“Salvatore Battista was born on August 10th, 1918,” Callie read aloud. It had taken her less than five minutes to find what I had been looking for. I had seen this librarian only once before, lingering in the back stacks of the bookcases in the basement. She had short curly hair that produced a strawberry blonde tinge under the shine of LED lights and her clothes resembled those of my grandmother, though she must’ve been at least twenty years her junior. But she moved confidently, sure of herself and even surer of her surroundings. Looking down at the records in her hands she said, “He was a prisoner of war here in Billings during World War Two.”
“There were POWs in Montana?”
“Yep. Tyler hall even housed a whole bunch of them one summer. The same summer Ol’ Sal got shot. They used to work on neighboring sugar beet farms and they would often-”
“Woah woah woah, slow down. You’re telling me he was shot? What, here on campus?”
“Yes, unfortunately. No one knows exactly how it happened but it was here on campus. Losekamp Hall, 1944.” She then pulled out a picture from the pile of folders she held and handed it to me. In it was a group of men posed like it was a sports team photo. I found his face immediately. I’m gonna be sick. I couldn’t understand how she could be so cavalier with the information she’d just given me. Does this kinda thing happen all the time?
“How could I not know about this?” I said, searching her face for answers. Up to that point, she proved to have had many.
“It’s not your fault, dear. The college likes to keep quiet about it all.”
“But why? It was so long ago.”
I followed her down the aisles as she began reshelving books.
“Well, for one, it didn’t make us look too good. Especially toward any future exchange students. And secondly, he was shot by an American. We were supposed to be the good guys and we murdered an unarmed prisoner.” I can’t believe this. “So they buried the story. Buried it all the way to these shelves where no one but me and the librarians before me would ever care to find it.”
“But why? I still don’t get it. Why was he shot if he was unarmed? What did he do that prompted him to be shot? ”
“I suggest,” she interrupted, “that you ask him yourself.
I waited until I saw the last person leave before approaching the building. My hands were shaking before I touched the handle. I have to know. Each step felt like I was dragging cement blocks by my ankles but somehow I found myself sitting at the piano bench as I had a day ago. I heard him stand behind me as I pressed down on one of the keys.
“Back so soon?” he whispered. His voice savored strongly of regret. He was simultaneously apologetic and hopeful but I no longer cared.
“What happened to you, Sal?” I spoke with as much force as I could muster.
“Ah bella.” He sat down next to me, facing away from the piano and his shoulders pulled toward the ground. “It was my Lucy, you reminded me of. Lucia Miller.” He spoke with such fondness I couldn’t help but turn to look at him. Sitting there, he looked as he had when I first met him, handsome and heavenly warm. “She was a daughter to a farmer. I worked for them a while before I came here in the summer.” He choked on those last few words. That’s when he died. “She was bellissima. Una estrella tra le donne! With the most beautiful hair and eyes like mar Mediterraneo. But her voice was the best of all. She sang like the angels. And I would listen to her play the piano inside her house as we men worked the fields. Once I sang to her music. Everyone laughed, though it was a joke, but I saw her look at me through the window and smile. I could not believe it. At me. A criminal in her country.
“Time passed and after that, she would work in the field with us too. I said it would ruin her hands but I liked her there. And we sang more and more as we loved more and more. Then it was a mistake. She snuck out to see me one night and I was ordered to leave the next day. They found out, I don’t know how. But I wanted death to come for me. Her lips had been mine!” he shouted, turning to look at me with eyes wet with tears. He found no fear left in my gaze, only empathy for a love lost. “So I was here for a time. A month or two. It felt like years, truly. But one day I heard this singing. It was a voice unlike any other. Lucia! It must be! I would know it anywhere!
“I broke away from the rest of the prisoners. I did not look back. I only followed the voice and it led me here.” I felt shivers run up and down my spine. She had sat here. Maybe not the same chair or piano. But she had been here, in this place. “She was singing the same song we sang in the fields but to the soldiers. Americans.” He was sobbing now. “I tried to get to her but I could not! I fell down and when I tried to get up, I reached for one of the men to help me. It was a crowd full of them. But they did not understand! How could they? They thought I wanted the man’s gun from his waist! Then I felt it. Like a punch and then not. Sangue mio! In my mouth, on my clothes!” He got up to stand in the window, where the moon shone down on him, or more accurately, through him, unveiling the blood spots that lay speckled across him with the largest bleeding out at the center of his left lung. I had to look away and he fell to the ground, a shell of the man he had been. “I thought I saw her reach for me. I wanted her more than my life. But they took her away. The women were not made for this violence. But it was Lucia! My Lucia! And they took her away. But she had been there and she had sung and she had loved me!” His voice was cracking left and right. “She loved me.” He said this as a statement, something irrefutably true.
How could I possibly comfort him? He looks as though he’d fade to dust with one touch. I did all that I knew I could do and turned to place my hands on the piano keys. I played with the same accuracy as before but this time I had a reason, a purpose, a memory. My throat was sore from restraining the tears but I sang better than I thought myself capable.
“We’ll, meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when, but I know we’ll meet again, some sunny day-”
He began walking toward the classroom door where a light shone through like fire. This cannot be real.
“Keep smiling through, just like you, always do, ‘till the blue skies drive the dark clouds far away-”
Someone else was there, taking his hand. I could not see who, I was watching my fingers, but I knew. Lucia. Suddenly my voice was different. I carried the tone of a different person, altogether. And I could not stop. I don’t think I would’ve if I had known how. Then it was not just me, but Sal sang, and others as well. A whole choir. Were there people just outside the door? There must be. My body was terribly warm the entire time I kept my hands on the piano. But in the tick of a clock, it was gone. All of it. The heat, the light, the voices, the people, the music- everything had left me, and I sat unmoving on the piano bench. Coma? Yes. Definitely a coma. None of that was real. How could it be?
I rose stupidly, as one does from a nap, and grabbed my viola as I had previously meant to. The building was quiet and soft like a Sunday morning and I could hear the birds singing outside. As I turned the last flight of stairs, I saw Tony come through the front door, allowing the sunlight to outline his earthly figure. I half expected him to turn into a skeleton. No, not him, silly goose.
“Hey, you,” I said. I was joyful to have returned to the land of the living. “What are you doing here?”
“Same as yesterday. More practice. And you?” he asked.
“Me too,” I said. He now stood in front of me with the light breaking through the windows and falling hard on his curls. Good as gold. “Hey, I have this song I want to play for you.”