The Christmas Tale by Giovanni Guareschi  translation by Anthony Santella

    This tale  was born in a North West German concentration camp in December of 1944, and the Muses that inspired it are named Cold, Hunger and Nostalgia.  
I wrote this tale huddled in a bottom bunk, and above my head was the creator of its' melody. I sent up to Coppola the words to songs, cold and naked, and Coppola sent them back down clothed in music, soft and warm like Angora wool.
 "Now the Grandmother tells the child a fairy tale to make him sleep" I said to the bed boards above. Or: "Now the grandmother, the child and the dog get on a train and make a long voyage in the night".
 And the inspirational Muses rose to the upper bunk and from above rained musical notes.
 Our second Christmas as prisoners drew closer: Hunger, Cold and Nostalgia.
 Between the six or seven thousand official prisoners in Lager there were professional and amateur musicians and vocalists. One had succeeded in saving his instrument, some other instruments were given to us by French prisoners in a nearby camp.  Coppola composed the music and conducted the orchestra, the choir sang. The violinists couldn't move their fingers because of the cold; because of the humidity the violins came unstuck loosing their handles. Voices became tired from Hunger, and from Cold, clothed in rags. On  Christmas eve, in the squalid 'theater', a barrack,  packed with melancholy men, I read the tale the orchestra, choir and singers accompanied it beautifully, and the impressionists gave life to the most moving passages.
 Prisoners invented nostalgia, because in prison everything to do with the outside world becomes a fairy tale, and men listen amazed  to someone  recounting that the curtains of their room were red. In prison colors too were a fairy tale, because in Lager everything was beige, and the sky, if once blue, or a branch if covered with green, these were things of another world. Present reality too became nostalgia.
 We thought then of the simplest things of normal life as marvelous, lost beauties, and missed, sun, water, flowers like they no longer existed: it was because of this that grown men found it natural that for Christmas I told them a fairy tale, and thought it incredible that in the tale a man met with his mother and his child.
 "What fantasy,  they said. How do you think of all these strange events?"
 And the most banal event interested the prisoners perhaps more than the polemical content of the fable itself.
 Because the Christmas Tale also has a polemical content that today the illustrations make evident to even the least aware readers, I can promise of this tale: "the persons in this story are all real and the events depicted have a precise resemblance to reality. " 
Reality was all around us and I saw it seated three meters from me, in the first row, wearing a German uniform, and when the impressionists sang with a rough voice the song of the three Crows and the guards laughed scornfully in amusement, I was dying from the desire to tell them that it was not something to laugh about: "Look, sir, that crow is you".
"I will tell you a story, and you tell it to the wind of this night, and the wind will tell it to your children and to the mothers and grandparents of your children, because it is our story: the sad story of each of us" Christmas Eve  in '44 I finished the introduction with those words: but did the wind hear? Or if it heard, did it succeed in overcoming the barrier of the censor? Or along the road did it loose some punctuation marks? Can you trust the wind in something so delicate?
 From this comes the idea to print the story: like this the ex-interne father can tell it to his child, and from these poor  words that know hunger, cold and nostalgia the child can perhaps understand what the father suffered, there in the desolate camp in the North. And if the child does not understand, the mother will.
 Thinking again of the last words of the tale  - also for once of my personal pride:
  And if you didn't like it- don't wish me ill,
  I'll tell you a  better one - next Christmas,
  and there will be a story- without sadness
  "Once upon a time there was-the prisoner"
I have maintained my promise and pay my debt: here for you is the story. Once upon a time there was a prisoner...
     The Author

Once upon a time there was a prisoner... No: once upon a time there was a child... Better: once upon a time there was a Poem...
Better yet, we'll do it like this: once upon a time there was a child that had a father in prison.
 "And the Poem?" you say "How does that enter in?"
The Poem enters because the child memorized it to recite to his father Christmas night. But, as we explained, the father of the child was a prisoner in a land far, far away.
 A strange land, where summer lasted only a day, and often, also that day it rained or snowed. A extraordinary land where they made everything from coal: sugar, butter, gasoline, rubber. And even honey, because the bees didn't take nectar from flowers, but sucked pieces of anthracite.
 A land without equal, where everything necessary for existence was calculated with such amazing exactness in milligrams, calories, ergs and amps, that it was enough to make a mistake in addition -during a meal- to wind up dead of hunger.
 Things were like this, Christmas eve arrived and the family was seated around the table, but one chair remained empty. They all looked thoughtfully at that empty place, and everything was mute and still in the room because the clock had stopped it ticking, and the fire was still, as if frozen in the chimney.
Then the child-who knows why- rose in his stool, in front of the vacant chair, and recited in a loud voice the Christmas Poem:

 Ding dong: the bell
 this night will sound
 and a great, silver star
 above, in the sky will burn ...

The child recited his Poem before the empty chair of the father and as soon as he finished the window opened wide and a gust of wind entered. The Poem opened its' wings and flew away with the Wind.
 "The Poem opened its' wings?" you say. "and how did it open its wings? the Poem is perhaps a butterfly?"
 No, the Poem  is a bird. A bird made of clear blue sky held together with a moon beam. A bird that was born (like a flower blooms) in the tepid heart of the poet, and soon escapes  from its red cage and goes jumping through the white pages on the desk.
 But it couldn't yet fly because it lacked wings: and now the poet dips the pen and he makes wings with the most beautiful words that come to mind. And every verse becomes a feather. And when it was all finished the bird takes flight and brings the word of the poet over all  the world. And everyone reads them because the bird stops - to explain to them - wherever it finds a blank page.  They see the worlds perfectly because the bird is made of transparent air, while the words are written with India ink.
  To come to the point, the Poem  opened its wings and went out with the Wind.
  "Where do you want me to take you?" the wind asked it.
 Bring me into the Land where the father of my child is" said the Poem.
 "You're crazy!" responded the Wind. "They'll take me and put me into forced labor turning the blades of their windmills! No way, get out!"
 But the Poem pleaded so much that the Wind consented to bring her at least as far as the frontier.
 And they went, and went and went, in the pitch black night, finally arriving at the border, the Wind stopped his car, and the Poem got out and went on foot toward the wall that divided the two Lands. It was so cold that the poor little poem's feathers froze and it couldn't even open it's wings.
 "Where are you going?" asked a old man who, with a wick tied to a pole, tried hopelessly to set alight stars in the black sky. "Where are you going?"
 "To the Concentration Camp" responded the Poem without stopping.
 "Alas" sighed the old man. "They're interring even Poetry now? What will be left?
 The Poem continued scampering on its way and finally arrived at the border but, just as she crossed the wall, a net fell on her and there she was a prisoner.
 "Ah! Ah!" laughed a big man dressed in iron approaching with a lantern. "Where are you going? Who are you? what do you have written on  those wings? Espionage?"
 And the Poem explained who she was and where she was going and the man inspected her suspiciously. In the end he seemed convinced and putting on his glasses started to read the verses written on her wings.
  Ding Dong: the bell
  this night will sound...
"No!" he said. "It's prohibited to make sounds at night in a time of war!"
And with a brush dipped in India ink, he blacked out many words. Then on a bit he shook his head again.
 A great, silver star
 there in the sky will alight...
"Never! a violation of the blackout!" he said. And down went the black brush.
 Milk and honey the shepherds
 to the Child are bringing..
"No! a violation of rationing" He shouted. And down again went the brush.
 The Magician Kings soon
 on camels ascend...
"Never" he screamed furiously. "Enough with kings! Trouble is coming to whoever still speaks of kings!" Down went the big brush.
Then taking a big stamp, he stamped the wings and said she could enter.
The poem began to cry.
How can I go in like this? With all this blacked out I'm no longer a Poem... ."
"Like this, or not at all!" said the big man exhibiting a paper, "look here: the regulations speak clearly."
And the regulation in fact said, among other things, that in that Land where everything is prosaic, entrance was prohibited to Poetry.
The poor thing turned back sadly,  now, even if she wanted to fly, she couldn't because the black brush had tarred her wings.
"Don't be sad little one" said an old man with a long, long white beard seated on a stone, close by the border wall.
"Don't be sad if they didn't let you in. Think, they don't even let me in who has free entry into the most important Lands in the world! It's been years that I've waited outside."
"And who are you ?" asked the Poem.
"I'm Common Sense" replied the old man.

The poem recommenced its walk in the cold night, then someone appeared on the deserted street. A strange person who muttered  bad temperdly:

Oh, what a beautiful Christmas!
Oh, what a beautiful Christmas!
This dammed wind
blows into the lungs
Oh, what a beautiful Christmas!
Oh, what a beautiful Christmas!
With War on earth.
It's all despair!...

 Who was the old grumbler? Well, It was Santa Claus himself, all dressed in red, with a long white beard,  a sack on his back and a lantern in his hand.
 "Great God" exclaimed Santa, stopping to look curiously at the poem.
 He put on his glasses and bent to read the few word left on the wings of our poor bird.
  The bell
  And a big silver star
  To the child bring
  Gepruft 47

 "Look, look" he exclaimed,  "an esoteric poem."
 The poem explained that she was not an esoteric poem but the little left of an honest Christmas poem. Santa was moved and said:
 "I'll bring you back home, climb in my sack: there's plenty of empty space.
 Santa's sack empty? the Poem was amazed.
 Yes, empty, sighed the old man.

 Who thinks anymore of toys
 on this sad Earth?
 Everyone now works
 only for the war!

 No more electric trains
 for good children:
 the iron, now is used
 only to make cannons!

 Searching for rocking horses?
 That's a strange thing:
 now, wood, is used
 to make bread!

 You want a doll?
 No way, my girl:
 the papier mache and stuffing
 make up the government!

 Looking for sweets is stupid:
 Candies are banned.
 Now with sugar,
 they make dynamite!

 Every search is useless:
 you go to the baker, no luck:
 "Pannettone?" they reply.
 "Not this Christmas.."
 And they'll explain,
 in lowered voices
 they'll hope to serve you
 an Easter cake, a Dove
 With a symbolic branch
 in it's almond paste beak.

Santa shook his head and sighed: "It's like that, my dear Poem, my sack is full only of hopes. Patience: it means it will be full next Christmas. Now let's go.

But now, what's happened in the far away house?
Nothing special: Albertino - that's the name of our child - went to bed, and grandma, to help him sleep, told him a story.
Do we want to listen to that story? We're used to listening to so many stories, one more shouldn't do any harm.  But its not nice to stay and listen to other peoples business. We'll wait outside the door till Albertino is asleep
Here: the child's asleep, the grandmother has gone, and silence has set it's black velvet mantle over the house.
After a bit, one hears a tap on the window glass. Albertino gets up, leaves bed, and cautiously opens the window.
It's the Poem returned.
Did it go well? Did you see papa?
"No", responded the Poem. And it narrated it's long, sad adventure
Albertino, put on his shoes and his hooded cloak and approached the door.
"I'm going to go see papa." he said firmly.
He descended  the stairs one by one.
The house was dark and full of mystery.
 "My God!" he cried at one point.. "What are those two points of fire watching me ?... Oh the white kitten- how you frightened me. Kitty give me light to see up to the garden door. "
And the cat with its' phosphorescent eyes illuminated the way for Albertino. The dreams of children are all illuminated by the eyes of cats, by lighting bugs and small stars. Its a convenient  kind of illumination, enough to see by, but doesn't make the meter turn.
While traversing the empty rooms soft voices rose. By now they all knew: when Albertino talked with the Poem, Jimminy Cricket printed on page 27 of Pinocchio overheard and ran off the page , going through the house, telling the big news:
The child is going to find the father!"
So when Albertino passed the things spoke:
"Tell him I count the minutes till his return" whispered the clock.
"Tell him I devour the days to shorten the wait" whispered the calendar.
"Tell him without him I can't produce a word!" whispered the typewriter.
On the rollers of the machine there was a sheet of paper 3 quarters covered: a short story interrupted right at the end.
Tell him for the love of God to return quickly " implored the story "For 18 Months Lauretta has waited for Giacomino under the clock in the square.  You can't leave a poor girl like that, for years exposed to the elements. Tell him to come and finish it!..."
Albertino promised  to relay everything. Finally he arrived in the garden.
Flik, the old guard dog awaited him at the door.
"I'm coming too see the boss too" said Flik.
The white kitten stopped at the door. Why did he need to go out in that frozen December night? For the fun of seeing the face of the bosses husband? Cat's are not sentimentalists.
It was very  dark and cold and difficult to walk but Flik went to wake a lighting bug asleep in a hole in the wall.
It protested: it was cold and more importantly it didn't have the kerosene to light its lamp.
"But you have your dynamo" observed Flik.
"Yes, but it's dammed tiring to crank this blessed dynamo! Imagine the strain I go through...."
Finally the Lightning Bug agreed, he lit his lamp and went with Flik and Albertino. But they didn't walk far: at the gate they found themselves face to face with someone coming out.
 Someone wearing a long coat, looking like a ghost.
Albertino, gave a little cry of fear, but then the Lightning bug lit up the face of the presumed ghost.
"You grandma?"
 "You, Albertino? And where are you going at this hour?"
 "And you, grandma?"
 "I'm going to find my baby" responded the grandmother.

 For mothers their sons remain always babies and - if it was up to them - would have them continue to sleep in cribs forever. Seeing a meter and a half of leg sticking out of the side they wouldn't say "My son has grown up"  They'd say, "My baby's crib is too small".
Mother's are always fighting time, and if at times they dye their hair when it grays, it's not vanity but to show themselves that time has not passed and that therefore their baby is still a baby.
"You have a baby, grandma? Who's that?"
"Your father..."

They advanced through  the night by the pale light of the lightning bug: Flik, the grandmother and Albertino. And the mother? She remained in bed: she was afraid of the dark and was very cold; she was a bit like the white kitten, and she would move herself this night, only for her child.
Far off son's one needs to go find at any cost.  Far off husbands it's enough to wait for. The father instead, crosses thousands of kilometers in dream to see the mother of his children.
The man  is sentimental like Flik. It's not for nothing that the man is called the dog's friend.
Walking, walking, walking, here they arrive at a little solitary train station where a  train, after having stuffed itself with coal, was making a big plume of smoke.
"Mrs. Locomotive" asked Albertino "Can you bring us to papa?"
"Impossible" replied the locomotive. "Transport  crisis, lack of personnel ... "
"Mrs. locomotive," begged the grandmother "bring me to my baby, Don't you know what her baby means to a mother? Don't you have children?"
"Of course?" responded the locomotive. "Aren't all these train cars you see mine? And I know also, what it means to have son's far away, how many of my sons are forced to labor there in the Land where you son is!..."
"If you know where he is, it means that you know my boss!" exclaimed Flik. "You must know him, he was one of your best clients, he had a train pass..."
"I know him, but not because of a train pass,  because I had to carry him there, together with the rest. When I recall it, the steam rises in my cylinder heads.! Don't make me think of it!"
The locomotive calmed downed and sighed with all its heart, Albertino pleaded again and she conceded.
"Climb up, I'll bring you up to where I can, you never know what can happen along the line in those tricky mountains. Into the car! We're leaving"
They went, and went and went, and at a point the train stopped abruptly.
`"End of the line" said the train. "The bridge is out, oh the pranksters, always wanting to joke! Blessed youth..."
The train went back, and Albertino the grandmother and Flik and the lighting bug found themselves alone in the country.
Where should the go? Right or left? And how does one tell which is right and which left when it's dark?
Finally they saw coming toward them a red glow, it was the embers in a big pipe, and behind the pipe came a strange individual with a moustache, black jacket, striped pants and a cane.
Sir, please, tell us the way to find papa" implored Albertino.
But the individual said that he didn't know anything, hadn't seen anything, and didn't worry about politics but minded his own business, he was only out this late because he had been out  with his friends at a cafe... Then when he was convinced they were honest folk, he took off the moustache, which was false, and they saw it was a hen.
"I'm a Hen from Padova living abroad" she said. "So disguised, I'm coming back in to lay my egg. I want my egg to be Italian!"
"Stupendous!" exclaimed the grandmother, who was a romantic. "Stupendous!" You're a Resistance hen!..."
Then since she was committed as well, the Hen told them:
"Walk along this road, counting 1,490 steps, then turn right, go straight and you'll find what's yours. Adios"
One, two, three, four, five, six... one thousand four hundred and ninety, Then turning right, there they were in the forest.  They walked, walked, and walked and they emerged in a beautiful clearing lit by giant stars hanging from the tree branches like fruit made of flame.
It was a air force base, but not a normal base with normal planes, but a landing base for Angels. Angels of every type, one engine, two engine, three engine, four engine, taking off and landing.
Much work, during war, for the air force of the good Lord. Scout Angels crossing the battlefields and signaling concentrations of souls. Transport Angels loading the souls and carrying them to Heaven. Fighter Angels defending the formations from the attack of black winged devils.  While bomber Angels rove over houses, hospitals, prison camps, heavy with dreams, destroying the terrible work of desperation.
"I'll bring you to the concentration camp," said an Angel just assigned to dreams. "Climb up"
It was a beautiful Angel with 3 pairs of wings, a three engine, and Albertino, the grandmother, Flik and the Lightning bug soon found themselves high, high in the sky.
In the black sky every now and then a window opened and they saw a star that saluted them waving it's handkerchief. All at once the shutters of a great balcony opened, the Moon peered out curiously, and the sky was illuminated.
"Go back,  you gossip!" exclaimed the Angel. But it didn't have time to finish before they felt a shock and the angel dropped, with a wing in flames.
The Flak had hit it. The grandmother, Albertino, Flik and the Lighting Bug fell into the dark abyss.
"Help!" Albertino screamed.
And the Wind heard him and took pity, and took them aboard and brought them softly down, down leaving them in the end on the soft snow. Then he went away grumbling:
"Blessed dreams! If your not careful, who knows where you'll finish up!"

Where did our castaways fall?
In a forest. A giant forest with great trees covered in snow. Snow covered the ground, soft and white like whipped cream. A dark forest full of cold mystery.
"What now grandma?" asked Albertino. "What do we do?"
"Don't worry" the grandmother reassured him. "Asking you arrive everywhere. Look someone's arriving now: Good evening!..."
"Who is it grandma?"
"It's the ant" explained the grandmother. "The good ant that worked all summer to store away goods. So, when the winter came, the good ant was safe, while the grasshopper, who had wasted the summer, singing, had to go to her to ask for help. And the ant replied: "You sang, now dance!" You need to work and save my child, saving..."
"To Hell with saving!" shouted the ant, "Pestilence and damnation to who invented saving, piggy banks and prudence.! I worked for 30 years like a slave, pinching pennies. I sacrificed to save for old age, and here is the result, my five thousand lire today are worth as much as 75 lira from before the war... And I need to beg from the grasshopper who makes tons of money because - having passed his days looking at the scenery -now everyone goes to him to have him describe the sunrises, sunsets, peaceful noontimes, and the sweet scented nights of happy times that were. Now whoever has a store of nostalgia makes millions!... Down with saving!... Down with the capitalists..! Private property is robbery!..."
And she went off singing subversive songs.
"A terrible war that destroys so many fairy tales!" sighed the grandmother.
"Don't worry " explained an owl, looking at them from a balcony on the trunk of a pine tree. "Old fairy tales die, new fairy tales are born. There is always balance."
Where are we Mr. Owl?" asked Albertino.
The owl put on his glasses and explained.
"There exists on the Earth, the Land of Peace, and the Land of War. The Land of Peace is all sun and blue sky, the fields are full of  golden grain and flowers bloom everywhere, by the river banks,  in the forest and up to the snowy mountain tips.  And the people work the earth and everyone- behind their house- has a garden in which they lovingly grow great cabbages under which, in all seasons, beautiful babies are born.
The land of War is all the opposite: because there is never sun and the sky is the color of tar, in the fields neither flowers or grain sprouts, but bayonets; and on the trees bombs grow. The men wear iron, and the  babies aren't born under cabbages but they make them in machines, and so they have hearts of steel and cast iron heads.
Its precisely on the border between the Land of Peace and that of War that the two roads cross, that which goes from the land of sun to the land without sun, and  that which goes from the land where the light is born to the land where light becomes shadow"
"Mr. owl", said Flik "pardon me a poor country dog, but you seem a bit obscure."
"It's simple" replied the owl. "Here, cross the roads that from the South goes to the North, and the road that goes from the East, to the West. So, in this forest you'll meet creatures from one Land and the other: you'll meet inhabitants of the land of Peace and the land of War. So don't be surprised Good night."
Mr. Owl.! One more word, please..."
But the owl, had vanished into his house and Albertino and the grandmother, Flik and the Lighting bug found themselves again alone in the dark

They began to walk through the thicket. They walked and walked and ran into Three Mushrooms curled up at the base of a stump.
It was the three good mushrooms: so good they were in fact edible, but they didn't know anything. They were very sorry, but they lived a laid back life and had little to do with politics...
Up ahead they ran into the three red Poisonous Mushrooms with pointy pointy heads, like nails. They asked them as well, but they shrugged their shoulders rudely and grumbled: "Weg,! Weg! Go away! Go away!"
And up further up they met an old man, all white, that went around with a hatchet over his shoulder and a doctors bag in his hand.  He would stop in front of trees and slowly look at each branch. Then when he found a rotten one he'd cut it off piece by piece with the hatchet. But first with a giant syringe he'd give the plant local anesthesia so it wouldn't feel pain, and afterward he disinfected and bandaged the cut off limb.
He lifted his stethoscope to the trunks of old plants and listened attentively. He massaged their big knots with camphor oil and put ointment on their sore exposed roots.
He was the Good Woodsman, who gave medicine to the sick oak trees, and put wool gloves on the tips of pine branches that lost their green needles.
But he also knew nothing: when it had to do with the war. He recalled Garibaldi very well, but he didn't know if his wound from Aspromonte had healed.
Away, away, further between the black trunks, with the Lightning Bug going in front of the little group. Suddenly they stopped terrified.
Down, everyone behind a bush! A man with a red beard advanced screaming, brandishing a big rife.
"Into your places!" he shouted kicking and hitting the trees. "Into your places!"
All the trees gathered into lines five by five, trembling with fear, and he counted the and recounted, there'd be trouble if one was missing.
Then if a little star came out of its window in the black sky, "Blackout" he shout and fire at it. If a lighting bug lit its lamp, he'd leap and grab it, and unscrew its bulb.  He put dark glasses on cats so their eyes wouldn't brighten the regulation darkness.
Goodness, what fear! They weren't going to ask questions of the Evil Woodsman. Better to keep themselves well hidden.
When they were well away, the Lighting bug relit it's lamp and the four continued walking.
Onwards, onwards and onwards finally they found themselves in front of a little clearing where two paths crossed.
"Is this the famous crossroad?" said the grandmother "We'll stop here, someone else has to pass by.
And in fact shortly after there appeared walking on the path that came from the South three Sparrows each of who carried on their shoulder a stick with a handkerchief tied to the end. They sang happily:
Look at the vagabond family:
the mother, the child and the father
that go in search of  food
but they only find snow, oh my!

How sad to go on foot through the snow
When you no longer have socks or boots!
But it doesn't matter: it will pass quickly
good weather is coming soon!

And at the same time, there arrived from the opposite part three Crows, with helmets, and belts with daggers that walked along puffed up with pride. Three Black Crows, carrying lamps.  Three Patrol Crows, who shouted:

Who at ten, is still travelling around?
Curfew has already past!
We're the patrol that goes hunting
for nightwalkers and drunkards:

Whoever doesn't have their papers in order goes to prison.
This isn't the place for idlers:
Whoever's not working, in an instant
will get sent to labor!

"Halt: Your documents!"  the three Crows rudely ordered the Sparrows: wanting to know where they were going, and what they were doing. The Sparrows explained the were going on an adventure and living in the day, waiting for the return of better weather.
"A terrible life!" rumbled the Crows. "Why don't you come with us instead?"  We'll give you millet and corn to fatten you up..."
"And then?" asked the Sparrows.
"And then we'll put you in a brand new barbecue, sterilized, made of stainless steel, and cook you with a fire made from the best wood. How nice and warm it will feel!"
"We prefer to stay in the cold" replied the Sparrows.
But the Crows insisted.
"You don't like roasting! Could we please you with boiling! We'll cook you in a splendid pot of chromed aluminum.. No? Does smoke bother you? We take every consideration for our friends! If smoke annoys you we'll cook you in a powerful 200 watt electric oven. Here, 300 watts, we don't worry about the cost!..."
But the Sparrows still said no.
"Maybe raw?"
Eventually the Crows left indignantly muttering with disgust: "idlers!" And when they were a way off, Albertino asked the Sparrows if they knew the road leading to the father.
"It's one of these four" replied the Sparrows. "But who knows which? We're poor country sparrows and we don't know compass points. We guide ourselves by the sun,  now there isn't any. But wait, someone will certainly pass by. Good Night"

And they found themselves alone. The night was dark and cold and the woods full of mystery. The sat in the snow at the feet of a big trunk, close to each other to stay warmer. And time passed and no one appeared on the path, and they heard only the frozen voice of the forest.
But suddenly Flick jumped up, raising his ears.
"What is it Flick? What is it?"
A man appeared, that walked bent over with a bag on his shoulders and when he was close, the Lighting bug shone on his face.
Flick wasn't mistaken: it was him.
It was the father.

It was the father, who that Christmas night, escaped from his sad cage and now walked hurriedly toward his house.
He wanted to return, at least that night, to walk the rooms and appear in the dreams of those who slept there.
And the child, the grandmother, and the father met in the road, Christmas night, in the forest where creatures and dreams from two enemy worlds meet.
"Your here?" asked the grandmother with fear "What will happen to you? You know the escape of prisoners isn't a game anymore!"
"But escape in dreams is always a game, mamma! It's the only game that remains"
"Dreaming. Dreams don't have dog tags, there's no roll call for dreams, there isn't a no man's land for dreams"
"In the stove the fire has gone out and in the squalid room they breathed air cold like liquid ice, but dreams aren't cold because to warm them, the weak light of a star or soft ray of moonlight is enough."
"Dreaming. How many nights have I traveled the road that goes to our house? I know you too, mamma, many times traveled the road that goes to Lager. But we never met because only on the sacred night of Christmas is it given to dreams to meet.  It is a miracle that's known for centuries, on the holy night of Christmas they meet and have bodies, the dreams of the living, and the spirits of the dead... "
Albertino asked.
"What's in that sack you carry?"
"It's all my riches, my son: wooden clogs, mess kit,  spoon , cans,  your letters. Prisoners never abandon their sack, not even in dreams, because enclosed in it is the story of their misery. There's also my little camp stove, look how beautiful it is, now we'll light it."
"No!" begged the mother. "you know it's forbidden to light fires in the open after roll call."
"But mother how do you know all this? Who told you? Is it written in the papers?"
"No they don't write these things in our papers. When I come to find you at night, I wander the barracks and read the notices. I see everything: What pain to see your sweater full of holes!... Once I brought my needle and thread and I tried to fix it, but hands in dreams are made of air"
The father put down his sack and took out the campstove.
"How beautiful!" exclaimed Albertino. "It seems like a  train engine... Does it have a whistle papa?"
"We want a broom to move away the snow on the ground" observed the father. He didn't finish speaking before  a strange creature flew down out of the sky.
"Oh, the Befana!" exclaimed Albertino.
It truly was the ancient Befana: but she wasn't riding as usual on  her broomstick, But on a big shining machine.
"I've gone motorized" explained the Befana. "So I've left behind my broom and I travel on a vacuum cleaner.  But there has to be a outlet around...."
She searched for it on the trunk of a giant pine, found it and plugged in the vacuum.
In two minutes a big  area of snow was cleaned away and the moss  underneath was dry and soft like velvet.
"Good night" said the Befana taking off.
They gathered around the camp stove, but now they needed some wood and Albertino escorted by Flik went in search of some branches.  A tall trees branch tips were all dry and Albertino asked him:
Mr. Tree will you give me a little wood?"
If you want wood come here and try and get it" the tree replied rudely.
Near by there was a  little tree, completely dried out and good for nothing and Albertino grabbed a branch and tried to break it.
"Sabotage!" screamed the tree. "Sabotage!"
What a uproar! but an old oak stretched  one of its branches out to Albertino.
"Take it little one: take all the wood you want."

The camp stove was lit, and its flame rose safely  against  the sky because it was a double walled stove.
The trees shook off the snow and  got close to warm their branches, they made a circle all around the stove. They were so close one  to the other, they formed a kind of wall that stopped the frozen air from passing, and with branches spread over the flame they formed a thick roof.
"We could cook something, make a Christmas meal ... It would be beautiful, with us all together.." said the father.
But there wasn't anything to eat and Albertino went to find some nuts or sweet seeds forgotten in the bushes since the fall.
What was going on? What's this trumpet call.
It was the tallest of the Poisonous Mushrooms who was lookout and gave the alarm.
"The moment is right!" he shouted excitedly.
 "If we get them to pick and eat  us, we will die, but they'll have terrible stomach pains. What a glorious defensive victory!"
 All three stretched their necks trying with all their effort to make the child notice them. "Here, Here" they said. "Here you'll eat well!"
 The three Good Mushrooms however saw the treacherous maneuver.
 "We can't let the Poisonous Mushrooms succeed in their evil plan!" shouted the three Good Mushrooms. They descended as one man against the Poisonous Mushrooms. . The battle was long and terrible but in the end the three Poisonous Mushrooms were lying with their heads knocked down to their feet.
 "Now we'll got to our fate: they are hungry!" the Good Mushrooms said generously. The approached the child and sacrifice, singing "Who dies for the fatherland, dies wisely and well."  They were like the Bandiera brothers, who however were two, not three, and were not after all edible like the three mushrooms.
But the noble sacrifice wasn't necessary: the father had remembered that in his backpack he still had his bread ration.
 "Did you have your panettone?" the father asked Albertino.
 "No, papa"
 "You'll have it."
 "Yes, papa"
The father broke up the bread with a knife: kneaded it with water and made a little cake.
 "How wonderful!" exclaimed the grandmother. "How many beautiful things you learnt in prison!..."
 The mess kit was on the stove: a  fir tree gently stretched out a branch covered with snow and dumped it in the pot, which soon began to boil.
A spark rose from the campstove and went around the forest like a little star  at the mercy of the wind.
 A bee (who was lookout on the tree where the hive was)  saw it.  The spark was spying on the  bees, and the bee sounded the alarm .
 The bees filled up, started their motors and took off.  There were a thousand, two thousand, ten thousand, and they navigated in perfect formation , three by three towards the fire.
 It was a buzzing cloud.
 When they arrived a their destination, they descended in a nose dive.  Passing over the stove, every bee let fall in the messkit a  drop of honey.  A thousand, two thousand, ten thousand drops: the container was almost full.
Then the three sparrows scouted the treetops and let fall in the pot, pine nuts, sweet seeds, and crunchy hazelnuts.
A high flying skylark, with a trill, broke the black mantle of the night and flew up, up between the stars to the Milky Way from which it descended with a load of sugar cream. Resting on the mess kit, it shook the cream off  and it fell into the sweet mixture that was already boiling.
But the enemy doesn't sleep.
The three Crows, from the top of a pine tree, had watched every maneuver and were adopting countermeasures. They dropped onto a pile of trash and started to eat sharp stones, nails, shards of glass, matchsticks. They also ate the remains of the three poisonous mushrooms, and eating what they ate, they swelled like barrels and then finally succeeded in lifting themselves into flight.
 They had their plan: to arrive above the pot and do like the bees, empty in the food their deadly load.
 Fortunately the allied air force was there: three hundred fighter bees left on the alarm to intercept the enemy formation. They advanced on the Crows and riddled them with holes.
 The Crows spiraled down.
 They burst like containers of erzats shortening.


The pot bubbled sweetly while the father, Albertino, the grandmother and Flik warmed their hands around the fire. No one spoke: happiness does not need words.
 The Wind carried the notes of far off music, heavy with accented tunes.
 "What is it, father?"
 "It is the song of melancholy. At the window a winter night: two eyes look past the glass at the deserted street,  the glass drips and it seems to shed the tears of that vain wait.
 On the white wall, in the room the thin shadow of the empty chair by the fire.
 It is the song that tells the pain of all those that wait in their sad houses. It is the song that - at the end of a tried day of waiting  - harmonizes its notes to the night Wind, and like this it arrives at all the far off prison camps, and relates to all the men its sad desperation"
 The song drew off in the night and after a bit another song, coming from the opposite direction, started.
 This song too was melancholy, but it was a sweet, subdued melancholy.
 Men that waited, and waited. Men that for months and months and months watched the gray sky that hung over that strange land, and waited in vain for the sun to shed it's blanket of clouds and return shining.
 But they had a secret light that illuminated those sunless days and starless nights.  The light kept alive by the love of those that waited in far off houses. The light of faith. The song came from all the prison camps and, traveled in the night, arriving in the sweet land to speak words of  hope to those who felt abandoned.
 The second song passed on as well and all was again silent.
 "Look, father!"  Albertino shouted happily.
The miracle was finished: the sweet mixture had swollen and become a big panettone sweet scented and soft like cotton wool.
The father  took out of his sack, the mess tin, the cover of the mess kit, a box top, a white rag (the wrapping of his last long off package from home). The grandmother set the table on the green moss and cut the panettone.
 "For who is this sweet illusion of past happiness?" asked the grandmother.
 "For us who have suffered much" replied the father He wanted to cut four slices (One to bring to the mother at home), but Albertino said it was useless.
 "I'll describe to mama her part of the panettone" he insisted.
 The slices were cut and Flik had his part, the father while lifting his mess kit, discovered that underneath there was a letter.
 Mail for number 6865! Finally! Four month number 6865 hadn't received mail and here was generous recompense for the painful wait.
 Because we're talking about an exceptionally important letter: a letter full of  illustrations, golden corners and silver stars "Dear papa, it's Christmas and I'm thinking of you.."
A very important letter because they had all written a little: the grandmother dictated, the mother guided Albertino's hand, who wrote, the grandmother reread it word by word,  Flick caught in flight and brought back to Albertino the commas that flew from his pen like butterflys. *
"Dear papa, it's Christmas and I'm thinking of you.."
 Mail for number 6865: Albertino's first Christmas letter.
 The Christmas meal started, and the panettone tasted of sky and forest. And the wonders didn't stop yet because this was the night of miracles.
 A giant pine tree was full of little flames. They were the eyes of thousands and thousands of birds that gleamed in the dark reflecting the flame of the camp stove. A Christmas tree too! And it was the most beautiful in the word because the star that shined on the tip wasn't of the usual gilded cardboard but a real star, a living star that slid down for the sky and rested between the branches with it's tail flickering.
Time passed, on the deserted road that came from the East, someone advanced. It's was a donkey and on the donkey there was a beautiful woman, with sweet shining eyes. In front of the donkey walked a good old man with a white beard, the donkey was tired: it had walked a long time without stopping.
 It walked and walked: it need to rediscover the lonely manger so the miracle could renew itself. So the Son of God could once again open his eyes
The donkey walked and in the sky two Angels followed that carried a great white banner on which was written with golden letters:
    Peace to those of good will.
And this is the standard of the God of Peace.
 But on the opposite road that came from the West, from the land where light becomes shadow advanced a giant machine escorted by  four ranks of soldiers, who marched fiercely singing their hymn:

  With trench coat
  armor clad
  with a vest of chromed brass
  with socks
  of lamier plate
  with a hat of enameled iron
  how beautiful to forever be a soldier!
  On your feet
  stomp your heels
  stomp your heels hard on the earth
  with your gun
  on your shoulder,
  how beautiful to forever make war
  for universal peace!

 The clanking machine was an armored car, and the driver a man with a helmet on his head, behind him  haughtily sat a giant woman with blond hair like flax and pince-nez  in front of her little, evil eyes. The convoy was escorted by two ferocious eagles that carried between them a black drape with writing in bloody letters:
   War to  those of good will.
 This is the banner of the god of War, of the god that would be born that night (according to the orders received from his government) in a castle of steel, with cannons at its  top, that shot at the stars and the Angels that passed in the sky.
 At the crossroads the machine  and the donkey met: the donkey took the road that led to the Land of sun, the machine that leading to the  Land of cold shadow.
 "Peace be with you" saluted the good old man of the donkey.
 "War be with you" replied the man of the armored car.
 Holy night, night of miracles. It was late and on the again deserted road, a strange convoy appeared.
 They were three ancient Kings seated on the humps of their camels, coming from the East.  They were guided by a star that traveled slowly fluttering its shimmering golden tail in the black velvet sky.
 Holy night, night of meetings: on the road coming from the West, advanced a strange trio. They were three Dwarves dressed in red, with white beards reaching down to their feet and noses like potatoes.
Three dwarves escaped from an advertising poster for some kitchenware factory, because it was true that the first carried on it's shoulder - like a rifle - a knife; the second a fork and the third a spoon.
Their guide shining in the sky, wasn't a star, but a missile with a tail of flame.  They hurried in step lifting their little legs like  geese.
At the crossroads the ancient Kings and the Dwarves meet
"God be with you" saluted the Magi.
"He already is" proudly replied  the Dwarves.
"I carry to the Son of Maria gold because He is the good King of those of good will" said the first Magi.
"I carry him, incense because He is God of goodness and priest of the God of goodness said the second.
"I bring him myrrh  because He is God , but in his divine bounty, wants to suffer and die as a man" said the third
The Dwarves responded laughing:
"I carry to our God the knife so he can cut the world into slices!"
"I bring him the fork so he can gorge himself happily!"
"I bring him a spoon so he can gather and consume even the crumbs!"
"Give praise to the God of those of good will" saluted the Magi taking the road to the South.
"Give praise to the God of warriors" replied the Dwarves taking the road to the North.
They disappeared and the forest was once again deserted. The father and the child and the grandmother, sat close to each other in front of the camp stove, silent, nothing moved - not even a leaf - because both objects and men waited in fear.
"He's born!" shouted a skylark watching from a cloud .
"Report confirmed!" said the Wind. "here's the commentary. Listen!"
He carried a sweet song that came from far off regions
The lonely hut was shining now, on the manger layed the Child, and the ox and the donkey warm him with their breath.
Also in the castle of steel, enfolded in the shadow of the North, a baby was born and cried in it's armored crib. But they warmed it with deadly breath, a flame thrower and the exhaust of an armored car. His voice was harsh and his hands already had little claws because he is the god of War and no one comes to bring him gifts.
Meanwhile, in the hut of the God of Peace, Shepards come bringing lambs and buckets full of milk. *
After the sheperds, the soldiers, clothed in iron arrive, marching.
"Praise to God" they said in unison "God is with us."
St. Joseph shook his head:
"There's an error. Your God is not this one. Though it was this one. Your God is the other that was born in the castle of steel."
"No" said the warriors. "Now our God is this one."
"Too late" replied St. Joseph. "Keep your God for this year also..."
One by one the eyes that shone in the solitary forest went out.
It was cold.
The trees had returned to their places and the Wind blew icily.
Black crosses were scattered in the forest and by each cross silent shadows gathered. There were many crosses, and the shadows were infinite.
"Who are they, papa?"
"They are the spirits of the living that come to search for their dead. They look at the crosses that the war has spread through the world, reading the names written on them. And when a mother discovers the tomb of her child, she sits herself under the cross and speaks with him of happy times that will never return again."
The Wind meanwhile, carried the song from the prison camp to the far off homes and from the homes to the prison camp.
"Merry Christmas mamma, merry Christmas Albertino" said the father "Now go back home. Your song will accompany you. "
And you're not coming papa?
Tomorrow, Albertino..."
"Tomorrow or morgen?" asked the grandmother
Torgen, mamma."
"Papa, why don't you take me with you?"
`"Not even in dreams must children enter that place. Promise me you'll never go there."
"I promise, papa"
They left with their songs and the forest was mute and deserted.
It snowed and a soft new cover spread over the one hardened by the wind.
The green circle by the fire became white again. The traces of the path  were hidden.
"Night of prisoners!" exclaimed the father Sparrow hiding his head under his wing.
In moving himself he made a leaf fall, it floated slowly and stopped in the middle of the white clearing.  And one could see, on the leaf, was written the words The End.
It was a narrow, narrow  leaf:
 Narrow the leaf - wide the road
 tell yours - I have told mine.
 And if you didn't like it - don't wish me harm,
 I'll tell you a better one - next Christmas,
 and there will be a tale - without sadness:
 "Once upon a time there was - the prisoner..."

Stalag XB, December 1944

Milan, December 1945



Oh, what a beautiful Christmas!
Oh, what a beautiful Christmas!
This dammed wind
blows into the lungs
Oh, what a beautiful Christmas!
Oh, what a beautiful Christmas!
With War on earth.
All is despair


A romantic fable I wish to tell,
simple, simple,
like the most beautiful things that God gives us.
A little story of a cruel Orc,
where the Fairy of Hope
a sweet miracle performs.
 Once upon a time, in a far off Land,
 there was an old woman,
 and she was alone, and her son was far off.
 The raw December wind blew,
 and the fire had gone out.

 Here's a falling star in the black sky!
 But it was seen by the Orc, he discovered it
 wicked dweller of the mansion
 He climbed on the roof and with a culverin
 hit the star and broke off a point!
 Oh, poor star!...
 But in the stove the burning point
 fell, and a flame was lit;
 and the old woman no longer felt the cold.

Look at the vagabond family:
the mother, the child and the father
that go in search of  food,
but they only find snow, oh my!

How sad to go on foot through the snow
When you no longer have socks or boots!
But it doesn't matter: it will pass soon
good weather is coming soon!

Who at ten, is still travelling around?
Curfew has already past!
We're the patrol that goes hunting
for night walkers and drunkards:

Whoever doesn't have their papers in order goes to prison.
This isn't the place for idlers:
Whoever's not working, in an instant
will get sent to labor!

 A sad day,
 another day
 of dead lands that dissolve beyond the horizon
 and on the dew covered window
 which the wind rattles
 my tears seem frozen.

 The empty chair
 before the fire,
 and the shadow I see projected on the white wall.
 And the evening wind
 is the voice of pain
 of  the ghosts of a cold heart.
  Always my love,
  is waiting fearfully for you;
  but always leave
  the deserted street for me

 The empty chair
 before the fire,
 and the shadow I see projected on the white wall.
 And the evening wind
 is the voice of pain
 of  the ghosts of a cold heart.

 Without a star renewing the cruel night
 the nightmare of a  foreiner
 saddest sky.
  But in my sky the secret light is you
  that clears for me
  the sad path
  down here.
  You are the voice that gives me faith;
  that repeats:
  that day
  will come soon.
 Every night sweet hope dies
 leaving in the heart
 ice and filth.
 But every morning it's reborn, more beautiful still,
 and soothes the pain
 with its coolness.
You are the voice that gives me faith;
  that repeats:
  that day
  will come soon.


 With trench coat
 armor plated
 with a vest of chromed brass
 with socks
 of lamier plate
 with a hat of enameled iron
 how beautiful to forever be a soldier!

 On your feet
 stomp your heels
 stomp your heels hard on the earth
 with your gun
 on your shoulder,
 how beautiful to forever make war
 for universal peace!


 Flickering brightly in the night on the veil
 the stars in the sky.
 A white flock of  Angels up there
 a hymn raised to Jesus.
 And the wind again falls silent.

 Timidly, astonished, amid the divine splendour
 they wake the flowers.
 Far off mournful bagpipes sound,
 shepards descend  on the plain,
 bells ring there below.
  Ding, dong, ding dong...