Beneath a scarlet sky, p.10
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       Beneath a Scarlet Sky, p.10

           Mark Sullivan
 

  Mimo said, “Just climb the stairs Pino made, stabbing the axes and the crampons’ blades in tight, back and forth all the way up.”

  “But I could slip.”

  Pino called down the chute, “Not with us holding the rope, and definitely not if you kick those crampons and swing those axes like you mean it . . . like your violin bow when you play con smania.”

  That last bit, referring to playing with passion, seemed to get through to her, because Mrs. Napolitano slashed up and out with her right ax. From above, Pino heard the pick end drive solidly into the ice. He backed up to join Mr. D’Angelo on the rope, and he had his wife lie on her belly, looking over the edge and down the chute to tell them each time the pregnant violinist was going to shift her weight and climb higher. Whereas the others had come up half meter by half meter, her ascent was measured in centimeters.

  Almost four meters off the ground, Mrs. Napolitano somehow lost her footing, shrieked, and fell. They caught her, and she dangled there, moaning and blubbering until they could coax her into trying again. Thirty-five nail-biting minutes later, they hauled her up and over onto the balcony. In the wavering light of the miner’s lamp, frost coated her clothes and icy snot clung to her face, making her look like she’d been through a frozen hell and back.

  “I hated that,” she said, collapsing. “Every second of it I hated.”

  “But you’re here,” Pino said, grinning. “Not many people could have done that, and you did. For your baby.”

  The violinist placed her mittens over her overcoat and belly, and closed her eyes. It took another twenty minutes until they could hoist up the packs, tasks made difficult by the poles and skis strapped to the sides, and another fifteen minutes for Mimo to come up the chimney.

  “That wasn’t too bad,” Mimo said.

  “You must have been tortured as a child,” Mrs. Napolitano said.

  By Pino’s watch it was almost six o’clock. Dawn would come soon. He wanted them off the face of the Groppera before that. He tied them all back into the rope line, and they started higher.

  At six thirty, when they should have been seeing the first paling in the eastern sky, it was suddenly darker than it had been during the entire ordeal. The moon had vanished. Pino felt the wind shift, too, out of the north now, and stronger.

  “We have to move faster,” he said. “We have a storm coming.”

  “What?” Mrs. Napolitano cried. “Up here?”

  “This is where storms happen,” Mimo said. “But don’t worry. My brother knows the way.”

  Pino did know the way, and for the next hour as daylight came amid flurrying snow, they made steady progress. The snowfall was good, Pino decided. It would help hide them from all prying eyes.

  Around seven thirty the storm intensified, and Pino dug out a pair of glacier glasses his father had given him for Christmas, with leather side blinders to keep out the snow. Dark clouds enveloped the Groppera. Supercooled by the frozen crag above them, the clouds began to pour snow down on them. Pino fought the urge to panic as he used his ski poles to probe his way forward, intensely aware that the higher they got, the greater the likelihood of a false step. The wind began to swirl, causing whiteouts. The visibility was so low he was almost climbing blind, and it rattled him. Pino was trying to keep faith, but he felt doubt and growing alarm creep into his mind. What if he took the wrong angle on the route? Or made a misstep at a crucial time and fell? With his weight, they’d all be going for a neck-breaking ride. He felt the rope tug him to a halt.

  “I can’t see,” Judith cried.

  “Neither can I,” her mother said.

  “We’ll wait, then,” Pino said, trying to keep his voice calm. “Turn your backs to the wind.”

  The snow kept falling. Had the wind stayed a steady gale, they never would have made the catwalk. Instead, it gusted and died to almost nothing every few minutes. During those gaps where Pino could make out the route, they fought their way upward until he felt the ridgeline level out and narrow. Ahead fifteen meters, he could make out the catwalk and the snowy, concave mouths of the avalanche chutes on either side.

  “We go one by one here,” he said. “See the white little bowls of snow next to the spine? Don’t step there. Just put your feet exactly where I do, and you’ll be fine.”

  “What’s under that snow?” Mrs. Napolitano asked.

  Pino didn’t want to tell her. Mimo said, “Air. Lots of it.”

  “Oh,” she said. “Ohhh.”

  Pino wanted to smack his brother.

  “C’mon now, Mrs. N,” Pino said, trying to sound encouraging. “You’ve come this far, and done worse. And I’ll have the other end of the rope.”

  The violinist made a puffing noise, hesitated, and then nodded weakly. Pino untied the group line and knotted it to Mimo’s to create one long line. While he worked, he whispered to his brother. “From now on, keep your mouth shut.”

  “What?” Mimo said. “Why?”

  “Sometimes the less you know, the better.”

  “Where I come from, the more you know, the better.”

  Seeing it was fruitless to argue, Pino tied the rope around his waist. He imagined himself a tightrope walker and held the ski poles horizontally to help him balance.

  Each step was dreadful. He’d test first with the toe of his crampon, kicking gently until he heard rock or ice, and then press his heel directly onto that spot. Twice he felt his balance teeter, but managed both times to right himself before reaching the narrow ledge beyond. He paused, his forehead resting against the rock until he felt composed enough to drive a piton into the face.

  He got the rope rigged through it. Mimo pulled back the slack, and the rope was taut, like a banister. The wind gusted. The whiteout returned. They were visually separated for more than a minute. When it calmed and he was able to make out the others back on the other side of the catwalk, they looked ghostly.

  Pino swallowed hard. “Send Anthony first.”

  Anthony held on to the taut rope with his right hand and put his boots exactly in Pino’s prints. He was across in a minute. Judith followed her brother, holding on to the rope and putting her boots in Pino’s prints. They accomplished the task with relative ease.

  Mrs. D’Angelo came next. She froze between the avalanche chutes, looking hypnotized.

  Then her young son called out, “C’mon, Mama. You can do it.”

  She pushed on, and when she reached the ledge she wrapped her arms around her children and cried. Mr. D’Angelo came next and accomplished the feat in seconds. He explained that he’d done gymnastics as a boy.

  The wind gusted before Mrs. Napolitano could begin the journey. Pino cursed to himself. He knew that the mental trick to crossing something like the catwalk was not to think about it until you were actually in motion. But she couldn’t help thinking about it now.

  Her ascent of the chimney, however, seemed to have emboldened Mrs. Napolitano, because when the wind ebbed and the visibility returned, she started across without Pino’s prompting. When she was three-quarters of the way across the catwalk, the wind picked up again, and she vanished in swirling white.

  “Don’t move a muscle,” Pino shouted into the void. “Wait it out!”

  Mrs. Napolitano did not reply. He kept testing the line gently, feeling the weight of her out there until, at last, the wind dropped, and she was standing there coated in snow, as still as a statue.

  When she reached the ledge, she held on to Pino tightly for several moments and said, “I don’t think I’ve ever been that scared in my life. I know I haven’t prayed that hard in my life.”

  “Your prayers were answered,” he said, patting her on the back, and then whistling for his brother.

  With one end of the long rope tightly knotted around his brother’s waist, and Pino ready to take in slack, he said, “Ready?”

  “I was born ready,” Mimo replied, and set off quick and sure.

  “Slow down,” Pino said, trying to pull the slack rope through the pito
n and carabiner as fast as possible.

  Mimo was already almost between the two avalanche chutes. “Why?” he said. “Father Re says I’m part mountain goat.”

  Those words had no sooner left Mimo’s mouth than he stumbled slightly. His right foot shot out too far, and broke through. There was a sound like someone plumping a pillow. Then the snow in the chute swirled and slid like water cycling down a drain, and to Pino’s horror, his little brother went with it, vanishing into a whirlpool of white.

  Chapter Eleven

  “Mimo!” Pino yelled, and heaved back on the rope. His brother’s weight jerked in the void and almost pulled Pino off his feet.

  “Help!” Pino cried to Mr. D’Angelo.

  Mrs. Napolitano got there first, grabbed hold of the line behind Pino with her mittens, and threw her weight backward. The rope held. The load held.

  “Mimo!” Pino shouted. “Mimo!”

  No answer. The wind gusted, and with it the world above the avalanche chute whited out once more.

  “Mimo!” he screamed.

  Silence for a moment, and then came a weak, shaken voice. “I’m here. Jesus, get me up. There’s nothing but a lot of air below me. I think I’m going to be sick.”

  Pino hauled against the rope, but it gave no ground.

  “My pack’s caught on something,” Mimo said. “Lower me a little.”

  Mr. D’Angelo had taken Mrs. Napolitano’s place by then, and though he hated to give up any ground in a situation like this, Pino reluctantly let the rope slide through his leather gloves.

  “Got it,” Mimo said.

  They heaved and pulled and brought Mimo to the lip. Pino tied off the rope and had Mr. D’Angelo pin his legs down so he could reach over to grab his brother’s rucksack. Seeing Mimo’s hat was gone, seeing him bleeding from a nasty head cut, and seeing how the chute fell away below him, Pino surged with adrenaline and hoisted his brother onto the ledge.

  The two brothers sat against the rock face, chests heaving.

  “Don’t ever do that again,” Pino said at last. “Mama and Papa would never forgive me. I’d never forgive me.”

  Mimo gasped, “I think that’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”

  Pino threw his arm around his brother’s neck and hugged him once and hard.

  “Okay, okay,” Mimo protested. “Thanks for saving my life.”

  “You’d do the same.”

  “Of course, Pino. We’re brothers. Always.”

  Pino nodded, feeling like he’d never loved his brother as much as he did right then.

  Mrs. D’Angelo knew some first aid. She used snow to clean out the scalp wound and stanch the blood flow. They tore pieces of a scarf for bandages, and then wrapped the rest around Mimo’s head for an improvised hat that the children said made him look like a fortune-teller.

  The gusts slowed, but the snow fell harder as Pino led them up to that ledge along the low neck of the crag.

  “We can’t climb that,” Mr. D’Angelo said, craning his head up at the peak, which was like an icy spearhead above them.

  “We’re going around it,” Pino said. He pressed his stomach to the wall and started to step sideways.

  Just before he rounded the corner where the ledge dropped nineteen or twenty centimeters in width, he looked back at Mrs. Napolitano and the others.

  “There’s a cable here. It’s iced up, but you’ll be able to grip it. I want you to hold it, right-hand knuckles up, left-hand knuckles down, above and below, right? Do not under any circumstances release your grip until you reach the other side.”

  “Other side of what?” Mrs. Napolitano asked.

  Pino glanced toward the wall and down, saw that snow blocked any real view of what was a very, very long fall—an unlivable fall.

  “The rock wall will be right in front of your nose,” Pino said. “Look in front of you and sideways, but not behind you or down.”

  “I’m not going to like this, am I?” the violinist asked.

  “I’ll bet you didn’t like the first night you played at La Scala, but you did it, and you can do this.”

  Despite the frost on her face, she licked her lips, shuddered, and then nodded.

  After everything they’d been through, crossing the face via the cable and ledge proved easier than Pino expected. But that side of the peak was southeast facing and leeward to the storm. All five refugees and Mimo came across without further incident.

  Pino collapsed in the snow, thanking God for watching over them, and praying that they’d seen the worst. But the winds picked up again, not in gusts but with steady force that drove the snowflakes into their faces like icy needles. The farther northeast they trudged, the worse the storm got, until Pino wasn’t exactly sure where he was. Of all the obstacles they’d faced since leaving Casa Alpina that morning, moving blind in a snowstorm across an open ridge was the most dangerous, at least where Pino was concerned. Pizzo Groppera was pocked with crevasses at that time of year. They could fall six meters or more into one of them and not be found until spring. Even if he could avoid the mountain’s physical dangers, with the cold and wet came the threat of hypothermia and death.

  “I can’t see!” Mrs. Napolitano said.

  The D’Angelo children began to cry. Judith couldn’t feel her feet or hands. Pino was on the verge of panic when ahead, out of the storm, a cairn appeared. The stack of rocks immediately oriented Pino. Ahead of them lay Val di Lei, but the forest was still a solid four, maybe five kilometers away. Then he remembered that along the trail that climbed north from the cairn there was another shepherd’s hut with a stove.

  “We can’t go on until the storm lets up!” Pino shouted to them. “But I know a place we can take shelter, get warm, and ride it out!”

  The refugees all nodded with relief. Thirty minutes later, Pino and Mimo were on their hands and knees, burrowing into the snow to open the door to the hut. Pino ducked inside first and turned on the miner’s lamp. Mimo made sure the stove was not booby-trapped, and built a fire. Before they lit it, Pino went out into the snow once more and invited them inside before climbing onto the roof to make sure the chimney was clear.

  He pressed the door shut and told his brother to light the stove. The matches caught the dry tinder, and soon the kindling and logs were ablaze. The firelight revealed the exhaustion in all their faces.

  Pino knew he’d made the right decision coming here and letting the storm sputter out before they pushed on. But would Mr. Bergstrom be there in the woods beyond Val di Lei? The Swiss man would suspect the storm had delayed their progress. He’d come back when it was over, wouldn’t he?

  In a few moments, those questions were pushed aside. The little stove was almost red-hot and throwing delicious heat into the dirt-floored, low-ceilinged hut. Mrs. D’Angelo pulled off Judith’s boots and began to knead her daughter’s frozen feet.

  “It stings,” Judith said.

  “It’s the blood returning,” Pino said. “Sit closer to the fire and take your socks off.”

  Soon they were all stripping down. Pino checked Mimo’s head wound, which had stopped bleeding, and then got out food and drink. He heated tea on the stove, and they ate cheese and bread and salami. Mrs. Napolitano said it was the best meal of her life.

  Anthony fell asleep in his father’s lap. Pino turned off the miner’s lamp and nodded into a deep, dreamless sleep of his own. He woke long enough to see everyone else dozing around him, then checked the fire, which was down to fading embers.

  Hours later, a sound like a locomotive engine woke Pino. The train rumbled right at them, shook the ground, passed, and then there was nothing but a deep silence for many long seconds, broken only by the groaning and popping of the logs supporting the roof. From deep in Pino’s gut, he knew they were in trouble once more.

  “What was that, Pino?” Mrs. Napolitano cried.

  “Avalanche,” Pino said, trying to control the tremor in his voice as he groped for the miner’s lamp. “It came right over the top of us
.”

  He lit the lamp. He went to the door, pulled it open, and was shaken to his core. Avalanche-hardened snow and debris completely blocked the hut’s only exit.

  Mimo came up beside him, saw the dense wall of ice and snow, and in a terrified whisper said, “Mary, Mother of God, Pino, it’s buried us alive.”

  The hut erupted in cries and worries. Pino barely heard them. He was staring at the wall of snow and feeling like the Mother of God and God himself had betrayed him, and everyone else in that hut. What good is faith now? These people just wanted safety, refuge from the storm, and instead they got—

  Mimo tugged his arm, said, “What are we going to do?”

  Pino stared at his brother, hearing the frightened questions the D’Angelos and Mrs. Napolitano were firing at him, and feeling completely overwhelmed. He was only seventeen, after all. Part of him wanted to sit against the wall, hang his head, and cry.

  But then the faces looking at him in the glow of the miner’s lamp came back into focus. They needed him. They were his responsibility. If they died, it would be his fault. That clicked something inside him, and he looked at his watch. It was a quarter to ten in the morning.

  Air, he thought, and with that one word, his brain cleared and he had purpose.

  “Everyone be quiet and still,” he said, crossing to the cool stove and turning the damper. To his relief it moved. The snow had not come that far down the chimney.

  “Mimo, Mr. D’Angelo, help me,” Pino said as he put his gloves on and worked to free the chimney from the stove.

  “What are you doing?” Mrs. Napolitano asked.

  “Trying not to suffocate.”

  “Oh dear God,” the violinist said. “After everything I’ve been through, my baby and I are going to choke to death in here.”

  “Not if I can help it.”

  Pino disconnected the stove and moved it aside. Then, close to the ceiling, they detached the lower section of the blackened sheet metal chimney and put it aside, too.

  Pino tried to shine the miner’s lamp into the tube, but he couldn’t see much. He held his hand across the hole, feeling for a breeze, some sign that air was getting through. Nothing. Fighting panic, he got one of his bamboo ski poles and used his knife to cut the leather and metal basket off the bottom, leaving him with the exposed steel spike.

  Pino pushed the ski pole up the chimney hole. It stopped when half the pole had vanished. He jabbed at the blockage. Snow dropped out and to the floor. He started jabbing and turning and probing with the ski pole, causing a steady stream of snow to fall from the tube. Five minutes. Ten minutes. He could push the ski pole and his arm up the chimney, and it still felt blocked.

  “How long can we last in here without air?” Mimo asked.

  “I have no idea,” Pino said, and pulled the pole down and out again.

  He took a second ski pole and cut the leather pieces from the pole baskets into narrower strips. With the strips and his belt, he managed to attach the two poles end to end, spike to handle. It was a wobbly connection at best, and Pino could no longer stab as hard as he could with the single pole.

  How long can we survive without air? Four, five hours? Less?

  Mimo, Mr. D’Angelo, and Pino took turns chipping at the snow in the chimney, while Mrs. Napolitano, Mrs. D’Angelo, and the children huddled in the corner, watching. All their exertions and exhalations had turned the interior of the hut warm, almost hot. The sweat poured off Pino’s head as he kept teasing the ski poles upward, chopping out snow bit by bit.

  Two hours after he started, when the handle of the lower ski pole was almost to the ceiling, he hit something that felt unmovable. He kept chipping at it, but all he was getting was slivers of ice. There had to be a block of it above.

  “It’s not going,” Mimo said, frustrated.

  “You keep at it,” Pino said, stepping aside.

  It was now stifling hot in the hut. Pino stripped off his shirt and felt himself struggling for breath. Is this it? Will it hurt, not having air? He flashed on a fish he’d seen dying on the beach at Rapallo once, how its mouth and gills had sought water, each movement smaller than the last until there was none. Is that how we’ll die? Like fish?

  Pino did his best to control the panic swirling in his stomach while his brother and then Mr. D’Angelo kept chipping at the obstruction. Please God, he prayed. Please don’t let us all die here like this. Mimo and I were trying to help these people. We don’t deserve to die like this. We deserve to get out and keep helping people escape the—

 
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