This wasn’t the Italy of passionate opera, nor the Italy of Da Vinci and Michelangelo.
Maybe it was the Italy of the Romans.
Not that Private Hubert Bausman had half a clue about those guys. All he remembered were primary school tales of men in togas who turned Christians into lion chow. And not that it was the Romans he had to worry about, anyway. It was their Teutonic brethren from the North, members of that overall not-so-nice-guy organization popularly known as the Nazis.
Only weeks ago, they had been here at Monte Cassino, about eighty miles south of Rome. Axis and Allies faced off against the elements as much as each other. Even though it was well into Spring, Bausman felt New England weather had nothing on this place. Maybe it just seemed that way.
“You’re up, Chief.”
A puff of steaming air wandered out from Private Munson’s mouth, curling beneath the three-quarters moon.
Munson extended his hand and pulled Bausman up onto his feet. Bausman’s muscles ached. He cursed himself for not standing and moving around, but he acknowledged that three to four hours of sleep would, without fail, eventually have its way.
In a daze, he popped on his helmet, slung the strap of his Browning A-5 over his shoulder, and marched towards the designated lookout point.
“Where do you think you’re goin’?” Munson asked.
Halfway through the question, Bausman realized he’d forgotten something. He reached into his shirt pocket, pulled out a nearly-empty pack of Lucky Strikes, and tossed it into Munson’s receptive hands.
“Sarge seems to be agitated,” Bausman said. “Command’s probably itching to send us to another slaughterhouse. Best hide yourself well.”
Munson fell on his ass and flicked the flint wheel of his Zippo as if he hadn’t heard a word. The amber glow of his cigarette could probably be seen from a mile away.
Bausman and Munson were two grunts tasked with keeping watch over a hundred-yard section of winding road leading past a Polish Army operating base and up to a bombed-out monastery. Four months ago, the two of them along with the rest of the US 36th Infantry Division had initiated a trade in flesh for these seven acres.
The price was steep.
The two privates were survivors, though. Two from a regiment of originally one hundred and eighty-four soldiers, all who had been delivered into the earth’s snowy maw by chattering maschinengewehr and camouflaged Panzers.
Of course, other armies came and made their sacrifices: the Brits, the Aussies, along with more nations than Bausman had ever bothered to learn about, with the Poles finally wrapping things up.
For some undefinable, yet likely bureaucratic reason, Bausman and Munson’s commanding officer decided it would be good for morale to bring the surviving Americans back so they could participate in the final assault: to see, Bausman supposed, what all the fuss was about. It had been several weeks since the landmark monastery was captured. War raged further north while their small contingent was left behind.
And that’s how Bausman and Munson came to shiver in the middle of the snowmelt, handpicked for the privilege of scanning the night’s forest for the ghosts of partisans who were long gone.
Knowing he would be undisturbed during his six-hour shift, Bausman deviated from his assigned route as he had the past few nights and walked to the ruined abbey.
He hoped that Francesca would be in the cellar.
Last night, he had drunk wine and conversed with the monk, Benedict, instead. God’s man was good company, admittedly, but the woman was better looking. Her raven hair and oceanic eyes reminded Bausman of Hedy Lamarr. So what if she berated him over his “barbarian” manners. He liked a woman with a little fire in her veins.
Maneuvering among the crumbling structure was an exercise in extreme caution. Bausman had already sprained his ankle a week ago, and it was finally feeling good again. His flashlight lit the way, only beginning to flicker near the middle of the abbey. He turned it off to preserve the batteries for the walk back. Besides, there was an oil lamp hanging off the wall near the bottom of the basement staircase which gave off enough light by which to navigate to his destination.
As he rounded the corner of the dusty library archives, he couldn’t help but smile.
She sat at a thick wooden table, intently reading a book.
“Buonasera.” It was one of three Italian phrases Bausman knew.
“What took you so long?” she asked drily. Though her English was heavily accented, Bausman was happy that he didn’t have to learn more than three phrases. He pulled up a chair opposite Francesca and a poured a cup of wine from a clay pitcher. Being the gentleman that he was, he topped her’s off first.
He swirled the cup under his nose and sniffed.
“I got here as quick as I could. It’s a real war zone out there.” He snorted at his own joke but quickly stopped. Francesca was not amused.
Her nose was still buried in the book. Script was handwritten on one page and there was a drawing on the other which the private couldn’t quite make out.
The air in the library was thick with silence. Bausman sat back in his creaking chair and surveyed the crooked shelves lining the walls. By modern standards, the place was tiny, but he pictured the monks reading the same few books over and over again. It must have been utterly mind-numbing, but he guessed that was the point of being a monk. He was just amazed that the room survived the heap of bombs that had been dropped on it.
She may have nodded.
Alright. If she wasn’t going to be much company, he could sit here in silence too. It didn’t bother him much. So long as he could drink and look at her, he’d be fine. Bausman took another sip of the wine. It was nothing like the rotgut he was used to drinking back home–at least when he drank wine, which wasn’t often. This vintage wasn’t nearly as sweet as what he was used to and he spent time swishing it over his tongue, trying to discover the nuances that rich folk seemed to find all the time.
Francesca looked up.
“Why are you here?” she asked.
“I like good company,” he said.
“No. Why are you here?”
He threw his hands up. “What, in Italy? On Earth? You gotta help me out, little lady.”
She breathed in deeply and closed the book. Dust puffed out into a small cloud as the pages slapped shut.
“I think the real question,” he said, leaning forward, “is ‘Why are you here?’ Did you lose your home? Husband grow tired of your charm?”
Francesca laughed and it startled Bausman, but he was happy to see some cracks in her facade.
“Yes, Hyooo-bert. Yes. I’ve lost my home. Just like you.”
The way she said his name made the hairs on his arm stand straight up, but in a good way. He took another drink, this time slugging the wine straight down his gullet. He poured himself some more.
“I know exactly where my home is.” He looked at the bookshelves as if reading a particular binding. “374 Peck Street, Charlestown, New Hampshire.”
Her fingers traced the embossed pattern on the cover of her book. “So when do you plan on heading home?”
“As soon as the fuckin’ Army–pardon my French–lets me go. My tour’s up in a couple of weeks.”
“You must really be looking forward to it.”
Bausman had to really think about his response. He assumed he’d be shipped back to Texas, and from there, he’d had the vague notion that he’d get a ride back to New Hampshire. But then what? He’d see his parents and they’d be happy to see him. His old man would likely bring him back on as an insurance agent.
So instead of answering, he simply took another drink and changed the subject.
“You know, Franny, if you opened up a little more, these conversations would probably be a lot more pleasant.”
Her eyes narrowed, turning their blues into a darker ocean.
“Fine,” Francesca said. “Let’s discuss all of the pleasant things going on around us, okay? Have you been to the cinema lately? Read the papers? I hear there is a bit of drama happening in Russia. Things are heating up further east in Japan. Oh!”
Her voice quickened and her eyes widened again.
“Then every once in awhile, I hear a child in the forest crying out for his parents. It’s been happening for months. And that wonderful odor? Can you still smell it? I can. Your men may have removed the corpses of German soldiers, but some things tend to linger.”
She clapped her hands and it made Bausman flinch.
“So many pleasantries, my soldier, so many. Which would you like to talk about first?”
“Enough,” Bausman said. He felt his blood rushing through his veins, heating his face. “For someone hiding out in rubble, you sure know a lot about the world.”
She sat back down and stared off into space. “I know enough.”
As Bausman imagined the horrors through which she had suffered, which she continues to suffer, his demeanor softened. He imagined that feeling of powerlessness, the case of being a mere civilian at the mercy of a deranged government. And as much as he supposed standing around in the middle of the night in a foreign land was next to helpless, at least he was doing something.
“Seriously,” he said. “Don’t you have any family that can take you in? Who brings you food? Benny?”
“I’m not very hungry these days. The wine sustains me.”
He reached across the table and grasped her hands. She didn’t pull back. For Bausman, to feel her soft skin was like grasping his own little slice of heaven.
“I’m sorry. I know it’s really none of my business. I just…”
She shrugged and smiled gently. It may have actually been genuine.
“No matter, she said. I am here. You are here. Let’s drink some wine while we can, no?” She lifted her cup. Bausman met it. The clacking echoed lightly in the tiny room and they both took a gulp.
The young private licked his lips and held his cup up to the light, examining it like a tiny idol. “I don’t know how this has remained undiscovered, but I’m as happy as a pig in shit. You don’t want to know what those Poles out there would do for a sip of this, let alone barrels full of it.”
The previous few hours were a blur. The memory no more than a wine-induced vision. Bausman found Munson sitting in the same position, smoking a cigarette as if he had been frozen in time since the moment they parted company.
“Welcome back,” Munson said, nearly expressionless. “You catch any bad guys?”
“Of course,” Bausman replied. “Hitler and Mussolini both. Found them holding each other in their arms and smooching down at the inn. In fact, I’m booked on a transport out of here tomorrow and FDR is scheduled to wrap the Medal of Honor around my neck.” He winked, though he doubted Munson could see the gesture.
Munson took a long drag of his cigarette. “Careful you don’t choke.” He snubbed it out just in time for the morning shift to arrive.
The two of them walked back to the base in silence.
“Before all this,” Benny said, waving his hand around, “a temple to Apollo stood here. People made sacrifices, you know. Human sacrifices.”
He poured himself what had to have been his fifth cup.
“The altar was smashed. His sculptures were destroyed and a tiny chapel was built in its place.”
By Bausman’s count, they had been engaged in conversation for barely an hour. He’d always assumed most monks were in it for the drink, but could he blame them? After all he had been through, he was ready to throw away his rifle and sign up himself.
“You really know your history,” Bausman said. “Must be all the time you have to read these dusty, old books.”
Benny laughed uproariously. It was the kind of gregarious laugh that could carry for miles on a light breeze. “Must be,” he said. “Someone has to read them.”
In fact, as soon as Bausman stepped into the cellar this evening, he realized that the monk had the same book open as Francesca had the previous night.
“I have a wrinkled copy of Hamlet in my footlocker,” the private said, “a gift from a long lost friend, but haven’t touched it since February.” Bausman felt his thoughts beginning to sink, so he took a large drink. “What’s that one about?”
“Just what we’ve been discussing,” Benny replied, opening his hands. “History. The present. The future.” He paused for a moment. “Time, really.”
“Sure.” The monk smiled. His teeth were stained a rose red. “You know, we’re all prisoners.”
Bausman’s look demanded an explanation.
“Of time,” Benny said. “There’s no escaping it.”
The conversation was growing a little too philosophical for Bausman’s tastes. He had a sudden urge to see Francesca, but he didn’t want to be rude. Instead, he did what he usually did in this sort of situation. He made a joke: “Well, I’m pretty sure if you put a bullet through my head, I’ll be free of it.”
Benny sank back into his chair and just stared at Bausman. The muscles on his face were taut. Clearly, the joke did not sit well.
“You’re wrong,” he said.
At this point, Bausman had enough wine in his system and was feeling slightly punchy. “Oh, really? How do you know? How are you ever going to prove it?” With only a slight hesitation, he pulled his Colt .45 from its holster and laid it on the table. “Let’s make a deal. Why don’t you shoot me and I’ll come back to haunt you. I’ll let you know how things are.”
The monk said nothing. His glassy eyes stared at the gun while his head bobbed slightly in every direction. Images of the bookshelves reflected off this corneas through the low light of the oil lamp. Bausman was about to check his pulse when Benny slammed a fist on the table. His cup of wine fell over. Red liquid spilled out onto the wood and the sound of it pouring over the edge seemed much louder than it really was.
“Do you think this is funny?”
Bausman sobered up a little. He raised his hands in surrender. “Look, Benny. Just a joke. Come on.” The monk had never been so serious before, especially after a bottle. He expected that sort of indignation from Francesca. “I don’t know what’s gotten into you and Franny lately, but it seems the wine is making you so serious lately. Maybe we ought to open a different barrel.”
Benny leaned across the table. The elbows of his robe dipped into the spilled wine as he took hold of Bausman’s hands. The monk’s palms were freezing. Bausman shivered at the contact and tried to pull away, but Benny’s grip was too tight.
“You. Me. Francesca. We’re all prisoners of time, even after death. Why won’t you admit it?”
For some reason, Bausman grew furious and he ripped his hands away from Benny’s, nearly pulling the monk over the table. The private was on his feet now, his chair tipped to its side on the ground. He felt his breath quicken. There was drunk, and then there was madness. He wondered if God’s man had finally slipped too far to the other side.
“You don’t believe me?” The monk slid back into his chair, picked up the book and launched it at Bausman’s chest. Dust puffed into the soldier’s face as he quickly caught it.
The book felt as if it weighed fifty pounds. Its binding was thick, the pages within nearly the same. How Benny launched it with such force, Bausman didn’t know. Didn’t want to know.
“Read,” Benny said.
Bausman dropped it onto the table and looked at the cover for the first time.
Monte Cassino: A History
Astonishingly, the words were written in English. He imagined these monks would be reading Italian. Bausman flipped it open and looked at Benny. He could humor the guy if it would put him in a better mood. “Any place in particular I should be starting?”
The monk crossed his arms, tossed his head to the side and stared off into space. “It doesn’t matter.”
For the first time since they’d met, Benny looked utterly exhausted. A rush of cold air came down through the cellar entrance and Bausman shivered.
The first page was titled The Dedication of Apollo’s Temple – 312 B.C.
An illustration of the mountaintop depicted those toga-endowed Romans that were shades of Bausman’s childhood memory. They wrapped around a humongous, stiffly-posed statue of Apollo sitting on a stone. A harp lay on his lap while in his hands was a bow with an arrow drawn, pointing north. Someone was being carried overhead to the altar, their hands and feet bound by golden rope.
Bausman thumbed to the next sheet of paper: The Destruction of Apollo’s Temple – 529 A.D.
Smoke reached into the dark sky and over the decapitated and cracked statue of Apollo, hundreds of tiny arrows fell from the clouds onto the monks below.
Private Bausman had never been what one would call a scholar, but he found himself being pulled into the story of this tiny piece of the world. There was a kinship to it that he couldn’t describe. The breeze that had come from above ground seemed to kick into a wild howl now and he buttoned his coat as he flipped the pages to a new chapter titled The Lombard Invasion – 581 A.D.
Dark-Age soldiers with pointed helmets rushed toward the flaming abbey of Monte Cassino. One of them depicted a warrior holding the decapitated head of a monk who had been dressed just like Benny. Another showed a bearded man with a vicious smile on his face, looking up at a baby propped high on the end of his spear. Bausman skimmed the vivid descriptions of death and destruction.
He turned through the pages again.
The Saracens – 884 A.D.
Turbaned soldiers in chainmail rode horses along the steep roads of the mountain. The monastery sat quietly atop, waiting, while hundreds of bloodied bodies lay behind the riders.
Bausman’s breath left him momentarily as the wind kicked up. It was strong enough to rattle the table and spill his wine onto the page. The red libation stained the page, drying instantly.
He looked up at Benny who nodded at the book. The seriousness was gone, but his face was grave nonetheless.
Bausman did not remember turning the page, but he looked down and read:
The Americans – 1944 A.D.
Depictions of giant planes flew over Monte Cassino. An uncountable number of bombs screamed toward its peak.
The wind stopped as quickly as it had started. An eerie stillness remained. Bausman frantically flipped through the rest of the book.
He backed away from the table and grabbed the nearest bookshelf to keep himself from tipping over. His stomach lurched. He thought he was going to be sick.
“Rest, soldier” Benny said gently. “Time is going nowhere.”
Private Hubert Bausman caught his breath, though a dull pulse punched his brain at regular intervals, matching the rhythm of his heartbeat.
“I’ve…been here before,” he said as if he already knew the answer.
Bausman looked down at the book. Images of murder and rape sprung into his head. Images he didn’t remember seeing in the book itself. Images that held back nothing and finally drove Bausman towards a half-filled barrel in the corner of the room where he evacuated the jug of wine he’d just consumed.
When he was sure he could speak again, he talked with his face held down.
“You’re saying I’m one of these people? That I’m one of these monsters?” His voice grew indignant. “We came here to save you!”
“Yes and no.”
He flung his head up. A bad idea as the throbbing punches turned into needle-like stabs.
Sitting in the same chair where Benny had been was Francesca. Bausman hadn’t heard the monk leave. Hadn’t heard Franny arrive.
“At least, you’re not an intentional monster,” she said. “Not this round. It’s complicated. You fought to liberate this place from the monsters this time, but you’ve still destroyed the abbey. Still killed those inside seeking refuge.”
Bausman indignance allowed him to ignore Benny’s vanishing act for a moment. “We didn’t know. We thought the Germans were here.”
Francesca dismissed the notion with a wave of her hand. “It doesn’t matter.”
“What do you mean it doesn’t matter? Of course it–”
Bausman took a deep breath and wiped sweat from his eyes. “Please, Franny…”
“No matter. Things are looking up, no?”
Hubert blinked. Francesca, gone once again. Benedict was back.
“We all come out of darkness and toward the light,” he said. “Only, the light always seems just out of reach.”
Bausman felt disoriented again. He leaned over the barrel, unsure of what he had left to give.
He stared at the unholy mix of puke and wine. At his reflection. At someone else’s reflection. A glint of light reflected from the steel helmet that was not on his head. He reached for the mangy beard and long, matted hair that was not his own. Finally, he saw a whiskered GI who wanted nothing more than to go home.
He pushed himself off the barrel with what little strength he could conjure. “Why?” he asked weakly.
“You’re tied to this place,” Francesca said. “We’re tied to this place. A curse of Apollo, maybe. There’s something sacred about this ground. Something tied to time and space.”
“We’ll all be leaving soon, but we’ll meet here again,” Benny chimed in. “They rebuild, we come back, they destroy. Ad infinitum.” He chuckled. “Or in your case, ad nauseam.” Bausman heard Francesca laugh as well.
The world was collapsing in on the young private. He had to get out of the stifling cellar. He ran up the stairs, foregoing one last look at the company he had been keeping for nearly a week. His legs carried him over the rubble as he navigated only by a thin strip of moon.
Bausman’s irregular breathing made him cramp up, so he stopped and leaned on the trunk of a nearby tree. He was beaten down, so weary. He turned his back to the tree and slumped to the ground.
None of this made sense. Too much wine, he thought. That was it. Who knows what sort of contamination those barrels may have gotten after all of the destruction. He was so tired now, he just wanted to sleep. Despite the spinning earth, Bausman closed his eyes and dug his fingers into the damp soil beside him.
“So who told you? Him or the looker?”
Bausman looked up and saw Private Munson standing a few yards away, a lit cigarette bouncing from the side of his lips.
Bausman said nothing.
“Must’ve been God’s man,” Munson said and laughed. He walked over and extended his hand. “Come on, soldier. Let’s go drink some wine.”