Elena would spend the summer with us, using what little her mother had managed to save to cross the border by train. Outwardly my aunts tolerated her with a bourgeois reluctance, though she was in her way charming; and to take an street urchin into your care is a charity few could judge harshly. In Berlin she had lived street to street, outside the factory gates and along the railroad tracks. Here, ever the game was to mold her into that perfect young lady of the Austrian petite bourgeois.
On Sundays the aunts rose early to catch the sermon in town, and we would have the day to what we would call — with whispered words and furtive glances — our little hunt. At first a hunt in name only — chasing rabbits through the underbrush — as we reached our teens Elena began to arm herself. The blood would draw wolves, and we would arrive home with cuts and bruises from our scramble to escape them.
I remember breathing the alpine air to wolves howling from across the lake, the sound of her ragged breath, the lazy wind on the water as we ran along the shore. And, our laughter.
1918. Boarding the train with that little skip of step in that warm summer air — I never thought that this would be the last I would see of my homeland. Or, of my father. Yet, part of him knew. I see it in his eyes, now.
Parents taken before their time by the march of history; Elena and I would share in our loss. Our hunts grew longer. From the high ridges along the southern border we would watch the lights of Italy glisten in the night air. Here, some few hours walk from the village we had found an old border post. Long since overtaken by nature, we made it a task to turn this stead into a semblance of shelter.
Over the long months it would come to be stocked with the trophies our hunts would gather; the skull of a deer we found in the underbrush, a bronze necklace found caught in a crevice, a hefty shovel (useful). Yet, we left to their rest the many darker treasures of the mountainside.
It was cold that last night we were to spend in our little sanctuary, though the night was clear. We saw torches in the distance, heading up from the Italian side — and heard the cries of hounds and men. A true hunt. Yet, for what? Or whom?
Cautious, we kept a watch. It was only moments before we spied their prey. There was fear in his eyes as he rushed for our humble shelter, a young man of about twenty dressed all in black. Without hesitation and without words, I led him through the small opening in the undergrowth, hidden below the rot-laden floor. Through this Elena was still, expressionless.
The host grew nearer, and we began to hear their song. Men and women alike, there was faint dirge-like quality their voices. They knew the tune well, yet I felt it was not for pleasure alone they sang, but to steel themselves for what they must do.
I turned to Elena, to see something had changed in her; pale as I'd ever seen her — yet she did not seem afraid. She rose as the hunters approached, and as she rose she pointed — aim clear to all in the torchlight — towards the cowering boy. Their song ceased.
In time I would come to understand why those villagers had taken the boy, but with understanding came not sympathy, instead that numbness born of the same cold acceptance I had seen in each cold face. Each, the face of a hangman steeled in resolve to kill that pitiable young Fascist.