Beneath a scarlet sky, p.12
Beneath a Scarlet Sky, p.12Mark Sullivan
He stopped at the head of the lake to listen to the distant crescendo and was deeply moved when the violin quieted.
That sounded like love, Pino thought. When I fall in love, I think it will feel just like that.
Incredibly happy, and using skins on his skis, Pino started uphill after Mimo, heading toward the north cirque of the Groppera in the brilliant winter sunshine.
April 26, 1944
Pino woke to a clanking sound. Nearly two and a half months had passed since he’d led Mrs. Napolitano and the D’Angelo family into Switzerland. He sat up, grateful that Father Re had let him sleep in after yet another trip to Val di Lei. He stood, noticing he didn’t feel sore in the least. He never felt sore anymore. He felt good, strong—the strongest he’d ever been. And why not? He’d made at least a dozen more trips to Switzerland since Mrs. Napolitano had played for him and Mimo.
Hearing the clanking noise again, he looked out the window. Seven oxen with bells around their necks were pushing and shoving against one another, trying to get at bales of hay that had been put out for them.
When he’d had enough of watching them, Pino dressed. He was entering the empty dining hall when he heard male voices outside, shouting, yelling, and threatening. Alarmed, Brother Bormio came out of the kitchen. Together they went and opened the front door to Casa Alpina. Father Re was standing there, just off the little porch, looking calmly into the barrel of a rifle.
Wearing a newer red neckerchief around his neck, Tito looked over the rifle sight at the priest. The same three curs who’d been with Tito at the New Year’s Eve party were standing behind him.
“I told your boys all winter to stop using the Emet unless you’re going to pay tribute, help the cause of a free Italy,” Tito said. “I’m here to collect my money.”
“Extorting a priest,” Father Re said. “You’re coming up in the world, Tito.”
The man glared at him, flipped the safety on his rifle, and said, “It’s to help the resistance.”
“I support the partisans,” the priest said. “The Ninetieth Garibaldi Brigade, and I know you’re not with them, Tito. None of you are. I think you just wear the neckerchiefs because they suit your purposes.”
“Give me what I want, old man, or so help me, I’ll burn your school down and then kill you and all your brats.”
Father Re hesitated. “I’ll get you money. And food. Put the gun away.”
Tito studied the priest a second, his right eye twitching. His tongue flicked to the corner of his mouth. Then he smiled, lowered the gun, and said, “You do that and don’t be cheap about it, or I’ll just have myself a look around inside, see what you really got.”
Father Re said, “Wait here.”
The priest turned and saw Bormio, and behind him, Pino.
Father Re walked inside and said, “Get them three days’ rations.”
“Father?” the cook said.
“Do it, Brother, please,” Father Re said as he moved on.
Brother Bormio reluctantly turned and followed the priest, leaving Pino in the doorway. Tito caught sight of him, smiled slyly, and said, “Well, look who we got here. My old pal from the New Year’s Eve bash. Why don’t you come on out? Say hello to me and the boys?”
“I’d rather not,” Pino said, hearing the anger in his voice and not caring.
“Rather not?” Tito said, and aimed the gun at him. “You don’t have a choice, now do you?”
Pino hardened. He really hated the guy. He walked out and off the little porch. He stood there facing Tito and stared stonily at him and his gun. “I see you’re still wearing the boots you stole from me,” he said. “What do you want this time? My underwear?”
Tito licked at the corner of his lips, glanced down at the boots, and smiled. Then he stepped forward, swinging the butt of his rifle stock up hard. It caught Pino in the testicles, and he went down in agony.
“What do I want, kid?” Tito said. “How about a little respect for someone trying to rid Italy of the Nazi filth?”
Pino curled up in the slush, fighting not to puke.
“Say it,” Tito said, standing over him.
“Say what?” Pino managed.
“That you respect Tito. That Tito is the partisan leader who runs things around the Splügen. And that you, boy, you answer to Tito.”
As hurt as he was, Pino shook his head. Through gritted teeth he said, “Only one person runs things around here. Father Re. I answer to him and God alone.”
Tito raised his rifle, butt plate right above Pino’s head. Pino was sure he was going to try to bash his skull in. He let go his testicles to guard his head and cringed for a blow that never came.
“Stop!” Father Re roared. “Stop, or by God, I’ll call the Germans up here and tell them where to find you!”
Tito threw the rifle to his shoulder and aimed it at Father Re, who’d come off the porch.
“Give us up? That right?” Tito said.
Pino lashed out his boot, kicked Tito flush on the kneecap. Tito buckled. The rifle discharged. The bullet went past Father Re and smacked the side of Casa Alpina.
Pino leaped on Tito and hit him once, hard, right on the nose, hearing it crunch and seeing it gush blood. Then he snatched up the rifle, stood, and cycled the action before pointing the gun at Tito’s head.
“Stop this, damn it!” Father Re said, stepping around in front of Pino, blocking him from Tito’s men who were aiming at him. “I said I’d give you money for your cause, and three days’ food. Be smart. Take it, and go before something worse happens here.”
“Shoot him!” Tito screamed, wiping blood on his sleeve and glaring at Pino and the priest. “Shoot them both!”
For a breath, there was stillness and quiet and wondering. Then, one by one, Tito’s men lowered their rifles. Pino exhaled with relief, winced at the dull fire still roaring between his legs, and aimed the gun away from Tito’s face. He disengaged the clip and ran the bolt to eject the last bullet.
Pino waited while Tito’s men took the food and money. Two of them picked up Tito under his armpits, ignoring the curses and insults he hurled at them. Pino handed Tito’s empty rifle to the third man.
“Load it! I’ll kill them!” Tito raged as blood seeped over his lips and chin.
“Let it go, Tito,” one said. “He’s a priest, for Christ’s sake.”
The two men had Tito’s arms across their shoulders and were doing their best to get him away from Casa Alpina. But the gang leader was straining to look back.
“This isn’t over,” Tito bellowed. “Especially for you, boy. This isn’t done!”
Pino stood next to Father Re, shaken.
“Are you all right?” the priest asked.
Pino was quiet for a long time before saying, “Father, is it a sin if I’m asking myself if I did the right thing in not killing that man?”
The priest said, “No, it is not a sin, and you did the right thing not killing him.”
Pino bobbed his head, but his lower lip was trembling, and it was taking everything in his power to swallow the emotion surging in his throat. Everything had happened so fast, so—
Father Re patted Pino on the back. “Have faith. You did the right thing.”
He nodded again, but couldn’t meet the priest’s gaze for fear of crying.
“Where did you learn how to handle a gun like that?” Father Re asked.
Pino wiped at his eyes, cleared his throat, and said in a hoarse voice, “My uncle Albert. He has a hunting rifle, a Mauser, kind of like that one. He taught me.”
“I can’t decide if you were brave or foolhardy.”
“I wasn’t going to let Tito kill you, Father.”
The priest smiled and said, “Bless you for that. I wasn’t ready to die today.”
Pino laughed, winced, and said, “Me, neither.”
They went back inside the school. Father Re got ice for Pino, and Brother Bormio made him breakfast, which he devoured.
“Where’s everyone else?” Pino asked.
“Skiing with Mimo,” Father Re said. “They’ll be back for lunch.”
As he was eating his second helping of eggs, sausage, and black bread, two women and four children came timidly into the room, followed by a man in his thirties and two very young boys. Pino could tell in an instant they were new refugees. He’d come to recognize the expressions of hunted people.
“Will you be ready to go again in the morning?” Father Re asked.
Pino shifted, felt a dull ache in his loins, but said, “Yes.”
“Good. And can you do me a favor?”
“Anything, Father,” Pino said.
“Go to the chapel tower, and watch for the signal from Campodolcino,” he said. “You can take your books with you, get some studying done.”
Twenty minutes later, Pino gingerly climbed a ladder into the chapel tower. He had a book bag on his back, and his balls still ached. With the sun beating on the tower, it was surprisingly warm, too warm for the amount of clothing he was wearing.
He stood on the narrow catwalk that went around the interior of the chapel spire, glancing at the void where the bell should have been. Father Re had yet to install one. Pino opened a narrow shutter to look down through a slot in the cliff, which allowed him to see the upper two windows of the rectory in Campodolcino over a kilometer below.
Pino took off the book bag and dug out the binoculars Father Re had given him. He peered through them, surprised again at just how close they made the rectory seem. He studied the two windows. Shades drawn. That meant a German patrol of some kind was in the Splügen drainage. They seemed to make the drive up and down the road to the pass near midday, give or take an hour.
Pino checked his watch. It was a quarter to eleven.
He stood there enjoying the warm spring air and watching birds flit among the spruce trees. He yawned, shook his head to clear the incredible desire to go back to sleep, and stared through the binoculars again.
Thirty minutes later, to his relief, the shades came up. The patrol had passed through, heading down the valley toward Chiavenna. Pino yawned and wondered how many more refugees would come to Motta tonight. If there were too many, they’d have to split up. He’d take one group, and Mimo, the other.
His brother had done a lot of growing up in the last few months. Mimo was less—well, less a brat, and as tough as anyone in the mountains. Pino realized for the first time that he saw his younger brother as his best friend, closer even than Carletto.
But he wondered how Carletto was, and how Carletto’s mother was, and Mr. Beltramini. He looked down at the catwalk, eyes drooping. He could lie down there, make sure he wouldn’t fall off, and snooze in the nice, warm—
No, he decided. He could fall off and break his back. He’d go down the ladder, sleep in one of the pews. It wasn’t as warm, but he had his coat and his hat. Just twenty minutes of shut-eye.
Pino had no idea how long and how far he’d gone into dreamless sleep, just that something made him stir. He opened his eyes groggily, trying to figure out what had woken him. He looked around the chapel and up into the tower and—
He heard a far-off donging noise. What was it? Where was it coming from?
Pino got up, yawned, and the donging stopped. Then it started again, like a hammer on metal. Then it stopped. He realized he’d left the book bag, binoculars, and the flashlight on the catwalk. He climbed up the ladder, got the bag, and was reaching to close the shutter when the noise started again. Pino realized it was the bell in the church down in Campodolcino pealing.
He glanced at his watch to see how long he’d slept. Eleven twenty? The bell usually rang on the hour. Now it was ringing over and over and—?
Pino snatched up the binoculars, stared down at the window. The blind on the left was closed. A light was flashing in the right window. Pino stared at it, wondering what it meant, and then realized the light was going on for a split second and then longer. It stopped and started again, and Pino realized it was a signal. Morse code?
He picked up his light and flashed it twice. The light below blinked twice, and then went dark. The bell stopped ringing. Then the light came on again, blinking shorts and longs. When it stopped, he grabbed a pen and some paper from his bag, and waited for the light to start again. When it did, he started writing down the sequence of shorts and longs until the end.
Pino didn’t know Morse code, or what the watcher in Campodolcino was trying to say, but he knew it couldn’t be good. He flashed his own light twice, stowed it, and clambered down the ladder. He sprinted to the school.
“Pino!” he heard Mimo yell.
His brother was skiing down the slope above the school, waving his poles wildly. Pino ignored him, ran into Casa Alpina, and found Father Re and Brother Bormio talking with the refugees in the hallway.
“Father,” Pino panted. “Something’s wrong.”
He explained about the bell, the shades, and the lights flashing below. He showed the priest the paper. Father Re looked at it, puzzled. “How do they expect me to know Morse code?”
“You don’t have to,” Brother Bormio said. “I know it.”
Father Re handed him the paper, saying, “How?”
“I learned it in the—,” the cook said, and then he lost all color.
Mimo dashed into the room, covered in sweat, at the same time Brother Bormio said, “Nazis to Motta.”
“I saw them from above!” Mimo cried. “Four or five lorries down in Madesimo, and soldiers going door to door. We skied across as fast as we could.”
Father Re looked to the refugees. “We have to hide them.”
“They’ll search,” Brother Bormio said.
One of the refugee mothers got up, shaking. “Should we run, Father?”
“They’ll track you,” Father Re said.
For some reason, Pino thought of the oxen that had woken him up that morning.
“Father,” he said slowly. “I’ve got an idea.”
An hour later, Pino was in the bell tower, nervous as hell, and looking through Father Re’s binoculars, when a German army Kübelwagen appeared from the woods on the cart track from Madesimo, the jeep-style vehicle’s tires spinning and throwing up mud and snow. A second, larger German lorry lumbered behind it, but Pino ignored it, trying to see through the mud-spattered windshield of the smaller lead vehicle.
The Kübelwagen slid almost sideways, and Pino got a strong look at the uniform and the face of the officer in the front passenger seat. Even at a distance, Pino recognized him. He’d seen the man up close before.
Terrified now, Pino clambered down the ladder and sped out a door behind the altar. Ignoring the ox bells clanking behind him, he sprinted through the back door of Casa Alpina, then into the kitchen and the dining hall.
“Father, it’s Colonel Rauff!” he gasped. “The head of the Gestapo in Milan!”
“How can you—?”
“I saw him in my uncle’s leather shop once,” Pino said. “It’s him.”
Pino fought the urge to flee. Colonel Rauff had ordered the massacre at Meina. If he would order innocent Jews to jump in a lake and see them machine-gunned, would he stop at executing a priest and a group of boys saving Jews?
Father Re went out onto the porch. Pino hung back in the hallway, not knowing what to do. Was his idea good enough? Or would the Nazis find the Jews and kill everyone at Casa Alpina?
Rauff’s vehicle slid to a stop in the slush, not far from where Tito had threatened them all earlier in the day. The Gestapo colonel was as Pino remembered him: balding, medium build, jowly, with a sharp nose, flat, thin lips, and flat, dark eyes that gave away nothing. He wore calf-high black boots, a long black double-breasted leather jacket speckled with mud, and a brimmed cap with the death-head totem.
Rauff’s eyes fixed on the priest, and he almost smiled as he climbed out.
“Is it always this diffic
“In the spring it can be trying,” the priest said. “You know me, but I—”
“Standartenführer Walter Rauff,” Rauff said as two lorries came to a stop behind him. “Chief of Gestapo, Milan.”
“You’ve come a long way, Colonel,” Father Re said.
“We hear rumors about you, Father, even in Milan.”
“Rumors about me? From who? About what?”
“Do you remember a seminarian? Giovanni Barbareschi? Worked for Cardinal Schuster, and, it seems, you?”
“Barbareschi served here briefly,” Father Re said. “What about him?”
“We arrested him last week,” Rauff said. “He’s in San Vittore Prison.”
Pino suppressed a shudder. San Vittore Prison had been a notorious and terrible place in Milan long before the Nazis took it over.
“On what charges?” Father Re asked.
“Forgery,” Rauff said. “He makes fake documents. He’s good at it.”
“I don’t know anything about that,” Father Re said. “Barbareschi led hikes here and helped in the kitchen.”
The Gestapo chief seemed amused again. “We have ears everywhere, you know, Father. The Gestapo is like God. We hear all things.”
Father Re stiffened. “Whatever you may think, Colonel, you are not like God, though you were made in his loving image.”
Rauff took a step closer, gazed icily into the priest’s eyes, and said, “Make no mistake, Father, I can be your savior, or your condemner.”
“It still doesn’t make you God,” Father Re said, showing no fear.
The Gestapo chief held his gaze a long moment, and then turned to one of his officers. “Fan out, search every centimeter of this plateau. I will look here.”
Soldiers began jumping out of the lorries.
“What are you looking for, Colonel?” Father Re asked. “Maybe I can help you.”
“Do you hide Jews, Father?” Rauff asked curtly. “Do you help them get to Switzerland?”
Pino tasted acid at the back of his throat and felt his knees go wobbly.
Rauff knows, Pino thought in a panic. We’re all going to die!
Father Re said, “Colonel, I adhere to the Catholic belief that anyone in harm’s way should be shown love and offered sanctuary. It’s also the way of the Alps. A climber always helps someone in need. Italian. Swiss. German. It doesn’t matter to me.”
Rauff seemed bemused again. “Are you helping anyone today, Father?”
“Just you, Colonel.”
Pino swallowed hard, trying not to tremble. How do they know? His mind searched for answers. Has Barbareschi talked? No. No, Pino couldn’t see it. But how—?
“Be of help, then, Father,” the Gestapo chief said. “Show me around your school. I want to see every bit of it.”
“I’d be glad to,” the priest said, and stood aside.
Colonel Rauff came up on the porch, kicked his boots free of mud and snow, and drew a Luger pistol.
“What’s that for?” Father Re said.
“Swift punishment for the wicked,” Rauff said, and stepped into the hallway.
Pino hadn’t expected him to come inside, and he was flustered when the Gestapo chief looked at him hard.
“I know you,” Rauff said. “I never forget a face.”
Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan / History & Fiction have rating 5.1 out of 5 / Based on82 votes