Beneath a scarlet sky, p.13
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       Beneath a Scarlet Sky, p.13
 

           Mark Sullivan

  Pino stammered, “In my aunt and uncle’s leather store in San Babila?”

  The colonel cocked his head, still studying him. “What’s your name?”

  “Giuseppe Lella,” he said. “My uncle is Albert Albanese. His wife, my aunt Greta, is Austrian. You spoke to her, I believe. I used to work there sometimes.”

  “Yes,” Rauff said. “That’s right. Why are you here?”

  “My father sent me to escape the bombs and to study, like all the boys here.”

  “Ahh,” Rauff said, hesitated, and then moved on.

  Father Re’s face was set hard when he glanced at Pino and fell in behind the Gestapo chief, who stopped at the wide entrance to the empty eating hall.

  Rauff looked around. “A clean place, Father. I like that. Where are the other boys? How many are here these days?”

  “Forty,” Father Re said. “Three are sick in bed with the flu, two are helping in the kitchen, fifteen are out skiing, and the rest are trying to catch oxen that got away from a farmer in Madesimo. If you don’t catch them before the snow melts, they go wild up in the mountains.”

  “Oxen,” Colonel Rauff said, taking it all in: the tables, the benches, the silverware already set out for the evening meal. He pushed open the galley doors to the kitchen, where Brother Bormio was peeling potatoes along with two of the younger boys.

  “Spotless,” Rauff said approvingly, and closed the door.

  “We are an approved school through the Saint Rio district,” Father Re said. “And many of our students come from the finest families in Milan.”

  The Gestapo chief glanced again at Pino and said, “I see that.”

  The colonel looked in the dormitories and in Pino and Mimo’s room. Pino almost had a heart attack when Rauff stepped on the loose floorboard that hid his shortwave radio. But after a tense moment, the colonel moved on. He looked in every storage room and where Brother Bormio slept. Finally he came to a shut and locked door.

  “What’s in here?” he asked.

  “My room,” Father Re said.

  “Open it,” Rauff said.

  Father Re fished in his pocket, came up with a key, and unlocked the door. Pino had never seen the room where Father Re slept. No one had. It was always shut and locked. When Rauff pushed the door open, Pino could see that the space was small and contained a narrow bed, a tiny closet, a lantern, a rough-hewn desk and chair, a Bible, and a crucifix on the wall beside a picture of the Virgin Mary.

  “This is where you live?” Rauff asked. “These are all your things?”

  “What more does a man of God need?” Father Re said.

  The colonel was lost in contemplation for a moment. When he turned, he said, “Living the austere life, the life of purpose, of denial and true nobility, you are an inspiration, Father Re. Many of my officers could learn from you. Most of the Salò army could learn from you.”

  “I don’t know about that,” the priest said.

  “No, it is the Spartan way you follow,” Rauff said earnestly. “I admire that. Such deprivation has always created the greatest warriors. Are you a warrior at heart, Father?”

  “For Christ, Colonel.”

  “I see that,” Rauff said, closing the door. “And yet there are these pesky rumors about you and this school.”

  “I can’t imagine why,” Father Re said. “You have looked everywhere. If you wish, you can even examine the storage cellar.”

  The Gestapo chief said nothing for several moments before saying, “I’ll send one of my men in to do that.”

  “I’ll show him where to go in,” the priest said. “He won’t have to dig far.”

  “Dig?”

  “The hatch door still has at least a meter of snow on it.”

  “Show me,” Rauff said.

  They went outside with Pino trailing. Father Re had just rounded the corner when boys’ hoots and cries started from the spruces beyond the chapel. Four SS soldiers were already moving that way.

  “What is this?” Colonel Rauff demanded a split second before an ox broke from the tree line, bawling and lumbering through the snow.

  Mimo and another boy chased the beast with switches, herding it toward and into a fenced-in area across from the school while the four SS soldiers watched.

  Gasping, grinning, Mimo yelled, “The other oxen are all in the woods back by the cliff, Father Re. We have them surrounded, but we can’t get the others to go like that one.”

  Before the priest could reply, Colonel Rauff said, “You must form a V and get the first one going where you want. The others will follow.”

  Father Re looked at the Gestapo chief, who said, “I grew up on a farm.”

  Mimo looked at Father Re uncertainly.

  “I’ll show you,” Rauff said, and Pino thought he was going to faint.

  “That’s not necessary,” the priest said quickly.

  “No, it will be fun,” the colonel said. “I haven’t done this in years.” Rauff looked to his soldiers. “You four come with me.” Then he looked at Mimo. “How many boys are in the woods?”

  “Twenty?”

  “More than enough,” the colonel said, and he set off toward the spruces.

  “Help him, Pino!” Father Re whispered.

  Pino didn’t want to, but he ran after the Germans.

  “Where do you want the boys, Colonel?” Pino asked, hoping he had no quiver in his voice.

  “Where are the oxen now?” Rauff said.

  Mimo said, “Uh, cornered back by the cliff.”

  They were almost to the trees, where unseen oxen moaned and lowed. Pino wanted to turn and run for his life, but he kept going. The situation seemed to energize the Gestapo chief. Rauff’s eyes had gone from dull and dark to wide and sparkling, and he was grinning with excitement. Pino glanced around, trying to figure out where he could go if this all went bad.

  Colonel Rauff entered the wood lot, which was shaped like a crescent that bulged out from the cliff onto the plateau.

  “The oxen are to the right, over there,” Mimo said.

  Rauff holstered his pistol and followed Mimo through the snow, which was nowhere as deep as it was outside the woods. The oxen had been all through the place, packing down the snow and defecating everywhere.

  Mimo and then the Gestapo chief ducked several branches and passed beneath one of the biggest spruces, causing Pino’s stomach to lurch. The SS soldiers followed Rauff, with Pino bringing up the rear. As he stooped under the branches of the biggest tree, his eye was drawn to a loose cluster of needles twirling and falling in the air. He glanced up and couldn’t see any of the Jews hiding high in the trees, their footprints trampled by the oxen.

  Thank God, Pino thought as Rauff kept marching toward the boys of Casa Alpina, who were loosely strung out through the woods. They had cornered the six remaining oxen, which were swaying their heads, sounding off, and looking for a way out other than the cliff behind them.

  “When I say so, have the middle six boys back up and split into two groups of three,” Rauff said, holding his hands pressed at the palms and fingers flared apart. “We want to make the V like this. Once they get moving, the other boys should run ahead to keep them moving where we want them. Stay in V-formation on both sides. Cows, oxen, they’re like Jews—followers. They’ll go along.”

  Pino ignored what he’d said at the end, but shouted the original instructions to the boys in the middle. The six backed up fast and then flared out to the sides. When the first ox broke, the rest of the herd went into a frenzied stampede. The beasts bolted through the woods, bellowing and breaking branches as they went, the boys flanking them, shouting, and pressing close so they began to string out and run in a line.

  “Yes! Yes!” Colonel Rauff cried, running behind the last ox to leave the cliff area. “This is exactly how you do it!”

  Pino followed the Gestapo chief through the trees, but at a distance. The oxen broke from the grove with the boys to either side, and the Nazis all followed, including Rauff, who didn’t give
a backward glance. Only then did Pino pause to look up another of the bigger firs. Twelve meters up, and through the branches, he caught the vague outline of someone clinging to the tree trunk.

  He strolled slowly out of the woods, seeing the oxen were already back in their fenced-off area, eating from the hay bales.

  “Ahh,” Colonel Rauff said, breathing hard and beaming at Father Re when Pino walked up. “That was fun. I used to do this so many times as a boy.”

  “It looked like you enjoyed it,” the priest said.

  The Gestapo chief coughed, laughed, and nodded. Then he looked at the lieutenant and barked something in German. The lieutenant started yelling and blowing a whistle. The soldiers who’d been searching the outbuildings and the handful of homes in Motta came running back to the lorries.

  “I remain suspicious, Father,” Colonel Rauff said, holding out his hand.

  Pino held his breath.

  The priest took his hand and shook it. “You’re welcome anytime, Colonel.”

  Rauff got back into the Kübelwagen. Father Re, Brother Bormio, Pino, Mimo, and the other boys stood there, silently watching the German lorries turn around. They waited until Rauff and his soldiers were five hundred meters off, gone down the muddy two-track to Madesimo, before they all broke into wild cheers.

  “I thought for sure he knew we had you all hidden in the trees,” Pino said several hours later. He and Father Re were eating at the table with the relieved refugees.

  The father of the two boys said, “I could see that colonel coming the entire way. He walked right under our tree. Twice!”

  They all started to laugh as only people who have just avoided death can laugh, with disbelief, gratitude, and infectious joy.

  “An inspired plan,” Father Re said, clapping Pino on the shoulder and raising his glass of wine. “To Pino Lella.”

  The refugees all raised their glasses and did the same. Pino felt embarrassed to be the object of so much attention. He smiled. “Mimo was the one who made it work.”

  But he felt good about it, elated actually. Fooling the Nazis like that made him feel empowered. In his own way, he was fighting back. They were all fighting back, part of the growing resistance. Italy was not German. Italy could never be German.

  Alberto Ascari came into Casa Alpina without ringing the bell. He appeared in the dining room doorway, hat in hand, and said, “Excuse me, Father Re, but I have an urgent message for Pino. His father called my uncle’s house, and asked me to find Pino and deliver it.”

  Pino felt hollow inside. What had happened? Who was dead?

  “What is it?” he asked.

  “Your papa wants you to come home as soon as possible,” Ascari said. “To Milan. He said it’s a matter of life and death.”

  “Whose life and death?” Pino said, getting up.

  “It sounded like yours, Pino.”

  PART THREE

  THE CATHEDRALS OF MAN

  Chapter Thirteen

  Twelve hours later, Pino sat in the passenger seat of Ascari’s souped-up Fiat, barely noticing the long drops off the side of the serpentine road from Madesimo down to Campodolcino. He didn’t look at the lime-green leaves of spring or smell the blooms in the air. His mind was still at Casa Alpina and on how reluctant he’d been to leave.

  “I want to stay and help,” he’d told Father Re the night before.

  “And I could use your help,” the priest said, “but it sounds serious, Pino. You need to obey your father and go home.”

  Pino gestured at the refugees. “Who will take them to Val di Lei?”

  “Mimo,” Father Re said. “You’ve trained him well, and the other boys.”

  Pino had been so upset, he’d slept fitfully and was dejected when Ascari came to pick him up to take him to the train station at Chiavenna. He’d been at Casa Alpina almost seven months, but it seemed like years.

  “You’ll come to see me when you can?” Father Re asked.

  “Of course, Father,” Pino said, and they hugged.

  “Have faith in God’s plan for you,” the priest said. “And stay safe.”

  Brother Bormio had given him food for his journey and hugged him, too.

  Pino barely said ten words until they reached the valley floor.

  “One good thing,” Ascari said. “You have taught me to ski.”

  Pino allowed a mild smile. “You catch on fast. I wish I could have finished my driving lessons.”

  “You are already very, very good, Pino,” Ascari said. “You have the touch, the feel for the car that is rare.”

  Pino basked in the praise. Ascari was an amazing driver. Alberto continued to astound him with the things he could do behind the wheel, and, as if to prove it, he took them on a white-knuckle ride down the valley toward Chiavenna that left Pino breathless.

  “Scary to think what you’d do in a real race car, Alberto,” Pino said when they pulled into the station.

  Ascari grinned. “Give it time, my uncle always says. Come back this summer? Finish your training?”

  “I’d like that,” Pino said, shaking his hand. “Be good, my friend. And stay out of the ditch.”

  “Every day,” Ascari said, and drove off.

  Pino had come down so much in altitude, it was nearly thirty degrees warmer than it had been up at Motta. Chiavenna was painted in flowers. Their scent and pollen hung thick in the air. Spring in the southern Alps wasn’t always this fabulous, and it made Pino even more reluctant to buy his ticket, show his documents to a German army soldier, and then board the train heading south to Como and Milan.

  The first car he entered was filled with a company of Fascist soldiers. He turned around and went forward, finding a car with only a handful of people. Drowsy from lack of rest, he stowed his bag, used his knapsack for a pillow, and fell asleep.

  Three hours later, the train pulled into Milan’s central station, which had taken several direct hits but stood much as Pino remembered it. Except Italian soldiers no longer guarded the transit hub. The Nazis were in total control now. As he walked down the platform and passed through the station, keeping his distance from the Fascist soldiers from the train, he saw the German troops glancing with contempt at Mussolini’s men.

  “Pino!”

  His father and Uncle Albert hurried to greet him. Both men looked dramatically older than they had at Christmas, grayer about the temples, and their cheeks more sunken and sallow than he’d remembered.

  Michele cried, “Do you see the size of him, Albert?”

  His uncle gaped at Pino. “Seven months and you go from a boy to a big, strapping man! What was Father Re feeding you?”

  “Brother Bormio is a great cook,” Pino said, grinning stupidly and pleased by their scrutiny. He was so happy to see them both that he almost forgot to be angry.

  “Why did I have to come home, Papa?” he asked as they left the station. “We were doing good things at Casa Alpina, important things.”

  His uncle’s face clouded. He shook his head, said in a low voice, “We do not talk about things good or bad here. We wait, yes?”

  They took a taxi. After ten and a half months of bombardment, Milan looked more like a battlefield than a city. In some neighborhoods, nearly 70 percent of the buildings were rubble, yet the streets were passable. Pino soon saw why. Scores of those vacant, bent-back men in gray uniforms were clearing the streets, brick by brick, stone by stone.

  “Who are they?” he asked. “Those gray men?”

  Uncle Albert put his hand on Pino’s leg, pointed a finger at the driver, and shook his head. Pino noticed that the taxi driver kept looking in the rearview mirror, and he surrendered to not talking until they were home.

  The closer they got to the Duomo and San Babila, the more structures were still standing. Many were unscathed. They passed the chancellery. A Nazi staff car sat out front, a general’s by the flag on the hood.

  Indeed, the streets around the cathedral were packed with high-ranking German officers and their vehicles. They had to le
ave the taxi to go through a sandbagged and heavily fortified checkpoint into San Babila.

  After showing their papers, they walked in silence through one of the least damaged areas of Milan. The shops, restaurants, and bars were open and filled with Nazi officers and their women. Pino’s father led him to Corso Matteotti, about four blocks from where they’d lived before, still in the fashion district, but closer to La Scala, the Galleria, and the Piazza Duomo.

  “Get out your documents again,” his father said, pulling out his own.

  They entered a building and were immediately confronted by two armed Waffen-SS guards, which surprised Pino. Were Nazis guarding every apartment building in San Babila?

  The sentries knew Michele and Pino’s uncle, and gave only a cursory glance at their papers. But they studied Pino’s long and hard before allowing them to go on. They used a birdcage elevator. As they rose past the fifth floor, Pino saw two more SS guards standing outside a door.

  They exited on the sixth floor, went to the end of a short hall, and entered the Lellas’ new apartment. It was nowhere near as large as the place on Via Monte Napoleone, but it was already comfortably furnished. He recognized his mother’s touch everywhere.

  His father and uncle silently motioned for Pino to put his bags down and to follow them. They went through French doors out onto a rooftop terrace. The cathedral’s spires attacked the sky to the east. Uncle Albert said, “It’s safe to talk now.”

  Pino said, “Why are there Nazis in the lobby and below us?”

  His father gestured to an antenna about halfway down the terrace wall. “That antenna is attached to a shortwave radio in the apartment downstairs. The Germans threw out the old tenant, a dentist, in February. They had workers come in and completely rebuilt the place. From what we’ve heard, it’s where visiting Nazi dignitaries stay when they’re in Milan. If Hitler ever came, it is where he’d stay.”

  “One floor beneath us?” Pino said, unnerved by the idea.

  “It’s a new and dangerous world, Pino,” Uncle Albert said. “Especially for you.”

  “This is why we brought you home,” his father said before he could reply. “In fewer than twenty days, you turn eighteen, which makes you eligible for the draft.”

  Pino squinted. “Okay?”

  His uncle said, “If you wait to be drafted, they’ll put you in the Fascist army.”

  “And all new Italian soldiers are being sent by the Germans to the Russian front,” Michele said, wringing his hands. “You’d be cannon fodder, Pino. You’d die, and we can’t let that happen to you, not when the war is so close to being over.”

  The war was close to being over. Pino knew that was true. He’d heard only the day before on the shortwave receiver he’d left with Father Re that the Allies were once again battling over Monte Cassino, a monastery high on a cliff where the Germans had installed powerful cannons. At long last, the monastery and the Germans had been pulverized by Allied bombers. So had the town below. Allied troops all along the Gustav Line of fortifications south of Rome were close to breaking through.

  “So what do you want me to do?” Pino asked. “Hide? I’d have been better off staying at Casa Alpina until the Allies drive the Nazis out.”

  His father shook his head. “The draft office has already been here looking for you. They knew you were up there. Within days of your birthday, someone would have gone to Casa Alpina and taken you.”

  “So what do you want me to do?” Pino asked again.

  “We want you to enlist,” Uncle Albert said. “If you enlist, we can make sure you’re put in a position out of harm’s way.”

  “With Salò?”

 
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