by Mario Rigoni-Stern
translated by Elizabeth Harris-Behling
One evening at the end of May, Irene told Giacomo she wanted to go to the foot of the mountains where her family had fled in â€˜16. Theyâ€™d stayed in a tiny house in a meadowâ€“Giglioâ€™s Meadowâ€“surrounded by alders, birches, and wild cherry trees. For three years theyâ€™d lived there, dirt poor, in that tiny house no bigger than a stall. Her sister Orsola had died there, a little girl Irene never knew. Her brother had talked about this place; so had her grandfather before he died. â€œIâ€™d really like to see it. How about the two of us going by bicycle one Sunday?â€
â€œWeâ€™d have to figure out the road,â€ Giacomo said, â€œand we donâ€™t have bicycles.â€
â€œWe could rent them from Toni Folo. They wonâ€™t cost much.â€
â€œIâ€™ll see what I can find out. Iâ€™ll ask your father what road to take.â€
And thatâ€™s what Giacomo did. The road in the best shape went through Costo and Caltrano; then from Caltrano theyâ€™d ride to Calvene and ask someone how to get to Giglioâ€™s Meadow. But the shortest route was up and over Barental, Granezza, Malga Mazze and Calveneâ€™s Mountain. The round trip would be around forty kilometers. Renting two bicycles would cost four lire. They decided to go one Sunday in June, taking the Barental road on the way down and the Costo road on the way back.
To get an early start that Sunday, they went for the bicycles Saturday evening. Toni Folo asked where they were headed and for how long; from the dozen or so bicycles he had available, he chose two with multiple gears and good tires.
â€œThe roads youâ€™ll take are full of sharp gravel,â€ he said. â€œYouâ€™ll need good, solid tires, good gears, and good brakes. And Iâ€™ll throw in a pump and patch kit in case you have a flat.â€ He turned to Giacomo. â€œYou know how to fix a tire?â€
â€œSure, Iâ€™ve seen my friends do it. Looks easy.â€
â€œSo whatâ€™s below the mountains? You going for fun?â€
â€œWe want to see where my family went during the warâ€“near Calvene,â€ Irene said.
â€œMy sister died there of the Spanish flu.â€
â€œAh, those were hard times, childrenâ€“hard times! My family went to Noventa. I was transferred from the Alpine forces to the air force. Because I was a mechanic. Listen, go slow downhill and pedal hard uphill. Bring the bicycles back anytime Sunday. You can pay me then.â€
They took some small loaves of rye bread with them, some garlic salami, and some cheese. There would be springs to drink from along the way. Barental was cool, still in shadow; they hurried past Luka and the British cemetery. They had to walk their bicycles up Lapide, and they stopped to rest on the stone bench whereâ€“so the story wentâ€“the Hapsburg Archduke Eugene once sat waiting to go down to the plains. But then the Italian Infantry had arrived.
When Giacomo and Irene reached the Granessa Tavern with its grass enclosure out back, they stopped once more, this time for a lemon fizz. The PÃ»ne sisters ran this local tavern from May to October; after the snow closed the roads, theyâ€™d return home with their four cows and two calves. Refreshed now, Giacomo and Irene set off again, pedaling hard for the Granezza Plain. At Mazze, on Mount Boccetta, they could see the Brenta and Astico Rivers, twisting and disappearing over the plain, and the air was flooded with the intoxicating smell of narcissus. The meadows were so white with them, you could barely see the green of the grass. The children stopped and stood there, holding hands, looking out over that new, unknown worldâ€“the meadows full of narcissus, the districts farther down, all the red tile roofs, the distant towns with their bell towers. Maybe those dark spots out there were cities. And far, far awayâ€“beyond the plainsâ€“what were those hills, blurring into the sky?
â€œThe worldâ€™s so vast,â€ they both were thinking.
â€œWait,â€ Irene said. â€œI want to pick some narcissus for my sister.â€
They left the bicycles lying by the road and climbed to the nearest meadow.
â€œPick ones not fully bloomed,â€ Giacomo said. â€œTheyâ€™ll last longer.â€
â€œIâ€™m picking the prettiest ones that smell the sweetest,â€ Irene answered. â€œItâ€™s all so beautiful!â€ She threw her arms wide, as if she wanted to hug the world.
They picked two large bunches, and Giacomo tied the flowers to their handlebars with twine. Then they started the downhill ride to Calveneâ€™s Mountain. Along the way, they crossed paths with some shepherds who were moving their flocks to the Altipiano. The children stopped to let the men go by. They were from the Dalla Bona family; Giacomo had met them when heâ€™d gone for recupero, scrap weaponry, with his father at Blackberry Hills. The shepherds recognized him, too. â€œHey there!â€ Guerrino called. â€œWhatâ€™re you doing in this neck of the woods?â€
â€œWeâ€™re headed to Giglioâ€™s Meadow. This girlâ€™s family was there in â€˜16â€“they were refugees.â€
â€œWe were just there this morning. Now weâ€™re making our way up to Peloso Meadow, Reitertall, then Galmara. Little by little. Should take a week. Weâ€™ll see you later.â€
And shepherds and flock moved slowly on, lambs bleating to their mothers, ewes bleating to their babies. Now and then a sheep or two would stray off the road, tempted by the tender meadow grass; then a shepherd would give a wave or whistle, and a dog would sail off to herd the animals back. The rams stayed in the middle of the flock; one in particular, his strong, curved horns held high, kept his eyes riveted on the backs of the ewes. Donkeysâ€“jacks, jennies, and foalsâ€“were mixed in with the sheep. Some of the donkeys carried the new lambs born overnight in Giglioâ€™s Meadow in their saddlebags. The strongest donkey carried the kettle for polenta and the flour and salt, another the tarps and skins for the shepherdsâ€™ bedding.
When theyâ€™d all gone by, Giacomo and Irene got back on their bicycles. Once on Monte, they asked directions, then again up in the Capozz Mountains and on Malso. Finally, past the little valley, they reached the abandoned house where Ireneâ€™s family had lived. There were still coals in the fireplace from the shepherds. The house smelled of sheep.
How sad it must have been, this poverty. Their house, the gardens and meadows of home, forgotten. A miserable fireplace, sky showing through the roof, nettles and brush up to the kitchen door, windows sagging on rusty hinges.
â€œMy nonno said you could hear the fighting in the mountains from here,â€ Irene told Giacomo. â€œBut our neighbors were good people. A lot of them tried to help as best they could.â€
â€œThey were poorer around here than by us,â€ Giacomo said. â€œBecause rich people own the land here.â€
â€œMy brother, Matteo, told me he left here to work for the military engineers. He was just a little boy.â€
They stood quietly, looking around the small, filthy kitchen. They climbed to the room at the top of the narrow stairway; a straw mattress still lay on the plank floor. From the broken-out windows, the children saw the mountains to the north, the plains to the south. â€œNina and Orsola slept in here with my mother,â€ Irene said. â€œNonno and Matteo slept in the next room. My father joined them after the war.â€
They left for the cemetery, asking directions from some peasants out picking cherries. The peasants told them, then asked where they were from.
â€œSo, you lived at Giglioâ€™s Meadow,â€ one man said. â€œCome. Come have some cherries. Weâ€™re the Nicolis. Do you remember us?â€
The children had only heard about the Nicoli family. Theyâ€™d been born after everyone returned to the Altipiano. Irene explained that theyâ€™d ridden down here to look around and to lay some flowers on her sisterâ€™s grave. The Nicolis remembered Orsola, that sheâ€™d died of the Spanish flu, and they remembered Matteo, her mother, her father. They asked after her family, and so they learned that Matteo had left for Australia with his new wife and that her grandfather had died. â€œCome back here after the cemetery,â€ they said. â€œCome have a bowl of soup. Weâ€™d love to visit.â€ Giacomo and Irene exchanged glances, then agreed.
They rode their bicycles to the cemetery. They looked for the smaller graves; the children were buried along the wall, in the sun, a row of graves marked by small iron or wooden crosses. On some of the crosses, you could still read the names. On others, theyâ€™d faded or disappeared. The children couldnâ€™t find Orsolaâ€™s nameâ€“maybe it was covered in grass and wild flowers. So they laid the two bunches of narcissus in the grass and flowers.
â€œLike soldiers who died in combat,â€ Giacomo said.
It was noon by the time they got back to the Nicolisâ€™. In the big kitchen, there were two extra places at the table and soup to eat and polenta with beans. The Nicolis talked about those times, about Ireneâ€™s family fleeing to the meadow and the war in the mountains, the British soldiers, the Spanish flu that also took their Caterina. They wanted to know about Matteo, if he was doing well in Australia. Giacomo and Irene felt a bit dazed by all the attention. The Nicolis insisted they take along a bag of cherries. â€œPut them in your haversack. Eat them when you get to the top of Costo. Itâ€™s warm out today.â€ And they gave Irene a bottle of their sweet white wine. â€œFor your mother,â€ they said. â€œTell her itâ€™s from the Nicolis.â€
The family stood in the courtyard, waving goodbye as the children left. And they pedaled along, not talking, until they reached Caltrano and started the push uphill.
Then Giacomo said, â€œGood people, those Nicolis.â€
Summer dragged on. The first of the tourists arrived after the hay harvest; most of them were ill and had come up to the woods to clear their lungs. And, in spite of the sign posted outside town that said no begging allowed, there were always poor people downtown, knocking, begging, at the doors of the houses.
When the soldiers arrived and set up camp or held field maneuvers, children would grab whatever container they could find for the leftover rations. Or theyâ€™d run errands for a half-loaf of bread: mail a letter, buy cigarettes, carry laundry back from the washerwomen. The enormous Fascist-Youth camps had either closed down or been moved, but the provincial Fascist-Party meetings were still held around here. There was always the one world, the official world that ran the communities, the gymnastic exhibitions, military maneuvers, and ceremonies, and then there was the other world of emigrants, the unemployed, the starving. Families counted themselves lucky to scrape up two meals a day. In the stores, the bills on the books just kept growing.
Now and then some temporary job helped pay for things like a pair of shoes, a pair of pants, two hanks of wool for knitting a jersey, a tooth to be pulled by the doctorâ€“necessities that otherwise wouldnâ€™t have been possible.
And raspberry season started. For two to three weeks, if heavy rain or hail didnâ€™t ruin everything, the women and girls would leave at sunrise to gather the raspberries; then theyâ€™d bring the fruit to the local distillery, which used them for syrup or resold them to Zuegg of Bolzano. Carrying baskets and wooden tubs, the women and girls would head for the wide clearings left from the war.
Irene went, too, with her mother and the other women. Theyâ€™d climb one of the mule-tracks leading to Mount Wassagruba or Peeraloch, and theyâ€™d chat on the way, telling one another their stories and small secretsâ€“there were more secrets to tell picking raspberries. Sometimes they sang the song about the miner returning from the mine or the one about the young manâ€™s house that was full of stones and spider webs but that to his love was a palace with embroidered curtains. The womenâ€™s serene voices spilled over those places where not long before, the crash and din of battle could be heard, along with the groans of the dying.
There was a female grouse hanging about to eat the berries; some mornings, sheâ€™d explode into flightâ€“a jump back, heart poundingâ€“then the women would sigh and laugh together. When they each had around two kilos of fruit in their baskets, they emptied the berries into the tubs theyâ€™d set under the shady fir trees, or in a cool tunnel. They all met by a spring to eat and figure out how much fruit theyâ€™d gathered. Old Nina would light her pipe. The girls stretched out and napped for a half-hour while their mothers whispered together about their men or the latest gossip. Sometimes during this midday break, the raspberry women were joined by the recuperanti whoâ€™d been digging for scrap weapontry nearby and heard the singing. Then the talk grew more cheerful, more livelyâ€“the PÃ»ne brothersâ€™ bashful, off-color jokes had something to do with that.
Later in the afternoon, the women would head back down the mule-path, their tubs brimming with berries and swinging on the poles they carried between them, across their shoulders. The horse and cart would be waiting for them at the Austrian captainâ€™s headstone, and theyâ€™d load the dayâ€™s harvest, then all walk together to the distillery on Via Mount Ortigara, to weigh the fruit and collect their pay. Mario would be waiting for the women; sometimes heâ€™d ask Irene for a handful of berries. Raspberries paid from eighty centesimi to one lira and twenty centesimi per kilogram. If a girl was quick enough, she could gather ten kilosâ€™ worth, and so those ready to marry could buy something for their dowry, hemp or flax, for spinning that winter.
Mario Rigoni Stern is from Asiago, Italy, in the Veneto. He is one of the most prestigious writers of northern Italy and has published fifteen works of prose with Giulio Einaudi Editore and Il Melngolo. His Il sergente nella neve (1953), The Sergeant in the Snow, is considered one of the great novels about the Italians at the Russian front during World War II. His works have been translated into twelve languages, and he has won numerous awards, including the 1978 Campiello Prize for the novel, Storia di Tonle (The Story of Tonle) and the 1999 Pen Club Prize for the short story collection Sentieri sotto la neve (Paths Beneath the Snow). Le stagioni di Giacomo (Giacomoâ€™s Seasons) won the 1996 Grinzane Cavour Prize and has been translated into French; it was also adapted as a play in Italy.
Elizabeth Harris Behling grew up in Arizona and Kentucky and now teaches creative writing at the University of North Dakota. For her translations, she has won several awards, including the Dudley Fitts Award and the Gary Wilson Award. Her stories and translations of Italian prose and poetry have been accepted in Other Voices, Denver Quarterly, Florida Review, Northwest Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and other magazines. She has had fiction-residency fellowships at the Blue Mountain Center and the Ragdale Foundation.
Roger Boyle is Professor of Computing at the University of Leeds in the UK. His skill as a photographer is as limited as his skill in bicycle maintenance (that’s according to Boyle himself…we happen to love this photo!) He has a deep affection for southern European countries, in particular Itlay.