Beneath a scarlet sky, p.11
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       Beneath a Scarlet Sky, p.11

           Mark Sullivan
 

  Something came clanking down the chimney and smashed into Mimo’s hands.

  “Ahhhh,” he yelled in pain. “Damn, that hurt. What was that?”

  Pino aimed the miner’s lamp on the ground. A chunk of ice the size of two fists lay in the dirt. Then he noticed shadows wavering on the walls and the dirt around the ice chunk. He went to the chimney stub, put his hand to it, and felt a small but steady chill draft.

  “We’ve got air!” he said, hugging his brother.

  Mr. D’Angelo said, “And now we dig out?”

  “And now we dig out,” Pino said.

  “You think you can?” Mrs. Napolitano said.

  “No other choice,” Pino said, looking up the chimney tube, seeing pale light, and remembering how high the chimney stuck out of the roof. Then he looked at the open door and the wall of white debris that clogged the entrance. The top of the door frame was low—one and a half meters? He imagined a tunnel angling upward. But how long?

  Mimo must have been thinking along the same lines because he said, “We’ve got at least three meters of digging.”

  “More,” Pino said. “We can’t dig a shaft straight up. We’re going to have to go at an angle to the door so we can crawl up it.”

  They used the ice axes, the hatchet, and the small metal shovel that came with the woodstove to attack the avalanche rubble. They dug at a seventy-degree angle to the door frame, trying to bore out a passage big enough to crawl through. The first part of a meter was relatively easy. The snow was looser. Small blocks and gravel-sized streams of ice and debris came free with each strike of the ax.

  “We’ll be out before dark,” Mimo said, shoveling the snow back into the deepest part of the hut.

  Pino’s carbide lamp died, leaving them all in pitch-blackness.

  “Shit,” Mimo said.

  “Mommy,” Anthony whined.

  Mrs. Napolitano said, “How will we see to dig?”

  Pino lit a match, dug in his pack, and came out with two devotional candles. He had three. So did Mimo. He lit them and placed them above and beside the doorway. They no longer had the strong glow of the headlamp to rely on, but their eyes soon adjusted to the flickering light, and they set at the avalanche debris again, chopping and picking at what now felt like a monolithic block of snow and ice. Superheated by the friction created in the avalanche, the debris had become as solid as cement in places.

  Progress ground to a crawl. But every chunk removed was a cause for celebration, and slowly the tunnel began to form, wider than Pino’s shoulders, first a meter, then almost two meters long. They took turns, the man up front chipping at the ice and snow, and the other two moving the snow out into the hut, where the D’Angelo family and Mrs. Napolitano were crowded into a corner, watching the snow mound grow.

  “Will we have enough room for all the snow?” the pregnant violinist asked.

  “If we have to, we’ll start up the stove and melt some of it,” Pino said.

  By eight o’clock that evening, they were, by Pino’s estimate, four meters out from the door when he had to call it quits. He couldn’t swing the axes anymore. He had to eat and to sleep. They all had to eat and to sleep.

  He divided the remaining provisions in the packs while Mimo and Mr. D’Angelo reassembled the stove. He apportioned one half of the provisions into six shares, and they ate dried meat, dried fruit, nuts, and cheese. They drank more tea and huddled together before Pino lit the stove and blew out the third-to-last candle.

  Twice during the night, he dreamed of being buried alive in a casket, and he awoke with a start, listening to the others breathing and the tic-tic-tic of the stove cooling. Snow had melted into the dirt floor, and he knew he’d soon be lying in chill mud. But he was so tired, and his muscles so sore and cramped, he didn’t care, and slept a third time.

  Mimo budged him hours later. He had the second-to-last candle lit.

  “It’s six a.m.,” his brother said. “Time to get out of here.”

  It was cold again. Pino’s bones ached. Every joint was sore. But he set about dividing up the last of the food and the water he’d melted on the stove the night before.

  Mr. D’Angelo went into the tunnel first. He lasted twenty minutes. Mimo lasted thirty and slid out of the tunnel, soaked from sweat and melting ice.

  “I left the ax and the candle up there,” he said. “You’ll have to relight it.”

  Pino crawled back up the tunnel, now five meters long by his estimate. When he hit the wall, he rolled over and lit one of his last four matches. The candle was dwindling.

  He attacked the snow and ice with a fury. He chopped, stabbed, and broke chunks of the snow. He scooped, pushed, and kicked the frozen debris behind him.

  “Slow down!” Mimo called thirty minutes into the ordeal. “We can’t keep up.”

  Pino paused, gasping like he’d run a long race, and glanced at the candle, now barely a stub and sputtering against drips of water falling every so often from the ceiling of the tunnel.

  He reached up and moved the candle over, set it on a ledge he cut with the ax. Then he set to chopping again, at a slower rhythm than before and with more strategy. He looked for the cracks in the surface and tried to cut into them. Pieces began to peel off in triangular and odder-shaped slabs ten or twelve centimeters thick.

  The snow’s different, he thought, running the granules through his hand. It was breakable, and the crystals were almost all faceted like his mother’s finest jewelry. He sat there, thinking that this kind of snow could cave in from above. As they were chopping their way through that solid block of snow and ice, he’d never considered that the ceiling could collapse. Now, it was all he could think about, and it froze him.

  “What’s the problem?” Mimo called as he crawled up the tunnel behind him.

  Before Pino could reply, the candle’s flame sputtered and died, sending him back into total darkness. He buried his face in his hands, finally overwhelmed by the feeling that he, like the candle, was about to die and go black. Waves of emotion—fear, abandonment, and disbelief—crashed over him.

  “Why?” he whispered. “What did we—?”

  “Pino!” Mimo shouted. “Pino, look up!”

  Pino raised his head and saw that the tunnel had not gone pitch dark. A dull, silvery glow showed through the tunnel ceiling, and his tears of despair turned to joy.

  They were almost to the surface, but as Pino had feared, the hoary snow broke apart and caved in on him twice, forcing him to back up and dig out before at last he pushed the ax forward and felt it break the final resistance.

  When he pulled the ax back, bright sunshine blazed in.

  “I’m through,” he shouted. “I’m through!”

  Mrs. Napolitano, Mrs. D’Angelo, and the children were cheering when he forced his head and then his shoulders up out of the snow crust. The storm had long passed, leaving cold mountain air that smelled delicious and tasted better. The sky was clear and cobalt blue. The sun had only just come over a ridgeline to the east. Fifteen new centimeters of powder snow lay over the rubble field, which he figured was nearly fifty meters wide and fifteen hundred meters long. High above him on the Groppera’s crag, he could see a jagged fracture line in the snow.

  In places, the slide had stripped the mountain almost bare. Rock and dirt and small trees were mixed into the new snow. Seeing the destruction and getting a sense of the sheer power of the avalanche, he believed it was a miracle that they’d survived.

  Mrs. D’Angelo thought so, too, as did her husband, who followed his children out. Mimo exited behind Mrs. Napolitano. Pino went back in, grabbed the skis and packs, and pushed them up the passage.

  When he emerged from the tunnel for the last time, he felt spent and filled with gratitude. It is a miracle we got out. How else can you explain it?

  “What’s that?” Anthony asked, gesturing down the valley.

  “That, my friend, is Val di Lei,” Pino said. “And those mountains over there? That’s Pizzo Emet and Pizzo Palù. W
ay down below those peaks, in those trees there, Italy becomes Switzerland.”

  “It looks far,” Judith said.

  “About five kilometers?” Pino said.

  “We can do it,” Mr. D’Angelo said. “Everybody helps everybody.”

  “I can’t,” Mrs. Napolitano said.

  Pino turned to find the pregnant violinist sitting on a snow boulder, one hand on her belly and the other holding her instrument case. Her clothes were coated in frost.

  “Sure you can,” Pino said.

  She shook her head, started to cry. “All this. It’s too much. I’m spotting blood.”

  Pino didn’t understand until Mrs. D’Angelo said, “The baby, Pino.”

  His gut fell. She was going to lose the baby? Out here?

  Oh God. No. Please no.

  “You can’t move?” Mimo asked.

  “I shouldn’t move at all,” Mrs. Napolitano said.

  “But you can’t stay here,” Mimo said. “You’ll die.”

  “And if I move, my child might die.”

  “You don’t know that.”

  “I can feel my body telling me so.”

  “But if you stay, you’ll both die here,” Mimo insisted.

  “It’s better,” the violinist said. “I could not live if my baby were to die. So go!”

  “No,” Pino said. “We are getting you to Switzerland like we promised Father Re.”

  “I won’t take a step!” Mrs. Napolitano shouted hysterically.

  Pino decided to stay with her and send on the others with Mimo, but then he looked around, thought a moment, and said, “Maybe you don’t have to take a step.”

  He dropped his pack and put on his long wooden skis with leather and steel cable bear trap bindings. He played with them until they were tight around his boots.

  “Ready?” he said to Mrs. Napolitano.

  “Ready for what?”

  “Get up on my back,” Pino said. “I’m taking you piggyback.”

  “On skis?” she said, terrified. “I’ve never been on skis in my entire life.”

  “You never were buried in an avalanche before, either,” Pino said. “And you won’t be on skis. I will.”

  She stared at him doubtfully. “What if we fall?”

  “I won’t let that happen,” he said with all the confidence of a seventeen-year-old who’d been skiing almost as long as he’d been walking.

  She didn’t move.

  “I’m giving you a chance to save your baby and be free,” Pino said, pulling the violin case from his pack.

  “What are you doing with my Stradivarius?” she asked.

  “Staying balanced,” Pino said, holding out the case in front of him as if it were the wheel of a car. “Like an orchestra, your violin will lead us.”

  There was a moment’s pause where Mrs. Napolitano looked to the sky and then stood up out of the snow, shaking with fear.

  “Hold my shoulders, not my neck,” Pino said, turning his back to her again. “And wrap your legs tight around my waist.”

  Mrs. Napolitano grabbed his shoulders. He squatted, got his arms behind her knees, and helped her up onto the small of his back. She got her legs around him, and he let go of them. She didn’t feel that much heavier than his pack.

  “Think like a jockey on a horse,” Pino said, bringing the violin up in front of him and holding it lengthwise. “And don’t let go.”

  “Letting go? No, never. Absolutely the farthest thing from my mind.”

  Pino felt a glimmer of doubt, but then shook it off, shuffled his feet, and aimed the skis downhill toward the outer edge of the avalanche field, some thirty meters away. They began to slide. There were bumps and ragged chunks of ice sticking up out of the newer snow. He tried to avoid them as they picked up speed. But then one loomed unavoidably in their way. They went right up over the top of it and launched, sailing through the air.

  “Ahhhh!!!!” Mrs. Napolitano screamed.

  Pino landed awkwardly, skis askew, and for a second he thought the boards were going to get away from him and that he and the pregnant violinist were going to twist and fall hard into the frozen debris.

  But then he saw they were going to collide with a stump. He did an instinctual hop move to his left, avoiding the stump, and then another. The two moves restored his equilibrium, and the skis accelerated. Pino and Mrs. Napolitano shot out of the debris field into fluffy powder snow.

  With the violin case thrust out in front of him, Pino grinned and began to churn his legs in unison, driving them deep into the snow, and then relaxing them so his feet rose up under his hips as Father Re had taught him. The movement unweighted him momentarily at the top of each turn, which allowed him to shift his weight and turn the skis almost effortlessly. The skis arced left and then right in long, linked curves, building speed and blowing through snowdrifts that exploded and showered their faces.

  Mrs. Napolitano hadn’t said a word in many seconds. He figured she’d stopped looking and was simply hanging on for dear life.

  “Wheeeeeeeeee!” she cried in his ear. “It’s like we’re birds, Pino! We’re flying!”

  Mrs. Napolitano giggled and made “whoop!” noises every time they dropped off a knoll. He felt her chin press down on his right shoulder, and understood she could see where they were going as he powered his skis in long, floating, lazy S-turns downslope toward the frozen lake and the woods and freedom beyond.

  Pino realized he would lose vertical drop soon. The way would flatten ahead. Even though his thighs were on fire, he pointed the skis straight down the last steep pitch, straight at that forested triangle of Italy that stuck into Switzerland.

  Pino wasn’t turning now, no slalom here. He was doing straight-line downhill, violin out front for balance, crouched in a semituck. The skis hissed and rode up on top of the snow. They hurtled down that last pitch, thirty, forty, maybe fifty kilometers an hour, one twitch of a knee away from disaster. He saw the transition where the hill met the flat and brought his legs up under him again to absorb it.

  They shot past the lake. Pino stayed low, cutting the wind, and they almost made the tree line. When they came to a halt, they were less than a snowball’s throw away.

  They were both quiet for a second.

  Then Mrs. Napolitano began to laugh. She unwrapped her legs from Pino’s waist and let go of her grip on his shoulders. She got down, and, holding her belly, knelt in the soft snow and began chortling like she’d never enjoyed anything so much in her life. Pino was caught up in her snorts and giggles. It was contagious. He fell beside her and laughed until he was crying.

  What a crazy thing we’ve done. Who would have—?

  “Pino!” a man’s voice called sharply.

  Pino startled and looked up to see Mr. Bergstrom standing just inside the tree line. He was carrying his shotgun and looked concerned.

  “We made it, Mr. Bergstrom!” Pino cried.

  “You’re a day late,” Bergstrom said. “And get out of the open. Bring her into the woods where she can’t be seen.”

  Pino sobered and took his skis off. He handed Mrs. Napolitano her violin. She sat up and hugged it, saying, “I think everything’s going to be all right now, Pino. I can feel it.”

  “Can you walk?” Pino asked.

  “I can try,” she said, and he helped her to her feet.

  He held her hand and elbow and supported her through the snow to the path.

  “What’s wrong with her?” Bergstrom asked when they’d slogged into the trees.

  Mrs. Napolitano explained about the baby and the spotting with a radiant glow on her face. “But now, I think I can walk however far you need me to.”

  “Not that far, several hundred meters,” Bergstrom said. “Once you’re in Switzerland, I can build you a fire. I’ll go down and come back for you with a sled.”

  “A few hundred meters I think I can do,” she said. “And a fire sounds like heaven above. Have you ever skied, Mr. Bergstrom?”

  The Swiss man looked at her as
if she were slightly addled, but he nodded.

  “Isn’t it grand?” the violinist said. “Isn’t it the greatest thing you’ve ever done?”

  Pino saw Mr. Bergstrom smile for the first time.

  They waited in the tree line, telling the Swiss man about the storm and the avalanche, and watching Mimo and the D’Angelos work their way slowly down the slope. Mrs. D’Angelo carried her daughter. Mr. D’Angelo had Pino’s pack and poles, and his son trailed behind. It took them almost an hour in the deep snow to reach the flat above the lake.

  Pino skied out to meet them, took Judith up on his back, and brought her to the woods. They were soon all safely in the trees.

  “Is this Switzerland?” Anthony asked.

  “Not far,” Bergstrom said.

  After a brief rest, they set out toward the border with Pino helping Mrs. Napolitano along the well-used path through the forest. When they reached the grove where Italy became Switzerland, they stopped.

  “There,” Mr. Bergstrom said. “You’re safe from Nazis now.”

  Tears dribbled down Mrs. D’Angelo’s cheeks.

  Her husband hugged her and kissed away her tears. “We’re safe, my dear,” he said. “How lucky we are when so many others have . . .”

  He stopped and choked. His wife stroked his cheek.

  “How can we ever repay you?” Mrs. Napolitano said to Pino and Mimo.

  “For what?” Pino said.

  “For what! You led us through that nightmare storm and got us out of that hut. You skied me down the side of that mountain!”

  “What else could we do? Lose our faith? Give up?”

  “You? Never!” Mr. D’Angelo said, now pumping Pino’s hand. “You’re like a bull. You never give up.”

  Then he hugged Mimo. Mrs. D’Angelo did, too, as did her children. Mrs. Napolitano hugged Pino the longest.

  “A thousand blessings on your head for showing me how to fly, young man,” she said. “I’ll never forget that as long as I live.”

  Pino grinned, and felt his eyes water. “Neither will I.”

  “Isn’t there anything I can do for you?” she asked.

  Pino was about to say no, but he noticed her violin case. “Play for us as we go back into Italy. Your music will lift our spirits for the long climb and ski out.”

  That pleased her, and she looked at Bergstrom. “Is it okay?”

  He said, “No one here will stop you.”

  Standing there in the snowy woods, high in the Swiss Alps, Mrs. Napolitano opened her case and rosined her bow. “What would you like to hear?”

  For some reason, Pino thought of that August night when he and his father and Tullio and the Beltraminis had taken the train out into the countryside to escape the bombardment of Milan.

  “Nessun Dorma,” Pino said. “‘None Shall Sleep.’”

  “I can play that one in my sleep, but I’ll play it for you, con smania,” she said, her eyes watering. “Go on now. No good-byes among old friends.”

  Mrs. Napolitano played the opening strains of the aria so perfectly, Pino wanted to stay to hear the entire piece. But he and his brother had hours of effort ahead of them, and who knew what challenges they’d face?

  The boys shouldered their packs and set off through the woods. They lost sight of Mrs. Napolitano and the others almost immediately, but they could hear her playing beautifully, with passion, each note carrying through the thin, crisp, alpine air. They reached the tree line and put on their skis as she took the tempo up again, casting forth the melody of the triumphant aria like some radio wave that hit Pino in his heart and vibrated in his soul.

 
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