Table of Contents
Ben Pastor, born in Italy, lived for thirty years in the United States, working as a university professor in Vermont, before returning to her home country.
is the second in the Martin Bora series and follows on from the success of
, also published by Bitter Lemon Press. Ben Pastor is the author of other novels including the highly acclaimed
The Water Thief
The Fire Waker
, and is considered one of the most talented writers in the field of historical fiction. In 2008 she won the prestigious Premio Zaragoza for best historical fiction.
Also available from Bitter Lemon Press by Ben Pastor:
To those who were in the trucks bound for the concentration camps
Surely men of low degree are vanity, and men of high degree are a lie: to be laid in the balance, they are altogether lighter than vanity.
“A Liar Moon” (Latin Proverb)
1Verona, German-occupied Northern Italy 9 September 1943
Si deve far coraggio, maggiore.
Martin Bora was in too much pain to say he understood.
Dobbiamo pulire le ferite.
In too much pain to say he understood that, also.
Courage. Cleaning the wounds. Blood throbbed in his lids, by quick flickers in the blind glow of eyes tightly shut, and at the back of his mouth, where his teeth clenched hard, another heartbeat scanned frantic time in his head.
Try to take heart.”
A small pool of saliva rose under his tongue, until he had to swallow. The lifting of the stretcher so exasperated the agony in his left arm, the whole length of his body crumpled with it. All he could gather was a convulsed short breathing at the top of his chest, as in one who must cry, or cry out.
They were laying him on the emergency-room table. Taking off his boots. His left leg seemed to tear open with the removal of the rigid leather, as if they were wrenching the bone from his knee. Lights burst over him, human voices travelled from great distances to him, at him, into him.
Blood sprayed as medics cut and dug through the gore of his clothes, and Bora would not let go but grew hard and grim and desperate, trying to resist the pain. To fight it, as if one could fight this, when his whole left side felt crushed in a giant vice and there was no hope of pulling himself out without shredding arm and leg in the process. His left hand, torn already to filaments and gushing blood, gulped and gulped his life out – lungs, stomach, bones – all seemingly heaving from the severance at the end of his arm, a sick red jumble of what had filled his body until now.
They were undoing his army breeches. Anxious hands reached into the blood-matted fleece of his groin, searched thigh and knee. His neck arched rigid in the strain of his back to rise.
“Hold him down, hold him down,” a voice said. “You’ll have to hold him down, Nurse.”
Joints braced as in a seizure, Bora was fighting pain, not being held down.
He could not swallow nor could he say he could not swallow, and when someone gave him water – he knew his mouth was unclenching because breath surged out of it in spasms – it gurgled back up his throat to the sides of his face.
They would work on his left arm next. He hardened for it, and still a paroxysm of pain wrenched his mouth open and he was racked into a fit of trembling but would not scream. He groped for the edge of the table, would not scream. Neck flexed back, hard, unable to close his mouth – it was hard, hard! – he struggled and butted his head against the hard surface and would not scream.
“Put something under his head, Nurse, he’s battering it on the table.”
The digging of hands into the meat of arm and groin and thigh accelerated and then halted. It began again slowly. Slowly. Digging, pulling, coming apart. Being born must be like this, a helpless nauseous struggle to get out in the overwhelming smell of blood – a butcher-shop smell – pain jagged immeasurably high in it.
He would break. If he pushed through he would break into aborted flesh, and die if he didn’t.
“Hold him down!”
Then someone forcibly pried his right hand from the side of the table and clutched it.
Bora could weep for the comfort that came with the hold, as if the act were his midwifery from death, delivering him from the mandible and womb of death. He stopped fighting, and was suddenly coming out of the vice.
Lights blinded him, he saw blood quilting his stretched-out body and people working into the naked red quilt with shiny tools, wads of cotton.
Out, out. He was coming out.
The clasp wrested him to a threshold of agony, brought him forth, and pain was extreme, unbearable at the passage. Bora cried out only once, when birth from pain tore what remained of his left hand with it.
In the morning, the sky was the battered colour of a bruise. The tall hospital window was made sad and livid by it, and in that bruised light Bora asked, unflinching, “Will there have to be a graft, or was there enough skin left?”
“We were able to repair it with what skin there was, Major. We tried to shield the stump and remove enough nervous terminations so that it will not hurt too much later. I am very sorry.”
Bora looked away from the surgeon.
“What about my leg?”
“If gangrene doesn’t develop, we hope to save it.”
Suddenly Bora felt the need to vomit. Only it had nothing to do with anaesthesia this time, nor with pain. He said he understood, but would not look at his left arm.
The Italian surgeon, who was high-ranking and old enough to speak his mind to a German officer, shook his head. “It didn’t help matters that you waited two hours to be evacuated.”
“My wounded men came first. I lost two of them as it is.”
“You lost three. Anyway, since you must be wondering, the metal fragments in your groin have not injured the genitals.”
“I see.” Bora did not look up, staring at an indeterminate place on the bed. “Thank you.”
The wretched odour of disinfectant and blood filled the room. His body smelled of them. “My wedding ring, where is it?”
Beyond the bed, everything was a livid off-white colour. The window had a veined marble sill, like mottled flesh. Small cracks in the wall beneath it drew the eyeless, approximate profile of a horse.
“Will you accept something for the pain?”
Martin Bora moved his head from side to side on the pillow, but was too weak to say that he wouldn’t.Lago,18.5 miles north-east of Verona 21 November 1943
Two months later, when he opened his eyes in the dark, Bora found himself holding his breath. Thinking, he went up and down his limbs, checking with hesitation the usually aching areas of left arm and leg – regions in the dark, uncertain of boundaries as even one’s body is when awakening.
It was seldom that he had no pain, and the grateful lassitude, derived from feeling
, had become a luxury in the past few months. Face up in bed, he avoided any motion that might endanger the precious, transitory balance, though not feeling was far from feeling well. It would be so, it would have to be so until his body forgave him for what had happened in September.
The grenade attack had been unavoidable, but his flesh rejected it, and the truth of mutilation. He was still ashamed for helplessly lying on the butcher block of the emergency table, sewn in his wounds and bloodied as at birth for the length of his limbs, whose ordure a Sister of Charity sponged. The mortified nakedness of chest and belly and thighs and groin under the patient wipe of her virgin hands stayed with him. Forgiveness to himself would not come from simply surviving the agony of it as a wide-eyed animal, without crying out.
So Bora woke holding his breath so as not to rouse pain, while outside of the room – outside the command
post – the wind rode high and pushed ahead a moon thin as an eyebrow.
By seven o’clock that morning, a keen, colder gale had blustered out of the north to empty the streets of Lago, a small town like many others, without a lake despite its name, lost in the fields of the Veneto region. Bora sat in his office minding paperwork, with an ear to the hum of vibrating telephone wires outdoors. He heard, too, the idling and then stopping of a motor car before the command, but had no curiosity to reach the window and find out who it was.
Even when the orderly came to knock on his door, he did not stop writing.
“Yes, what?” he limited himself to saying. After being told of the visitor, he added, “All right, let him in.”
The newcomer was dark and wiry, with vivacious black eyes and a moustache like a caterpillar lining his upper lip. The sombre Fascist Republican Party mixture of field-grey and black formed a light-absorbing stain in the dim autumn day. Skulls and bundles of rods on the epaulets identified him as a member of the shock troops.
Viva il Duce.
Bora did not return the Fascist salute, and stared up in a noncommittal way from his chair. He set his face inexpressively enough, while “How can I assist you?” rolled out of him flatly.
“Centurion Gaetano De Rosa, of the Muti Battalion.”
The visitor spoke in the manner of training camp, projecting his voice across the office.
“Major Martin Bora of the
,” Bora replied. And it took him aback that the little man addressed him
in German next, in good German, with a pompous, self-conscious ring to the use of tenses as he introduced his reason for being there.
It had to do with a murder, so at first Bora listened, sitting back in the chair with his left arm low and his right hand calmly fingering a fountain pen over the shiny desktop.
“Why don’t you speak Italian?” he asked then, in Italian.
“Why? Well, Major, I thought—”
“There’s no need for you to go through any such effort. As you can see, I speak Italian too.”
It was obvious that De Rosa was disappointed. Bora knew well enough these Fascists moonstruck with all things Germanic, who patterned themselves after his own people to the extent of sounding obnoxiously servile. He had learned to cut short all attempts to favour him with familiarity with German customs and places. And now he went straight to the core of the matter.
“I appreciate your coming to me, Centurion De Rosa, but I don’t see how or even why I should offer assistance. The violent death of a Party notable is serious business. Your Verona police will be much better qualified than myself to conduct the investigation.”
De Rosa was not easily outdone this time. “I thought you might answer that way, Major. That’s why I brought this along. Please read.” He handed an envelope to Bora, who sliced through its side with a penknife and began reading. Against the light from the window, De Rosa seemed to glow with pleasure at the sight of the letterhead, the squarish spread eagle of the German Headquarters in Verona.
There was little arguing with the brief of presentation. Bora put the sheet down, glaring at the little man, and prepared himself to listen.
Twenty minutes down the road from Lago, the few houses of Sagràte were buffeted by the pitiless wind. The naked bushes rattled like tambourines when Police Inspector Guidi got out of his old Fiat service car.
Corporal Turco hastened to reach the door of the police command ahead of him, opened it, stepped aside and let him in. He had the encumbering figure of a Saracen-blooded Sicilian, and when he joined Guidi inside, a wild whiff of clothes worn outdoors came with him.
,” he let out in his dialect. “With one shoe missing, Inspector, he can’t have gone far.”
Guidi did not bother to turn around. He removed from around his neck the bulky scarf his mother had hand-knit for him. “Why, Turco, haven’t you ever walked barefoot?”
There wasn’t much else for Turco to say, since his first footwear had come with his induction into the army. He brought to Guidi’s desk the laceless, worn shoe they had just recovered, careful to place a newspaper under it before laying it down.