by Robert Ward
Early one morning, just as the sun was rising,
I heard a maiden singing in the valley below…
The sound of the explosion ricocheted across the valley, batted to and fro, a sickening thud,
between the hills. Rosina started from her bed, knowing nothing, fearing everything.
From that day and for many days it seemed that the birds did not sing.
The village had been born out of the convergence of two roads, two thoroughfares, between
the hills. A meeting place for peoples of different tongues. The monks had come to deliver
sustenance both spiritual and physical to those who travelled through. Some said the women had come to offer much the same. It had become again a crossing point, for armies. A place through which it was necessary to pass in order to gain not just the valley but the hill-top town beyond - and through that, the whole territory that lay spread out beneath.
The church had become a hiding place for more than wearied souls. A cache of explosives,
ammunition and incendiaries, all that might be used to launch an attack on the occupying
forces, stowed away in the crypt and guarded by the sacristan who alone kept the keys,
jealously kept even from the members of the fraternity. This was no religious order, but an
alliance among the village men of those similarly minded, to withhold from the occupying
military the totality of mind and heart for which they craved.
The church was devastated. In a single moment the explosives cache had detonated, and in
the next the walls had blown out and the roof was gone. How it happened, why it happened,
no one knew. From that day Rosina heard no more of Rugierro, her intended. And worse
was to follow as the occupiers went from house to house, seizing the menfolk, interrogating
and taking them away. Homes were left raided, raped and pillaged. After three days the
sound of the firing squads started at the top of the hill, outside the village hall. Nothing was
given away. No one was saved. The ruined church stood like a gaping wound at the heart of
the villagers’ loss, the hope of succour violated, heaven on earth laid waste.
Heroism or gross stupidity; self-sacrifice or tragic-comic accident. No one could tell. Manysurmised. The women haggled bitterly for years to come. Rosina held close to her heart her hope and belief in the man who was gone. ‘He destroyed the ammunition,’ she wanted to tell them, ‘because he knew that they would use it to fight the English’: though even she admitted to an inner chosen few that having known him as she did, she knew also thatthere was every chance that what had happened was not what had been intended. No onecould say. No one had shared his thoughts, or been with him that fateful night when he creptback to the arms cache after the others had gone to their homes. No one else had kept the keys. This alone every woman who had lost a husband, father, brother, son or grandson
knew: Rogero was the cause of all their loss and grief.
It began with the whispering at the common wash place just outside the walls, where the
women gathered at the springs to clean their sheets. They would be talking energetically
to one another until Rosina came, and then the conversation would stop. There were
the long, sideways looks, the pursed lips, the comments passed beneath their breath which
Rosina would just catch and yet not be able fully to hear. Eventually she took to coming
down to the springs early in the morning or late in the evening, when the others would be
It was at the springs one evening that Rosina first encountered the English soldier. It was
after the liberation, when the village could breathe easily again. The English had been
welcomed and had met with a warm response when they were billeted upon the people.
Evening after evening in the half-light he saw her come alone to wash her clothes, her
sheets, her towels.
‘Buona sera,’ he ventured once, knocking out his pipe against the wall. She started
and muttered a response, scarcely looking in his direction. But as the days went on and his
presence became less of a novelty, less strange and so less threatening, they began to
exchange more than a few words.
She was wary. He was kind. And after all, what was there to lose? The other women
called her names because of the child she was carrying. The English soldier gave her his
time, his interest. An unmarried mother-to-be was not to him the scandal it was to the village
community. The story of her lost love was one she at last could share, with him.
There was a song the English sang. Rosina heard it on the lips of the soldier who was to
stay in Pancole after the liberation, the one who was to share her story and take her part
against the world; the one who was to share her bed and then her life. She heard him sing it
in the dawn as the light flooded the valley. She grew to know the words and they took root in
her heart and soul, remembering Rugierro, the little he had shared with her, the pain and
the exclusion he had brought upon her, her strange status on the edge of the villagers’ life
as the church was rebuilt and as stones were inscribed with the names of the fallen.
Resources were poured into the rebuilding of the conventual church, the Collegiata.
An appeal throughout the valley, in the town at its mouth and in the plain that lay beyondbrought in the lire required to rebuild the church as a shrine to the memory of three generations brutally murdered in reprisal for the treacherous heroism of the one man,Rugierro.
Twenty, thirty years would pass. Forty, fifty even, Rosina and her Englishman long
departed from the place, their descendants grown up in another land. But one day Rosina’s
great granddaughter with her English fiancé would come in search of her maternal ancestry
and would find a place, beautiful in the extreme, where a Catholic basilica would stand,
pristine, clean and new. Inside, the modern frescoes showing rhe dramatic blast one spring
morning, and a small black figure at the foot of the black-yellow-red depiction of the blast.
The man Rugierro, still an enigma. A silhouette, nothing more, against the fearful light.
And on the stone on the western wall outside, the names of the heroic dead. Twenty-
two names in alphabetical order. The names of the heroic dead. And a twenty-third name,
out of sequence with the rest, one Rugierro Bartolomeo, in letters sharper than all the
others, but nonetheless; a token of the reconciliation wrought by time.
Early one morning, just as the sun was rising,
I heard a maiden singing in the valley below.
Oh don’t deceive me; oh never leave me;
How could you use a poor maiden so?
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