Louise Belulovich

Borderland

Giuliana’s favorite spot in Pola was on the broad stretch of street, Largo dei Gladiatori, that ran behind the Roman Arena, where the amphitheater’s colossal arches framed the turquoise Adriatic Sea she loved so much. That evening in late February, while she could see her cherished Mare Nostrum from where she stood, her vantage point was another.  She was standing on the only dock, at the small war-weary city’s industrial waterfront, that was large enough to accommodate the steamship Toscana. Built to transport only 198 passengers, instead, upwards of one thousand refugees were cramming their way onboard for the crossing to the docks in Venice before their city would be handed over to Tito’s communist Yugoslavs.  Her sister, Esther, was among them.

“You can still change your mind,” Giuliana said.

“I’m not staying.”

A knot formed in Giuliana’s throat. “I’ll miss you,” she said, and caressed her sister who was the younger and more reactive of the two.

“For the last time, I beg you. Come with us. Think of Simonetta.”

The color drained from Giuliana’s face.  Any trace of her resilience was vanquished by the memory of her bloodied daughter who had been attacked by pro-Tito hooligans. “Pola is our home,” she said, as her cheeks slowly recovered their healthy tint. She unfastened the crucifix she wore every day since her confirmation and latched it around her sister’s neck. “We’ll be alright,” she continued, and pressed herself against her while they stood under Toscana’s towering metal hull.  Tears pooled in the corner of her eyes when she felt Esther begin to pull away.  “Take care of yourself and write to me as soon as you can.”

“And you stay safe.”   Esther said, and turned to start the steep climb up the long crowded ramp.

Jostled by families lugging suitcases filled with the unimaginables refugees take when they abandon their homes, Giuliana watched her sister slowly ascend and disappear into the main deck.  It was past dinnertime and she had to make her way home to feed her husband Tony and daughter Simonetta.  It was likely Piero, their elderly neighbor, would be there too. He had become a constant presence in their home since the exodus began. With snow from the earlier dusting in her shoes, and shivering in the unseasonably cold evening air, she pushed her way through the continuing waves of families carting loaded wheelbarrows, trunks and suitcases for their desperate journey to the motherland.

***

Their apartment was in one of the only two six-story condominiums built in the city near one of Pola’s seven hills, Monte Zaro. The concierge responsible for the building’s upkeep was among the first to leave the city and the wear and tear was starting to show.  The switch that turned on the stairwell lights no longer worked, so she climbed the few steps to her first-floor apartment feeling her way in the dark.  Pausing on the landing outside her apartment, the painful realization that she might never see her sister again weighed heavily upon her as she questioned, for the first time, her resolve to stay.

She had heard the stories circulating about the Polesani who reached Venice’s shores. There was little or no prospect of finding jobs in post-war Italy. They had little choice but to make their way to abandoned army barracks scattered throughout the Italian peninsula where families were housed side by side, separated only by sheets suspended from low-hanging ropes. It was an ordeal Giuliana had decided she didn’t want for herself or her family.

Yet, she knew it wasn’t folly that drove the locals or her sister away. After Italy’s defeat in the war, Pola was a dangerous place. During one of Tito’s early incursions into the city, the locals were forced to attend pro-Tito rallies in the Arena. During one of them, Tito’s men, the Titini, ordered her husband to pin the emblematic red star to his jacket. When he resisted, she begged him to comply. He refused, and the thug grabbed him and dragged him away to join others waiting for deportation to labor camps. After a few days, Tony returned to the city, thanks only to her cousin’s intervention. She had been too frightened to be angry with him but managed to extract his promise to never defy the new occupiers. That assurance gave her solace, but she never forgot the incident.

“Esther’s gone.  My sister is gone,” she said, as she entered their home.

Tony shook his head.  “I hope she knows what she’s doing.”

“You know that even Dr. Bilucaglia left today,” old Piero chimed in. “And did you know that the Scamperlis exhumed their mother’s body and carted her bones with them? I could never do that to my dear Nives. May she rest in peace,” he said, making the sign of the cross.

“Tony, did you hear that?”

“Listen. I had two new customers in the shop today,” he said. “One fellow crossed town all the way from Monte Castagner. He said the barber shop on Via Romana was boarded up and when he tried the one on Via Erbabella, it was closed too. The other fellow used to go to Bepe’s, but he’s gone now,” he continued. “Piero, whenever you need a haircut, you’ll have to come to my shop, too.”

“Don’t pay attention to him, Piero, you can do whatever you want.”

“What’s wrong with that?  I’m trying to drum up a little business for us,” Tony said, ambitious as ever.

“Nothing Tony,” she said, knowing this was an argument she wouldn’t win and busied herself with the goulash she was reheating for their dinner. But a sudden sinking feeling swept through her as she continued stirring. Her gut instinct told her that the new regime might look askance at his commercial aspirations. But since gratitude was the glue to her marriage, instead of sharing her misgivings or questioning him, “Dinner is ready. Let’s eat,” was all she said, as she dutifully plated the stew.

She had met her husband during the Italian social ritual of the passeggiata – the evening promenade – that took place in Giardini square. She was young, pretty and came from an established family who strolled among the well-heeled by Porta Ercole, one of the town’s ancient Roman gates. Everyone else, including Tony, strolled in a parallel row along Via Carrara. He often maneuvered his way over to her making it clear to her that he was smitten. But her heart belonged to the tall, handsome naval officer from Rome, until the day came when he left town without a word. Forsaken by the man she believed loved her, her marriage to Tony had to be a quick affair. “Some things are best left unsaid,” her mother advised and expeditiously planned their wedding. Giuliana suspected Tony knew Simonetta was not his biological daughter and without ever uttering the truth, she left well enough alone.  Over time she bonded to her eager husband and was proud of her young family.

***

The next morning Giuliana began her day as her mother and grandmother did before her, with a walk to the city’s central market to shop for groceries. The market was a tall, glass and metal structure, a holdover from Pola’s days as Austria-Hungary’s main naval base. Her grandmother had witnessed the Austrians construct it, glass plate, by glass plate, steel rod by steel rod. “You know sweetheart, it was the first building of its kind,” she said, each time they walked passed it.

But before the Austrians arrived in the region, the city’s urban center had been mostly defined by its ancient Roman and Venetian architecture. Just as the Venetian architecture survived, so did its language. So they never haggled with the vendors in German or Italian – the wrangling was always in the local Veneto. At times, her grandmother interjected Croatian words into the negotiations when the farmers hailed from the Slavic back country, but Giuliana never managed to add them to her lexicon. What she did learn from her was to be polite and humble when she bargained – a lesson she never forgot. “Remember, it’s a two-way street. You get a good price and they make a sale.” When their mesh bags were filled, they’d walk to Café Verde where many of the housewives met for coffee and local gossip before returning home to cook for their families.

Those ladies were mostly gone now. Some had passed on from illness, others were too elderly to shop anymore, and others joined the exodus to Italy. Her grandmother, who lived well into her 80s, died after the Empire disintegrated, freeing Pola to become part of Italy. She never witnessed the hardships that befell her beloved city years later. Giuliana’s mother, still vibrant, was killed during one of the last Allied bombing raids when their house on Via Tartini had been reduced to mounds of stones. Though neighbors rushed in and pulled her body out of the wreckage, the injuries she suffered were fatal. The wartime rubble still cluttered the family parcel. It was the last place she saw her mother alive and the street she avoided on her way to the market.

***

All Giuliana needed that morning were some potatoes. Just as well, since there wasn’t much produce on offer in the stalls in February. She planned to make gnocchi di susini even though plums were out of season since mid-October. The dried ones she had stored, once soaked in sugar water, would make a tasty enough filling for the fruit-filled dumplings, she thought.

She was also hankering for a good chin-wag to lift her spirits. So she looked for Ivana, one of the chattier vendors who liked to gossip. She lived near Tony’s cousins in Sikici, on the outskirts of Pola, and knew everything that went on in that hamlet. She often shared tittle-tattle about his family. Giuliana hoped she had some juicy tidbits to share.

“Good morning, Ivana. How are you?”

But all Ivana managed was an uncharacteristic grunt.

Taking her response in stride, Giuliana asked for two kilos of potatoes. “I’m making gnocchi today – they’re a treat for Simonetta,” she said, handing over her mesh shopping bag. “You haven’t been here for a while. What’s new?” she continued.

Again, all Ivana offered was another uncharacteristic grunt.

Still trying to engage her, Giuliana teased: “Why so quiet today, Ivana? Cat got your tongue,” she said, hoping for some good-natured banter.

But instead Ivana seemed intent on goading her. “I thought you of all people would be gone by now,” she said, even though she would have known that Giuliana’s family wasn’t planning on leaving. Small-town Pola was even smaller now and everyone knew everyone’s business.

“No. We plan to stay,” she said, flatly.

But Ivana marshaled on seemingly resolved to provoke her. “Your compatriots, ha! They’re fleeing like mice from a burning house,” she said, without as much as a glance toward Giuliana, whose face flushed bright red. “Long live Tito,” she said, only adding to Giuliana’s discomfort.

Giuliana didn’t like the direction the conversation had taken. “Be careful of what you wish for, Ivana. You might get more than you bargained for.”

“You’ll see.  So, will Simonetta.”

“My daughter?”  Angered by Ivana’s provocations, she abruptly asked for her potatoes and paid the money she owed. As she walked away from the stand, she heard Ivana yell in Croatian, “Italian fascist!” When she turned to look she was shocked to see the other vendors stare in her direction. She wasn’t a fascist. She never abided Mussolini. She walked home as quickly as she could along the quasi-deserted streets, passed the boarded-up doors and shuttered windows, up the few stairs to her apartment.

She rinsed her face with cold water and began to peel the potatoes but her hands were trembling. She stopped and tried to calm herself when there was a knock on the door. She was relieved at the sight of old Piero. He sank his hefty frame into the cratered straw chair, belly out, legs spread apart and his hand resting on his cane. She told him what happened at the marketplace.

“What do you expect,” he said. “Those farmers believe his propaganda.”

“Giuliana?” he continued, now with the tone of someone who has something pressing on his mind.

“What is it, Piero.  If it’s bad news, I don’t want to hear it,” she said, already overwhelmed by her earlier encounter.

“I know who attacked Simonetta.”

“What!?” Giuliana said, as she reached for her necklace. Feeling only her naked breastbone, her chest tightened.

“The Dudichs.”

“Tony’s cousins in Sikici? Those Dudichs?”

“The sons.”

Giuliana gasped in disbelief.  “Marko and Josip? The boys who played with Simonetta when they were children?”

The sound of a key sliding into the door caught Giuliana off guard. Tony was home earlier than expected. But she was too distressed to ask him why.

“What’s wrong?” he said, starring at her ashen face.

Piero struggled to push himself up from his chair and limped his way out of their apartment as surreptitiously as he could.

As she recounted what she learned, he looked away and kept his back toward her while he removed his jacket. “Is that what Piero told you?”

She was stunned. “That’s all you have to say?”  She grabbed his elbow and spun him around so she could read the expression on his face.  When you’ve lived with someone for fifteen years, all you need is one look at that person’s face to know if something is wrong.  She didn’t like what she saw.

“I wish that old man would mind his own business for once,” he said, pulling his arm from

her grasp.

Images of her sobbing and bloodied daughter, Marko, Josip and Ivana, all swirled in her head. A sick feeling started in the pit of her stomach and worked its way up to her throat. “You knew!”

“There were 20,000 people protesting that day. The crowd got unruly and some people got hurt,” Tony said.

“Those boys physically attacked our daughter! Are you defending them?”

“No. Of course, not.”

“Tony, be honest. You told her to lie to me, didn’t you?” she said, when her mind raced back to that day and realized that Simonetta had hidden the truth from her. Simonetta’s wounds were on her face and chest so she couldn’t possibly have been attacked from behind as she claimed.  She had to have seen her cousins.

“I didn’t want to upset you even more.”

“Now I know why Simonetta stopped crying. You bargained with her. You told her we wouldn’t send her to the Sisters of Mercy in Padua if she wouldn’t tell me about Marko and Josip. How could you!”

Tony didn’t answer and stormed out.

Giuliana collapsed in her chair with her head on her lap.

***

When Simonetta arrived home for lunch there was no welcoming aroma of the dumpling’s cinnamon sauce wafting through the apartment. “Mamma, what’s wrong?” she asked, seeing her mother crouched in the chair.

Giuliana slowly raised her head. “I know what happened, Simonetta. You should have told me.”

“Tell you what?”

“About Marko and Josip.”

Simonetta froze until the sound of furious pounding compelled her to see who was at the door. Piero was back. This time, breathless and shaking.

“The Titini!  They were at Tony’s shop.”

“What happened?”

“They wanted money.  They said his cash register was their cash register – something like that,” he said, all flustered and anxious to recount all he knew. “And you know Tony.  He told them to go ‘F’ themselves and gave them the Italian salute.”

“That man!”

“He told them to leave the shop. And they did.  But later they came back and smashed the place. They wrote slogans all over his walls. “W Tito” in big black letters. They drew stars.”

“Where is he?”

“He’s at the shop. Aldo and Miro are helping him clean up.”

“Simonetta, get your coat,” Giuliana said, hoping her daughter wouldn’t resist. Simonetta turned and grabbed the Montgomery coat she hung on the back of her mother’s chair.  Giuliana reached for her jacket, hugged Piero, and the two women dashed out the door. If they were lucky, they could still make Toscana’s last crossing.

 


Louise Belulovich is a practicing New York City attorney. Watching 21st Century refugees fleeing violence, racism and political chaos, she saw in them an emotional mirror to her family’s struggles after WWII. And so with her short fiction writing she explores issues of cultural identity, migration, alienation and exile. Her stories have previously appeared in NYU’s Black Renaissance Noire, DoveTales Literary Journal and Ovunque Siamo. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

 


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