“Her name was Margherita Corelli. We all knew her for her big smiles and big heart. We all knew her for her exquisite Lasagna. May God have her in grace.”
Don Giacomo finished the obsequies for the elderly woman. The nice mahogany casket was resting on its trolley, covered by beautifully colored wreaths of flowers. Cogne’s little church was teeming with people that knew Margherita, yet there were no other family members other than her beloved Francesca to mourn her. As fast as the church filled up with mere acquaintances, at the same speed it emptied down, leaving Francesca, Don Giacomo, and the late Margherita alone.
“Are you okay, Francesca?” Asked the good priest, a middle-aged man that did his job pretty well, without bringing too much doctrine in his spiritual shepherding. He leaned a hand on the young woman’s shoulder and sat down on the wooden bench beside her.
“I am, father. Nan was my only family. I never knew my father and my mom died soon after I was born.”
Don Giacomo nodded slowly.
“I know you’re not a religious person by any means, but I knew your grandmother very well. I listened to some of her stories that I certainly know you don’t know about. She asked me to tell you to look inside her drawer. The first one on the right. It has a double bottom. Go now, Francesca. I’ll take care of the rest.”
Francesca nodded and got up from the wooden bench, touching the side of the casket before leaving. She couldn’t see her grandmother buried.
The air outside the church had the crispness of late October, the sun arching lower in the sky each day. She sat in her car, pausing looking out the window without thinking before making her way to the old house they shared. Francesca opened the door and the familiar smell of the old and worn possessions welcomed her. The sight of the cream-filled bonbons in the silver bowl reminded her of Margherita’s wrinkly, gentle yet strong hands. The way she kneaded the dough and her laughter. Her strength that got her through the dark times of the war that she never really spoke about.
Francesca had grown strong and independent. She moved out of her grandmother’s house when she was just twenty. She found a job in Milan as a chef, a passion that Margherita cultivated in Francesca with love and care. She climbed the moquette-lined stairs and entered her nan’s room. Everything was in its place. Margherita had died peacefully in her sleep.
“Ninety-three years old, nonna. That’s a long time. Still not enough for the ones left behind,” Uttered Francesca, caressing a silver photo frame which contained a beautiful portrait of the two of them.
“Drawer, on the right…”
She took it out with care. It was where Margherita kept all her photos and mementos. Memorabilia from bundles of dry flowers to empty bullet shells filled the pages. There were medals from the war, scraps of newspaper. Francesca emptied the drawer with care and searched for the double bottom. She pressed in the corner and the thin wooden layer came off, revealing a thick diary underneath, filled with photographs, and kept shut with a length of ribbon, with faded colors of red, white, and green.
She unbundled it and started leafing through it with care. It was a meticulous war journal, filled with incredible phrases referring to people by nicknames. There as Sparrow, Viper, and Maul. She smiled as she felt a deep pride swelling up in her chest.
“What were you, nonna?”
Searching through the little notebook, she found indications to a safety cove. It was there, in the beautiful setting of the Aosta Valley.
Go here if they catch me.
It was written by someone by the nickname Falcon, followed by a little map of that location. Francesca couldn’t bring herself to see the burial, she wanted to honor the life that gave her so many gifts.
Francesca woke up before sunrise, donned her trekking boots, and a warm coat. She drove up the steep roads that clawed on the side of the Cervino mountain, stopping in a little scenic hamlet laid on a sunny plateau. Francesca stopped her car and collected her backpack. A burly man, in his late sixties, emerged from one cabin, built on the side of the steep trail that climbed higher on the mountain and disappeared in the forest.
“Hello, who are you?”
“I’m Francesca Corelli. I’m searching for something on this trail.” She explained, looking up the trail.
“Very few come to this place, Francesca. These trails are dangerous if you’re not experienced.”
She nodded and walked towards the path with eager strides.
“I’ll be okay. I am used to hard trails. Nonna and I always walked these mountains.”
The burly man tottered towards the Francesca, smiling under his rugged white beard.
“When you’ll come down from whatever place you’re searching for up there, I’d be pleased to have you for lunch. Marta!” He yelled towards the nearest house.
A woman in her late fifties poked her head through the window, “What is it! What are you yelling for, Gianni?! Oh. Hello there!”
Francesca waved towards the lady, smiled, and said, “Maybe, if I make it down early enough.”
The man nodded and Francesca was on her way up the steep path. Her boots clawing the unsteady trail. This trail wasn’t used in some time based on the amount of overgrowth. After about fifteen minutes of climb, the trail reached a little clearing. The rising sun painted the sky in familiar colors yet more vibrant from this view.
“Is this the place, nonna?” she said out loud, feeling the connection between her grandmother and this place.
She unwrapped the book and searched for the page where Falcon had written his message. So many old photos and the notes on the side of the pages provided new clues. She found another note from Falcon. Faded from time, it was a little drawing of a flower with some words written beside it.
Where white flowers bloom, we will find each other.
Francesca knew what she was searching for. She stashed away the little book and continued climbing the trail. The growth covered what looked to be a flat stone path. Francesca pushed her through the underbrush. It took another half an hour to reach her destination.
A sea of Edelweiss flowers opened behind a bend in the path and a narrow cave, covered with growth, opened on the side of the mountain. Francesca stepped, with caution, into the untouched meadow. Francesca imagined her nan, young and brave. She ventured further in the clearing, reaching the cave.
The remnants of old things lay everywhere. Set outside the mouth of the cavern appeared to be old lanterns, crates, and what looked to be a campsite. She lit up the flashlight and peered into the dark place. There was furniture made with simple logs, most of them corroded and decayed. There were little toys scattered around, dirty and discolored napkins and baby diapers, covered in black mold, folded with care on a shelf.
“What happened here?” Francesca said exploring the place. She turned around and went to examine the metal box. The rust made it hard to open. She removed the lid and, inside of it, there were tens of old birth certificates and another tin container for what seemed to be a kit to forge documents with an ampoule of ink, a stamp with the insignia of the fascist state and a few pens. In a single envelope, there was another birth certificate.
It was her mother’s name, with a different surname. Francesca reached for her face, her nose, her lips. Her eyes watered as she realized that she and her grandmother didn’t have any blood in common.
Francesca put back the documents in the box and rummaged around the cavern. She found more photographs: it was her grandmother with a tall man, with a long and hooked nose and a bright smile. She turned the photograph over and there was another drawing of a flower.
To my precious Edelweiss. May you never wilt.
Under that inscription, another one written by her grandmother.
Lassù in montagna.
O bella ciao.
Bella ciao, ciao, ciao.
Di un bel fior
Francesca felt her heartbreak and melt, as she realized that the love of her grandmother’s life had died during the war. She got out of the cavern, bringing her findings with her, along with the box and the photographs.
She looked around the flower meadow, looking for something she knew she would find. On the side of the meadow, there was a mound of dirt, covered with rocks. The overgrown foliage and the tumultuous growth of the Edelweiss flowers hid it. Francesca sat down beside that nameless tomb, smiling.
“How are you, nonno? It’s Francesca. Your granddaughter,” She sat there, telling all the stories she could remember about Margherita. She laughed, and she cried, remembering her nan.
“See you soon, nonno. I’ll be back. I’ll tell nan I found you.”
Francesca descended from the mountain trail with the strange feeling that she could say goodbye.
Gianni was sitting outside the cabin. There was a delicious scent of polenta and fontina cheese, with a great grill blazing some bush meat. She smiled, yet her eyes were watery, and her expression betrayed a mixture of sadness and joy.
“Francesca! I was worried about you!”
She nodded, clambering with her box in her hand.
“I found what I was searching for. Let me stash this in the car and I’ll be right back.”
Gianni, Marta, and Francesca were sitting under there on the porch, the noon’s warmth was enough to have lunch outside.
“So, what was up there, Francesca?” Asked Marta, smiling as she poured the sizzling polenta in the dishes.
“My grandmother passed away two days ago. I found her diary and, well. I found out she was a partisan during the second world war.”
Both her hosts had surprised expressions painted on their faces. Yet it was Gianni’s face that expressed more than curiosity.
“Do you know what code name your grandmother used?”
“No. There was Sparrow, Viper, Maul, Falcon. Those are the only names I found.”
Gianni froze for a second, then broke out in a burst of joyful laughter. Francesca spotted a single tear peeking out from the side of his eye.
“What’s so funny, Gianni?” Asked Francesca, Marta was looking at her husband with a pleased expression, like she knew what was coming.
“My father lived here too. He would tell stories of the war, he was a partisan too. Maul, that’s the name he went by.”
Francesca smiled and nodded, replying, “So, my grandmother and your father were friends. Her name was Margherita.”
Gianni nodded. He seemed to know of her, searching in his memory he explained, “My father used to tell me about Margherita. She was relentless but didn’t kill anyone, mind you. A courier, I think. Smuggling Jewish children from around here up to the mountains, from families in danger. Forging fake birth certificates and delivering children to safe families willing to take the risk. I know of many children that remained with their new families. Only a few had the luck to return.”
Francesca smiled again, taking a deep breath before asking, “Did your father tell you about Falcon?”
Gianni shook his head with a puzzled look. “No, who is he?”
“My grandfather. They buried him up there. Sotto l’ombra di un bel fior.”
Francesca was proud, and she smiled. Another Edelweiss under the sun.