Beneath a scarlet sky, p.23
Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font       Night Mode Off   Night Mode

       Beneath a Scarlet Sky, p.23

           Mark Sullivan
 

  “I’m serious. I underestimated you.”

  “Did you?”

  “Yes. I’m proud of you, that’s all.”

  That made him flush. “Thanks.”

  Anna continued to gaze at him for several long moments, and he felt himself falling into her eyes, as if they created a world unto themselves.

  “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone quite like you,” she said at last.

  “I should hope not. I mean, that’s a good thing, yes?”

  Anna sat back. “Good and frightening all at the same time, if I’m being honest.”

  “I scare you?” he said, frowning.

  “Well, yes. In a way.”

  “What way?”

  She looked off, shrugged. “You make me wish I were different, better. Younger, anyway.”

  “I like you just the way you are.”

  Anna gazed at him doubtfully. Pino reached out to her. Anna looked at his hand a long moment, and then smiled and took it in hers.

  “You’re special,” Pino said. “For a fantasy, I mean.”

  Anna’s smile widened, and she got up and came over to sit in his lap.

  “Show me I’m special for real,” she said, and kissed him.

  When they broke apart, they touched foreheads and entwined their hands. Pino said, “You know secrets that could get me killed, but I know so little about you.”

  After several moments, Anna seemed to come to some kind of decision and touched her uniform above her heart. “I’ll tell you about one of my scars. An old one.”

  Anna said her early childhood was magical. Her father, a commercial fisherman and native of Trieste, owned his own boat. Her mother was from Sicily, superstitious about everything, but a good mother, a loving mother. They had a nice home near the marina and good food on the table. Due to a series of miscarriages, Anna was an only child and doted on by her parents. She loved being in the kitchen with her mother. She loved being on the boat with her father, especially on her birthday.

  “Papa and I would go out on the Adriatic before dawn,” Anna said. “We’d go west in the darkness several kilometers. Then he’d turn the boat around east and let me take the wheel. I’d drive the boat straight into the sunrise. I loved that.”

  “How old were you?”

  “Oh, maybe five the first time.”

  On her ninth birthday, Anna and her father got up early. It was raining and windy, so there would be no voyage into the sunrise, but she wanted to go anyway.

  “So we did,” she said, fell quiet, and then cleared her throat. “The storm got worse. A lot worse. My father put a life preserver on me. We were getting hit by waves, and we got turned broadside to them. A big one hit us hard enough to capsize the boat and throw us into the sea. I was rescued later in the day by other fishermen from Trieste. My father was never found.”

  “Oh God,” Pino said. “That’s horrible.”

  Anna nodded, tears slipping from her eyes and dripping on his chest. “My mother was worse, but she’s a scar for another time. I have to sleep. And you have to go.”

  “Again?”

  “Yes,” she said, smiled, and kissed him once more.

  Though he desperately wanted to stay, Pino felt happy upon leaving Dolly’s apartment around 2:00 a.m. He hated seeing Anna’s face disappear as she closed the door, but he loved that she looked forward to seeing him again.

  Downstairs, the lobby and the old crone’s stool were empty. He went outside and looked at the bullet holes in the Daimler, and wondered how they’d survived. He would go home and sleep, and in the morning he would find his uncle. He had much to tell.

  The next morning, while Aunt Greta cut and toasted bread she’d stood hours in a ration line to buy, Uncle Albert took notes as Pino recounted all that had happened to him since they’d last spoken. He finished with the story of General Leyers getting drunk.

  Uncle Albert sat there several moments, and then asked, “How many lorries and armored cars did you say are coming off the Fiat lines every day?”

  “Seventy,” Pino said. “If it weren’t for the sabotage, they’d be making more.”

  “That’s good to know,” he said, scribbling.

  Aunt Greta put toast, butter, and a small jar of jam on the table.

  “Butter and jam!” Uncle Albert said. “Wherever did you get that?”

  “Everyone has their secrets,” she said, and smiled.

  “Even General Leyers, it seems,” Uncle Albert said.

  “Especially General Leyers,” Pino said. “Did you know he reports directly to Hitler? That he’s sat at the führer’s left hand in meetings?”

  His uncle shook his head. “Leyers is far more powerful than we thought, which is why I’d love to see what he’s got in that valise.”

  “But he’s always got it with him, or where it would be noticed missing.”

  “He leaves clues, though. He spent the better part of a week dealing with strikes and sabotages, which says to me strikes and sabotage are working. Which says we need more sabotage in the factories. We’ll break the Nazis gear tooth by gear tooth.”

  “The Germans are also having trouble paying,” Pino said. “Fiat is working on Hitler’s guarantee of payment, not cash.”

  Uncle Albert studied Pino, thought about that. “Scarcity,” he said at last.

  “What?” Aunt Greta said.

  “The food lines are getting worse, aren’t they?”

  She nodded. “Longer every day. For nearly everything.”

  “It’s going to get much worse,” her husband said. “If the Nazis have no money to pay, their economy is starting to break down. They will start seizing more and more of our stores soon, and that will lead to more scarcity and more misery for everyone in Milan.”

  “You think so?” Aunt Greta said, worrying her apron.

  “It’s not necessarily a bad thing, scarcity, in the long run I mean. More misery, more pain, will mean more of us willing to fight until the last German is dead or driven from Italy.”

  By the middle of October 1944, events were starting to prove Uncle Albert right.

  Pino drove General Leyers’s new staff car, a Fiat four-door sedan, southeast from Milan one beautiful autumn morning. It was harvest time on the Po River valley floor. Men were taking scythes to grain and picking gardens, groves, and orchards. Leyers sat in the back of the Fiat, as was his custom, the valise open, reports in his lap.

  Since they’d survived the strafing, Leyers had been more cordial to Pino, but he showed little of the empathy and openness he had that night. Then again, Pino hadn’t seen him take a drink since. He followed the general’s directions, and within an hour they arrived at a large meadow in the countryside. Fifty German lorries were parked there along with Panzer tanks, armored cars, and seven or eight hundred soldiers, a full battalion of them. Most were Organization Todt men, but they had a full company of SS soldiers behind them.

  General Leyers exited the car, his face hard. At the sight of the general, the entire battalion came to attention. Leyers was met by a lieutenant colonel who led him to a stack of weapons crates. Leyers climbed up on the crates and began to speak rapidly and forcefully in German.

  Pino was only catching the odd phrase or word, something about the Fatherland and the needs of brother Germans, but whatever he was saying certainly revved up the troops. They were upright, shoulders back, mesmerized by the general as he exhorted them.

  General Leyers finished his speech, shouting something about Hitler, and then threw his arm up and out in the Nazi salute. “Sieg heil!” he roared.

  “Sieg heil!” they thundered back at him.

  Pino stood there, confused by the fear he felt growing inside him. What had Leyers said to them? What was happening?

  The general disappeared with several officers into a tent. The eight hundred soldiers climbed into half the lorries and left the others empty. Their diesel engines rattled to life. The vehicles began to snake their way out of the meadow, one lorry full of men follo
wed by an empty one. Some pairs went north on the rural road, and the rest headed south, lumbering into the distance like so many war elephants on parade.

  Leyers emerged from the tent. His face betrayed nothing as he climbed into the backseat of the Fiat and told Pino to drive south through the Po River valley, as fertile a place as there was on earth. Three kilometers into the drive, Pino saw a girl sitting in the driveway of a small farm with a grain tower. She was sobbing. Her mother sat on the front stoop, her face in her hands.

  Not far down the road, Pino saw the body of a man facedown in the ditch with his white T-shirt bruised purple from drying blood. Pino glanced in the rearview. If Leyers had seen any of it, he wasn’t showing a reaction. His head was down. He was reading.

  The road ran down through a creek bottom and came up onto a large flat with harvested fields on both sides. Less than a kilometer ahead, a small settlement of houses was clustered next to a large grain bin made of stone.

  German lorries were parked on the road and in the farmyards. Platoons of Waffen-SS soldiers marched people out into their front yards, maybe twenty-five of them, and forced them to their knees with fingers laced behind their heads.

  “Mon général?” Pino said.

  In the backseat, Leyers looked up, cursed, and told him to stop. The general climbed out and shouted at the SS men. The first Todt soldier appeared with large grain sacks on his shoulders. Others came behind, twenty, maybe more, laden with grain sacks.

  The SS reacted to something Leyers said, and the families were urged to their feet and then allowed to sit as a group while they watched their grain, their livelihood, their survival, stolen and thrown into the back of a Nazi transport.

  One of the farmers would not sit, and started shouting at Leyers. “You can at least leave us enough to eat. It’s the decent thing to do.”

  Before the general could reply, one of the SS soldiers hit the farmer in the head with the butt of his rifle and dropped him in his tracks.

  “What did he say to me?” Leyers asked Pino.

  Pino told him. The general listened, thought, and then called to one of his Todt officers, “Nehmen sie alles!”

  Then he headed toward the car. Pino followed, upset because he knew enough German to understand Leyers’s command. Nehmen sie alles. Take everything.

  Pino wanted to kill the general. But he couldn’t. He had to swallow his anger and marshal himself. But did Leyers have to take everything?

  As he slid into the Fiat, Pino silently repeated a vow he’d made to remember what he’d seen, from the slaving to the pillaging. When the war was over, he would tell the Allies everything.

  They drove on into the early afternoon, seeing more and more farms with Germans under Leyers’s command stealing grain bound for mills, vegetables bound for market, and livestock bound for slaughter. Cows were shot in the head, gutted, and thrown into the lorries whole, their carcasses throwing steam into the cool air.

  Every once in a while, the general would tell Pino to stop, and he’d climb out to have a conversation with a Todt officer or two. Then he’d order Pino to drive on and return to his reports. Pino kept glancing at the mirror, thinking how Leyers seemed to shift and change with every moment. How can he possibly be unmoved by what we’ve seen? How can he—?

  “You think I’m a wicked man, Vorarbeiter?” Leyers said from the backseat.

  Pino looked in the mirror, saw the general looking back at him.

  “Non, mon général,” Pino said, trying to put on his happy face.

  “Yes, you do,” Leyers said. “It would be surprising if you didn’t hate me for what I’ve had to do today. A part of me hates myself. But I have orders. Winter is coming. My country is under siege. Without this food, my people will starve. So here in Italy, and in your eyes, I’m a criminal. Back home, I’ll be an unsung hero. Good. Evil. It’s all a question of perspective, is it not?”

  Pino gazed at the general in the mirror, thinking that Leyers seemed infinite and ruthless, the kind of man who could justify almost any action in pursuit of a goal.

  “Oui, mon général,” Pino said, and couldn’t restrain himself. “But now, my people will starve.”

  “Some might,” Leyers said. “But I answer to a greater authority. Any lack of enthusiasm for this mission on my part could be grounds for . . . Well, that’s not going to happen if I can help it. Take me back to Milan, the central train station.”

  Chapter Twenty-One

  Lorries stacked high with Nazi booty from Italian farms, orchards, and vineyards jammed into the streets around the train depot. Pino followed General Leyers into the station and out to the loading platforms where German soldiers were loading grain sacks, wine kegs, and full bushel baskets of fruits and vegetables into boxcar after boxcar.

  Leyers seemed to understand the whole system, firing questions at subordinates and calling out notes to Pino as he marched up and down the platforms.

  “Nine trains travel north through the Brenner tonight,” the general said at one point. “Arrival Innsbruck oh seven hundred hours. Arrive Munich thirteen hundred hours. Arrive Berlin seventeen hundred hours. In total three hundred and sixty cars of food will . . .”

  Leyers stopped dictating. Pino looked up.

  Seven Waffen-SS soldiers blocked their way. Beyond them, a string of seven rickety old cattle cars sat on the track by the far platform. At some point, the cars must have been a barn-red color, but the paint had blistered and peeled, and the wood was splintered and cracked, making them look barely fit for travel.

  Leyers said something threatening to the SS soldiers, and they stood aside. The general walked toward the train of old boxcars. Pino followed. Looking up, he saw the sign marked “Binario 21.”

  He was puzzled, knowing he’d heard of it before, but not placing it. With all the din inside the station from the loading of loot, it wasn’t until Pino was beside the last car that he heard children crying inside.

  The sound seemed to freeze the general. Leyers stood there, staring at the cracked and splintering walls of the cattle car and the many desperate eyes staring back through the cracks at him and at Pino, who now remembered Mrs. Napolitano saying that Platform 21 was where Jews disappeared on trains heading north.

  “Please,” a woman inside the cattle car sobbed in Italian. “Where are you taking us? After the prison, you can’t leave us in here like this! There’s no room. There’s . . .”

  Leyers looked at Pino with a stricken expression. “What is she saying?”

  Pino told him.

  Sweat broke out on the general’s forehead. “Tell her she’s going to an Organization Todt work camp in Poland. It’s—”

  The locomotive engine sighed. The train rolled back a foot. That set off wailing inside the boxcars, hundreds of men, women, and children screaming to be let out, demanding to know their destination and begging for any small mercy.

  “You’re going to a work camp in Poland,” Pino told the crying woman.

  “Pray for us,” she said before the wheels squealed on the tracks and the train began to pull away from Binario 21.

  Three little fingers stuck out of a crack on the rear wall of the last cattle car. The fingers seemed to wave at Pino as the train gathered speed. He stared after the train, seeing the fingers in his mind long after he couldn’t see them anymore. His urge was to go after the train and set those people free, get them to safety. Instead, he stood there, defeated, helpless, and fighting the urge to cry at the image of those fingers, which would not fade.

  “General Leyers!”

  Pino turned. So did the general, who was pale. Had he seen those fingers, too?

  Beyond them, down the platform, Gestapo Colonel Walter Rauff was chugging toward them, his face flushed with anger.

  “Colonel Rauff,” Leyers said.

  Pino took a step away from the general and studied the platform beneath his feet. He didn’t want Rauff to recognize him for fear that he might become suspicious of the Italian boy from Casa Alpina someh
ow becoming the driver to General Leyers.

  The Gestapo colonel started yelling at Leyers, who began yelling right back at him. Pino understood little of it, but he did hear Rauff invoke Joseph Goebbels’s name. Leyers responded by invoking Adolf Hitler. And in their body language, Pino got the meaning. Rauff answered to Goebbels, a Reich Minister. But Leyers answered to the führer himself.

  After several minutes of intense threats and ice-cold conversation, a furious Rauff stepped back and saluted. “Heil Hitler!”

  Leyers returned the salute with less enthusiasm. Rauff was about to leave, when he fixed on Pino for several seconds. Pino could feel his attention dancing all over him.

  “Vorarbeiter,” General Leyers called. “We are leaving. Bring the car around.”

  “Jawohl, General,” Pino said in his best German, and then hurried past the two Nazi officers, never once looking at Rauff, but feeling his flat dark eyes fixed on him.

  With every step, Pino expected to be called back. But Rauff never said a word, and Pino left Platform 21, praying he’d never have to return.

  General Leyers climbed into the staff car with his normal unreadable expression back in place.

  “Dolly’s,” he said.

  Pino glanced in the rearview and saw Leyers’s eyes screwed toward the horizon. He knew he should keep his mouth shut, but he couldn’t. “Mon général?”

  “What is it, Vorarbeiter?” he asked, still looking out the window.

  “Are the people in the boxcars really going to an OT work camp in Poland?”

  “Yes,” the general said. “It’s called Auschwitz.”

  “Why Poland?”

  At that, Leyers’s eyes came unscrewed and he almost shouted in irritation, “Why all the questions, Vorarbeiter? Don’t you know your place? Don’t you know who I am?”

  Pino felt like he’d been slapped at the back of the head. “Oui, mon général.”

  “Then you will keep your mouth shut. You will not ask questions of me or anyone else, and you will do as you are told. Do you understand?”

  “Oui, mon général,” Pino said, shaken. “I am sorry, mon général.”

  When they reached Dolly’s apartment building, Leyers said he’d take the valise up himself and ordered Pino to return the Fiat to the motor pool.

  Pino wanted to follow the general upstairs or go around the back and get Anna to let him in, but it was still daylight and he feared he’d get caught. After a long look at the windows of Dolly’s apartment, he drove away, thinking how much he wanted to tell Anna about all that he’d seen that day. The violence. The violation. The despair.

  That night and for many nights afterward, Pino’s dreams were haunted by the red train and Platform 21. He kept hearing the woman beg him to pray for her. He kept seeing those poor little fingers wiggling at him and dreamed that they belonged to a child of a thousand faces, a child who could not be saved.

  Over the ensuing weeks and days, Pino drove General Leyers all over northern Italy. They rarely slept. At the wheel, Pino often wondered about the faceless child and the woman he’d spoken to on Platform 21. Had they gone to Poland to be worked to death? Or had the Nazis just taken them somewhere and machine-gunned them the way they had in Meina and a dozen other desecrated places throughout Italy?

  When he wasn’t driving, Pino felt powerless and exhausted watching Leyers loot factories for machine tools and seize a staggering quantity of building supplies, vehicles, and food. Entire towns were stripped of basic commodities, which were either shipped to Germany by train or distributed to soldiers on the Gothic Line. Through it all, Leyers remained stoic, pitiless, and committed to his task.

  “I keep telling you the Allies need to be bombing the train tracks over the Brenner Pass,” Pino told his uncle one night in late October 1944. “They need to cut it off, or there will be no food left for any of us, and winter’s coming.”

  “I’ve had Baka send that message twice,” Uncle Albert said in frustration. “But the world’s focused on France, and forgotten Italy.”

  On Friday, October 27, 1944, Pino again drove General Leyers to Benito Mussolini’s villa at Gargnano. It was a warm fall day. The leaves of hardwood trees had turned fiery far up into the Alps. The sky was a crystalline blue, and the surface of Lake Garda mirrored both, causing Pino to wonder whether there was
Turn Navi Off
Turn Navi On
Scroll Up
Scroll

Other author's books: