The Words We Whisper - Mary Ellen Taylor



Rome, Italy

Friday, August 13, 1943, 11:45 a.m.

Nothing ever ends as we would expect.

The birthing was no exception. It was going badly, hours longer than it should, and the young woman’s thin body, pear shaped with a distended belly, refused to release the child. Screams reverberated in the small upstairs room, as to the east, near the rail yards, bombs shook these medieval walls, rattled arched windows, and kept the pendant light above my head swinging.

“I can’t do this anymore,” the young woman said, her voice a hoarse whisper.

“Mia,” I said firmly. “You must push again.” Mia had labored with this child for nearly eighteen hours, and she was growing weaker by the minute.

“I can’t,” she whimpered. “It hurts.”

Our landlady, Signora Marcella Fontana, hurried into the room with more towels tucked under her arm and a clean white porcelain basin filled with water. “The doctor is not coming,” she said. “The city is exploding. The Allies are bombing the rail yards again. No one can be bothered with a simple birth.”

There was nothing simple about this birth, but saying so or cursing the doctor, the Allied planes swarming the skies, or the Germans crowding Rome’s streets would not bring this child into the world. That task rested solely on the three of us.

I placed my hand on Mia’s drum-tight belly. Her normally vivid brown eyes were watery, and her blonde curls were plastered by sweat to her pale forehead. “Mia, it’s just us now. Only you, me, and the signora can bring your child into the world.”

“Where is my brother, Riccardo?” she wailed. “He said he would not abandon me.”

Mia’s brother had vanished six months before. Some said he had joined the Resistance, and others said he had hidden like most of Rome’s men, avoiding conscription. There were also rumors he had been transported to a labor camp. Or perhaps he could not bear the shame his wild younger sister had brought upon the family. “He does not matter now. Only you and the child.” I smiled but feared the expression was far from soothing. “Don’t you want to meet your baby?”

“No.” Tears rolled down her cheeks as another contraction tightened her belly. “Her father abandoned her, so she’s better off not coming into this world.”

“But she must.” My voice sharpened like a knife fresh off a whetstone. “Signora, get behind Mia, and push her forward. We must do this. Now.”

Another explosion rocked the area near the rail yard ten blocks from our home in the Monti district. Signora froze and looked toward the open window as fresh black smoke rose above the buildings.

In July, the Allies had hit the San Lorenzo railroad marshaling yards. The BBC had reported no civilian casualties, but, of course, that was not true. The news accounts failed to mention the destruction of the little shops containing the baker who gave his day-old bread to hungry children, the umbrella maker who kept five cats, or the watchmaker who always said, “Grazie mille.” The news reports did not speak of the children whose laughter had gone silent, the damage to the Basilica di San Lorenzo, or the homes reduced to rubble that crushed and buried the occupants.

The heavy lines on Signora Fontana’s face deepened as she met my gaze. When her husband, a well-known shoemaker, had been killed by the Fascists in the late 1930s, she had begun renting out rooms to earn money. I had first arrived on her doorstep in 1941 hoping for a new life away from the war. The signora was a kind soul, generous with the children when they came looking for food, and she was always willing to offer a bed to those in need.

Last year, the signora had gladly welcomed Mia, a young seamstress who, like me, was from Assisi. The girl claimed to be twenty, but I was twenty, and in some ways she was so young for her years. Mia had always hungered for a bigger life than her small home city offered and had arrived in Rome starving for adventure. I often acted more as a mother than friend or coworker, but if I had been a true mother, she might have heeded my warnings about the temptations of Rome.

“Signora, do not worry about the planes!” I ordered. “There’s nothing we can do about the bombs.”

Months of strict rations, no milk, looting, and soldiers on the streets had taken its toll on all of us. But the old woman shook off her shock and moved behind Mia,