I CAME HOME HALF A MAN, WITHOUT MY LEGS.
Maria turned pale and anxious. She sat back, pleating her apron with nervous fingers.
“Paolo tell me. What do you know?”
He swallowed hard, struggling to rehash the painful details, “We were outside Stalingrad, and—” Concerned for Maria, Paolo looked over at Virginio, who nodded, encouraging him to continue. “—and not prepared or trained to fight this battle. The army trucks were in short supply. We had to walk hundreds of kilometers with only our light mountain gear in sub-zero temperatures. It was so cold, a cold you could never imagine. Soldiers were being trampled on by Russian tanks and pushed into the deep snow. Many panicked, dropped their weapons, and turned back…but our commanding officer ordered us to advance…and so, we did.”
“And…Erminio?” Maria braced herself, hoping she could handle whatever Paolo was about to say.
“He was the last person I saw...after I was hit—I couldn’t move. I kept telling him to run—to save himself, but Erminio refused to leave me. We had little food left—my God; we ate frozen grass and snow.” Paolo rubbed his limbs and let out a deflating sigh. His voice shook as he continued.
“I gave Erminio the last of my rations and told him to look out for himself, as the Red Cross would eventually come for me. I lay there nearly frozen—my face no longer moved. Had I not felt the blink of my eyes, and heard Erminio cry over me, I would have thought I was dead. He held my hands that had fallen into a numb sleep. We said our goodbyes, and then he was gone. I watched Erminio disappear into the white-out—that was the last I saw him. I don’t know how much time passed, but I was losing consciousness until the medics finally carried me out. I spent many months in hospital. I remember passing by garbage bins filled with gangrenous limbs, soldiers moaning, screaming in agony—war is hell.” His next words were slow, as though his brain was struggling to process them. “I came home half a man, without my legs…without my best friend.” His voice trailed off as he dropped his gaze to his lap.
Maria reached over and caressed his face lovingly like she would her sons. Her voice was soft when she spoke. “Thank you.”