Today I saw death wearing the face of the very young. The dead spoke, though they shouldn’t have. And I listened, though I didn’t want to. I wish my fingers were thin metal wires that could dig deep into my ears and tear away their voices. Were this journal a diary of oblivion I would write until I dissolved them into ink and paper.
Lt. Sheely arrived at our camp at 10 a.m. I was doing the laundry in the olive grove when he found me. He said he needed me for some tricky business back in town. When I asked what it was about, he didn’t answer. Nevertheless I followed him. I wish I hadn’t.
The town is called Lucerìa and it is just six miles from our camp. Though I saw nothing of the destruction I had witnessed in Foggia, the city had been hit by a B-17 two weeks ago. After a while, I could see we were heading for a school, an old three-story building. The lower floors were still intact, but the upper ones were devastated.
Much of the debris had been cleaned up, but the place was still in shambles. On the ground floor, the war correspondents had set up their pressroom in the school refectory. The walls and ceiling are hand painted and quite incredible. Beside the usual saints and Madonnas are some creatures the likes of which I’d never seen: they soar in the air, slither under the ground, walk through flames and water; some have claws, many have mouths, all have blood-golden eyes. What are they? They seemed so otherworldly, and yet somehow familiar. I was still nose in the air when Sheely introduced me to Pvt. Stephens. He was to be my guide in the school. I noticed his hands, strong and rough, outdoor hands. When I asked why I would need a guide, Sheely replied:
“He was the one who found them.”
Before I could ask who ‘them’ was, we climbed the stairs up to the second floor, where Pvt. Stephens called for Sorella Serena. A few minutes later a limping child came out. It took me a few moments to realize this was no child, but a dwarf. In his terrible Italian, Stephens asked this dwarf-nun about some keys, but she was upset.
“You said you wouldn’t bring anyone else,” she said in Italian.
At that I replied I was there to help. The dwarf-nun was startled.
“Are you Apulian?” she asked. She had the sweetest voice.
I told her I was not, but that my grandmother was. At this, she seemed to calm down and led us, limping, through a drab corridor. She halted in front of a small door and opened it with a rusty key.
The dorm was in almost total darkness (Italian shutters are thick wooden panels, not our thin curtains). There was the strangest smell, like one you would expect to find in a barn and not a first aid station. Slowly, I made out twelve beds. Not one was empty.
I’ve seen dead children more than once since coming overseas, but this was very different. Part of it was that their heads were all covered in bandages. They also had a strange, bird-like quality; like frail human-chicks that had been shot by mistake. Pvt. Stephens shone a flashlight over the closest bed while Sheely unwrapped the boy’s bandages. It was bad, but not the kind of bad I was expecting.
The boy had no nose. All the skin had been peeled from his scalp. There were burns on the torso too, but these didn’t look recent. The mouth was most shocking. Little as it was, it looked like a gaping chasm. Right then they spoke. All of them. It was just a whisper but one I knew too well, for I had heard it countless times in the aid stations.
“Acqua,” they said. Water.
Why did they talk? The dead should not talk.
As we came out, Sheely handed me a letter.
The letter—from Gen. Fawkes—listed the casualties from the school’s bombing: six nuns and twenty-seven children. However, an additional twelve boys had also been extracted from the debris. Barely alive, but still, alive. And this is the thing: no one in town claimed them. No father or mother, no aunt or grandmother, no one at all.
Lt. Sheely asked me if I wanted to help them to find the boys’ relatives. I told him I would think about it.
I woke up in the middle of the night. In the distance, an owl screeched like a man’s throat was cut in mid-scream. In the dark of the orchard I kept seeing the boys’ mouths. I tried all the old tricks, but sleep would not come. At last, one of Grandma’s lullabies came to me.
Traso chiano chiano esto sott o divano . . .
Si traso cchiù vvicino i ‘vengo ‘nta cucina . . .
Po ‘traso ‘e renza ‘e renza e sto ‘ncopp ‘a credenza,
ma ‘a notte pe’dispietto me metto appier “o lietto.
I enter quietly and hide under the sofa . . .
If I come closer I come into the kitchen . . .
Then I come in and hide on the hutch,
but at night, when I arrive, I stand by your bed.
I didn’t have a bed, but I imagined I was in one and a dark human shape knelt down inside my tent, a hand over my head. “Duorme,” said Grandma’s voice.
“Sleep.” And in my dream, I slept.
They don’t love us here. This isn’t like Naples or even Palermo. In Lucerìa people walk past without looking you in the eye; and when they do, you wish they hadn’t. I can’t blame them. Adults, I don’t mind, they can stare as much as they want. But when children do, then I can’t bear it; especially children Junior’s age.
First thing in the morning I went to town, to the Madri Pie school. Sheely wasn’t there but Pvt. Stephens was. I could tell he was surprised to see me again. The lieutenant had asked two other macaroni before me. Stephens told me that I was a better choice because “you can speak the dialect of your people.” I bit my lips but I didn’t reply.
We climbed upstairs to bring water to the wounded. Stephens had to ask the dwarf-nun’s permission to enter their quarters during the day. Sorella Serena is the school’s headmaster. She was one of the three nuns who survived the blast, and had stayed behind to look after the damaged building. In spite of her size, she gives an impression of boundless energy. She never asks the other sisters to run an errand, but always does it herself; carrying buckets, or even wood for the stove. Her hands are small and hard: farmer’s hands, though they can perform acts of tremendous beauty. The Sorella plays an ancient kind of box-harp called a psaltery. I heard it only once, for the evening Angelus, and I must say I’d never heard a sound so exquisite.
As soon as we entered the dorm I wanted to be outside. I couldn’t bear to look at them, or even to hear them breathing; it was as if with every breath they suffocated me. As I shuffled around the room, I asked Stephens how much morphine they were given. He said they were given none. When I told him that without morphine we would’ve heard them screaming from the camp, he replied that in fact we did.
“Didn’t you hear them last night? They always wake up at twilight. Then we do use morphine to keep them in their beds.”
All Stephens’s attention was on the bodies now. First he removed their bandages, then cleaned them with a sponge. Finally he gave them water, holding their heads up like a mother to a sick child. Some had burns, some stab scars, some bruises around their necks, some pockmarks, some scabs on their arms. All different, yet all old scars. Only their facial wounds looked recent. Like someone had skinned them with a knife. Then I noticed their hands. I hadn’t noticed them before. The fingers were clawed, the nails thick and sharp, like animals.
The guys from the press-room opened up a bit when I told them about my janitor job for the Providence Herald.
“We’re almost colleagues then!” laughed Sgt. Aaron from Yank magazine. While we were having a smoke, I asked them who had pulled the boys from the debris. They didn’t know. When Stephens found them, they were already where I saw them, in their beds.
I asked if anyone had looked for their parents. Sgt. Aaron nodded. Sheely went through all the school records and went around to get the students’ mothers one by one and brought them here, so they could claim the boys. But the women didn’t claim them. They said their sons were already buried and showed Sheely their bodies.
“Then who the hell are they?” I asked.
The sergeant shrugged. He told me that maybe the mothers didn’t want the boys back because they were disfigured.
“Or maybe because of some hocus-pocus curse.”
He said that while visiting the dorm, some of the women made the sign to ward off evil. Did he think the children were cursed?
“The villagers do. You saw them, they’re like animals.”
At that Sgt. Molly pulled him back and whispered something in his ear. Aaron laughed. He said he didn’t know. Then he asked me how I felt about killing my own people.
“They are not my people. I only speak their language,” I said.
Dead of night. Woke up to the same distant cries. I got out of my tent and used my binoculars. I hadn’t realized you could see the Madri Pie from the camp. There it was, a lit window surrounded by darkness on all sides. Did I see childlike shadows? And their cries, they didn’t sound human at all. Maybe they’re only owls. Maybe.
Something funny happened when I lay down. I was murmuring Grandma’s lullaby when I heard someone repeat it, in the dark. I sat up, all hot and cold. Probably a prank. Thinking about it, though, I don’t know any soldier in my outfit who could fake Apulian dialect.
In Italy, all the kids chase you in the streets calling you “Joe.”
“Hey Joe! Bis-quits! Bis-quits Joe!” they cry.
Back in Naples I saw US officers throwing packets of crackers at them just to see what would happen. “It’s like watching pigeons fight,” one once told me. I never have crackers with me. And I always try not to speak Italian in the street. If I do, they flock after me.
But here in Lucerìa things are different. Maybe because compared with the children in Foggia, kids here are well fed. But they’re more wary too, they size you up before approaching.
I sat under a fig tree and watched some kids playing sassolini just behind the Madri Pie. After a while, a boy of about fifteen came up to me. He was dressed in US army shorts, socks, and shirt, all too big for him. The shoes were grotesquely huge, he waddled in them. The boy asked me if I wanted to play. He showed me how: one person throws a handful of stones in the air and the other has to catch them. The first one to drop a stone loses the game. The boy threw up three pebbles. I caught them all. This surprised the kids; they didn’t think I had understood. Other children arrived in the square and began to cheer. We were up to six stones when the boy dropped one. When he realized he had lost, his face flushed. Then he scowled at me and shouted, “But can you do this Joe? Can you?”
He took his shoes off and began walking on his hands. He did it as naturally as if he was walking on his feet. All the children were cheering at him like mad. Finally I smiled and said, “No, non posso.” No, I can’t.
Talked with Lt. Sheely. He confirmed the correspondents’ stories. No one had claimed the wounded. Worse than that, no one in town had even approached the Madre Pie since the bombing. Then Sheely asked me if I believed there was something odd about the boys.
“You mean, besides their face wounds? No. Do you?”
He nodded. The boys were mostly comatose during the day. But at dusk, they sort of woke up. “Then they,” he began but could not bring himself to finish. He looked at me with the strangest intensity.
“Can I stay the night, in the dorm?” I asked.
“Sure, if you convince the sorella and Stephens. Good luck.”
“Is there something about Stephens you wish to tell me, sir?”
“Why do you ask?” he said.
“I dunno. He seems rather ‘off’ if you don’t mind me saying so.”
Sheely smiled bitterly.
“His outfit was destroyed. When he came here he was a broken man, he could hardly speak or sleep. His discovery of the children changed everything. He thinks he’s their appointed ‘protector’ and he utterly clings to them. I think he’s became a sort of addict.”
“Does he ‘abuse substances’?”
“I wish it were that simple. Ask him. Ask him to stay.”
It isn’t true that the townspeople in Lucerìa always shun us. Yesterday evening, at dusk, a small group of washerwomen came to our camp. They didn’t say a word, but took our clothes and did the washing for us in the creek. They didn’t want our money or—and this is rather exceptional—our food. They never smiled, and left without a grazie.
I found Stephens at the fountain and asked him permission to sleep in the dorm with them. He shook his head slowly, like a bull.
“They only need one ward. And you would spill it to the guys.”
Since I couldn’t make any sense of his answer, I asked him about home. He is a Westerner, so it took him a while to loosen up. He was born in Missouri, but moved to Twin Falls when he was sixteen and had worked as a ranch hand ever since. He is twenty-eight and unmarried.
“When I go back,” he said, “I’ll buy a nice piece of land. It’s all right to be working as a ranch hand, but it can’t last forever. When you get older you kinda like a place of your own.”
Stephens had it all planned out. He’d seen a piece of land just behind the last farm he worked for. I asked him to describe it to me, but he just looked up and frowned.
“Even England is hard for me to remember. And that was way before Naples, before Sicily, before Africa even. . . .” he said.
He knew for a fact that there is a town called Twin Falls, where he’d lived for twelve years. He remembers his friends there, his family, the girl he had wanted to marry. But he couldn’t remember the land. Not the hills or the brooks or woods or lake. If he tried, all he saw was Apulia; as if these sun-burnt plains had swallowed his memory whole.
I nodded. This is quite common among soldiers—at least the ones I know. You are fighting your way home, but after a while you’re not quite sure what home looks like. All you have is faded pictures.
Stephens laughed and said he’s got a lot more than that. When I asked him to explain himself, he changed subject. He asked me what I most looked forward to seeing when I got back.
“I guess that would be Junior,” I said.
I told him that my wife had our first baby just after I had left, and that he was three years old now but I’d never seen him or heard him speak, and that he—and his mother—are all I want to come back to. Stephens asked me if I felt at home here. There are other macaronis who took to the old country like ducks to the water.
“If it wasn’t for Junior and your wife,” he said, “would you stay here? It’s the land of your fathers after all.”
I smiled his question off but he didn’t smile back. That somehow upset me. I told him I didn’t have to justify myself, that I’m an American soldier just like he is, and I left.
As I came out of the school I saw the dwarf-nun standing on a low wall. She was making herself taller to scold the boy with huge US army shoes. The boy’s head was bent and the nun’s voice vibrated him in long shudders. When he saw me, his chin shot up with a smile.
“Nonna nonna, did you know this Joe here is Italiano?”
The nun turned to reassure me that she was just his grandma’s sister, not his grandma. I told her that my name wasn’t Joe either.
“Angelo,” I said, and shook the boy’s hand. His jaw dropped.
“But I am Angelo too!” he burst out.
“Then I’m Big Angelo and you’re Little Angelo,” I said.
He was so happy that we had the same name, that at once he began walking on his hands. Quick as a wasp, the nun struck him on his back with a willow switch. The boy fell on his side—he looked at me like a scared cat—then scampered inside the school.
“Why, Sorella?” I asked. The nun looked at me warily, her concern mixed with pride.
“Angelo was here when the bomb hit the school. It was God’s hand that saved him. But even God’s patience has limits. One day he might do something foolhardy just to impress the likes of you.”
“Why isn’t he with his mom and dad?” I asked.
“My—” she said, then changed in mid-sentence “—they all died in Foggia, under your bombs. He and I, we are the only family left.”
I didn’t look her in the eye when she said this. Instead I inquired about the wounded. Didn’t she recognize them? The nun quietly shook her head and said they were too disfigured. Not even by their voices? They had been struck mute by the bombing, she said.
“Stephens said they scream at night. And I heard them speak.”
She said she never had. This was the first outright lie she had told me. Quickly, she added that Stephens was a bit lunatic.
“Then why did you give him permission to sleep with them?”
The nun scowled at me.
“This he must tell you himself.”
The night screams we hear coming from the Madre Pie are becoming unbearable. The guys are beginning to notice them too. Some say they are foxes, or owls, or wolves, but there are quite a lot of farmers in the infantry and you can’t fool a farmer, even in a foreign land. Only, it’s not just the screams. There are rumors that our outfit is going to Anzio, where the big action is. I’m not sure it is a bad thing for us. These days the guys talk about home obsessively. We all have a pet incantation, one we know by heart. Just yesterday Simmons said to Lt. Kip, “When Angelo sees his Junior,” meaning: when we all go home.
Yet sometimes the guys here are a bit like Stephens, you can see in their eyes that they can’t fully remember what they go on and on about. It’s as if everything they’ve been longing for—their hometowns, their wives, even their children—has somehow become unreal to them; like a fairy tale they tell themselves over and over again, afraid that one day they will forget.
I spent four afternoons in Lucerìa talking to as many relatives of those who died in the bombing as I could. Though their loss is recent they were usually able to talk about their loved ones, the men with faces set in stone, and the women in low voices. Most are farmers with large families, so losing a child is something they’ve taken into account. But when I asked about the twelve boys, their behavior changed. Some simply showed me the door. Others changed the subject and refused to come back to it. Not a few made the horned shaped hand, sticking out their index and pinkie fingers to ward off evil. An old woman even took a pinch of salt and threw it behind me as I left.
Most were scared, but not all. Some of the children listened, wide-eyed, at any mention of the wounded. One of them, a girl of about six, followed me out to the patio and uttered a single word.
“Nocturnals,” she said, and scuttled back inside.
Last night, Grandma’s stories kept me company as I lay awake in my tent. I saw them, among the tree branches. The Nuriae, who strangle unwary lovers in their own bedsheets; Wyrms, coiled around their treasures in the deep wells; Urchins, who swoop down chimneys to wreak their joyous mayhem; blind Garaudi, who will steal your left eye if you can’t solve their riddles. They all came back to me: Nocturnals.
That’s what Grandma called them. She told us that in the States, night is tame. But back in the old country, darkness is as thick as the sea. And in that sea live Nocturnals. Some were born, some unborn; all are stories. They tell them at the Vigils, by the light of green lanterns. And once they are told, Nocturnals crawl out of their dark sea and walk into our land, in the flesh.
Dead of the night. I must have fallen asleep after all, because I remember waking up with a jerk. I wasn’t the only one. Others were pointing at the small-lit window surrounded by darkness. The screams came at us in waves, washing over us like a dark tide, pulling us in.
I saw Little Angelo again. He’s the errand boy of the Madri Pie; he sweeps the floors and helps clean the debris from the upper floors. Whenever he’s out of the nun’s sight, he walks on his hands. That drives our guys wild and they give him chocolates and cigarettes. The more soldiers cheer him on, the more reckless he becomes. Only the other day, I saw him walking on the ledge of a second floor balcony, just to get a laugh from two officers. When his “grandma” heard what happened she beat him black and blue. Little Angelo submitted without a sound. He knows he means the world to her.
Later he told me that—a few days before the bombing—he had fallen from that same balcony. Dottor Mandelli said he was done for, and they even sent for the priest. But that was also his luck. It was because they had moved him into the chapel downstairs that he wasn’t killed by the blast. Two days later he was back on his feet.
“I am charmed,” he grinned.
I quite like the little guy. When I am at the school he follows me around like a duckling. Annoying as hell, but you can’t be mad at him for long. He is thirsty for anything American. He memorizes every name I throw at him: John Wayne, Lionel Barrymore, James Cagney. He loves the sound of American names, he chews on them as if they were bubble-gum and says when the war is over he’ll go living in the land of Joes. That made me laugh. Only when I inquired about the boys upstairs, would he start gnawing at his nails—which he only does when very upset. When I asked him if the boys upstairs scared him, he nodded. Oddly, I didn’t believe him. In fact, when I talked about them, he looked out of the window with the same bittersweet longing our guys have when they talk about home.
The washerwomen came back. This time there were dozens of them. They took all the unwashed clothes from our camp and walked off. We haven’t seen them or our clothes again yet. And it’s not just a few shirts I am talking about, it’s literally buckets of them. Some soldiers searched in the shrubbery but couldn’t find a single footprint. Sgt. Peake joked that next time we saw them, we should shoot on sight.
Yesterday at chow time I found Little Angelo in line for food and handed him a pair of shoes his size. I had a theory, which later proved to be true, that the reason Little Angelo walked on his hands so often was because it was easier than walking in those huge shoes.
The nun was there when I handed him the new pair. I was afraid she wouldn’t let him accept my gift, but she did. The little guy was so happy he danced in front of the chow line, to the amusement of the war correspondents. But as soon as Little Angelo left, the nun took me aside. She led me to the small chapel—hewn in white stone; a beauty—where the nuns usually pray. As the sorella absent-mindedly stroked her box-harp, she asked if I had a son. When I said that I did, she smiled.
“Then I hope you will understand. I see what you are trying to do and I can’t let you do it. Don’t you ever talk to my grandson again.”
Later on, I learned that the nun tried to convince Sheely to ask another macaroni for help. “That’s fine by me,” I told him.
“It was only a suggestion,” he began, but didn’t finish. His office windows had begun to shudder; the roar from outside was deafening. The war correspondents ran out, with us on their heels. We looked up. It came straight from our base, the biggest B-17 formation I’d ever seen. They were headed for Germany, Sheely said, to Berlin. The townspeople were coming out in the streets, too; girls clutching each other’s arms, farmers shielding their eyes with their hats. It didn’t matter if the B-17s weren’t for them, their dread was still palpable. There was one little girl —about six—clutching her father’s arm, she stared right at me. Not at Sheely, just at me. I will never forget her look. It was as if she were saying: “What you did to us wasn’t enough? You must do it to others as well?” I wanted to tell her that it wasn’t us who started all this—and most of all, it wasn’t me—but I didn’t.
When we came back, Sheely lit a cigar.
“That’s what we are to them,” he said. “A replacement of the Germans. I want to prove them wrong, Bisaccia. Finding the relatives of those twelve boys is a small thing, but it’s the least we can do.”
“I read you loud and clear, sir, but I’m stuck. I’ve made no progress. If you want to call someone else, I understand.”
“I never said I would. You think it’s enough to speak Italian? Even the two other guys whose parents are from Naples can’t understand this town or its people. But you . . . you have a way with this community. That’s why I need you, Bisaccia. I’ve received an invitation to a Vigil tomorrow. You’ll come with me as my translator and to keep an open ear. Someone did something terrible to those boys, and I bet my yearly wage it wasn’t us or the Germans. Help me send them home.”
Two soldiers didn’t come back last night. They’ll wait another twelve hours before sending search parties. Maybe they’re simply off somewhere, drunk. Of course they could have been captured, or killed in a mine field. A sign of ill omen, however you put it. In the camp the guys play cards in silence; they don’t even talk about home. Truth is, we have been stranded for too long. The sooner we leave, the better.
I first heard about the Vigils from Grandma. That’s what they call it here when people gather at night to tell stories. Sheely and I could see the green lanterns from afar; the barn was full of them. It was impressive, watching that emerald glow reflected on dozens of faces. I didn’t expect to see so many. When the Teller began, the silence was absolute. Translating was difficult. What came out of my mouth was poor in tone and content, while the Teller’s stories were full of nuances, holding a subtle mixture of humor and horror. Sheely frowned often as he listened. Surely, the children would not laugh at an Urchin skinning a spinster alive, or at a Garaude ripping out the eye of a young man who failed to solve his Riddle, or at a Wyrm slaughtering an entire town on a whim. But those stories were entertaining precisely because they were crude and outrageous. And the more I translated them, the more I entered into their world, and the more I seemed to understand them.
When we returned to the Madri Pie, my mind was on fire. I asked Sheely for permission to sleep in the pressroom, claiming I was too tired to head back to camp. But that was a lie. I had a little notebook and I was eager to fill it with as many stories I could.
I stayed up for an hour, writing by a flashlight on my table. I stopped only when I heard a din from upstairs. Suddenly I remembered where I was. But the soul-rending screams did not come. It was too late in the night for that. Instead I heard two distinct noises. First, a man sobbing. And then, the sound of an instrument, maybe a harp.
As I turned back to the pressroom, my flashlight lit up the frescoed vaults of the refectory. I had become so accustomed to them that I almost didn’t notice them anymore. There were the Madonnas and saints, all performing miracles. But among the latter were some very odd creatures: vagrants with cloaks made of eyes; washerwomen with faces like closed orchids; hedgehogs with the bodies of children; and Wyrms and Wyccae and Storm-Riders and Tarantulas and Lizard-Gnomes, and many, many more. However, when I looked closer, I could see the inscription for the foundation of the Madri Pie written under the arch of the main vault.
But instead of the word scuola, it read: PIOUS MOTHERS 1756, ROYAL ORPHANAGE.
“They are orphans. That’s why we can’t find their parents.”
Lt. Sheely wheeled around his chair and stared at me.
“Bisaccia, are you drunk?” he said.
After I had convinced him I wasn’t, he listened to what I had to say and very calmly began to demolish my arguments, one by one:
“First, even if the school really was an orphanage, it hasn’t been one for a long time. I’m talking centuries here, not years. And second: if the Madri Pie still housed orphans, why didn’t the nuns recognize them? Even in their present state, they would’ve known them.”
This was the only thing we did agree upon. The nuns should have recognized them, but they didn’t. Why?
And so I questioned the nuns. There were only the three of them. Suor Maria has a face like a slab stone and didn’t say much at all. I could see she was scared. Though not of the orphans or me: she was scared of the dwarf-nun, her superior. Suor Elisa is a different story.
She is a very tall woman, painfully thin and horse-faced. At once she confirmed that it was Suor Serena who had locked the wounded boys in the dorm. But when I asked her if she had ever seen or heard them before the bombing, her lips flashed a tiny smile.
“It’s just old peasant stories, really,” she said. “They say that at night they still come in this place, where they once lived, centuries ago. Suor Maria says sometimes she hears a little bump in the dark, late at night. And the next day the broom isn’t where you left it. They also might mess around with food in the pantry, leave jam smeared on the kitchen table. Sometimes though, they clean for you, or bring gifts, like eggs or necklaces made of shells. If you cross them, they’ll steal your things and you’ll never find what they took unless they want you to. But they aren’t evil,” the sister continued with a smile. “In fact, they can be very kind. They’re children after all, orphans and protectors of lonely souls. It is said that when you can’t sleep, they sit on your bed and put their hands on your head, until you finally fall asleep.”
I ran into Angelo just outside the school, playing with the other kids. We went into the pressroom together. As I lit him a cigarette, I told him I had been at a Vigil. Could he help me recognize the Nocturnals? His eyes widened. After a while he pointed at the fresco.
“The Nuriae. They are the old river’s daughters, the lovers of the mad Baron of Twilight. If you ever see their true faces, you die.”
I pointed again. I could sense his uneasiness growing.
“The Garaudi,” he replied in one breath. “Long dead smiths and riddle-masters, and slaves to the Duke of Under-Earth.”
“And these?” I finally asked.
I was pointing to a group—or rather, a flock—of boy-shaped creatures hovering over the rooftops of a painted town. They were playing pranks, hiding keys or shoes or books behind the chimneys, just as children would; but they were not children. Their torsos were human, and they wore small red caps on the tops of their heads, yet they had snouts like those of hedgehogs, all spines and mischievousness.
Angelo didn’t say another word. I knew that in a little while he would talk, that he would tell me his secret. But then—suddenly—the boy threw his cigarette on the ground and bolted outside. A duster in her hands, Sorella Serena was staring at me with eyes of quiet danger.
I enter quietly and hide under the sofa . . .
If I come closer I come into the kitchen . . .
Then I come in and hide on the hutch,
but at night, when I arrive, I stand by your bed.
I know now that these lines were about them.
Grandma never said their names, but I remember her telling me to behave or they would steal my toys. At night, when I heard the old cupboards creak, it was them hiding. It was them who whispered under my bed. It was them who pulled my hair when I wasn’t looking, them who giggled in the dark. But when I couldn’t sleep, they would climb on my bed, put their hands on my head, and lull me into oblivion.
I wish it would work now. Ever since last May, I can only sleep a few hours at a time. And then there are the screams. Tonight I heard them again and used my binoculars. Was it my imagination or did I really see them? Small hands, pressed on the glass. They flocked to the window like trapped birds, praying for a freedom that would not come.
My head is full with their screams. I put my hands to ears, but I can still hear them, loud and clear.
They found the two soldiers not far from the creek, strangled. No one is supposed to know, but we do anyway: they had no clothes on.
I can’t believe it was the townspeople. Of course as a macaroni I’m in no position to voice my opinion. I’ve noticed the stares, the casual remarks. I know what they lead to, so I asked Lt. Peake for leave to go to town for a couple of days, though I knew what he would say.
“We’re going to Anzio soon. You’ll never see this place again.”
Of course. But then I remember what Stephens told me at the school, about me feeling at home here. He was right. It’s not the barren landscape and it’s not the people. It’s more—I don’t know. The stories? Or some ancestral memory, the feeling of having had roots deeper than blood? Or maybe something simpler, something I can’t admit to. I try hard to think of Jenny and Junior, but when I try to speak their names aloud they become ash in my mouth. Instead, I say another name.
It sounds like mine, but it isn’t.
I was preparing my gear when I heard a new ruckus. The guys were running from all sides, so it took me a while to understand what was going on. Our clothes were back. Perfectly clean, as good as new. No one had seen the washerwomen bring them. Sgt. Peake sent five men into the thickets. I have a hunch they won’t find anyone.
The school was declared off limits for me.
Stephens broke the news with a satisfied grin. Apparently I’d been accused of stealing some documents about the old orphanage. Stephens said the sorella made it clear to Sheely that if I set foot on the premises again she’d ask the bishop to file a report with our general. I didn’t even protest, I just took my stuff and set off for town.
It took me all day to find her, but I did. Eventually a carpenter told me she has a vegetable stall at the market in Piazza Mercato.
When the women saw me, they flocked. They thought I wanted to sell some of my stuff. I tried to convince them this was not the case, but as soon as they heard me speak their dialect it got worse. Was it true the US army would bomb Lucerìa because of the two dead soldiers? I shook my head and kept on repeating I just wanted to speak with Nina, like an incantation: finally it worked. All of a sudden there was someone at my shoulder. In spite of her young face, her hair was of the starkest white. I didn’t recognize her until she spoke; but the voice, deep and husky, was the voice of the tales told by the fire.
“What do you want from me?” asked the Teller.
Nina’s house is a mile from the Madri Pie, in borgo San Matteo. Her husband had been drafted three years prior and had not come back. The barn wasn’t very big, but since the cattle is gone there is plenty of room for one man to sleep. After she handed me a blanket, Nina lit up a green lantern—the same one she used at the Vigil.
“They can’t stand this shade of green,” she said, “So if you talk about them, they can’t hear their name spoken and trace it back to you.”
I told her I wanted to know more about the Urchins, the children of Twilight. She smiled and said they are tricksters and free-spirited, the souls of orphans long dead. They were adopted by one of the Night’s secret lords, the Queen of Dawn. It is said that one day the Queen, walking on the borders of Day with her retinue of fairy wrens, took pity on a dying street orphan. And so, in her generosity, she tore a patch from her blood-red shawl, which is woven from dawn itself, and out of that piece she asked her wrens to weave a red cap. It is said at the Vigils that—from that Dawn—if a dying orphan has the free spirit of an Urchin he is given a red cap to become one of them, to play with the flock for all eternity, wherever they chose.
“Even in a monastery? Or in a school?”
As soon as I asked she stood up, her eyes shining in emerald.
“I know who you are! You are that soldier who keeps them locked up. Do you really think you can cage them like birds?”
I tried to explain that it was not me, but she didn’t listen.
“Do you understand what you have done? They are furious, all of them. You’ve trapped their brethren like beasts! Do you think it’s only coincidence two of your men have died? There are things worse than death and they know them all! I want you out of my barn, now!”
I don’t know what came over me. All I wanted to do was to shut her mouth, but before I knew it my teeth were on her lips. I bit her until I could taste blood. She tried to bite me back but I pushed her, I pinned her down with all my weight. As I began to kiss her she went limp. At this, I froze. I rolled off of her, my face in my hands. I expected her to bolt out of the barn or to call for help, but she didn’t do either.
“I am not,” I said at last, “the one who keeps them locked up. All I want is for them to go home. And for my mates to stop dying.”
She didn’t reply, but when I looked up I saw that she believed me. She wiped the fresh blood from her lips. Then—as if nothing had happened—she asked me whether anything unusual had occurred in our camp before the death of my companions. I told her nothing had, except—maybe—the washerwomen stealing our clothes. She looked up.
“Washerwomen. Did they come at night?”
“No, they—wait, it was late evening, almost dusk.”
“Then you are all doomed. In Lucerìa no living woman would dream of washing clothes at dusk. Only the Baron of Twilight’s lovers.”
“I am positive they were just women and very much alive.”
“Describe them to me then. What did their faces look like?”
I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. Then, as if my effort had broken an invisible wall, it all came back to me. It wasn’t that I failed to remember their faces: they had none. No mouths, no noses, no eyes, nothing. Faceless. Seeing my terror, Nina smiled bitterly.
“You remember them now because someone asked you. And had you seen their true faces you would be dead. No, I don’t think they want to kill you, unless you refuse to free their brothers.”
“But then our clothes—” I began hoarsely.
She nodded. Before she could finish, I had my gear on, pack and all. As I was about to step out, I turned.
“Grazie,” I said, and ran out.
It was an hour before twilight. Four miles in an hour is not much for a soldier. But I was burdened by fears I didn’t even know I had. Of all the faces I kept seeing, the most persistent was Angelo’s. I knew he was somehow at the heart of all this, but I still couldn’t figure out how.
As I neared the camp, the sun went lower and lower, until it met the horizon. I heard the encampment before I could see it—shouts of command, screams, gunshots. Then my eyes lit upon soldiers running from their tents, bolting out of their holes as if their blankets were on fire. I saw Sgt. Peake’s blanket knotted around his throat like a snake and dragging him off; a black soldier was stabbing his coat in a frenzy; a little guy wearing an officer’s jacket was dancing, arms outstretched, as if the jacket—not him—was leading the dance; a cluster of men, all naked, set a heap of clothes on fire. The clothes—shirts, coats, pants—were writhing as if they were alive, trying to escape from the flames.
Suddenly a flaming blanket sprung up, engulfing one of the naked men. He screamed horribly, rolling on the ground while two other soldiers tried to extinguish the flames with their hands.
And then I saw them.
They were two dozen, maybe more. They were still shadows but forming quickly from the head down, like drops of ink in water, ready to step from the bushes. From the chin down they were dressed like peasant women, with dresses and shawls. But their faces were hidden by petals of purple flesh like closed orchids, quivering, impatient to reveal themselves. As they finally coalesced I heard them. They were murmuring some ancient song, one so old I couldn’t understand all the words. It was a call to their men in the fields: a call home.
I turned. A single window shone in the distant darkness. And then I heard the Urchins’ far off screams. They weren’t screams of pain like I had thought, but cries of pure yearning.
The Nuriae came out into the orchard. Immediately all movement in the camp ceased. I could still hear the soldiers sobbing; many of them were curled up on the ground. There was a big sergeant whose hair was still on fire, quietly smoldering while he stared on, slack-jawed. The washerwomen sang and walked among them like dreams made flesh. Their songs were not for us but that didn’t matter. Transfixed, faces streaked with tears, my mates looked upon them with infinite longing. Some knelt down and began to pray. They prayed for their orchid-faces to open, to reveal themselves. I knew what they felt. They felt that behind the fleshy petals were the faces of their daughters, their lovers, their mothers, calling for them to come back. It was the sirens’ song but in reverse: relinquish the sea and return to Ithaca. I knew, because I felt it too. A slender washerwoman, like a long stemmed flower, passed by me. Jenny? I knew it couldn’t be, but knowing was not enough. What I felt was that if only her petals would open, I could see Jenny’s face one last time. But the petals didn’t open. Instead, the Nuriae stopped. They were all around me, their eyeless faces turned towards the dusk’s blaze. Then—just before twilight gave way to the night—they slowly turned towards me.
Set them free, they said.
No one here remembers last night’s attack. At least they act as if they don’t. Today the guys just cleaned the mess, tended to the wounded and carried on like nothing had happened. Well, not really. The silence in the camp is so thick you could slice it. The soldiers just look haunted. You can see it in their eyes, their souls staring out of them like from some thick-glassed window. When I asked Sgt. Peake for permission to go back to the school, he almost didn’t look at me.
I know it will happen tonight.
At the Madri Pie I was in luck.
Sorella Serena is out of town for some business with the madre superior and will not be back until dawn. Sheely and the correspondents were eager to hear news of the camp; they had heard the shots at night. I told them an ammo box had caught fire and exploded. That’s what was being said back at camp, anyways.
As I laid my gear down, I saw Little Angelo bringing in a bucket of water. He just said hello and went upstairs, never meeting my eyes. I wonder what he really knows. Had Sorella Serena told him the Urchins are dangerous? Why? They would never attack another orphan.
Maybe she lied to Angelo too, so that he would not set them free. And here are my two vital questions: why had Sorella Serena locked the Urchins up? And how is she able to keep them there, during the day? The only thing I am sure of is that it was her, though I still can’t figure out why she has chosen Stephens as their “warden.” I was an ass not to stay on friendly terms with him. Still, I have to find a way get into the dorm at night.
I keep on hearing the washerwomen’s song. I wish it would go away. Even more, I wish I could pray to the Urchins for the gift of hope, but I can’t. Hope went away last May, and it won’t ever be returning. I have to sleep now, I need all my stamina for tonight.
The night has come and gone and I’m still here. My eyes are full of sleep and visions, but I need to put this all down before I forget.
Yesterday, as soon as I woke up after my early afternoon siesta I began searching for my notebook. Maybe in one of the Teller’s tales there was something that could explain how Sorella Serena trapped the Urchins in the day. But the notebook wasn’t in my pack. I searched for it in the pressroom, but it wasn’t there either. I was thinking I’d have to go back to the Teller’s house when Stephens showed up.
He said he knew where my stuff was. My surprise turned to fear when I saw where he was taking me. He opened the door to the dormitory with the key the nun had left him.
The twelve wounded were still in the same position, as if I had left them just a few minutes earlier. The room was like I remembered except for the deep scratches by the windowsills. They had all been desperately, viciously, and repeatedly raked over.
Quietly Stephens walked among the beds.
He stopped and leaned over a boy about the same age as Angelo. This Urchin’s head and torso were free of bandages. Again, I looked at the wounds, but this time I considered. These were the marks of this orphan’s death: pox, probably. Then his face, like someone had peeled his skin off from the top of his skull. And—at last—I saw not what was there, but what was not, what had been stolen away.
Just then, I felt someone nudging at me. Stephens pointed to the bed. The Urchin held an object clutched to his scarred chest.
“It is a great honor,” Stephens whispered.
The boy held my notebook. In spite of the poor light, I could see that the Urchin was smiling. They all began stirring in unison, muffled giggles beneath their clean bandages. I looked at Stephens, but he shook his head; he had no idea what they were up to. At last I touched the boys’ hands. They were cold and clawed, just like a dead animal’s. Then—just as I retrieved my notebook—the Urchin seized my wrist and spoke. His voice was that of a small child, younger than his real age. What shook me was not the high pitch, but the words. For he said:
“Daddy, is that you? When are you coming home?”
I stumbled back and fell to the floor. The dorm was silent, the twelve boys looked like bandaged corpses once again. With an effort I struggled to my feet and stared at Stephens. His face was flushed with what seemed to be surprise and a touch of jealousy. Then I left the dorm, running fast down the stairs.
Stephens found me drinking at the fountain, drying my mouth.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “I didn’t know.”
I lit a cigarette. As I offered it to him I said:
“They told you about your piece of land, didn’t they? Why? The way I see it, they can only offer you the unattainable, the impossible.”
Stephens took a long drag, and then in the lowest voice:
“’Cause I won’t see it. And I won’t marry Barbara, and I won’t build a ranch of my own. I’ve known since my outfit was destroyed. Don’t ask me how I know it, but I do. And they . . . they know it too. So they told me a story, the story of what my life would have been, had I gone back home. It was a good story, and a long one.”
He shrugged but I could see that he was making his mind up.
“I think you just might be right,” he said.
“Good. So, how does she keep them here? In the day, I mean.”
There was no need to explain who was “she” was.
“I dunno. But she comes by every night to lull them to sleep.”
“No morphine then.”
He grinned. “You think command would waste morphine on some foreign kids instead of our own boys?”
“Good point. Did you ever notice her carrying a bag?”
“Or a sack. Anything really, big enough to hold twelve caps.”
“I don’t think so, no. What caps?”
“I think that’s how she’s kept them here so far.”
“And how do you know ’bout them?”
“Someone back in town.”
“I told you, you’re good with your people. No offense.”
“None taken. I guess they’re my people after all.”
“What about us then?”
“That’s the funny thing: you’re my people too.”
“Must be hard.”
“Sometimes it is.”
“So, why does she keep them here? I mean, the little guys.”
“I was hoping you’d tell me.”
He shook his head slowly.
“She is still a mystery to me, that nun. But I’ll tell you one thing: she made me swear I’d never let Angelo get near them.”
You can’t really prepare yourself for a night like the one I was about to go through, but I had to try. The washerwomen’s song hadn’t left me yet. I knew if I failed, the guys back at the camp would never see dawn again. And they, too, would haunt me for the rest of my days.
I went looking for Little Angelo and found him under the fig tree, playing sassolini all by himself. As soon as he heard me he stood up, the stones falling to his feet.
“I know she told you not to speak to me,” I said.
Little Angelo did not reply. I could feel a battle raging inside him, pitting his affection for his beloved grandma against his admiration for me, the stranger who told him stories of distant lands. I began by telling him I needed for him to do something that night. If he did this thing, they would be free. Didn’t he want them to be free? Slowly he nodded. I told him what I wanted him to do. He said nothing, just stared at his US army shoes. Then I asked, “Do you know why Grandma doesn’t want you to see them?”
The boy stood very still, his face petrified. I couldn’t understand if he didn’t know or if he was too scared to tell me. But I felt I was losing him, that whatever fear held him in its grip, would prevent him from becoming my accomplice. And so, as a last resort I said, “Would you come with me to America?”
He looked up. I talked fast. I told him that when the war was over, I would come back to Lucerìa and ask for his adoption. He would become legally my son, we would go to Providence together.
“Would your wife and son mind?” he said at last.
That was a stab to the heart. I didn’t know he knew about Jenny and Junior; probably Sheely had told him. I bit my lip hard. I told him I would write Jenny, but I was sure she’d be more than happy to have him. When he heard this, Angelo got up and danced a little jig. I had to look away. I couldn’t stand to see the green happiness of his eyes.
Stephens found the perfect hide out: a niche in the wall covered by a paper panel. As dusk approached, I looked at the camp with my binoculars. What I saw there made my blood curdle.
The washerwomen were already in position at the edge of the orchard. But there weren’t two dozen of them, there were hundreds. “I didn’t know death had undone so many,” I whispered—one of the few lines of Dante’s Commedia my dad had known by heart. How true it was. Their silhouettes were the color of dusk, they flickered like coral flames among the card-playing sergeants, the gossiping corporals, the privates hanging out the laundry—caressing them as they passed by.
But the men didn’t see them, they didn’t feel them, they didn’t even know they were there. Then I understood. The washerwomen’s appearance was for me, alone. Should I fail, they would make themselves seen and reveal their true faces to my comrades. It felt like a dream. Yet, I had no choice but to act as if it wasn’t.
So I hid and waited.
I didn’t have to wait for long. As the light in the room changed, I began hearing noises. First yawns, then beds creaking, finally their arms stretching in the air—and they were on their feet. Stephens was already among them, stern faced like a priest at mass.
They came to him slowly, warily, their bandages ripped open by clawed fingers. Their faces were the opposite of the Nuriae: bare, vulnerable, and apparently incapable of doing harm. But their eyes, oh their eyes. . . . In the dusk’s blaze they glinted gold. They were the color of those late afternoons of childhood, when days spent in bliss sat on our shoulders without weight, with unbearable lightness.
They walked like birds, their heads sunk into their shoulders, their long arms elbowing each other, as if they needed physical contact to remember who they were. As they circled him they whispered, first to each other, then to him. They circled and circled, a merry-go-round of murmurs, the same words echoed by the lipless mouths, with Stephens at their center, his eyes closed, his face a mask of pale rapture. I didn’t hear their words, but suddenly the image of a lake and a meadow sprang up in my mind. I could see it before me as if it were projected on the walls—a Montana ranch and an old man sitting on the front porch, telling stories to his grandson. With a jolt I realized the old man was Stephens, or rather it was he sixty years ahead.
Blissful, Stephens had a fit of shivers and swooned to the floor. The junkie had had his last fix. In unison, all the Urchins turned to the window, to the setting sun, their eyes burning caramel gold. More than children, they looked like little old men, all staring out at distant dusk with a collective longing. Then they began to jump. The first one sprinted right into the window, just as a bird would. With his weight and speed he should have broken it to shards; but the glass stood, somehow pitching him backward. This drove them crazy.
A few jumped on the ceiling and crawled upside down to the window. Others clawed madly at the walls, shrieking. Had I known what it would be like, I would never have had the courage to hide there; it was unbearable. They were calling the Night, or rather, the Night was calling through them. If thirst ever became a sound, this would be it. It was not thirst for oblivion, but that unquenchable yearning for freedom unbound, a freedom that knows nothing of death.
I clawed at my ears until they bled. How long it lasted I do not know, but it seemed like hours. Twilight simply refused to fade away, as if they somehow held it in place. And then, just when I was about to give in and bolt out of the room, the door opened. She still had her traveling clothes on, but in her hands she held her box-harp.
As soon as the dwarf-nun’s hands started to play the psaltery, the Urchins quieted down. They crawled back to the floor; circling her, murmuring under their breath. I could hear their pleading, almost a whisper, as they joined their clawed hands.
The nun paid them no heed. She didn’t need words to command them; a wave of her music and they slithered back to their beds. They yawned in defeat, returning to their imposed stillness. Somehow she was forcing them to sleep. This was the moment I had been waiting for. The nun stopped when she felt my hands on her shoulders.
“You heard them, Sorella. Give them back their caps.”
When she turned I could see the despair in her eyes. But then, with a self-possession I admired, she quietly said:
“Would you kill me then, soldier? Because I will never tell you where I hid them, not in a thousand years.”
“You will tell Angelo. He’s coming here any minute now.”
Despair flashed in her eyes again. Then, with greater effort:
“That’s a lie. He’s locked safely in his room, like every night.”
I said nothing but took the key ring from my pocket. The nun stared at me and then at Stephens, still curled on the floor like a baby.
“Traitor,” she spat; and at that moment someone knocked.
“He’ll knock once again,” I said, “then he’ll come in.”
The nun’s face flushed with hatred.
“You don’t know what you’re doing,” she said.
“Give them back and I swear your grandson will stay outside.”
The nun hesitated, but when she heard the second knock:
“I’ll give them back, I swear on the Cross!”
I walked to the closed door and whispered to it. No one came in. Reluctantly the nun began to take her psaltery to pieces. When she slid off the main soundboard, I saw them: they looked like bishops’ zucchettos, only full of leaves and thorns, as if they had been used as nests. The moment she touched their caps the Urchins stirred. Then, as she offered them, they rose and went to her. The first to touch his cap was the eldest, the one who had spoken to me.
As soon as he donned his cap spines grew out of his face; they were white at the tips and brown at the roots, blossoming from his scars. He touched his face in blissful disbelief. He looked like a human thistle, his pockmarks were gone too, and his gold-caramel eyes shone with joyous mischief. Next, the Urchin reared his spiny head and gave a triumphant yap. My heart jumped. It was still thirst made sound: but thirst for wonder and hope and boundless joy.
In a rush his companions snatched their red caps from the nun’s hands. A heartbeat, and they were changed. A forest of prickly human chestnuts stared at me, their eyes shining like cats’. Hands on their hips, they crowed in unison—and the window opened at their command. The washerwomen’s song swept in, calling them outside. They heard it too, their eyes wild with yearning for the Night. But before they reached out for it, their leader turned to me and in a sly, sonorous voice said:
“Chill’ che viene dato tuorna sempre, paesà.” What is given freely always comes back, mate.
And they jumped, out of the window and up into the sky, flying faster than our eyes could follow. It lasted only moments, and then the sun set. Suddenly, it was middle of the night, with no transition. The nun and I looked at each other, shaky and dazed. Wearily, she walked to the door and opened it. Little Angelo rushed in. He looked first at me, then at his grandma, as if he was afraid of some terrible punishment. But Sorella Serena hugged him fiercely, without a word.
As soon as I woke up this morning I went to Sheely and told him the twelve orphans were back where they belonged. The war correspondents roared in laughter while the lieutenant looked at me like I was raving mad. They hadn’t a clue what I was talking about.
This was the sign that I truly had succeeded. Except for me, only Stephens and Little Angelo—and Sorella Serena of course—remember them; though I feel myself beginning to forget the details. It’s not that I’m really forgetting, it’s more like the night’s happening is softening into something I’ve heard, a story someone told me a long time ago.
Little Angelo and I had a long talk. The gist was that what had been a lie yesterday today is the truth. I would bring him to the US, if I survive this war. When I asked his grandma for permission, she just stared at me with a defeated look. I think she understood that in the US, her grandson would have a great deal more opportunities than he would have here. I’ve already spoken with the local commissario and set the paperwork machine in motion. It will take months, but we’re in no hurry. Needless to say, Little Angelo was happy—though this time he didn’t dance. Last night left him strangely somber, like a piece of him flew out from the window with the Urchins, and never came back. I guess he realized his childhood days are coming to a close. He isn’t the only one to feel changed. This is the first time since May that I feel I have something to go back to. Maybe, when all this is over, I will buy a little cottage in Lucerìa and stay over a few years, before heading back to Providence. As I said, there is no hurry. What’s important is the thought I have someone I can go back to once this war is finished. Not a fairy tale, not a memory, but someone real, someone made of flesh and blood.
I saw Pvt. Stephens as he was being taken to Foggia on the medical aid jeep. As we said goodbye, he grabbed my arm.
“You hit the nail on its head,” he said, “when you guessed they were whispering to me about my land. What about you?”
“You heard it,” I said.
“That was Junior’s voice.”
“You heard it.”
“I did, but I think you need to say it anyway, before I go.”
“I don’t get it,” I said.
“I think you do. You said they only offer the impossible. Why?”
I kept silent for a while. Then I told him that last May, in Providence, my wife and my only son were hit by a truck, and died.
“But you’d guessed it already, hadn’t you?”
“Like I said”—he smiled—“you needed to say it.”
He waved from the jeep till the dust swallowed him.
Setting off for Anzio. As I am writing this, my outfit is in motion. I know that Anzio means going back to the front lines, but I’ve long since learned: the only way back is the way forward. Sgt. Peake gave me just one hour to say goodbye to Angelo. I must be off now.
Little Angelo is dead. I am writing this sentence on paper to convince myself of its truth. Still, I should have known, I should have guessed. How could I have been so blind? I know now that I deserve all the contempt Sorella Sorena has held for me.
When I got to the Madri Pie, there was already quite a crowd in the school orchard. Suor Maria was wailing, hands covering her eyes. Even Sheely and the war correspondents stood in collective pallor. Two small girls were sobbing on a low brick wall. Then a tall, thin man the women called dottore said it had happened exactly like the last time. I still had no idea what they were talking about, until I saw his body.
It was outspread right below the second floor balcony, the same one where I’d seen him performing his stunts. I could see that he had his best clothes on, with my shoes. The doctor continually shook his head. Then, just behind him, I saw the dwarf. Her eyes looked like they were carved out of stone. And yet, what truly petrified me was what she held in her hands. It was a red cap, full of leaves and thorns. She held it as if she was holding her own heart. Hadn’t she given all the red caps all back? At last she saw me. She stared at me with eyes of quiet desperation. If she had shouted my guilt, if she had pointed at me and screamed that I had killed her grandson, I could have endured it. But the dwarf-nun was silent. So I turned my back and ran away.
The dust from marching feet shields Lucerìa from our sight. I am ever so grateful for it. But as much as I try, I can’t stop seeing the little nun, with the little red cap, clenched in her tiny hands. Will she let them in this time? Will she give them his cap or will she bury it so deep that not even they can unearth it? The thing is, I shall never know. This land will remain a mystery to me, sealed off with all its tales, still baiting me with truths I will never discover. And when—and if—I go home, when I again read these pages, I will read them as a fiction, a tale told by the fire to chase away the hounds of guilt.
Dead of the night. I wake up in my foxhole, like countless other times. I know that in a little while, the sergeant will awaken us all, and that we’ll have to march all day: but still I can’t go back to sleep. All I can see is his dead body in the school orchard. Every tree is a corpse, a forest of the dead. Not just Little Angelo, or Junior, or Jenny, but all the countless companions I’ve seen killed in this blasted war. I try to close my eyes but my eyelids have turned to glass, I am forced to see through them. I open my mouth as if to scream, but the Night chokes me, its darkness pressing down upon my throat like solid ink. And then, just as I am about to be swallowed, Grandma’s lullaby comes back to me.
I enter quietly and hide under the sofa . . .
If I come closer I come into the kitchen . . .
Then I come in and hide on the hutch,
but at night, when I arrive, I stand by your bed.
A movement up in the clouds. I am not imagining it, I truly see a human shape darting in the sky. It swirls like a swallow above the beech trees, and then lands soundlessly, a single step from my foxhole.
His face is a snout, his spines are long and dark green, his hands clawed; but his eyes have the same gentle fire I know. As he crouches over me he gently places his clawed hands on top of my head.
“Duorme,” Little Angelo says.
And in my dream, I sleep.
Giovanni De Feo is a fabulist writer in the tradition of Italo Calvino and Dino Buzzati. His Italian fantasy novels have been described as “a baroque cross over from Terry Gilliam and Miyazaki.” He works as a literature teacher in Genoa, where he founded a storytelling association which deals with the conservation of Italian folktales.