Savoring the Moment

Days pass nearly the same on our small farm, regardless of what goes on in the world beyond. I rise early and carry out the same tasks I always have. I tend to the cows and make the bread. I wash clothes and cook meals. Sometimes, I almost forget there is a war raging in cities not-too-distant from our small Italian town. Almost.

I remember when I taste the bland soup we eat for nearly every meal. When I trade our ration of sugar for soap since we have more need of clean clothes and bodies than sweet things to eat. And when I see Papa tuck the bag containing documents showing proof of property for our house and farm and what little money we have into his shirt each morning so that we are not left with nothing if our home is destroyed in a bombing.

And I am also reminded when I begin to miss my beloved Lorenzo. We were engaged only a short time before he left to join the war effort when Italy allied with Germany in 1940. He promised we will marry when he returns, and I hope he still thinks of me while he is far away. I wonder if he may still be in Egypt, but it has been months since I have received any news.

“Lucia,” my little brother Paolo says, drawing me from my thoughts. “Thinking about Lorenzo again?” he asks with a mischievous smile.

“No,” I tell him, kneading the dough for our bread more aggressively. “Mind your own business.”

He grumbles, “You’re no fun.”

“When you get older, you forget how to have fun,” I say.

“That sounds terrible,” Paolo says. Then he grins. “So let me remind you! Francesco’s father works for the railroad, and he said they salt the tracks this time of year to keep the trains from slipping on the ice. His father collects the salt to use for cooking, and we can do the same!”

“Will no one stop us?” I ask, skeptical.

“Not if we don’t get caught! It will be cold, but we can go tonight once it’s dark.”

The thought of salt for our bland meals keeps me from arguing against this risky plan as I ought. I bite my lip, and Paolo catches me. He knows my resolve is weakening.

“Just this once,” he presses. “There is a station just a few kilometers from here on the line which runs from Milan to Zurich. Even now, the train comes regularly, so the tracks are well-maintained.”

I sigh and rub the back of my floury hand on my forehead. Well-maintained likely means well-guarded as well. “All right,” I agree, despite my reservations.

That night, once Papa is asleep, Paolo and I creep from the house. I am grateful for the weak moonlight illuminating our way just enough so that we can find our footing as we make the trek to the border station.

It is the wee hours and my feet are numb from cold by the time we get there, but luckily the station appears deserted.

“Do we just walk up and start shoveling?” I whisper, nervous now that we are here.

Paolo, so exuberant earlier, is more reserved now that we are actually faced with the task. “I guess,” he shrugs, taking a tentative step forward.

I grab his hand and look him in the eye, “Together on three.”

He nods his agreement. I pull gently on his hand, and we both step forward on the third tug. Beside the tracks, I look around but see no one.

We drop to our knees in the dirty snow and begin scooping a mixture of salt, snow, dirt, and rust into the buckets we brought until I can hardly feel my fingers in my sopping wet mittens. We are just hoisting our new loads when the yellow beam of a flashlight cuts through the darkness.

“Who goes there?” the bearer of the flashlight demands.

“Lord help us!” I yelp, heart leaping into my chest. I drop my bucket and yank Paolo with me out of the swath of light. I grab one handle of his bucket to bear half the load and propel us into a sprint towards home.

The beam of light scissors across the landscape, and our shadows grow long when it lands on our retreating backs.

“You there! Stop!” rings out as heavy footfalls pound after us.

I feel like my feet suddenly weigh as much as boulders. I run as fast as I can, but my efforts seem pitiful. Paolo slips in the snow, and the bucket thumps against the ground, spilling some of its precious contents. I grab Paolo under the arm and haul him back to his feet, and we keep going.

A yell of surprise rings out, and the light slashes upward and then is gone, plunging us into the safety of darkness again. I don’t look back to see if the guard has fallen, I just alter our course slightly so that when he rights himself he will not so easily find us with his flashlight again and keep running.

My heart hammers for what feels like hundreds of paces, but the sound of heavy boots and the light do not pursue us further. Despite this, I only calm once we are more than a kilometer away and I am certain the guard will no longer give chase.

Paolo grins at me over the bucket we carry between us. “That was so exciting!”

“I’d define it as more harrowing,” I say.

We are exhausted when we get home, but I pour what remains of our bucket of brown slush into the pot over the fire for safekeeping before we tumble into bed.

In the morning, I boil the salty water. When it is cool, Paolo helps me strain it through a piece of clean cloth to remove the large debris. When we are finished, we have a large jar of what appears to be no more than brown water, however, the mixture is salty enough to enhance many meals to come.

That evening, I use a couple tablespoons of our salty water along with the last of the wild garlic I dried in the spring to season our soup. Papa pretends all the meals I have been making have tasted this good and does not ask how I was able to season our food. He just smiles with pride as Paolo begs a second helping.

Sitting around the table with my family eating a meal made flavorful with salt and the subtle zest of herbs makes me feel like the war is already a distant memory. In my mind, I am transported to a time when no one is missing from our gathering and we want for nothing in the world.

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