Snow crunches under the car's tires as I steer to the side of the road and switch off the ignition. I sit alone listening to the sound of my breathing. I have come three-thousand miles in search of answers, some of which I know I'll never learn.
I push open the car door and step out into the late-winter air. The engine ticks as it cools while my eyes scan the barren field of what was once the worst mental hospital in northern Italy. The place where, sixty-years-ago, my grandmother spent her final years.
The buildings are gone now, demolished and bulldozed into the hillside, but a spirit of ugliness remains. The gentle breeze sighs against bare branches of sleeping trees, like the soft voice of a ghost longing to tell its story to someone willing to listen.
Someone like me.
. . .
In nineteen-thirty-seven a crushing poverty had settled over northern Italy. World War II loomed, but its beginnings had already ravaged the countryside. Structures built to endure the test of time, not the trauma of bombs, were being destroyed. A hungry populace watched as powerful armies advanced through once well-maintained farms, turning fertile ground into muck and mire. At night, mothers' lying in their lonely beds heard the agonizing sobs of their hungry children, while listening to the distant guns of war shouting out the insanity of the world around her.
My grandfather had immigrated to America, and when Italy joined the Axis powers he was prohibited from sending money to his family as he had done for many years. My grandmother and her five children were left to fend for themselves at a time when life was being cheapened by war; no one would notice the loss of an impoverished woman and her five children.
As winter moved forward, people starved; some died of easily cured disease; families were separated due to poverty and ignorance.
On a cold Sunday morning in March, my grandmother stoked the coals in the kitchen stove, prodding heat from the glowing embers. Afterward, she wrapped herself in her silk scarf, a gift from her mother years before, and then quietly walked out into the cold.
My grandmother had found comfort inside the village church, Santa Maria del Assunta, for as long as she could remember. The church was only half full as she entered the chapel where the aroma of burning wax filled the warm air. Father Pietro walked to the alter to begin the service as the old wooden doors burst open. Framed in the morning brightness a man shouted.
"Fire! Fire!" He turned and ran from view.
The men seated in the pews were first to stand and follow him. The women, my grandmother among them, quickly followed. Father Pietro's long black robes swirled over the white marble floor as he hurried past the empty pews and out into the bright, cold air.
My grandmother ran when she saw the dark plumes of smoke rising from her house—the house where her children slept. A group of women held her from entering the smoking house, as a long line of men passed buckets of water to each other to douse the flames. Within a few minutes a man, his face darkened with soot, came out the front door and announced the fire had been extinguished. He turned and ushered the children out into the acrid air.
The frightened children ran to their mother and surrounded her as she fell to her knees, hugging and kissing each of them in turn. She then raised her eyes to the hazy sky and thanked God for their safety.
The neighbors, people my grandmother knew most of her life, began to accuse her of setting the fire; an attempt to kill her children rather than watch them suffer. Her cries of denial fell on deaf ears. Gripped by fear and stress, she fainted and fell to the cold ground.
The Carabinieri arrived and asked Father Pietro to help in taking my grandmother into custody. When she awoke her children were gone.
"Where are my children?" Her eyes became wide with fear. "Where are my children!" she shouted.
"It's alright, it's alright." The dark form of Father Pietro hovered over her, his rotund body silhouetted by the setting sun behind him. Specks of grey ash spotted his black hat; his lips were a thin straight line. "The children are safe," he said softly.
"They are safe with me. Where are they?"
"They are with family. Now, please, come with me to my house. "
"Father, I have done nothing wrong." Turning, she shouted to her glaring neighbors, "I have done nothing wrong, please help me!" Father Pietro took her arm and helped her up. As she stood her shawl slipped from her shoulders and fell to the ground.
As Father Pietro led her away her shawl remained behind in a dark silken heap on the snow-covered ground. Her cries for help echoed through the valley below, where there was no one to hear them.
She was sent to the hospital where she would remain until her death.
. . .
I step along the path in the snow and walk around the rise in the hill to the place on the old map that indicates where the hospital's attendants buried patients in unmarked graves. Here on the southern slope the sun has melted the snow. I look for signs of old graves; an indentation in the ground, an unusual rise, stones that look out of place. I search but find nothing.
I scan the desolate hillside and my resolve begins to ebb as the cold seeps into my body. I'm ready to give up my search and I turn to leave.
Then I see it. Growing between two rocks, a single crocus; its delicate petals fluttering, signaling spring. The sign of new life. I feel reborn, my spirit thaws, and I continue my search with renewed resolve.
. . . . .
Word Count: 985
Co-Winner of the Writer's Cramp, 4/3/12.