«I always have the same dream, every night» my mother says, while holding me under the blankets. «I wake up and don’t understand where I am, everything is dark. I stretch out my arms and with my hands I just touch cold metal: over me, under me, by my sides. I’m in an iron box and the only way I can see outwards it’s peeking into a tiny hole at my back. Slowly my eye goes toward the hole, and outside everywhere is covered by fields: two feet of golden wheat, maybe more. It flutters in a light breeze. But the air is whitish and there’s a burning smell. The field is burning away, I can see the flames coming closer, they want to grab me. It’s hotter and hotter inside the metal box, I start sweating. The internal surfaces are scorching. Crackling fire sound is unbearable. Still some seconds left, I say to myself. Just one breath and then everything will be over. Then I wake up. Because the nice thing about nightmares is just that you finally wake up, Angela, always remember that». I fall asleep listening to these words, with my round little face buried in her breast.
I have the task of bringing down the suitcases. They are big and heavy, but I must hurry. My mother says that all the others are already downstairs, waiting for us. She also says that They will take us away if they find us, as they did with daddy. We must leave our home.
We climb on a wagon and we hide under a cloth. It snows dry leaves: the city is crying its goodbye. There are ten of us, all women, and I am the only little girl. For hours we only have been hearing the sound of the wheels of the chariot, and the horse’s hooves on the cobblestones. My mother strokes my head and smiles, because she knows that fear is an infectious disease.
When the carriage stops, two hands pull me down. Then I just remember the warm bed in which I sink while outside, through a little window, the sun is swallowing the night.
Mom says many days passed since we have come to the cloister. Everything goes on timeless, though. I press my nose against the glass of the little window, my opening towards the world. Day after day I can see the bare trees coming back to life, the solid ground of the hills painting themselves with bright green.
In the vegetable garden, cabbages make way for more tender plants. I always stare at the same plant, the closest one to me: my mom says they will be tomatoes. I know every leaf of that plant by heart. I observe the nuns working, ripping wild plants or pouring buckets of water to their roots.
I ask my mother why we cannot go out from this room, why we cannot help nuns in the vegetable gardens, or eat with them.
«We need to hide, honey», she replies, «but we will get out soon. We’re waiting for someone. Someone who has to bring us some documents. Then we will be able to go and start to live again. We will have our own vegetable garden». She keeps talking about an aunt who lives far away, about a house surrounded by greenery, in Ireland, about animals and a school. I listen to her and look outside the little window, far away.
One morning the sunlight arrogantly enters the room and places itself at my feet.
I look out the little window: yellow flowers cover the hills. It looks like velvet, and I reach out to touch it.
«They’re daisies, Angela. Spring has come» my mother says, beside me.
Together with springtime, other news have also come: the person we are waiting for will not be long in coming.
«Who is him?» I ask to the nun who brings us meals.
«An angel», she replies.
Every day I wait for the angel to spring from behind the hill, to come and save us. My mother says he has no wings, but a bicycle. And he goes very fast.
I can’t sleep at night, and she tells me some stories, stories about our family. She tells me about grandma and grandpa, about dad. She tells me to never forget who I am. Not to confuse reality out there with the world we have inside. Because They can say whatever they want, but there is nothing wrong to be born Jewish.
One day I wake up and there is something different. The cloister looks like a swarm. I can hear the nuns running along the hallway and a distant voice shouting: «He’s coming!».
It’s our angel with his bicycle. I run to wake up my mother.
The first thing I see is dust, a soft cloud of dust that envelops and caresses the sides of the hills.
«The time has come, hasn’t it?» I ask her.
She does not answer. Tears are blending in with the smile on her face. She strongly holds my hands.
It is spring again, and there are daisies at his funeral too. If I am here today it’s because I had to remember. Because there are things that plunge into you, so deeply that you can only see the tip of them. And it hurts taking them out.
The church is crowded: young and elderly people, children, journalists. Life that celebrates Death. But they are all unaware beings, I think. And I would love to be able to tell them something. To let them understand. Because in the end, I took life as a personal matter. Something important, something not to waste. I look at his wife. I imagine her young, while approaching to greet him and ask him where he goes. He is already on his bicycle, with our fake documents hidden under the seat, and replies to her: «A long distance run». A long distance run to train legs and heart.
There is a big picture outside the church, a picture of his sharp face. He is on a bicycle, as he was then. I remember this picture. I remember I saw it in the newspapers. Because it was only later I found out who he was. He was already the Gino Bartali who won the Giro, even then. And he is just a man for all these people. Or the Champion. But he will always be an angel to me.
I silently walk away, while a round of applause accompanies his body to the graveyard.
As my mother that day, I discover that tears are blending in with the smile on my face.
Translation by Irene Lami (edited by Francesca Ceccarelli)