And here's the last snippet already. The way I'm stuck on the next one (and the next two), it's likely to be the last for a very long time... But I haven't lost hope :o) Since it's over 13,000 words long, it's too heavy for LJ, so I'm putting a link to the Dreamwidth post here. If you want to leave a comment (which I would cherish, since that's what I usually do anyway but this chapter is more sensitive than the others for a number of reasons), you can leave it here.
I had fun creating Peppone's little family, even if trying to stick to canon turned out to be something of a headache. None of the kids are named in the books, and even the exact number of siblings is unclear (Guareschi usually wrote "six" at some point); I took my cue from the films, especially the first two, in which we see little Marco, his slightly older brother Beppo (who escapes from his city school in the second film), an older little girl and a taller boy. (Turns out there was a fourth boy in one scene, a tiny mite I hadn't even spotted till now.) And Libero Antonio Camillo Lenin, who's born in the beginning of the first film :D So - just to keep everything straight - in my stories (and headcanon), in early 1944, Tonino is 9, Lucia is 7, Beppo is 4 and Marco is 2. On with the story now.
Rain had started to fall before dawn and it was still coming down in buckets when Don Camillo left the church after morning Mass. He had barely taken off his hat when he heard a faint rapping at the rectory door.
When he opened the door, there was nobody in sight. Then he looked down, and saw a child.
“Are you Don Camillo?” said a small, somewhat trembling voice.
Don Camillo nodded, too surprised by his find to do anything else at first. Then he opened the door wide, picked up the boy, and then closed the door quickly.
The little boy stood awkwardly on the tile floor, shivering slightly in his drenched coat, clutching a little suitcase in a white hand. His blond hair was plastered on his head under his soaked cap and he looked quite pale, but it was impossible to tell whether it was from the cold rain, fear, or distress – or all of them at once.
Don Camillo knew all his parishioners, even the smallest ones, but he had no idea who this child could be. Where did he come from, and what had possessed him to go out alone, under that downpour?
After one look at the boy’s face, however, he decided there were more pressing matters. He snatched the boy again and set him down in front of the hearth in which he put a couple of logs. Then he ran up to his room to take his warmest blanket and left it to the child, saying, “Take off your wet clothes and wrap yourself in that. I’ll be right back.”
He bustled around in the kitchen for a while, then he came back with a cup of steaming camomile tea. The boy was standing in front of the hearth in a shapeless mass of blanket; his only clearly identifiable features were a pale face, a pink nose, a tuft of blond hair and two bright green eyes that stared up at Don Camillo as though they did not quite know what to make of him.
He accepted the hot cup almost warily, and only sat in Don Camillo’s armchair when he was told to.
Don Camillo drew up a chair from the kitchen table, sat down with his elbows on his thighs, and looked at the boy closely.
“Who are you?” he asked. “I’ve never seen you before. Are you from Boretto?”
The boy’s shivering had died down a little; his small hands were steadier around the cup. But he still looked fairly intimidated.
“I don’t know where that is, sir,” he said, taking a small sip of the hot tea in a way that made it clear he had very good manners. “I live in Piacenza.”
Don Camillo stared at him, astonished.
Piacenza was maybe eighty kilometres away, as the crow flies; it had been heavily bombed by the Americans for the last couple of months. All bridges were down, most of the main roads and rail road lines were cut. How on earth had this boy been able to even leave the city?
And, more importantly perhaps, what had made him come all the way to Don Camillo’s doorstep?
“What’s your name?”
“Giosuè Falco, sir.”
Don Camillo racked his brain for any Falco he knew of, but the boy’s name was as unfamiliar as his face.
“I have a letter from Don Vincenzo, sir.”
“Stop calling me ‘sir’, I’m a priest, not a—wait. Don Vincenzo? From San Donato Church1?”
The boy shuffled off to his suitcase, somewhat hindered by his blanket, leaving Don Camillo with a lot to think about. Don Vincenzo was an old classmate of his from the seminary, the kind of friend you only see once in a blue moon but who makes it feel like no time has passed at all. If he had been Giosuè’s parish priest, then at least it explained why the boy had known his name before knocking on his door.
Meanwhile, Giosuè had opened his suitcase and picked up an envelope from underneath a cardboard panel that served as a false bottom. He handed the envelope to Don Camillo and stood there, staring at him with a look that was a startling mix of dread and desperate defiance. Don Camillo opened the envelope, and everything suddenly became quite clear… and more than a little complicated.
He silently handed the small chain with the six-point star pendant to the boy and read Don Vincenzo’s letter.
When he was done, he looked to Giosuè, sitting again in the big armchair still wrapped in his blanket, and gave a sigh.
“Do you want more tea?” he asked gently.
When Don Camillo came back with another hot cup, the boy wrapped his lithe fingers around it and blew on the tea to cool it down.
And then words poured out of him, as unstoppable as the rain beating against the windows.
* * *
At first Giosuè hadn’t really noticed that there were things he couldn’t do, places he couldn’t go. He liked nothing more than stay at home, in their cosy little flat, inventing stories and reading books. He had assumed the reason his big sister Paola didn’t go to the cinema as much as she used to was because she preferred to go to the park with her sweetheart; then he found out that the park was forbidden to them, too. There were words painted on the window of Signor Levi’s haberdashery down the street, where his mum bought buttons and knitting material, that spelled J-U-D-E in funny-looking letters. Giosuè wondered about this word for a while, because it wasn’t in any of his books. And then one day it wasn’t Signor Levi’s store any more, and a stranger replaced him behind the counter.
There were a lot of things Giosuè didn’t understand, but he easily picked up on his parents’ and elder sister’s nervousness every time they went out, every time they listened to the radio or read the paper, and it frightened him to no end. He had never seen his parents afraid of anything before.
One evening, just as his sister was setting the table and his dad was seasoning the minestrone, they had heard a car screech to a stop in front of their building. His dad had dropped the spoon into the soup to run to the window. When he had turned to Giosuè’s mother, there had been a stark, naked terror on his face that made Giosuè’s breath come short. His mum had taken him and his sister by the hand, run out the door and up the flight of stairs, and only stopped in front of Signora Rosa’s door.
Signora Rosa was a war widow about the same age as Giosuè’s mum, and she had always had a kind word for all the children of the building. Giosuè’s mum explained the situation in half a dozen hurried words; then she had held her children tightly, kissed them, and whispered “I love you” before she flew down the stairs again, tears streaming down her face.
Signora Rosa had quickly ushered Paola and Giosuè into her flat, locked the door, and set the table for two more people. Giosuè and Paola had run to the window in time to see their parents and Paola’s friend Sara and her whole family get rushed into a truck by a bunch of German soldiers. Giosuè’s dad had not even been allowed to take a jacket, and his light shirt stood out against the dull green-grey of the uniforms.
When Signora Rosa was sure the soldiers were not watching the flat, she went with Paola and Giosuè and collected as many of their clothes as could be stored in her closets.
A few days later, as Paola’s and Giosuè’s parents showed no sign of life, Signora Rosa took the children to a church. Giosuè had never seen a Mass before. Every two minutes he had to keep from asking Paola what the priest was talking about; but Paola had only just started studying Latin, and didn’t understand what was going on much more than he did. Afterwards, Signora Rosa had a conversation with the priest and came back to them, saying, “I’ll keep you two as long as I’m able. But if anything happens, for whatever reason, go to Don Vincenzo here. He knows other people who can help.”
Paola and Giosuè lived with Signora Rosa for about a month. Food was scarce, because Signora Rosa could only get food stamps for one, but she read Giosuè a story every night before bed, and even let him go up into the attic with a book when her little two-room flat became a little cramped for three people.
Giosuè liked it up there. He could fill the dark, dusty space with stories of cowboys and Indians, noble pirates in the Malaysian sea, bold rebels and thieves who stole only from evil lords, and imagine he was marooned on a desert island.
One day, he fell asleep on his book; when he came back down, the door of Signora Rosa’s flat was ajar, the lock broken, and Signora Rosa and Paola were gone.
Giosuè did not cry, nor did he make a fuss. He gathered clothes and a few books in his little suitcase, took his coat and his woollen cap, and walked out as though in a dream. For a long while he just followed his feet, not knowing where to go and who to turn to. There was a cold, gaping void inside him that only his mum’s arms, his dad’s smile, or his sister’s laugh could have filled. And then he remembered Signora Rosa’s words, as though from very far away.
He never knew how he reached Don Vincenzo’s church. When he got there, the whole area had been bombed just the night before, and the streets were full of rubble, bits of masonry, and people looking just as lost as Giosuè felt. Nobody paid attention to him as he slipped inside the church.
Don Vincenzo was clearing rubble in the nave with a shovel; part of the ceiling had collapsed and the floor was covered in dust and debris. When he saw Giosuè he made to say something, then recognised him and looked at him sadly.
“Your sister, Signora Rosa?”
Giosuè couldn’t speak. He shook his head. Don Vincenzo left his shovel propped up against a pew and sighed.
“Come with me.”
Don Vincenzo gave him a hot meal and put him to bed. Despite his earlier nap, Giosuè sank into the mattress, hid his head under the covers and fell into a deep, thankfully dreamless sleep.
When he woke up, it was dark, and Don Vincenzo was standing beside the bed with an oil lamp.
“I can’t keep you here,” he whispered. “It’s too dangerous for you. There are unexploded bombs and German soldiers all over the place. You’re better off in the country than in the city. I have a friend you can go to; you’ll be safe there.”
Don Vincenzo gave an envelope to Giosuè with a letter addressed to Don Camillo, advised him to put his Star of David inside it, as well, in case he was searched, and hid everything under a big square of cardboard in his suitcase. The part of Giosuè that was not feeling numb and cold thought that this was exactly like the book about smugglers his father had read to him, what seemed like a lifetime ago.
And indeed Don Vincenzo smuggled Giosuè out of Piacenza that night, and entrusted him to two or three young men with hard eyes and grave faces, who wore big red kerchiefs around their necks. They put Giosuè on a truck and drove a few hours in the dark, keeping to little roads to remain inconspicuous. Giosuè stared up at them, half-terrified and half-fascinated, the bumps in the road forgotten. They reminded him of the outlaw crew from his favourite book, The Tigers of Mompracem.
“Are you like rebel pirates?” he whispered. The two men who were in the back of the truck with him exchanged a look, and when their eyes were on him again, they had lost some of their hard edge and seemed amused.
“Something like that, yeah,” said one of the men with a small smile. And, since it was a somewhat chilly spring night, he took off his coat and put it around Giosuè, who kept it for the rest of the trip.
They left Giosuè at the bus stop, about nine hundred metres from the centre of Brescello, made him go over the directions to the church one last time, and left before drawing attention to themselves.
Giosuè walked off in the rain, one hand clutching his suitcase and the other buried in his coat pocket to keep warm (if not dry), and finally stopped at Don Camillo’s door.
* * *
Don Camillo listened intently to Giosuè. He did not interrupt him once; only, at some point, he jumped to his feet and began pacing back and forth, hands tightly clasped behind his back to avoid using them against some poor innocent chair that did not deserve to be shattered to pieces.
Giosuè’s voice was a little birdsong against the patter of the rain that only wavered twice: at his parents’ disappearance and at finding Signora Rosa’s flat empty. When he was done he tightened the blanket around himself and fell silent.
Don Camillo gave himself a minute to regain his calm, after which he carefully unknotted his fingers and went to stand in front of the boy.
“Right,” he said finally. “You can take one of the bedrooms upstairs; the bell ringer usually lives up there, too, but his father’s sick so he moved back in with his wife to take care of him.”
“And if the Germans come to take me away?” asked Giosuè after a few seconds’ silence.
“I’ll smash their heads in first.”
This Don Camillo said very calmly, as though stating that three times two makes six. Giosuè looked at his enormous hands and the expression on his face, and he gave a nod.
And a small smile.
* * *
News travel fast in little towns, and by evening the whole village knew about the rectory’s newest resident.
“One of my nephews,” said Don Camillo when anyone asked. “My sister sent him here until the Americans stop dropping bombs on the city. Plus he’s never been to the country before. Imagine that!”
Since one of Don Camillo’s sisters lived in Milan with her husband and her children, nobody had any reason to question the explanation. Between the boy’s posh accent and his somewhat pale face and hands, compared to the other children in the village, it wasn’t so hard to assume that he came from one of those big cities where you never really feel the sun on your face or spend much time at all outdoors.
Giosuè was set up in one of the rectory bedrooms. There wasn’t much in terms of creature comforts: a bed, a wardrobe, a bedside table and his own lamp, as well as a desk with a chair. But the bed was the most comfortable of the rectory and the light from the window fell directly on the desk all afternoon until six, so Giosuè spent quite some time reading there.
Two days after his arrival, he timidly asked Don Camillo if he could have some coloured pencils and paper to draw.
Don Camillo scratched his head.
“I do have pencils and some paper, but there’s no coloured pencils here. Hold on.”
He went to knock on Peppone’s mother’s door. As he had hoped, it was his wife Maria who opened.
“Why, Reverend, Easter was last month2. To what do I owe the—” There she stopped, and suddenly went pale. “Something’s happened to my husband, hasn’t it?”
Don Camillo’s occasional visit to the mountains was an open secret among the partisans’ families. They kept it to themselves, so no soul in the village knew who had no business knowing about it, but they all dreaded to find their priest on their doorstep with bad news one day. Don Camillo quickly reassured Signora Bottazzi that everything was fine and that nothing drastic had befallen Peppone since he had last seen him.
“As a matter of fact, I’m here because of Gio,” he added. Giosuè had accepted to be called ‘Gio’ in front of other people for the time being, just in case. It was a perfectly acceptable diminutive form of Giosuè as well as Giovanni. “His mother sent him here with whatever he could carry, but, as it turns out, it’s not much. Do you think I could borrow a few clothes that Tonino overgrown? Gio’s just yea high.”
Maria let him in, looking amused, and had Don Camillo sit at the kitchen table while she went upstairs to look for clothes.
After a few seconds, Don Camillo felt something tugging on his cassock. He looked down and found Beppo, Peppone’s second youngest, staring up at him.
“Daddy’s not here,” he said with all the gravity of a four-year-old who knows that these things are important.
“I know,” said Don Camillo, equally serious. “Hopefully he’ll come back soon.”
“Beppo!” came Lucia’s voice as she thundered down the stairs. “Beppo, where—oh, hello, Don Camillo.”
“Did you lose something?” asked Don Camillo wryly.
“Only my little brother who was supposed to help me tidy up our bedroom.” She bent down and grinned, showing yet another hole where a milk tooth used to be. Don Camillo made a mental note to tell Peppone next time he saw him. He missed his children like crazy and every single detail counted. “There you are. Come on!”
“Actually,” said Don Camillo, “I wondered if you could lend some of your coloured pencils to Gio for a while. He didn’t come with much and he misses being able to draw.”
Lucia wrinkled her nose and pondered the matter for a few seconds.
“All right,” she said, “but I’m keeping the red pencil for now. I want to draw something for Daddy. He likes red.”
“That he does,” grumbled Don Camillo, shaking his head. Lucia was not quite seven and still very much an innocent where politics were concerned, so he made no further comment.
Lucia disappeared upstairs, leaving Beppo who was still staring up at Don Camillo in a mixture of wariness and curiosity, and came back with a tin case.
“There,” she said proudly, “all five of them. Be careful not to drop them, because Mum says it breaks the lead inside.”
Don Camillo thanked her solemnly, then also thanked Maria when she came back down with a small bag full of clothes.
When he walked out the door, Beppo waved at him from his spot near the table.
Giosuè was thrilled to get his pencils and immediately set to work. The result was a very commendable (for an eight-year-old) portrait of himself and his family; the colours were a little subdued, but once Don Camillo gave him some drawing pins to put it on the wall of his bedroom, he declared himself satisfied.
The next drawing featured a pirate ship manned by little figures with blank kerchiefs around their necks. When Don Camillo asked Giosuè about that, Giosuè replied that he would finish it when Lucia was kind enough to lend him the red pencil.
Don Camillo rolled his eyes, but didn’t say anything.
* * *
“Don Camillo,” said Giosuè that night when Don Camillo went to tuck him in and turn off the lights, “can you read me a story?”
“I thought you preferred to read your books yourself,” said Don Camillo, surprised at the request. Giosuè looked a little embarrassed.
“I know I’m too old now. It’s just that… It was nice.”
Don Camillo looked at Giosuè and at the book that stuck out from under his pillow. Then he gave a resigned sigh.
“Where did you stop?”
Five minutes later, Giosuè was gazing into space with shining eyes as Don Camillo’s voice read, “A cluster of ships rocked and tugged at anchor in the bay, sheltered somewhat by a reef. Not a soul stirred upon their decks nor among the longhouses and palisades lining the shore. Darkness blanketed the forest and tempestuous waters. If anyone sailing from the east had chanced to look carefully, however, they would have spotted two flickering dots, a pair of brightly lit windows illuminated atop a cliff that jutted over the sea…”
* * *
Life at the rectory soon fell into a comfortable enough routine: every morning Don Camillo would tiptoe out of his room and downstairs to church to say the first Mass, then come back to the rectory and make breakfast for two. Meals were generally rather frugal, because Don Camillo had limited means, but since the rectory garden included a little orchard, Giosuè could have fresh fruit and vegetables that would have cost a fortune in food stamps back in the city.
The first time Giosuè saw Don Camillo get out into the orchard with his cassock tucked into a pair of trousers, a hat on his head and a rake and a spade in hand, he stared at him with wide eyes.
“Well,” said Don Camillo, “you don’t think the garden will tend itself on its own, do you? What’s the point of God giving us all those wonderful things if we’re not going to take care of them?”
Giosuè watched him work for three or four minutes, then asked, “Can I help you?”
“Of course you can. Take that weeder over there and go to the cabbage patch. There’s a few weeds that could make a mess of things if we let them.”
They ended up working all afternoon, at the end of which Giosuè’s knees and hands were brown with crusted earth. He was exhausted and covered in dirt and sweat, but happy.
“I didn’t do too bad a job, did I?” he said as he washed his hands in the kitchen sink, standing on a stool to reach the tap. “I’ve never weeded a garden before.”
“So you’ve really never set foot out of the city?” Don Camillo asked distractedly, checking that the worst of the dirt was gone from his fingers and handing him a towel.
“No. Are there always so many birds around? They don’t sound the same as those at home at all. Up there there’s just pigeons and sparrows. But here they all look different!”
Don Camillo stared at him.
* * *
The next morning, after breakfast, Don Camillo took Giosuè for a stroll in the countryside, along the dykes and the fields bordered with poplar trees. Thankfully, the mist rose quickly and made way for a warm spring day, with the loveliest greens and colours the Po Lowlands had to offer. Giosuè didn’t know which way to turn. Everything was new and interesting to him: the wildlife, the trees, the cows mooing in the fields… One ambled closer as he walked along a fence, and he turned to Don Camillo.
“Can I pet her?”
“It’s a cow, not a house cat,” muttered Don Camillo. “If she lets you, maybe.”
Slowly, carefully, Giosuè reached and touched the cow’s nose between the nostrils. Emboldened, he put the flat of his palm on her nose and grinned.
Then the cow gave a shake which startled him so much that he jerked and fell back. The cow gazed at him sleepily for a while, then turned back whence she came, lazily beating her tail against her rump to keep the flies away.
Giosuè looked delighted.
“I petted a cow!” he said excitedly. “Wait till I tell—”
Don Camillo never knew whom he intended to tell, because then Giosuè’s face crumpled and he turned pale. The boy swayed a little on his feet, his fists clenched tightly, and his lip wobbled a little, but after a while he seemed to regain his equilibrium, if not his composure. Don Camillo put a hand on his shoulder to steady him all the same.
He cleared his throat, unsure what to do, and said gently, “In the next field there’s a donkey, and I know he’s going to let you pet his ears. Do you want to try?”
Giosuè swallowed, nodded, and wiped his eyes with the back of his fists.
The donkey was an old, placid animal, who occasionally pulled a cart when his master needed to transport things, but who was otherwise very happy to spend his last few years out in a field, munching on grass and getting fed apples by the village children. He indeed let Giosuè pet him as long as he wanted, and if he was disappointed by the lack of apples, he didn’t let it show.
Giosuè stroked his nose, his forehead and his long, fuzzy ears, marvelling at the different textures and the warm breath of the donkey that tickled his face. He regained colour, little by little, and when Don Camillo and he walked away, Giosuè was smiling slightly again.
The day ended up one for the books: Giosuè climbed a tree for the first time and discovered a nest, happened on a whole family of rabbits making a beeline for their burrow, and had a ricochet contest with Don Camillo, who even allowed him to take off his shoes and socks to dip his toes into the great river. The water was cool and inviting and soon he was wading up to mid-calf, and would have ventured farther had Don Camillo not barked at him to stop right there, mister.
They sat on the warm grass for a while, waiting for Giosuè’s feet to dry. Giosuè found an interest in everything: the butterflies, the cloud shapes, the bees and how they made honey…
Don Camillo listened to his chirping voice with a smile, and wondered how on earth anyone could even think of raising a child in a city.
* * *
“In the middle of that pack of Tigers, their captain, the invincible Sandokan, clutching his scimitar in his right hand, a fiery look on his face, his long hair blowing in the wind, spurred his warriors with a voice that thundered above the roar of cannons3… Well, he really must have a healthy set of lungs, because let me tell you, cannons make a lot of noise.”
“Keep reading, Don Camillo!”
* * *
When Don Camillo came back from vespers one evening, he found Giosuè ensconced in his armchair with one of his books instead of sitting at the table to work on his grammar.
“Couldn’t wait to know what happened next, could you?” he grumbled. Giosuè shook his head.
“It’s Shabbat tonight,” he said seriously. “I’m not supposed to work until the stars show tomorrow night.”
For the five or six days Giosuè had been there this was the first time the boy talked about his religion, or indeed showed any sign that he was religious at all.
“I think you’re supposed to pray a lot more, but at home we only celebrate the big things, like Passover, Kippur and Hanukkah. And Shabbat. My dad always says Shabbat is important because it’s about family.”
Don Camillo noted the present tense and the way Giosuè’s hands tightened around his book, and asked quickly, “So what do you do?”
“Um,” said Giosuè, his voice wavering a little, “well, on Friday evening Mum lights the candles and says the words, and we wear our good clothes, and that’s when we have the best meals of the week. It’s a day for remembering family, too, so Mum and Dad tell us stories about Grandpa and Grandma and Nan and Pap. There’s also a special wine and spices but I don’t remember which ones. Paola’s older, she would know better.”
Don Camillo opened a drawer and took out two small, half-burned candles.
“I’m all out of new candles. Would these do?”
Giosuè’s smile said it would.
Don Camillo watched Giosuè repeat the gestures he had seen his mum do countless times: light the candles, cover his eyes, and chant quietly, “Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu Melekh ha-olam…”
He left the boy to his prayer and slipped out silently to the church.
“Jesus,” he said when he was in front of the main altar, “I know the child doesn’t believe You’re the Son of God, but do You mind if I pray for him and his family a little?”
“I never mind prayers, wherever they come from and whomever they’re for,” said Christ gently. “The boy is honouring God with his prayers, and his family as well. It helps him keep them alive in his heart. Let him pray.”
And Don Camillo prayed, too. But he kept getting distracted by the thought of Giosuè lighting the candles his mother was supposed to because he was the only one of his family left alive.
* * *
Two days later, both candles had burned down to stubs. Don Camillo went to the general store and bought two fresh candles, and gave them to Giosuè.
* * *
Days passed and turned into weeks, made of little moments and the kind of understated happiness that you never really acknowledge right away. Giosuè was a quiet boy, never in the way; he always liked to have someone in sight, though, and could usually be found working on his grammar or his arithmetic at the kitchen table, sitting in the shade of the apple tree in the orchard, or nestled in Don Camillo’s old armchair. Sometimes he had tea with Tonino and Lucia Bottazzi and often ended up drawing pictures along with Lucia.
Don Camillo went about his usual business: saying Masses, looking after the church, going to help old Signor Benzoni (who was alone with a broken leg) with wood cutting, setting up a scarecrow in the orchard to keep the birds from pillaging his fruit and vegetables… When he came back home, he sat down, lit a half-cigar and read an old newspaper, or turned on the radio, as usual. Only now, he always looked around for Giosuè first, and only when he had found him at one of his usual spots did he truly relax.
* * *
One night, Don Camillo woke up with a jolt. He remained still for a while, eyes and ears wide open in the dark, searching for what could have woken him up like that. After a moment, he became aware of a faint keening sound that came from somewhere on the same floor. He jumped to his feet, pulled on his cassock over his nightshirt and ran out of his room.
When he stopped in front of Giosuè’s bedroom door, no doubt was possible as to where the sound came from. Don Camillo entered as noiselessly as he could, but since he was a big man with big feet currently operated by a sleepy brain, he was about as discreet as an elephant. Giosuè made no sign that he had heard anything, however: he was curled up on himself in a tight ball, sobbing uncontrollably, his face all scrunched up, blind and deaf to anything that was not the source of his pain.
“M—m—mummy,” he hiccuped breathlessly. “D—daddy…”
Don Camillo, who had found the words to comfort parents burying a child, who had been at the front lines of the Great War, and knew a thing or two about dealing with people in pain, felt helpless in the face of such an immense grief. It poured out of the boy in hot, violent waves, the eternal cry of “Why” and other questions that are fated to remain unanswered, because in this case the truth is too ugly, too impossible to even conceive. How do you explain to an eight year old child that his entire family is most likely dead because madmen from another country set the whole continent ablaze with the idea that they, alone, have worth? How do you – how can you – wrangle innocent words around the insane concept of a ‘master race’ that must not suffer ‘lesser races’ to live?
Don Camillo sat heavily on the chair by the bed. He slowly reached with his big paw of a hand and, very gently, pushed Giosuè’s soaked hair out of his eyes. Giosuè clutched at his hand with surprising strength and did not let go, so Don Camillo stayed where he was and waited.
Giosuè cried himself back to sleep and, at some point in the night, loosened his grip on Don Camillo’s hand. Don Camillo spent the rest of the night downstairs, within hearing in case the boy woke up again, staring into space and not really knowing if he wanted to grab his old M91 gun and shoot at anything wearing a German uniform, or burst into tears.
* * *
The following Sunday, during Mass, the words of Don Camillo’s sermon exploded in peals of thunder under the ceiling of the little church, and there was lightning in his eyes. It had been a while since his parishioners had been treated to a full-blown Don Camillo sermon; while most were undeterred, some people shrank or leaned back in their seats in alarm while others nodded approvingly.
A small group of little old ladies hung back on the parvis after Mass. Since those particular old ladies were the primary source of gossip (and, occasionally, reliable information) in the village, Don Camillo never failed to salute them.
“That was a very interesting sermon, Father,” purred old Signora Catarina in a tone that made Don Camillo prick up his ears and look at her sharply. “That bit about Christian charity – yes, that was quite memorable.”
“Of course,” said Signorina Gabriella in the same kind of voice, “it’s the duty of any Christian to be charitable to other Christians.”
“Ladies, I think you’ve missed the point of my sermon,” said Don Camillo, whose temper was rising, making his ears bright pink. “Charity is indeed a Christian duty, but not restricted to only Christians. Where would the world go if it was?”
“To be sure,” said Signora Catarina with an odd smile. “Oh, by the way, I don’t think we’ve ever seen your nephew in church for Mass once. I do hope his parents raised him right about these things. The nephew of a priest, not going to church! Imagine that!”
Don Camillo was starting to get a very bad feeling. By now his ears were scarlet and he was quite pale.
“I think,” he said slowly, crossing his arms against his chest, “that you are putting your nose where it doesn’t belong. But since you seem to have a question, ask it, and I’ll answer it once and for all.”
The ladies gasped and put their hands in front of their mouths; then, as one, they turned to Signora Catarina, who asked much more straightforwardly:
“When will we see your nephew in church?”
“When he makes his First Communion, and not before,” said Don Camillo, still fighting to remain calm. “He’ll probably make it in the city, though, with his classmates and his own parish priest instead of an uncle who only sees him once every seven or eight years. Any other questions?”
The squad of little old ladies shook their heads.
“Good. And in case I wasn’t clear enough, I advise you to brush up on the definition of charity: it’s something you give to other people regardless of whether you think they deserve it or not. Rather like forgiveness, in that respect.”
He strode back home without even remembering to take off his vestments and went straight to Giosuè, who was pouring over Tonino Bottazzi’s geography book.
“How well did you do in school when you had to learn poems?” he asked bluntly.
Giosuè, startled, had to think for a few seconds.
“Not bad,” he said. “I was fourth in my class.”
“Oh, good. Because we might have a problem.”
Don Camillo explained the scene on the parvis in a few terse words. He was careful not to frighten the child too much but still tried to convey that this was no laughing matter.
“If a few old ladies are starting to have doubts, you can be sure that other people will, too, and fairly soon. Dangerous people.”
Giosuè’s face lost all colour.
“What do we do?” he whispered.
Don Camillo ran his big hand across his chin, deeply preoccupied, and looked at him thoughtfully.
“I’m going to prepare you for your First Communion.”
Giosuè, shocked out of his fear, looked at him as though he had grown a second head.
* * *
Of course Don Camillo had no intention to have Giosuè make his First Communion. The boy was already being hunted for his faith and it was one of the only things he had managed to hold on to. Besides, he would have had to be baptised first.
But that didn’t mean they couldn’t cheat their way out of the problem.
Thus Giosuè began to learn the Pater Noster, the Credo, and the usual liturgy of communion. He made a great effort, but still stumbled on the Latin words and fumbled with the declensions. The Credo was the worst, being so long, and Giosuè, who didn’t understand Latin at all, had to rely only on mnemonics and his power of recall.
Needless to say, he had his work cut out for him.
* * *
Two days later, as Don Camillo was giving a fresh coat of paint to the statue of St Anthony the Abbott and Giosuè was ambling around gazing up at the stained-glass windows, there was a frantic knock on the little side chapel window.
Don Camillo pulled the window open, still holding the brush and the palette, and saw old Giulietta Balducci making desperate gestures.
“What happened?” asked Don Camillo, startled. “The end of the world?”
The old woman was panting as though she had been running, but she gathered enough breath to gasp, “Germans…! There’s a bunch of German soldiers heading for the church! They’ll be there in—”
The door of the church banged open. Don Camillo reflexively pushed the window shut.
Calling the group of soldiers a ‘bunch’ might have been an exaggeration: all in all, they were five, but this included a lieutenant and the German captain in charge of the local administration.
After a glance at Giosuè who was rooted to the spot as though struck by lightning, Don Camillo put down his brush and his palette, rolled down his sleeves, and walked up to the German captain.
“Unless you’re coming for a confession, a baptism or last rites, I will ask you to come back later,” he said. “Right now I’m busy.”
“I wouldn’t dream of wasting your time, Father,” said the German captain politely in very good Italian. “We are only here to settle a small issue, that is all.”
And his gaze went past Don Camillo to Giosuè.
Don Camillo resolutely ignored the way his heart started hammering in his chest and crossed his arms. “What issue?”
“Well, as you know, this is a small town – I’m sorry, a ‘commune’4, isn’t that what they’re called here? You see, I come from a fairly little village myself, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned there, it’s that gossip is inevitable.”
“I suppose it is,” said Don Camillo, watching him closely. “And?”
The captain didn’t answer right away. He looked at Giosuè again and said with an odd smile, “So this is your nephew.”
“Yes,” said Don Camillo whose ears were starting to burn. “This is Gio. Why don’t you say hello, Gio.”
“‘Lo,” murmured Giosuè. The captain smiled amiably.
“Shy little fellow, isn’t he? He doesn’t look like you much, if you’ll forgive my bluntness.”
“Takes after his father’s family. What can I do for you?”
“Reverend, you and I are both administrators, in a way; you manage the souls of your parishioners, I make sure things are done properly. To do that, I need everybody’s cooperation. We are at war, after all, and we all must make concessions for the greater good.”
Not only had Don Camillo been born with a serious aversion to beating around the bush and the German was badly trying his patience, but the sight of Giosuè staring at the soldiers in terror was making it ten times worse. The rhythm of his pounding heart was now approaching a call to arms.
“Let’s be frank, Reverend,” the captain continued. “If you were harbouring a fugitive, would you come forward and tell us?”
“I’m not in the habit of hiding criminals, if that’s what you’re asking,” said Don Camillo flatly. “Unless you count Barchini’s cat. He took refuge in the rectory attic after he broke Signora Cristina’s vase last summer. I was rodent-free for two months so I didn’t complain.”
“The captain was not thinking about that kind of vermin,” said the lieutenant in a grave voice. The captain gave him a look, then came back to Don Camillo.
“We have received serious allegations regarding your nephew.”
“He’s eight. Whatever those ‘allegations’ are they can’t be worse than a little childish mischief.”
“First off, that he’s not really your nephew.”
“Are you insulting my sister, or her husband?”
“And more importantly, that he’s a Jew.”
“That’s funny. I distinctly remember being present at his baptism.”
No more than half a second passed between the end of one sentence and the beginning of the next. The German soldiers watched the exchange of metaphorical shots with impassive faces. If they had been standing on the side, though, their heads would have been snapping back and forth between the two men.
The German captain gritted his teeth for a second, then he was all smiles again.
“Look, as I said, we’re not here to make any trouble. You’re obviously a respected authority in the village; you’ve been these people’s priest for a long time and it would be a shame to change this state of things. I just want some proof that the boy is who you say he is.”
“And my word isn’t enough?”
“Quite frankly, no.”
The captain turned abruptly to Giosuè, who was standing frozen a few feet away.
“I understand you’ll make your First Communion soon,” he said almost kindly.
Giosuè was so still and white that he appeared to be carved out of marble. But he gave a tiny nod.
“Congratulations. That’s a big step in a young boy’s life. It means you’ve reached the age of reason, you know that?”
“I’m sure your family prepared you well for this. Personally, I’ve always had trouble with all the Latin, but it helped very much when I learned Italian. Never let anyone tell you that Latin is useless and incomprehensible.”
From the slightly puzzled look on Giosuè’s face that was starting to compete with the terror, Latin was not the only thing that could be incomprehensible.
And then the captain gave another smile.
“So how about you recite a Pater Noster for me, to prove that you have nothing to fear from us.”
“Is that why you and your soldiers are invading my church?” Don Camillo didn’t even have to force the disbelief into his voice, but he had to fight tooth and nail to keep the fury to an acceptable level. “To force a prayer out of a frightened boy?”
The captain raised a hand and did not look at Don Camillo. “Please, Father,” he said with steel in his voice. “This will not take long and it’s a small price to pay for peace of mind. Especially ours. Come on, child. Let’s hear it.”
Giosuè’s huge eyes were fixed somewhere between the captain’s gun and the buttons on his jacket. His mouth opened and closed soundlessly, his mind a complete blank.
“This is a waste of time,” interrupted the lieutenant sharply. “Let’s just check if he’s circumcised and be done with it.”
He took a step towards Giosuè.
Don Camillo felt the blood drain from his face. He grabbed the first thing that his hand could find, which turned out to be a five foot candelabra made of solid lead, and brandished it like a stick as though it weighed nothing. He did not shout, he did not bark or bellow; instead, his voice was as deep and icy as the great river right before it bursts its banks and swallows up everything – people, cattle, trees, houses.
“Anyone so much as touches this child and none of you will leave this place alive.”
The captain, the lieutenant and the three soldiers drew every single weapon they had and aimed at Don Camillo.
Who knows how this could have ended, and the consequences it could have had? Who can tell who would have fired the first shot, or struck the first blow? How much blood would have flowed on the stone tile floor of the little church, and how quickly, if a small, tremulous voice hadn’t spoken at the very second it did?
“Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum. Benedicta tu in mulieribus…”
They all turned and stared at Giosuè, who was standing very straight with his hands locked behind his back. If the situation hadn’t been what it was, and if he hadn’t been so ashen-faced, he might have looked like he was in class, being asked by the schoolmaster to recite a poem.
Giosuè did not hesitate once. The prayer was word-perfect, the Latin impeccable.
“…nunc, et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.”
“Amen,” muttered Don Camillo, lowering the candelabra by about fifty millimetres. The Germans did the same with their guns and took their fingers off the triggers.
The German captain stared at Giosuè with his eyebrows raised.
“It appears our informants were mistaken about their allegations. The Ave Maria, huh? Not quite what I had asked for, but all right.”
“I can say the Pater Noster, too,” said Giosuè, his face still white but his eyes blazing. “If you want.”
“No, that’ll do. Thank you, young man.”
The lieutenant snapped his heels together. “Herr Hauptmann, this is still very suspicious. The boy looked far too scared to –”
Don Camillo snapped.
“Of course he was scared, you bloody idiot!” he roared, still brandishing the huge candelabra, his voice reverberating all around inside the church. “So would you be, if you were an eight year old boy and a horde of foreign soldiers armed to the teeth made you say a prayer! One of the most intimate links between a human soul and God, and he wanted to force that out of him! And you…!”
The lieutenant involuntarily took a step back in alarm.
“What you were about to do to that child is unspeakable! Have you no shame, no sense of basic human decency? If I were your confessor I would refuse you absolution!”
“I’m a Protestant,” muttered the lieutenant.
“I don’t care what you are!” bellowed Don Camillo, still wielding his candelabra. Two of the soldiers scrambled back. “You’re a coward hiding behind a uniform, that’s all! All of you! Now get out and don’t even think of darkening the door of the house of the Lord again if it’s to bully children!”
The lieutenant had his hand on his gun again, but the captain stopped him with a gesture. Then he glanced at the very large, very heavy candelabra in Don Camillo’s hands and gave him a curious look.
“I wonder if you could give me one good reason not to arrest you right now.”
“I don’t have to. You’ll just have to take this up with Him when your time comes and hope your conscience is clear.”
“And yours is?” asked the captain.
“Yes,” said Don Camillo firmly.
The captain looked at him unblinkingly for a few seconds. Then he nodded to his soldiers, who half-walked and half-ran to the door as though he had sounded the retreat. The lieutenant followed them with more dignity, his face still dark; the captain was the last to get out, and he did so with a last, somewhat unsettling look at Don Camillo and Giosuè.
When the door of the church clunked shut, Don Camillo carefully put down the candelabra, which suddenly seemed to weigh a ton. He felt around behind him for the wall he knew was there, and leaned heavily against it. His heart seemed to have left his ribcage for his throat and was thumping so hard and so wildly that his vision blurred with every beat. Feeling the cool, rough surface of the stone under his palm did him a world of good.
He fished his large white and yellow handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the cold sweat from his forehead with a shaking hand.
They had come so close to taking Giosuè away. Much, much too close.
Giosuè’s hands were shaking badly, too, but he was still ramrod-straight as he stared at the door the Germans had closed behind him.
“Don Camillo,” he said in a faraway voice, “I’d like to go out and see the donkey again, please.”
Don Camillo didn’t trust himself to speak. He nodded.
* * *
When they were on a small path, well out of sight of the houses, Giosuè asked for permission to have a run.
“All right, but not too far.”
Don Camillo sat on a stone marker and watched Giosuè bolt away like a cannon shot. He ran as fast as he could, as far as he was allowed to, which was to a little bridge about two or three hundred metres away. He dashed back instantly and came back very red, drenched with sweat and with his chest heaving, but looking a little more at peace.
The donkey was enjoying a day off in his field; he watched placidly as the two humans approached, then moseyed closer in search of affection and possible food.
Before they left the rectory, Don Camillo had stuffed his pockets with apples and some bread in a clean handkerchief. He gave an apple to Giosuè, who gladly fed it to the donkey and whispered in his ears as the animal munched.
Giosuè spent a long time stroking the donkey and murmuring to him. Don Camillo didn’t know whether it was the long, slow gestures or the one-sided conversation, but it seemed to soothe the boy, who only left the fence when the donkey walked off to his stable.
Don Camillo and Giosuè strolled along the dykes in comfortable silence for a long time, not really knowing nor caring who was following whom.
The end of June was drawing near, and late spring was giving way to summer. In the fields and in the ditches, the poppies and the deep green herbs had disappeared in favour of a tall, thin wild grass that was slowly turning yellow. The heat, while not yet quite as strong as it would get in another month or so, was still strong enough to make a stark difference between sunlight and shade, and after a while both Don Camillo and Giosuè were glad to stop under an elm to rest and snack on the bread and apples.
Don Camillo’s absolute fury and terror on Giosuè’s behalf had burned a trail of fire inside him that had gradually gone out, leaving only cold ashes and a sadness that grew with each passing moment. He watched the boy follow a colourful beetle and collect interesting-looking stones, still chewing on his apple, and let the logical conclusion draw itself.
Giosuè was no longer safe here.
* * *
Don Camillo wrote a letter that night, after Giosuè went to bed. He was very careful whom he sent it to, and even more careful in his choice of words, in case it was intercepted and fell into the wrong hands.
The answer arrived a few days later in the form of a letter from the nearby commune of Viadana. Don Camillo was so lost in thought when he got out of the post office to send a telegram of confirmation that he almost smacked into four people and a couple of walls on the way home.
That evening, he sat down in front of Giosuè, who had finished his arithmetic exercises and was reading one of his adventure books, nestled in his armchair.
“Giosuè,” he said, “I need to talk to you.”
Giosuè marked his page and looked up. His look of polite interest vanished when he saw the expression on Don Camillo’s face.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, anxiousness creeping into his voice.
Don Camillo couldn’t choose between answering ‘Nothing’ and ‘Everything’, so he settled for a third option. “I’ve been thinking. And…” His voice trailed off and he ran his hand across his face. “Look,” he continued, “There’s no way around it. It’s getting too dangerous for you out here. That German captain will be waiting for you or me to slip up, and that’s only if he actually decides to wait for evidence that I’m not really your uncle. And that lieutenant is just itching to arrest you.”
“So,” Giosuè whispered, “you’re going to send me away?”
“I’m not throwing you out into the street!” shouted Don Camillo. “Who do you think I am?”
Giosuè, who by now was used to the variations in volume of Don Camillo’s voice and knew this was no cause for alarm, gave him a somewhat pointed look.
“But you’re saying I can’t stay here.”
“I’m saying I need to get you somewhere safer. The Germans could show up again tomorrow using any excuse, like the fact that you don’t actually have any papers. Or they could just as well do without an excuse.”
Giosuè pondered the argument, then asked, “Where are we going, then?”
Don Camillo noted the ‘we’ with a pang, and explained, “There’s a hamlet called Cizzolo, in the commune of Viadana. I wrote to their priest, Don Silvio; he said that there’s a family there who will gladly hide you as long as it’s necessary.” He deliberately avoided saying either ‘until the Germans go away’ or ‘until your parents come back’. It almost seemed like too much to ask for and he didn’t want to give the boy false hopes anyway. “Their farm is far enough from the hamlet itself and it’s surrounded by fields. Even the county road doesn’t cross Cizzolo. It’s a long way from all the strategic routes, so the Germans never even set foot there. You’ll be safe.”
Giosuè was by nature a pensive child who seldom spoke before he had thought about what he was going to say. He mulled over Don Camillo’s words for a bit; then he squeezed his book tighter, nodded, and looked up with a slightly unsteady smile.
“I’m glad you were my uncle, you know. Even if it was just for a little while.”
Don Camillo stared at him for about ten seconds. Then he cleared his throat and tried not to look like someone had punched him in the chest.
“Me too,” he said finally with a smile that was just as shaky as Giosuè’s.
And he abruptly got up and strode to the kitchen to make dinner.
* * *
Don Silvio, a tall, thin young man with soft round blue eyes behind his glasses, showed up on the following Wednesday afternoon, as per his letter, in a little cart pulled by a mule.
“The Guatellis lent her to me to get the boy,” he said as he jumped down from the cart. “I figured he would be more comfortable in a cart than riding the rear rack on my bicycle for twenty kilometres.”
Don Camillo tied the mule in a shaded spot in the rectory garden and invited Don Silvio inside.
As he put two glasses and a bottle of Lambrusco on the table, Giosuè came downstairs, holding the little suitcase he had arrived with. Don Silvio held out his hand.
“Do you want some help with that?”
“No, thank you,” said Giosuè politely. He laid down the suitcase near the door and sat down at the kitchen table. Don Camillo put a pear, a bit of bread and the last of his honey in front of him and asked him sternly:
“Are you sure you didn’t forget anything upstairs?”
“Yes, Don Camillo.”
“Did you check the clothes line? Your white shirt should be dry by now.”
Giosuè opened his mouth, blinked, and hurried out to the rectory garden.
Don Silvio’s warm smile widened at Giosuè’s hasty departure.
“Quite the little gentleman, isn’t he?”
“He’s a good lad,” said Don Camillo, who was still looking at the door that led to the garden. He took a chair at the kitchen table beside Don Silvio and poured two glasses of Lambrusco. “Can you swear to me that he’ll be safe there?”
Don Silvio took his glass and sighed. “With everything that’s happened and probably will, I can’t guarantee his safety any more than I can guarantee mine, yours, or anyone’s. But Ettore and Giuseppina Guatelli are good people. They have two baby girls who are one and three years old. They’re aware of the risks, but they’re willing to do whatever it takes to protect the boy.”
“Where did he come from, by the way? Did he just show up on your doorstep one day, or…?”
“No, that’s – that’s more or less what happened.”
Don Camillo quickly told Giosuè’s story to Don Silvio, who listened with an expression that grew darker with every word.
“Poor boy,” he sighed when Don Camillo stopped talking. “Do you think his family is still alive, somewhere?”
“I don’t know. There’s no way to find out, not until—” Don Camillo broke off as Giosuè came back inside, carrying his dry laundry. “Well, you were gone some time.”
“I was saying goodbye to the orchard,” said Giosuè quietly.
Don Silvio shot Don Camillo a sympathetic glance.
Giosuè had his snack while the two adults had their glass of wine, and the three of them chatted amiably for a while.
Soon enough – somewhat too soon to Giosuè’s and Don Camillo’s liking – it was time to say goodbye.
“Make sure he works on his conjugation and his six and seven multiplication tables,” said Don Camillo to Don Silvio while Giosuè put his suitcase into the cart and looked at the mule with interest. “And it would be nice if someone could read him a page or two of The Tigers of Mompracem before bed. We stopped at page 122. Oh, and he must have two candles of his own every Friday evening till Saturday night. It’s important.”
Don Silvio nodded with a smile. “I’ll make sure of it, don’t worry.”
There was plenty of things Don Camillo wanted to add, but then Don Silvio went to harness the mule to the cart, and he found Giosuè craning his neck to look up at him.
Don Camillo knelt down, looked at the boy in the eyes, and everything he wanted to say vanished from his mind. What could he say? ‘Be careful’? ‘Be good’? Giosuè had never been anything but. All the other words caught in his throat and added to the lump that had been there for days, ever since he had received Don Silvio’s letter.
Fortunately, Giosuè must have understood most of what Don Camillo had meant to say, because he threw his arms around his neck. Don Camillo remained thunderstruck for a few seconds; then he hugged the boy back, hesitatingly at first, then fiercely.
“You’ll say goodbye to Tonino and Lucia for me, won’t you,” whispered Giosuè, still gripping Don Camillo’s cassock with his clenched fists.
Don Camillo could only nod silently.
Giosuè hopped onto the cart next to Don Silvio, who saluted with a wave. When they passed the gate of the rectory garden and into the street, Giosuè turned around in his seat; his green eyes were full of tears, but he was smiling the biggest smile Don Camillo had seen on his face. Then the little cart disappeared round a street corner and was gone.
Don Camillo stood where he was for a solid fifteen minutes, staring at the street. Then he went back into the rectory and climbed the stairs.
Giosuè’s room was just as it had looked two months ago: spotless, but bare. The only sign that someone had lived and slept there were the pile of neatly-folded clothes on the bed (to be returned to Tonino), the pencil case (which Lucia had shared with Giosuè every other week, when they weren’t drawing together at the Bottazzis’ kitchen table while Don Camillo was out on errands), and the stack of drawings on the desk.
Giosuè had drawn a lot, and the subjects of his artistic endeavours were many and various. His family was in many drawings, together or in separate portraits, and a few featured what Don Camillo thought must be Signora Rosa. In addition to the partisans-as-pirates picture Giosuè had done early on, a few more featured frowning men with red kerchiefs, including one with a fearsome moustache that made Don Camillo think Lucia must have let something slip about her father’s clandestine activities during one of their drawing sessions. Giosuè had drawn the orchard, too, with the apple tree and the vegetable patch, and the donkey in his field, the bridge over the Canalaccio, and the poplar trees along the Main Dyke. He had drawn Don Camillo a few times, as well, including one picture in which two figures, a big black one and a small yellow-headed one, both armed with big sticks, were driving off a bunch of little green-grey characters who seemed to be calling for their mothers.
Don Camillo sat at the desk to look at the drawings; soon, though, he found the silent, empty room dreary and lonely and almost stifling, so he gathered up the drawings and retreated to the one place where he had never felt alone.
* * *
“Jesus,” said Don Camillo with something that was not quite yet a smile, “look at those. The boy is talented, isn’t he?”
“He is, Don Camillo, reasonably so. It also goes to show that if you put all your heart into something, some of it always comes out, one way or another.”
Don Camillo was sitting on a pew facing the main altar and the crucified Christ, looking at the pictures one by one and waiting for the cold, tight ball of misery and worry in chest to go away. So far, it hadn’t budged.
“Something on your mind, Camillo?” asked Jesus kindly. Don Camillo lowered the sheets of paper and his shoulders sagged.
“Lord,” he sighed, “I know You’re watching over Giosuè; I know Don Silvio wouldn’t leave him with people he doesn’t trust completely and I know he’ll be looking out for him, too; but I can’t help it. I worry about him like mad.”
“And it’s very much to your credit. But surely that is not the only reason why you’re here now.”
Every now and then, when Don Camillo had done something reprehensible, or felt angry or sad and didn’t want to talk to Jesus about it, he was not above telling a barefaced lie. Of course, Jesus always knew, because even if he hadn’t read Don Camillo’s heart like an open book, it was useless to try and keep secrets from him.
This Don Camillo knew perfectly well, but it had never stopped him.
He could have thrown out his arms and played wide-eyed innocence, and for a moment he found it very tempting. Instead he carefully put the drawings on the pew beside him and hastily wiped his eyes.
“I didn’t know it was possible to miss someone this badly after so little time,” he said quietly. “He’s not even been here two months and… Lord, it’s like the sun rose and I didn’t even know it was night.”
Jesus smiled. “What changed, then?”
“I don’t know… Habits, mostly. Little things. Correcting his homework and reading him stories. Working in the vegetable patch, going off to see the donkey, strolling through the countryside… Making sure he was well-fed, got enough sleep, didn’t get bored…”
“I wouldn’t call those ‘little things’, Camillo. You’ve grown to care a lot for the boy, it’s only natural that you miss him.”
“And worry, too. I know. But, Jesus…”
Don Camillo stood up and walked up to the altar with his hands behind his back and his head hanging low, as usual when he was preoccupied or downhearted.
“Do You remember when it looked like Tonino Bottazzi was going to die from the whooping-cough, five years ago? One evening I found Peppone sobbing his heart out, on that pew right here. He didn’t even have the strength to ask me to light the candle he had brought.”
“I remember, Don Camillo. I remember everything. But what has this got to do with Giosuè?”
“Lord, I thought I understood why he was crying. Now I know that I didn’t, not really.”
“What do you mean?”
Don Camillo didn’t answer; not because he didn’t want to, but because he didn’t know where to begin and how to put everything – the turmoil in his head and the weight in his heart – into intelligible sentences. He paced back and forth for a little while in silence, then saluted Jesus with a quick sign of the cross and went back into the rectory.
He put Giosuè’s drawings into his old military chest between the photographs and the partisans’ letters, grabbed his field altar, and took off to Mario Pasotti’s house to borrow his motorcycle.
* * *
The sun was setting as Don Camillo stopped by the old dead tree to get directions. After he hid the motorcycle in a safe spot, it took him about an hour’s trekking in the falling darkness to find what – or rather who – he was looking for.
It was Stràziami who was on lookout duty; after he had made sure Don Camillo was not a lost German soldier nor a Black Brigade straggler, he welcomed him with his usual solemn bordering on grim expression, and took him inside the shelter built out of the same old patched-up tarpaulins camouflaged under interwoven branches and ferns.
Beside Stràziami, most of the usual familiar faces – Bigio, Brusco, Smilzo, Francesca, Nino – were there, but the squad was clearly missing at least half its men.
“What happened?” asked Don Camillo, alarmed. “Where’s the rest of you?”
“Not dead, if that’s what you’re worried about,” said a voice behind him as Peppone made his way into the shelter. “The band was getting too large for safety, so we split. Aldo took half the men across the mountains, towards La Spezia. Evening, Reverend,” he added, holding out his hand with a grin.
Don Camillo shook his hand heartily with an answering smile. “Hello, Peppone.” Then something crossed his mind and he looked around. “If Aldo left, who’s in charge now?”
Peppone crossed his arms and gave Don Camillo a somewhat self-satisfied look. Don Camillo threw out his arms.
“I should have known.”
“We voted,” pointed out Brusco.
“The democratic process may pertain to the triumphal march of proletarian revolution,” added Smilzo.
Don Camillo rolled his eyes. “Somebody take the books from that boy. Or better, give him some proper ones.”
“Never mind books,” said Smilzo eagerly. “How’s my mum and dad? And Carola?”
Don Camillo was immediately flooded with questions, which he answered best he could. Then, as usual, he went to sit outside the shelter and waited for whoever was in need of a confession.
Every man and woman sat down one after the other and talked for a little while – even Smilzo, who murmured things in an anguished voice and then finished by flippantly asking Don Camillo to say hello to Carola for him, and even Stràziami, who stayed silent for five minutes straight before admitting how scared and desperate he felt, sometimes, and how much he wished he could come back to the valley to see his wife and young child.
Peppone was the last to come, but come he did.
“God be with you, brother,” said Don Camillo when Peppone sat down next to him. “How long has it been since your last confession?”
“A good long while, and hopefully the next one will wait. How are Maria and the kids? And my mother?”
“They’re fine. Marco had a runny nose for a couple of weeks, but the doctor said it was just hay fever. Lucia’s lost another tooth, an upper canine…”
Don Camillo went on with his little news bulletin, which Peppone drank like a man being offered clear water in the middle of the desert. The more he talked, the happier Peppone looked, and the more Don Camillo’s heart sank in his chest as he thought about Giosuè.
When he was done, Don Camillo fell silent, and Peppone didn’t speak, either. The night air was cool, but not cold; the mountain all around them was still giving back the heat it had accumulated in its earth and its rocks during the day. The smells were sharper here, and the night was filled with the song of foreign birds and insects, odd animal yelps, and trees creaking as their wood settled.
“You can never really see the stars here, not when you have to hide under the trees all the time,” murmured Peppone after a while. “Everywhere you look there’s a mountain blocking your view. Not like home. When you look up from the valley, the sky never ends.”
Don Camillo nodded, but didn’t reply. Peppone glanced at him from the corner of his eye.
“What’s wrong, Father? You’ve been looking funny ever since you arrived. Don’t think I haven’t noticed.”
Don Camillo almost retorted something casually sarcastic out of habit, but the lump in his throat had come back, so he kept his mouth closed. This time Peppone half-turned to look at him.
“Don Camillo, is everything all right? You didn’t get bad news about your family, did you? We heard that all the big cities in the North were being bombed since early Spring.”
“No, nothing of the kind. Last I heard, they were all alive and well, thank the Lord.” Don Camillo paused and looked up. Peppone was right; only a patch of dark blue was visible, with a handful of stars that looked like pins planted haphazardly, a far cry from the immensity that was the sky stretched over the great river. It was enough to make one homesick after only two or three hours. “It’s just that… It’s a lot of things, really.”
Peppone picked up a small stick and poked at the moss at his feet.
“Well. Maybe it’s your turn, then.”
“To do what?”
“I don’t know, confess?”
Don Camillo glared at him.
“Just because you’ve never taken the sacrament of repentance seriously—”
“Not true, but that’s not the point. Look, where I stand from, there’s priests, and then there’s chaplains. And chaplains are—”
“They’re the exact same thing! Are you seriously presuming to teach me my job, Peppone?”
“Hear me out instead of getting on your high horse! What I meant to say is that chaplains don’t just celebrate Masses or dish out sacraments, they also listen to the poor devil who’s cold and scared and sick and tired of the fighting and the hunger and the death, even if he hasn’t had much to do when it comes to sin. The kind of stuff that falls under, uh, ‘spiritual assistance’. Right?”
“… Right,” muttered Don Camillo, mightily annoyed at hearing his life’s work and calling being reduced to ‘celebrating Masses and dishing out sacraments’ but following Peppone’s line of reasoning.
“Right. So, you’ve been our chaplain for a while now, and as chaplains go, you’re not that bad.”
“Thank you very much!” exclaimed Don Camillo, who was this close to seeing red. “I wonder if my position as your chaplain involves punching you in the nose every time you say or do something stupid. But that would be a full-time job and I’d have to leave my parish for that!”
Peppone shrugged. “So, the boys talk to you, and they’re grateful for it,” he said, ignoring Don Camillo’s little outburst. “But who do you talk to?”
“You know who I talk to, Peppone. I couldn’t ask for a better chaplain. And it would do you good if you talked to Him once in a while, too.”
“Who I talk to and how is my business. Besides, it looks like you have something on your mind that you didn’t talk to your ‘chaplain’ about.”
For all that Peppone was about as subtle as a bull in a china shop on his best day and tended to let his temper get the better of him, he could every now and then make very shrewd observations. Don Camillo’s anger vanished as suddenly as it had flared up.
“All right,” he sighed. “But I need to speak to the father, not to the partisan or the Communist.”
“They’re all listening anyway.”
And Don Camillo talked, starting from the moment he had found Giosuè on his doorstep, and explained everything that ensued. Peppone kept fiddling with the stick he still had in his hand and listened intently. He must have heard what Don Camillo didn’t say, as well, because when Don Camillo told him in broad strokes what had happened in the church with the German captain and lieutenant, Peppone went white and shot him a sharp glance.
“Bloody cowards,” he muttered with an expression that was nothing short of murderous; and he spat on the ground. This was his only interruption.
Don Camillo continued until he reached the part where Don Silvio had taken Giosuè to the Guatellis, and trailed off in the middle of a sentence. Peppone waited for the rest, and when he didn’t get it, he glanced at Don Camillo again, this time with something funny in his eyes.
“They have a way of growing on you, don’t they?” he asked softly.
It was so unusual for him to speak so quietly that it abruptly brought Don Camillo back to the present.
Don Camillo shook his head. “I can’t even imagine what it must be like when they’re yours.”
“I couldn’t describe it right even if I wanted to – I think I’d have to have stayed in school a lot longer than I did for that. But it’s like… being scared to death and feeling like a giant at the same time. You go about your normal business and suddenly you realise that your heart is bursting with love and it has to come out somehow, but then they can do or say things that make you wonder where you’ve gone wrong.” Peppone rubbed the back of his neck, making his cap tip dangerously over his eyes. “So you balance it all out with the little things.”
“What little things?”
“The everyday stuff – tucking them in at night, kissing them goodbye when they go to school in the morning and goodnight before they go to bed, taking care of their cuts and scratches, holding them when they cry… It probably sounds silly.”
“It really doesn’t,” whispered Don Camillo, who was thinking about The Tigers of Mompracem and the way Giosuè’s eyes had lit up every night when he opened the book.
Something rustled nearby and made both men freeze. It turned out to be an owl flying off from a branch, and they relaxed.
They listened to the silence for a little while, and then Peppone said:
“Giosuè sounds like a good kid.”
“And you know he’s safe where he is, but you can’t help worrying and meanwhile you’ve got a hole in your heart the size of the Milan Cathedral.”
Peppone dropped the stick and glanced at Don Camillo.
“Well, if you ever need to talk, I promise I will listen as a father and leave the partisan and the Communist out the door.”
Don Camillo caught his eye and smiled – a heartfelt, genuine smile that eased down the lump in his throat.
“Does that sort of make me your chaplain, too?”
They got up, leaning on one another and wincing at the various little sounds of bones popping, and went to join the others in the shelter.
Don Camillo celebrated the usual clandestine Mass, with Smilzo acting as as a smirking but nonetheless eager altar boy. After three or four hours of sleep, he made his way down to the spot he had hidden the motorcycle, followed by Peppone and Brusco just in case.
The sun was barely starting to rise over the river when he left the motorcycle against the wall of Pasotti’s barn and tiptoed back to the rectory to change before morning Mass.
* * *
Later that day, Don Camillo went to knock on Peppone’s mother’s door; it was Tonino who opened it. The boy greeted him politely and went to get his mother.
When Maria arrived – followed by Lucia, who was eagerly waiting for her turn at the coloured pencils – Don Camillo handed her the bag with Tonino’s old clothes.
“Gio went back to his parents’ yesterday,” he explained, to the children’s disappointment. “He was sorry he couldn’t come say goodbye properly but he did tell me to thank you for everything.”
“Well,” said Maria, “he was a good lad and having him around was a pleasure. Be sure to let him know he’ll always be welcome here.”
Don Camillo promised, and Maria went off to put away the clothes, smiling.
Lucia looked down at her pencil case.
“I liked Gio,” she said, somewhat sadly. “He was nice and he drew great pirates. Do you think he can come back sometime, when the war is over?”
“I hope so,” said Don Camillo with a smile.
“But if you befriend me, my life will be full of sunlight. I will know a footstep that will be like no other footstep. And look! Do you see the wheat fields over there? I do not eat bread; I have no use for wheat. The wheat fields hold no meaning for me, and that is sad. But your hair is the colour of gold. How wonderful it will be when you have befriended me! The wheat, which is golden, will remind me of you. And I will love the sound of the wind through the wheat…”
The fox fell silent and looked at the little prince for a long while.
“Please… Befriend me!” he said.
Thus the little prince befriended the fox. And when it was time for the little prince to go…
“Ah!” said the fox… “I will cry.”
“It’s your own fault,” said the little prince. “I did not mean to do you any harm, but you wanted me to befriend you…”
“Of course,” said the fox.
“But you will cry!” said the little prince.
“Of course,” said the fox.
“So then you did not gain anything!”
“I did,” said the fox, “because of the colour of the wheat fields.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Le petit prince
1While Piacenza was indeed heavily bombed in the spring of 1944, there is no San Donato Church there (that I know of).
2Traditionally the priest goes around his parish on Easter to bless his parishioners and their houses.
3From Emilio Salgari’s The Tigers of Mompracem.
4A commune (Italian Comune) is a town, which can include several frazioni (hamlets/subdivisions).
Unlike the Nazis, Mussolini’s Fascist régime was not based on the idea of extermination of “lesser races”, but as Mussolini got closer to Hitler in the second half of the 1930s, Italian Jews began to suffer, as well. “Racial laws” were issued in 1938, similar to the Nuremberg Laws, excluding Italian Jews from public service (including teaching) and public places such as libraries and parks, forbidding them to marry Gentiles, publish a newspaper, own a trade or even a radio set. Foreign Jews as well as some anti-fascist Italian Jews were imprisoned in internment camps from 1940; while the conditions were difficult, they were not quite as horrific as the work or death camps. The Italian authorities actually tolerated Jewish emigration from occupied countries (like Croatia or France) and went as far as to consistently refuse to hand back the refugees when their governments demanded them back.
The roundups truly began with the German invasion in 1943. Censuses have Jewish people in Italy in 1939 around 35,150 (they were around 47,480 in 1931; a lot of people either converted or immigrated rather than be subjected to the racial laws). In October 1943, the Gestapo arrested 1,259 people in the Ghetto of Rome; of the 1,023 people who were sent to Auschwitz only fifteen men and one woman came back. The police and the Blackshirts helped in the arrests and deportations from September 1943. There was a real support from the Gentile (mostly Catholic) population, however: many Italian Jews were saved hidden in attics, on farms, in religious institutions, orphanages and parishes.
About 7,750 Italian Jews were murdered in the death camps in less than a year and a half.
This is probably my favourite chapter, to tell the truth. I had a sudden inspiration for it as I reached the middle of chapter 2, and I just had to write it right away. I just hope that I did everything justice, and that you like reading it.