by Mia Avramut
They occupied the city after the city was already bombed to nothingness, the fire bells silenced, the last dogs and rats eaten. My Gianni and my Bruno cry in their sleep and when they wake they dream of steaming heaps of mashed potatoes topped with parmigiano and ham, but all we have left is a bar of chocolate someone threw from a passing truck. My boys shouldn't have to go forage for mushrooms in a minefield, and I shouldn't lie awake remembering the ossobucco their father and I would share when we were courting.
My neighbor Maria – she is in bigger trouble than us, she has five to feed. She told me she knows how to get food, and it's at the City Hall, near the army headquarters. I tame my hair in a butterfly-shaped updo, and wear my good skirt that's a tad too long, and short white socks. I want to kiss Bruno and Gianni and their father, asleep, but cannot bring myself to do it. My heart beats faster and faster although I walk slowly through the quiet streets where sooty houses don't have roofs or many sides either. Here and there a chimney stands out like a scarecrow.
A big truck full of army rations is parked right in front of the building. Soldiers help themselves to armfuls of tin cans. The hall where our Mayor used to dwell has broken crystal chandeliers, bullet-ridden walls, windows painted thick white, and shiny marble floors. It crawls with soldiers carrying tin cans. Women are lined up with their backs to the pockmarked wall. At their feet I see small stacks of cans. Some have more than others. They are well-washed and look like they could be on their way to the market in times of real peace. I understand a soldier can get a woman by adding a tin can to her pile. I take my place in line, but cannot look straight ahead and I half-turn to the corner.
Some men are more eager than others and elbow their way to the front, but once there many lose interest, or courage. They seem to ponder. Oh, there is much muffled laughter, but none of us women smile. It happens nevertheless, without anyone showing flesh. Fair enough.
I glimpse my neighbor Maria. She now faces the wall, and a tipsy soldier stands behind her, drops the tin can, lifts her skirt, unbuttons and pushes in. Her fingertips to the wall, she thrusts her head back like a crane while the man jogs his rump. It's over quickly. I take heart.
As he leaves, he bites her neck. Not a love bite. My heart sinks. Then my knees weaken, as I see a blond tall one head toward me. I turn to the wall so I don't see his face. I feel his breath on my nape, and smell brandy. There is an inch between me and him and I don't know what to do. He whispers something, but all I can understand is a woman's name, Ellen or Helene. Then I feel a light touch on my shoulder, and hear footsteps departing. There is a tin can at my feet, and it's sardines. My mouth waters. The man's friends laugh. The echo reverberates through the big hall.
It doesn't end here. I need the sardines. Need eases me into it. An hour later I head home, to my Gianni and my Bruno. I will soon forget, do it again, soon forget. And maybe I'll like it, too. I'm no angel. I'm clutching tightly to my chest a scarf full of tin cans still moist with sweat. Nobody can snatch it from me. I'll wear my nightie in a bit. And no more children, Jesú Maria, no more children. We will eat a few more days.