Branches of pink almond bent over the golden flowers of mimosa in the carts of the flower-sellers. Cascades of water flowing from the mouth of the lion-shaped fountain seemed to be more silver, while sheets of linen hung (from the apartments) across the narrow streets to dry in the sun. Sitting on the bridge of Cavour, a toothless beggar had forgotten (for a while) his usual lamentations and had actually grinned at passers-by.
A girl selling bunches of sweet scented violets smiled at the people, singing 'Primavera! Spring has arrived!'
Richard strolled leisurely along the streets of Rome. He felt happy and carefree. Spring in Rome, and the wonderful news he had just received. Oh, how wonderful it was to be alive and to witness the arrival of a new Spring in this beautiful city. The sky was blue, real deep-blue, without a cloud. Even the grayish Tiber was bluish, and in the gardens of Pincia, the flowers were coming out and the people constantly stopped to examine the colorful buds, the new shoots of grass, and the blossoming trees. The streets seemed noisier and full of happy laughter. Richard smiled at the strange girls, admiring their lovely 'Madonna-like faces,' he even whistled a few times at them (as the American soldiers had taught him to do) and called, 'Bella,' as the Italians did when they saw a pretty face.
Further on, there was an elderly signora selling souvenirs from Rome; clay monstrosities representing the Coliseum, the churches and the monuments. He bought one of them and gave it back with a big smile, 'For your house, Lady.' Let her be happy too, he thought joyfully. Again he stopped at the corner of the Vittorio Veneto, and in friendly fashion greeted the old friend of all the soldiers; a shoe cleaner. He sat on the high stool and discussed the political situation of Italy with the Old Italian. He enjoyed the conversation so much that he wanted to go on talking and talking, but a soldier waiting for his shoes to be polished called 'Hey Joe, I got a date with a signorina.' This reminded him that he too had a date; a most wonderful date. He tipped the man generously and strolled away. He still had plenty time. He walked at a leisurely pace towards Capitolo. He was attracting many glances from young dark-haired ladies; his officer's uniform, his fair hair, his blue eyes, and his friendly grin were irresistible to them. How wonderful it was to be in this friendly city, he thought over and over again.
'Bei fiori- Lovely Flowers,' the women called to him. More flowers he thought. In the baskets of the flower-sellers the branches of apple blossom swayed gently, bending down on the dirty, hot pavement. Suddenly Richard heard a voice singing. He stopped to listen to the song of an Italian street singer, 'Mama son tanto felice, perche ritorno da te- Mother I am so happy for I have come back to you.' The voice of a singer rang with all the love and excitement of reunion, the people smiled at the young man and tipped him generously to hear those lovely words again and again. There were tears in many eyes. After all, who had not experienced a reunion with one's mother? The branches of apple blossoms were slowly withering in the sun. Richard looked at them as he listened to the singer's voice singing his song! His memories of the long forgotten years were coming back.
'Mama, Happy Birthday to you', as a small boy he had run to his mother's bedroom every year, for so many happy years, carrying a bouquet of apple blossoms in his hand. Her birthday was in spring, and her favourite flowers were apple blossoms. And then as he dropped the flowers over her bed, kissing her face, and plucking the petals over the bed and floor. He cried happily, 'Now you are the queen of the Apple blossoms, the beautiful queen of flowers.'
His mother was his dearest friend, his greatest ally, his best confidante. He was often scared of his father, he was a cavalry officer and he was big and tough. He loved horses and was proud of his military career, and wanted his son to follow his footsteps. But Richard wanted to paint, he loved colors and since his early days he played with paints and brushes. 'I wish you could go and kick the ball with other boys,' grumbled his father. Richard's mother had to defend him, but his father could never understand his son. Oh, how hard Richard tried to be brave to please his father. But his heart was never with rough games and his father's hobbies which included hunting and fishing. But at last Richard's father gave in to his mother's pleading; he would allow Richard to go to Italy and study art. Dear father had realized the stupidity of choosing a career for his son. Oh, how he loved him for that. He remembered his happiness, Alas it was of short duration. The Second World War broke out and that was the end of his dreams.
On the first of September1939, Germany invaded Poland and the whole country was in uproar. Richard's father was recalled to his unit, never to return. Their home town was bombarded the next day. Richard and his mother woke up on that bright sunny autumn day listening to the strange, penetrating whistle of sirens. Enemy planes approached the town. The cellar in the block of apartments where they lived was filled to capacity; mothers with their babies and older children, the elderly people, the sick and crippled. In the terrifying silence they waited for the planes to come. Sitting close to his mother, Richard felt as if he could not breathe anymore; he was choking for fresh air. He felt as though he was entombed in a grave, he was terrified of the darkness and of that tense, frightened crowd of waiting people.
At first there was the faint sound of engines; it grew louder and louder, till it became one awful roar above their heads. It seemed that the noise alone would destroy them all; then there was the whistling sound of falling bombs. The house began to sway and shake. Richard screamed; 'Let me out! Let me out!' He left his mother and ran toward the door. He heard her screaming, 'Hold him,' and the hands of the people held him and dragged him back. The house shook again and the people stopped holding him. Richard reached the door and kicked it open. He climbed the stairs and found himself at the front entrance of the building. The planes were flying over his head as he ran out onto the street. He ran and ran as the explosions followed, one after the other. From the distance he saw their house crumple up as if it had been made of paper; terrific flames burst from inside; then something hit him hard and he lost consciousness.
Many hours later, he limped from the clinic (where he received first aid treatment) to the scene of disaster. The house was gone. The burning ruins remained and the bodies of the dead, powdered with plaster, lay all over the place. Richard recognized many of them, and he recognized one of his mother's hands. Those long white fingers which had played sweet lullabies for him. On one of her fingers was her favourite ring with a big emerald. Richard did not search farther. He ran away, choking with grief.
After Germany defeated Poland, Richard had joined the underground movement. He and hundreds like him went into the forests to form the nucleus of the Polish army. He became a soldier, and ironically he fulfilled his father's wishes.
In the years to come, Richard had little time to dream. He became a tough, bitter man who looked for danger and took unnecessary risks to prove he was not a coward.
Suddenly he fell in love with Basia, a liaison officer between Warsaw and his unit in the forest. She brought dispatches from town, and smuggled guns and ammunition back to Warsaw. She was very pretty and looked like a school-girl. All the soldiers were in love with her; for even the most cynical man would do what she asked. But she chose Richard. In the beginning she was disturbed by her feelings, she tried to show him her indifference but when Richard was wounded in an encounter with the enemy, she could not pretend any more. Although all the boys envied Richard, Basia remained their heroine, and there were no hard feelings.
The year was 1944 and the month August. Richard and his unit received orders to march to Warsaw. The Polish insurgents raised up to free the city of its' enemy.
The news of the Warsaw uprising was received with great joy by the partisans. Richard was already planning to marry Basia as soon as they reach the city. But Basia would not hear of it.
'As long as there is war, there is no future for us, we have to wait.'
'Wait for what?' cried Richard. 'I love you. That is all that matters-let us not think of the future, but live for the moment. I may be killed at any time, and I want you to belong to me.'
But Basia would not agree. 'Our first duty is to our country; when this is fulfilled we can think of ourselves; we're young, we can wait.'
Richard consoled himself that it was a question of a week or two and the war would be over. He could wait a little longer for his beloved girl.
Warsaw was burning. The fighting was fierce. Each house was a fortress and every woman and every child fought as well. Suburb after suburb was condemned to destruction. The enemy were burning, looting and shooting everybody who fell into their hands. There was no mercy for women, old people, or the wounded. The insurgents fought with growing desperation. Basia was smuggling guns and ammunition from street to street, from suburb to suburb. She often traveled through secret passages and sewage canals. But she remained cheerful and full of life as though she believed that the good-luck would never abandon her..
Richard and his boys captured many buildings, and lost them again. There were times that they defended only ruins. Richard fought with great courage; he wanted to be wherever there was the smallest chance of success and where he could bring some help and relief. He was promoted again and again, and became the youngest major in the insurgent army. All that meant nothing to him, he cared only for Basia - her love and her safety.
That night nobody slept. The suburb of Wola was lit up by a fire of missiles. Richard could feel something terrible and devastating in the air. He looked at Basia lying next to him. She was fast asleep, exhausted after returning from one of her dangerous missions. She brought devastating news. All of Warsaw was all in ruins. There were only a few suburbs where there was sporadic resistance by soldiers who fought a desperate fight to the death. The Germans had now decided to use the bombers to annihilate the city to the ground.
Richard had been granted a few hours of rest but could not sleep. He was suddenly aware of the terrible danger they were in. Fear took possession of his thoughts and it became more and more powerful.
'Basia,' he called urgently. And in the same moment he heard the heavy sound of M-Schmitt bombers. He screamed again, 'Basia,' and he pulled her roughly by her hand. .The clouds of smoke rushed through the windows and as he began to choke for fresh air ,he turned and ran towards the door. There was another explosion, and another. Richard ran like one possessed. He ran through the ruins, he fell into ditches, he screamed and cried, but nobody came to his aid.
The next morning his friends found him in a ditch. He was not hurt but strangely unresponsive. The field doctor said he was in a shock. He gave him a sedative but Richard lay wide awake, watching the people searching among the ruins for wounded and dead. He saw the smoking ruins of the house where he stayed with Basia. People were digging there too. He heard weeping and lamentations, and wondered why? The dead were happier than the living. They suffered no more.
Later on, they called him to identify Basia's body. They were not quite sure. But he, too, could not swear it was her. He saw a body crushed by a huge piece of wall. She seemed to be bigger and taller, though a lock of blond hair coming out between two stones seemed to be familiar. He could not face anymore. He was too weak to know the truth.
And now, after two years of misery, the uncertainty, the feelings of guilt, he had found her at last.
How he had searched for her. He wrote dozens of letters to the Red Cross and other organizations, always hoping, hoping that he might be mistaken, and that she was still alive.
Suddenly he had received a note. She was alive and well and she wanted to see him. She gave the address of an obscure Capuchins Convent. He was not surprised, as many girls who went through the war stayed in Rome with a religious order. She was probably working or studying as she had very little money. How strange that they never met each other on the streets, after all his lodgings were not far away.
Richard felt wonderfully happy. They would spend this spring in Rome together at last, together without fear of being separated ever again. Richard walked fast towards the gate of the convent, soon he was in the narrow lane and the old grey building was in front of him. There was a long rope at the gate and he pulled it, listening to the bell ringing inside. After a while somebody opened the little window hidden in the wall, and he saw the face of an old nun.
He had to repeat his request to see Basia three times before the nun understood and asked him to wait. He was furious, 'What a place she had chosen to stay in! What do they think? This was not the middle ages and a girl had right to have visitors. Do they think that young girls like Basia, who went through the war cannot look after themselves? Poor girl, he must take her away immediately. It is like being entombed in a grave, she must hate it.'
The nun was back; she opened the gate and led him into a small parlor. He saw nobody and was left alone. The room was bare, but in front of him was a small shuttered window. He stared at the window wondering what purpose it served. He was getting impatient. Why was she not coming? Come on Basia, please hurry up.
There was a faint noise behind the shuttered window; somebody was lifting the shutter up. Richard's mouth opened, he watched the movement of white hands, he saw a black veil, a face. .Good Lord he thought!
There was astonishment, disbelief, horror and anger in Richard's eyes.
The nun watched him compassionately.
'Basia,' he cried out, 'It cannot be, it cannot be. I will not allow this, never!'
The nun's face remained serene, and she spoke gently, 'I'm sorry if I have hurt you Richard. Maybe I shouldn't have written that note, but I thought you might go on torturing and blaming yourself, while I'm well and happy.' She smiled at him with such warmth that it seemed to Richard that with only a little persuasion she would yield to him.
'Basia, my dearest Basia,' he exclaimed 'you were right; I was desperate without you, and today this wonderful surprise! How I love you, I understand you wanted to join these good Sisters, but now all is well again, we are alive and we love each other. Nothing has changed. Let me explain to your Mother Superior what had happened. She will understand. I won't endure this window or these bars any longer. I want to hold you in my arms. God, it has been long enough without you.'
The nun's face was very pale as though his words had somehow hurt her, but she remained silent, and Richard sensing this, shouted angrily. 'Surely, you don't mean you have changed? Or have you been deceiving me all that time?'
Only then Basia blushed and spoke with some difficulty, 'It is not so, please listen to me'
'Remember that night? After the explosion, I lay under the heaps of stones which had miraculously formed a sort of shelter above my body. I was bleeding badly but I was conscious except for not being able to utter a single word. I had discovered this when hearing the commotion above me. People were digging, searching for bodies and I tried to shout for help but I couldn't. There was not a sound coming from my throat. I lay there and waited and prayed. I had often prayed before, but never so ardently. I knew I should die if they did not discover me soon. I prayed the whole night and though they did not find me, I found a strange, wonderful peace within me. I was happy and ready to die and there were no regrets. I just wished to go on praying and talking to God forever. And the next day you had to flee as the Germans arrived. They had also searched as they were looking for the insurgents. They found me, and dragged me out, and demanded information, but my new handicap saved me from death. Thinking I was half-wit, they left me alone but just in case I was one of the insurgents, they sent me with the others to a concentration camp. In the camp it became my habit to pray and meditate, and somehow all that I saw and went through became easier and more bearable. I met some wonderful people among the prisoners who suffered and died for God, and found a new inspiration in their sufferings. I don't think I will ever be happier than I was in the midst of the cruelty and bestiality of the guards inflicting all their primitive hatred on us. I lost all my hatred and the longing for revenge. I regarded them as bad, foolish children, who could not, after all, do what they wished to, because God was more powerful than them.
After the war, my voice slowly came back, but my decision to go on praying and meditating was still very strong. I decided to join an order where I could dedicate my life to meditation. Please Richard do understand, I have never deceived you. I loved you very much, but my love for God was stronger. I am so happy and I often cry from the joy of being alive, so please Richard, do forgive me and be happy for me.'
A bell ran somewhere inside the house. The nun smiled at Richard, 'I pray for you Richard, everyday of my life. I pray to God that he will grant you a great happiness in your life, for you deserve it, and I also pray that you may forgive me one day.'
Richard was numb with grief. He just watched her face bending a little as she was saying a wordless farewell to him, and then the shutter went down. He saw for a moment her hands, and then he was alone, staring at the dark window.
Richard did not remember how he left the convent; he walked out like a blind man, tears blinding his vision. He faced a noisy street of Rome and thought he could not endure it, not a moment longer. He ran off in search of a quiet spot, but where could one find peace in Rome on a beautiful spring day?
Richard is eighty three years old today. He often now recalls the time when he ran along the streets of Rome, on that spring day, choking with tears, crying for his lost love.
Still life was good to him. Some years later he fell in love again, he had a family and became a successful artist. His eldest grandson is the same age as he was when he was in Rome, that day. He hopes that his children and grandchildren will never go through the same experiences as he did in his youth, but his day in spring was still one of his most cherished memories. There he found and lost his first love; and he lost her to God.