Florence, September 8, 1943
My wedding dress slid over my shoulders and hips, the ivory satin cool and slippery. It was barely noon, and already a blanket of stuffy air hung above the city, turning the sky a pale, dirty blue. I could feel my hair wilting and sticking to the back of my neck as the seamstress's assistants, a cadre of silent young girls in pink pinafores, fastened the back, their deft fingers working the rows and rows of tiny buttons. When they were finished, they took me by each arm, like an invalid, and stood me on a stool.
A clock was ticking in the front of the salon, marking the time in thick, syrupy drops, and I tried not to count in my head. Crazy people count in their heads. Hysterics and lunatics. Thirty-two seconds passed before the signora herself came into the fitting room. She looked at me and made a clicking sound with her teeth. Then she went to work. With every tuck and prick, the dress tightened, until I began to wonder if this was how a snake felt just before it shed its skin.
My sister, Isabella, had vanished. Through the fitting room's half-open door, I could see her hat, abandoned on a tufted pink settee. It was ugly and had been insisted upon by our mother. Today was Mama's fiftieth birthday, and instead of coming with me she had stayed at home to oversee the preparations for the party we were giving and had deputized Isabella in her place. Before we left the house, Mama had reminded us that the signora was, under no circumstances, to have her way with the number of buttons on the cuffs of my dress, and then she insisted, almost as an afterthought, that we wear hats. Mine was pale green and matched my dress. Isabella's was blue straw with a pin in the brim. Neither of us particularly cared for hats, but Isabella especially resented being told what to wear. She was nineteen and had just begun her second year at the university, where, she informed our mother, no one wore hats. As we left the house, she jammed the offending article down onto her forehead, muttering that she "wouldn't be surprised if it blew into the river."
But that had not happened. Because by the time we got our bicycles out of the shed and made our way down the hill and through the Porta Romana and along canyon of the Via dei Serragli and finally arrived at the river, we had forgotten all about hats, ugly or otherwise.
The moment we came out onto the lungarno, Isabella and I both realized that something was wrong. There was never much traffic anymore, due to the endless shortages of gasoline, but now there was none. Pausing, we looked both ways and saw that the long, straight avenue was eerily quiet. Below the walls the reed grass was dull and still, the Arno glassy and sluggish. Yet despite the heat, no one was walking on the bridge ahead or lazing against the balustrades. Instead people were gathered in tight little knots. Groups clustered and spilled off the pavements. Voices hummed like a swarm of bees.
Isabella and I exchanged glances. The strange electricity that hung in the air was not altogether unfamiliar. The city had felt like this before, as recently as six weeks ago, when Mussolini was deposed. In fact, ever since then the country had felt slightly stunned, as if it were wandering along trying to wake up from a very deep sleep. Now it appeared that something else had happened, but I couldn't imagine what. It was true that the Allies had made a first attempt at invading the mainland in Calabria but that had been days ago. Old news. And was so far away that it might have been happening in another country.
Without speaking, Isabella got off her bike and passed it to me. I propped the handlebar against my thigh and watched while she crossed to the nearest group of people. A few moments later, she came back, one hand holding the silly-looking hat, the other gesturing as if I were supposed to guess what it was she had to say. When she reached me, she became very still, her face turning inward, as if she were trying to understand what she had just heard.
Excerpted from Villa Triste by Lucretia Grindle. Copyright © 2013 by Lucretia Grindle. Excerpted by permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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