Anna watched the section full of German soldiers, who were digging holes and planting big machine-guns amongst the olive trees. An officer saw her, waving to greet her. That German officer had always been kind, unlike one of his soldiers who entered their home when only Anna and her aunt Nella were there. He reeked of wine, that soldier, and laughed. Then, he began to touch her aunt while she was screaming and pushing him away by hitting him with a ladle. Anna still remembered the officer standing before her father, angrily listening to him and then leaving in silence. And she also remembered that the soldier, who did not laugh or reek of wine anymore, had apologized to aunt Nella.
“Come on, Anna, it’s time to go”, her mother said.
Anna turned around and her father Ottavio helped her to get into the cart. Uncle Vittorio slapped the backside of the ox and the animal started to move slowly. Anna turned to exchange greetings with the officer; at that moment, she saw him. On the path bordering the holding, a man was running towards them, waving his arms.
“Wait for me, wait for me”, the man shouted. The soldiers observed him for a moment and then returned to their jobs. Her mother and aunt Nella turned around in the cart. Ottavio and Vittorio kept on walking, looking straight ahead as if they had not heard him.
“Wait for me, I beg you”, he shouted louder.
Anna had seen him many times at home, sitting at the large kitchen table with a glass of wine in his hand and glancing strangely at women. He always looked as if he were the landlord. Anna asked her mother why that man came to their house; she answered that he did not go only to their house but also to the other farm owners’ nearby. She never told her the reason why. Anna had heard the men talking about him: everybody hated him because of what he had done to Alberto, a young boy who lived there twenty-two years ago, the day before the March on Rome. She asked her father who Alberto was and what that man had done to him, but he merely looked at her for a while and went back tilling the land as if she had not even spoken.
Ottavio stopped the cart.
“Bini, what do you want?”, he asked when the man was in front of him. Bini breathed with difficulty and let out a big wheeze. He gasped for a breath of air and kept his face near the ground, Anna wondered if he thought he would find more air down there. He did not wear his usual clothes, the ones that she had always seen him in. He did not wear that black shirt, those funny trousers or those dusty black boots. The clothes that he was wearing that day were the same that she had seen on everybody else. When Bini raised his head , Anna thought that even his eyes were different, less domineering, and not only because his face was all sweaty and red.
“Bini, you look as if you were running away”, Vittorio said to him with a little smile.
Bini looked at the cart. The two women stared at him, keeping silent.
“Where are you moving?” he poignantly asked.
“And what does it matter to you? Have they left you alone?” Vittorio answered.
“There is nobody left in the holdings nearby”, said Bini.
“It’s better for you”, Vittorio added.
“So Bini, what do you want?” Ottavio put it briefly.
Bini got his breath back.
“I cannot stay here, Americans will be here in a short while and…”.
“It’s not them you have to be afraid of”, Vittorio cut in.
“Take me with you”, Bini begged.
Vittorio started to laugh. Ottavio however remained serious, he felt pity for Bini. It was a new feeling and he merely felt ashamed of it, but there it was, and he could not pretend not to notice.
“I cannot. But I cannot forbid you to go where you want”, he cut the discussion slapping the backside of the ox.
The cart moved slowly and Bini stood still, watching it move away. Only Anna kept on staring at that man and after some time, once he became a small figure in the distance, she watched him begin following them, being careful not to get too close.
Aunt Nella took her by the hand and carried her to the spring water. They were the last ones to arrive to that small glade full of soldiers and the queue for water was long. The hill in front of them was full of holes where children and women were very busy in putting jugs of water, blankets and food.
“Are we going to live there too?”, Anna asked to her aunt.
The men were still near the carts. Some of them took care of the animals, others among which Ottavio and Vittorio took the food and the blankets down the carts. And then the children: those who were not in the caves in the hill, played soldiers pretending to be Americans and Germans.
“And where is he?” Anna asked to her aunt.
“Who?”, the woman asked without looking at her.
“He. That man who ran after us when we left.”
Nella looked at her in an astonished way.
“He stayed at the farm.”
“No, aunt Nella, he followed us, I have seen him.”
Nella looked around, then she started staring at the queue before them. Anna would have liked so much to ask her about Alberto, but aunt Nella kept silent, her eyes directed on the women. She did not ask anything and they both kept silent up to the moment when they went back to the cart with their jugs full. Ottavio told them that the women would sleep in the caves, while Vittorio and he would stay there on the cart. Afterwards, he cut in half a big piece of bread and a slice of cheese.
“Take these”, he said handing them to Nella. “The rest will be enough for us.”
Only along the way that led back to the caves aunt Nella spoke to her again.
“He must be hungry, don’t you think so?”
Anna looked at her. “That man, Bini.”, Nella added with a smile.
“But we don’t know where he is.”
“I don’t think that he is far.” Aunt Nella stopped. “What do you think shall we go and look for him?”
Bini had hidden behind a rock, not far from the carts. When he saw her he came out. There was no reason to be afraid of a woman and a little girl and furthermore, they had bread and cheese. Anna put the food on the ground and Bini gave a look to the jug in Nella’s hands.
“As for water, you know where to find it.”
He thanked them, but waited until they had disappeared before starting to eat.
“Mind you”, her aunt said when they were again on the path that led to the caves, “don’t say anything to anybody”.
Anna would not do it. And even if she wanted to, nobody would listen to her. That night, although they all thought that they were still in Livorno, the Americans arrived and everybody spent their time looking gawking their holdings from far away, lit as if it were daytime, due to the large quantity of rockets going up the sky, and then falling down whilst lightening up. They also looked at the flashes that lasted one second, and were followed by a frightening noise. This lasted for a while, then they went to bed. But looking at them, Anna thought that their faces were different from those getting ready for sleep. She could not know, but she was right. In the grown up people’s heads who were heading crestfallen to bed, there was something that really worried them. On one side, they were hopeful that their houses could be safe, and on the other, concerned because the Americans must have certainly destroyed something with all the noise they had made.
They were shouting, or at least, she felt so as soon as she woke up. Those were voices of men quarrelling. Aunt Nella had her back turned on her and was looking outside the cave, towards the carts and those voices.
“Where are you going, Anna?” her aunt yelled to her, as Anna rushed passed, running towards the shouting voices.
Everybody was there, near the carts. Even if she had not spoken, the grownups had found out just the same. Bini was standing up, between two men who held him by the arms and prevented him from moving. He could move only his eyes, which shifted quickly from one side to the other of the little crowd in front of him. Her father and another man that she did not know stayed in the middle, and fixed each other with stern faces.
“I told you that he was not with us”, Ottavio said to the stranger.
And, then, why is he here?”, the man asked. “you did not tell me yet.”
Vittorio came out of the crowd.
“Pilade, you are not going to think that we want to help him, are you?”, he asked.
“I don’t think anything”, Pilade answered without looking at him. “I only know that yesterday when you left, he came and looked for you”.
“And your spies”, Ottavio asked, “didn’t they tell you that I chased him away?”
Pilade looked around for confirmation. Everybody stared at him and nobody said a word.
“Let’s go”, he ordered the men who held Bini.
“Pilade”, Ottavio called him as soon as the two men moved. “Do what you have to do far from here.” Pilade did not answer.
While they were carrying him away, Bini managed to turn around, but he only saw that everyone was leaving toward the caves.
Anna came out of the bush behind which she had hidden. What was the meaning of all that? Why had her father, she asked to herself once more, wanted these men to take Bini far from there? She wanted to find out. She would have liked to do it with aunt Nella, but that would mean to go back to the cave, and both her father and mother would oblige her to stay with them. Bini and the men were disappearing. She decided to follow them.
The men stopped under a holm-oak. July had just begun and the sun beat strongly. Maybe that was the reason why they had chosen the shadow of that tree. Pilade took out from his rucksack a rope with a strange ring and he passed it over a branch . The men, thoughtfully, looked for a while to that hanging ring, then one of them started looking for rocks and with them, he built a sort of stool made of stones. Bini’s legs began to shiver. While the two men kept him still, preventing him to fall down, Pilade pulled the rope up to have it stretched and then he wound it around the oak trunk. He went back to the stool made of stones and addressed Bini.
“We will charge you only for what you did to Alberto.”
He told him so with a voice that reminded Anna of her mother’s tone when she put her to bed, and told her to get to sleep without making a fuss.
All of a sudden, she felt a grasp on her shoulder and then a strength that made her turn around in a second. A moment after, Anna felt the slap and the men turned. In front of her was Ottavio. He cast an angry glance, staring something over his daughter’s head.
“Pilade”, Ottavio growled “I had told you to go far away”.
The tone was menacing. Pilade and the others kept silent.
No, she was not crying. Of course, tears came down on her cheeks, but she was not crying, or at least, not in the same way she would do if those men were not there. If she were at home, yes, she would shout, she would stamp her feet and shake her arms, but above all, she would not ask anything.
“Daddy”, she said sniffing, “what did that man do to Alberto?”
Ottavio looked at her with surprise and, without saying anything, took her by the hand. While he was taking her away from there, Anna turned around. The men stood still and were staring at the ground, as if the dry blades of grass under their feet could tell them what to do. From the stool made of stones, where he did not shiver anymore, Bini looked at her with a light smile.
Now the Americans stayed in the holding, but besides that, nothing or almost nothing had changed. Yes, because during the night that the grownups had spent looking at the glares of the cannon shots, The Germans quietly left without fighting, and the Americans destroyed some olive trees and blew up the rabbit cages, leaving a big hole near the house. And from that hole, in which she had fun playing with aunt Nella, Anna saw him again. Bini was walking slowly on the same road where she had seen him the day of their departure. Also Nella and the Americans had noticed him.
“Where is he going?” Anna asked her aunt.
“To Pilade’s”, Anna looked at her. “Do you remember him?”
“And what is he going there for?”
Aunt Nella smiled and caressed her cheek that still had the sign of Ottavio’s slap. Anna removed her head by instinct.
“To be slapped” aunt Nella answered.
“Yes, like your father did with you”, Anna touched her reddened cheek.
“And why?” she asked.
Nella looked at the road.
“Each morning he has to go to the hill and reach that tree, the one where your father found you. Pilade is there and waits for him, he makes him sit on the stool made of stones, do you remember? And then he slaps him, and the same thing each day after for one month”.
Anna looked at the road. Bini had almost disappeared. She caressed her cheek once again and thought once more to her father’s slap. He had hurt her and she would remember for a while and then forget it, like all the other ones. She wondered how it would be to be slapped every day for a whole month. She would surely remember forever.
Translation by Paola Roveda (edited by Amy Scarlett Holt and Irene Tossi)