Excerpt from Chapter 13
The Toronto-based literary magazine, untethered, published the following excerpt in their Spring 2018 issue.
a river of oranges
In the winter of 1950, while my father was enduring the bitter Northern Ontario cold, we were adjusting to the gloom and damp of Sant’Antonio. Sant’Antonio a Picenza is located on the fertile plain of the Picentino River at the foot of the picturesque Picentine hills. The refugee camp was located less than a kilometre away from extensive orange groves. My friends and I first noticed these orchards one November afternoon as we made our way to the movies. We didn’t pay much attention to the orchards at the time but, in January, the orange-laden trees were impossible to miss.
From the bridge over the Picentine River, we could see the first two properties but not beyond the curve in the river. What caught our eye, from the bridge, was the sight of oranges floating in the river, carried by the current, some singly, others in clusters of five or ten. We could also see that the protective stone walls topped with glass shards embedded in the concrete ended near the bridge. A barbed wire fence continued from the bridge to the edge of the river. It did not escape our conspiratorial eyes that our skinny bodies would have no problem wriggling under that fence.
We discussed our plot to retrieve those oranges, all the way to the movies and all the way back. We agreed that we should meet after supper and go at night under cover of darkness. We went on our first foray in secrecy, without alerting our mothers. My three friends and I, armed with burlap sacks, made our way to the river bank. We found the spot in the fence with the most clearance and easily made our way under it. The land sloped down to the river; we were safely out of sight of the distant farmhouse, whose lights we had seen from the bridge. The floating oranges were easy to spot, even in the darkness -- they glistened as they bobbed in the fast-flowing water. From the bank, we stretched out our arms as far as we could, without falling into the river, and caught the oranges within our reach. It took us almost an hour to gather our fill. We were all in accord, after that experience, that on subsequent trips we would come prepared with long sticks in order to reach the oranges that were beyond arm’s length.
We carried the heavy sacks back as far as we could then we dragged them the rest of the way to the camp and our respective units. My mother was happy to see the oranges but scolded me for leaving the camp without telling her. The next day she talked to the other mothers of this little band of ruffians and they agreed that the oranges should be shared with all our neighbours. My friends and I divided the bounty; we each carried a bowl of about a dozen oranges to our nearest neighbours. Though waterlogged, the oranges still tasted sweet and they were gratefully accepted. When I proffered my bowl to the woman in the next unit, she told me she had not seen an orange in years.
I recall making at least three more visits to the river with my friends and, this time, the trips were at the urging of our mothers. On our last expedition, not content with gathering the river oranges, we had the audacity to climb the slope and gather not only the windfall oranges, but also the low hanging ones. We were busy filling our bags when we heard the deep barking dogs and voices coming from the house at the other end of the orchard, followed by angry shouts. In a panic, we dropped the bags and ran full speed. We outran the irate farmers who were shouting at us and shining their flashlights in our direction. We dragged our bellies under the barbed wire fence and made a dash for the bank of the river and to safety. Thankfully, the farmers didn’t release the dogs; but they did complain to the camp authorities and, from then on, the guard on duty inspected all incoming sacks, confiscating any that contained dry, firm oranges. We were convinced that those oranges never made their way back to the farmers but were probably distributed among the guards and their friends.
A River of Oranges: Memories of a Displaced Childhood