Rosa's Smile

Ilaria Dal Brun

© Copyright 2007 by Ilaria Dal Brun


Up on the hills, sitting like a king on a throne, stood the sanctuary, a dilapidated baroque remembrance that used to blend harmoniously with the rich villas in the surroundings. From its position, it dominated the town. It was a privileged position for a privileged site, consecrated centuries ago in virtue of the miraculous disappearance of the plague from the town below, an occurrence that had contributed to hand over the site to a flow of pilgrims whose faith, in time, would not be enough to save the area from mundanity.

From the hills the sanctuary overlooked a town which, only a few years before, had prided itself on a bounty of monuments that reflected its Renaissance spirit and the placid, drowsy character of a wealthy provincial Italian town. No trace of that pride remained; placidness was a quality that had abandoned the landscape, migrating to a utopian time when war was nothing but a word without referent. Now the view looming from the sanctuary was spectral and the town remained mute, immersed in a silence that spoke of desolation, rather than quiescence. Begun more than two years before, Christmas 1943, the bombings had left behind a heap of ruins, ravenously swallowing up the bodies of buildings and the bodies of men alike. The sanctuary had not escaped it and the triumphal arch rising on the 192 steps that led to the church had finally surrendered, humbly crumbling down like a sandcastle dried by a ferocious midday sun. But the steps were there, somehow.

Rosa’s heart held on to those steps. They said if you climbed them on your knees and at each step you said a prayer, once you reached the sanctuary you would be granted your prayers. So Rosa climbed and prayed, 192 prayers. She prayed for her son, whose life had been gambled by people who had no right over its control. Sent to war, he hadn’t come back, despite the war was over. Rosa prayed that he came back. She wouldn’t give up hope. She couldn’t. Her other son, she knew it for sure, was dead, blown up together with the cruiser he was on, sunk and buried in a sea that centuries before had been sailed by more peaceful crafts. So she held on to those steps.

Rosa had married young and had had a happy, loving marriage. They were not rich. In fact, they were poor, almost destitute. Her husband was a rag-and-bone man with a bent for cooking and a passion for opera. Rosa looked after the family and contributed to the meagre income with some sewing. Regularly, she would go down to the river that flowed through the town, carrying her laundry together with dozens of other women, “washerwomen” they called them. In spite of hardship, Rosa smiled and sang all the time. She had good reasons for being joyful. When your mother dies in childbirth and your father is so poor that he has no choice but entrust the only daughter to relatives and seek his fortune abroad, well, no matter how good those relatives are to you, you still long for a family of your own. So one after the other, Rosa gave birth to seven children, four girls and three boys, and the family, her family, was cheerfully making its way through life. Rosa’s voice was sweet and hearty, a sheer pleasure for everybody to listen to. Accompanied by her voice, the girls grew into pretty young women, wearing shapeless charity clothes and bright smiles that resembled their mother’s. Accompanied by her voice, the boys grew into merry young men, too busy ogling their sweethearts and studying mechanics to find the time to get depressed over their lack of material comforts. They too were smiling, like Rosa.

They say that decline is a natural consequence of all that’s alive. Rosa’s singing, then, must have been throbbing with a life of its own, because it started waning a few years before the war. Rosa’s eldest daughter had slowly and painfully abandoned the path of youth, to follow the breath-taking, consuming road of disease and death. And then came the war and Rosa’s two eldest sons were called up. That’s when her singing came to a halt and she sang no more. Three sons, one too young to join the army, the other two willingly or unwillingly sent to opposite directions. One, like Ulysses, to conquer the warm southern sea, the other to brave the biting breath of the coldest northern wind he had ever experienced. At the beginning, Rosa received many letters. They didn’t mention the war. They sent their thoughts to their parents, they inquired about friends, they said hello to sisters. They communicated, through their simple words, how much Rosa’s smile and voice were missed. When letters stopped arriving, Rosa’s smile, together with her singing, left the house and her life. Yet, there was no time to abandon oneself to self-commiseration; there was only time to pray and climb 192 steps on one’s knees, begging the sanctuary to let a distant son come back. In vain. While Rosa’s climbed step after step, her son went missing, lost in the vastness of a country which didn’t fit his little universe of family, friends, sweethearts and machines. Received into the womb of a land that devoured instead of nurturing, he had taken with him one last travelling companion: his mother’s singing. Rosa stopped singing, as if with that gesture she had intended to give her son her ultimate gift. Singing had become sacred, much more sacred than praying, and as such it had to be protected, hallowed in the shrine of memory and maternal devotion.

Rosa’s voice never bore again any trace of that youthful gaiety that accompanied her while she walked to the river. The lightness of her singing had been crushed by the burden and stiff coldness of two posthumously awarded medals, “in memory”. But, unlike her singing, as years rolled by Rosa’s smile regained strength, enough strength to lift the lid of grief and resurface onto her face. For two lost sons, one son-in-law came back. Wounded, starved, exhausted, shattered. Alive. For two lost sons, two daughters were smiling again when they looked into the mesmerising, sometimes uncanny eyes of their children, who had entered a life made of memories, hopes, courage and opera music. Rosa stopped climbing steps, but her strong legs supported her while she walked in a town, her town, which was gradually and eagerly healing itself. Like Rosa. Her strong legs supported her until ripe old age, helping her look after a great-granddaughter who climbed steps for fun, not for sorrow. Rosa smiled at her great-granddaughter’s curious babbling. Life, after all, was worth smiling at.


Ilaria was born in Italy. She holds an MSc (UMIST, Manchester, UK) and a PhD (University of Warwick, UK), both in Translation Studies. She has been working as a freelance translator (English/French/Spanish >Italian). She has a keen interest in orality, storytelling, and the 19th century, and enjoys writing short stories, mainly introspective ones. She has a cat called Othello.  

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