Reschen Valley, April 1937
The grasses were just ankle high as Annamarie ran through the meadow. Her mother’s last words, You’re a young woman—behave like one, dispersed on the spring wind.
Being a young lady meant no longer playing house but keeping house. It meant everyone else had only one plan for her future, one wrought in tradition and old-fashioned beliefs. And a man. Another farmer.
She imagined her family discovering that she’d fled the Hof again. Mother would smell the scorched milk, find the kitchen empty, and move to the doorway, the ends of her headscarf flapping like a frantic truce flag in the Föhn. She would ask Bernd, as he pitched manure, if he’d seen his older sister, and Bernd would complain that Annamarie had again shirked her chores to find escape in running. Manuel could look up from the garden and still see her.
“Annamarie,” her baby brother might call. “Wait for me.”
She waited for no one. She had no time to wait. Her father, cleaning out the milk pails, would hear of it, and he would be resigned. “She’s sixteen,” she imagined him saying, as if that should explain his position on things. That thought made her laugh, and every impact with the spongy ground created a gasp, a sound not unlike sobbing.
Yes, she was sixteen, and she was running because she still could.
* * *
Down the back road leading from Arlund to the valley below, she anticipated the tree roots, her arms outstretched with each hazardous leap. At the wayward crucifix, she stopped long enough to make the sign of the cross. Graun’s Head, the peak that marked where their summer alp was, was still covered with snow, and as she continued to run down the road, she felt the rest of the alpine mountains closing over her. On the valley floor, the lakes shimmered in the spring sun, still crusted with ice and snow on the shady sides. The air was warmer when she reached the bottom of the road, and she slowed as she passed the police quarters, where none of the carabinieri paid much attention to another milkmaid. As long as she did not run, they did not whistle or shout, “Where are you off to, fidanzata?”
On the road between the two towns, she turned left towards Graun and slipped past the bank, then the seamstress, where Annamarie ought to later be for her home economics session. She ducked her head when she saw Podestà Rioba. He and the balding segretario nailed a banner onto the front of the town hall.
She slowed down to read it: Mussolini ha sempre ragione. Mussolini is always right.
Why did they have to hang up a sign to remind them? Il Duce, she’d learned in school, was not to be disputed in anything.
When she moved on, she decided the banner was for the “others.” Just like the signs in every authority’s office: We speak Italian. Or the one above the classroom blackboard: It is forbidden to spit on the floor and to speak German. The other day, she saw Jutta Hanny get a two thousand lire fine because she’d written Welcome to South Tyrol on the front of her inn. And then, even worse, underneath: No Walscher, the derogatory name for the Italians. All this in German! Someone had really made her angry for her to have gone so far.
Annamarie was just outside the Foglios’ butcher shop when Sebastiano Foglio came out with a loop of smoked sausage in his hand.
“Where you going, Annamarie? To the Planggers’ tree?”
“Maybe.” Where else was there to go but to the Planggers’ tree?
“I’ll join you.”
“I might just go for a walk.”
“Suit yourself.” He went back inside but was untying his smeared apron. The smells of garlic and smoke drifted out behind him.
The bakery was right down the street, and Annamarie went in, keeping her eye on the road through the window, watching for Sebastiano.
Frau Prieth waddled out of the back and stood behind the baked-goods counter. “Griaß-di,” she said in the Tyrolean dialect. “Was hosch, Annamarie Steinhauser?” What have you got?
She cast a look at Annamarie’s feet, and Annamarie wiped her boots on the mat.
Annamarie had but one coin, and as Sebastiano passed the shop, she turned her back to the door and faced the glass case. The Gipfel, filled with hazelnut paste, were lined up in even rows. “I’ll take one of those, please.” Annamarie heavily accented her German to sound like an Italian.
The baker’s wife wrapped the pastry in silence, her mouth turned down. With the Gipfel in her smock, Annamarie stepped outside again, guessing that Sebastiano had taken the direct way to the Planggers’ tree.
* * *
It was chilly in the crook of the branch, and they did not take off their boots to hang bare feet over the creek. A lone frog croaked in the nearby pond. Annamarie’s scalp itched from the tight braids her mother had made, but she could not unbraid them in front of Sebastiano, lest he believe she’d changed her mind about him.
She unpacked the Gipfel and offered him a piece. He took it and looked encouraged, so she moved away before biting into hers.
“Did she talk to you in dialect again?” he asked before tasting his.
Annamarie shrugged. Frau Prieth always talked in their German dialect, just like all Tyrolean children were made to do at home. Most of them anyway. Sebastiano was one of those few who didn’t have to.
“Go ahead. Talk like your father with his high German accent,” Sebastiano said. His tone was polite, not taunting like their other classmates’, who only wanted her to make them laugh.
Annamarie cleared her throat before taking on her father’s crisp Nuremberg accent. She was good at mimicking people. “Guten Tag, Frau Prieth. I would very much like a Gipfel, if you would be so kind as to oblige me.”
Sebastiano laughed and nodded, as if they shared much in common. They didn’t. She might sometimes be made fun of because her father spoke the high German, but Sebastiano’s family were worse off. The Foglios never spoke the local dialect, had even changed their Tyrolean names to Italian ones. On a bad day, both the Tyrolean and Italian classmates teased Sebastiano. The other day in the schoolyard, where they set up their own courthouse, they’d tried and punished Sebastiano for his father’s argument with a Tyrolean farmer, something about an unfair price for the farmer’s butchered steer. When the bigger boys dragged and dumped Sebastiano into a container of manure, nobody had helped him out.
“I’m sorry about what happened the other day,” she said.
Sebastiano looked cautious. “It was the others who started it.”
“My father said I shouldn’t listen to what the parents say behind each other’s backs.”
He finished his pastry and brushed his hands as if the matter was finished and looked towards the lake. Her confession seemed to have caused him to lose his courage. Like last time. When he’d tried to kiss her at the Christmas dance, she’d turned her head so that his mouth landed on her hair.
“I don’t want to be a butcher’s wife,” she’d shouted over the music, though she’d wanted to be kissed.
He’d taken a step back, so when he turned to her once more, she knew she would let him this time, but instead he shouted back, “What do you want to be then?”
“Nothing that has to do with staying here,” she’d said.
She told no one what she really wanted. It was her secret. But after Christmas she’d vowed to only unbraid her hair for an Italian boy, declare her love to one who lived far away from here. Then she’d leave with him and cut her hair short like the women in the cities did.
Sebastiano said, “Look at all those cars,” breaking into her thoughts.
He pointed across the fields and over Reschen Lake. Three black vehicles had arrived at the military post, and the carabinieri were already leaning in at the window of the first one.
“More fortification for the border?” Annamarie asked.
He shook his head. “Soldiers don’t arrive in cars. Father said something about electrical-company men coming.”
She frowned. Were there problems with the generators?
He swung down from the crook of the tree. “They’re from Bolzano, and some are staying at Jutta Hanny’s inn. There’s so many of them, the Il Dante is full.”
Annamarie stared at the cars. From the city!
Only when Sebastiano touched the toe of her boot did she notice him again. “Are you coming then?” he asked. “Father will tan my hide if I don’t get back to the shop.”
She nodded. She was not going home though. Going by the inn was better than facing her affronted family.