Beneath a scarlet sky, p.36
Beneath a Scarlet Sky,
Michele shut the door behind him. Pino could hear him talking to Uncle Albert and Aunt Greta in worried whispers that faded to nothing. Through the open window he heard a single shot to the north and people laughing and carrying on in the streets below.
It felt like they were all taunting him with their joy, kicking him at his lowest moment. He slammed down the window. He pulled off his shoes and pants, lay down on the bed, shaking with rage and regret as he turned off the light. He tried to sleep, but was haunted not by the aria but by the black accusatory look Anna held on to as she died, and the love that fled from him with her soul’s passing.
He turned on the shortwave and tuned it until he heard a slow piano solo playing against the whisk of a drum cymbal. Soft, warm jazz. Pino closed his eyes and tried to go with the music, which was as gentle and playful as a summer stream. He tried to imagine the stream, tried to find peace in it, and sleep, and nothingness.
But then the piece ended, and “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” came on. Pino sat up with a start, feeling like every twitching beat in the song was there to goad and torture him. He saw himself the night before in the Hotel Diana with Carletto playing and partying. Anna had been alive then, not yet taken by the mob. If he’d just gone by Dolly’s rather than . . .
Feeling destroyed all over again, Pino grabbed the radio and almost hurled it against the wall, intending to bust it into a thousand pieces. But all of a sudden he was so overwhelmed, so exhausted, he merely turned the dial until the radio emitted static. Pino rolled up in the fetal position. He closed his eyes, listening to the hiss and crackle of the wireless and praying that the gaping wound in his heart was enough to stop it from beating before he awoke.
In Pino’s dreams, Anna was alive. In his dreams, she still laughed like Anna and kissed like Anna. She smelled of her own perfume and gave him that sidelong, amused look that always got him wanting to hold her and tickle her and—
Feeling someone shaking his shoulder, he startled awake in his bedroom. Sunlight poured through the window. Uncle Albert and his father were standing by his bed. Pino looked at them as though they were strangers.
“It’s ten,” Uncle Albert said. “You’ve been asleep almost fourteen hours.”
The nightmare of the day before rushed back in. Pino so longed for sleep and the dreams where Anna still lived that he almost started to cry again.
“I know this is difficult for you,” Michele said. “But we need your help.”
Uncle Albert nodded. “We have to go look for Mario’s body at Cimitero Monumentale.”
Pino still wanted to roll over and search for Anna in his dream, but he said, “I left him in the public gardens. I ran from his body there.”
Uncle Albert said, “I went to look last night after you’d gone to sleep. They said he was taken to the cemetery and we could look for him there along with all the other bodies that have been found in the streets the past few days.”
“So get up,” Michele said. “Three of us will find Mario quicker than two. We owe his mother that much.”
“I’ll be recognized,” he said.
“Not with me, you won’t,” Uncle Albert said.
Pino saw there was no stopping them. “Give me a minute. I’ll be right out.”
They left him, and he sat up, aware of the pounding in his head and the deep and vast emptiness that fluctuated between his throat and gut. His brain sought memories of Anna, but he stopped the urge. He couldn’t think of her. Otherwise, he’d just lie there and mourn.
Pino put on clean clothes and walked back into the living room.
“Do you want anything to eat before we go?” his father asked.
“I’m fine now,” Pino said, hearing the flatness in his voice and not caring.
“You should at least drink some water.”
“I’m fine!” Pino shouted. “Are you deaf, old man?”
Michele took a step back. “Okay, Pino. I just want to help.”
He stared at his father, unable and unwilling to tell them about Anna.
“I know, Papa,” he said. “I’m sorry. Let’s go find Mario.”
Eleven in the morning and already it was stifling hot outside. Barely a breeze blew as they walked through the streets, took one of the few trams running, and then caught a ride from a friend of Uncle Albert’s who’d managed to find petrol.
Pino would remember little of the journey. Milan, Italy, the world itself had become unhinged for him, disjointed and savage. He watched the scarred city as if from afar, not at all a part of the teeming life that was beginning to return after the Nazis’ retreat.
The car dropped them in front of the cemetery piazza. Pino felt like he was in a dream turning nightmare again as he walked toward the Famidio, the octagonal-shaped memorial chapel of the Cimitero Monumentale, and the long, two-story, arched and open-air colonnades that jutted off the chapel left and right.
Cries of grief echoed from the colonnades before rifle shots sounded at a distance, followed by the deep rumbling exhale of some larger explosive. Pino didn’t care about any of it. He welcomed a bomb. He’d hug one and smash the primer with a hammer if he could.
A dump truck honked. Uncle Albert pulled Pino out of its way. In a daze, Pino looked at the vehicle as it passed. It was like any other dump truck he’d seen until it got upwind. The stench of death poured out. Stacked like cordwood, corpses filled the vehicle’s bed. Blue and swollen bodies stuck out the top, some clothed, some naked, men, women, and children. Pino doubled over, started to dry-heave and then retch.
Michele rubbed his back. “It’s all right, Pino, with the heat, I knew to bring us handkerchiefs and camphor.”
The dump truck did a 180-degree turn and backed up to the lower arches of the western colonnade. A lever was thrown. A hundred or more bodies spilled out of the bed and flopped onto the gravel.
Pino stopped and gaped in horror. Was Anna in there? Buried?
He heard one of the drivers say that there were hundreds more bodies coming.
Uncle Albert tugged Pino’s arm.
“Come away from there now,” he said.
Like an obedient dog, Pino followed them into the memorial chapel.
“Are you looking for a loved one?” asked a man standing inside the door.
“My cousin’s son,” Michele said. “He was mistaken for a Fascist and—”
“I’m sorry for your loss, but I don’t care why or how your cousin’s son died,” the man said. “I just want the body to be claimed and removed. This is an extraordinary health hazard. Do you have masks?”
“Handkerchiefs and camphor,” Pino’s father said.
“That will help.”
“Is there some order to the bodies?” Uncle Albert said.
“The order they came in, and where we found a place to lay them. You’ll just have to search. Do you know what he was wearing?”
“His Italian Air Force uniform,” Michele said.
“Then you should find him. Take those stairs. Start on the lower eastern colonnades and work your way out to the rectangular series of hallways off the main galleries.”
Before they could thank him, he’d already moved on to tell the next distraught family how to find its dead loved one. Michele handed out white handkerchiefs and fished the mothballs from a paper sack. He put the camphor into the center of the handkerchiefs and tied the ends to make a pouch, showed them how to press it to their lips and nose.
“I learned to do this in the first Great War,” he said.
Pino took the pouch and stared at it.
“We’ll search the lower galleries,” Uncle Albert said. “You start up here, Pino.”
His mind was barely functioning as he went out an open side door on the east side of the chapel and out onto the upper floor of the colonnade. Parallel open arches hemmed the gallery some ninety meters to an octagon-shaped tower that marked a triple intersection of passages.
On any other day, these halls would have been largely empty save for the statues of l
Other Milanese walked the galleries of the dead that morning. Old women dressed for grief held black lace shawls across their lips and noses. Younger men guided the quaking shoulders of wives, daughters, and sons. Greenhead blowflies had begun to gather. They whined and buzzed. Pino had to swat at them to keep them from getting at his eyes and ears.
The flies swarmed the nearest body, a man in a business suit. He’d been shot through the temple. Pino looked at him no more than a second, but the image seared in his brain. The same happened when he looked at the next corpse, a woman in her fifties, dressed in her nightclothes, a lone curler still clinging to her iron-gray hair.
Back and forth he went, scanning the clothes, the sex, the faces, trying to find Mario among them. Pino moved faster now, giving no more than a glance at the naked couples he figured for once prosperous and powerful Fascists and their wives. Portly. Older. Their skin had turned pallid and mottled in death.
He walked the first gallery to the octagonal intersections of the hallways and took a right. This colonnade, longer than the first, overlooked the cemetery piazza.
Pino saw strangled bodies there, hacked bodies, shot bodies. Death became a blur. The sheer numbers were more than he could handle, so he focused on two things. Find Mario. Get out of this place.
A short time later, he found his cousin lying among six or seven dead Fascist soldiers. Mario’s eyes were shut. Flies danced on his head wound. Pino looked around and saw an empty sheet across the hallway. He got it and laid it over Mario’s corpse.
Now all he had to do was find Uncle Albert and his father and leave. He felt claustrophobic as he ran back toward the chapel. He dodged through other searchers and got there out of breath and brimming with anxiety.
He went through the chapel, barreled down the stairs to the lower colonnades. A family was shrouding a body on his right. When he looked left, his uncle was coming toward him from down the gallery, his lips and nose pressed into the camphor and his head shaking to and fro.
Pino ran to him. “I found Mario.”
Uncle Albert dropped the camphor pouch and looked up at him with piteous, bloodshot eyes. “Good. Where is he?”
Pino told him. His uncle nodded, and then put his hand on Pino’s forearm.
“I understand now why you were so upset last night,” he said hoarsely. “And I’m . . . I’m so sorry for you. She seemed like such a fine young lady.”
Pino’s stomach cored out. He’d tried to tell himself Anna wasn’t here. But where else? He stared over Uncle Albert’s shoulder and down the long gallery behind him.
“Where is she?” he demanded, trying to push by.
“No,” Uncle Albert said, blocking the way. “You are not going down there.”
“Get out of my way, Uncle, or I’ll throw you out of my way.”
Albert dropped his eyes, stepped aside, and said, “She’s in the far hall, on the right. Do you want me to show you?”
“No,” he said.
Pino found Dolly Stottlemeyer first.
General Leyers’s mistress was still dressed in her ivory gown. Between Dolly’s breasts a chrysanthemum of blood had bloomed, wilted, and dried. Her slippers were gone. Her eyes and mouth were half-open, frozen in rigor. Her fingers had died clutching her thumbs, exposing the red nail polish, and making it all the more lurid against the robin’s egg color of her skin.
Pino looked up then and saw Anna down the hall. His eyes clouded with tears, and his breath became short and ragged as he tried to keep down the emotion surging everywhere within him, trying to thrash its way out of his chest and through his windpipe. Mouth open, lips moving to form silent words of sorrow, he went and knelt beside her.
There was a bullet hole below Anna’s bra, and a flower of blood on her exposed belly similar to the one on Dolly. Whore had been written across her brow in the same red gloss the partisans had used to make her lips look so garish.
Pino stared down, engulfed by misery, swallowing against grief and trembling with loss. He lowered the camphor pouch from his lips and nose. Breathing in the ungodly putrid air in the hallway, he untied the pouch and put the camphor aside. He used the handkerchief to wipe the lipstick from her brow and from about her lips until she was almost the Anna he remembered. He set the handkerchief down, clasped his hands, and gazed at her as he sucked in the smell of her death, drawing it deep into his lungs.
“I was there,” Pino said. “I saw you die, and I said nothing, Anna. I did . . .”
The pain threw tears from his eyes and doubled him over.
“What did I do?” he moaned. “What did I do?”
Tears dripped off his cheeks as he rocked back and forth on his haunches and stared down at the wreckage of his love.
“I failed you,” Pino choked. “Christmas Eve, you were there to stand by me, come what may. And I wasn’t there for you. I . . . I don’t know why. I can’t even explain it to myself. I wish I’d stood against the wall with you, Anna.”
He lost track of time as he knelt there by her, vaguely aware of people moving past him, glancing at Anna’s chopped hair and making comments about her under their breath. He didn’t care. They couldn’t hurt her now. He was there, and they couldn’t hurt her any further.
He felt a hand on his shoulder and looked up to find his father and uncle there.
“We were supposed to have . . . everything, Papa,” Pino said in bewilderment. “Our love was supposed to be forever and ever. We didn’t deserve this.”
Michele was tearing up. “I’m so sorry, Pino. Albert’s only just told me.”
“We’re both so sorry,” his uncle said. “But we have to go, and I hate to tell you this, but you have to leave her now.”
Pino wanted to rise up and beat his uncle to a pulp. “I’m staying with her.”
“You’re not,” Michele said.
“I’ve got to bury her, Papa. Make sure she has a funeral.”
“You can’t,” Uncle Albert said. “There are partisans checking who’s claiming the bodies. They’ll think you were a collaborator, too.”
“I don’t care,” Pino said.
“We do,” Michele said firmly. “I know this is hard, son, but—”
“Do you?” Pino screamed. “If this were Mama, would you leave her?”
His father cringed and stepped back. “No, I . . .”
Uncle Albert stopped him. “Pino, it’s what Anna would want.”
“How do you know what Anna would want?”
“Because I saw in her eyes how much she loved you that Christmas Eve at the shop. She would not want you to die because of her.”
Pino looked down at Anna again, choking back emotion. “But she won’t get a funeral, a headstone, anything.”
Uncle Albert said, “I asked the man in the chapel what happens to the unclaimed bodies, and he said they’ll all be blessed by Cardinal Schuster, cremated, and buried.”
Pino’s head swung slowly back and forth. “But where will I go to . . .”
“See her?” his father said. “You go to where you were both happiest, and she’ll always be there. I promise you that.”
Pino thought of that small park in Cernobbio at the southwest end of Lake Como, where he and Anna had stood at the rail and she’d taken his picture wearing the headband, and everything had seemed perfect. He looked down at Anna’s cold face. Leaving her seemed a second betrayal, one with no possibility of forgiveness.
“Pino,” his father said softly.
“I’m coming, Papa.” He sniffed and wiped his eyes with the handkerchief, smearing some of her lipstick on his face, and then tuck
I loved you, Anna, Pino thought. I’ll love you forever and ever.
Then he leaned over, kissed her, and said his good-bye.
Pino stood, wobbly. With his uncle and father holding on to each elbow, he left, and did not look back. He couldn’t. If he did, he swore he’d never move again.
By the time they returned to the chapel, Pino could walk without their help. He was already trying to get the image of her corpse out of his head by recalling Anna in Dolly’s kitchen the night after he’d saved the general’s life, and how she told him about her childhood birthday mornings with her father out on the sea.
That memory carried him through the rest of the process of shrouding Mario and moving him out of the upper gallery to the partisans checking the bodies. They recognized Mario’s uniform for what it was and waved them through. They found a cart and pushed the corpse through the city to an undertaker who was a friend of the family.
They didn’t make it home until after dark. Pino was spinning from exhaustion, from grief, from lack of food and water. He forced himself to eat, and he drank too much wine. He went to bed the way he had the night before, with the shortwave tuned to static. He closed his eyes, praying that he’d see Anna alive again in his dreams.
But she wasn’t alive there, not that night. In Pino’s dreams, Anna was dead and lying alone in the lower galleries of the Cimitero Monumentale. Behind his eyelids, Pino could see her, as if lit from above in a dark place. Every time his dream self tried to get closer to her, however, she slipped farther and farther away.
The cruelty of it made him cry out in pain. Pino startled alert into the waking nightmare of Anna being gone all over again. He gasped and held his sweating head for fear of its bursting. He tried to clear his thoughts of Anna but could not, and he could not sleep. That was done. He could either lie here while memories and regrets ripped him up, or he could walk and let movement calm his mind as it had since he was a boy.
Pino checked his watch. It was 3:00 a.m. on Sunday, April 29, 1945.
He dressed and slipped out of the apartment, took the stairs, and went out through the empty lobby. The night was dark and the streetlamps infrequent as he wove through San Babila, heading north, retracing much of the route they’d used to bring Mario’s body to the funeral home. At ten past four, Pino was back at the Cimitero Monumentale. Partisans stopped him, checked his papers. He told them his fiancée was inside. Someone had seen her body there.
“How are you going to see her?” one of the guards asked.
Another guard lit a cigarette.
Pino said, “Could you give me three of your matches?”
“C’mon, Luigi,” the first guard said. “The kid’s trying to find his dead sweetheart, for Christ’s sake.”
Luigi took a deep drag, sighed, and flipped Pino the box.
“Bless you, signore,” Pino said, and hurried across the piazza toward the colonnades.
Rather than walk among the corpses, Pino looped around to a door that took him to the long hallway where Anna lay. When he got to where he thought she’d been, he lit a match and shone it around.
She wasn’t there. He looked about, tried to get his bearings, and thought he might be short. The match went out. He walked another three meters and lit another match. She wasn’t there. No one was there. The gallery floor was empty for at least twelve meters on either side of where she’d been. The unclaimed bodies were gone. Anna was gone.
The finality of it felt smothering. He sank against the wall there and sobbed until he could not cry anymore.
When Pino at last trudged down the steps from the memorial chapel, he felt the burden of her death like a yoke that could never be shed.
“Find her?” the guard asked.
“No,” Pino said. “Her father must have gotten here first. A fisherman from Trieste.”
They exchanged glances. “Sure,” Luigi said. “She’s with her papa.”
Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan / History & Fiction have rating 5.1 out of 5 / Based on82 votes