Terzo made sure that the hut would withstand water and wild boars, then loaded the bags of charcoal onto the mule and returned to the village. It was almost noon when he arrived. Captain Mauri was waiting for him, in order to sign the documents. He dropped the bags in the warehouse and went to find the officer.
Terzo was the charcoal man and worked for the army. That’s why he had been exempted from the front. Yet, even if he never shot at the enemy, he was a soldier, too.
«You have been transferred», Mauri told him without even looking up. And after a brief pause he added: «To Sardinia».
Hitler believed that the Allies would land in Sardinia. Mussolini had therefore decided to strengthen the island’s defenses. He had started with raw materials and he sent those who made the charcoal. But captain Mauri did not tell Terzo this. And Terzo did not ask anything. He just obeyed.
He disembarked in Cagliari on the same day as Mussolini’s arrival in Sardinia. At the port he was told that he should go to Fluminimaggiore: not to the village, though. Along with other charcoal burners, all from Tuscany like him, he would work and live in the woods, in a village built for the purpose.
A year later, Mussolini decided to bring those charcoal men back home: Hitler had been wrong. The Allies had arrived in Sardinia, but from the sky, not from the sea. And Terzo realized this in Cagliari, when he saw the city destroyed by bombs.
«No ships will be leaving for a while», said lieutenant Melfi.
«But I have to go back», said Terzo, showing captain Mauri’s order.
The lieutenant read it.
«You can join the evacuees», he said. «Tomorrow a coach will be leaving for Sassari. I will let captain Andolfi know you are coming; perhaps he will help you to reach Olbia. From there you can embark for the continent».
«Evacuees, you say? But I…»
«Do not worry», interrupted the Lieutenant, handing him back the order.
«Make sure to be here tomorrow at one o’clock».
Mr Salis, the lawyer, just could not get over it. That one car, his new Balilla, had been requisitioned by the army. It was all very well for captain Andolfi to say that the Allies would soon be landing in Sardinia, and that all motor vehicles were needed for the defence of the island. Salis loved his country; but here the country had nothing to do with it. He did not understand how his Balilla could serve to defend Sardinia from the enemy. Perhaps driving captain Andolfi around Sassari? Yes. Because in the end – thought Salis – that was all the army wanted his Balilla for.
«But Mr. Salis, the car was only requisitioned. And at the end of the war it will be returned», captain Andolfi repeated .
But Salis was not convinced.
«How many chances has a soldier of not being killed in the war?» he retorted each time.
«But what are you saying, Mr. Salis? We’re talking about a car, not a man», blustered the captain.
Salis had even considered talking to the federal leader, but then had second thoughts. He didn’t want to mess with the fascists any more than circumstances required of him. It was true that he had a party membership card, but that was only because his father-in-law, a lawyer himself, was a socialist and had therefore been prevented from practising by the Blackshirts. Salis had married his daughter, and he had to force himself to take the membership card, which was the only way he could manage his father-in-law’s office. Everyone in Sassari – including the fascists – knew this but, tactfully, pretended to know nothing about it. Salis, a Fascist in name only, certainly couldn’t ask for favors from his fellow party members, even when it was a question of saving his beautiful black Balilla.
The only thing to do, then, was chase it around Sassari. Whenever he was free he did it personally. But when he had to work, he instructed the office intern to tail the car on his behalf.
«Now it is stopped, at the Hemicycle» said the office boy.
«And what’s it doing there?» asked Salis.
«I wasn’t able to stay», said the intern. «There are soldiers everywhere and Captain Andolfi won’t let anyone into the square».
«What do you mean?»
The boy shrugged.
«Listen», said Salis «Mr. Asproni will be here in half an hour. I am going out. Tell him to wait».
And without another word he went out.
A cordon of soldiers prevented entry into the Garibaldi Hemicycle. Captain Andolfi was near the Balilla and pacing back and forth. One moment he was looking in the direction of the Gardens and a moment later towards Corso Regina Margherita. In the square there were three empty coaches and in the gardens some soldiers were checking a group of people, mostly women and children.
«I must see the captain immediately!» Salis shouted to the soldier who held him back.
Captain Andolfi turned, and immediately raised his eyes to heaven. Hearing the bus arrive in Corso Regina Margherita, he waited for it to stop in the Hemicycle and then, as he had done with the other coaches, checked the passengers getting off in the square.
«Captain, what’s happening?»
Andolfi turned around again. Salis was inspecting the Balilla.
«Mr. Salis, what are you doing here?»
They stared at each other for a moment, and then a man came up to them.
«Captain Andolfi?» the stranger asked.
The officer turned and Terzo immediately handed him his return order.
«You are the charcoal man Melfi spoke to me about, aren’t you?» asked the captain as soon as he had read the order.
«Yes, I am».
The captain looked hard at him.
«I’m afraid you will have to manage on your own. I do not think I can help you reach Olbia» he said, giving him back the paper.
«You have to get to Olbia?» interjected Salis. The captain raised his eyes to the sky again.
«Yes. A lieutenant, in Cagliari, told me that from here I could get to Olbia, and then embark for Livorno».
«I heard that you are a charcoal man» said Salis.
«Yes. I make charcoal for the army. A year ago I was transferred to Fluminimaggiore».
«So, you too are a soldier, right?» asked the attorney. Andolfi shook his head. «And you, Captain, would you abandon a soldier?»
«What do you want, Mr. Salis, do you want me to accompany him to Olbia?» asked Andolfi contemptuously.
«Why not? Instead of swanning about Sassari with my car … ».
«That’s enough!» interrupted the captain. «I’ve already wasted too much time. You – he said to Terzo – do me the courtesy of joining others at the gardens and wait for me there. And you, Mr. Salis, go away. I have already told you that you cannot stay here».
Terzo obeyed, and joined the evacuees.
«Good evening, Captain», said Salis, and set off back to his office.
Andolfi ignored him.
Salis was thinking about that charcoal man. Once he had got home, he had spoken to his wife about him, but without mentioning what he was thinking about now, here in the bomb shelter where he had run at the sound of the siren: that the war had requisitioned something from both of them: his car and the charcoal man’s job. The charcoal man wanted to go home; Salis wanted to get his Balilla back. And in all this he felt that there was something noble; the nobility of those who must bow their head, aware of the endless fates of war.
The air-raid siren ceased. Outside, in Piazza Plebiscito, everybody looked at the sky and immediately realized that this had not been an alarm like the others. Black smoke was rising slowly from behind the houses of the old town. It seemed to be far away, in the sea, but it was just a feeling, a brief illusion. A sense of despair immediately overtook them, and pushed Salis and the others in the direction of the smoke. They reached Piazza Sant’Antonio, and everyone brought their hands to their mouth, and not just because the smell of smoke mixed with earth had become unbearable. Sassari had been bombed; the station had been hit. One of the two staircases that led into the square was destroyed. The façade of the building’s right side was blackened and disfigured by deep shrapnel marks. In the square, in the rubble, something was burning. In the confusion of soldiers coming and going from the station, Salis saw Captain Andolfi. He was smeared with soil and was indicating an area of the square to two stretcher-bearers. Salis ran to him, but tripped over something. When he looked down at the ground he saw it was the licence plate of a car. He picked it up and read the numbers.
«The Balilla» he whispered weakly.
When he looked up, the captain was standing in front of him. His eyes were bloodshot and watering. He looked at the number plate Salis was still holding, and then stared at him. An ambulance siren began to scream in the air.
«Your soldier», said the captain, «He’s dead. The bomb killed him». Salis stared at him in silence. Suddenly Andolfi snatched the plate from his hands and hurled it away.
«Did you understand what I said?» he shouted.
«The Tuscan charcoal man? He’s dead?» said Salis in a faint voice.
«He was supposed to leave for Olbia. Today, by train», continued the captain. «But the city has been bombed and it’s cut off, who knows for how long. Then, he sent for me. He wanted to go home, it was his only concern».
«Captain!» called a stretcher-bearer from the square. Andolfi turned.
«Take him away!» he shouted.
«And you? What did you say?» said Salis.
«I ordered him not to move from Sassari» said Andolfi turning back to him. «But it was useless. He was no longer a soldier. He was sick of obeying in silence. I managed to hold him back for a while, but when the air-raid siren went off, he was gone».
«Was that who they just took away?»
«Yes. The bomb hit your car. The charcoal man, seeing it parked in the station yard, must have thought that it would be his way of getting to Olbia».
«How can you tell?».
«I cannot, true. But I am convinced anyway that that is what happened. The planes were flying low. One of them must have seen the car move and dropped the bomb. Your soldier just wanted to go home. Instead, he became a hero».
«What do you mean?».
«If it were not for him, that bomb would have been dropped somewhere else in the city and other planes would have dropped other bombs. The charcoal man and your car have saved the city».
The crowd that had gathered began to rejoice: Sassari was safe. Salis watched the smoke and returned to the thoughts he had had in the shelter. He had been wrong: there was nothing noble in all of this.
Translation by Silvia Accorrà (edited by Roma O’Flaherty)