"Issa?" I asked finally. "Isabella? What is it?"
I suppose from the look on her face that I thought the king had died, or Winston Churchill, or Stalin, or the pope. But it was none of those.
My sister looked at me, her blue eyes dark. "They're saying it's over."
"Yes." She nodded.
I stared at her. "The war?"
"At least for Italy," she said, then added, "It's just a rumor. But they're saying Badoglio's left Rome."
Isabella took the handlebars of her bike but did not get back on.
Without thinking, I slipped off of mine. "Left Rome?" I knew I was sounding like a parrot, or an idiot, or both. But I couldn't take in the words. Surely the Allies hadn't somehow reached Rome and chased away the prime minister? In less than a week? Without our hearing a word about it?
"Why would he leave Rome? What do you mean?" I asked. "What are you talking about?"
My sister began to walk. I fell into step beside her. As we neared Piazza Goldoni, I could see people coming out of buildings and milling about.
"An armistice." Isabella looked at me, her eyes sliding sideways under the brim of the hat.
"An armistice?" The parrot again.
A look of exasperation crossed her face. "They're saying that Badoglio has signed an armistice with the Allies," she said, very clearly, as if she were speaking to someone deaf. "He's supposed to make an announcement on the radio, at eight o'clock tonight. To say that Italy is no longer at war. With America or England or anyone," she added, in case I hadn't understood.
But I had. Too well. I stared at her. We were crossing the piazza by then, turning in to the street where the tiny and fearsome signora had her bridal salon.
"But" I said.
Isabella nodded. She looked down, apparently concentrating on the toes of her shoes. "I know." We had now turned in to the street and stopped. Bolts of satin, a basket of white roses made of ribbon, and several pairs of small pink shoes surrounded by wisps of tulle were displayed in the salon's window. Beyond them we could see the interior of the front room, soft and pink as a womb, and the door that led to the fitting rooms at the back, ajar.
"I know," Isabella said again. She looked up, reading my face, finishing the thought I had barely begun. "I know," she repeated. "If we're not fighting the Allies, then what about the Germans?"
I felt my mouth go dry. My fiancé, Lodovico, was a naval officer, a medic on a hospital ship serving off North Africa. He was due into Naples any day. In two months he would have leave and come to Florence, and we would be married.
"You'd better go in."
Isabella nodded toward the door of the salon and took the handlebars of my bicycle. But nothing happened. I stood rooted to the pavement. "Eight weeks," Lodovico's last letter had said. "Eight weeks. Here is a kiss for every one of them. Then I will be home."
Now I tried not to shift, to stamp from foot to foot in my satin slippers like a horse bothered by flies. There was no point in asking the signora about anything. Her world was composed solely of seams and hems, of pleated lace and the exact placement of tiny rosebuds. Moreover, she had made it amply clear, more than once, that she did not care for "chat." Mothers might occasionally intervene on matters of necklines and bodices. Brides, however, were to be poked, prodded, grateful, and silent.
It was almost a half hour before the little woman stood up. For the final ten minutes, she had been squatting on her haunches behind me. Oblivious to what might or might not be happening in the world beyond the salon to anything but the quality of available silk and whether or not the right "foundation garments" could still be found in Milan or Paris the signora muttered something, and two of the pale, silent creatures who shadowed her, handing out marking chalk and measuring tapes, stepped forward. They helped me down from the stool, one on each arm again, and stood me, like a giant doll, facing a standing mirror that was covered with a sheet. Without speaking, they arranged the train of my dress, smoothing it across the floor. A third girl appeared, carrying a swath of tissue paper, holding it in front of her with both hands. I heard a faint rustling as she laid it on the bench behind me. Through the open door, I saw the hat, still on the settee. Isabella was nowhere in sight. I suspected she had gone to try to find a newspaper or listen to a radio, and I could hardly blame her, but all the same I wished she would come back. My heart felt strange, like something in a cage. A few more of the girls materialized. Then more rustling. Tissue paper whispered as they placed the veil on my head. Standing behind me in a semicircle, faces full of studied expectation, hands folded in front of them, the assistants waited, until finally the tiny signora rose on her toes. Her hand reached up, fast as a cat's claw, and whipped the sheet away from the mirror.
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
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