It was September of 1943. Thirty-two year old Maria Caterina was a single woman helping to look after her younger sister and her father. Her four bothers were somewhere out in the war theatre of World War 2. No news has been received from them for quite some time now. Rumours circulated the village that at least two had been taken prisoner, but no-one knew for sure.
She took the usual walk down into the gully where her family vegetable garden lay on the steps dug out from the side of the mountain.
She climbed the ancient ‘ficara’, which meant fig tree in their local dialect. The base of the tree was so big that two people hugging it on opposite sides would not be able to join hands. She carefully made her way up a thick branch, slowly inching her way towards parts heavily laden with ripe figs.
She was wearing a ‘fardale’, dialect for an apron, and kept stuffing the pockets with freshly picked figs. She ate one, then another. They were so sweet. She stretched out to grab one particular fat juicy fruit when she thought she heard men’s voices. They were shouting. She stopped to listen. Suddenly, something exploded near the base of the tree. Dust went up everywhere and she heard tiny objects whistling passed her ear, chopping down leaves and fruit as they flew by. She closed her eyes, and then all hell broke loose.
A group of soldiers came into her view, and they were running back towards the village. They were wearing German uniforms. She knew that because they had been occupying the village for months now. Not far behind them were other soldiers. They looked different and both groups were shooting at each other. One German got shot in the leg and two of his countrymen grabbed him leaving the man’s rifle behind. She cursed as she realised she was in the middle of some battle… stuck, high on the ficara.
She closed her eyes and held on to the thick branch for her dear life. There was so much shouting, yelling and guns popping off all over the place. No-one had spotted her perched there, high up on the tree, but explosions continued. She felt the figs roll out of her pockets and drop to the ground underneath her. She was too busy holding on. It lasted only a few minutes but to Maria Caterina it felt an eternity.
This story was relayed to me personally by Maria Caterina, my aunt. It was fascinating to hear her recount this event, more than once. She died in 2006 only two months shy of her ninety-sixth birthday. This was her account of the Allied forces liberating her village of Santa Caterina dello Ionio located in the highlands of Calabria, province of Catanzaro. That fig tree was totally destroyed in the fires that went through that area, I think around 1987.