My heart is singing today, spurred on by the sweetness of acacia, clematis and chestnut blossoms and I’m chattier than usual. I’m in love with being 15 because I’m going to start a sewing course with my friend Flora. When I get good at it, I can make some of my own clothes and earn some money.
I’m walking on a forest trail with Flora and her brother, Antonio. I know this track like the rooms of my house. I use it almost every day to get to the river where I wash our clothes, fetch water and cross to the other side to my family’s vegetable garden. But today is not a working day for me; today Antonio is going to take some pictures of me and Flora on his camera.
It was my birthday a few days ago and although we don’t celebrate birthdays, my older sister gave me a knitted cotton top from some of the stock she sells. She said that now the war’s ended, we should celebrate all the good things in our lives. Dad said she was wasteful and frivolous and that she shouldn’t be putting ideas in my head that neither he nor I could afford. He’s a good dad,really, raising all six of us by himself since my darling mum died. But he’s so tight fisted. And strict.
I tell my friends what my sister thinks about celebrating life and I say that I agree with her. We should celebrate everything, I say, because it’s a miracle we’re alive. The war finished two months ago. Now there’ll be no more airplanes droning over the clouds, no more bullet-fire stealing the birdsong and no more paralysing fear each time I hear a twig snap nearby. No more grubby, sweaty, bearded partigiani, smelling of rotting manure, coming to the door for food or overnight shelter, putting our lives in danger. Better still, there’ll be no more German soldiers, shouting in a language no-one understands, pointing guns and taking everything that can be eaten or drunk. No: we’ll have real wheat flour again, real sugar and real coffee. And that’s a lot to celebrate.
I tell Flora and Antonio I’m in love with the top my sister gave me, with its three coordinating panels in pale green, olive and beige. I feel so pretty in it. I tell them I’m in love with the colour of the forest; that I can’t get enough of its enchantment. The iridescent yellow sparkling from the acacias growing in sunny breaks and all the different shades of green in the leaves and grasses: from the golden green of the young hazelnut leaves to the almost black green leaves of the large, mature oaks and the green green of the forest shrubs. Green refreshes my eyes and lightens the rhythm of my step; it cools the embers of my anger with my dad who wont let me to go to the local dance with Flora.
Everything here is alive and sensual. Even the air. The wind plays roughly, like my big brothers, pushing and shoving in the uppermost reaches of the trees but it is giggly and tame by the time it gets close to the earth, like a happy, fat toddler. I tingle at its cool caress along the skin of my bare calves and shudder for its occasional forays along my thighs under the folds of my skirt.
I am of this forest: I belong to it and it to me. Like a caterpillar in its home of twigs. I can’t imagine looking out of a window and not seeing these mountains and hills and the green of these trees.
Antonio takes lots of pictures of me and Flora. He’s not sure how they’ll turn out because the light is dim under the forest canopy and he expects the tones will be muddy. I’m not sure I understand what he means. We only have a few photographs at home and they are all brown and beige. Still, it’s true enough that although it’s July, it’s hard to tell how hot and sunny it is in the dense shade of the trees.
Antonio asks me to pose alone for his next picture. He wants me to stand by a young oak. I wrap my forearm around its slender trunk and lean away from it. I tip my head up to the camera and grin towards its eye. Some weeks later, Antonio gives me a copy of this picture. I write on the back: Beata. Lunigiana, 1945.