don Camillo’s spine. “When I grow up, I will find them and kill them.”
“Matteo!” exclaimed his mother, shocked, while his father stared at him with bottomless grief in his eyes.
A long but fruitless conversation ensued, at the end of which Don Camillo went back home, lost in thought and deeply unhappy. As usual when this was the case, he stopped by the church and strode back and forth before the main altar.
“What sort of world are we living in,” he finally said vehemently after five minutes straight of furious pacing, “that men can kill their own countrymen with total impunity, deny their enemies’ mortal remains even the most basic of decencies, and poison a little boy’s mind with hate until all that boy can think of is vengeance? Matteo Accorsi is so dead set on killing the ones responsible for his brother’s death that he won’t even let himself grieve properly! And he’s ten years old!”
“Precisely, Don Camillo,” said Jesus calmly. “He’s still young. Time doesn’t make sorrow disappear, but it does dull the pain and drain poison from wounds like these. In time, he will come to his senses.”
“But Lord, supposing he doesn’t? Supposing he grows up, finds whoever shot his brother dead that day and kills the man?” The image of little Luca Marchetti, all beaming grin and brown curls, popped up unexpectedly in his mind. Should partisans kill his father, would he grow up with hate in his heart, as well, and want revenge? Where would it all stop?
Don Camillo stopped pacing and sat heavily on a pew. He let his chin drop into his hands and muttered darkly, “War is one giant ugly mess only good for leaving behind lots of other ugly messes.”
Then he blinked, paused, and shook his head. “Goodness. I sound just like Peppone.”
Peppone had come back from the front lines in 1918 with a deep and sincere loathing for war and everything related, and frankly Don Camillo could not fault him for that, having left a few pints of blood and some of his illusions in the rocky, icy trenches6 himself. But where the man’s hatred of war was genuine and legitimate, the Communist in Peppone utilised it to dubious purposes. Stalin had spent the Thirties advocating a twisted version of the old adage “Si vis pacem, para bellum”7, being very vocal about desiring nothing but peace even though his home and foreign politics showed another reality entirely. The Communist factions all over the world had, naturally, followed the Party line, including the clandestine Italian cells.
Of course, Hitler’s attack on USSR two years ago and the Italian armistice last September, followed by the double invasion – first by the Allies in the South, then the Nazis in the North shortly after – had changed many things for many people. Soldiers had deserted in order to fight the Germans rather than the Allies; young men had fled either compulsory work in Germany or draft; veterans had taken up their guns again.
And Peppone – who had had his share of fighting in the mountains, who staunchly refused to go to veterans’ meetings and usually only commemorated the 4th of November by raising a glass to the Ninety-Niners8 less lucky than he had been, and who could have fled months ago and waited the whole thing out – Peppone had joined the partisans to fight.
Where was the logic in that?
“Someday, when this mess is over,” muttered Don Camillo with his chin still in his hands, “I’ll have to ask him…”
In the meantime, though, he returned to the rectory with a great deal on his mind.
* * *
Days rolled by that should have been filled with the cheerful anticipation Christmas usually brought; this year, though, whenever people were tempted to let themselves enjoy the season, the food, the nativity scenes, or the Christmas poems their children were dutifully learning in school, one look at the German soldiers patrolling the streets and the posters on the walls encouraging Italian/German cooperation and announcing more ‘terrorists’ executions was enough to kill anyone’s good mood instantly.
When Don Camillo paid a visit to the partisans a week before Christmas, careful to leave as few traces in the snow as possible, he found a group twice as large as it once had been. To his surprise, there was a handful of women in the ranks of the partisans, wearing ill-fitting but warm trousers and carrying guns and cartridge belts. A few of them had the usual red kerchief around their neck, sometimes over a scarf.
He was greeted warmly despite the grim overall atmosphere; the new men (and women) introduced themselves, and old acquaintances cordially shook his hand, but there was something about the smiles that felt strained.
When Don Camillo asked Aldo discreetly if they had suffered recent losses, Aldo shook his head and whispered, “No we didn’t, thank God, although many other groups did these past few weeks. But I think most of us expected the Allies would advance faster – maybe even reach Rome by Christmas. Instead they’re stuck on a line almost a hundred and fifty kilometres south of Rome and we’re looking at months of guerilla warfare before they get here at the very least.”
Aldo paused to look at his men, and added, “Not only this is the worst time of the year to be away from one’s family, but this life – hiding, striking, then running, not to mention the cold, the hunger, the loneliness… It’s tough on the youngest ones and it brings back bad memories for the oldest men. Don’t get me wrong, we all chose this and we’ll see it through, but…”
He searched for his words a few seconds, then glanced at Don Camillo. “You know what I mean.”
“I think I do.”
“At least we’re not completely cut off from the world anymore,” said Aldo as they walked up to the shelter and the men and women huddling around the fire. “We have a radio now, so we’re in contact with other groups, plus the Royal Army and the British. They dropped supplies and weapons last week. I guess you could call it an early Christmas present.”
“We’re acquiring quite a taste for ‘corned beef’, too,” said a young dark-haired woman who had introduced herself as Francesca earlier. “You know, it doesn’t taste as bad as it sounds.”
She had a twinkle in her eye, and Don Camillo asked dryly:
“What does it taste like, then?”
Francesca gave a clear, bright laugh. “Like international cooperation. Something you really can’t do without even if it tastes a little iffy sometimes.”
The remark made Aldo and Don Camillo chuckle, and Peppone, who was sitting nearby, snorted. A few of the most hardcore Communists as well as two or three Liberals, however, looked miffed.
The atmosphere was still cold and heavy, the brief respite notwithstanding. Don Camillo put down the field altar box next to the fire in the middle of a grim silence. As he was about to open it, someone tapped his shoulder. It was Nino, one of the youngest partisans, looking hesitant and self-conscious.
“Um. I know this isn’t exactly the best time or place, but I wonder if you could, er, hear a confession?”
“Of course,” said Don Camillo, surprised. “Come on.” He left the altar box closed and walked off to the other side of the shelter, out of hearing but not quite out of sight of the group. As Nino sat down on a thick fallen branch, Don Camillo turned to stare at the other partisans and held up one finger.
“If anyone tries to listen in,” he said calmly, “I’ll kick them all the way down the mountain.”
One of the partisans, taking this as a joke, started to laugh; then his eyes met Peppone’s, Stràziami’s and the others’ from the village. They stared back, stone-faced. The man gazed down at Don Camillo’s size 459 shoes and his snigger died in his throat.
Nino bared his soul. He talked about two German soldiers he had killed, how their eyes and their last gurgle as they drowned in their own blood still haunted him at night.
“I didn’t even have time to think, Father. They had guns; I had a gun, too, and a couple of comrades behind me, so I shot first. Caught them in the throat, both of them.”
He had frozen up, afterwards, then thrown up what felt like two months’ worth of meals.
“Whether I die tomorrow or in my bed fifty years from now I’ll always think of these men. I’m sorry I had to take their lives and I’ll pay for it, when my time comes. But if I had to do it again,” he added, almost defiantly, “I would, in a heartbeat. When it comes down to ‘us or them’ I’ll always choose our guys.”
Nino talked for a little while, while Don Camillo listened; then he listened while Don Camillo talked quietly.
When he got up and walked away, Francesca took his place on the fallen branch. It took her much less time to confess her sins, which admittedly were nowhere as soul-crushing as Nino’s, and when she was done Don Camillo gave her a few prayers to tell. After a short silence, Francesca met his curious gaze and smiled slightly.
“You’re wondering what I’m doing here, aren’t you?”
“The question crossed my mind,” admitted Don Camillo.
“I’ve carried messages back and forth since September. The Germans rarely look twice at women; it’s like we don’t register as potential dangers at all, and the Fascists aren’t much better in that respect. But they killed my brother two weeks ago.” Her expression remained resolute, her voice steady, but her eyes clouded up. “My little brother. They shot him in the head and left him to rot for two days.”
“I’m sorry,” said Don Camillo sincerely. Francesca gave a wry smile.
“We all have our reasons for being here.”
“What’s yours, then? Revenge?”
“No, not revenge. Livio had killed three Blackshirts in an ambush the week before. The German authorities didn’t know who was responsible; they just rounded up and shot the first partisans they could find, including my brother. I just want them to get out of our country and stop murdering people. I still have a younger sister left, so I thought the best way to protect her was to help kick the Germans out as quickly as possible. I can’t fail her like I failed Livio.”
Don Camillo shook his head. “You didn’t fail your brother. I don’t see anything you could have done to prevent his death.”
“I had a duty, Father, I was responsible. I’m not saying he died because of me; I’m saying I should’ve protected him somehow.”
Her voice was soft and a little wistful, and the culpability in it was painful to hear. It weighed heavy on Don Camillo’s heart long after the young woman had left.
A few more partisans showed up in the makeshift confessional, acquaintances old and new. The last to come sit by him was Peppone, who remained silent for such a long time that Don Camillo began to wonder whether he should just get up and leave him alone with his thoughts – the cold, hard branch he had sat on for half an hour was hell on his backside – or be concerned.
He suppressed a shiver from the cold and elbowed Peppone in the ribs.
“Was there something you wanted to tell me?”
“Actually, I was hoping you’d do the talking.”
“I thought I was your confessor, not the other way around.”
Peppone didn’t take the bait, which in itself was more than a little worrying. He continued to stare at the darkness in front of him and the few snowflakes drifting here and there.
Then, finally, he turned to Don Camillo.
“You know, this year it’s Lucia’s first time reciting the poem on Christmas Eve,” he said in so small a voice Don Camillo’s heart skipped a beat. “She was excited about it even before school started in September.” He ran a hand across his face and asked, “How are they?”
Don Camillo sighed, then started talking, while Peppone listened intently. Sometimes he smiled a little.
That small smile – so uncharacteristic of the man – plus the lonely, almost hungry looks on the partisans’ faces during the clandestine Mass stayed with Don Camillo all along the trip back. He hardly slept at all that night and it was his first thought in the morning.
There had to be something he could do about it.
* * *
The next few days saw Don Camillo bustling around town, visiting his parishioners house after house, giving them the season’s blessings, and so on and so forth. This was nothing out of the ordinary for the days preceding Christmas Eve, so nobody thought twice about it. The German authorities picked up on the townspeople’s lack of reaction and deduced that everything was ‘in Ordnung’.
As much as it could be given the current state of things, of course.
On Christmas Eve, Don Camillo’s parishioners were very surprised to see Don Arturo, the priest of one of the hamlets of the town, on the parvis of their church, welcoming them for the Midnight Mass. Don Arturo was no stranger to the village; he usually filled in on the rare times Don Camillo couldn’t, for whatever reason, celebrate Mass. When people asked about their parish priest’s absence on the Night of Nights – Don Camillo had never missed a Midnight Mass, even with a forty degrees10 fever or with icy water up to his knees during one of the more memorable floods of the Po river – Don Arturo was quick to reassure them: the regular incumbent would be at his post again as soon as he was back on his feet.
“Poor Don Camillo,” said people sympathetically. “He really must be in a bad way if Don Arturo is standing in for him tonight of all nights…”
And they prayed for his quick recovery.
Meanwhile, the regular incumbent was going full throttle along the road to Roccaverde, carrying his field altar and a large basket. Fortunately for him, Pasotti’s Alcyon had originally been designed for racing on all kinds of terrains, and Pasotti had kept the tradition of furnishing it with tyres that had deep, chunky tread patterns. This, perhaps more than Don Camillo’s driving, had so far prevented motorcycle and rider from slipping on the muddy, half-iced snow and landing into the ditch that ran along the country road.
Don Camillo left the motorcycle against the wall of Signora Antonietta’s barn, as he didn’t want to drag it all the way to the tree that acted as a dead drop and risk drawing attention to the aforementioned tree by making conspicuous tracks.
The partisans’ camp wasn’t too far, this time – fifteen minutes away, no more. He set out with determination, electric torch in hand to avoid tripping too much on the uneven terrain.
Halfway up to the camp, the wind shifted and picked up low voices and heavy footsteps. Don Camillo immediately turned off the little light and dove behind a large snow-covered bush just in case. It turned out to be a really good idea, because as they voices drew nearer, it became obvious that the speakers were not Italian.
Don Camillo knew a handful of German words and expressions, no more, and the tone of the voices was too neutral for interpretation. They could be talking about anything and everything; at least they didn’t seem to have noticed his footprints so far. Don Camillo clutched the handle of his basket and the strap of the altar box and tried not to exhale too loudly or too much, in case the Germans could see his breath rising in the cold air.
There was a rustle beside him just as he saw faint movement out the corner of his eye. Don Camillo glanced aside and his breath left him as suddenly as though someone had punched him in the stomach.
There, crouched up in the snow just like he was, sat a wolf.
It wasn’t a very large beast and he was obviously past his prime, judging from the scars and the small patches of fur missing here and there, but it was a wolf, his ears flat against his head, quivering from either exertion or fear. He was staring through the bush at the German patrol a few metres away, like Don Camillo himself was, then slowly turned his head.
Don Camillo stared at the wolf.
The wolf stared at Don Camillo.
Neither blinked for a while. Then the wolf looked at the basket, and there was a subtle but definite shift in his attitude: his beady eyes gained focus, his ears perked up, and the muscles of his paws tensed beneath the fur.
Don Camillo gripped the basket closer and glared fiercely at the animal. The wolf took one hesitant step forward, his eyes gleaming and his nose pointed at the basket as though physically tied to the smell of victuals wafting from it. Don Camillo had a gun in his pocket that he had fished from someone else’s, but it was perfectly useless now, with the Germans so close. He felt around in the snow behind him for something to hit the wolf with and held his breath while a long, very low growl rose from the wolf’s throat.
Half a dozen metres away, a couple of Germans lighted cigarettes.
The stand-off could have lasted a long time if Don Camillo, who had never been very gifted in the way of stealth, had not stepped on a dead twig. The snap might as well have been a thunder clap in the still night air. Don Camillo barely had time to throw himself face down in the snow before angry shouts and gunshots exploded from behind the bush; he briefly felt the wolf’s paws across his back and shoulders as the animal stepped on him to run for his life, followed by startled exclamations and more gunfire.
A minute later, the forest was silent once more. Don Camillo lifted his head from the ground, his face stinging from the snow, bewildered and wondering whether this had really just happened.
When he was certain to be absolutely alone – and intact – he picked up his hat, stood up, and brushed the snow and dirt off his cassock and his coat. Then he trudged off to the partisans’ camp, fervently thanking God for sending the wolf running in the opposite direction.
By the time he reached the camp his legs had stopped shaking. He took it as yet another thing to be grateful for.
It was Francesca who answered his whistle. She deftly climbed down from the tree she had been hiding in and stared at him with wide eyes.
“What are you doing here, Reverend?”
“The usual, as you can see,” Don Camillo replied, holding up the altar box. The basket was getting heavier by the minute and he couldn’t wait to put it down.
“I mean now, of all nights! Don’t you have a Midnight Mass to celebrate?”
“What do you think I’m here for?”
Thick snow had been falling all afternoon, providing the shelter with surprisingly good insulation and mostly hiding it from view, from the little path at least. Most of the partisans had the same kind of reaction as Francesca when she drew back the tarpaulin and ushered him into the shelter: Aldo looked startled, Smilzo’s jaw dropped open, Nino stared openly. Peppone appeared taken aback for about five seconds; then his whole face lit up in a huge beaming smile that had more than a touch of pride.
“Had a feeling you’d come,” he said in a low voice as Don Camillo opened the altar box and barked for Smilzo to get over there and give him a hand.
Don Camillo glanced at him out of the corner of his eye as he set the candles.
“More like a hunch. Did you know there’s a bit of snow and dirt on your coat?”
“I thought I brushed it all off. Hang on,” said Don Camillo to Smilzo who had taken the vestments from the box and was shaking the wrinkles out. He took off his coat and gave it a thorough brush.
“Slippery path, eh, Reverend?” said Smilzo with a slight smirk.
“Slippery and full of dodgy people. I met a German patrol on my way up.”
Everybody in the shelter stopped talking at once.
“That was you?” asked Aldo in a hushed voice.
“What was me?”
“We heard gunshots.”
“What? No!” Don Camillo put his coat back on and took his stole from the hands of a gaping Smilzo. “They shot at some animal nearby. Trigger-happy idiots probably thought it was carrying weapons.”
“Lucky for them they didn’t mistake it for you,” muttered Peppone. “Then they would have been right.”
Don Camillo shot him a somewhat dirty look, but refrained from retorting something equally pleasant as he realised that Peppone looked a little pale.
* * *
The Midnight Mass was short and quiet, but peaceful and less sombre than the last Mass Don Camillo had celebrated in the mountains. The men and women listened with their heads bowed, thinking about who and what they had left behind. The familiar and mostly incomprehensible Latin words, combined with the associated memories of laughter, food and warmth, seemed to ease up the tension in their faces and their shoulders. Even Smilzo appeared focused on his duties like he hadn’t been in years.
After Mass, everybody gathered around the basket Don Camillo had brought. It contained what Don Camillo had carefully collected these past few days: food, drink, and a bunch of envelopes that contained messages from the families of some of the partisans. The food was scrupulously divided among the men and women. It was cold and far from a proper Christmas Eve dinner, but it was still the best meal the partisans had had in ages.
The darkness outside the shelter was only broken by the snow that had started falling again, hard and fast. The world around them was muted, and little by little they all fell silent, too, huddled together, seeking warmth in one another and in their own memories.
At some point, Don Camillo made to leave, but at that moment, Aldo, who had been keeping watch outside, drew back the tarpaulin and looked inside the shelter.
“It’s snowing too hard for you to go right now, Reverend,” he said when he saw Don Camillo reach for the altar box and the empty basket. “Better wait it out a while. Why don’t you sleep here a few hours? Don’t worry, I’ll wake you up as soon as it’s safe.”
The last few days had been exhausting, and between the cold, the snow, and the tiredness seeping into his bones, a few hours of sleep looked much more tempting than the hazardous trek back to the motorcycle followed by over an hour of riding in the snow and the dark. Don Camillo found himself sitting on the ground again with his back against one of the trees the shelter was built around, without quite knowing how. But still he tried to keep himself awake.
“Thank you for the offer,” he said, trying to rub the sleep out of his eyes, “but it would be better if I could return to the rectory as early as possible. Nobody knows I’m away and I’d like to be back before someone notices.”
“You mean no-one noticed that the archpriest played truant on Christmas Eve?” asked Peppone with one eyebrow raised. “I don’t believe that for a second.”
“Well, the archpriest came down with a nasty case of flu and had to have a priest of his parish stand in for him tonight.”
“You don’t say. I hope he recovers quickly.”
“I’ll keep you posted,” muttered Don Camillo, who was finding it more and more difficult to keep his eyes open.
“If we wake you up around five, Father, will that be all right?”
Aldo’s voice seemed to come from a long way away. Don Camillo nodded vaguely, then finally let his eyelids drop.
When he half-opened his eyes again, what felt like two seconds later, the sounds and the smells around him were so foreign that it startled him awake. It took him a few seconds to remember where he was and why he was there even before he took a look around.
The fire was out, and the makeshift shelter was packed with shapeless mounds that snored, wheezed and snorted with every breath. Despite the heat all those bodies gave off, the air in the shelter was still cold; Don Camillo’s nose and cheeks were stinging. The rest of him was fine, though, thanks partly to a blanket someone had put over him and partly to what he recognised – after a bit of squinting – as Francesca curled up in a blanket with her back against his right side. On his left, sharing his blanket, was Peppone. He was sound asleep, huddled snugly against him with his head pressed against Don Camillo’s shoulder, snoring quietly.
For someone so used to sleeping alone, this was a little disconcerting.
There was movement and a slight gust of icy air, and Bigio stuck his head inside the shelter.
“Everything all right?” murmured Don Camillo, still half asleep.
“Just checking in. You still have a couple of hours.” He must have seen the awkward look on Don Camillo’s face at the impromptu sleeping arrangement, and shook his head with a smile, although his eyes remained serious. “We always sleep as close to one another as we can. The temperature can drop pretty low, even in the shelter. Whoever’s not pragmatic can end up dead.”
Bigio dropped back the tarpaulin and Don Camillo settled back down. A few seconds later, Francesca shuddered and kicked him in the shin in her sleep. This made him start and bite back a yelp, which in turn caused Peppone to mumble “Mfsgl” and burrow in even closer.
It was warm under the blanket, and Don Camillo was too tired to be uncomfortable. Thankfully, his brain was too fogged-up by sleep to remind him of the last time he had slept like this, pressed between fellow soldiers to keep the deadly cold at bay. There was even something oddly reassuring about the warm weight of Peppone’s head against his shoulder and the steady rhythm of his breathing, slower than his own.
Somehow, in spite of the kick and the snores in his ear, Don Camillo went back to sleep and was out like a light for the rest of his night.
* * *
The sky was still pitch-black when Don Camillo shouldered the altar box and picked up the empty basket again, and would be for a few hours. Clouds drifted in front of the moon, and every now and then starlight glittered off a patch of fresh snow. It had stopped snowing not so long ago and it wasn’t too cold, which meant the stuff was still powdery and hadn’t had the time to turn into ice yet. Good news for someone who meant to make his way down the mountain.
“Watch your step,” said Peppone, who replaced Bigio as lookout and had walked Don Camillo to the limit of the camp. “If the Germans are capable of sending out patrols on Christmas Eve, they can very well do it on Christmas Day, too.”
“I’ll just have to dive into a bush again,” said Don Camillo. “There’s plenty of them around.”
Peppone’s moustache quivered in a quick smile. Don Camillo held out his hand; Peppone made to grasp it, but looked up and suddenly frowned. He reached up, took Don Camillo’s hat from his head, and brought it close to his eyes to inspect it.
Then he handed it back to Don Camillo, his hand trembling.
There were two holes in the fabric where a bullet had gone through, missing Don Camillo’s skull by about three centimetres11.
“Exactly how far was that animal when the Germans shot at it?” Peppone asked in a toneless voice, his face very white.
“Not quite far enough, apparently,” answered Don Camillo breathlessly. His hands shook as he put his hat back on his head.
Maybe it was just a feeling brought on by suggestion, but it did seem a lot draughtier than before.
Peppone crossed his arms against his chest and sighed. “Maybe you should stop coming up here. It’s getting much too dangerous.”
This jolted Don Camillo out of the icy numbness the sight of the bullet holes had thrown him into. It was like getting drenched by a bucket of boiling water.
“It was dangerous before, as well. Besides, that hasn’t stopped you, has it?”
The familiar mulish expression was making its way back on Peppone’s face.
“That’s not the same thing at all. You don’t need to risk your hide for us!”
“Look, am I your chaplain or not?”
Peppone opened his mouth, but closed it again right away. Don Camillo couldn’t think of anything else to say, either.
The uncomfortable silence lasted a few seconds, then Don Camillo remembered that he had something in his coat pocket that Peppone’s wife Maria hadn’t put in the envelope.
“Here,” he said, taking a piece of carefully folded paper from inside his coat and handing it to Peppone. “I forgot to give it to you yesterday with the rest.”
Peppone took the paper with some suspicion, and unfolded it slowly.
It turned out to be a picture. Probably one of Lucia’s; she’d been drawing quite a bit lately. He perused it for a long moment, then looked up, his eyes suspiciously bright.
Peppone folded the paper very gingerly, taking great care not to wrinkle it, and put it inside his jacket. He held out his hand to Don Camillo, who shook it warmly. Both men looked at each other for a while; there was a lot of things on Don Camillo’s mind that he wanted to add, and from the look of it so did Peppone. In the end, though, they both gave a shrug and a small smile.
“Merry Christmas, Don Camillo.”
“Merry Christmas, Peppone.”
The snow on the ground softened the darkness, and a few stars showed in the sky that from this height looked almost close enough to touch. This time Don Camillo didn’t meet a living soul on the way down to Signora Antonietta’s, nor on the way home.
* * *
The wind had only driven off the clouds and cleaned up the sky over the mountains; in the lowlands the fog still prevailed. The little houses and the barns and stables loomed out of the mass of mist, everyone inside still asleep, people and beasts alike. A Christmas morning like any other. The thought was strangely comforting.
It was cold and dark inside the church when Don Camillo stopped by before going to bed. Someone had forgotten a woollen glove under a pew, so he pocketed it and made a mental note to write a notice on the board outside. The nativity scene was still missing its Baby Jesus; it was customary to add the figurine on Christmas morning or just after the Midnight Mass, but presumably Don Arturo had kindly left the tradition to the regular incumbent. Don Camillo disappeared into the rectory and came back with the statuette, which he delicately put between the Madonna, Saint Joseph, the donkey and the ox.
Then he lit all the tapers that had gone out in front of the crucified Christ and the Madonna in her little side chapel. The little flames of the candles people had put there as a thank you, as a plea, or in memory of loved ones gave off such a light that they seemed to warm up even the stone walls of the church.
Don Camillo went into the rectory again, this time to take one of his own candles. He lit it and placed it with the others, then sat on a pew with his chin in hands, lost in thought.
“Thank you, Don Camillo,” said the crucified Christ gently after a while. “But what is this for?”
Don Camillo was about to answer, but stopped. In truth, he had no clear idea. He thought about Giulio Accorsi, buried far from home in a nameless grave; Giulio’s grieving parents and his little brother, whose sorrow couldn’t even let him find some peace; about Davide Marchetti and his contempt for any human life he deemed unworthy, and about his little boy Luca, who was still innocent; about Don Antonio, who was afraid, about Nino, who had killed and would kill again to defend his comrades, his nightmares and his conscience notwithstanding, about Francesca, whose little brother’s ghost weighed on her shoulders; and about Peppone, who amidst all of this remained… well, Peppone. Which was probably for the best, come to think of it.
He stayed silent a long time, deep in thought, and eventually threw out his arms in a very expressive ‘I don’t know’ gesture.
Then he went home to bed and, somewhat to his surprise, fell asleep the moment his head hit the pillow.
1“He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” (Gospel According to Mark, 4:9)
2Field Marshall and Minister of Defence of Mussolini’s “Italian Social Republic”, also called “Republic of Salò”, from 1943 to 1945.
3The official flag of Mussolini’s Fascist republic was the Italian tricolore with the royal crest removed from the middle white part, identical to today’s Italian Republic flag. The war flag, with the eagle and fasces crest, was much more common, though.
4(as it turned out, I didn't need this note)
5“Nolite timere” / “Have no fear” is repeated 366 times in the Bible, particularly in the New Testament.
6The Italian front in WW1 was for the most part in the Alps, between the Italians and Austrians.
7“If you want peace, prepare for war.”
8The “raggazzi del ‘99” were the young men born in 1899, drafted from the first few months of 1917, who were sent to the front lines en masse after the major Italian defeat at Caporetto. They played a crucial part in the subsequent victory on the river Piave that led to Italy winning WW1 against the Austrian-Hungarian empire in November 1918.
9Which would be between US sizes 11 ½ and 12.
11An inch is 2,54 cm, so an inch and a… fifth?
Oh goodness, I hope it works this time :-/