Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Beneath a Scarlet Sky, Page 35

Mark Sullivan

  “Move away now,” the partisan said to him. “It’s over.”

  “No,” Pino said. “I—”

  “Move, if you know what’s good for you,” the soldier said.

  With one long last shuddering look at Anna, Pino turned and trudged off with the last of the crowd. He went through the gate and across the drawbridge, unable to grasp what had just happened. It felt like he had been shot in the chest, and only now was he beginning to sense the true pain to come. But then a realization came battering down upon his shoulders and threatened to destroy him. He hadn’t stood up for Anna. He had not died for her love the way great and tragic men did in lasting stories and librettos.

  Pino’s brain burned with failure. His heart soured with self-loathing.

  I’m a coward, he thought in darkest despair, and wondered why he’d been sentenced to such hell. In the roundabout in front of the castle, it all became too much. Pino felt dizzy, and then sick. He stumbled to the dry fountain. He retched and retched again, knowing that he was weeping as well, and that people were watching him.

  When Pino finally stood, coughing, spitting, and wiping his eyes, a guy on the other side of the fountain said, “You knew one of them, didn’t you?”

  Pino saw suspicion and the threat of violence in the man’s expression. Part of Pino wanted to admit his love for Anna and have a noble end to it all. But then the man started to walk toward him, quickening his pace, and then jabbing his finger at Pino.

  “Someone grab that guy!” he shouted.

  The primitive instinct to survive took over, and Pino took off, sprinting diagonally away from the fountain toward Via Beltrami. Shouts went up. One man tried to tackle Pino, but Pino threw a fist that drove the man to the pavement. Running pell-mell, knowing people were chasing him, he noticed men trying to cut in at him from the side.

  Pino threw an elbow into one man’s face, kneed another in the groin, and dodged through cars onto Via Giuseppe Pozzone. He jumped up on and over the hood of one before cutting off onto Via Rovello, where he leaped across a water-filled bomb crater and put distance between him and his pursuers. When he glanced back at the corner of Via San Tomaso, he saw six men still chasing him and still yelling, “He’s a traitor! Collaborator! Stop him!”

  But those streets were Pino’s backyard. He sped into a higher gear, taking a right on Via Broletto and a left on Via Del Bossi. There was a knot of people ahead in Piazza Della Scala. Pino feared getting past them and through the Galleria before the calls of “traitor” caught up to him.

  Diagonally across the street, in the wall of the great opera house, a door was open. He ran over and through it into a hallway, moving beyond the shadows into a wedge of blackness. Pino stopped there, sure he couldn’t be seen from outside, watching and waiting until the six men sprinted past, heading toward the piazza. Gasping for breath in the darkness, he stayed there, wanting to make sure he’d lost them.

  Deeper inside La Scala, a tenor began to sing, running scales.

  Pino turned and accidentally kicked something metal. It clattered enough that he looked to the doorway and saw the man from the fountain, who was peering in from the sidewalk.

  He stepped inside, dusting off his hands. “You’re in here, aren’t you, traitor?”

  Pino said nothing and held his position in the darkest shadow, almost sure the man could not see him pivot toward him and crouch ever so slowly. The man kept coming even as Pino’s fingers groped on the floor and found a piece of discarded steel reinforcement rod, probably left over from the repair job on the opera house after the bomb hit it. It was as thick as Pino’s thumb, as long as his forearm, and heavy. When the man from the fountain was just a couple of meters from him and squinting to see better, Pino whipped the rod backhand, aiming at his shins. But his aim was high, and he hit the man in the kneecap.

  The man screamed. Pino came up fast, took two big steps, and drove a fist into the side of the man’s face. He went down. But behind him, two of the others who’d been chasing Pino appeared. He spun and took off, deeper into the darkness, hands out, groping and navigating toward the tenor who’d started to sing. Pino stumbled twice and caught his pants on wire while also trying to listen for pursuers behind him, so he did not recognize the aria the tenor was practicing at first.

  But then he did. “Vesti la Giubba,” “Put on the Costume,” from the opera Pagliacci, The Clowns. The aria reeked of grief and loss, and Pino’s thoughts of escape were slashed by images of the bullet’s impact and Anna falling. He tripped, hit his head against something, saw stars, and almost went down.

  When he roused himself, the aria was into its second verse. Canio, the heartbroken clown, was telling himself to go on, to put on a mask and shield his inner pain. Pino had heard recordings of the aria dozens of times and felt prodded to action by it, and by the sound of footsteps pounding in the passages behind him.

  He pushed on, still groping until he felt air on his cheek, then turned and saw a slant of light ahead. Running now, he pushed open a door and found himself backstage in the great opera house. He’d been there several times watching Licia, his cousin, practice. A young tenor stood center of La Scala’s stage. Pino caught glimpses of him out there under the low lights as he launched into the third verse.

  “Ridi, Pagliaccio, sul tuo amore infranto.”

  (“Laugh, clown, at your broken love.”)

  Pino went through a curtain and down stairs that led to the side aisle for loge seating. He started up the aisle toward the exit even as the tenor sang, “Ridi del duol, che t’avvelena il cor!” (“Laugh at the grief that poisons your heart.”)

  The words seemed to hit Pino like arrows that weakened him until the tenor stopped and cried out in alarm, “Who are you? What do you want?”

  Pino glanced back and saw he was addressing Pino’s three pursuers, who’d joined the tenor on the stage.

  “We’re after a traitor,” one of the men said.

  Pino pushed through the door, and it made an ear-splitting squeak. He took off again, across a landing, down the stairs, and into the lobby. The doors were open. He jogged out, tearing off his shirt, which left him in a sleeveless white T-shirt.

  He glanced to his left. Home was only five or six blocks away. But he couldn’t go there and risk jeopardizing his family. Instead, he went straight across the trolley tracks and into a knot of people celebrating the end of the war around the statue of Leonardo da Vinci. He tried to stay focused, but in his head he kept hearing the clown’s devastated aria, kept seeing Anna crying for help, hunching up at the bullet’s strike, and then crumpling.

  It took everything he had not to lie down and dissolve into sobs. It took everything he had to put on a smiling face, as if he, too, were overjoyed by the Nazis’ retreat. He kept it up through the Galleria, smiling and moving, not quite sure where he was going.

  Then he stepped free of the shopping mall and knew. A huge crowd was celebrating on Piazza Duomo, eating, drinking, playing music, and dancing. Pino melted into them, slowing, smiling, and trying to look normal as he moved toward the trickle of people heading into the cathedral to pray.

  To Pino, the Duomo meant sanctuary. They could chase him inside the cathedral, but they couldn’t bring him out.

  He was almost to the front doors when he heard a man shouting behind him. “There he is! Stop him! He’s a traitor! A collaborator!”

  Pino looked back and saw them coming across the piazza. Following several women old enough to be his mother, he slipped into the basilica.

  With the stained-glass windows boarded over, the only light in the Duomo came from votive candles flickering in the various alcoves and chapels to either side of the cathedral’s central aisle, and more burning at the far end around the altar.

  Even with the candles, the inner cathedral was a charcoal-shadowed place that day, and Pino acted swiftly to take advantage of it. He moved away from the chapels on the Duomo’s left side, heading toward the right aisle and the confessionals: bleak affairs offering
no privacy to the penitent, who knelt outside a tall wooden box and whispered their sins to the priest inside.

  It was humiliating, and Pino hated going to confession there. But from his times kneeling at the Duomo confessionals as a young boy, he knew there was a space between the booth and the wall, thirty centimeters, fifty at best. He hoped it would be enough as he eased behind the third confessional booth, farthest from the candle stands.

  He stood there, shaking, hunched down so he’d be fully hidden, and was glad that no priests seemed to be taking confessions on liberation day. The aria started again in his head, and with it the horror of Anna’s death, until he shook it off and forced himself to listen. The clicking and murmurs of women praying the Holy Rosary came to him. A cough. The squeak of the main doors. Men talking. Pino fought the urge to peek out and waited, hearing loud footsteps coming. Men moving fast.

  “Where did he go?” one said.

  “He’s in here somewhere,” said another, sounding like he was right in front of the confessional booth.

  “I’m coming,” a male voice said, amid other footsteps approaching.

  “No, Father,” one man said. “Not today. We’re, uh, going to one of the chapels to pray.”

  “If you sin on the way there, I’ll be waiting,” the priest said, and the door to the confessional booth opened.

  Pino felt the box settle under the priest’s weight. He heard the two men move off deeper into the cathedral. He waited, hardly breathing, giving it time. Once more the clown sang in his head. Once more he tried to will it away, but the aria would not leave his head.

  He had to move for fear he’d burst out crying again. Pino tried to step gingerly out from behind the confessional, but his shoe caught the kneeler.

  “Ahh,” the priest said. “A customer at last.”

  The screen slid back, but all Pino could see in there was blackness. He did the only thing he could think of and knelt.

  “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” Pino choked.


  “I said nothing,” Pino sobbed in lament. “I did nothing.”

  “What are you talking about?” the priest said.

  Feeling like he might collapse if he confessed more, Pino lurched to his feet and charged deeper into the cathedral. He crossed beneath the transept and found a door he remembered. He went through it and was outside again, facing Via dell’Arcivescovado.

  There were more happy people walking toward the piazza. He went against the grain and looped around the back of the Duomo. He was considering going home or to Uncle Albert’s, when he noticed a priest and a workman come out a door on the far side of the Duomo near Corso Vittorio. There was a staircase behind them that he remembered going up as a boy with a school class.

  Another workman exited. Pino caught the door before it closed and started up a steep and narrow staircase that climbed thirty stories to a walkway that ran the long side of the basilica, up there among the gargoyles, spires, and Gothic arches. He kept glancing up at the pristine, polychrome statue of the Madonna atop the Duomo’s highest tower, wondering how she’d survived the war, and how much destruction she’d seen.

  Drenched with cold sweat, shivering despite the baking heat as he moved between and under the flying buttresses that supported the roof, Pino stopped at last when he reached a balcony high above the cathedral’s front doors. He looked out over his bombarded city, his bombarded life, splayed out around him like some tattered and bullet-riddled skirt.

  Pino lifted his head to the sky and from an anguish that knew no bottom, whispered, “I said nothing to save her, God. I did nothing.”

  Those confessions transfixed him right back into the tragedy, and he choked back sobs. “After everything . . . After everything, now I have nothing.”

  Pino heard laughter, music, and singing float up to him from the piazza. He stepped out onto the balcony and looked over the railing. Ninety meters below, down where he’d seen the workmen erecting the spotlights nearly two years before, violins played, and accordions, and guitars. He could see bottles of wine being passed around, and couples were beginning to kiss and dance and love on the back side of war.

  Pain and grief sawed through Pino. This torment was his punishment, he decided. He bowed his head, understanding that this was between God and . . . The aria of the heartbroken clown echoed in his ears and Anna crumpled and fell again, and again, and . . . in a matter of seconds, his faith in God, in life, in love, and in a better tomorrow drained away to empty.

  Pino held on to a marble post and climbed up onto the balcony rail, a betrayer, abandoned and alone. He gazed at the puffy clouds scudding across the azure sky and decided that clouds and sky were good enough to look at while dying.

  “You saw all that I did, Lord,” Pino said, letting go of the post to take the worst step of all. “Have mercy on my soul.”

  Chapter Thirty-One

  “Stop!” a man shouted behind him.

  Pino startled, almost lost his full balance, almost pitched off the railing, almost plunged thirty stories to the stone piazza and death. But his mountaineering reflexes were too ingrained. His fingers caught the post. He steadied himself enough to look over his shoulder and felt his heart try to crawl out of his chest.

  The cardinal of Milan was standing there, not three meters away.

  “What are you doing?” Schuster demanded.

  “Dying,” Pino said dully.

  “You’ll do no such thing, not in my church, and not on this day of all days,” the cardinal said. “There’s been too much bloodshed already. Get down from there, young man. Now.”

  “Really, My Lord Cardinal, it’s better this way.”

  “My Lord Cardinal?”

  The prince of the church squinted, adjusted his glasses, and looked closer. “Only one person I know calls me that. You’re General Leyers’s driver. You’re Pino Lella.”

  “Which is why jumping is better than living.”

  Cardinal Schuster shook his head, took a step toward him. “Are you the traitor and collaborator who’s supposedly hiding in the Duomo?”

  Pino nodded.

  “Get down, then,” Schuster said, holding out his hand. “You’re safe. I’m granting you sanctuary. No one will harm you under my protection.”

  Pino wanted to cry, but said, “You wouldn’t if you knew what I’ve done.”

  “I know what Father Re told me about you. It’s enough for me to know I should save you. Take my hand now. You’re making me ill standing up there like that.”

  Pino looked down and saw Schuster’s hand and his cardinal’s ring, but he did not take it.

  “What would Father Re have you do?” Cardinal Schuster said.

  At that, something gave way inside Pino. He grabbed the cardinal’s hand, got down, and stood there, stooped and trying not to break down.

  Schuster put his hand on Pino’s trembling shoulder. “It can’t be all that bad, my son.”

  “It’s worse, My Lord Cardinal,” Pino said. “The worst. The go-to-hell kind of act.”

  “Let me be the judge of that,” Schuster said, guiding him away from the balcony.

  He got Pino to sit down in the shade of one of the cathedral’s flying buttresses. Pino did, vaguely aware of the music still playing below, vaguely aware of the cardinal calling to someone to get food and water. Then Schuster crouched beside Pino.

  “Tell me now,” the cardinal said. “I will hear your confession.”

  Pino gave Schuster the spine of his story with Anna, how he’d met her on the street the first day of the bombardment, and then fourteen months later through General Leyers’s mistress, how they’d fallen in love, and how they’d planned to marry, and how she’d tragically died in front of a firing squad not an hour before.

  “I said nothing to stop them,” he wept. “I did nothing to save her.”

  Cardinal Schuster closed his eyes.

  Pino choked, “If I really loved her, I . . . I should have been willing to die with her.”
  “No,” the prelate said, opening his eyes and fixing them on Pino. “It is a tragedy that your Anna died that way, but you had the right to survive. Every human has that basic, God-given right, Pino, and you feared for your life.”

  Pino threw up his hands and cried, “Do you know how many times I’ve feared for my life in the last two years?”

  “I can’t imagine.”

  “Every time before, I had faith in doing the right thing, no matter the danger. But I just . . . couldn’t believe in Anna enough to . . .”

  He started to cry again.

  “Faith is a strange creature,” Schuster said. “Like a falcon that nests year after year in the same place, but then flies away, sometimes for years, only to return again, stronger than ever.”

  “I don’t know if it will ever return for me.”

  “It will. In time. Why don’t you come with me now? We’ll get you fed, and I’ll find a place for you to spend the night.”

  Pino thought about that, and then shook his head, saying, “I’ll come off the roof with you, My Lord Cardinal, but I think I’ll slip out after dark, go home to my family.”

  Schuster paused, and then said, “As you wish, my son. Bless you, and go with God.”

  After dark, Pino slipped into the lobby of his parents’ apartment building and immediately recalled the prior Christmas Eve and how Anna had played the sentries to get the suitcase with the radio transmitter safely upstairs. Riding up in the birdcage elevator provoked another round of crushing memories, how they’d kissed going past the fifth-floor guards, and how they’d—

  The elevator stopped. He shuffled to the door and knocked.

  Aunt Greta opened the door with a big grin on her face. “There you are, Pino! We’ve been holding dinner for you and Mario. Have you seen him?”

  Pino swallowed hard and said, “He’s dead. They’re all dead.”

  His aunt stood there in shock as he moved past her into the apartment. Uncle Albert and Pino’s father had heard him and were getting up from the living room couch.

  “What do you mean he’s dead?” Michele asked.

  “A man who wanted his wristwatch called him a Fascist and shot him in the head in the public gardens near Porta Venezia,” Pino said dully.

  “No!” his father said. “That’s not true!”

  “I saw it happen, Papa.”

  His father broke down, crying, “Oh dear God. How will I tell his mother?”

  Pino was staring at the living room rug, remembering how he and Anna had made love there. The best Christmas present of his life. He wasn’t hearing the questions Uncle Albert was firing at him. He just wanted to lie down there and mourn and grieve.

  Aunt Greta stroked his arm. “It’s going to be okay, Pino,” she soothed. “Whatever you’ve seen, whatever you’ve suffered, you’re going to be okay.”

  Tears welled in Pino’s eyes and he shook his head. “No, I won’t. Not ever.”

  “Oh, my poor boy,” she cried softly. “Please, come and eat. Tell us all about it.”

  In a wavering voice, he said, “I can’t talk about it. I can’t think about it anymore, and I’m not hungry. All I want to do is sleep.” He was shivering as if it were the middle of winter again.

  Michele came over, put his arm around Pino. “Then we’ll get you to bed. You’ll feel better in the morning.”

  Pino barely understood where he was as they led him down the hall to his bedroom. He sat on the edge of the bed, all but catatonic.

  “Do you want to listen to the shortwave?” his father asked. “It’s safe now.”

  “Father Re has mine.”

  “I’ll get Baka’s.”

  Pino shrugged listlessly. Michele hesitated, but then left and returned with Baka’s radio. He set it on the end table.

  “It’s there for you if you want it.”

  “Thanks, Papa.”

  “I’m right down the hall if you need me.”

  Pino nodded.