And when he saw that my eyes were bulging out: “It was them or us. Two instead of ten. It’s war. Let’s go.”
After nearly half an hour, during which we kept hearing angry shouts and barking from above, but not coming toward us, indeed getting farther away, we reached the bottom of the gorge, and the road. Gigio’s truck was waiting nearby, in the cluster of trees. Gragnola loaded the Cossacks onto it. “I’m going with them, to make sure they reach the Badogliani,” he said. He was trying not to look at me – he was in a hurry to see me leave. “You go on from here, get back home. You’ve been strong. You deserve a medal. And don’t think about the rest. You did your duty. If anyone is guilty of anything, it’s me alone.”
I returned home sweating, despite the cold, and exhausted. Maybe I was running a fever. I have to confess, I have to confess, I kept saying to myself.
The next morning was worse. I had to get up more or less at the usual hour, and Mamma could not understand why I was so addle-brained. Several hours later, Gigio showed up at our house. I signalled to him to meet me in the vineyard. He couldn’t hide anything from me.
Gragnola had escorted the Cossacks to the Badogliani, then returned, with Gigio and the truck, to Solara. The Badogliani had told them that they should not go around at night unarmed: they had learned that a detachment of Black Brigades had gone to Solara to assist their comrades. They gave Gragnola a musket.
The trip to and from the Vignoletta crossroads took a total of three hours. They returned the truck to Bercelli’s farm, then set out walking on the road to Solara. After all that tension, they were trying to cheer each other up, slapping each other on the back, making noise. And so they failed to notice that the men from the Black Brigades were crouching in a ditch, and they were caught, barely two kilometres from town. They had weapons on them when they were taken and could not explain them away. They were thrown into the back of a van. There were only five of the Fascists, two up front, two in back facing them, and one standing on the front running board, to help see better in the fog.
The Fascists hadn’t bothered to tie them up, since the two who were guarding them were sitting with submachine guns across their laps, and Gigio and Gragnola had been thrown down like sacks. At a certain point, Gigio heard a strange noise, like fabric tearing, and felt a viscous liquid spray him in the face. One of the Fascists heard a gasp, turned on a flashlight, and there was Gragnola, lancet in hand, with his throat cut. The two Fascists started cursing, stopped the van, and with Gigio’s help dragged Gragnola to the side of the road. He was already dead, or nearly, spilling blood everywhere. The three others had come over, too, and they were all blaming each other, saying that he couldn’t croak like that because command needed to make him talk, and they would all be arrested for having been so stupid, failing to tie up the prisoners.
While they were yelling over Gragnola’s body, they forgot Gigio for a moment and he, in the confusion, thought, Now or never. He took off across the ditch, knowing there was a steep slope beyond it. They fired a few shots, but he had already rolled to the bottom of the ditch like an avalanche, and then hidden among some trees. In that fog, he would have been a needle in a haystack, and the Fascists weren’t too interested in making a big deal out of it, because it was obvious by then that they had to hide Gragnola’s body and go back to their command pretending they hadn’t taken anyone that night, in order to avoid trouble with their leaders.
That morning, after the Black Brigades left to meet up with the Germans, Gigio had taken a few friends to the site of the tragedy, and, after searching the ditches awhile, they found Gragnola. The priest of Solara would not allow the corpse in the church, because Gragnola had been an anarchist and by now it was known that he was a suicide, too, but Don Cognasso said to bring him to the little church at the Oratorio, since the Lord knew the proper rules better than his priests.
Gragnola was dead. He had saved the Cossacks, got me back safely, and then died. I knew perfectly well how it had happened, he had foretold it too many times. He was a coward and feared that if they tortured him he would talk, would name names, sending his comrades to the slaughterhouse. It was for them he had died. Just like that, sffft, as I was sure he had done with the two Germans – a kind of Dantesque poetic justice, perhaps. The courageous death of a coward. He had paid for the only violent act of his life, and in the process purged himself of that remorse he was carrying within him and would no doubt have found unbearable. He had screwed them all: Fascists, Germans, and God, in a single stroke. Sffft.
Even in my memories, the fog is thinning. I now see the partisans entering Solara in triumph, and on April 25th comes the news of Milan’s liberation. People swarm the streets, the partisans shoot into the air, they arrive perched on the fenders of their trucks. A few days later, I see a soldier, dressed in olive drab, bicycling up the drive between the rows of horse-chestnut trees. He lets me know that he is Brazilian, then goes happily off to explore his exotic surroundings. Were there Brazilians, too, with the Americans and the British? No one had ever told me that. Drôle de guerre.
The news of the German surrender arrives. Hitler is dead. The war is over. In Solara there is a huge party in the streets, people hugging each other, some dancing to the sounds of an accordion.
I emerge from the tragedy, amid a crowd of radiant people, with the images of the two Germans falling into the ravine and of Gragnola, virgin and martyr – out of fear, out of love, and out of spite.
I lack the courage to go to Don Cognasso and confess … and, besides, confess what? Something I did not do, or even see, but only guessed at? Not having anything to ask forgiveness for, I cannot even be forgiven. It’s enough to make a person feel damned forever.
Translated from the Italian by: Geoffrey Brock