The German Major
Author's note: Very early stuff so the wrtiting is a little sloppy and I did no research for WW2. This is all... Show full author's note »
The German MajorOn Corso Stupinigi, with the leaves brittle with death falling from their branches and the frigid air stinging his cheeks, Ettore rod on the number 1 tram. He leaned back on the curved chair, reclining on the uncomfortable slats and reading his newspaper. It was junk and he knew it, the whole newspaper but he read it anyway, as a source of boring entertainment to pass the long ride on the lonely tram. The whole newspaper was Fascist propaganda, filtering out the allies’ victories through the sieve of the newspaper writers. He read about the triumph of the Axis forces that was probably false. At this point of the war, the outcome was certain.
He was tired f the stupid newspaper and slapped it down on the empty seat next to him and sighed. He breathed in a huge gulp of the cold, fresh, autumn air and the wholesome smell cleared his cluttered mind.
Forget the newspaper, he thought, forget the war. He breathed the air again. He looked outside the windows of the tram at the passing scenery. The austere cement blocks of the Miraflore factory hadn’t come yet and it was still the stark, leafless trees and the grey landscape. There were still the usual red brick houses interrupted by the medieval buildings that scatter the city. Before the war, he remembered, the tourists flocked to see these things, now with gaping crated and dilapidated paintings peeling on the inside, they were no longer attractive. It was truly a depressing sight and he remembered that he had once ventured into a bombed out church accidentally caught in a spray of debris and smashed into a decaying husk. Stepping over fallen rafters he had walked to the altar with only hints of gold leaf design still remaining, the rest scrapped off by looters who descended on all piles of rubble and scoured for valuables. The cross was bent at an angle and he reached over and pulled it off its stand making an attempt to straighten it, but it could not be fitted. He saw the scratched indentations where the jewels on the cross had been removed and he put the mangled thing, on a vitreous idol, now an abject piece of junk, back into it’s stand and walked out.
He looked out through the brass holding bar of the tram, relatively empty with only a little old lady, with her hands stuffed into a muff and a mink scarf, clouded glass eyes and ferocious teeth. Just how it must have looked when a poacher snared it into a trap. It was slung over her shoulders and her silver white hair made up into a bun underneath a hat with a veil cascading over her face. She must have been stinking rich or had connections with people in high places. On her lap was a pompous little canine.
He looked away from the lady and out the tram again. They passed a hotel with an awning tattered and falling apart from shrapnel and windows broken with the frames splintered. This hotel housed artists who had not been drafted into the propaganda department. It seemed they had too much dignity and pride in themselves. So they were left to rot in run down apartments and they usually stared out with hand dog looks smoking a rationed cigarette which they gingerly smoke as to keep the taste in their mouth and relish it before it burned away. Some were smoking butts and stubs.
Then was the hippodrome and the glinting, shining walls rising into the sky and reflecting the sky into a distorted bowl of deep blue. There was a lady walking down the sidewalk next to the Hippodrome and he called out to her,
She did not hear him.
She turned and looked at him with haughty reluctance and brightened, waved back.
“Hello, Ettore!” She called to him.
The train was slowing down and Renata was trotting alongside it as it screeched to a halt. She was stylish and attractive, but old. She wore a green dress, undoubtedly made out of a curtain, and what could be silk stockings or just gravy browning or ink, and a handmaid beret (apparent from uneven, slapdash stitches) with a little brooch in it. He lips were red and her face powdered and made up. The whole rumpled outfit, with shoddy stitches and red-wine sediment smeared on her lips, looked terribly convincing.
“Hey, Ettore!” She said again and greeted him warmly as he stepped off the platform. He left his newspaper on the bench.
The tram pulled away and the driver raised a burly greeting back at them with his calloused, firm hand. He was wearing a pair of gloves that nobody had questioned but all, except for the Germans (luckily for him) suspected that only such fine leather could have come from the succulent cows of the Fatherland.
The tram pulled away and rounded a corner.
“How are you?” Ettore asked and embraced Renata.
“I’m pretty bad, my stomach feels like s*** and my head is killing me, but life goes on.” Renata responded with a shrug, meaning ‘It’ll do.’
“How’s work?” Renata asked.
“You know, not so bad, I mean I could be stuck with the little balsa wood planes, they break right away.”
Marie passed by, a known brown noser and Renata looked at her disparagingly since she actually had real silk stockings, no housewife trick, those were the real deal. Marie smirked behind her as if she had caught them saying something incriminating, but when Renata caught her smirk with her evil eye Marie hurried away.
Renata moved her lips as if she was silently uttering something obscene, then she said it out loud after observing the street to see if the coast was clear, allowing her to say something horrible about Marie, “She must have spilled the beans on the-“ good sense cut through her malice, exposed common sense, stopped her on short notice to keep her safe.
Ettore laughed nervously, finishing the joke in his mind.
“I would love to get actual stockings.”
“Those aren’t stockings?” Ettore asked. It was simple flattery. It was obvious they weren’t. The “stockings” were blotchy, uneven and smudged.
Renata smiled happily and kissed Ettore on the cheek, thankful for the compliment, which she somehow believed, or just wanted to. “No, it’s just charcoal. I’ll never try gravy browning again because the dogs go nuts over the smell. ”
“You sure it isn’t just you they’re going nuts over?”
Renata gave a hearty laugh, brightened with the praise, and showered him with more affectionate pecks on the cheek.
“You’re awful sweet Ettore, bye!” She said and walked down the sidewalk, stumbled when she caught her heel in a crack, shakily regained balance, and continued to walk. Ettore made a gesture to help, but she shooed him away.
“Bye!” Ettore yelled to her and she waved back, stumbled again on the heel that had been replaced by an empty spool.
Ettore, walked into his street, the milk shop, and barbers shop on either side, two apartments on either side, surrounding by grassy meadows and weeping willows, the wall of the hippodrome some ways off, surrounding by rivulets on water and marshy prairie. Ettore walked to his house, up the water stained hallway of apartment 357, found the second floor, knocked on the splintered, ram-shackled wood, with rusty-hinges and a chipped door knob. The apartment numbers swung on loose nails and a peephole, byzantine motifs of metal with a hatch on the front, a clasp on it hooked around a nail like a little finger curled around a grey point. The hatch on the other side opened and a eye appeared, tried to distinguish him with a paled pupil, gray, tangled hair falling across a weathered brow.
“Ohhh. I thought you were the milkman. That white workers one-piece doesn’t become you.” The owner of the eye said. It was Nonna Matilde. She always nagged playfully since she had to be there anyway, till they got married. It was a wonder the rigid customs of old still survived and that they were held apart by a 400 year old tradition. Nonna was sweet though so it wasn’t that much of a drag.
She opened the door and her wizened face appeared, her arms open for an embrace and her lips pursed for a kiss. Ettore kissed her on the cheek and gave her a hug.
“Come on, don’t be a stranger. Your wife-to-be is drawing lines on her legs.” Nonna said and ushered him in with a hand on his back.
“Mama, the lines are stockings! And I got some coffee grounds too! The ink and coffee will make perfect stockings!” Adele, his wife-to-be, yelled back, irately to her mother.
"Yah, yah. How are you?" Nonna asked politely, closed the door behind him and looked expectantly up at him.
"OK, a little shitty..." Nonna scowled at him "...a little sick but I'm fine. How are you wifey!" Nonna frowned disapprovingly again. The hell with nice little old granny and her dated customs, it was indeed a drag to have her, he thought. Old, inoffensive, but not at all sage like she should be, actually kind of ignorant in Ettore's favorite fields of interest. All conversations on movies, Ettore's passion, came up to a dead end with a silence of disinterest or the hollow words of her humoring him, basically repeating what he said. Oh but granny wasn't that bad, she could be worse, and her faults couldn't all be blamed on her.
"Fine, hubby! We saw 'The Children are Watching Us' in the cinema! By De Sica!" Adele yelled to him and he nodded to the mirror, his own reflection, white Fiat jumpsuit from the visit and tour of another factory pouring out little toy planes and little toy tanks.The reflection was as if he was on a little doily, coffee stains blemishing his reflection from a hastily set down cup. Nonna was in the background, darkly lit, like a minor person in a Velasquez painting, like the dwarfs he loved to draw with their pained faces and arcane souls.
He walked into the other room, saw his wife on a ramshackle duvet, and a long, ripped ottoman, reclined, looking like the Maja. Her legs where cross hatched, stained by coffee. It looked nice but he didn't remember what actual silk stockings looked like but he thought it looked good, but maybe it was just his scarred senses. This pursuit for fashion mystified him, that the will to look good overtook the need for bare essentials and survivals. It was strange that his wife was wasting coffee and ink to make a buzz among the neighborhood woman. He guessed he did it too. The fact that he put on cologne, wore a fedora from some nostalgia shop, and put on a nice suit was all mystifying as well and he tried to view it on the flip side, from another perspective so that he could see they all just wanted to look good and make the best of it in risk of death and in the face of an adversary.
"Ettore, Ettore, doesn't it look nice?"
"It looks wonderful darling."
His tone was flat and her face darkened and picked up again.
"Don't be angry. I used it in the bags, I didn't waste any." she said sheepishly.
"I'm not angry. It looks great."
He leaned in and gave her a hug
Ettore and Adele met in a cosmic coincidence. Some wiseman said that the universe is a clock or maybe Ettore said that or same esoteric street doomsayer and somebody else took it as his own. The clock wanted them to meet, but is that too hackneyed to be uttered? Forgetting the romanticism Ettore and Adele met, caught up in the horrors of war not in something as beautiful and banal as philosophers like to think. In the harsh words of Hobbes, or the coldness of Machiavelli, Ettore and Adele were boats aloft in a thrashing storm smashed together by chance, fate, and a parents arrangements.
It began with a relationship that Adele had with a Blackshirt after they had bashed the poor Ethiopians with their African campaign. Back from their travails came newly minted stamps from the new countries, and a stock of bananas. The bananas were made into a government monopoly. The Fascist Pig that Adele was dating was in a marching band who came down the street with their Jackboots. Everybody was supposed to participate. The veterans grumbled that they had already saved their country and must not be made to do it no more. The pint sized Mussolini followers whined while the steel heels made staccatos on the street. Adele sneaked into it, clutched the Blackshirt's arm and giggled innocently.
Everybody was pissed off. Shame and guilt unearthed pent up anger and hidden plans. Love was love, was what the most rational and foolish said. So a plan was devised to break apart the star crossed sweethearts. Ettore, a neighborhood nice guy who had been given a job at Fiat so as not to be drafted, was nudged to meet Adele. However, they meet on a tram, in a spin of fate not the predestination of parents, and one thing led to another. Actually, the war was a soft undertone then, a gale not in full force but it's presence felt. It was a storm brewing and everybody knew it would explode into the thrashing violence of lightning and rain, but they all choose to ignore it because it did not pose an immediate threat to their way of life. Once it made an offensive stance on their lives, they cowered, adapted, and survived.
Ettore stood in the long hallways of his friend's mansion. The windows had been boarded with plywood, nailed to the frame and all the curtains had been pulled down to make clothing. Pieces had also been casually cut from them. Seeming silhouettes of dresses, hats, and socks ran down the velvet folds while most curtains were missing. Sofas, tattered by shrapnel and use, lay broken down in collections of firewood, gutted of foam and springs. He looked out the window, through the thin, drooping vines of Mulberry trees, over the rolling pastures, out into the quaint outskirts of Torino and into the city itself. He was startled by his friend walking on the hard wood flooring.
His springy step creaked on the floorboards and his casual, sagging pants and shirt fell around his body loosely. He had moonshine wine in two crystal glasses. Actual crystal! The glint was full of temptation and wonder. The clouded wine cleared into something much more appealing in his mind and when his friend came, he swilled it quickly and gulped it down fast. He almost gagged on the vile stuff, but choked it down.
"Easy, easy. That stuff was fermented in a bath tub. I was about to give the warning." Ettore's friend, Foggino, said with amusement hidden behind his voice. Foggino was a bit of a jerk, but all around nice. He had that tendency to find humor in mistakes and nitpicked the whole world about this and that.
"How are you Foggino?" Ettore asked to divert attention from his faults.
"My stomach feels terrible. I got this horrible gas..." Ettore tuned out but kept on a face of concern.
"It must be the rationed food. Egg powder, gravy browning, baco-bits, reconstituted beans..." he gave a sympathetic shiver "I've heard the same symptoms."
"I..." Foggino paused to think of the right word "...returned because of that lousy stuff we ate at the feast. We tried to turn that miserable stuff into good food but it still tasted like sandpaper and the hours after that were..." Ettore blocked out medical details and gastric specifics, basked in his mental bliss, a soft warm pool, the dirty water of reality, bad wine, and medical information filtered into a clean, warm, and pleasant falsity.
"Hows the silk underground doing?" Ettore only then realized he had rudely interrupted a graphic account of indigestion.
"Fine, fine. I'm selling it in the black market. I hope the front holds because I'm sure the damn Yanks are going to steal all my silk."
"Well, we don't meet on that point."
"Your not in the business. The time the Brazilian, god-knows-why, expeditionary force came they barged into the basement and stole some of my silk for parachutes! They killed some of my precious worms, those burglars!" Foggino griped, making expansive gestures, and disgusted expressions, his lips curled and eyes crumpled.
"The Nazis stole some of your Mulberry as well, so did the Blackshirts." Ettore argued. it was a light squabble as they always had if they didn't agree. He hoped he could convert Foggino to what he knew was right.
"I'm undecided, I don't like anybody." Foggino smiled at Ettore, asking for absolution for his aberrant opinions. " Your the only one who could stand me. And because I like your sweetheart as well, I've got..." He trailed off, ran quickly, pulled a steel ring on a lacquered wooden trapdoor, his tapping light step fading underground. Ettore heard his voice faintly, mourning the death of one of his worms and tending to a tree like a child and then rummaging among wrapping and walking back up, emerging from the door with a long box. "Now, tell your wife not to wear these. Seriously, this tail end of this godforsaken war is the worst part, keep to yourself and keep quiet and tell her never to wear these until somebody marches in the gates and liberates us or when they are here to stay. Now I have to go, sorry it was so short." He padded on the light carpeting softly, turned his head over his shoulder.
"Thank you!" Ettore called out, envisioning the sheer happiness of his wife when she would open it, her pleased cries and compliments.
He walked out the door with a smile on his face. There was no maid to show him out, they had all run for the far suburbs where they were sure they could be safe. The sky was dark blue of dusk and the air was fresh and clean. Ettore also smelled smoke. No doubt, something, somewhere, was burning.
Ettore hung the stockings on the clothes hanger made out of a notebook spine, flattened them out and evenly placed them side by side. Nonna was standing in the corner, hand clasped in hand, with a face half of concern and half of respect, slighted by her troubled undertone. Ettore couldn't stand the growing awkwardness in the room, it stifled him, and the silence shoved down his throat and strangled him with ethereal hands.
"What?" He turned on her with malicious impatience.
"You can't win her with just stockings." Nonna said. No doubt some old woman's prophecy that would come true and prove the big mean old man wrong in the end. The share of wisdom angered him, because Nonna muddling into their affairs so that they could only peck each other on the check, like people on the different ends of a valley, having to talk through megaphones, separated by a abyss of custom. Nice old Nonna, nag, nag, nag. Ettore was a nice guy, very nice, better than the blackshirt and Nonna all arranged the whole thing like an agent of God, now what the hell was she doing trying to break them apart? Thankfully, his wife, his love, came home. She walked into the room and looked at them in a very estranged way, at the tension in their faces, her husband poised to strike out with some angry word. They relaxed and Adele came over and pecked him on the cheek.
"Your so distant all the time and angry, what's wrong?" she asked.
"Work, the war, this courting, sorry Nonna." He pleaded for forgiveness. If Nonna didn't like him she probably wouldn't give him her daughter. He thought maybe Nonna was blaming him for thinking that Adele was materialistic? She was not shallow but she was dying for stockings! He was just trying to make her happy.
"Fine, fine." Nonna said, almost petulantly.
Adele walked into her washroom, glanced back at them and the throbbing of the tap filled the room, along with rummaging and the gentle brush of a bathing towel on her face. The slip and gentle fall of clothing, the running of the shower, and the close of the door.
Ettore took the stockings off the hook and put them back in the box. He would give them to her later when they were free. Right now she didn't need anything more. He should let her enjoy the little things so that she will stay hopeful. In the darkest of times, the little luxuries of their old life were enough to supply the motivation to live: singing in the streets, stockings, food, and freedom.
In the morning, in their separate beds, Ettore and Adele woke up to gunfire. Fusillades of machine guns, soft concussion, and screams filled the early morning air. It was the guerillas. They had come down from the hills to wreak havoc on the German forces stationed nearby.
"Don't go to work today honey!" Ettore yelled as he shifted in his bed. He felt the springs press in his back, the chipped metal headboard through the feather pillow and he heard an annoyed grunt of acceptance. Ettore fell back asleep almost immediately, tossed and turned and burrowed into the blankets and after confused dreams of guns and fire woke up to a silence after the storm, eery quiet, except for the children playing hopscotch and potsy on the tram tracks. He sat up groggily and went to the window, rubbed his eyes and yawned. He thought about yawning. What if a man in China started the yawn and the yawn went from person to person until FDR yawned himself? It was a cutesy way of thinking about it, but he liked making up theories like that.
Pico, the little reconnaissance plane, skirted over the horizon. Muffled bangs thudded around it's hull as machine guns let sprays of bullets on it and for some reason, tanks too, even though the barrels couldn't reach that high up. They popped right over abandoned buildings, shattered into smoky spikes, ripped through concrete but stayed ineffectually at street level. This was a sign of resignation. The Germans were having fun, shooting bullets wildly, not aiming to win. They were using all their weapons, the ack-acks, and even handguns, maybe they were drunk. Ettore sat down, bored and drew a picture of a person, wildly exaggerated, expressive and stylized into mis matched limbs and swirly decorations. He wrote a caption and just for the heck of it, threw it away. He wrote a poem about war, about peace and love and it was mawkish, meaningless, and didn't do justice to the subjects. He fumbled for a lighter in his breast pocket, flicked it on, set the poem on fire and burned it, throwing it in the trash can where previous drafts ignited and flared up. He wrote a good poem too and burned it also. Finally, he emerged from his destructive mood and wrote a poem about the horses and how they had a tenant once who was a horse racer and gave them tips. Now the stadium was closed and the man had moved away. He harped on the sadness of loss and change, lavished about his wife, complained about Nonna, and explained the decline of the war, ending in a parody of Dante. The trash can still burning, he crumpled it up and was about to throw it away when he decided to keep it. He didn't know what the future held: war, world dominion, dystopia, or a golden age but he felt a need to pass on knowledge and feelings, to transmit hardships of the present to the children of the future. The poem was good too.
There was a trotting on the cobblestones. Ettore thought it was his wife coming home but it was a horse, a palomino, strutting it's sumptuous, rippling muscles and downy brown fuzz, without a single sign of mange. It had been brushed, washed and scrubbed, it's mane and tail fresh and dark with water. It wore a leather saddle and on top was a man, a German, stroking it's mane, and holding onto the lead that was attached to the bridle. Ettore was admiring it now out the window, leaning on the frame and taking the beautiful beast in. He was no horse aficionado, but he had a sense of what was what. It was a racing horse, it urged outwards, fidgeted while it trotted since it wanted to run in full stride instead of being held back. He wanted to close the window because he knew if he fell in love with this amazing horse he would never see it again. It would be shot in the head by the allies, caught in barb wire, or taken to the states to die of old age. This is why Ettore didn't want to tangle himself up in too many lives since he knew that maybe Foggino would be hit by a bomb in his house, Adele would be tarred and feathered because of her relationship with the blackshirt, or Ettore would just kill Nonna Matilde because of the sexual tension that was buzzing in his head. He didn't wan't to have too many heartbreaks so he kept himself limited, friend-wise. However, he kept the window open because of curiosity since the German approached the children. They looked up at the clop of heels and ran at length, bolted up stairs an hid behind locked doors, leaving the ball and jack behind in the street. The barber rolled down the window and the milk man skipped his route to return to safety. The German looked around at the shut out houses and drawn over curtains, then found Ettore's looking out at him with a mix of reproach and slight interest.
"How do I get your trust?" He asked, his eyes were actually quite doleful, his demeanor was quiet and soft, and his Italian was perfect.
"Your not going to make me disappear into a black bag if I tell you the truth?" Ettore said, taken aback at how gentle this German was. He had assumed, with a blind heart, that all Germans were monsters because of the things he heard. It was funny though, since at the sharp end of the allies vengeance the Americans seemed like the monsters even though they were supposed to be the knights in shining armor.
"No. I could but no." the German said. He was treating Ettore with utmost care, like he was the ambassador of all the others that wouldn't hear him.
"So your good. Your a king a country type. I can't believe I'm talking to you, it's stupid."
"No, it's not stupid, it's two men talking." the German looked up, eased off the horse and dropped to the ground, petting it's neck as it snorted heartily.
"I don't know." he thought they would force him to drink camphor oil, like they did to good old pa, just for being honest. Hot pokers. Whips and pliers. He shuddered at the thought and shied away from the window, concealed in the darkness.
The German erratically changed the subject, sensing Ettore's discomfort. "Do you go to the hippodrome?"
Ettore dare to take a few steps into the light . "Yes, racers lived next to us at one time. They moved away when they started bombing the factory."
"Damn shame. He's a handsome racing horse, isn't he?" The German asked of Ettore, squinting into the sun. The brown coat was sheeny and slick under the mid morning light.
"Yes, yes. A real beauty." For a moment both were at a loss of words. There seemed nothing more to be said and the noble horse stood in silence, it's owner patting it's tough flesh and rippling muscles.
"The weather is..." The German laughed at the commonplace familiarity of it and Ettore smiled too, smiled right into the face of death. "I feel like a fool, talking about the weather."
"It's nice though. Not one cloud." For some reason he enjoyed talking to his sworn enemy, to insult all the old crows listening at the windows. A Nazi talking to an Italian! Imbecile! Idiot!
"You have a nice country." The German laughed again, at the clunky awkwardness of the conversation. "Nice trees." The German, obviously a man of action, choked on his words that were loaded with sentimentality.
"Yep." Ettore realized he wasn't helping, decided to elaborate to help him along. "Have you been to Alagna, near Monte Rosa, not so far away. It's very beautiful."
"No. I haven't. Mountains?"
"Yes, very nice." Again a long void in the conversation. With nothing in common, clashing ideals and completely different countries they just couldn't talk. Ettore didn't know the mountains name nor had he actually been to Alagna, only heard of it. In fact the only subject they could level at was the war and in daytime, in public, that was sure suicide. Again, nothing more to be said, except goodbye and a timid excuse.
"Good bye. I have to go to work." Of course Ettore didn't have to, just wanted to leave the conversation because of the silence taut with tension.
Ettore closed the window, looked through the slats at the German on his horse trotting away, the barber opening his shades and the children coming out to play.
Ettore woke up again to an empty house and interspersed gunfire ringing through the sky. Harsh claps, and loud bangs rattled the air and some faraway battle cries broke through the dawn. He could not fall asleep for a long time, staring at the ceiling until his eyes felt heavy again and he fell into a restless slumber, dreaming of fire, smoke, and dead bodies.
He woke up again, a cold sweat breaking out on his neck, some vague worry troubled him, something out of his dream he couldn't remember. He got out of bed and realized he hadn't eaten for a very long time, that family dinners never really happened, only nervous meeting around the radio to listen to London news and to turn down the volume enough so that nobody could hear the trumpet fanfare at the beginning. He felt murky and disconnected, no sensation in his body. His finger tip betrayed when he touched the wall, a tingly sensation like touching velvet.
He opened the window, squinted into a sun climbing up into the sky and looked at the children at play. A collector was coming by to take coal for gas masks, for a public awareness campaign, everybody had one somewhere if the Allies decided to gas Torino with Hydrogen cyanide or mustard gas. If you smell almond, run for your mask. Of course, nobody could be that cruel, to gas a whole city. Nobody did use chemical gas anymore anyway. It was just a way to stir up the public with fear.
Ettore leaned on the window frame, stared off the edge, as the truck drove away with cans filled with as much coal as they could collect, he remembered he had something for the kids. He went to the back of his house, scavenged through a cluttered drawer for a small wooden box and when he found it, held it up to a sliver of light to see if it was really it and ran down the stairs, into the street, to the huddle of boys playing marbles. They turned around, hearing his footsteps and glanced at the small box, abandoned their game and stood to see what he had to offer.
"Clay marbles. Made them at the beach." Ettore said and put it in the center of their circle.
They were too caught up in excitement to be polite and immediately started playing with them. They turned their backs to him with instant ingratitude and completely ignored him. Even though they didn't respect his giving he still enjoyed making them happy, watching them quibble over who should keep them. Ettore heard a tell tale staccato of clopping on stone and immediately the children seized up their marbles, glanced form side to side and ran indoors. Windows shut, doors slammed, shades were drawn, and the neighborhood became lifeless, in quiet wait for the sound to go away.
The German came down the street and Ettore stayed steadfast, shuddered slightly at the sight of a holstered gun, but stayed still. With his usual intentness, the German noticed his eye on the gun, unholstered it, and threw it into a quagmire shaded by trees at the end of the block. It was terribly foolish, but obviously the German wanted to make peace with the people that hated him most. Most Soldiers had combat knives tied sheathed at their ankle and that too the German undid and threw away. He pulled out all his pocket, getting off his horse and faced both sides of the block. He rolled up his pants, exposing bare legs, took his jacket and dropped it on the floor in a heap. He took a bundle out from under his arm, dropped it own the ground and stood, his arms raised in forfeit.
"Bread, pumpernickel. From the barracks." He said as eyes behind windows puzzled over him. A long silence and the German felt he must enforce trust even more.
"Give me a pat down." He said to Ettore, who hesitated, looking flustered into the eyes of people he knew were watching with close interest. He walked over to the German and checked him the best he knew and yelled out to the neighbors.
There was the ruffling of feet and talk as a plan was formulated behind a window, the German assayed, and hurried steps smashing down the stairs. A boy emerged, running out and grabbing the bundle, bounding back up the stairs and delivering it to his family.
"I'll bring more tomorrow." He eased on his jacket, buttoned it up, and saddled himself back on the horse.
The windows stayed closed, the voices stayed silent.
The next day Adele was supposed to not go to work so that they could spend some time together not under the scrutiny of Nonna Matilde. Adele, walked into the street, the old women abuzz with gossip filled her in with hushed talk of the strange German who had visited them early on. She stood on the street conversing as Ettore, restless again and finally feeling hunger, stared out the window readily, to be a mediator between the neighbors and the German. Then he came, the usual response greeted him, fear, running to safety and hiding places, shades drawn, windows slammed, doors locked, except for Ettore and Adele. Ettore held his ground, watched Adele as the German trotted into the block, whispers like the wind behind the darkness of windows. The breeze whisked through the branches, rustled leaves as birds flew away into the dark blue sky. The lips of both Adele and the German moved soundlessly but easily, smoothly, the conversation did not clunk along as it had before. Apparently, both at ground level, and smiling vaguely, they both knew what to say. The smiles broadening, wet eyes of admiration, sparked a quick, angry impulse in Ettore's brain: 'The Nazi, the Nazi is stealing my wife!'. He knew he had a gun in a drawer, somewhere, but something stopped him. The harmlessness of a man and a woman talking overpowered him, the two sides abolishing their petty differences in the streets in the middle of 60 judging eyes seemed something not to be stopped. Three bundles under his arm, he let go of them, and 3 boys ran out and snatched them up. Some windows, tentatively opened, since they had after all this, let the German into their hearts, fairly quickly being that he was a mortal nemesis. It was astonishing how simple acts of kindness changed people. The man was German, not a Nazi and after long minutes of conversation, he gave one bundle to Adele and turned towards the open window where Ettore leaned over. Ettore, dubiously realized he wore a smile on his face, the anger having subsided.
"Thank you!" He said, as he eased into his saddle.
"Sorry, but...." Ettore trailed off, regretful that he hadn't talked to him more, distinguished himself as a good man in front of his eyes.
"No, there was nothing to be said. Thank you."
Ettore smiled, his cheeks flushed and eyes sparkled as the man rode away into the sunset.
The German had given them the pumpernickel bread and butter, actual butter and they feasted that night, with black market potatoes and gravy browning to top them and even the steely taste of factory produced powder and bath tub grown vegetable was delicious.
"Amazing, what a nice guy." Adele said.
"God, I missed you. I'm glad your back." Ettore said, muffled by a mouthful of potato, gravy dripping on his lip. He dabbed his face with a napkin and swallowed, a shot of whiskey he had before the war in a metal canteen. Again, the chipped aluminum made the whiskey unpleasant but they were too caught up in the thrill of good bread and feeling that they didn't notice. Adele took a huge sip of whiskey.
"Get out a damn coffin nail and give me a light!" Adele said groggily and puffed it, lifted up the canteen to take another swill before Ettore stopped her,
"Come on, don't overdo it. Stay sober. Let's have a nice family dinner."
"S***. You're right. We haven't done that in a while. Did I tell you they tried to tar and feather me because of that little swing with the marcher." She still stumbled over words, but drank water and eat food to dull the woozy effects of drink. "And I said 'Stupid shitheads! You better get the hell out of here or else I'm gonna bean you with my purse! Scram assholes!'"
This is why Ettore loved her, because she could stand up for herself, could lash out without mercy, but also had a sensitive side.
"Come-on, lets go all out since Nonna not here." She suggested. She was sober now and still, somehow, that seemed like a good idea.
"No, no, that's a really bad idea. You know if she finds out they'll make sure I never see you again."
Outside, the moon starting to appear with the beginning of dusk, with it's darkening blue sky and twinkling planets starting flicker in the heavens, a bird in a tree began to sing.
The next day Nonna came back, with her luggage, hobbling up the steps, and gasping when she saw the bread, yelling in the half quiet of the sleeping house.
"Hello, hello," she said in a loud soliloquy of her happiness. "Oh my, oh my. Pumpernickel! Butter! Potato! Oh my!"
Adele and Ettore sleepily walked out of their bedrooms and looked at Nonna Matilde with an annoyed expression as she fretted and asked for specifics, her words a frenzy as she jumped around preparing the house, fixing up little tidbits, this and that and not leaving enough space between her words for anybody to answer her questions. Eventually her energy died down, further into the day, the sun slowly descending into a crimson gouache, spilling over the horizon. The family sat around the table finishing off the bread, Nonna marveling over the story, they munched happily, indulged in whiskey, and talked over each other, until a knock at the door, hurried and frantic, cut through their squabble. Only then did they hear the gun shots and explosions muffled by distance. It was heavy fire to take out the tanks. Slight echoes reverberated through the streets. The tumult of metal very far away, outside the city gates. They thought they knew what had happened: the liberation. It was far more quiet than they thought it would be, but it's importance pervaded the slight peace. They thought it would sound like the apocalypse, but it was well-mannered gentleman game on the fringe of decency. The tanks halted and some polite negotiations must have taken place because all sounds stopped. Then with an air of severity, they answered the door, to see the German, a gun in his hand, gasping for breath, exhaustion and fear skewed on his face.
"The Allies... my horse, my horse." He came inside and caught his breath. Nonna Matilde, not knowing it was the Good German, retreated to a drawer, to a gun, to safety, until a hushed voice from Adele told her. She became slightly more languid, but still tensed, ready for action.
"What, what happened to the...?" Ettore said and saw the gun clenched in his hand, the implication was strong enough. Maybe it had broken its leg or taken a bullet.
"Quick, quick, civilian clothes! The snipers! My battalion has left!" Adele and Ettore scattered, rummaged through clothing piles, both returning with pallets of clothing. He quickly shed his outer layer and jumped into a white shirt, donned a cap and shucked off his pants replacing them with worker's denim. He stumbled while changing. When he pulled off his shirt he exposed a large war wound running down his chest, the stitching showed the battlefront stress of a war surgeon, annotated pain, blood, flesh and muscle. Suddenly, with the realization that this man felt pain, bled blood, that he was not the German on the horse, the man who gave the bread. He was a man now, a man in the room, not just a German, nor a Nazi, and the entire family looked at him under a new light, a real human. It's depressing how it dawned on them so late and that the rest of the neighborhood was in ignorance of the German's humanity. Suddenly Ettore, to remember this man, realizing he was a man, yelled over more clamor of destruction, "What's your name?" The German was too rushed to say everything he wanted to say at once and skimmed over the question to the next important thing.
"I don't know you but I feel I do. Thank you, thank you," he said. Then he seized Adele's hand and kissed it, opened the door and ran away. Into the grumble of machinery, a blazing man-made hell, one saint, that they met only two days ago, ran into it. He probably died, or maybe he made it to Switzerland to surrender. But they never could know. They never knew his name.