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Rue the Day
cover design © 2009 Ardy M. Scott.



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Rue the Day
a novel


Ralph Freedman





Wars, all wars, create winds of chaos that blow long after the last shot is fired. World War II was no exception. Jacob and Francesca, like Dante's Paolo and Francesca, are caught up in those winds. Jacob, haunted by overwhelming fear caused by persecution in his past, damages himself and those he loves. Francesca, hardened by the war, finds it impossible to forgive.





Part One

Jacob's Trial

The chairman rapped his gavel. "Jacob Becher, state your name for the record. Clearly, please."

An eerie silence reigned.

The road that began on a snowy mountain was nearing its disastrous end.


A Time of Becoming


Chapter One


Fiery Encounter


Jacob Becher pushed the tent flap aside and exhaled a lungful of the stale air he'd endured for hours. The snores of the three men behind him in their sleeping bags blended with the whistle of the sharp wind blowing from the mountains. The chill of icy fresh air took his breath away, and a tear threatened to freeze on his cheek. It must be somewhere around zero. His first step proved that; he slipped and almost fell on the frozen footpath. Last night's snow had melted, and the slush had turned into ugly jagged ice. He looked northward at the Apennines across the valley. This damned hostile wind came from those mountains on the other side, where the Germans were entrenched.

He was afraid. He had fled Germany with his parents in February 1939 when he was still twenty-three, propelled by fear of further persecution as a dissident Jew. The entire family immigrated together to the United States. Never since his flight had he felt such intense dread of the enemy. Still, he had to do his duty.

Colonel Riggs had called him into his trailer last night.

"Yes, sir?"

The old man grinned. "At ease, Becher. I've got a new assignment for you. A snap. All you have to do is take your jeep close to those mountains and meet an Italian partisan--a partigiana, actually. They tell me she's been working with the Resistance. She'll pass you some documents from where she worked undercover--in German headquarters, yet! She refuses to cross the lines and bring them to us--afraid she'll be caught, I expect."

Close to the German lines? My nightmares have entangled me in an assignment like this for months. I got away from them once, but, by God I won't make it a second time. He felt his body, his face, turning to granite. It was not his most dangerous assignment. He had risked more in the past, but this one was so damned personal: stolen enemy documents! He'd be shot without question if he was caught. His stony mouth could still form a few terse words.

"I understand, sir."

Riggs elaborated. "That woman knows German, of course, so you can work together. Those documents are indispensable for our next offensive. The partigiana will give you all the info you need to read them. Verbally. So it had to be you."

"I see." Jacob's throat closed and cut off any protest.

"We've got to maintain absolute secrecy, Lieutenant, so you'll not take a driver."

* * *

Jacob stooped, swung his gear to his shoulder, and began crunching his way to the motor pool, where the jeep awaited.

"Lieutenant Becher!"

Colonel Riggs stood outside his trailer as he passed by. He was holding out his hand.

"Good luck, Becher!"

Jacob pretended not to see, his chest tight with foreboding. "Thank you, sir. I'll do what I can." His hand rose in an automatic salute, and he continued toward the motor pool.

During his last dangerous engagement, February 1943 in Tunisia's Kasserine Pass, he had proven he was no longer a victim but capable of decisive, aggressive action.

The sky had been alive with skeins of stars against a steel gray background. No one was able to sleep, since word had come down that they must be ready to leave their bivouac at any second. Jacob was taking down the pup tent with his buddy, Sergeant Ehlers, when he heard a shot. His friend abruptly collapsed beside him. One glance told Jacob he was dead, transformed into an inanimate object.

A raging fury seized him; he glared in all directions. There, on the nearby ridge, silhouetted in the eerie light of the stars, he saw a German soldier and a machine gun. Without thinking, he plunged forward. He would never know why the machine gun did not fire, but its failure saved his and many other lives. He pounced on the gunner, frustrating his attempt to escape, and wrestled him down. Other American soldiers rushed to help and pinned the man to the ground. Jacob stood confused, panting, when another shot rang out--no prisoners, not that night.

The word came to evacuate. They lined up in single file to move in absolute silence so as not to alert the surrounding enemy. Patrols had discovered that an Italian unit had moved out, breaking the cordon the German command had drawn tight around them. Step by step, each man touching the back of the man in front, they moved through the gap, stealthily, quietly.

Jacob had eliminated a machine-gun nest before it was set up. Later, he received a bronze star and later still was offered a battlefield commission, which he accepted. Thanks to his knowledge of German and French, he received a favored assignment as intelligence officer in Italy. September 1943 found him in Caserta, ready to go on the long trek up the Italian peninsula to Verona.

He'd been afraid back then, but not like now. Why? The answer became clear as he climbed into the jeep. He was so much closer to the nearest prisoner-of-war camp, only a few kilometers away.

* * *

Hadn't he been driving for hours? His watch told him otherwise, but rough conditions stretched the time. The icy road, winding ever higher between smothering stands of black pines, became increasingly perilous. Fear, more than the penetrating cold, froze his hands to the wheel, as bright bursts of artillery closed in on both sides. The jeep skidded and bucked over a new snowfall blanketing the rutted sheet of ice, and as he neared the forward lines, the tight switchbacks grew steeper and narrower.

At last! A human shape crouched under a dwarf pine. He slowed to a stop, and the tall figure rose from the roadside and without hesitation clambered into the jeep. Was this the partigiana? He drove on, glancing sideways. Yes, a woman, surprisingly young, dressed in faded fatigues, short brown hair, a graceful profile. She sat next to him, silent and erect, her arms locked around a worn briefcase on her lap. He could not see her eyes, fixed on the road ahead.

He should be the first to speak, but it was she, turning to glance at him, who broke the silence, and in German. The hair on his nape prickled.

"Mein Name ist Olga. Sie sind Tenente Becher?"

"Si." He emphasized his scant Italian. "Jacopo Becher."

He drove on in limbo, in no-man's-land. Icicles hung like glittering knives from shrubs and low pine branches. The sky was gun-metal blue. Despite heavy gloves, his fingers began to ache. Her quiet presence increased his discomfort.

His orders told him to hide the jeep where she would indicate, then to follow her on foot to a "safe house." There she would deliver the documents and explain their contents.

He spoke thoughtlessly in English. "Where is the house?"

She seemed puzzled, but must have caught the word ‘house.' "Presto." Her voice sounded light and pleasant.

A heavy jolt. The jeep hit a pothole. Their bodies collided, and Jacob's flash of anxiety briefly overwhelmed his fear of shells and land mines. The stubborn silence continued as he drove ever higher. Cocooned by the shared sense of danger and by the metal but vulnerable shell of the jeep, they stared at the road, ears tuned to the rumbling of guns as they skirted the northernmost edge of the American lines.

So far, the artillery exchanges had sounded muted, but suddenly, hostile mortar shells exploded all around them. A sorcerer had surely conjured up these sharp whistles, these growling thuds. Shells came ever closer. When one–thank God a dud, landed just yards away, he knew they'd been spotted. They must have crossed the fluid, almost invisible border into enemy territory.

"Get out!" His voice cracked. She'd understood him, but he screamed again in German. "Raus!"

In a blur of movement, they scrambled from the jeep. Yes, the partisan till clutched her battered briefcase. They ran for cover among snow-draped pines and heavy underbrush. They cowered in sudden terror at a sharp whistle and ear-splitting explosion. Behind them, the jeep burst into flames. They stood transfixed, mouths agape, aware of the hairbreadth escape, then dropped to the ground for cover. "Danke," she muttered in the enemy's language.

For a brief moment, the guns were silent. Then, abruptly, a hideous mechanical scream sliced the air. A mere two hundred yards away a thunderous crash flared into blinding light. The earth shuddered. Their bodies shot up. In a frantic embrace they clutched each other, falling to earth, hands gripping rough cloth warmed by pulsing life underneath. Jacob found himself looking down into dark eyes wild with terror and the fear of death.

It had lasted only a moment. Now they lay still and separate. The forest lay quiet around them.

* * *

The safe house was now out of reach. They must spend the freezing night in the underbrush, pinned down by enemy fire. They dared not stir. They remained tense and alert for enemy patrols, for soldiers crashing through the underbrush, searching, seeking, groping for them. Each slight rustle in the woods--the wind? A nocturnal animal?--brought their guard up, eyes and ears straining in the dark. Fearful, they huddled in their nests of pine needles amid patches of icy snow under the looming pines and tangled shrubs. The enemy commander must have decided they'd died in the jeep or in that final round of fire, for nobody came to hunt them. They could only wait in fear and discomfort for the dawn.

Sleep would not come. He began to talk to her in short bursts, and her replies were likewise staccato. "Are you comfortable?" "Are you cold?" "Let's get under that clump of trees." "What time is it?" "How are your feet?" He fretted about frostbite and wondered, too, how he and the documents would ever find their way back without the jeep.

Dawn began to turn the sky gray. Surely artillery and mortar fire would resume in full force, yet the silence continued. Rising cautiously, brushing off iced-over twigs and dead leaves, they crunched through the snow. They followed the road but hugged the line of trees for protection. A steep, rocky path branched away from the road to climb yet another mountain. She led him and he followed, both bending low. At last, a clearing opened ahead.

Olga pointed at the half-hidden villa in the woods. "Hier sind wir." We're here.

Before them rose a modern palazzo the partisans had taken over when the owners fled. They climbed a majestic driveway and slipped through the back door. He stared, disoriented by the sudden luxury of white fixtures in the sumptuous kitchen, still impressive despite the grime left by recent occupants. Olga broke the spell. She placed the old briefcase on a kitchen chair and passed a hand over her hair. Her eyes, anxious, measuring him. He held her gaze, straining to break the silence with a personal word. She spoke first.

"Tenente Becher, an die Arbeit! " To work!

* * *

Later that day, Lieutenant Becher closed the rear door behind him and plunged into the forest below, the old leather briefcase gripped under his arm. A strange young man in blue overalls led the way, wearing a ragged red armband. Jacob did not turn, for Olga had already gone. No word of farewell.


Chapter Two


A Proposal


Olga. Jacob pictured her shadowy figure huddled beside the road, then sitting beside him, tense, clutching a scuffed briefcase. Olga, her pure, refined profile indelibly engraved in his memory, a silhouette against the snow outside. Most of all, Olga, momentarily under him, frantic with fear--like him--as the exploding shell lit them in a solar flare.

Although he had not seen her after she left him at the safe house on that cold winter day, he'd begun to search for her after the war ended four months ago in May. He finally tracked her down through Army Intelligence channels. She had allowed herself to be found, but she still wore her partisan mask in their brief telephonic exchange. He hoped fervently that this would change.

His hands gripped the railing of what had once been Florence's Ponte Santa Trinità, now a temporary Army replacement, and he leaned toward the river. His eyes seemed focused on the brown waters of the Arno, but they saw only Olga. In a few minutes he would meet her again, see her in broad daylight, get to know her. His heart hammered, and his face felt oddly warm, though the breeze was chilly.

He began to pace, jerky steps back and forth, refusing to look at the jumbled chaos on the southern side of the Arno, those collapsing roofs and partially demolished walls, loose bricks and gaping holes where windows had been, a grim reminder that peace was only a few months old. The retreating Germans had blown up the old bridge, too. He faced the row of unscathed rooming houses where he knew she lived. The heavy traffic was mostly military, rumbling olive drab trucks with white stars, surrounded by packs of civilian bicycles. His eyes flicked over them, dismissed them. Only she mattered. The cool September day penetrated his Army raincoat, and he shivered.

Another truck passed and she stood before him as if she'd stepped from behind a curtain. Her face and figure were unchanged, although her worn fatigues had been replaced by a blue blouse and navy slacks, with a beige woolen cape thrown around her shoulders. Her dark eyes gazed at him with the same quiet concentration.

"Where to?" She spoke in German and took his arm casually, with the ease of an old friend.

"There's an officers' club not far from here. The food should be good."

Over a large American steak served with Italian pasta, they drank a pleasant Chianti to each other's health and laughed with an air of solemnity. Was this a beginning or an end? He couldn't be sure. They didn't speak of that moment when the exploding shell lit up their faces. Their bodies no longer touched.

He did not want to pry but had to know more.

"Olga, ah … that's your code name, I know. But the war's over now. Can we be ourselves or?--"

Her smile and raised hand interrupted him. Her eyes glowed, startling in their intensity. "Gladly, Lieutenant Becher. My real name is Francesca. Francesca Mancini, and I was a student in Turin before the war."

"What were you studying?"

"The law. I still want to become a lawyer."

The conversation continued, but he learned little more.

They met two weeks later, and he ached with expectation. As they walked randomly together, he asked, "Can you tell me about your home? Your parents?"

"Some other time. Where shall we eat this evening?"

He didn't press her, more interested in the present moment than the past. Like last time, their exchanges never penetrated beneath the surface. Francesca happily walked with him and shared a meal, but an unbridgeable gap opened between them. Unsure of himself, he took her arm, but he felt only an ephemeral pressure in return. Instead of growing more familiar with further acquaintance, Francesca moved away. The momentary union in that blinding blast, to Jacob something like a marriage, dwindled into a looser, more distant connection.

As they crossed the Arno on one of their rambles, he found the courage to ask, "Do you have a lover? A fiancé?"

She laughed. "I had no time for such things. I was a serious student, then an activist and a partisan. " Her clear voice speaking crisp, idiomatic German, betrayed barely a trace of an accent. The answer told him little. Was the door open to him or shut?

"You say you were a serious student. Surely, you didn't have your nose in the books all the time. What else did you do in those years?"

"I hated Mussolini's regime, so I joined a clandestine student organization and got involved in radical left-wing politics. That could have been lethal in a fascist state like our pre-war Italy, especially after Mussolini was more and more taken over by Hitler.

"But you got away with it?"

"I was lucky. When the war broke out, I joined the Resistance. After a year in the field, I landed a job, a secret job in important German headquarters, where I was one of very few Italians still trusted with handling sensitive material. Though I was, of course, a low-level civilian secretary, I occasionally had to handle secret documents. As an undercover Resistance fighter, I was amazingly successful." Her voice was filled with satisfaction.

"That must have been tricky."

"Yes, a living hell--always dissembling, completely alone, knowing I couldn't count on the least support from the Movement. I had nightmares, when I slept at all, about exposure. I was relieved when I was done with that assignment and could go back into the field again."

Jacob heard her words but did not take them in, his mind busy in search of greater intimacy. Had he really listened, she might have shared confidences about her girlhood in Turin as the protected daughter of a distinguished attorney, how she and her two very proper sisters had grown up in their suburban villa where abundant hedges overflowed the black iron fence, and how she had fled this comfort and beauty by deciding to study law and eventually to take up arms. She might also have confided how she had learned about the cruelty of the system in which her own parents had played such a significant role. But, blinded by his need, he paid little attention to her confidences about the gravity of her choices and the pain of loneliness that followed. Perceiving his absence, she turned the conversation from her life to his.

"And you," she asked, "Where have you served?"

Jacob ducked his head with a slight smile. "Before Italy, I was assigned to the 34th Infantry Division in North Africa. We fought in Tunisia, in the Kasserine Pass. Thanks to my service there, I was granted a battle commission and sent here. You saw what sort of predicament I could get myself into--you were there."

She laughed.

The terror they had shared obsessed him. Repeatedly, her face, her frightened eyes possessed him once again, the feel of her body beneath him amid the soaring pine trees in a world lit by the exploding shell. Those eyes could mock him, too, that much he knew.

One of her friends joined them for lunch once, a pale young woman in a blue Italian uniform that he could not identify.

"This is Tenente Becher. He's the young officer I told you about. We shared a stormy night."

The three sat in a tiny sidewalk café, wedged between a building north of the Palazzo Vecchio and a narrow street. Tables were packed together and chairs tiny, but the food was savory. They chatted in the usual pleasant, desultory way. Jacob remained tongue-tied despite his improved Italian. He could only admire Francesca's poise and witty ripostes in silence.

* * *

He recalled their last weeks together. He saw himself mounting the paneled staircase to the third floor of the grand old building. Francesca climbed ahead of him, her tan beret and moss green blouse providing spots of color in the stairway's gloom. The door opened to a babble of voices and to the figure of a slight man, who, Jacob sensed at once, was a rival for her esteem. The ascot and graying hair combed en brosse gave him an air both nonchalant and distinguished.

The man greeted her with enthusiasm. "Olga! What a pleasure!"

A crowd milled about in the hall and living room, pointing and chatting as they strolled past pictures of many styles and genres: mostly watercolors, prints, a few oils. Had he heard right, unused as he still was to rapid Italian? Gregor Matthäus, that fabled painter everyone talked about? At first, he wasn't sure, but Francesca confirmed his suspicion, taking his arm and walking him from picture to picture, explaining. He felt out of place and awkward in his uniform, among well-dressed civilians. The woman at his side was no longer the partisan in the jeep.

"The war is over," declared Olga-Francesca. "I can be myself now."

* * *

His last meeting with Francesca brought him no solace. They lunched in another sidewalk café, this time in the Piazza della Repubblica, not far from the Duomo. Her face, glowing in the October sun, seemed closed only to him. Francesca seemed unwilling to explain herself. Had she given up any thought of being understood? Instead, she encouraged Jacob to talk about himself.

"Tell me your plans and your hopes. You said you were a professor of history?"

"Well, yes, an Instructor. I was far enough advanced in my graduate studies in Germany to be a lycée teacher there for two years, before the infamous Crystal Night of November 9-10, 1938, when all Jewish men were arrested and temporarily imprisoned in concentration camps. We were released after a few weeks. Luckily, our family had been in line to immigrate to America, and we did. We arrived safely with great relief as early as three months later. My luck held: I found a teaching post at a private high school. Then the University of Washington in Seattle needed an instructor of Central European history--my specialty--so they hired me with my German Doktorat that I earned while I was teaching. I'll be going back to Seattle to continue my teaching career."

"Seattle? Where's that?"

"It's as far away from Italy as you can get in the USA. It's where my family settled, on the Pacific coast, the northernmost state."

"Ah! I only have the vaguest idea of your geography. I'd better find an atlas."

Their talks taught them much about geography, distances, and different mores but not much essential about themselves. They defined the shallow limits of their friendship.

* * *

The orders to return home for demobilization forced Jacob's decision. He wrote her a long letter proposing marriage. Arrogant and innocent, he counted on immediate acceptance. He assumed that his offer to make her a war bride would be a welcome rescue from an uncertain future. He expected gratitude. But instead, his proposal altered everything. When they met again at their favorite café near the Duomo, she seemed stiff and awkward for the first time since he'd known her. Her first words made it clear that his offer was by no means welcome. She spoke in German, though they often tried to speak Italian by then.

"Jakob, you wrote a beautiful letter. But, mein Lieber, we hardly know each other."

For a long time he did not respond. He sat in his neatly pressed uniform, his gray eyes looking both startled and confused. He drew in his lips, as if he had allowed them to be too forward, leaned back in his chair and rocked imperceptibly. He played with the stem of his glass while the silence grew heavier.

"What makes you think that?"

"Don't you see?" She stopped, unsure how to go on, then tried again. "Don't you see, we were together on the threshold of death … auf der Schwelle des Todes … how could we be anything but Geschwister--brother and sister--bound together by unspilled blood and by an arbitrary Vorsehung--no, certainly not Providence, nothing religious. It was sheer chance, a fluke …" She trailed off.

He still didn't answer, and she went on with difficulty, "How can I make a choice for a lifetime based on such whimsy? Don't you see: The whole thing was coincidence! The idea that I, a woman who speaks next to no English, should be asked to explain those stolen documents to some American officer who might not understand me--"

He broke in at last in a rough voice. "But why were you chosen?" Now, too late, he wanted to know.

Her voice quavered and she paused to clear her throat before continuing. "An old and dear friend was picked up by the Fascists and shot, just as he was preparing to meet one of your people. He was a splendid worker and spoke English like an American." She took a deep breath. "The Germans were just getting rid of us Italians because we were too ‘unreliable,' but there was a lot of confusion when we left. They're usually so security-minded, but in this instance, one of the officers left the door of the safe unlocked and slightly ajar. I noticed it, and since I had a good idea what those papers and maps contained from typing and handling them while I was still trusted, I knew their value and simply stole them … and got away with it. I just slipped them into my big handbag. Later, I took my friend's place and met you."

She stopped, flushed with pride, and her voice took on a wistful tone. "I really was the best person anyway. I knew enough to help you interpret them, didn't I? And it worked." She lifted her chin. "A quirk of fate."

"Yes, I see what you're saying." He squirmed a bit and grimaced, suddenly aware of their surroundings: distant laughter, a teasing male voice.

When he spoke again, he reminded her. "Let's not forget our biggest "fluke." Three miracles: one dud and two extremely close calls."

She was not deflected. "Jacopo, please! You've never stopped to ask me my feelings; you never seemed to listen. You never heard that yes, the flukes brought us together, yes, I like you very much, but, no … not in that way."

He peered at the glass in front of him as into a mirror, seeing his distorted reflection in the dark vermouth. Even now, he couldn't accept where she stood. "Tell me again. Why did my letter disappoint you? It was meant as a great compliment."

"I know what you meant… only too well." She looked up, seeking his eyes. "You never understood me, and you don't now. I could love you as a brother. I want and need one. Why is that inconceivable to a man?" The words rang like crystal. And, after another long pause, "What do you know about me really, my upbringing, my work, my dead comrade, my politics?"

She didn't need to continue. He now knew. With a blindness he no longer understood, he had seen her only through his desire. And there was no way back.

She raised her glass, repeating a phrase he had heard not too long ago, "The war is over. I can be myself."



Rue the Day Copyright © 2009. Ralph Freedman. All rights reserved by the author. Please do not copy without permission.




Author Bio

Ralph Freedman quickly became a "new American" after he arrived in the United States in 1940. A Jewish refugee from Hamburg, Germany, he had worked on a farm in England before joining his family in Seattle, Washington, where he began to attend the University. Interrupted by 3˝ years of service in the U.S. Army--including 2˝ years in North Africa, Sicily and Italy--he returned to the University of Washington to graduate in 1948. After receiving his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Yale in 1954, he taught at the University of Iowa (1953-65) and Princeton University (1965-88), followed by 2 years of service as a visiting professor at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

At the age of 28, Ralph published his first novel, Divided, which won a significant award, after which he turned to scholarly publications. His Lyrical Novel won considerable acclaim, especially in Korea and Japan; his two major biographies on Hermann Hesse and Rainer Maria Rilke have been translated into several languages, including German, Italian and Japanese (Hesse) and German and French (Rilke).

Finally, however, after many years of teaching and writing, Ralph Freedman made good on his promise to himself as a young writer and returned to prose fiction late in life with Rue the Day, based on his experience as a soldier in Italy and as a returning student at the University of Washington. He is also at work on his memoir.

TTB title: Rue the Day




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List Price: $16.95 USD



  Author News

Rue the Day by Ralph Freedman is the winner of the 2010 Next Generation Indie Book Award in Historical Fiction.








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