Beneath a scarlet sky, p.27
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       Beneath a Scarlet Sky, p.27

           Mark Sullivan
 

  He’d almost reached the Fiat when he heard, “Halt.”

  A flashlight played on Pino as he froze, holding Leyers’s valise.

  An SS lieutenant walked up to him, followed by Colonel Walter Rauff, the head of the Gestapo in Milan.

  “Papers,” the lieutenant said in Italian.

  Pino set the valise down, struggling to remain calm as he dug out his papers, including the letter from General Leyers.

  “Why aren’t you in uniform?” the lieutenant demanded.

  “General Leyers gave me two days’ leave,” Pino said.

  Up until then, Colonel Rauff, the man who’d ordered Tullio’s death, had said nothing. “And what is this?” he asked now, toeing the bag with his boot.

  Pino thought sure he was about to die. “General Leyers’s valise, Colonel. The stitching was broken, and he asked me to bring it to the leather shop for repair. I’m taking it back to him now. Would you like to come? Ask him about it? I can tell you he was drunk and in a foul mood when I left him.”

  Rauff studied Pino. “Why did you come here to get it fixed?”

  “It’s the best leather shop in Milan. Everyone knows that.”

  “Not to mention it’s your uncle’s shop,” Rauff said.

  “Yes, that, too,” Pino said. “Having family always helps in a pinch. Have you herded any oxen lately, Colonel?”

  Rauff stared at him so long Pino thought he’d gone too far and blown it.

  “Not since the last time,” the Gestapo chief said at last, and laughed. “Give General Leyers my best.”

  “I’ll do that,” Pino said, bobbing his head as Rauff and his men walked away.

  Sweat exploded off Pino as he put the valise on the floor in the backseat, got up front, and gripped the wheel.

  “Oh Jesus,” he whispered. “Oh sweet Jesus.”

  As soon as he could stop shaking he started the Fiat and drove it back to Dolly’s. Anna answered the door, looking agitated.

  “The general’s very drunk and angry,” she whispered. “He hit Dolly.”

  “Hit her?”

  “He’s calmed down, said he didn’t mean it.”

  “Are you okay?”

  “I’m fine. I just don’t think this is the best time to talk to him. He keeps going on and on about the idiots and traitors who’ve lost the war.”

  “Put his valise there by the coatrack,” Pino said, handing it to her. “He’s given me two days off. Can you come to my place? My father’s gone to see my mother again.”

  “Not tonight,” she said. “Dolly may need me. But tomorrow?”

  He leaned forward, kissed her, and said, “I can’t wait.”

  After leaving the Fiat at the motor pool, Pino returned to the family apartment. He thought about Mimo. Uncle Albert wouldn’t tell him much about what his little brother was doing, which was as it should be. If Pino were ever questioned about Mimo’s partisan activities, he could justly claim ignorance. But he longed to know what daring deeds his brother had undoubtedly performed, especially after Uncle Albert said that Mimo’s reputation in combat was “ferocious.”

  Flashing back on cherished memories of the Alps, and how they’d climbed and worked together for a greater good, Pino felt even more miserable that Mimo thought him a coward and a traitor. Sitting there alone in the apartment, he desperately wished General Leyers’s words at the Swiss border were true, that the war really was over, and that life, his life, could become something good again.

  He closed his eyes and tried to imagine the moment when the war would end and how he’d find out. Would people dance in the streets? Would there be Americans in Milan? Of course there would be. They’d been in Rome for six months now, hadn’t they? Wasn’t that grand? Wasn’t that elegant?

  Those thoughts stirred up old dreams of going to America, of seeing the world beyond. Maybe that’s all it takes for the future to exist, Pino thought. You must imagine it first. You must dream it first.

  Several hours later, the apartment telephone rang and kept jangling.

  Pino didn’t want to leave his warm bed, but the phone kept ringing and ringing until he couldn’t stand it anymore. He slid from beneath the covers, stumbled down the cold hallway, and turned on the light.

  Four o’clock in the morning? Who would be calling now?

  “Lella residence,” he said.

  “Pino?” Porzia cried in a crackly voice. “Is that you?”

  “Yes, Mama. What’s wrong?”

  “Everything,” she said, and started to weep.

  Pino came wide-awake in a panic. “Is it Papa?”

  “No,” she sniffed. “He’s sleeping in the other room.”

  “Then what?”

  “Lisa Rocha? You remember? My best friend from childhood?”

  “She lives in Lecco. She had a daughter I used to play with at the lake.”

  “Gabriella, she’s dead,” Porzia choked.

  “What?” Pino said, remembering how he’d pushed the girl on a swing in her parents’ yard.

  His mother sniffed. “She was safe and sound, working in Codigoro, but she was homesick and wanted to go see her parents for a visit. Her father, Lisa’s husband, Vito, has been very sick, and she was worried.”

  Porzia said Gabriella Rocha and a friend had left Codigoro by bus the afternoon before. The driver evidently tried to make up time and took a route that ran through the town of Legnago.

  “The partisans were fighting the Fascists in the area,” Porzia said. “West of Legnago, near a cemetery and an orchard, toward the village of Nogara, the bus was caught in the battle. Gabriella tried to flee, but she was caught in a cross fire and killed.”

  “Oh, that’s awful,” Pino said. “I’m very sorry to learn that, Mama.”

  “Gabriella’s still there, Pino,” Porzia said with great difficulty. “Her friend managed to get her body into the cemetery before escaping and calling Lisa. I just got off the phone with Lisa. Her husband is ill and can’t go find their daughter. It feels like everything in this world has gone wrong and evil.”

  His mother was sobbing.

  Pino felt horrible. “You want me to go get her?”

  She stopped crying, and sniffled, “Would you? And take her home to her mother? It would mean the world to me.”

  Pino didn’t relish the thought of dealing with a dead girl’s body, but he knew it was the right thing to do. “She’s in the cemetery between Legnago and Nogara?”

  “That’s where her friend left her, yes.”

  “I’ll go right now, Mama.”

  Three hours later, dressed in heavy winter clothes, Pino turned General Leyers’s Fiat onto a country road that ran east from Mantua toward Nogara and Legnago. Snow fell that breezy morning. The Fiat whipped and bucked over the frozen, rutty road.

  Pino plowed on into farm country, sliding past snowed-over crop fields separated from the road by wooden fences and stacked-rock walls. He fought the sedan up a rise west of Nogara, and stopped to look down a sloping hill. On his left, leafless olive and fruit groves ran out to a large, walled cemetery. The terrain was steeper on the right but gave way quicker to a plain with more barren fruit groves, fields, and farmhouses.

  In the softly falling snow, it would have been a gentle pastoral scene but for the burned-out bus blocking the road near the cemetery gate, and the crack, rattle, and screams of a battle still raging several hundred meters down the hill. Pino felt his resolve fragment and scatter.

  I didn’t sign up for this, he thought, and almost turned around. But in his ears he could hear Porzia pleading with him to bring Gabriella to her mother. And leaving the girl, his childhood friend, to the birds would just be wrong.

  Pino reached in the glove compartment and removed General Leyers’s binoculars. He stepped from the car into the bitter cold and trained the glasses on the valley below. Catching movement almost immediately, he soon realized that the Fascist Black Shirts controlled the south side of the road and the partisans in red neckerchiefs were holding the
north side all the way east to the cemetery wall, which was roughly five hundred meters away from him. Corpses from both armies littered the road, the ditches, the fields, and the groves.

  Pino thought about that for a moment, and then formulated a plan that scared him half to death, but it was the best that presented itself to him. For a long moment, the fear of going down that hill locked him. All sorts of what-if questions poured into his thoughts, each of them more gut-wrenching than the next.

  Once he made the decision to go, however, he tried to stop thinking about the danger. After checking the loaded Walther in his coat pocket, Pino put on gloves and retrieved two white sheets from the trunk. He’d brought them as shrouds for the body, but now they served another purpose. One sheet he belted about his waist like a skirt, and the other he hung like a shawl over his wool cap and jacket.

  Pino headed due north, away from the road. Wrapped in the sheets, he moved ghostlike through the snowstorm across the flank of the hill, and then angled downward, gradually losing elevation until he reached the cover of the closest olive grove.

  Pino continued on another two hundred meters before veering east along a rock wall at the far north end of the grove. Through the binoculars and the falling snow, he could see the shapes of partisan fighters far to his right, splayed in prone positions at the base of old olive trees, firing at Fascists who tried to cross the road.

  He stayed low and moved, keeping as much of his body as possible behind the rock wall. He heard machine pistols from the Fascist side and bullets striking trees, ricocheting off the stone wall, and every so often making a wet plumping sound that he took to be a partisan being hit.

  In the echoing quiet after gunfire, wounded men on both sides screamed out in agony for their wives and mothers, for Jesus, for the Virgin Mary, and for God Almighty, begging for help or an end to their torture. The suffering voices wormed into Pino’s head and made him petrified when the shooting started again. He couldn’t move. What if he were hit? What if he died? What would his mother do if she lost him? He lay on his belly in the snow behind the rock wall, shaking uncontrollably and thinking he should just turn back and go home.

  Then Mimo appeared in his mind, calling him a coward, a traitor, and he was ashamed to be hiding behind a rock wall. Let not your heart be troubled, Cardinal Schuster had said on Christmas Eve. Let not your heart be troubled. Have faith, Father Re had told him more times than he could remember.

  Pino pushed himself up into a hunched-over position and barreled forward and east a solid hundred meters to where the rock wall petered out. He hesitated, and then ran on through the back side of another olive grove, seeing partisans moving in the trees to his right about seventy meters away. A heavy machine gun opened up from the Fascist side of the road.

  Pino dove into the snow and hugged the base of an old tree. Bullets raked the grove east to west and back again, tearing the limbs off trees and off partisans, judging by the anguished screaming that followed. For a few moments, everything to Pino was nightmarish, sluggish, and snow-covered, everything except the animal roar of the machine gun and the cries of the wounded.

  The big gun came sweeping back Pino’s way. Heaving himself to his feet, he sprinted just ahead of the bullets raking after him. He heard them smack trees close behind, but he was almost to the corner of the cemetery wall and thought he’d make it.

  A root beneath the snow snagged his foot, tripped him. Pino fought to stay upright, but the ground beneath his next step gave way, and he sprawled face-first into a snow-filled drainage ditch.

  Machine gun slugs ripped the air above him and tore into the corner of the cemetery wall, blowing out rock chunks and mortar before sweeping back again the other way.

  Facedown in the snow, Pino heard the god-awful screaming of men and boys clinging to life and calling for help or pleading to be done with it. Their pain goaded him up out of the snow and to his feet. He stood there in the drainage ditch, looking at where he’d sprawled, and understood that if he’d remained upright and tried to get to the cemetery, he would have certainly been dead, probably cut in half.

  He saw movement to the south. Fascist Black Shirt soldiers were coming across the road. Pino pulled the sheet around him, climbed out of the ditch, and took several big steps before disappearing from sight behind the cemetery’s two-and-a-half-meter rear wall.

  Pino balled the sheets and tossed them over the wall. Then he crouched, jumped, and grabbed hold of the icy top. Kicking and pulling himself up, he got one leg over, straddled the wall, and then dropped over into the graveyard, landing in deep fresh snow. The begging of the wounded and the maimed continued outside.

  Then, there was a shot. Light caliber, by the flat crack of it. Then another. And a third.

  Pino dug out the Walther pistol from his coat pocket, hung the white shrouds over his shoulders again, and moved fast through the snow-clad gravestones, statues, and mausoleums toward the front of the cemetery. He figured Gabriella’s friend could not have dragged her very far, so the body had to be ahead of him somewhere.

  Another shot outside the cemetery walls, then a fifth, and a sixth. Pino kept going. His head was swiveling as he looked everywhere, but he was seeing no one else inside the graveyard. Swinging wide so he couldn’t be seen through the gate from the road, Pino reached the row of tombs closest to the front entrance.

  He used the binoculars to scan the open ground before the cemetery’s front wall, but again saw nothing. Backing up, he peered between the first row of gravestones and the second, and he saw Gabriella Rocha, or the suggestion of her really, fifteen centimeters beneath the snow. Pino made a beeline toward the shape. When the seventh and eighth shots rang outside the cemetery wall, he glanced at the front gate and was relieved to see no one there.

  The daughter of Porzia’s best friend lay on her back, tucked up tight to the base of a large tomb that hid her from the gate and the road. He knelt by the snow-covered form, leaned over, and blew at the powdery snow, seeing it waft and clear from her face, which was lovely and ice blue. Gabriella’s eyes were shut. Her lips were curled in an almost contented smile, as if she’d heard a funny comment on her way to heaven. Pino blew more snow from her face and dark hair, noticing that blood had seeped into the ice crystals and formed a pale red halo beneath her head.

  Grimacing, he lifted her head, found her neck stiff with rigor, but was able to make out where the bullet had gone through both sides of the back of her skull—hardly any damage, just two holes drained of blood on either side of where her spinal cord met her brain. Pino laid her back down and brushed the rest of the snow off her, remembering how much fun they’d had as kids and thinking that it was good she hadn’t suffered. Alive and frightened one moment, then dead and content before she could draw her next breath.

  After spreading the sheets, Pino set the Walther on the tomb and rolled Gabriella onto the first sheet. As he tucked the fabric up around her, he started to think about how he was going to get her body over the back wall with no rope.

  Pino turned to get the second sheet, but it no longer mattered. Three Fascist soldiers had come into the graveyard through the gate. They were aiming rifles at him forty meters away.

  “Don’t shoot!” Pino yelled, going down on his knees and throwing his arms up. “I am not a partisan. I work for Major General Hans Leyers of the German High Command in Milan. He sent me to bring this girl’s body to her mother in Lecco.”

  Two of the soldiers looked skeptical and bloodthirsty. The third started laughing as he moved toward Pino, gun up, and saying, “That’s the best partisan excuse I have ever heard, which is gonna make me blowing your head off a real shame.”

  “Don’t do it,” Pino warned. “I have the documents to prove what I’m saying. Here, inside my coat.”

  “We don’t give a shit about your forged documents,” the Black Shirt sneered.

  He stopped ten meters from Pino, who said, “Do you want to explain to Il Duce why you shot me instead of letting me take care of this
girl’s body?”

  That seemed to give the Fascist pause. Then he sniggered. “Now you’re saying you’re friends with Mussolini?”

  “Not a friend. I work for him as a translator when General Leyers visits. It’s all true. Just let me show you the papers, and you’ll see.”

  “Why don’t we just check, Raphael?” another Black Shirt said, growing nervous.

  Raphael hesitated and then motioned for the documents. Pino handed over his identity card from the Organization Todt, the signed letter from General Leyers, and a document of free passage signed by Benito Mussolini, president of the Salò Republic. It was the only thing Pino had stolen from Leyers’s valise.

  “Put your guns down,” Raphael said at last.

  “Thank you,” Pino said with relief.

  “You’re lucky I didn’t just shoot you for being here,” Raphael said.

  As Pino got up, Raphael said, “How come you’re not in the Salò army? How come you’re driving for a Nazi?”

  “It’s complicated,” Pino said. “Signore? All I want is to take this girl’s body home to her mother, who is heartbroken, and waiting to bury her daughter.”

  Raphael looked at him with some disdain, but said, “Go on, take her.”

  Pino retrieved his pistol, holstered it, and then wrapped Gabriella with the second sheet. He dug in his coat pocket, got out the OT swastika armband, and put it on. Then he bent down and scooped up the corpse.

  She wasn’t terribly heavy, but it took a couple of adjustments before Pino had her rolled firmly into his chest. With a nod, he walked back down the row of gravestones through the deep and falling snow, acutely aware of the Black Shirts watching him every step of the way.

  When Pino exited the cemetery gate, a slat of sunlight broke through the clouds, shining on the charred bus to his left and making the snowflakes look as dazzling as jewels spiraling to earth. But as he started up the road heading toward the far rise, Pino wasn’t looking at the diamonds floating from the sky. His eyes darted left and right at the Black Shirts, who were using axes, saws, and knives to behead the partisan dead below their red scarves.

  Fifteen, maybe twenty heads had already been stuck on fence posts facing the road. Many of their eyes were open and their faces were twisted in death’s agony. The weight of the dead girl in his arms felt suddenly unbearable under the dark and silent gaze of the bodiless men. Pino wanted to drop Gabriella, to leave her and run from the savagery that surrounded him. Instead, he set her down and rested on one knee with his head down, eyes closed, praying to God for the strength to go on.

  “Romans used to do it,” Raphael said behind him.

  Pino twisted to look up at the Fascist, aghast. “What?”

  Raphael said, “Caesar would have the heads of his enemies lining the roads into Rome as fair warning of what happened if you crossed the emperor. I think it has the same effect now. Il Duce would be proud, I think. You?”

  Pino blinked dully at the Black Shirt. “I don’t know. I’m just a driver.”

  He picked Gabriella up again and started trudging up the snowy road, trying not to look at the mounting number of heads on bloodstained fence posts or the jerky, butcherous motions of the Fascists still working on the remaining dead.

  Chapter Twenty-Four

  Porzia’s best friend turned hysterical when Pino came to her door in Lecco with Gabriella’s body. He helped to lay her daughter out on a table where women in mourning clothes were waiting to prepare her for burial. Pino slipped out as they grieved her, didn’t wait for a word of thanks. He couldn’t stay around the dead or listen to the echoing pain of the living a moment longer.

  Pino got into the Fiat and started it, but did not put the car in gear. Seeing the decapitations had shaken him to his core. Killing a man in a war was one thing. Desecrating his body was another. What kind of barbarians were they? Who would do such a thing?

  He thought back on many of the terrible events he’d witnessed since the war came to northern Italy. Little Nicco holding the grenade. Tullio facing the firing squad. The slaves in the tunnel. The little fingers sticking out of the red boxcar on Platform 21. And now bodiless heads on snowy fence posts.

  Why me? Why must I see these things?

  Pino felt as if he and Italy had been condemned to suffer cruelties that seemed endless. What new brutality was coming his way? Who would be the next to die? And how horribly?

  His head spun with these dark thoughts and others. He grew anxious, frightened, and then panicked. He was sitting still, but he was breathing far too fast, sweating and feverish, and his heart felt like he was sprinting uphill. He realized he couldn’t go back to Milan like this. He needed somewhere quiet and remote, somewhere he could scream and no one would care. More than that, he needed someone to help him, to talk to . . .

  Pino looked north and realized where he was going and whom he wanted to see.

  He got into the Fiat and drove north along the east shore of Lake Como, ignoring its beauty, fixated with getting to Chiavenna and the Splügen Pass road as fast as possible.

  The way was barely passable after Campodolcino. Pino had to put chains on the Fiat to make the long climb to Madesimo. He parked the car near the trail to Motta and started uphill with twenty-five centimeters of fresh snow on the
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