It was September 1943. Maria Caterina, 32, was a single woman who helped care for her younger sister and father. His four brothers were somewhere in the theater of war in World War II. They haven’t been heard from in quite some time. Rumors circulated in the village that at least two had been taken prisoner, but no one knew for sure.
He took the usual walk to the ravine where his family’s garden was located on the steps carved into the mountainside.
He went up to the old ‘ficara’, which meant fig tree in their local dialect. The base of the tree was so large that two people hugging it on opposite sides could not hold hands. Carefully he made his way up a thick branch, making his way slowly toward the parts laden with ripe figs.
He wore a ‘fardale’, an apron dialect, and kept filling his pockets with freshly picked figs. He ate one, then another. They were so sweet. He reached out to grab one particularly fat, juicy fruit when he thought he heard men’s voices. They were screaming. She stopped to listen. Suddenly, something exploded near the base of the tree. Dust rose everywhere and he heard small objects whistling past his ear, cutting leaves and fruit as they flew past. He closed his eyes and then all hell broke loose.
A group of soldiers came into view and were running back towards the village. They wore German uniforms. She knew because they had been occupying the town for months. Not far from them were other soldiers. They looked different and both groups were shooting at each other. A German was shot in the leg and two of his compatriots grabbed him, leaving the man’s rifle behind. She cursed as she realized she was in the middle of a battle … trapped, high on the ficara.
He closed his eyes and clung to the thick branch for his life. There were so many screams, screams and gun shots all over the place. No one had seen her perched there, high up in the tree, but the explosions continued. She felt the figs come out of her pockets and fall to the ground beneath her. I was too busy holding on. It lasted only a few minutes but for María Caterina it felt like an eternity.
This story was told me personally by María Caterina, my aunt. It was fascinating to hear her relate this event, more than once. He died in 2006, just two months away from his ninety-sixth birthday. This was his account of the allied forces that liberated his town of Santa Caterina dello Ionio located in the highlands of Calabria, province of Catanzaro. That fig tree was totally destroyed in the fires that passed through that area, I think around 1987.