The Small Mercy
Mazzini held his breath so that he could hear Sergio’s footfall in the snow.
Only Sergio was behind him now. Their thin line of survivors had stretched out to
widen the spaces left when Pietro and then Gianfranco were shot. Only Sergio
kept him from being the last man in line, the next man to be shot.
Mazzini knew he was in Russia, but he did not know where. It had been two
days since he last heard the fire from distant guns at the front. He had counted
forty survivors of the battle before the wounded were shot; now, he thought there
fourteen marching in hard snow toward some prison or work camp. They were
cold, colder than any of them imagined possible before the battle, their capture,
Mazzini had always taken the sun lightly, not needed to notice its mercy. In
Tuscany, in Massa Marittima, his home town, it was never really cold. There was
a frost in January, rarely a snow, so rarely that a snow was spoken of for years.
Nothing in his life at home or in Mussolini’s army in Italy taught him about the
cold as it was here, where the sun was bundled in heavy clouds and hung over
him in air that clotted as he spoke. He was grateful now that his feet were so far
from his heart that they were numb, could not feel the cold.
Mazzini was tall, well muscled, well fed at home on the farm, before the war.
He was accustomed to hard work, long days harvesting wheat, hauling
chestnuts, carrying the hunted boar from the woods to the barn, but he knew no
days like these that went on through snow without anything to eat or drink, no
place to rest, with only the enormous cold to wrap around himself.
Ahead he saw what looked like a village, a few houses with small barns
attached, and smoke above chimneys. It made him happy to think that someone
might be warm here, that there might be soup on a stove in a warm kitchen. As
the line of prisoners marched into the place he could see that it was barely a
village with a dozen brown houses, a few bent trees. Villagers stood in their
frozen yards to cheer on their soldiers and berate the captured Italians. A few
men and women stood along the narrow road. Most were old, all wrapped in
coats and shawls and blankets, all gray and brown as the smoke and the town.
Mazzini heard a shot behind him. Sergio fell without a sound.
The villagers came in close to them, shouted shook their fists, spat on them.
An old woman, very thin with cloudy eyes and wearing a heavy homespun apron,
ran along beside him. He could see the dirty creases in her face and smell
onions on her breath. Her right hand was raised in a fist, that moved toward and
away from him as she shouted the same phrases over and over. The villagers and
soldiers laughed. Mazzini thought he might laugh too, but as the last man in line
he was too easy to shoot. For a few strides they seemed to be marching
together, the young Italian soldier and the old Russian woman, when she reached
under her apron and into the big pocket of her coat with her left hand. She pulled
out two small potatoes and pushed them into Mazzini’s right hand. They were
warm, as warm as the sun.
Joann Candellone is the child of first-generation Piemontese and immigrant Tuscan parents. She grew up hearing the story of the old country and the new country in English and Italian and has been writing about the lives of her people and her life as a nurse midwife for many years . Her story, Giacomo Orlandini, was recently published in the folktales edition of VIA