Beneath a scarlet sky, p.21
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       Beneath a Scarlet Sky, p.21

           Mark Sullivan
 

  the mules, and they brayed in pain and fear, dug in their hooves, and kicked up a dust cloud as they climbed toward the heights of the Apennine Mountains north of the town of Arezzo in central Italy.

  “Get around them and be quick about it, Vorarbeiter,” General Leyers said, looking up from his work in the backseat. “I’ve got cement pouring.”

  “Oui, mon général,” Pino said, pulling around the mules and accelerating. He yawned, and yawned again, feeling so tired he could have lain right down in the mud and slept.

  The pace at which Leyers worked and traveled was stupefying. In the days after the executions in the Piazalle Loreto, he and Pino were on the road fourteen, fifteen, sometimes sixteen hours a day. Leyers liked to travel at night when possible, with slit canvas blinders over the headlights. Pino had to concentrate for hours on end keeping the Daimler on the road with only slivers of light to navigate by.

  When he passed the poor mules, it was past two in the afternoon, and he’d been driving since long before dawn. He was further irritated by the fact that the constant movement had hardly left him a moment to be alone with Anna since they’d kissed in the kitchen. He couldn’t stop thinking about her, how it had felt when she was in his arms, her lips against his. He yawned but smiled at that happy thought.

  “Up there,” General Leyers said, pointing through the windshield into rugged, dry terrain.

  Pino drove the Daimler until big rocks and boulders blocked the way.

  “We’ll walk from here,” Leyers said.

  Pino got out and opened the back door. The general exited and said, “Bring your notebook and pen.”

  Pino glanced at the valise in the backseat. He’d had the duplicate key for more than a week now, courtesy of some friend of Uncle Albert’s, but he’d had no chance to try it. He got the notebook and pen from under the map in the glove compartment.

  They climbed up through rocks and friable stones that slid around their feet before they reached the top. They were afforded a view looking over a valley framed by two long, connected ridges that on the map looked like a crab’s open claw. To the south, there was a wide plain divided into farms and vineyards. To the north, and high on the crab’s inner claw, an army of men worked in ungodly heat.

  Leyers walked resolutely up the ridge toward them. Pino trailed the general, stunned at the sheer number of men up and down the side of the mountain, so many they looked like ants with their hill split open, teeming and crawling all over one another.

  The closer they got, the ants turned human, and broken, and gray. Fifteen thousand slaves, maybe more, were mixing, transporting, and pouring cement for machine gun nests and artillery platforms. They were digging and setting tank traps across the valley floor. They were running barbed wire across the flanks of the slopes and using pickaxes and shovels to burrow out places for the German infantry to use as cover.

  Every group of slaves had a Waffen-SS soldier who goaded them to work harder. Pino heard screaming and saw slaves beaten and whipped. Those who collapsed in the heat were dragged away by other slaves and left to fend for themselves, lying on rocks, dying in the beating sun.

  It seemed to Pino a scene as old as time, an update on the pharaohs who enslaved generations of men to build their tombs. Leyers stopped at an overlook. He gazed down upon the vast companies of conquered men at his disposal and, at least by his facial expression, seemed unmoved by their plight.

  Pharaoh’s slave master, Pino thought.

  That was what Antonio, the partisan fighter from Turin, had called Leyers.

  The slave master himself.

  New hatred for General Leyers boiled up from deep in Pino’s gut. It was incomprehensible to him that a man who’d fought against something as barbaric as the decimation at San Vittore Prison could in turn rule an army of slaves without so much as a twitch of inner conflict or a tic of self-loathing. But nothing showed on Leyers’s face as he watched bulldozers piling tree trunks and boulders on the steep mountainsides.

  The general glanced at Pino, then pointed below them. “As the Allied soldiers attack, these obstacles will turn them straight into our machine guns.”

  Pino nodded with feigned enthusiasm. “Oui, mon général.”

  They walked through a girdle of interconnected machine gun nests and cannon installations, Pino following Leyers and taking notes. The longer they walked, and the more they saw, the more curt and agitated the general became.

  “Write this down,” he said. “The cement is inferior in many places. Likely sabotage from Italian suppliers. Upper valley is not fully hardened for battle. Inform Kesselring I need ten thousand more laborers.”

  Ten thousand slaves, Pino thought in disgust as he wrote. And they mean nothing to him.

  The general then attended a meeting with high-ranking OT and German army officers, and Pino could hear him shouting and threatening inside a command bunker. When the meeting broke up, he saw the officers shouting at their subordinates, who shouted at the men under their authority. It was like watching a wave build until it reached the Waffen-SS soldiers, who hurled the weight of Leyers’s demands on the shoulders of the slaves, lashing them, kicking them, driving them by any means necessary to work harder and faster. The implications were clear to Pino. The Germans expected the Allies here sooner than later.

  General Leyers watched until he seemed satisfied with the renewed pace of the work, then said to Pino, “We’re done here.”

  They walked back along the mountainside. The general would pause every now and then to observe some work-in-progress. Otherwise, he kept on marching like some unstoppable machine. Did he have a heart? Pino wondered. A soul?

  They were near the path that led back to the Daimler when Pino saw a crew of seven men in gray digging and swinging pickaxes, breaking rock and shale under the watchful eye of the SS. Some of them had a ravaged and mad look about them, like a rabid dog he’d once seen.

  The closest slave to Pino was uphill from the others, digging weakly. He stopped, put his hands on the end of the handle like a man who’d had enough. One of the SS soldiers started screaming at him and marching across the hill.

  The slave looked away and saw Pino standing there, looking down at him. His skin had turned the color of tobacco juice from the sun, and his beard was wilder than Pino remembered it. He’d also lost too much weight. But Pino swore he was looking at Antonio, the slave he’d given water to back in the tunnel the first day he’d driven for Leyers. Their gazes locked, and Pino felt both pity and shame before the SS soldier clubbed the side of the slave’s head with the butt of his rifle. He dropped and rolled down the steep embankment.

  “Vorarbeiter!”

  Pino startled and looked over his shoulder. General Leyers was standing about fifty meters from him, glaring back at him.

  With one last glance at the now unmoving slave, Pino broke into a trot toward the general, thinking that Leyers was responsible. The general hadn’t ordered the man struck down, but in his mind, Leyers was responsible nonetheless.

  It was past dark when Pino came through the door to Uncle Albert’s sewing room.

  “I saw bad things today,” Pino said, emotional again. “I heard them, too.”

  “Tell me,” Uncle Albert said.

  Pino did the best he could, describing the scene with Leyers and the way the SS soldier had killed Antonio for taking a break.

  “They’re all butchers, the SS,” Uncle Albert said, looking up from his notes. “Because of the reprisal edict, there are stories of atrocities every day now. At Sant’Anna di Stazzema, SS troops machine-gunned, tortured, and burned five hundred and sixty innocents. At Casaglia, they shot down a priest on his altar and three old people during Mass. They took the other hundred and forty-seven parishioners into the church graveyard and opened fire with machine guns.”

  “What?” Pino said, stunned.

  Aunt Greta said, “It goes on. Just the other day, in Bardine di San Terenzo, more than fifty young Italian men, like you, Pino, were strangled w
ith barbed wire and hung from trees.”

  Pino loathed them all, every single Nazi. “They have to be stopped.”

  “There are more joining the fight against them every day,” Uncle Albert said. “Which is why your information is so important. Could you show me on a map where you were?”

  “I’ve already done it,” Pino said, pulling out the general’s map from the glove compartment.

  Unfolding it on one of the cutting tables, he showed his uncle the light pencil marks he’d made to indicate the rough placement of the artillery, machine gun nests, armories, and ammo dumps he’d seen during the day. He pointed out where Leyers had piled the debris so the Allies would alter course into machine gun fire.

  “In this whole area, Leyers said the concrete is inferior, weak,” Pino said, gesturing to the map. “Leyers was very concerned about it. The Allies should bomb here first, take it out before they ever attack on the ground.”

  “Smart,” Uncle Albert said, taking notes on the longitude and latitude of the area. “I’ll pass it along. By the way, that tunnel you visited with Leyers, when you first saw the slaves? It was destroyed yesterday. Partisans waited until there were just Germans inside and then dynamited both ends.”

  That made Pino feel better. He actually was making a difference.

  “It would sure help if I could get into that valise,” Pino said.

  His uncle said, “You’re right. In the meantime, we’ll see about getting you a small camera.”

  Pino liked that idea. “Who knows I’m a spy?”

  “You, me, and your aunt.”

  And Anna, he thought, but said, “Not the Allies? The partisans?”

  “They only know you by the code name I gave you.”

  Pino liked that idea even more. “Really? What’s my code name?”

  “Observer,” Uncle Albert replied. “As in ‘Observer notes machine gun nests at such and such position.’ And ‘Observer notes troop supplies heading south.’ It’s deliberately bland. That way, if the Germans ever intercepted the reports, they’d have no clue to your identity.”

  “Observer,” Pino said. “Plain and to the point.”

  “Exactly my thought,” Uncle Albert said, standing up from the map. “You can fold the map up now, but I’d erase those pencil marks first.”

  Pino did so and left a short time later. Hungry and tired, he started toward home at first, but he hadn’t seen Anna in days, and he walked to Dolly’s apartment building instead.

  As soon as he got there, he wondered why he’d come. It was almost curfew. And he couldn’t just go up, knock on the door, and ask to see her, could he? The general had ordered him to go home and to sleep.

  He was about to leave when he remembered Anna saying that there was a back stairway just beyond her room off the kitchen. He went around the building, thankful for the moon overhead, and picked his way to where he figured Anna’s room and window were, three stories above him. Would she be in there? Or still cleaning dishes and washing Dolly’s clothes?

  Picking up a small handful of pebbles, he leaned back and threw them all at once, figuring she was either in there or not. Ten seconds went by, then another ten. He was about to leave when he heard a window sash go up.

  “Anna!” he called softly.

  “Pino?” she called softly back.

  “Let me in the back way.”

  “The general and Dolly are still here,” she said, doubt in her voice.

  “We’ll be quiet.”

  There was a long pause, and then she said, “Give me a minute.”

  After she’d opened the utility door, they crept up the back stairs, Anna in the lead, stopping every few steps to listen. At last they reached her bedroom.

  “I’m hungry,” Pino whispered.

  She opened her door, pushed him inside, and whispered back, “I’ll find you something to eat, but you must stay here, and be quiet.”

  She was back soon with leftovers from a ham hock and a fried noodle dish that was the general’s favorite. He ate it all by the light of a single candle Anna had burning. She sat on the bed, drank wine, and watched him eat.

  “That makes my tummy happy,” he said when he’d finished.

  “Good,” Anna said. “I’m a student of happiness, you know. It’s all I really want—happiness, every day for the rest of my life. Sometimes happiness comes to us. But usually you have to seek it out. I read that somewhere.”

  “And that’s all you want? Happiness?”

  “What could be better?”

  “How do you find happiness?”

  Anna paused, then said, “You start by looking right around you for the blessings you have. When you find them, be grateful.”

  “Father Re says the same thing,” Pino said. “He says to give thanks for every day, no matter how flawed. And to have faith in God and a better tomorrow.”

  Anna smiled. “The first part’s right. I don’t know about the second.”

  “Why?”

  “I’ve been disappointed too many times when it comes to better tomorrows,” she said, and then kissed him. He took her in his arms and kissed her back.

  Then they heard arguing through the walls—Leyers and Dolly.

  “What are they fighting about?” Pino whispered.

  “What they always fight about. His wife back in Berlin. And now, Pino, you have to go.”

  “Really?”

  “Go on now,” she said. Then she kissed him and smiled.

  On September 1, 1944, the British Eighth Army punctured the weaker sections of the Gothic Line on the crab-claw ridges north of Arezzo, and then turned east toward the Adriatic Coast. The fighting turned vicious, some of the most intense of the war in Italy after Monte Cassino and Anzio. The Allies rained more than a million mortar and cannon rounds on all the fortifications that separated them from the coastal city of Rimini.

  Nine brutal days later, the US Fifth Army drove the Nazis off the highlands at the Giogo Pass, and the British intensified their assault of the east end of the Gothic Line. The Allies rolled north in a pincer fashion, trying to surround the retreating German Tenth Army before it could re-form.

  Pino and Leyers went to high ground near Torraccia, where they watched the town of Coriano and the heavy German defenses around it come under bombardment. More than seven hundred heavy shells were dropped on the town before ground forces attacked it. After two days of gruesome, hand-to-hand combat, Coriano fell.

  In all, some fourteen thousand Allied soldiers and sixteen thousand Germans died in the area in a two-week span. Despite the heavy casualties, German Panzer and infantry divisions were able to retreat and re-form along a new battle line to the north and northwest. The rest of Leyers’s Gothic Line held. Even with the information Pino was providing, the Allied advance in Italy again slowed to a crawl due to loss of men and supplies to France and the western front.

  Later in the month, machine workers in Milan went on strike. Some sabotaged their equipment as they left their factories. Tank production halted.

  General Leyers spent days getting a tank assembly line restarted, only to hear in early October that Fiat’s Mirafiore factory was about to go on strike. They went straight to Mirafiore, an outlying district of Turin. Pino served as interpreter between the general and Fiat management in a room above the assembly line, which was running, but slowly. The tension in the room was thick.

  “I need more lorries,” General Leyers said. “More armored cars, and more parts for machines in the field.”

  Calabrese, the plant manager, was a fat, sweaty man in a business suit. But he was not afraid to stand up to Leyers.

  “My people are not slaves, General,” Calabrese said. “They work for a living—they should be paid for a living.”

  “They’ll be paid,” Leyers said. “You have my word.”

  Calabrese smiled slowly, unconvincingly. “If it were only that simple.”

  “Did I not help you with factory seventeen?” the general asked. “I had orders to take every p
iece of machinery there and ship it back to Germany.”

  “It doesn’t matter now, does it? Factory seventeen was destroyed in an Allied attack.”

  Leyers shook his head at Calabrese. “You know how this works. We scratch each other’s backs, we survive.”

  “If you say so, General,” Calabrese said.

  Leyers took a step closer to the Fiat manager, looked to Pino, and said, “Remind him that I have the power to force every man on that assembly line to enlist in the Organization Todt or risk deportation to Germany.”

  Calabrese hardened and said, “Slavery, you mean?”

  Pino hesitated, but translated.

  “If necessary,” Leyers said. “It is your choice whether to leave this plant in your hands or in mine.”

  “I need some assurance beyond yours that we’ll be paid.”

  “Do you understand my title? My job? I decide the number of tanks to be built. I decide the number of panties to be sewn. I—”

  “You work for Albert Speer,” the Fiat manager said. “You have his authority. Get him on the phone. Speer. If your boss can give me assurances, then we’ll see.”

  “Speer? You think that weak ass is my boss?” the general said, looking insulted before asking to use the Fiat manager’s telephone. He was on it for several minutes, having several agitated arguments in German, before he bobbed his head, and said, “Jawohl, mein Führer.”

  Pino’s attention shot to the general, as did the attention of every man in the room as Leyers continued to speak into the phone in German. About three minutes into the conversation, he yanked the earpiece away from his head.

  The voice of Adolf Hitler in full rant came into the room.

  Leyers looked at Pino, smiled coldly, and said, “Tell Signor Calabrese that the führer would like to give him his personal assurances of payment.”

  Calabrese looked like he’d rather have grabbed an electrical wire than the phone, but he took it and held the earpiece a few centimeters from his head. Hitler kept on in full oratorical rage, sounding like he was being ripped apart from the insides, probably foaming at the mouth as it was happening. Sweat poured off the Fiat manager’s brow. His hands began to shake, and with them went his resolve.

  He shoved the phone back at Leyers and said to Pino, “Tell him to tell Herr Hitler that we accept his assurances.”

  “A wise choice,” Leyers said, and then returned to the phone, saying in a soothing voice, “Ja, mein Führer. Ja. Ja. Ja.”

  A few moments later he hung up the phone.

  Calabrese collapsed in his chair, his suit drenched with sweat. As he set the phone down, General Leyers looked at the manager and said, “Do you understand who I am now?”

  The Fiat manager would not look at Leyers or reply. He barely managed a weak, submissive bob of his head.

  “Very well, then,” the general said. “I expect production reports twice weekly.”

  Leyers handed the valise to Pino, and they left.

  It was nearly dark out, but still a nice warm temperature.

  “Dolly’s,” the general said, climbing into the Daimler. “And no talking. I need to think.”

  “Oui, mon général,” Pino said. “Do you want the top up or down?”

  “Leave it down,” he said. “I like the fresh air.”

  Pino retrieved the burlap headlamp shields and mounted them before firing up the Daimler and heading east toward Milan with two slits of light to show him the way. But within the hour, the moon rose huge and full in the eastern sky, throwing a mellow glow down on the landscape and making it easier for Pino to follow the route.

  “That’s a blue moon,” Leyers said. “The first of two full moons in one month. Or is it the second one? I can never remember.”

  It was the first time the general had spoken since leaving Turin.

  “The moon looks yellow to me, mon général,” Pino said.

  “The term doesn’t refer to the color, Vorarbeiter. Normally in a single season, in this case, autumn, there are three months and three full moons. But this year, tonight, right now, there’s a fourth moon in the three-month cycle, two in one month. Astronomers call it a ‘blue moon’ because it is such a rare occurrence.”

  “Oui, mon général,” Pino said, driving a long, straight section of road and looking at the moon rising over the horizon like some omen.

  When they came to a section of the road that was flanked on both sides by tall, well-spaced trees and fields beyond them, Pino was no longer thinking about
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