“Above the hustle and bustle in the streets, the sky had been lit up with a purple glow. Swirls of fuschia and ivory exploding like small candies were pinned to the sky. Someone must have painted the sky by hand.”
Chapter One: Mornings
It began as something sweet and airy.
All things begin this way.
It was a jumble of pleasant mornings spent with a friend: two girls with their arms swung around each other making their way from street to street. They strutted at the same pace shoulder to shoulder chatting amongst themselves. They looked like twins with their matching outfits. Each wore a black skirt, cap, and shoes with white stockings and a loose blouse. They were completely oblivious to the world around them; the rolling cars on the cobblestone streets, the pitchmen that came around selling everything from newspapers and cigarettes to bowties and shot glasses, or the sombre-looking soldiers that lined up in the streets before going to the front.
Above the hustle and bustle in the streets, the sky had been lit up with a purple glow. Swirls of fuschia and ivory exploding like small candies were pinned to the sky. Someone must have painted the sky by hand.
The two girls were immersed in their own world of fancy. Around them they saw classrooms instead of cars. Instead of pitchmen offering them trinkets, they recounted stories of boys offering them flowers. And instead of soldiers, they thought of their own division. A youth division just for girls. Donna’s mother insisted on her daughter arriving early to each session. Donna set off just after the crack of dawn each morning with her hair in tight braids and face washed. Donna would meet Alessia on the corner and they would walk together. That was the way it went every morning.
Donna was like a white starched linen. She had two long braids the colour of sour lemons that dropped from her shoulders like ropes. Her complexion was blanched and pearly. It was like someone had come along and white-washed the colour from her face. However she had eyes dark as a starless night that stuck out like lumps of coal stitched on either side of her nose. She was generally a quiet reluctant girl and was lucky to have made such fast friends with Alessia, the exemplary girl. Donna’s friend was conventionally beautiful with heart-shaped lips and bouncy ringlets. She had a throng of admirers who watched her wherever she went.
This particular morning, Alessia was engaged in recounting her a story about the time a boy walked up to her and pulled at one of her ringlets. Donna listened contently. As they passed through the square, Donna glanced at the clock.
“Alessia we’re late!” She tugged at her friends sleeve.
“Let’s run!” Alessia exclaimed after swinging around to look at the clock. The girl outstretched her legs and bounded forward. As she sped off, Donna, after a moment of hesitation, set off after her.
They shrieked with laughter as Donna quickly caught up with Alessia. They swatted their arms and clawed at each other, doing whatever they could to slow the other down. Donna was panting relentlessly. Their bodies pierced through the crowd. They were tripping, slipping, and swatting, meanwhile gaining speed. They raced right around the corner. Donna picked up her legs and began bolting forwards. She surpassed Alessia and was dashing up the cobblestone sidewalk. She jumped onto the road, slipping on the morning frost and dodging cars as they came skidding towards her. She knew if anyone had seen her and told her mother that she was running on the street, she would be in trouble. The thought of this both frightened her and enthralled her with amusement. She leapt back onto the sidewalk that spread out in front of her. Her arms swung back and forth. Exhilaration ran through her as wind lashed at her legs and blew at her face. She thrust herself forward. Alessia was calling to her. She twisted her neck to look back, her legs still wheeling forward. Suddenly, her chest fell backwards and her black shoes slid off the ground. Pain shot through the back of her head. And the scene went black.
Chapter Two: The Girl Who Cried on the Main Street
Through the obscurity, Donna could see herself lying there. Her limbs sprawled out over the cobblestones. Her meager figure laid out for the world to see. Her braids coiled around her like a spider’s front legs. Her face twisted in abject terror. Her heart was saddened by her own modest self lying down motionless over the sidewalk.
As her eyes blinked open, above her Alessia’s ringlets poured downwards onto Donna’s face; her friend had knelt down beside her. Donna could hear phrases in the distance. The words hovered above her.
“A girl just ran headstrong into Signor Di Napoli!”
“Are you hurt, Signor?”
“No, no, I am fine.”
“What about the girl?”
“Who is she?”
“Is she alright?”
“I think she may be dead!! And it is all my fault!” This last bit was Alessia, who was now sobbing uncontrollably. She grasped Donna’s shoulders and began shaking her. Four hands were placed upon her and Donna was prompted to her feet.
“Are you fine, miss?” This was the voice of old Signor Di Napoli. Five years ago, he moved to Rome from Naples and had started a toy store. All the children in the neighborhood spent their weekends lined up to go into his store. Walking through his store that now stood behind them was like perusing through a book. Metals, porcelain, plastic, gears, springs, fabrics, tinsel, colours, reflections, textures, speaking dolls, and kites line the walls and were scattered on the floor. It was a portal into another world found in the heart of Rome. An emporium of sights and sounds, feelings and imagination. From the walls, tin airplanes were suspended, glinting with light. Dolls with glass eyes and fountains of shining hair were lined up on shelves peeping down at small girls cruising through the aisle.
Donna always admired Signor Di Napoli. She wasn’t in love with him. She wanted to be him. She did not want to live in vain. Living with a husband and family in a fancy house with servants for her to boss around was her mother’s dream for her. Donna was opposed to this. She wanted to be a maiden forever and live in a house with a toyshop on the ground floor and a limited loft up top to sleep and eat in.
“I am fine Signor Di Napoli!” She grinned, making a quick recovery. “How is the shop going?” she asked eagerly. His face was sombre with a sad smile and a pointy moustache.
“I am afraid the shop is not doing so well at the moment, ragazzina.” He always called her “young girl” instead of her real name. He never thought the name Donna really suited her.
She glanced over his shoulder to see the wooden sign above the shop doors being lowered by two construction workers. She opened her mouth to speak but it felt like someone had pushed a stone down her throat. Her chest rose and fell abruptly. All she could squeeze out of her lungs was a gasp like sound. However the heroic Alessia put her words in for her.
“Is the shop closing Signor Di Napoli?”
“Yes it is, Alessia.” As he looked down at the girls, they could see tears welling in his eyes. Donna was silent. Inside she was screaming. She was clawing at the construction workers and hissing at Signor Napoli for not even giving her one more day to enjoy the store. Outside the morning turned cold and frost nipped at her toes. She stood there feeling like an out-of-place pole made of cold steel.
“Why,” she whispered under her breath. He did not hear her.
“Why?” she said a little louder this time, “Why? Tell me, why?” She hung her head and sunk into a fury of muffled confusion. She had to know why.
“Why didn’t you have a closing sale or something?” Alessia asked.
“I am moving back to Naples. My brother is coming in his car to pick me up this afternoon,” he announced.
“But why?” Alessia tipped her head to the side.
“The toy factories in Italy are being turned into war industries. If I were to keep the store open, there would be no more toys to sell,” Signor Di Napoli said gravely. Donna thought she’d heard him wrong.
“No toys…” she looked frantically at him. She felt a kind of squeamish discomfort rise within her.
Alessia suddenly remembered the time and clicked her heels.
“Donna, we are late for our meeting! It’s already started,” she said, pulling at her friend’s arm.
“I think I want to stay for a while, Alessia,” Donna looked longingly at her friend, “but you can go if you want.”
Alessia’s face grew long. Her nose screwed itself up and her lips pressed together. They always walked together; at the mention of walking separately, Alessia’s face twisted and contorted itself in different directions. Anger. Confusion. Embarrassment. Her cheeks turned red and she turned away with an abrupt “fine.”
Donna watched as Alessia’s bouncing ringlets moved farther and farther away. She shifted her gaze over to the store. The boarded up window, the locked doors and the expressionless construction workers aggrieved. Her anguish piqued as the two construction workers lowering the sign lost their hold on it, dropped it, and it came clattering to the ground. The painted sign broke in half. The shattering sound rang in Donna’s ears. Her heart turned to porcelain. She stumbled to the boarded up window. Her hands fell on the plywood boards and she crooked her head to see through the window. The room was submerged in an inky darkness. Donna pressed her forehead against the window. She squinted. She could see the outline of smiling painted faces looking at her with their large circular eyes. They seemed to be both mocking her and silently asking for her help. She leaned in closer, but a construction worker grabbed her arms, pulling her back. She howled and flung herself in all different directions. She lunged forward and used her legs to pull herself back to the window. The construction worker’s firm arms dragged her in the opposite direction. She was brushed to the side like an unwanted pile of shingles. She and the shop were separated. She fell into Signor Di Napoli’s arms and wailed.
A small crowd had formulated and was watching the girl as she collapsed in the middle of the main street. Tears came pouring down her face and she could not choke them back. Signor Di Napoli was unsure what to do. He tried comforting her, but there was nothing he could say. Donna did not know what she was doing. She was equally surprised as some of the bystanders that were watching her. Why am I crying, she thought. She had not played with toys since she was seven. When she was young, she had a dolly with feather wings and a plastic halo. She called her doll Anna. It was Donna’s prize possession for the first half of her life; she took it everywhere.
When she was eight, she started her training in Piccole Italiane, a youth division dedicated to preparing girls for their future. Her mother thought this very important. In the beginning, Donna cherished the division meetings. She showed so much enthusiasm that she was asked to stand and pose in traditional roman imperial clothing at a rally. She grew so busy with learning the Italian anthem and learning how to cook that she had no time to play with her doll Anna. One day she returned home from a meeting to find that Anna had been sold. She didn’t cry. At the time she just shrugged her shoulders. Now she cried. She was surprised at herself. This was the moment her memory flashed on, like a light switch turning on the electrical lighting in a room. Today she can barely remember what it was like before. From then on she was no longer a young girl with a friend walking down the street. She was the girl who cried on the main street that day.
Chapter Three: Warhood and The Cherry Dress
The remainder of the day passed by slowly. Donna was scolded for being late to the meeting. Before she would have blushed, slouched her shoulders, and trudged guiltily into her place in line for being so late. Today, Donna arrived at the meeting numb with tears and dragging. The useless girl barely showed a sign of consciousness. She didn’t look at the Piccole Italiane instructors when they were speaking to her. Her feet carried her from place to place. Alessia approached Donna asking gently where she had been, but Donna only sighed and wandered off. She silently refused to sing when they sung Giovinezza. She stood there amongst her smiling piers as they sung with their high-pitched voices. Donna remained silent.
“Hail, people of heroes,
Hail, immortal Fatherland,
Your sons were born again
With the faith and the Ideal.
Your warriors’ valour,
Your pioneers’ virtue,
Today shines in every heart.”
The sound of the opening verse flooded through her ears. There was an influx of bitterness that arose within her.
Many years ago, a group of men came together to write the lyrics to this song. They thought it would be the best representation of their fascist Italy, a song to define an empire. When Donna first learnt the lyrics, the words were bold and strong, both poetic and to the point, but most of all, the words seemed right. She could remember how her courage would be reborn as she heard this song. Now there was something sickening and plasticky about it, like the smell that emerges from a factory. She winced.
Spring of beauty,
In the hardship of life
Your song rings and goes!
And for Benito Mussolini,
And for our beautiful Fatherland,”
Suddenly, she began to remember things from the past she had not noticed or thought odd before. The same year Donna joined the Piccole Italiane division, Mussolini had travelled from city to city across the country to give speeches. He began in Rome.
Her mother barely left the house, but on this particular day, Donna watched her as she swung a string of pearls around her neck and slipped into her yellow dress limited to special occasions.
“Is Papa coming back today, Mama?” Donna asked. Her mother shot her a glance.
“No.” Her words were cold as they struck Donna across her face. She flinched. “Now go and get into that new dress I got you, the one with cherries painted on the fabric.”
“Are we going out for lunch? Is that why we are getting dressed up?”
“Are we meeting Papa somewhere?”
“No, there is no Papa. Now go get dressed. I do not like questioners. It’s forbidden for a child to talk up to her elders in such a matter.”
“But where are we going?”
“In the Italian borders,
Italians have been remade
Mussolini has remade them
For tomorrow’s war,
For labour’s glory,
For peace and for the laurel,
For the shame of those
Who repudiated our Fatherland”
Remade. Repudiated. Tomorrow’s war is now.
Donna and her mother left the house and entered out in public, a place her mother had not stepped into for the longest time. The cherry dress was new and exciting. It was too tight for comfort, but fit her well considering it was secondhand. It was new for Donna, but the world had seen it many times.
They met Alessia and her parents on the corner. Alessia and Donna walked in front as the adults trailed behind. Everybody was out on the streets and people they barely new tilted their hats at the young girls and bid them how do you do. Young Donna must have presumed that all the people on the streets, including herself and her mother, were making their way to a party of sorts.
“The poets and the artisans,
The lords and the countrymen,
With an Italian’s pride
Swear fealty to Mussolini
No poor neighbourhood exists
That doesn’t send its hordes
That doesn’t unfurl the flags
Of redeeming Fascism”
Thousands of Italians gathered together, jostled into each other. Above them a facade stretched itself out. Donna remember the eager moments she spent admiring everyone’s outfits. They were chained down in patterned skirts, coloured headbands, straw hats, ties, ribbons, and smiles. Donna beamed at the notion that, from up above, the crowd would look like a multicoloured fruit. Then all of a sudden the crowd fell silent. All those yapping mouths hushed to listen. A man dressed in a fleece suit stepped into view through a shallow balcony smoothed onto the facade. One yapping mouth poured it’s words onto the crowd. Donna could hear the words, but she could not understand.
“Do you know what he is saying?” she leaned in and whispered this question into Alessia’s ears.
“Shh,” she hissed, “I am trying to listen!”
Moments later the crowd erupted. Thousands of voices hurrahing. It was like an explosion. Hats catapulted into the air and couples leaned over and kissed each other. To her side, Alessia was jumping up and down, clapping her hands and sputtering indistinct words of joy. Donna’s mother grabbed her shoulders and kissed her right on the nose.
“What has happened, Mama?” Donna couldn’t help smiling. “Is Papa coming home?”
“No, bambina, we are at war!” her mother triumphed. She leaned down and kissed Donna again. It was as if they had already won.
After most of the crowd had left to go off to bars for a drink, Alessia suggested that they search the ground for coins. Donna knew she should be getting home, but with her new cherry dress, she wanted to stay outside longer. As they were searching the ground they found a small boy a few years younger than them sprawled out on the ground. His sock was red, drenched with blood that poured from his ankle like water. He had been trampled in the excitement of the coming war. They knew this boy. He lived in their neighborhood. They often saw him at the toy store, but never at church. As Donna thought back on it now, she could not recall seeing him for a while now. He had vanished over the last few months. She was forbidden to talk to him because he had darker features. Dark skin, dark hair, dark eyes, he had it all. He must have been completely swallowed up by the crowd this time. Or maybe he vanished for a different reason. As the Italians were being remade one by one in the hands of Il Duce, that boy must have been neglected.
The group stopped singing. The girls’ singing voices ended. The meeting was dismissed and all the girls set off in different directions. Alessia searched the crowd of friends, enemies, and girls for Donna. She glanced down a small alleyway to find her friend crouched down in a gutter, legs pulled towards her chest and eyes forced into her knees. Her shoulders bounced as if she was laughing silently. For the second time that day, Donna cried.
Chapter Four: The Silhouette Wife
Donna was relieved to finally be in bed. Her heart was filled with sour chagrin. She felt betrayed, as though all those smiling people had lied to her. And so had the cherry dress. She wrapped herself in her bedsheets and curled into a ball in the corner of her bed. She felt sick. After a few moments of silence and painful thoughts, the door opened to her room. Donna peered out from behind the blanket to see a yellow glow projected on the floor of her room from the hall. Her mother’s silhouette as she stood in the doorway drew a clear outline of her mother’s figure on the floorboards.
“Are you asleep, Donna?”
“No,” her sickly daughter responded
“You didn’t help with the laundry today. You knew you were supposed to do it today.”
“Well, how do you expect to become a good wife if you decide not to do the laundry whenever you don’t feel like it.” These words were not unfamiliar to Donna.
“What if I don’t want to become a wife?” she spat.
“Well I am afraid, Donna Roma, that you have no choice. A woman’s job is to keep a house, not a seat in Parliament. Do you want to end up on the streets?” Before Donna could answer, the door shut abruptly. Darkness fell back onto the room the same way a thick polluted fog would, the kind of fog you get trapped in and you cannot breath in or find a way out.
A few words about Donna’s mother, Ines Roma:
She was beautiful and lively with rich blonde hair and twinkling blue eyes. She grew up in a respectable middle class family and was brought up in the countryside. She spent her days playing with the other children in the village, climbing fences, drinking spoiled water from wells, and chasing each other across fields of long untamed grass. At nineteen, her father took many day trips to the neighboring villages and farms. At nineteen years old, Ines was dozing in the field behind her house when her father was returning from one of his trips. She was dragged indoors. Before her twentieth birthday, she was married to the wealthy man, Giovanni Roma, who happened to be vacationing in the next village at the time. His father was fast friends with hers and thus a wedding was in order. She went with him back to Rome where his family lived in a grand house made of slabs of marble and chandeliers of shining crystal. During the economic crash of 1929, the Roma family lost all its money and honour. They were forced to live in an overcrowded tenement. After a few years of this meager lifestyle, Giovanni was embarrassed to show his face in the streets and could not bear to look at his wife and newly born baby girl. One morning, he left before the light of day as usual for his newly acquired job as an assistant shoemaker. Ines waited for him at the house. She waited as hours and hours clicked by. When her husband did not return that night, Ines knew that he would never come back to them. In the last few days he was living with her, she neglected him. He stayed curled up in a mound of bedsheets as Donna is now doing and served no purpose. She only gave him small scraps of food, the rest she gave to the baby. She was not a very good wife to him the last few days before he left.
Chapter Five: The Break-ins
First she began with the toy store, then the houses.
The decisions Donna would make in the next few moments of life would change the course of history forever. Wrapped in her bedsheets, she contemplated in the dark. At first it began as a sudden impulse where Donna found herself half awake and half in a dream. She went over the idea multiple times in her head. At first, she laughed at the ridiculous notion. Then she began envisioning herself doing it; that is when it became real. She tossed and turned in bed. She wrenched at her mind and clenched the bedsheets in her fists. She couldn’t shake the concept of her sneaking away at night and breaking into the toy store from her head. It was so daring. It was so exhilarating. But most of all, it was so unlike her.
How could she be sure of anything anymore? She pushed herself from the bed. Donna threw on her robe made of purple fabric with yellow stitching. She positioned it onto her back and tied the belt. It fit like a glove. War was no longer just soldiers that line up in the street; war meant lives both lost and living. It meant the life of Alessia, the spritely girl living a few houses down. It meant the life of Signor Di Napoli, the man now probably fast asleep in Naples. It meant the life of her mother. It meant the life of her father, wherever it he is now. It meant the life of the little Jewish boy with the bloody ankle. It meant the absence of toys in her neighborhood.
She thrust open her window. A brown sac swung over her shoulder, she carefully sat on the sill. She turned around and shoved her toes down the gap between the open window and the wood plank she was sitting on. She gathered air into her lungs and pushed her legs out into the dry night air. She gave herself little time for reluctance and she slid herself out the window! Donna felt her newly exposed body hover in midair. As she felt the air spin around her, she swatted her arms and caught hold of a brick that was slightly jutting out of the wall. Taken aback with amazement, she stayed clinging to the wall a while longer. Eventually, she succeeded in crawling down the wall like a spider. Her feet dropped onto the cobblestones and she rubbed her hands together to get all the chalk from the brick of them. She blew into her hands to warm them and she ventured off into the darkness. The darkness was comforting. The constellations watched Donna as she moved about the city. The darkness was going to let one girl shine.
Most nights, the people in Rome are forced to flee into a bomb shelter. But tonight was much more gentle. It humbled her. It was as if the war was put on pause for her most beautiful action.
The walk to the store was enjoyable. Donna smiled for the stars that blessed her eyes. She smiled for the cool breeze that stroked her hair. She smiled for her warmth all bundled up in her robe. She smiled in hot anticipation.
The store itself was tedious. She approached the boarded up door and latched handle to size up the amount of force it would take to break the plywood. After attempting to do just that for several minutes, she had tried several different tactics: pulling, punching and wrenching. She slid her hand behind the plywood until her palm touched the cold refreshing glass. She used the small muscles located in her fingers to tap on the door and she heard the hinges squeak weakly as the door pushed open. The girl lowered herself to the ground and slithered under the plywood. She sucked in her stomach so she could fit. Using the sleeve of her robe, Donna wiped beads of sweat that came trickling down the side of her face. Her breathing grew heavy. Her sense of feverishness heightened. The air in her lungs thickened until it was dense enough to cut with a knife. She kept reminding herself to quicken her pace; she pushed herself to be faster. Her stomach still glued to the floor, she pulled herself deeper into the toy store. Faster. She arrived at her first pile of toys. Faster. Then she worked her way into the second. Faster. She worked tirelessly for half an hour until she could marvel at her filled brown sac. In it lay dolls that opened and closed their eyes depending on how you held them, toy vehicles, some with real tiny engines, wind-up toys in the shape of mice drumming away at very festive looking drums. Donna had even climbed up onto the top of a low shelf and untied a red old fashioned toy airplane from the ceiling and a green and red kite along with it. You can only imagine the trouble Donna had fitting the bag underneath the plywood. But it would all be worth it.
She escaped back into the night like a common criminal, the sac like a boulder she herself had laid across her back. She gazed upwards to watch the sky as it slowly began to shift and become lighter. She wished fervently that no one would see her and she ducked away into the shadows of buildings. Unlike a common criminal, Donna was not quite done. If she were to stop now her whole plan would be failed.
She encircled the first house several times before seeing the open window leading into a boy’s nursery. The window felt as though it was left open especially for her to climb into. She hoisted herself in and was now standing gingerly in the middle of a small boy’s room. From the thermometer left on the bedside table and the medicine bottle that rested in all its plumpness on top of the bureau, Donna could deduce that this boy was ill. Donna removed the multicoloured kite from the sac and slipped it in next to him beneath the bed sheet. She searched the room for a pen and paper. Once she had found some she wrote:
When you get better, go out to the beach and fly this kite.
Donna paused for a second. She brought the tip of the pen to her lips.
The boy’s eyes blinked open. Donna began shuffling towards the window afraid that the boy would scream in terror and attract the attention of his parents into the room. After a few silent moments of staring at each other, she noticed that the boy wasn’t in the least bit surprised to see her.
“Are you La Befana?” he inquired. La Befana is the friendly witch that brings children toys in Italian Culture.
“Then why did you give me this kite?”
Donna was about to hiss and tell the boy off for asking too many questions, but instead she shrugged her shoulders
“What is your name then, if you aren’t La Befana?”
Donna shrugged her shoulders again.
“Are you the bogeyman then, come to take me away?!”
“Are you death herself come to fetch my corpse away? Am I dead?!” For a young boy he had quite a vivid, but dark imagination.
Quickly Donna scribbled her name on the paper:
It seemed to fit her.
“What is that paper?”
“It is far too late for a boy your age to be up.” Donna sighed. “Now get comfortable in bed and I will sing to you if you like.”
“Alright.” The boy nestled in bed with his new kite; he was grinning ear to ear. Donna pulled a stool by his bed, sat, and sang until her mouth was dry and the boy had slipped into a blissful sleep. She left his room through the window, not forgetting to leave a note on the table. She visited ten other houses that night. The sky was red like a pitted cherry when she stumbled back to her house. Her mother was waiting outside, shivering in her robe both of chill and anxiety.
“Where have you been, Donna?” her mother cried out when her daughter came into view. “I was about to have a heart attack!”
“You were?” Donna said gently.
Before her mother could answer, she was engulfed in a warm hug. Donna went over her new name over and over again in her mind. The Toygiver. The Toygiver. Toygiver. Donna would continue to do this nighttime ritual for years to come. She did it all the way until the end. The end of the war. The Toygiver. The Toygiver. Toygiver.