Counting usually helped. It was therapeutic, dulled the pain that burned in his calves. Each pedal-stroke had its own number as he climbed higher into the Venetian Prealps, upon the back of Mounte Grappa. Sweat gathered beneath his helmet’s visor as he cycled through another rotation. The road was bare, quiet, leaving only asphalt and the sun to be conquered; no other cyclists pushed him forward.

He savored each stride upon his black and celeste Bianchi, each burst of agony in his muscles as he manipulated the stiff frame. If only his father could see him now, toiling to the top of the little known Italian mountain. He’d been raised spinning, tinkering with bicycle wheels, racing on tracks. But this was different. This was complete solitude.

“25,000 dead.”

25,000 pedal-strokes, one for each of the fallen soldiers, Italian and Austrian, who lay entombed upon the mountain’s height. 25,000 men who had fallen in the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo in 1917, during World War I.

The climb steepened to its 20% incline, and he pressed on, devouring his last gel pack, Cola-flavored. Moving upward, he felt fear infect his gut with the sensation that if he stopped peddling, he would fall off the edge of the world.

He could smell the tear gas, the cries of desperation, the gunshots that must have rang, unencumbered, that late October day. The day that, against innumerable odds, the Italians had defended their homeland. He was no one, a business man from Southern California. But today, he was among their spirits, heard their ghosts whisper: Di Qui Non Si Passa.

He crested the mountain, no longer aware of his body only the burning sensation that had replaced his senses. The silence in the air was overwhelming as he stopped to remove his helmet at the soldiers’ memorial and stared at the gray block of stone, inscribed with their names. And even though he had violated their wish of “From here, none shall pass” he stretched out his arm in an offering of peace. And humbled by the climb rather than triumphant, he bowed before the sacrifice they had made.

He did not disturb the silence, but rather, prayed his father could see him upon the mountain, honoring the dead. He clipped back into his pedals, mounted the bike and began his descent. He did not ride back the way he had come but, instead shouldered the souls of those who had passed and brought them with him down the mountain. Down where all guardians could finally come to rest and be honored, if only in memory.  


Salena Casha's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Black Fox Literary Review, Foundling Review, The Quotable, Bete Noire, In Between Altered States and others. Follow her on twitter @salaylay_c.