by Elaine Midcoh
On that cold February night in 1944, the Italian prisoner shifted his back against the tree seeking a more comfortable sitting position. Despite his long coat and wool pants the snow seeped through and numbness spread throughout his body. The partisans had tied him tightly to the tree. Though he could barely move, he pressed his arms against himself trying to preserve warmth. He knew he would soon be dead. The partisans were constantly on the move through the hills and could not keep prisoners. It was nothing personal. Still he wondered at the strangeness of it.
From the time he was five he loved to cook and always wanted to be a chef. Instead, at 18, he was drafted and marched to a war not of his doing. Now he was 20 and would hang at dawn. Escape was impossible as he was always guarded. He thought about what he should do in his few remaining hours. He wanted to do something, anything that would give his unfinished life meaning. He wished that somewhere he’d left a girl pregnant, but he knew that didn’t happen. Among the fifty or so partisans there were two women. He doubted either one would cooperate. Still, he had to do something, something that would last beyond him, something that showed he’d once lived.
Many years later, long after the hated Mussolini and fascists were defeated, the partisans held a reunion. Where before they had been lean and strong, now they were old and fat, their medals pinned to worn-out faded jackets. Despite the infirmities of age, they greeted each other with vigor, happy to once again be with those who knew them at their best. Balancing on canes, they told each other of children and grandchildren. And they talked about the war — their war, retelling the battle and camp stories, arguing about the details and remembering their lost comrades.
This year Gio hosted. He proudly welcomed them to his eldest son’s restaurant. The son had closed the restaurant to all others for he knew from experience that the partisans would be raucous and loud and stay very late. After the main entrée was served, Roberto, their commander, rose to say a few words as was expected. He began by thanking Gio’s son for the fine meal, particularly citing the eggplant parmesan. Gio’s son graciously accepted the thanks and said, “But you know, Papa gave me the recipe.” The partisans laughed. While Gio had been a great fighter, when it came to camp life he was most inept. They joked that Gio could not even melt snow.
Gio stood up. “No, it’s true, I did provide the recipe. Do you remember the prisoner we took? It was winter, February or March, I think. When we hanged him he didn’t protest at all. You Tomas, you got his coat afterwards. And Peter, you got his boots. Do you remember?”
“I remember the coat,” Tomas said. “It kept me warm. That March was bad.” The partisans nodded. There had been several cases of frostbite among them.
Gio continued, “I guarded him that night. He said he was a chef and that he had a wonderful recipe for eggplant parmesan. He offered it to me, but only if I promised to memorize it. I thought why not. The man’s going to die. If he wants me to memorize a recipe I’ll do it. He repeated it several times and I repeated it back. After the war I gave the recipe to my wife. Now my boy uses it here in the restaurant. It’s his most popular dish.”
Gio looked around. “Don’t any of you remember the prisoner? He was a nice fellow, soft-spoken. He even told us some jokes.”
For the first time that evening the restaurant was silent. The partisans did remember the prisoner – and they remembered the hanging. The air in the room grew heavy and the vibrancy was gone. No one ate.
Roberto, their beloved commander and wise strategist, saw the evening fall into ruin and saved them.
“A toast,” Roberto said, holding his wine glass high. “To the prisoner. May we, our children and their children, never again have to kill such men.”
The partisans raised their glasses and drank with relief. Conversations began anew and soon the restaurant filled again with talk and laughter. No one mentioned the prisoner, but they all finished the meal. The eggplant parmesan was magnificent.