June 1915, the war
When I was a child, I saw a pack of wolves in these mountains.
My father pointed at them between the snow-covered branches, beyond the rise that concealed us. They were peregrinating in a single file on the opposite bank of the stream. I convinced myself I could catch their smell on the wind. I can still remember it: wet fur and a roaming life, a warm pungency, the song of feral blood.
The rifle stayed over my father’s shoulder.
“You can’t eat wolves,” he said to me in a whisper that bore the traces of his booming voice. He had a wide chest and I loved to feel it jolt under my cheek whenever he burst out laughing.
With these words, he explained everything and equipped me with a law of life and an awareness I have never lost. He always knew man’s place in this world.
The animals scratching the ice with weary claws looked nothing like those in fairy tales. They were skinny and hunched over. Golden eyes above muzzles made sharp by hunger, just like ours.
That winter, the bitter wind was thrashing all of God’s creatures.
The wolf leading his companions was limping and the female following him had exhausted udders that brushed against the ground. The two younger specimens were little older than pups and their bearing betrayed their anxiety: they knew they would not be able to take care of themselves. All their coats spoke of hardship and exhaustion, with large patches revealing the curves of their ribs beneath the skin.
My fear turned to pity. It was a sickly pack, a dying pack.
I never saw the wolves on this land again. Even now, as an adult, I wonder what became of them. And yet it is as though I see them there before me now. Their features are human and are here in this church as the priest douses the stale air with incense. Almost all the pews are empty. The bowed heads belong to women and a few children. The invalids have stayed at home. There are no more able-bodied men in Timau. War has broken out.
A jolt of the portal makes us turn, just like animals on alert. An officer steps in briskly, his boots striking the holy floor. He goes up to the priest without giving him time to descend from the pulpit. War is a defiler and this son of hers lives up to her legacy. We watch his mouth, his thin lips, utter words that only the two of them can hear.
When Don Nereo eventually addresses us, he looks upset.
“The battalions drawn up in the Carnia area are in trouble,” he announces. “The logistics and engineering commands are asking for our help. They need strong backs to provide liaison with the depots down in the valley.”
The generals and strategists at Supreme Command have at last realised something farmers and woodcutters have always known: there are no carriageways leading up to the spurs, or tracks for taking up food supplies and ammunition by mule. The lines of defence are isolated on the peaks, thousands of young men are already reduced to exhaustion, and this is just the beginning. Last night I dreamt of them, steeped in blood. They were flowing away like pale flowers carried downstream by a crimson current.
The priest’s voice quivered as it appealed for our help, and I know why. He feels shame. He knows what he is asking of us. He knows what it means to climb those unforgiving slopes for hours, while grenades thunder over your head like the wrath of God.
Next to him, the officer faces us but never looks us in the eye. He should. He would realise what he has before him. Tired she-wolves and hungry pups.
He would see the dying pack that we are.
By Ilaria Tuti
Translated by Katherine Gregor
FIORE DI ROCCIA (Flower of the Rocks) Fiction
by Ilaria Tuti (Longanesi, 2020)
Ilaria Tuti lives in Friuli, in far north-eastern Italy. As a teenager she wanted to be a photographer but studied Economics instead. She loves the sea but lives in the mountains. She is passionate about painting and used to freelance as an illustrator for a small publishing company. Ilaria has never been very chatty, even as a child, which is perhaps why she started to write. Her debut novels, featuring Inspector Teresa Battaglia, Fiori sopra l’inferno [Flowers Over the Inferno/The Man in the Woods] (2018) and Ninfa dormiente [Painted in Blood (UK), The Sleeping Nymph (USA)] (2019), both published by Longanesi, have enjoyed great success in Italy and been published in translation in over 27 countries.
Katherine Gregor grew up in Italy and France before going to university in England. She has been a theatrical agent, press agent, teacher and one or two other things before becoming a literary translator from Italian, French and, on occasion, Russian. She also writes original material and is currently working on a non-fiction book.