The real Hemingway was born in 1921, on Italy’s Asiago plateau. He didn’t hobnob with Dali on Paris’s Left Bank or sip pastis at Les Deux Magots. He joined the Alpini mountain warfare division of the Italian army in 1940 and spent half of the next decade fighting on the French, Albanian and Russian fronts. After Italy signed the armistice with the Allied Powers in September, 1943, he spent over a year in a Nazi concentration camp.
Throughout, Mario Rigoni Stern—a writer whose skill and experience dwarf Hemingway’s—kept notes, and when he finally made it home to Italy he wrote some of the most telling, sparse and striking prose about the war ever published. His first book, The Sergeant in the Snow (1953), recounts his time as a sergeant on the Russian front, and the infamous bitter cold retreat that decimated the Italian Army. Stern returned to his wartime experience in later books, Quota Albania (1971) and Ritorno sul Don (1973) and most recently in L’ultima partita a carte (2002), in addition to a collection of stories, Aspettando l’alba ed altri racconti (Waiting for Dawn and Other Stories, 2004).
The story below is titled, “Spring.” (From Stagioni, published 2006 by Giulio Einaudi editore s.p.a., Turin. Copyright© 2006 by Mario Rigoni Stern. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright © 2007 by Gregory Conti. All rights reserved.) You can read the full text here.
The departure came in the month of March, when the thaw opened up the passes, which in our mountains were like gateways toward the countries of central Europe. They would go on foot, with the tools of their trades in a sack slung over their shoulders with two pieces of rope, or with the other essentials in a wheelbarrow that they pushed along. That’s how our mountaineers started on their way to Prussia, Austria or Bohemia to work in exchange for marks or coronas which then gave them the opportunity to spend the winters with their families.
Along the various routes, which with the passing years were handed down to younger migrants, they had places to stay at a distance of one-day’s hike, sleeping in the haylofts of farmers who offered free hospitality in exchange for some work.
After 1867, those who could boarded a train in Trent after buying a ticket in line with the potential of their wallets. For passports, they all had their baptismal certificates in their pockets. As for language, they made do, and rather well, with the ancient tongue that is still spoken in these mountains. The ones who made it as far as Bohemia or Wuppertal had the chance for better earnings, or to choose a line of work that better suited them…
Even today, though certainly not among young people, a phrase uttered by one of those seasonal migrants is still remembered. On coming back home after eight months of work, he responded to those who asked him where he had spent his sojourn that year by saying, “I was three marks beyond Ulm.”
He went on to explain that when he came to a train station and noticed he still had three marks in his pocket, he spent them all on a ticket that would take him as far as possible into the interior because he figured there would be less competition from other seasonals and he’d have a better choice of jobs.
For a long time after that, “three marks beyond Ulm,” meant to go far away toward any place where you could work well and earn more.
One swallow doesn’t make it spring but two hoopoes in love, two hares in a bush, a wagtail running down the road, two squirrels climbing up the limbs of a fir tree, yes. Then if we get a glimpse of a noisy bumble bee, a butterfly called Arcia, or an earthworm, or if we hear the song of a cardinal, it’s spring even if the next day it snows.
Sure, above 4500 feet there’s more than three feet of snow, but even there, on the sunlit slopes, water is dripping from the rocks. In the evenings of the end of March, when I hope to hear the call of an owl, I sit and listen after sundown. And in the mornings, if I meet two boys on their way to go alpine skiing, I wish them a good day, full of nostalgia, and I watch them walk away with envy. It’s that my age doesn’t allow me to go along with them and I have to content myself, but no, make myself happy, with a walk before getting down to work. And the woods are beautiful this time of year because you can read all those things that aren’t possible to read during the other seasons.
Your senses and your imagination help you discover spring in the forest, where it is mysterious, secret, alive.
The skylarks were the first creatures to indicate the change of season, or rather the end of winter. The fieldfares’ passing overhead again, and the departure of the Bohemian waxwings said, yes, spring may be upon us but there was still snow covering most of the terrain.
The first skylarks came when the sun, as it began to get higher in the sky, freed the slopes with southern exposure from the snow. One morning you would feel a shiver go through your limbs, see something fly over the edge of the woods, and then came the joyous trill of the morning skylark. It was an instant of happiness. But where did this intense feeling come from? From what distant morning of the world? It was beautiful that day, the whole earth was beautiful, and the people were good.
Now, not many decades later, they don’t come here anymore, or if they do come they’re so rare their presence provokes incredulous amazement and the thrill of our bygone springs is not repeated. Or not like it was. Do they not come because there are no more ploughed fields? Where are they now, in what mountains, the fields sewn with rye and wheat? And the blue fields of linen? But it’s not only that, it’s because the use of pesticides in intensive cultivation has accounted for more extermination than a million hunting rifles. I haven’t heard them sing even on the distant plains of the East. They tell me there are still some in underdeveloped countries. Is the springtime skylark God’s gift to the poor?
. . .
When we were kids we played all the time, in every season and a lot. There were games for all times and all seasons but it was April that set us loose in those evenings with lingering sunsets, and when the church bells sounded the nighttime hours our mothers or aunts called us home to go to sleep. And what sleep! We woke up the next morning in the exact same position as we went to bed, after almost twelve hours of non-stop sleep.
. . .
April was, is, a month full of good signs. But why are there now no more rows of swallows’ nests under the eaves of the houses and over the barn doors? And the skylarks’ trills used to fill the airy sky above the sweet hilltop where we released our kites in the afternoons.
For St. Mark’s Day there was the unfailing arrival of the swifts. In early April, my grandfather had me write a postcard: “To the Head of the Black Swifts | Alexandria, Egypt, Africa: Winter is over and there’s no more snow. The season is good and as always we have the roof and the attic for you. Mario and Grandpa Toni.”
I ran like the wind to mail the postcard, not in the mailbox in the square but in the slot at the Royal Post Office. And our postcard really arrived down there, far far away, because after fifteen days or so the answer came, a postcard with strange pictures and stamps, but I didn’t look to see what country it came from: “To Grandpa Toni and Mario| Via Ortigara| Italia: Dear friends, winter was good down here but now it’s really hot. We’ll arrive on the usual date. Arrivederci. The Head of the Black Swifts.”
On the evening of 24 April I would carefully watch the sky to be the first to discover the advance patrol of swifts. There were two or three, and when I saw them crease the sky above our house, I’d run to Grandpa to announce their arrival.
On those evenings, Grandpa was always sitting in his usual table at the Café Regina Margherita drinking a beer and smoking a Virginia. I’d yell out to him as I ran in: “They’re here! They’re here!” He’d let me catch my breath and take a sip from his glass: “There they are, way up there! Look, Grandpa, look how fast they fly!”
“Yes, yes. I saw them too. They always keep their word. Tomorrow all the others will be here. These guys’ll fly back down to Padua now to spread the word that the weather is good.” And he would make me a present of a piece of honey candy.
And truly, the next day, St. Mark’s Day, the sky would fill up with their darting flights and their shrieks. At times I’d interrupt the game I was playing to observe them together with Grandpa as they played theirs, not so much similar as identical to the one we kids were playing in the market square: “Grandpa, do you think they learned it from us?”
“No,” he’d answer, “we learned it from them.”
This is the swifts’ game: one group chases another and when a fleeing swift, breaking off and veering, manages to cut across the space separating the two groups, the roles are reversed and the pursuers become the pursued. Our name for this running through the streets around the square was “Cut.” But how great it would have been to be able to play it in the sky.
Another thing that makes St. Mark’s day so fabulous and unique is that from time immemorial a nearby town puts on the Cuckoo Festival where the boys give the girls whistles made of terra cotta, each reserving a special one for his special girl. These gifts are part of an exchange that will be completed on Ascension eve with eggs dyed with colors made from spring grasses. We used to go to the festival on foot, not walking on the road but taking an old stone path that was once used by herds heading back up to the mountain, and the fields all around were white not with snow but with bright crocuses, and there was a smell in the air of manure and earth plowed to receive oats and potatoes. From the woods we could hear the singing of the cuckoos which, as an old saying of ours has it, always arrive on St. Mark’s day to wake up the woods: Ben ne der kuku kuket/plühnt de stämme/un bear lebet lange/borliat de zeneö: “When the cuckoo sings the tree stumps bloom and those who live long lose their teeth.”
. . .
To these April memories of games, swifts, and Grandpa Toni, of fields white with crocuses, girls, festivals, and cuckoos, I must also add that this joyous month always marked the end of my tragic experiences of war. That’s the way it was in Albania, and in Russia, twice, and in Germany in 1945. April was always the month that I started on my way back home. May you be blessed.
. . .
It was the spring of 1936 and I can still remember the heavy, gasping breath, and the wheezing on the other side of the wall that divided his room from mine. I couldn’t sleep.
A week earlier, standing in the doorway to his room, he’d motioned me into the room with a nod. It was a painful illness; a cancer that had spread from his tongue into his throat. When the professors from Padua said that it was smokers’ cancer, that he’d smoked too many Virginias and too many pipefuls, there was nothing more they could do. The radium needles they’d stuck in his neck hadn’t done any good. He got some temporary relief from the pain from morphine injections that our local doctor-he’d been in the war with the Alpine troops-prescribed without any problems of conscience.
That day the radio he kept by his bed was playing very softly an aria, maybe from Rigoletto by Verdi, his favorite composer, and that he used to play a solo on his trumpet in B flat. He nodded for me to come over to the bed, raised his hand and held mine. He didn’t say anything but his eyes were welling with tears. After a while he nodded for me to leave. That was his farewell to a boy on the threshold of life.
A lot of people came to his funeral, even from the surrounding towns. The town band played Verdi’s Requiem and the funeral wagon, pulled by two horses harnessed in back and gold, was driven by Eugenio, our family’s old servant, motionless and severe.
When, forty years later, what was left of his body was re-exhumed, my father asked me to see that it was moved to the niche next to my grandmother’s.
The two laborers from the Commune who conducted the operation were quiet and respectful, and when they had finished, the older one said to me, “I remember your grandfather from before the Great War when he wore the tri-colored sash to celebrate my wedding. He was very tall and handsome. Did you see what long bones he had?”
The day they took my mother to the cemetery was another shining spring day: the fields green and full of flowers, skylarks were singing high in the sky and four officers from the forest service carried the coffin. As long as I’m able to, I’ll plant roses, purslanes, and violets on her grave; the flowers she loved. Of her children, I had been the one who had made her suffer most because more than the others I had been in the dangers of war and the mountains.
Going for a walk in the cemetery on a spring day isn’t heavy; on the contrary, it’s getting back in touch with memories and feeling sweet melancholy. Not bad or annoying memories, or feelings of resentment or bitterness for wrongs we may have suffered, but names and images of family, friends, classmates, acquaintances, neighbors, and going back to stories even from long ago that you remember being told or having read. Each time I repeat to myself that I know the people here better than the ones who live in town.
In spring it’s lovely even to spend hours walking slowly through our cemetery although our departed ones may lie under the pavement in the square in front of the church; and their forebears under the apse, or on top of the hill, now known as the Park of Remembrance. I knew these ancestors of ours only through memories inherited from those who conserved them. But who does that matter to now? Only to a bewildered old man like I’m about to become?
I say hello to my teacher, Elisa, who taught me to read and write, Father Giovanni who taught me grammar and arithmetic, my great-grandfather the lawyer and patriot of 1848; my grandfather Toni, naturally, and grandmother Neni who before she died smiled at me and said “Ciao”; my uncle the doctor who loved to kid me and who, when I was a little boy, cured me of the overdose of wine the servants had made me drink on the sly; Father Antonio, my grandfather’s uncle, who donated the entire stipend he got from his rich parishioners to the poor and died without a shirt on his back.
And, naturally, my father next to my mother and my brothers who have gone before me. But how many friends! Schoolmates and playmates, and the girls I used to chase butterflies with; the town policeman who made us scatter when we became too much of a crowd on the streets. Ski mates, salvagers of war material killed by the bombs they wanted to sell; farmers, bricklayers, stonemasons, storekeepers, artisans and on and on, row after row, graveyard after graveyard, so many townspeople I’d known when they were already old and I was just a boy: born under Franz Joseph and died under Victor Emanuel. A kind of Spoon River. The ones I don’t know have surnames that aren’t ours; they came here during the wars, or after, or for reasons I don’t know.
The blackbirds make their nests in the trees around the cemetery and this is also the season when the cuckoos arrive. They announce the coming of spring for the dead too, I find myself saying. Everybody knows that’s not possible because they aren’t in contact with this world. But I like to think so. It’s springtime for you too. Let the flowers bloom on your graves.
. . .
. . . after so many winters, spring in the mountains is truly wonderful, and the more the years go by, the more I admire it and enjoy it. As a boy I lived it and that was it; spring was with us, like us, when we played in competition with nature. It was spring, you lived it and that was it.
The wood takes on a pastel color and the light breeze that comes down from the still snow-covered peaks says that tomorrow is going to be a beautiful day, and you feel a thrill that only the best poetry can give you: the thin, melodious voice of Turdus philomelos that mythology says is the lament of Philomela, raped by her cousin Tereus, king of Thrace, and then transformed into a bird from the pain. Grive musicienne the French call it, Song Thrush the English and Singdrossel the Germans; in every language it has a music that distinguishes it, and there really is good reason to give this name to the solitary bird of spring dawns and sunsets. Its voice expands in a succession of musical phrases and suddenly you notice that all the inhabitants of the forest are listening to it. Only during the pauses and when the light fades to dusk can you hear the little chime of the robin or the distant sound of church bell at Compline.
. . .
We were out walking one day among the olive trees, overlooking the sea off the coast of Liguria. Suddenly Francesco Biamonti asked me, “Can you still hear the trill of the song thrush?”
“Yes, if the wind is still and the wood is quiet, I can still hear it.”
“And the missel thrush? It’s almost an ultrasound and I can’t hear it anymore.”
“Francesco, maybe you smoke too much.”
Now I can’t hear the trill anymore either, but only the song, and last night the memory of my friend came back to me.