It was a wet spring and they had already lost two days of work due to rain, which not only meant docked pay, but also two less kilos of rice to take home.
Assunta had been working in the rice fields in Vercelli for three consecutive years now. She was one of the many hundreds of mondine who travelled from all over Northern Italy to the rice fields – here in Vercelli, and in Novara and Pavia. The women had initially worked the rice fields while the men were otherwise occupied with fighting the Great War, but it was soon discovered they were much better suited to the task. Their flexible bodies and small hands were able to delicately weed around the rice plants, and they took the care to notice the difference between the white-edged foliage of the weeds and the pure green stems of the rice. The men were too impatient and oblivious to detail to take the care needed. So since the war, the rice weeding had fallen to the women – the mondine. Every May, for forty days, the woman bent their backs to the grueling task of planting and weeding the fields.
Andrea didn’t like Assunta being away for so long, but he agreed that it was a necessity. He missed her and there was always a fear in the back of his mind that she might not return. Sometimes when people went away, they didn’t come back.
She left on the train from Chiavenna along with about a dozen other villagers to a connecting train in Milano. The Martellos waved off their matriarch from the platform, Orsola consoling her youngest brother Gianni, who was sobbing into her hip. Assunta felt a pang of something as she watched them disappear from sight, but she wasn’t sure what it was. Perhaps guilt, or maybe relief?
The women at Stazione Milano Centrale were shepherded towards specially assigned trains, lugging their suitcases, which would then be used as seats on the sparsely furnished stock carriages. The platforms were teeming with bodies and bags and hats being waved in the air. Steel screeching and whistles and the vibrato of hundreds of voices rose in a confident cacophony, becoming trapped under the great ceiling of the station. The noise seemed to circulate lazily, like a fog descending, making its way across a field, then slowly rising up a hillside and merging into the clouds. Once the journey was under way, the excited chatter of the women dimmed and some slept, rocked into dreams by the swaying motion of the train. Many of them had already travelled for hours to reach this final leg and the tearful farewells of families had tired them.
When they arrived at Vercelli station, they were transported to the living quarters on flatbed trucks. The mondine slept, ate and socialised together in large bunkrooms – a big punch bowl of ages, personality types and politics. The experienced mondina knew to take a bunk bed up against the wall, leaving the young ones to the noisy centre bunks.
Assunta found the chatter and singing of the younger women irritating and she told them so, although she did enjoy the occasional eavesdrop on gossip and jealous banter. She found the older she got, the less tolerance she had for sound. She believed one of the advantages of old age was losing the ability to hear so well, and she thought it especially annoying that her ears seemed to be the only body part that retained their youthful competence. The modern songs the young ones sang sounded about as melodic and soulful to her as the chickens being chased around the hen house by a rat.
It was just the singing in the bunk rooms that Assunta objected to. The singing in the fields, she liked. It had a purpose. It told a story. The bosses didn’t allow talking while the mondine worked, saying it slowed down their progress, so the women got around this rule by singing their conversations.
One woman would sing the lead and the rest would repeat a line as the chorus. Whole conversations took place in song, chains of women calling across the field, the answering refrain skimming across the muddy water.
“Why do our backs bend, why don’t our cracked heels mend?” trilled the soloist, in a slow drawn out soprano.
“Why don’t our cracked heels mend?” repeated the chains in unison, holding the last note in their mouths.
“Where is the ointment to soothe our feet? When will our meals contain some meat?”
“Rice is not nice without any flavour, so cooks – do the mondine a favour.”
Another lone voice took up the song.
“You should know, the cook takes favours for flavours.”
“Favours for flavours,” chorused the women, giggling.
The mondine worked all day in thigh deep water, bare feet slipping in the mud, their hands feeling for the plants under the water. By the end of the day, back and thigh muscles were tight and aching. Back in the large bunk rooms, the women were relieved to lie down – even if it was on the scratchy hay-filled mattresses. The younger mondine would massage the backs and legs of their older roommates, the grateful moans punctuating the quiet like purrs. For the half hour before dinner, the room relaxed as people dozed, or smoked cigarettes. Dinner was always the same plain rice, but it filled their stomachs and helped them sleep through the night. Evenings passed slowly, playing cards, writing letters, chatting and smoking.
The women, although all working class, came from different backgrounds. Back home they worked in factories or were farm labourers. Some had children at home in the care of a sister or mother, some had soldiers as husbands, and some were alone. In this environment, the women found they were able to discuss politics openly for the first time – the camaraderie of the work, the short, but intense time together made the women feel bonded and able to ask questions they had been too nervous to ask at home.
Had everyone’s husband come home from the war a different man?
Was Mussolini leading them into another war?
Why were they still working so hard, just to put food on the table?
Where was this wealth Mussolini promised them?
The women from the cities like Milano and Torino had information and ideas that the rural women hadn’t heard before. They told accounts of Mussolini sending in his Blackshirt thugs to arrest people opposed to his ideas, that he was targeting newspapers and trade unionists. A few women said that they had seen Blackshirts beating old men on the street. One woman told tearfully that her brother had been murdered for handing out socialist pamphlets at a café. Mussolini was Hitler’s pet dog, continued the woman from Torino, wagging his tail at a kind word from his master. Mussolini wanted to keep the poor poor, wanted the peasants to keep working their hands to the bone producing the food that made the rich fatter.
Assunta listened. But she found little to sway her from her own conclusions. No matter what these girls argued, in Assunta’s mind – and in the mind of many of the other peasant women working in the rice fields – she found the image of Mussolini alluring. A strong man, able to lead his country from the front. Who looked fondly upon the women working the fields, labouring on farms. They were the heart of Italia, he said. Yes, they were, and Assunta hoped it would only be a matter of time before they were rewarded.
The forty days of separation from her family gave Assunta a rare opportunity to reflect. Although the work was difficult, when the day in the fields had finished, she found she had no other tasks to attend to. No food to prepare, children to wash, house to clean, chickens to feed. Time was her own. It was now she wished she could read. She saw other women reading quietly, their faces at rest as they were transported to other places, other lives.
Assunta alternated between being proud of Orsola’s reading abilities and being jealous that her daughter had these skills that she didn’t. After all, it was because of her own sacrifice that her daughter had the luxury of an education.
She lay on the bunk, her body resting, her hands still, wondering why she had this anger for her daughter. She could feel it, a burning annoyance and impatience whenever she was near her. From the distance the rice fields afforded her, Assunta wondered for a moment if she was too hard on her daughter. She was helpful, and she didn’t do anything to cause Assunta embarrassment in front of the other villagers. In this very room there were displays of crassness, stupidity and arrogance – the mothers of some of these creatures must be very ashamed of what they had raised. She knew Orsola was a good daughter, Andrea told her often. But Assunta had been a good daughter too. She had tried so hard to please her own mother, but her mother’s approval had eluded her. Why should Orsola have it so easy?
Assunta rolled on her side to face the wall. She missed her own bed, the wool stuffed mattress, Andrea’s warm arms, his rhythmic breathing that helped her sleep, like waves lapping the shore. She dozed, straddling the line between consciousness and unconsciousness. Her body felt light, floating, but at the same time as if it were sinking deep into the bunk. She was aware of the sounds of the mondine around her, but they seemed to be coming from far away.
In this dream state she saw Anna. Not in the wasted five-year-old body sick with the flu, but as a healthy toddler, following Assunta around the garden and chasing the chickens. Then she saw Anna older, maybe ten or twelve years old. She was intertwined with Orsola, same build, the same way she held her shoulders. Then as a young woman, maybe seventeen or eighteen years old. A kind smile, hands that knew hard work. Anna’s eyes always stayed the same, a dark grey like her mothers. Able to hold a steady gaze, but without being too direct. Like she could see the future.
People would say to her – “you still have Orsola.” She thought it a ridiculous thing to say. It was little consolation. She was not Anna.
Dinner was called and Assunta roused herself. While she ate the tasteless rice, she thought more about her surviving daughter. Was she starting to miss her? Would she one day join Assunta in the rice fields? Orsola would find a husband and have a family of her own soon. Then she would know what life was like.