The Words We Whisper
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From the bestselling author of Honeysuckle Season comes a sweeping saga that interweaves the past and present in an epic tapestry of love, war, and loss.
As a hospice nurse, Zara Mitchell has already seen more death than most people will experience in a lifetime. So when her older sister asks her to help care for their ailing grandmother, Zara agrees—despite strained family relationships.
Though pale and tired, Nonna has lost none of her sharp mind. She’s fixated on finding something long forgotten, and she immediately puts Zara to work cleaning out the attic. Unexpectedly, amid the tedium of sifting through knickknacks and heirlooms, Zara also reconnects with a man she’s attracted to but whose complicated past makes romance seem impossible.
The Words We Whisper Excerpt
Friday, August 13, 1943, 11:45 a.m.
Nothing ever ends as we would expect.
The birthing was no exception. It was going badly, hours longer than it should, and the young woman’s thin body, pear shaped with a distended belly, refused to release the child. Screams reverberated in the small upstairs room, as to the east, near the rail yards, bombs shook these medieval walls, rattled arched windows, and kept the pendant light above my head swinging.
“I can’t do this anymore,” the young woman said, her voice a hoarse whisper.
“Mia,” I said firmly. “You must push again.” Mia had labored with this child for nearly eighteen hours, and she was growing weaker by the minute.
“I can’t,” she whimpered. “It hurts.”
Our landlady, Signora Marchella Fontana, hurried into the room with more towels tucked under her arm and a clean white porcelain basin filled with water. “The doctor is not coming,” she said. “The city is exploding. The Allies are bombing the rail yards again. No one can be bothered with a simple birth.”
There was nothing simple about this birth, but saying so or cursing the doctor, the Allied planes swarming the skies, or the Germans crowding Rome’s streets would not bring this child into the world. That task rested solely on the three of us.
I placed my hand on Mia’s drum-tight belly. Her normally vivid brown eyes were watery, and her blonde curls were plastered by sweat to her pale forehead. “Mia, it’s just us now. Only you, me, and the signora can bring your child into the world.”
“Where is my brother, Riccardo?” she wailed. “He said he would not abandon me.”
Mia’s brother had vanished six months before. Some said he had joined the Resistance, and others said he had hid like most of Rome’s men, avoiding conscription. There were also rumors he had been transported to a labor camp. Or perhaps he could not bear the shame his wild younger sister had brought upon the family. “He does not matter now. Only you and the child.” I smiled but feared the expression was far from soothing. “Don’t you want to meet your baby?”
“No.” Tears rolled down her cheeks as another contraction tightened her belly. “Her father abandoned her, so she’s better off not coming into this world.”
“But she must.” My voice sharpened like a knife fresh off a whetstone. “Signora, get behind Mia, and push her forward. We must do this. Now.”
Another explosion rocked the area near the rail yard ten blocks from our home in the Monti district. Signora froze and looked toward the open window as fresh black smoke rose above the buildings.
In July, the Allies had hit the San Lorenzo railroad marshaling yards. The BBC had reported no civilian casualties, but, of course, that was not true. The news accounts failed to mention the destruction of the little shops containing the baker who gave his day-old bread to hungry children, the umbrella maker who kept five cats, or the watchmaker who always said, “Grazie mille.” The news reports did not speak of the children whose laughter had gone silent, the damage to the Basilica di San Lorenzo, or the homes reduced to rubble that crushed and buried its occupants.
The heavy lines on Signora Fontana’s face deepened as she met my gaze. When her husband, a well-known shoemaker, had been killed by the Fascists in the late 1930s, she had begun renting out rooms to earn money. I had first arrived on her doorstep in 1940, hoping for a new life away from the war. The signora was a kind soul, generous with the children when they came looking for food, and she was always willing to offer a bed to those in need.
Last year, the signora had gladly welcomed Mia, a young seamstress who, like me, was from Assisi. The girl claimed to be twenty, but I was twenty, and in some ways she was so young for her years. Mia had always hungered for a bigger life than her small home city offered and had arrived in Rome starving for adventure. I often acted more as a mother than friend or coworker, but if I had been a true mother, she might have heeded my warnings about the temptations of Rome.
“Signora, do not worry about the planes!” I ordered. “There’s nothing we can do about the bombs.”
Months of strict rations, no milk, looting, and soldiers on the streets had taken its toll on all of us. But the old woman shook off her shock and moved behind Mia, then hefted up the girl’s slight frame, now laid bare for the birthing.
“Take a deep breath, and push, Mia,” I said. “You must be brave a little longer.”
“I know. The signora knows. But there is no other way.”
The girl’s gaze fastened on mine, and for a moment I thought she could not summon any additional strength. But somehow, she tapped into my will and drew in a breath. Closing her eyes, she pushed hard, and I pressed on her belly as the signora urged her with kind words.
The child would be born. Death could not have this soul. The seconds stretched, and her body strained to rid itself of the child.
The baby’s head emerged, and I reached in the birth canal and grabbed hold. I pulled. Mia screamed louder, but this time the little infant, who had been fighting entrance to this troubled world, slid out.
Mia collapsed against the pillows, and Signora Fontana pressed a damp towel to her head. The moment of victory and elation vanished when I saw the perfectly formed face tinged in an ominous shade of blue. After picking up the baby by her ankles, I rubbed my knuckles hard between the shoulder blades, but there was no sound or twitch of a muscle. There was no struggle for breath, no will to live.
I laid the child on her side on the bed and cleaned out her mouth before I pressed my lips to hers and blew in a breath.
“The baby,” Mia said. “She’s too quiet.”
I did not dare meet her gaze as I continued to breathe life into the tiny lungs. But the stubborn creature would not cry or draw a breath. I don’t remember how long I worked on the child, but finally the signora touched my arm, her eyes reflecting disappointment.
“It’s done,” Signora Fontana said.
“It cannot be. We’ve worked so hard,” I said.
“She’s gone,” she whispered.
I stared at the perfect little face framed by dark curly hair and was overcome by overwhelming disillusionment. The weight of thousands already lost in Rome dropped onto my shoulders.
Raising my gaze to Mia’s, I found her staring at me with an anxious intensity.
“She’s so quiet. Is she all right?” she asked softly.
Tears welled in Mia’s eyes as another bomb crashed into the city. Finally, she closed her lids and fell against the pillows. “It’s for the best. This is no world for a fatherless child.”
Signora Fontana came around the bed, looked at the infant, and slowly crossed herself. “What will we do?”
“I’ll take her to Padre Pietro,” I said.
“He won’t bury her. The child’s father did not acknowledge her,” the signora said gravely.
“The priest and God will,” I said. “I’ll beg if I must.”
Despite my bold words, I was not sure what the priest could do. My shoulders deflated slightly as I cut the cord, removed the afterbirth, and wrapped the child in a blanket. After disposing of the afterbirth, I carried the infant toward the washstand, poured water into the basin, swirled my hands in the cool water, and wished it were warmer.
Carefully, I unwrapped the blanket and stared into the perfect face that even death could not rob of its beauty. I lifted the small body, amazed that the infant’s head fit in the palm of my hand. Cradling it over the water as I had with my own child four years before, I hummed a lullaby my mother had sang to me when I was a child. Gently, I scooped the water in my hand and let it trickle over the dark curls.
When she was clean and her skin dried, I clipped a piece of her hair and wrapped it in unblemished muslin before I dressed her in a small white gown I had sewn for her christening, and then I swaddled her in a crocheted blanket. “Mia, would you like to see the baby?”
“No.” Mia rolled on her side and wept. “No, I can’t bear it.”
“You’ll always wonder if you don’t,” I said.
“Please take her away.” As Mia cried, the signora gently stroked her hair.
With the babe in my arms, I went to my room and laid her on my bed. After moving to the washstand, I cleaned my hands, scrubbing away all traces of blood, and then checked my face in the mirror. Satisfied there were no tears, I removed my apron and rolled down my sleeves. After combing my hair and repinning it, I draped my head with black lace and then cradled the child close to my breasts.
By the time I descended the rear staircase and exited the kitchen door into the alley, the bombing had stopped. I had no idea how long this respite would last, so I moved quickly through cobbled alleys filled with smoke. All around I heard the sounds of tumbling stones, the shouts of men, water rushing from broken pipes, and, oddly, the sound of a violin bow straining over strings from a distant apartment.
Suddenly I resented the Fascists’ violence and grift, Mussolini’s unholy bargain with Germany, and the Allies’ determination to bomb us until we were dust.
I hurried past a boarded-up carpenter’s shop and along the piazza toward the steps leading up to the modest church of Saint Luca. I raced inside the building now filled with women and children seeking shelter. The women whispered the prayer “Ava Maria, gratia plena, fa’che non suoni la sirena,” their hushed tones drifting to the vaulted stone ceiling. Several of the young priests administered last rites to the injured while nuns tended to the earthlier needs of water and food.
I never considered asking for permission as I normally would as I rushed down the side aisle to Padre Pietro Franco’s closed office door and pushed it open. I found the priest sitting behind a carved desk that dated to da Vinci. He looked solemn, and his expression was tight with concentration as he spoke to a midsize man wearing a dark suit of moderate quality. They both turned to me, the padre’s face telegraphing shock while the stranger regarded me with suspicion.
Padre Pietro’s long face had thinned, and his dark hair now was feathered with gray. “Yes?”
“I am Signora Isabella Mancuso, and I attend services here.”
“Yes, I know you. You work in the dress shop on the Via Veneto and deliver clothes to the children in the ghetto,” Padre Pietro said.
I wasn’t surprised. The priest knew this city well. “Yes.”
The stranger tensed, watching me closely, his keen gaze outwardly absorbing a thousand little details, as if he were determining whether I were a threat.
I stepped forward so they could both see the still babe in my arms. The priest removed his glasses, as if he needed a moment. He looked older, more fragile, without the lenses. “Mia Ferraro gave birth to a child that never drew a breath.”
The stranger’s expression shifted; his interest piqued. I could not tell if he was annoyed by the intrusion or sad for the loss. “I’ll leave you.” His accent was distinctly Roman, but he had the air of a man who traveled. “We will speak later, Padre Pietro.”
“Yes, of course,” the priest replied.
The man nodded slightly as he passed me. “Signora.”
When the door closed behind the man, the padre focused his attention on the child. “I haven’t seen Mia in months. I had heard she was in Assisi with her aunt.”
The last six months in Rome had been chaotic as the city’s population had swelled with refugees, deserters, spies, and more Germans. A girl hiding out to keep her pregnancy secret was an easy detail to overlook.
Padre Pietro slid on his glasses and thankfully regained some of his vigor as he rose. Stone dust smeared his dark cassock, and blood-soaked dirt smeared his hands. I imagined him with his flock, trying to dig out the survivors from the rubble.
“Let me see,” he said.
I drew back the blanket and revealed the child’s angel face. Ivory skin was offset by dark curly hair, and her bow lips, though pale, were perfectly formed. Perhaps if the child had been born in a hospital or if Mia had not been riddled with worry for the father, the child would have lived. But she had not survived, and now there was only her eternal soul to consider.
Padre Pietro made the sign of the cross over the infant. “I am sorry to hear this. How is Mia?”
“Physically she appears to be fine.”
A bitter smile tugged at the edges of his lips. “It’s a blessing she will recover.”
“Will you bury the child on consecrated land?” I asked.
“Who is the father?”
“Mia never said.”
There was little Padre Pietro did not know about in this part of Rome. “They did not marry?”
This familiar story had become more common in the last year. “No.”
Padre Pietro absently rubbed his raw knuckles. “Has the father acknowledged the child as his own?”
“Mia assures me that he would if he could.”
The priest sighed. “You’re asking much, Isabella,” he said, moving toward the sanctuary of his desk. “The church does not accept children such as this one.”
“How could God not accept such a pure soul?” My voice rose above a tense whisper, and for the first time, outrage threaded through my words. I stepped closer to the priest. “You must do this for me.”
“I am sorry, Isabella. I have a church full of the injured and dying.”
“I’ve seen you break rules before, Padre. I know you’ve looked the other way when Resistance fighters hid in the church or Jewish refugees sought sanctuary. You have connections on the black market. How is helping this child so different?”
He leaned against his desk, as if the weight of my request was too much. “The child cannot be welcomed into holy ground. That is not my rule but God’s.”
“Tell me where God is now, Padre. Tell me if he heard the screams of your parishioners when the bombs fell or when the secret police took them to their headquarters on the Via Rattazzi? If you believed so fully in God’s will, why would you bloody your hands removing stone trapping the fallen?”
“God helps those who help themselves.”
“We’ve kept the child’s birth a secret from everyone. No one will know you’ve administered the sacraments but you, me, and God.”
The silence trailing my words grew heavier until finally he nodded slightly. It was as much of an acceptance as I would get. “Wait here,” he said.
When he left the room, my shoulders deflated, and I sank into a chair. I tenderly rearranged the blanket swaddled around the motionless child. A ticking clock mingled with the prayers of another padre and children scurrying in the hallways. “He will take care of you, my love.”
When Mia had first told me she was pregnant, I had not been entirely shocked. She was a lovely girl, with blonde hair, fair skin, and pouty lips that men adored. Soon after her arrival in Rome, she and her brother began going out to dinners and cafés, and she often arrived home late and unescorted. Signora Fontana and I argued with the girl, but Mia would smile, produce a handful of flowers or chocolates, and somehow alleviate our concerns.
And then she came to me in June, weeping and confessing her secret as she opened her robe and showed me her rounded belly. I was angry and worried. This was not the time for a baby, and with no father present, the outcome promised to be dire. After the shock eased, we made a plan. She stayed sequestered in her rooms, and I told our employer, Senor Sebastian, that she had traveled to Assisi to visit a distant aunt.
Despite all the reasons to resent the child, I found my excitement for the birth growing. Signora and I sewed outfits and blankets and crocheted hats as I once had for my child. I had believed that Mia’s darkening mood would lift once the infant was born.
“I am sorry,” I whispered. “You deserved better.”
A knock on the door had me rising to face a young altar boy, who could not have been more than ten. His name was Carlo, and he had dark-brown eyes, thick ink-black hair, and a solemn expression common in Rome now. “Come with me,” he said.
I embraced the child and followed him along a corridor that led to a small private cemetery bathed in bright sunshine. The light was an affront to us all. The windless, azure sky should have been blocked by dark clouds and rain weeping into water-soaked land. Life should have halted, but the world spun as it always did and in time would grind the pain to dust.
As I crossed the threshold into the courtyard, the warm sun brushed my face but did not penetrate the chill settling in my bones. I was certain I would never feel warmth again as birds tweeted and a soft breeze brushed the tops of olive trees rimming the courtyard. I followed the stone path until I saw Padre Pietro standing in his dust-stained cassock and a bright stole.
I approached him and saw the very small hole scored in the earth. Padre Pietro looked at me. “What is her name?”
“Gina,” I said easily. Mia and I had never discussed names, but it had been my daughter’s name, and it seemed fitting the two angels share it.
“Very well.” He began the service, his deep voice reciting the prayers of the dead. The words floated around me as I silently begged God to accept this child in his loving arms. I would gladly trade my life or fulfill any of his wishes if he would spare the girl’s soul.
The padre rushed the sacrament, as if he feared we would be seen. Finally, he made the sign of the cross in front of his face.
“You may lay Gina now in the cradle of God’s arms,” he said quietly.
I kissed Gina on the forehead and then made the sign of the cross over her brow before I covered her face with the blanket. I knelt and then laid her on the soft soil.
I removed the crucifix that had been in our family for generations and tucked it in the blanket. Very slowly, I fisted handfuls of dirt and sprinkled it over the small body, slowly covering every inch until she vanished from sight. The child’s loss would forever cast a deep shadow on Mia, whether she now realized it or not.
Standing slowly, I sensed someone in the shadows, watching, but when I turned, I saw no one. “Thank you, Padre.”
“Isabella,” Padre Pietro said softly. “I may need a favor from you.”
God was already calling. “What is it?”
“We will not speak of it now, but soon. Go home to Mia and tend to her.”
Of course, I could not deny him anything. He had saved the child’s soul.
The Words We Whisper Reviews
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