Sergeant Mike Martin looked up into the searing blue sky, preferring it to the tableau of rubble his boots crunched against.
“I don’t know, Doug. It’s not that I’m not excited about it.”
“You’d be the first in the unit if you weren’t,” chuckled Doug, slipping his thumb between his shoulder and his rifle strap, as they sauntered into the streets of the small village.
“Eh, but it’s different with me.”
Doug patiently glanced at his friend and gave a brief sigh. “Okay, why?”
“Well…all five of us Martins were boys. Dad always said boys were easier to raise. ‘Just fill a hole with mud and let them play in it’, he’d tell my Mom.”
“And your Mom,” reasoned Doug. “She agreed?”
“Well, not exactly. She always laughed when he said that. I never gave much thought about it till now – I kinda assumed from the start, with it being in the family and all, that it would be a boy — Mike Jr. But, I have to think about it now, and I don’t mind telling you, it’s worrying on me. I’m nervous about being the father of a daughter. Hey, why am I telling you all of this? I haven’t even told Helen.”
“I know,” groaned Doug. “Helen doesn’t know just how much flak I take for her. You know you’re a born worrywart, Mike?”
“Well if you weren’t a carefree bachelor you’d have a few worrywarts too. And don’t even get me started on names. She’s got Carol for a first, but Helen insists that I have to come up with the middle name.”
Doug suddenly tensed, and Mike along with him.
“What is it?” Mike asked, scanning the row of houses from under his helmet.
“Thought I saw something.”
Mike followed his finger to the corner of a building, where thin beams of light were flashing. Doug’s rifle slipped off his shoulder, but Mike’s hand paused him.
“I think I see what it is – look – doesn’t that look like somebody’s pulling it?”
Though they advanced slowly, their boots suddenly seemed to Mike to be made of thundering lead. Still, the small white figure seemed little disturbed by their approach.
She was a tiny, dark-haired girl, determinedly dragging a mound of apples on a sheet of aluminum.
“Hey, looks like an aircraft cowling,” said Doug, pointing to the rivet hole a string was looped through.
“Yeah,” agreed Mike, shifting his feet back and forth. “Well, we can’t just stand here and watch.”
“You know Italian? She’s gonna think we’re trying to rob her.”
Mike shifted some more, until a large chunk of brick and stone blocked the girl’s best efforts, and panting heavily, she rested against the wall.
“Okay, fine,” agreed Doug. “But if we give her a heart attack it’s your fault.”
They stepped forward slowly, Doug swinging the rifle further behind his back. The girl stared at Mike’s boots, following them slowly up to his face.
“Hi! Want some help?”
Doug watched, unable to hide a smile as Mike went through an elaborate series of charades, pointing to himself and the apples and then pulling on an imaginary string.
“Where’s a reel of film when you need it!” laughed Doug.
“I’d like to see you do a better job!” he retorted, hands on hips as he faced him.
“Actually, I don’t think I could,” answered Doug mildly. The girl was standing, holding the string up to Mike.
“Told you!” grinned Mike. “Now get over here and help. Am I supposed to do everything?”
Together, with Mike pulling and Doug pushing, they followed the whirring blend of hand motions and Italian, eventually following her into a small courtyard.
Their exertions had made the sun feel warmer, but the courtyard was cool and shaded. “Heave ho,” commanded Doug as they lifted the wobbling cowling over a fallen ladder, Mike going back first into the darkened entryway of one of the houses.
“I think she means anywhere is fine,” grunted Doug, and they slid it into a corner. As their eyes adjusted to the inside light, they saw that the house was mostly bare; a cot was in one corner, with a suitcase beneath it, and next to the apples a small dusty stove resided. A cross and several small pictures hung on the wall above a table and chairs. A hunched over old woman sat in one of the chairs, and when she saw them, stood on wavering feet.
“Hi,” grinned Mike. The girl broke into a trill of Italian words, and the woman came up to them, her wrinkled face wreathed in smiles.
“Hey Mike, I think she wants us to have some of the apples.”
The woman had tottered to the cowling to retrieve two of the apples and stood holding them out, Doug eyeing them with some interest.
“We can’t,” declared Mike, having observed a pronounced lack of food in the shelf above the stove.
“Sure would beat stale bread and canned meat.”
“Yeah, but I bet it would stick on the way down.”
Doug sighed, shaking his head as the woman offered yet again.
“Allow me,” said Mike, stepping in front. He acted out another intricate scene, but the woman looked more confused than before.
The little girl let out a giggle, and Doug joined in. “You ought to be a mime when the war’s over. You’d make good money at it!”
Doug took the apples and set them back on the pile, and after another string of Italian from the girl, the woman nodded her white head and clasped their hands warmly.
“Ah ha!” announced Doug. “Grazie! That means thank you.”
Mike returned her bow politely, then jabbed Doug. “Come’on you linguistic genius, you. Hey, have you got some of those stale crackers with you? We ought to leave some, even though it’s a rotten gift for a kid.”
“Gladly,” answered Doug, laying a crackly package on the table. They stepped back out through the doorway, but Mike turned around when he felt a tug on his pant leg.
“Hey Doug, hold up.”
He crouched down in front of the little girl, who had lost her earlier businesslike command, and was shyly edging closer to him.
“How can I help you, little lady?”
She was frowning, which concerned him, but it was really a matter of concentration, for once she had managed to say, “Tank you,” the frown broke into a small smile.
Mike’s grin widened. “You’re welcome. We’ll be back you know.” His fingers marched away on his knee, then marched right back up to the little girl. “I’ll see about getting you some chocolate, if your Grandma doesn’t mind. Frankly, and it pains me to say this, the doctors are probably right about that apple a day business, so don’t you get too depressed about having to eat them.”
“Mike, she understands thank you, not a passel of your slang.”
He turned squinting eyes on his buddy. “She gets it. She might not understand, but she gets it. So I’ll see you later, right?”
The little girl nodded. He was about to stretch up when her hand shot out to him holding up a small card. “Tank you,” she said again.
It was one of the pictures from above the table; try as he might, he couldn’t refuse the generous little gesture. He admired it for a while, then said slowly, “Gra-zie,” to which the girl smiled and waved.
They tramped out of the courtyard back into the dusty rubble, a sudden confidence warming Mike’s lingering smile as Doug droned on.
“You shouldn’t worry so much. You’re a natural with kids. Say, what’s that card she gave you?”
“I think it’s a holy card; it’s pretty. Here, what’s that say on the bottom?”
“Santa Lucia,” read Doug, shading his eyes from the sun.
“Lucia…Carol Lucia Martin…that’s a real pretty name for a little girl, isn’t it? I think I’ll run it by Helen.”