Beneath a scarlet sky, p.20
Beneath a Scarlet Sky, p.20Mark Sullivan
dining area, ignoring Pino as she passed, and saying, “What shall I lay out for you, Dolly?”
General Leyers followed, and they all vanished into the depths of the apartment. None of it seemed real to Pino. Leyers was going on as if he’d not seen fifteen people murdered in cold blood that morning. There was something reptilian about the general, he decided. Leyers could watch men jerking on bullets and spurting blood in the last moments of their lives, and then he could go out to eat with his mistress.
Anna returned and as if it were a chore, said, “You hungry, Vorarbeiter?”
“Per favore, if it’s a bother, no, signorina,” Pino said, not looking at her.
After a few moments’ pause, the maid sighed, and said in a different tone, “It’s not a bother, Pino. I can heat something up for you.”
“Thanks,” he said, still not looking at Anna because he’d noticed the general’s valise at his feet and was wishing he’d learned to pick a lock.
He heard raised, muffled voices, Leyers and his mistress having an argument of some kind. He raised his head, saw the maid was gone.
A door banged open. Dolly passed the hallway where Pino sat. She called, “Anna?”
Anna hurried into the dining and living area. “Yes, Dolly?”
Dolly said something in German that the maid seemed to understand because she left quickly. The general reappeared, dressed in his uniform pants, shoes, and a sleeveless undershirt.
Pino sprang to his feet. Leyers ignored him, came out into the living area, and said something to Dolly in German. She replied curtly, and he disappeared for several minutes while his mistress poured herself a whiskey and smoked by the window.
Pino felt odd inside, as if something about Leyers just then had caught his eye but had not fully registered. What was it?
When the general returned, he wore a freshly ironed shirt and a tie. His jacket was tossed over one shoulder.
“We will be back in a couple of hours,” Leyers told Pino, passing closely by.
He stared after the general and Dolly, feeling that oddness again, and then tried to remember Leyers from just a few minutes before, shirtless and . . .
Oh my God, he thought.
The door shut. Pino heard a board creak. He pivoted his head and saw Anna standing there.
“I heard a grocer say that fifteen members of the resistance were shot in Piazalle Loreto this morning,” she said, wringing her hands. “Is that true?”
Sick all over again, he said, “I saw it. My friend was one of them.”
Anna covered her mouth. “Oh, you poor thing . . . Please, come to the kitchen. There’s schnitzel, gnocchi, and garlic butter. I’ll open one of the general’s best wines. He’ll never know.”
Very soon, a place was set at a small table at the end of a galley kitchen that was spotless. A candle burned there, too. Anna sat opposite him, sipping a glass of wine.
Veal? Pino thought as he sat down and smelled the divine aroma wafting up from his plate. When was the last time he’d had veal? Before the bombardment? He took a bite.
“Ohh,” he groaned. “That is so good.”
Anna smiled. “My grandmother, God rest her, she taught me that recipe.”
He ate. They talked. He told her about the scene at the Piazalle Loreto, and she hung her head and held it for a while with both hands. When she lifted her head to look at Pino, her eyes were bloodshot and filmy.
“How do men think of such wickedness?” Anna asked as wax dripped down the candle and pooled about the holder. “Don’t they fear for their souls?”
Pino thought about Rauff and the Black Shirts wearing the hoods.
“I don’t think men like that care about their souls,” Pino said, finishing the veal. “It’s like they’ve already gone to evil, and going a little deeper won’t matter.”
Anna gazed past Pino into the middle distance for a moment. Then she looked at him and said, “So how does an Italian boy end up driving for a powerful Nazi general?”
Upset by the question, Pino said, “I’m not a boy. I’m eighteen.”
“How old are you?”
“Almost twenty-four. Do you want some more food? Wine?”
“May I use the toilet first?” Pino said.
“Down the hall, first door on the right,” she said, and reached for the wine bottle.
Pino went through the living area, and into a carpeted hall dimly lit by two low-wattage bulbs. He opened the first door on the right, turned on the light, and entered a bathroom with a shower-tub, tiled floor, a vanity crowded with cosmetics, and another door. He went to the second door, hesitated, and then gently tried the knob. It turned.
The door swung open into a darkened space that smelled of Leyers and his mistress so strongly that it stopped him for a moment. A warning voice in his head told him not to go on, to return to the kitchen, and to Anna.
He flipped on the light.
In a sweeping glance, Pino saw that the general occupied the far left side of the room, which was neat and precisely arranged. Dolly’s side, which was closer to Pino, resembled an ill-kept theater costume room. There were two racks of fine dresses, skirts, and blouses. Cashmere sweaters bulged from drawers. A mishmash of colorful silk scarves, several corsets, and garter belts hung from the closet doors. Shoes were lined up in rows by the bed, Dolly’s only surrender to order. Beyond them, amid stacks of books and hat boxes, was an occasional table that supported a large, open jewelry box.
Pino went to the neater side of the room first, scanning the top of a set of drawers and seeing cuff links on a tray, a clothes brush, a shoehorn, and a shaving kit. But not what he was looking for. Nothing on the nightstand or in it, either.
Maybe I was wrong, he thought, and then shook his head. I’m not wrong.
But where would someone like Leyers hide it? Pino looked under the mattress, and under the bed, and was about to search the general’s shaving kit when he noticed something in the mirror, something in the chaos of Dolly’s side of the room.
Pino circled the bed, going up on tiptoes to avoid stepping on Dolly’s things and at last reached the jewelry box. Strings of pearls, gold chokers, and many, many other necklaces hung in bunches from hooks on the inside of the lid.
He pushed them aside, looking for something plain, and then . . .
There it was! Pino felt a thrill go through him as he plucked the thin chain with the key to the general’s valise off a hook. He put it in his pants pocket.
“What are you doing?”
Pino spun around, his heart slamming against his chest. Anna stood in the doorway to the bathroom, her arms crossed, a glass of wine in one hand, and her face etched hard in suspicion.
“Just looking around,” Pino said.
“In Dolly’s jewelry box?”
He shrugged. “Just looking.”
“Not just looking,” Anna said angrily. “I saw you put something in your pocket.”
Pino didn’t know what to say or do.
“So you’re a thief,” Anna said, disgusted. “I should have known.”
“I’m not a thief,” Pino said, walking toward her.
“No?” she said, taking a step back. “Then what are you?”
“I . . . I can’t tell you.”
“Tell me, or I’ll tell Dolly where I found you.”
Pino didn’t know what to do. He could hit her and flee, or . . .
“I’m a spy . . . for the Allies.”
Anna laughed dismissively. “A spy? You?”
That made him angry.
“Who better?” Pino asked. “I go everywhere with him.”
Anna fell silent, her expression doubtful. “Tell me how you became a spy.”
Pino hesitated, and then told her quickly about Casa Alpina and what he’d done there, and how his parents feared for his life and made him join the Organization Todt, and the serendipitous path that had taken him from a bombed train station in Modena to a German hospital bed to the front
“I don’t care if you believe me or not,” he said at the end. “But I’ve put my life in your hands. If Leyers finds out, I’ll die.”
Anna studied him. “What did you put in your pocket?”
“The key to his valise,” Pino said.
As if he’d used the key on her somehow, Anna changed in the next moment, transformed from suspicious by a slow, soft smile. “Let’s open it!”
Pino breathed a sigh of relief. She believed him, and she wasn’t going to tell Leyers. If she was part of opening his valise and the general found out, Anna would be dead, too.
He said, “I have other plans tonight.”
“I’ll show you,” he said, and led her back to the kitchen.
The candle still flickered on the table. He picked it up and poured a small puddle of wax on the table.
“Don’t do that,” Anna said.
“It will come right off,” Pino said, fishing in his pocket and coming up with the key and chain.
He freed the key from the chain, waited until the wax had congealed to the consistency of putty, and then softly pressed the key into it. “Now I’ll be able to make a duplicate and get into the valise anytime I want,” he said. “Do you have a toothpick and a spatula?”
Looking at him in reappraisal and some wonder, Anna got him a toothpick from a cabinet. Pino gently pried the key free of the wax and then washed it in hot water. She set a spatula on the table, and he used it to separate the wax from the tabletop. He wrapped the cooling mold in tissue and put it in his shirt pocket.
“Now what?” Anna asked, her eyes flashing. “This is exciting!”
Pino grinned at her. It was exciting. “I’m going to take a look in the valise and then put the key back in Dolly’s jewelry box.”
He thought she’d like that, but instead the maid pouted her lip.
“What’s the matter?” Pino asked.
“Well,” she said, shrugging, “like you said, once you have the key made, you can get into the valise anytime, and I was thinking we would put the key back, and then . . .”
“You could kiss me,” Anna said matter-of-factly. “It’s what you want, isn’t it?”
Pino was going to deny it, but then said, “More than you can imagine.”
He returned the key and shut the door to Dolly’s bedroom. Anna was waiting for him in the kitchen with a funny smile on her face. She pointed at the chair. Pino sat down, and she set aside her wineglass and sat in his lap. She put her arms on his shoulders and kissed him.
Holding Anna, feeling her lips so soft against his for the first time, and smelling the perfect fragrance of her, Pino felt as if a single violin were playing the first strains of a marvelous melody. The music vibrated so pleasantly through his body that he shivered.
Anna broke the kiss and leaned her forehead against his.
“I thought it would be like that,” she whispered.
“I prayed it would be,” he said breathlessly. “The first time I saw you.”
“Lucky me,” Anna said, and kissed him again.
Pino held her tighter, marveling at how right it all felt, as if cellos had joined the violin, like a missing part of him had been found and made more by her touch, the taste of her lips, and the gentle kindness in her eyes. He wanted nothing more than to hold her as long as God would let him. They kissed a third time. Pino nuzzled her neck, which seemed to please her.
“I want to know all about you,” he murmured. “Where you come from and—”
Anna drew back a bit. “I told you. Trieste.”
“What were you like as a little girl?”
“My mother said so.”
“What was she like?”
Anna put her finger across Pino’s lips, gazed into his eyes, and said, “Someone very wise once told me that by opening our hearts, revealing our scars, we are made human and flawed and whole.”
He felt his brows knit. “Okay?”
“I’m not ready to reveal my scars to you. I don’t want you to see me human and flawed and whole. I want this . . . us . . . to be a fantasy we can share, a diversion from the war.”
Pino reached out to stroke her face. “A beautiful fantasy, a wonderful diversion.”
Anna kissed him a fourth time. Pino thought he heard a woodwind join the strings vibrating in his chest, and his mind and body were reduced to one thing, to the music of Anna-Marta and nothing more.
When General Leyers and Dolly returned from dinner, Pino sat on the front hall bench, beaming.
“Have you been sitting there two hours?” Leyers asked.
Amused and drunk, Dolly eyed Pino. “That would be a tragedy for Anna.”
Pino blushed and looked away from Dolly, who chuckled and sashayed past him.
“You can go, Vorarbeiter,” Leyers said. “Drop the Daimler at the pool, and be back here at oh six hundred hours.”
“Oui, mon général.”
Driving the Daimler through the streets as the curfew approached, Pino couldn’t help thinking that he had just had the best evening of his life at the tail end of the worst day of his life. He’d experienced every emotion possible in a span of twelve hours, from horror to grief to kissing Anna. She was almost six years older, it was true, but he didn’t care in the least. If anything, it made her more magnetic.
As Pino walked back to the Lellas’ apartment on Corso Matteotti after leaving the staff car at the motor pool, his mind once again lurched between the emotions of seeing Tullio die and the music he’d felt kissing Anna. Riding the birdcage elevator past the Nazi sentries, he thought, God giveth, and God taketh away. Sometimes in the same day.
Unless he was up playing music with a group of friends, Pino’s father usually went to bed early, so Pino opened the front door to the apartment, expecting a light to be left on for him and the place quiet. But the lights were blazing behind the blackout curtains, and on the floor were suitcases he recognized.
“Mimo!” he cried softly. “Mimo, are you here?”
His brother came out from the kitchen, grinning as he ran over and grabbed Pino in a bear hug. His little brother might have grown an inch, but he’d certainly filled out in the fifteen weeks since Pino left Casa Alpina. Pino could feel the thick cables of muscle in Mimo’s arms and back.
“Great to see you, Pino,” Mimo said. “Really great.”
“What are you doing here?”
Mimo lowered his voice. “I told Papa that I wanted to come home for a short while, but the truth is, as much good as we were doing at Casa Alpina, I couldn’t take it anymore, being up there hiding while the real fighting was going on down here.”
“What are you gonna do? Join the partisans?”
“You’re too young. Papa won’t let you.”
“Papa won’t know unless you tell him.”
Pino studied his brother, marveling at his audacity. Just fifteen years old, he seemed to fear nothing, throwing himself into every situation without a shred of doubt. But joining a guerilla group to fight the Nazis could be tempting fate.
He watched the blood drain from Mimo’s face before his brother pointed a shaky finger at the red band and the swastika sticking from his pocket and said, “What is that?”
“Oh,” Pino said. “It’s part of my uniform, but it’s not what you think.”
“How isn’t it what I think?” Mimo said angrily, backing up to take in the entire uniform. “Are you fighting for the Nazis, Pino?”
“Fighting? No,” he said. “I’m a driver. That’s it.”
“For the Germans.”
Mimo looked like he wanted to spit. “Why aren’t you fighting for the resistance, for Italy?”
Pino hesitated, and then said, “Because I would have to desert, which would ma
“So you’re telling me that you’re a Nazi, a traitor to Italy?”
“It’s not so black and white.”
“Sure it is,” Mimo said, shouting at him.
“It was Uncle Albert and Mama’s idea,” Pino shouted back. “They wanted to save me from the Russian front, so I joined this thing—the OT, the Organization Todt. They build things. I just drive an officer around, waiting for the war to be over.”
“Quiet!” their father said, coming into the room. “The sentries downstairs will hear you!”
“Is it true, Papa?” Mimo said in a forced whisper. “Pino wears a Nazi uniform to ride out the war while other people step up and free Italy?”
“I wouldn’t put it like that,” Michele said. “But, yes, your mother, Uncle Albert, and I thought it best.”
That didn’t mollify his second son. Mimo sneered at his older brother. “Who would have thought it? Pino Lella, taking the coward’s way out.”
Pino hit Mimo so hard, and so fast, he broke his brother’s nose, and dropped him to the floor. “You have no idea what you’re talking about,” Pino said. “None at all.”
“Stop it!” Michele said, getting between them. “Don’t hit him again!”
Mimo looked at the blood in his hand, and then at Pino with contempt. “Go ahead and try to beat me down, my Nazi brother. It’s the only thing you Germans know how to do.”
Pino wanted to bash his brother’s face in while telling him about the things he’d seen and done already in the name of Italy. But he couldn’t.
“Believe what you want to believe,” Pino said, and walked away.
“Kraut,” Mimo called after him. “Adolf’s little boy’s gonna be safe and sound?”
Shaking, Pino shut his bedroom door and locked it. He stripped, got into bed, and set the alarm on his clock. He turned off the light, felt his bruised knuckles, and lay there, thinking that life had swung hard against him again. Was this what God wanted for him? To lose a hero, find love, and endure his brother’s scorn, all in one day?
For the third night in a row, the whirlwind of his mind finally slowed on memories of Anna, and he drifted to sleep.
Fifteen days later, a Waffen-SS soldier lashed a team of six mules dragging two heavy cannons up a steep, arid mountainside. The whip laid open the flanks of
Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan / History & Fiction have rating 5.1 out of 5 / Based on82 votes