Beneath a scarlet sky, p.25
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       Beneath a Scarlet Sky, p.25

           Mark Sullivan
 

  and Mr. Beltramini perform a minor miracle of voice and violin.

  “How did they do it?”

  “Love,” Pino said. “They played con smania, with passion, but the passion came from love. There’s no other explanation. All great things come from love, don’t they?”

  “I guess they do,” Anna said, and looked away. “The worst things, too.”

  “What does that mean?

  “Another time, Pino. Right now, I’m too happy.”

  They’d reached the crest of the hill. Fifteen months before, the meadow had been green, lush, and innocent. Now, the vegetation had faded to browns. The long grass was matted, gone to stalks, and the fruit trees in the orchard were barren. The sky darkened. It began to drizzle, and then to rain, and they had to run downhill to get to the car.

  When they got inside, Anna said, “I have to say, Pino, if it’s my choice, here or Cernobbio? I’ll take Cernobbio.”

  “Me, too,” he said as he looked up through the rain-streaked windshield toward the hilltop gathering fog. “It’s not as wonderful as I remembered, but then again, my friends and family were there. My father played the best violin piece of his life, and Mr. Beltramini was singing to his wife. And Tullio, and Carletto, he . . .”

  Overcome with emotion, Pino laid his head on his hands holding the steering wheel.

  “Pino, what’s the matter?” Anna asked, alarmed.

  “They’ve all left me,” he choked.

  “Who left you?”

  “Tullio, and my best friend, even my brother. They think I’m a Nazi and a traitor.”

  “Can’t you tell them you’re a spy?”

  “I shouldn’t have even told you.”

  “Oh, that’s a lot to bear,” she said, rubbing his shoulder. “But they’ll know eventually, Carletto and Mimo, when the war’s over. And Tullio? The best thing is to grieve for the people you loved and lost, and then welcome and love the new people life puts in front of you.”

  Pino picked his head up. They gazed at each other for several long moments before Anna put her hand in his, leaned close, and said, “I don’t care about the lipstick anymore.”

  PART FOUR

  THE CRUELEST WINTER

  Chapter Twenty-Two

  Driven by northeast winds, temperatures in northern Italy dropped steadily through November 1944. British Field Marshal Alexander broadcast a plea to the ragtag Italian resistance forces known as GAPs to form into guerilla armies and to attack the Germans. Instead of bombs, leaflets fluttered from the skies onto the streets of Milan, urging citizens to join the fight. The pace of resistance assaults soared. The Nazis were being harassed at almost every turn.

  In December, snow buried the Alps. Storm after storm squalled down out of the mountains, blanketed Milan, and fell south as far as Rome. Leyers and Pino began a frenzied series of tours of the defensive fortifications along the Gothic Line in the Apennine Mountains.

  They found German soldiers huddling around fires in smoky cement machine gun nests, at cannon installations, and under makeshift canvas tarps. More blankets, OT officers told Leyers. More food. More heavy wool jackets and socks, too. As the bitterness of winter set in, every Nazi soldier on the heights was enduring extreme hardship.

  General Leyers seemed genuinely moved by their plight, and he pushed himself and Pino harder to see to their needs. Leyers commandeered blankets from a mill in Genoa, and wool socks and jackets from factories in Milan and Turin. He emptied markets in all three cities, adding to the misery of the Italians.

  By the middle of December, Leyers was determined to have more cattle seized, butchered, and delivered to his troops on Christmas Day, along with cases and cases of wine stolen from wineries all over Tuscany.

  Early on the morning of Friday, December 22, 1944, Leyers ordered Pino once again to drive to the Monza train station. The general left the Fiat with his valise and told Pino to wait. It was broad daylight. Pino couldn’t follow Leyers for fear of being spotted. When the general returned, the valise looked heavier.

  “The Swiss border crossing above Lugano,” Leyers said.

  Pino drove, believing the valise now carried one if not two bars of gold, maybe more. When they reached the border, the general told Pino to wait. It was snowing hard when Leyers crossed into Switzerland and vanished into the storm. Eight bone-numbing hours later, Leyers returned and ordered Pino to drive back to Milan.

  “You sure he took gold to Switzerland?” Uncle Albert said.

  “What else would he have done in the train yard?” Pino asked. “Bury the bodies? After six weeks?”

  “You’re right. I’m . . .”

  “What’s the matter?” Pino asked.

  “The Nazi radio hunters, they are getting good at their jobs, too good. They triangulate in on our broadcasts much faster. Baka has almost been caught twice in the past month. And you know the penalty.”

  “What are you going to do?”

  Aunt Greta stopped cleaning dishes in the sink, turned to look at her husband, who was studying his nephew. “Albert,” she said, “I think it’s unfair of you to even ask. The boy’s done enough. Let someone else try.”

  “We’ve got no one else,” his uncle said.

  “You haven’t even discussed this with Michele.”

  “I was going to have Pino do it.”

  “Do what?” Pino said, frustrated.

  His uncle hesitated before saying, “The apartment below your parents’?”

  “The Nazi VIP place?”

  “Yes. Now, you’re going to think this is a strange idea.”

  Aunt Greta said, “I thought it was nuts the first time you suggested it, Albert, and now, the more I think about it, it’s downright insane.”

  “I think I’ll let Pino decide that.”

  Pino yawned, then said, “I’m going home to sleep in two minutes whether you tell me what you want me to do or not.”

  “There’s a Nazi shortwave in the apartment below your father’s place,” Uncle Albert said. “A cable runs out the window and up to a radio antenna mounted on the outer wall of your parents’ terrace.”

  Pino remembered but remained confused, still not sure where this was going.

  “So,” his uncle continued, “I think to myself that if the German radio hunters are looking for illegal radios broadcasting from illegal antennas, we might fool them by connecting our illegal radio to the Nazis’ legal antenna. You see? We splice into their cable, attach our radio, and send out our signal over a known German antenna. When the radio hunters converge, they’ll say, ‘It’s one of us.’ And walk away.”

  “If they know no one is on the Nazi radio, couldn’t they come up to the terrace?”

  “We’ll wait until they are done broadcasting, and then piggyback our signal right when they sign off.”

  “What would happen if the radio was found in our apartment?” Pino asked.

  “Not good.”

  “Does Papa know what you’re thinking?”

  “First I want you to tell Michele what you’re really doing in German uniform.”

  Even though his parents had ordered him to join the Organization Todt, Pino had seen how his father reacted to his swastika armband, how he looked away, his lips curled with shame.

  Though the chance to tell his father the truth cheered him, Pino said, “I thought the fewer people who knew, the better.”

  “I did say that. But if Michele knows the kind of risks you are taking for the resistance, he will accept my plan.”

  Pino thought about it all. “Let’s say Papa agrees. How are you going to get the radio up there? Past the lobby guards, I mean.”

  Uncle Albert smiled. “That’s where you come in, my boy.”

  That evening in the family apartment, Pino’s father stared at him.

  “You’re really a spy?”

  Pino nodded. “We couldn’t tell you, but now we have to.”

  Michele shook his head, and then motioned Pino over and hugged him awkwardly.

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nbsp; “I’m sorry,” he said.

  Pino swallowed his emotions and said, “I know.”

  Michele released his embrace and looked up at Pino with shining eyes. “You’re a brave man. Braver than I could ever be, and capable in ways I never would have guessed. I’m proud of you, Pino. I wanted you to know that, no matter what may happen to us before this war’s over.”

  It meant the world to Pino, and he choked, “Papa—”

  His father put his hand on Pino’s cheek when he couldn’t go on. “If you can get the radio past the sentries, I’ll keep it here. I want to do my part.”

  “Thank you, Papa,” Pino said finally. “I’ll wait until after you’ve gone to see Mama and Cicci for Christmas. That way you can deny knowing anything about it.”

  Michele’s face fell. “Your mother will be upset.”

  “I can’t come, Papa. General Leyers needs me.”

  “Can I tell Mimo about you if he gets in touch?”

  “No.”

  “But he thinks—”

  “I know what he thinks, and I’ll just have to live with that until a better time,” Pino said. “When did you last hear from him?”

  “Three months ago? He said he was going south to Piedmont for training. I tried to stop him, but there was no getting in your brother’s bullheaded way. He climbed out your window onto the ledge and got out. Six stories up. Who would do such a thing?”

  Pino flashed on his younger self using a similar escape route and tried not to smile as he said, “Domenico Lella. The one and only. I miss him.”

  Michele wiped his eyes. “God only knows what that boy’s gotten himself into.”

  Late the next evening, after another long day in General Leyers’s car, Pino was sitting in Dolly’s kitchen eating Anna’s excellent risotto and staring off into space.

  Anna gave him a light kick in the shin.

  Pino startled. “What?”

  “You are someplace else tonight.”

  He sighed, and then whispered, “Are you sure they’re asleep?”

  “I’m sure they’re in Dolly’s room.”

  Pino still whispered. “I didn’t want to get you involved, but the more I think about it, you could be a big help with something important that could also be dangerous to the both of us.”

  Anna gazed at him with excitement at first, but then her expression sobered, and then showed fear. “If I say no, will you do this thing alone?”

  “Yes.”

  After several moments she said, “What do I need to do?”

  “Don’t you want to know what I want you to do before you decide?”

  “I trust you, Pino,” Anna said. “Just tell me what to do.”

  Even amid war, destruction, and despair, Christmas Eve is a day when hope and kindness flourish. Pino saw it early in the day as General Leyers played Weihnachtsmann, Father Christmas, down on the Gothic Line, overseeing the distribution of stolen bread, beef, wine, and cheese. He saw it again that evening when he and Anna stood at the back of the Duomo behind thousands of other Milanese crammed into the three vast apses of the cathedral for a vigil Mass. The Nazis had refused to lift curfew for the traditional midnight celebration.

  Cardinal Schuster celebrated the Mass. Though Anna could barely see the cleric, Pino was tall enough to see Schuster clearly as he gave his homily, which was at once a discussion of the hardship of Jesus’s birth and a rallying cry to his flock.

  “‘Let not your hearts be troubled,’” the cardinal of Milan said. “Those six words of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, are more powerful than any bullet, cannon, or bomb. The people who hold these six words true are unafraid, and they are strong. ‘Let not your hearts be troubled.’ People who hold these words true will surely defeat tyrants and their armies of fear. It has been this way for nineteen hundred and forty-four years. And I promise you it will be this way for all time to come.”

  When the choir rose to sing, many in the crowd around Pino looked uplifted by Cardinal Schuster’s defiant sermon. As they opened their mouths to sing along with the choir, Pino saw battered, war-weary faces taking hope, rejoicing even at a time of sparse joy in the lives of far too many.

  “Did you give thanks in there?” Anna said as they left the cathedral after Mass. She shifted a shopping bag she was carrying from one hand to the other.

  “I did,” Pino said. “I thanked God for making you a present to me.”

  “Listen to you. That’s so nice.”

  “It’s also true. You make me unafraid, Anna.”

  “And here I’m as afraid as I’ve ever been.”

  “Don’t be,” Pino said, putting his arm around her shoulder. “Do what I sometimes do when I get scared: imagine you’re someone else, someone who’s far braver and smarter.”

  As they walked past the dark, damaged hulk of La Scala, heading toward the leather shop, Anna said, “I think I can do that. Act like someone else, I mean.”

  “I know you can,” Pino said, and he walked all the way to Uncle Albert’s feeling invincible with Anna at his side.

  They knocked at the rear door off the alley. Uncle Albert opened the door to the factory sewing room, and they went in, the smell of tanned leather everywhere. When the door was locked, his uncle flipped on the light.

  “Who is this?” Uncle Albert asked.

  “My friend,” Pino said. “Anna-Marta. She’s going to help me.”

  “I thought I said it would be done better alone.”

  “Since it’s my head on the block, I’ll do it my way.”

  “Which is how?”

  “I’m not saying.”

  Uncle Albert did not look happy about it, but he also showed Pino some respect. “How can I help? What do you need?”

  “Three bottles of wine. One opened and recorked, please.”

  “I’ll get them,” his uncle replied, and went up to the apartment.

  Pino began changing from his street clothes back into his uniform. Anna set down the shopping bag and walked through the workshop, taking in the cutting tables, the sewing stations, and shelves of fine leather goods in various stages of completion.

  “I love this,” she said.

  “What?”

  “This world you live in. The smells. The beautiful craftsmanship. It’s like a dream to me.”

  “I guess I’ve never seen it that way before, but, yes, it’s nice.”

  Uncle Albert came back downstairs with Aunt Greta and Baka. The radio operator was carrying that tan suitcase with the straps and false bottom Pino had seen back in April.

  His uncle watched Anna, who was still admiring the leather goods.

  Pino said, “Anna loves what you do.”

  He softened. “Yes? You like these?”

  “It’s all so perfectly crafted,” Anna said. “How do you even learn to do this?”

  “You’re taught,” Aunt Greta said, eyeing her suspiciously. “You learn from a master. Who are you? How do you know Pino?”

  “We work with each other, sort of,” Pino said. “You can trust her. I do.”

  Aunt Greta wasn’t convinced, but she said nothing. Baka handed Pino the suitcase. Up close, the radio operator looked haggard and drawn, a man who’d been on the run for too long.

  “Take care of her,” Baka said, nodding at the radio. “She’s got a voice that carries everywhere, but she’s a delicate thing.”

  Pino took the case, remarked on how light it was, and said, “How did you get it into San Babila without being searched?”

  “Tunnels,” Uncle Albert said, looking at his watch. “You need to hurry now, Pino. No need to try this after curfew.”

  Pino said, “Anna, can you bring the shopping bag and the two unopened bottles?”

  She put down a tooled leather bag she’d been admiring, grabbed what he needed, and went with him to the back of the shop. Pino opened the suitcase. They put the wine and the contents of the shopping bag inside, covering the false bottom that hid the radio components and the generator.

 
; “Okay,” Pino said after they’d strapped the case shut. “We’re off.”

  “Not without a hug from me,” Aunt Greta said, and embraced him. “Merry Christmas, Pino. Go with God.” She looked at Anna. “You as well, young lady.”

  “Merry Christmas, signora,” Anna said, and smiled.

  Uncle Albert held out the leather bag she’d been admiring, and said, “Merry Christmas to the brave and beautiful Anna-Marta.”

  Anna’s jaw dropped, but she took it as a little girl might a treasured doll. “I’ve never had so wonderful a present in my whole life. I’ll never let it go. Thank you! Thank you!”

  “Our pleasure,” Aunt Greta said.

  “Be safe,” Uncle Albert said. “The two of you. And merry Christmas.”

  When the door shut, the gravity of what lay before them weighed heavily on Pino. Being caught with an American-made shortwave transmitter would be like signing a death warrant. Standing there in the alley, Pino pulled the cork and took a long draw off the bottle of excellent Chianti Uncle Albert had opened, and then handed it to Anna.

  Anna took a few swigs, and another longer one. She grinned madly at him, kissed him, and said, “Sometimes you just have to have faith.”

  “Father Re always says that,” Pino said, smiling. “Especially if it’s the right thing to do, no matter the consequences.”

  They exited the alley. He carried the suitcase. Anna put the wine in the open mouth of her new purse. They held hands and threw a few weaves into their steps, and giggled as if they were the only two people in the world. From down the street at the Nazi checkpoint, they heard raucous laughter.

  “Sounds like they’ve been drinking,” Anna said.

  “Even better,” Pino said, and led the way to his parents’ apartment building.

  The closer they got, the tighter Anna gripped Pino’s hand.

  “Relax,” he said softly. “We’re drunk, not a care in the world.”

  Anna took a long swig of wine, and said, “A couple minutes from now, it will either be the end of things or the beginning.”

  “You can still back out.”

  “No, Pino, I’m with you.”

  Climbing the stairs to the front door of the apartment building and pushing it open, Pino had a moment of panic and doubt, wondered if it was a mistake to
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