Elide was born in 1926. Born a fascist.
She was the daughter of a railway worker, who had been obliged to become a National Fascist Party member, the only party allowed by the regime. She liked the Fascist Saturday meetings, and liked to belong to the Young Italians’ organization, because that enabled her to leave Maniago and to take part in some running or jumping events. However, after the first year of commercial school, she had to drop out of it, because her parents couldn’t afford to support her. Elide loved maths, and was not enthusiastic about household chores, but she was given no choice at all.
She was sent to Venice to work as a housekeeper for a wealthy family. To say “Yes, madam” all the time was a pain in her heart. After three months she phoned her father, begging him to come over and take her back home. She didn’t have the nerve to confess her fears, which were chiefly linked to the attentions the master of the house devoted to her: she didn’t like at all the glances and the remarks she received.
The skinny and awkward little girl who had left for the big city was turning into a gorgeous, young woman. Her thin figure, benefitting from a well-provided pantry despite the war, had swelled in the right points, becoming a luscious ripe fruit. Her dark brown hair, in contrast to the pale complexion, gave her an exotic look, and tickled men’s fancies whenever she went to Piazza del Popolo market. It was hard to live far from home, without her girlfriends, without a brother to watch over her respectability.
«You can’t come back to the village for now. The situation is getting worse and worse every passing day. Try to resist», her mother wrote her.
But she didn’t have to resist a long time. The mistress realized that, with her husband around in the house, Elide always preferred to have some vegetables to peel in her hands. She took as an excuse that Elide often injured herself in the kitchen, with the mezzaluna or the knives, and sent her back home. It was not true that she was cutting herself over and over again, even though she was attracted to the sharp edges of the blades: she was bewitched by that cold, shining steel. Anyway, she had succeeded in going back home.
After a year and a half, she took her mother’s job at the cotton mill. It was slave labour, always in the dust, and the salary was very low.
Nobody ever spoke out or complained, and nobody went on strike, for fear of being dismissed. Discontent hovered in the unhealthy air of the workshops.
It was rumoured that the Germans would take the mill machinery to their country, and the first protest leaflets appeared in the departments.
It was at the mill that, in order to work with the cotton waste, she had started to use blades again. Unlike many other women, she didn’t fear them.
Franco, the foreman, was a very serious and reserved guy. Nobody knew why he had not enlisted in the Army.
Gossip had it that he had an alleged connection with the Podestà, but nobody knew the truth. Elide happened to raise her head when she was busy, and to lock eyes with his, which were studying her. Those attentions didn’t annoy her: his glances were different from those she had felt upon her in Venice.
They had started to cycle together some stretches of road, going to work or getting back home in the evening.
By chance, or maybe not, he used to join her on the way and they exchanged some words. In his department Franco stayed out of her field of vision, but when they met outside he was awkward and very polite.
After courting her for a long time he had decided to ask her out. They had kissed for the first time at the cinema and Elide had found that sensation extremely hot, the almost unreal discovery of a part of herself that, until then, she had never known. A strong emotion. They got engaged.
It was at the cotton mill that she fell in love.
It seemed that Franco’s shyness had disappeared. Now he proved to be a real man of thirty and made her feel a real woman. He smelled of amber leaf tobacco and she liked his way of smiling, with the cigarette butt at the side of his mouth. He always kept a clasp-billhook in his pocket and, when she saw him using it, her eyes sparkled.
«Working with cotton waste is too hard for a little girl like you», he repeated almost every day. Perhaps this was not the real truth: the ease she showed in handling those blades worried him a little. He insisted on making her change department, and obtained it.
One Sunday, just after they had made love, they were lying down on the hay and were eating some cold polenta with radicchio. They were laughing. After cutting a piece of cheese in two, Franco started to run the round edge of his billhook on her arm. Suddenly she got pins and needles on her skin and this gave her the creeps.
«You’re a dangerous woman», he told her when he noticed her reaction.
He touched her shoulder lightly and then her neck, while the creeps were in her throat now. They kissed for a long time, and made love again.
It was on that day in the barn that, for the first time, he talked to her about the partisans, of his being an antifascist and of his plan to flee to the mountains very soon.
«When this happens», he had told her, «my nom de guerre will be Sfera».
He also told her that, from that day on, it would be hard to meet again, and this was why he had made her change department: «You should get used to the idea».
On the 8th of September Franco kept his word.
Before going away he wanted to give her a present. He gave her a jack-knife, a zuava with a horn handle, and wanted to kiss her for the last time.
«I want to tell you a secret», he told her while he was opening the knife. «Do you know how to prevent this blade from wounding you?».
«No, I don’t know», she replied, fascinated by the glare dazzling from the backlit edge.
«We have to let it taste your blood», Franco continued, gently etching the tip of her ring finger. «So that it can recognize you, and never harm you».
He took her bleeding finger in his mouth, while her breath was slowly recovering its normal rhythm. He smiled and they made love before saying goodbye.
On the 8th of September Elide’s life changed too.
After two weeks someone brought her a note signed Sfera.
He was doing well and asked her to take a package beyond the Tagliamento. To take it to a tavern in Spilimbergo, but to cross the river at Braulins, which was less dangerous.
She had been born a fascist, but she wasn’t going to be a fascist all her life.
She took her bicycle and, after getting a written pass from the local command, as a dispatch rider she covered the first forty kilometres of dirt roads. She kept her bag on the handlebars and the knife stuck in her pocket.
In the next months, she rode back and forth from the checkpoints many times. Sometimes she had to play pretty with the Germans, or to be friendly with the Fascists. They were often young men just a little bit older than she was. They checked out her pass and rummaged in her bag. They didn’t search in the pages of “Grand Hotel” or in her blouse, where she kept the cards and the notes.
The summer came.
It was rumoured that the Germans were having bad times, and it seemed that in a few days she would meet Franco again, her man. But these were only false hopes.
Suddenly, between Amaro and Gemona, thousands of Cossacks spilled out of trains and, in the plain, everybody was talking about it. The arrivals continued for ten long days: mounted troops with assault rifles, guns and sabres at their belt. Carts with women and children. Everywhere there was smell of freshly tanned leathers. Rugs, pallets, boxes, hay, and potato sacks knocked together in rotten, rickety primitive carts.
What were those refugees doing in Carnia?
The people in the village didn’t understand. The partisans didn’t understand either.
On seeing those refugees’ caravans, the people of the village contented themselves to watch them move almost with compassion, without considering those slovenly men as invaders.
The Germans understood even less. It was enough to look at the Krauts’ faces. They had hoped in the arrival of these new allies, but that was before. Before seeing them and definitely losing every hope.
At the cotton mill it was said that they would be quartered in the houses of the village.
[* * *] In the village square Elide received some information from a Decima M.A.S. guy. The Fascists seemed the only ones to believe in the Cossacks.
«They rebelled against Stalin», said the guy, quoting some propaganda slogans. «The fierce Cossacks, allies of the Germans, have crossed the Alps to destroy the communist Bolsheviks».
At the committee they were worried, though. They said that they stunk and were filthy, but, unlike the Black Shirts, they certainly were not frightened to venture out to the mountains to catch the partisans. It seemed that they had assaulted a woman carrying a wicker basket. They had come blowing their horn and twirling their sabres, and then had raped her right on the road.
They invaded the whole area. The German command had promised them that land. It would have been their new homeland, and they were trying to settle in at once.
Elide continued as a dispatch rider, avoiding the roads allegedly kept by the Cossacks. The risk was getting higher and higher, and more than once she started to think that something might go wrong.
On that day they gave her a letter to take to Faedis, and she decided to go there in the night. She left on her bicycle in the afternoon and almost rode to Cividale. Then she waited for the dark and set off on foot for the last stretch of road.
From a distance she saw the dim light of the fires. She slowed her pace and shifted towards the side of the road.
Suddenly she saw them, approached the first houses and hid behind a little wall.
They wore fur hats, and some had cartridge belts across their shoulders. They had olive drab uniforms or dirty leather waistcoats on.
The curfew seemed not to worry them, and the bottles passed from hand to hand: stubby hands, used to living outdoors, trained to take what they needed without asking for permission.
Their voices, raised in song from the little square, was a meaningless lament to Elide’s ears. Shining sabres reflected in the light of the fires, and dirty toddlers chased each other in circles.
She felt like a stone statue. What should she do?
Their blades were long and curved, big scythes without a pole, but with huge handles. A sick engine was limping heavily on the road in the distance. Two men, after hearing its roar, turned and looked in her direction.
They cried something unintelligible and, a moment after, some steps behind her made her start. Before realizing what was happening, a strong push threw her into the middle of the roadway.
«Schnell!». The man wore a German military jacket, but his trousers had a red stripe along the sides, and he had furry boots on.
«Schnell!», he shouted again. The sound was kind of muttered.
Elide couldn’t avoid staring at the knife, stuck into the soldier’s belt. He shoved her towards the camp, out into the open, holding his handgun.
She couldn’t speak. The faces around the fire relaxed after seeing her; one of them smiled, perhaps because he was drunk.
«Mein Haus, my house», she was finally able to pronounce.
«Papier! Papier! Schnell!», the Cossack ordered, putting his gun into the holster.
«Ja, papier. Mein Haus. I’m going home». She took the pass out of her skirt pocket and gave it to the soldier.
He opened it, getting closer to the fire. Elide tried to make herself smaller. The children had stopped running in circles, and were staring at her, their eyes wide open.
The others were staring at her, too. The bottle of grappa was passing from hand to hand, and another toothless man grinned at her..
The Cossack looked at the sheet of paper and, with an amused sneer, let it slip in the fire: an orange flame dashed it.
It burnt taking most of Elide’s self-confidence with it.
The toothless man got up. She pretended not to be frightened, but she was almost certain she couldn’t do it too well. The man came closer. The girl knew that glance, knew what it meant, but the children were there and he wouldn’t have done her any harm, or at least she hoped so.
The soldier took her by the arm and drew her towards the side of the square. The others were laughing, he kept on jostling her. Her arm ached.
«Nicht angst. Nicht angst frau…», said he.
«Mein Haus. House», Elide repeated, even less convinced.
He was pushing her towards a cart, in the grass. Now it was clear what was expected of her.
He forced her back against the base of the cart and, with a dirty claw, stroked her hair. She grabbed the sideboards, he tried to insert a leg between hers. She was trying to resist but the Cossack was much stronger.
Behind him was the light of the fire.
«No, please… No!». She tried to raise her voice, but only a whisper passed her teeth.
She tried to resist tightening her thighs. Then he produced a long and sharp bayonet, and made it shine before her eyes.
«Gut frau… Gut… Ruhig», he repeated, with a filthy breath.
Elide froze at the light of the blade. The strength in her legs failed. Now he was raising her skirt. It was at that very moment that the zuava fell out of her pocket, hit her on the shoulder and tumbled down on the straw at the bottom of the cart.
The Cossack didn’t even realized that. He was bustling about with his trousers: one hand holding the bayonet, the other at his belt. She was nailed to the cart, he couldn’t free himself from the belt. He put the blade between his teeth and, panting, lifted her from the loading bed. Then, with both hands, he was able to free his groin.
The girl’s eyes were hypnotized by the glare of his knife. Her fear, very deep, made her blood flow like a whirlwind.
Gasping, he took her by her hips to draw her towards him. Elide’s arms were flailing, trying to hang on the wood with her nails. Suddenly she felt her fingers on the smooth horn of her knife.
She grabbed it. Her throat was blocked. She didn’t moan, she let no sound out. Her mind shone like metal. His snub nose was above her, and his mouth was drooling while he was trying to penetrate her. Her hands, stretched over the head and hidden in the straw, opened the knife-clasp. A lightning flashed in the night, freezing the scene on Elide’s pupils. An explosion, like an electrical discharge, blocked the man the very moment when the zuava pierced his neck.
Sprays of gunfire and shots of rifles were exploded all around.
The animal shout broke when it reached the blade the soldier kept in his mouth.
His teeth were screeching, trying in vain to scratch the bayonet steel.
Elide felt the heat of the blood flowing down her forearm.
His hands seized her neck, a desperate grasp. She took out the blade and hit again. He stopped shouting in a hot breath, which left his throat.
His grasp was losing strength. He sagged down against her, and she pushed him aside, trying to stand up.
She couldn’t believe she could kill a man. She tried to breath, to realize what was had happened. Shouts and more shots roared in her ears.
She mechanically cleaned her zuava, closed the clasp, and put it in her pocket. Three, four men were shooting towards the Cossack camp, retreating in her direction.
«Help!», she cried eventually, getting away from the cart.
One of them turned, his gun pointed. Seeing her, he shouted: «Who are you? What are you doing here?».
«I am a dispatch rider… They have arrested me».
«You can’t stay here any more! Come with us. Are you wounded?»
«No. I don’t think so».
«You’re all dirty with blood!».
«It’s not mine».
«Let’s go! Come on». He took her arm and held her in the dark. His comrades covered the retreat. They found their bicycles nearby, hidden in a moat. The partisan took her on the crossbar and, before they set off, Elide asked him: «Have you ever met by chance an antifascist called Sfera?».
«Sfera? Yes, I know him. He’s serving in the Brigata Osoppo».
«Do you know how he’s doing? I’m worried for him: he’s my man».
«Take it easy. He’s safe at the Malghe di Porzûs1 . You’ll meet him again very soon».
It was on that bicycle that she became Zuava.
That would have been her nom de guerre.
Translation by Michele Curatolo (edited by Irene Tossi)
Porzûs Massacre – February 1945.
Killing of 17 men of the Brigata Osoppo, a formation of Catholic and Socialist inspiration, committed by a group of partisans connected to the Italian Communist Party.