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from the December 2006 issue

A Christmas in 1945

More than the snow he had to tramp through during the day, it was the cold of the night that made that time hard for him.

He would leave when the glow of dawn shone on the rocky face of the mountain with the pretty name that stood across the way; the wave of sunlight then moved on to touch all the other mountains around it. Some of the slopes, however, were left in the shade all the time, as were the valley floor and the woods lower down, where the sun would not arrive until March. There, the snow never stopped clinging to the rocks and the trees, creating a sensation of antediluvian cold.

He would walk up the steep slope to the point where the large wood bordered on the highest pastures above the tree line, where the weak December sun sweetly warmed him. This was the place where, the year before, the German commanders of the Todt, a forced-labor group, had had the tallest, most beautiful trees cut down to rebuild the bridges over the Po that were destroyed by Allied bombing raids or by the partisans. Now, all that was left were their huge ultracentenarian stumps, heavy and dense, clutching onto the mountainside and cemented by the freezing cold.

He would make his way up there carrying on his back his light, sturdy sled, enough food for a meal, and a canteen of water. The shovel, the pick, the hatchets and the other tools he left up there, at the foot of a fir tree, whose limbs were large and thick enough to form a shed under the level of the snow.

An hour and a half climb in the morning, a half hour's descent in the afternoon with three quintals-650 pounds-of stumps on the sled. His boots and legs were protected up to his knees with burlap.

When he got up to that last wood, he would take a long, sharp-pointed cytisus branch and pierce the surface of the snow to see whether what was underneath the hump was a tree stump or a rock. With the shovel he would clear the snow down to the bare earth and then dig down under it with the pick to free the roots. He used the hatchets to sever them and, finally, using a crowbar, turned the stump on its head. When the stumps were too big, he would split them into quarters or eighths with wedges and a sledge hammer before uprooting them.

Sometimes he had to work really hard to come away with very little, other times with very little effort he managed to take two sledloads down to the valley floor, where in the spring he would be able to sell a thousand quintals of wood, or maybe more, for use in kilns and glass works. And with the proceeds, pay off his debt and his passage to Australia.

He had come back in October, after a long journey through Eastern Europe. The Fascists had picked him up during a roundup in September of '44. He was tried and sentenced to death for "banditry," and then the sentence was commuted to deportation for life to Germany.

Somehow he had managed to make it through, but when he got back to his hometown he found too many things changed in the course of a year. His mother was gone now, and he didn't feel up to living in that house. But he did have to live. So he decided to go talk to his godfather Toni, who had a grocery store.

"Godfather," he said, "you know how things have gone for me. All I've got is a few lire they gave me at the district army office, but I'm more than willing to work. If you can give me some things on credit, I'll pay it all back in the spring."

He got some lard, cornmeal for polenta, beans, some cheese, barley, pasta and tomato sauce. He got a few potatoes as charity from a neighbor family in the hamlet, and bartered two hares he'd caught with a snare for three kilos of salt.

Before the snows came he loaded all of his possessions onto the wagon of a friend who'd been hired by the Commune to cut down the last remaining timber left behind by the Germans.

In that autumn of 1945, the old broken-down tavern, its roof held up after a fashion by some charred wooden beams, provided shelter to woodchoppers, poachers, horse drovers, and discharged vets. But after the first snowfalls, they all left in order to avoid being trapped there for the winter. He found himself alone again. He didn't mind it; he could talk to the things that were there around him, work as much as he liked, and think about and meditate on what had happened to him in those years, as a soldier in Albania, a partisan in the mountains, a prisoner on death row, a deportee, and as a vagabond when the concentration camp was liberated by the Russian soldiers.

Sunny days with their intense cold; snowy days, uniform and seemingly submerged outside of time, his fire, the silence. And his hard labor and the deep sleep on the litter of straw next to the fire dying down on the hearthstones, where, for centuries, wayfarers and smugglers had found company. He couldn't keep track of the passing days. Yes, with his knife he had carved a notch in the branch of a fir tree each morning as he climbed back up the trail that had been stamped down into the snow like a trench, but he couldn't remember any more the date that he'd been left alone, and maybe he hadn't always made the notch. It might be the end of December, or even the beginning of the new year. But what did it matter? His supplies, well-dosed, would last him for another couple of months. And if he managed to catch a couple of hares or a roe-buck with his snare, he could enrich his ration. "Maybe one of these days," he said to the fire, "after a snowfall, instead of digging stumps I'll go follow some tracks."

That evening too, he rekindled the fire by brushing the ashes off the morning's embers. And now, after hanging the water cauldron for the polenta on the chain over the fire, he rolled a pipe-tobacco cigarette, the only one he could afford and always at that same moment of the day. He watched the flames rise up against the black backdrop of the soot deposited on the fireplace walls, the sparks chasing after each other, and felt satisfied with his day. Outside, the sky was lower and it had slowly started snowing again. The only sounds were the fire and his breathing.

He heard the sound of approaching skis, some heavy breathing, then the banging of the skis to knock off the snow, his name being called.

He recognized the voice immediately but didn't get up from the fire. He heard the loud thumping on the door and his name repeated. He got up from the bench, raised the stick that kept the door closed, opened it and asked: "What do you want?"

"Today is Christmas," the man replied. "I heard you were here. Can I come in?"

"Better not."

"Listen to me, at least."

"Come on in."

The man brushed off the snow, went over by the fire, and said:

"When we picked you up and convicted you, I was just following orders. That was my patriotic duty. It wasn't my fault."

He didn't answer, didn't move at all. He watched the fire and it was like reliving the whole thing. The women and children killed by the Germans, his comrades in arms frozen to death in the mountains of Albania, the Jews in Lvov. The concentration camp. The concentration camp where that boy had died, the one from the city who had been arrested and sentenced together with him. They'd stripped him and thrown him naked into the big ditch on the other side of the fence, where there were Yugoslavs, Greeks, Poles, Russians, Italians. It was exactly this time a year ago, because together with the hunger, there was the freezing cold. Maybe it was Christmas, that day in December when the boy died.

He wasn't listening to what his old elementary school teacher was saying to him; the man he'd met up with later wearing the uniform of the Black Brigade. The water in the cauldron was just about to boil; he got up to get the salt and flour.

"Today is the Nativity of our Lord," his teacher started in again. "I heard you were here alone and I came to see you. I ask your forgiveness for what I did to you. I've got a bottle of sparkling wine and a fruitcake here in my back pack."

No, he couldn't forgive him. Not for what concerned him directly, but for the others who didn't even have a fire to look at any more. He went over to the door and threw it open. It was dark out and the snow swirling down from the sky was coming to rest right on the stone door step of that old tavern on the border. "Go away," he told him, in a whisper.

From Aspettando l'alba e altri racconti (Turin: Giulio Einaudi editore, 2004, 2005). Copyright © 2004 by Mario Rigoni Stern. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright © 2006 by Gregory Conti. All rights reserved.

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