Beneath a scarlet sky, p.4
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       Beneath a Scarlet Sky, p.4

           Mark Sullivan
 

  Pino thought of Mrs. Beltramini, and then Porzia. He thought about what it would be like to know his mother was going to die. A vast pit opened in his stomach.

  “I’m sorry,” Pino said. “I really am. Your mama’s a great lady. She puts up with your papa, so she’s like a saint, and they say saints get their reward in heaven.”

  Carletto laughed despite his sadness and wiped at his tears. “She is the only one who can put him in his place. But he should stop, you know? She’s sick, and he’s teasing her like that about snakes and spiders. It’s cruel. Like he doesn’t love her.”

  “He loves your mama.”

  “He doesn’t show it. It’s like he’s afraid to.”

  They started to walk back. At the rock wall, they heard the strains of a violin.

  Pino looked up the hill and saw his father tuning his violin and Mr. Beltramini standing there, sheet music in his hand. The golden light of sunset radiated off both men and the crowd around them.

  “Oh no,” Carletto moaned. “Mother of God, no.”

  Pino felt equal dismay. At times, Michele Lella could play brilliantly, but more often than not, Pino’s father would stutter his rhythm or squall through a section that demanded a smooth touch. And poor Mr. Beltramini had a voice that usually broke or went flat. It was excruciating to listen to either man because you could never relax. You knew some odd note was coming, and it could be so sour at times, it was, well, embarrassing.

  Up on the hill, Pino’s father adjusted the position of his violin, a beautiful central Italian petite from the eighteenth century that Porzia had given him for Christmas ten years before. The instrument was Michele’s most treasured possession, and he held it lovingly as he brought it under his chin and jawbone and raised his bow.

  Mr. Beltramini firmed his posture, arms held loosely at his side.

  “There’s a train wreck about to happen,” Carletto said.

  “I see it coming,” Pino said.

  Pino’s father played the opening strains of the melody of “Nessun Dorma,” or “None Shall Sleep,” a soaring aria for tenor in the third act of Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turandot. Because it was one of his father’s favorite pieces, Pino had listened to a recording performed by Toscanini and the full La Scala orchestra behind the powerful tenor Miguel Fleta, who sang the aria the night the opera debuted in the 1920s.

  Fleta played Prince Calaf, a wealthy royal traveling anonymously in China, who falls in love with the beautiful but cold and bitchy Princess Turandot. The king has decreed that anyone who wishes to have the princess’s hand must first solve three riddles. Get one wrong, and the suitor dies a terrible death.

  By the end of act 2, Calaf has answered all the riddles, but the princess still refuses to marry him. Calaf says that if she can figure out his real name before dawn he will leave, but if she can’t, she must willingly marry him.

  The princess takes the game to a higher level, tells Calaf that if she finds his name before dawn, she’ll have his head. He agrees to the deal, and the princess decrees, “Nessun dorma, none shall sleep, until the suitor’s name is found.”

  In the opera, Calaf’s aria comes with dawn approaching and the princess down on her luck. “Nessun Dorma” is a towering piece that builds and builds, demanding that the singer grow stronger, reveling in his love for the princess and surer of victory with every moment that ticks toward dawn.

  Pino had thought it would take a full orchestra and a famous tenor like Fleta to create the aria’s emotional triumph. But his father and Mr. Beltramini’s version, stripped down to its tremulous melody and verse, was more powerful than he could have ever imagined.

  When Michele played that night, a thick, honeyed voice called from his violin. And Mr. Beltramini had never been better. The rising notes and phrases all sounded to Pino like two improbable angels singing, one high through his father’s fingers, and one low in Mr. Beltramini’s throat, both more heavenly inspiration than skill.

  “How are they doing this?” Carletto asked in wonder.

  Pino had no idea of the source of his father’s virtuoso performance, but then he noticed that Mr. Beltramini was singing not to the crowd but to someone in the crowd, and he understood the source of the fruitman’s beautiful tone and loving key.

  “Look at your papa,” Pino said.

  Carletto strained up on his toes and saw that his father was singing the aria not to the crowd but to his dying wife, as if there were no one else but them in the world.

  When the two men finished, the crowd on the hillside stood and clapped and whistled. Pino had tears in his eyes, too, because for the first time, he’d seen his father as heroic. Carletto had tears in his eyes for other, deeper reasons.

  “You were fantastic,” Pino said to Michele later in the dark. “And ‘Nessun Dorma’ was the perfect choice.”

  “For such a magnificent place, it was the only one we could think of,” his father said, seeming in awe of what he’d done. “And then we were swept up, just like the La Scala performers say, playing con smania, with passion.”

  “I heard it, Papa. We all did.”

  Michele nodded, and sighed happily. “Now, get some sleep.”

  Pino had kicked out a place for his hips and heels, and then taken off his shirt for a pillow and wrapped himself in the sheet he’d brought from home. Now he snuggled down, smelling the sweet grass, already drowsy.

  He closed his eyes, thinking about his father’s performance, and Mrs. Beltramini’s mysterious illness, and the way her joking husband had sung. He drifted off to sleep, wondering if he’d witnessed a miracle.

  Several hours later, deep in his dreams, Pino was chasing Anna down the street when he heard distant thunder. He stopped, and she kept on, disappearing into the crowd. He wasn’t upset, but he wondered when the rain would fall, and what it would taste like on his tongue.

  Carletto shook him awake. The moon was high overhead, casting a gunmetal-blue light on the hillside, and everyone on their feet looking to the west. Allied bombers were attacking Milan in waves, but there were no sightings of the planes or of the city from that distance, only flares and flashes on the horizon and the distant rumor of war.

  As the train rolled back into Milan shortly after dawn the next day, black scrolls of smoke unraveled, twisted, and curled above the city. When they left the train and went out into the streets, Pino saw the physical differences between those who had fled the city and those who had endured the onslaught. Explosive terror had bowed the survivors’ shoulders, emptied their eyes, and broken the set of their jaws. Men, women, and children shuffled timidly about, as if at any second the very ground they trod might rupture and give way into some unfathomable and fiery sinkhole. There was a smoky haze almost everywhere. Soot, some of it fine white and some a volcanic gray, coated almost everything. Torn and twisted cars. Ripped and crushed buildings. Trees stripped bare by the blasts.

  For several weeks, Pino and his father kept on in this pattern, working by day, leaving the city by train in the late afternoon, and returning at dawn to find Milan’s newest gaping wounds.

  On September 8, 1943, the Italian government, having signed an unconditional armistice on September 3, made public the country’s formal surrender to the Allies. The following day, British and American forces landed at Salerno above the instep of the country’s boot. The Germans offered mild to fierce resistance. Most Fascist soldiers simply threw up the white flag upon seeing Lieutenant General Mark Clark’s US Fifth Army coming ashore. When news of the American invasion reached Milan, Pino, his father, aunt, and uncle all started cheering. They thought the war would be over in days.

  The Nazis seized control of Rome less than twenty-four hours later, arrested the king, and surrounded the Vatican with troops and tanks aimed at the golden dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica. On September 12, Nazi commandos used gliders to attack the fortress on Gran Sasso Mountain where Mussolini was being held. The commandos fought their way into the prison and rescued Il Duce. He was flown to Vienna and
then to Berlin, where he met with Hitler.

  Pino heard the two dictators on the shortwave a few nights later, both of them vowing to fight the Allies to the last drop of German and Italian blood. Pino felt like the world had gone mad, and he grew depressed that he hadn’t seen Anna in three months.

  A week passed. More bombs fell. Pino’s school stayed closed. The Germans began a full-scale invasion of Italy from the north, through Austria and Switzerland, and installed Mussolini in a puppet government called the “Italian Socialist Republic,” with its capital the tiny town of Salò on Lake Garda, northeast of Milan.

  It was all Pino’s father talked about early on the morning of September 20, 1943, as they trudged back to San Babila from the train station after another night spent sleeping in farm fields. Michele was so fixated on the Nazis’ seizing control of northern Italy that he did not see one of those black smoke scrolls unraveling above the fashion district and Via Monte Napoleone. Pino did and started to run. As he was weaving through the narrow streets a few moments later, the road curved, and he could see well ahead to the Lellas’ building.

  Where much of the roof had been, a gaping, smoking hole fed the smoke scroll in the sky. The picture windows of Le Borsette di Lella lay in blackened splinters and blades. The purse shop itself looked like the chipped interior of a coal mine. The blast had incinerated everything else beyond recognition.

  “Oh dear God, no!” Michele cried.

  Pino’s father let go of his violin case and fell to his knees, sobbing. Pino had never seen his father cry, or didn’t think he had, and he felt gutted, sorrowful, and humiliated by witnessing Michele’s misery.

  “C’mon, Papa,” he said, trying to get his father to stand.

  “It’s all gone,” Michele wept. “Our life is all gone.”

  “Nonsense,” Uncle Albert said, taking his brother-in-law’s other arm. “You’ve got money in the bank, Michele. If you need a loan, I’ll give it to you. An apartment, furniture, purses, you can rebuild.”

  Pino’s father said weakly, “I don’t know how I’m going to tell Porzia.”

  “Michele, you act as if you had something to do with a random bomb hitting your place,” Uncle Albert sniffed. “You’ll tell her the truth, and you’ll start over.”

  “In the meantime, you’ll come stay with us,” Aunt Greta said.

  Michele started to nod, but then turned angrily to Pino. “Not you.”

  “Papa?”

  “You are going to Casa Alpina. You’ll study there.”

  “No, I want to be in Milan.”

  Pino’s father went berserk. “You are not staying! You have no say in this matter. You are my firstborn. I won’t have you die randomly, Pino. I . . . I couldn’t take it. And neither could your mother.”

  Pino was stunned by his father’s outburst. Michele was the sort to steam and brood about things, not to rage and yell, and certainly not on the streets of San Babila, where the gossips of the fashion world would take note and never, ever forget.

  “Okay, Papa,” Pino said quietly. “I’ll leave Milan. I’ll go to Casa Alpina if you want me to.”

  PART TWO

  THE CATHEDRALS OF GOD

  Chapter Five

  At the central train station late in the morning of the following day, Michele put a roll of lire in Pino’s hand and said, “I’ll send your books, and someone will be waiting for you at your stop. Be good, and give my love to Mimo and Father Re.”

  “But when will I come back?”

  “When it’s safe to come back.”

  Pino glanced unhappily at Tullio, who shrugged, and then at Uncle Albert, who studied his shoes.

  “This isn’t right,” he said, furious as he picked up a rucksack filled with clothes and boarded the train. Taking a seat in a near-empty car, he stared out the window, fuming.

  He was being treated like a boy. But had he gone to his knees and cried in public? No. Pino Lella had taken the blow and stood there like a man. But what was he supposed to do? Defy his father? Leave the train? Go to the Beltraminis’?

  The train lurched and squalled, pulled out of the station and through the train yard where German soldiers guarded hordes of vacant-eyed men, many in shabby gray uniforms, loading flatbed cars with crates of tank parts, rifles, submachine guns, bombs, and ammunition. They had to be prisoners, he thought, and that upset him. Pino stuck his head out the window and studied them as the train left the yard.

  Two hours into the trip, the train rolled through the foothills above Lake Como, heading toward the Alps. Ordinarily, Pino would have stared lovingly at the lake, which he thought the most beautiful in the world, and especially the town of Bellagio on the lake’s southern peninsula. The grand hotel there looked like some rose castle in a fantasy.

  Instead, the boy’s focus was down the hill from the train tracks, where he kept catching glimpses of the road that hugged Lake Como’s eastern shore and a long line of lorries crowded with filthy men, many in the same sort of dull gray outfits he’d seen back in the train yard. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of them.

  Who were they? he wondered. Where were they captured? And why?

  He was still thinking about the men forty minutes and a change of trains later, when he got off at the town of Chiavenna.

  The German soldiers on duty there ignored him. Pino walked out of the station feeling good for the first time that day. It was a warm, sunny, early autumn afternoon. The air was sweet and clear, and he was heading up into the mountains. Nothing else could go wrong now, he decided as he crossed through the station. Not today, anyway.

  “Hey, you, kid,” a voice called.

  A wiry guy roughly Pino’s age leaned up against an old Fiat two-door coupé. He wore canvas work pants and a grease-stained white T-shirt. A cigarette smoldered between his lips.

  “Who you calling kid?” Pino asked.

  “You. You the Lella kid?”

  “Pino Lella.”

  “Alberto Ascari,” he said, thumbing his chest. “My uncle told me to come pick you up, bring you to Madesimo.” Ascari flicked the cigarette and held out his hand, which was almost as big as Pino’s and, to his surprise, stronger.

  After Ascari had almost broken his hand, Pino said, “Where’d you get the grip?”

  Ascari smiled. “In my uncle’s shop. Put your stuff in the back there, kid.”

  The “kid” thing bothered Pino, but otherwise Ascari seemed decent enough. He opened the passenger door. The car was immaculate inside. A towel covered the driver’s seat, protecting it from grease.

  Ascari started the car. The engine had a sound unlike any other Fiat Pino had ever heard, a deep, throaty growl that seemed to make the entire chassis shake.

  “That’s no street engine,” Pino said.

  Ascari grinned, and shifted the car into gear. “Would any race car driver have a street engine or transmission in his own car?”

  “You’re a race car driver?” Pino said skeptically.

  “I will be,” Ascari said, and popped the clutch.

  They went screeching out of the little train station and swung onto the cobblestone road. The Fiat bounced sideways into a slide before Ascari whipped the wheel the other way. The tires caught traction. Ascari shifted gears and hit the accelerator.

  Pino was pinned against the passenger seat but managed to brace his feet and arms before Ascari shot them across the little town square, deftly dodged a lorry filled with chickens, and shifted gears a third time. They were still speeding up when they left the town behind them.

  The Splügen Pass road climbed in a steady series of chicanes, S-turns, paralleling a stream at the bottom of a steep-walled valley that cut north into the Alps toward Switzerland. Ascari drove the Splügen like a master, diving the car into every turn and weaving past the few other vehicles on the road like they were standing still.

  The whole time, Pino’s emotions ran wild from abject fear to joyous exhilaration, envy, and admiration. It wasn’t until they were approaching the outsk
irts of the town of Campodolcino that Ascari finally slowed.

  “I believe you,” Pino said, his heart still pounding.

  “What’s that?” Ascari said, puzzled.

  “I believe you’re going to be a race car driver someday,” Pino said. “A famous one. I’ve never seen anyone drive like that.”

  Ascari couldn’t have smiled more if he tried. “My father, he was better. The European grand prix champion before he died.” He raised his right hand off the wheel and pointed his index finger out the windshield and up toward the sky. “God willing, Papa, I will be European champion and more, world champion!”

  “I believe it,” Pino said again, shaking his head in awe before looking up at a sheer-walled gray cliff that rose more than 450 meters above the east side of the town. He opened the window, stuck his head out, and scanned the top of the cliff.

  “What are you looking for?” Ascari asked.

  “Sometimes you can see the cross on top of the belfry.”

  “That’s right up ahead here,” Ascari said. “There’s a notch in the cliff. That’s the only reason you can see it.” He pointed up through the windshield. “There.”

  For an instant, Pino caught a glimpse of the white cross and the top of the stone belfry of the chapel at Motta, the highest mountain settlement in this section of the Alps. For the first time that day, he allowed himself to be relieved he was out of Milan.

  Ascari took them up the treacherous Madesimo road, a steep, narrow, potholed, and switchback route that hugged the steep mountainside. There were no guardrails and no shoulder to speak of in many places, and several times during the climb Pino thought for sure Ascari was going to drive them right off the side of a cliff. But Ascari seemed to know every centimeter of the road, because he’d tweak the wheel or tease the brake and they’d glide through every turn so smoothly Pino swore they were on snow, not rock.

  “Can you ski like this?” Pino asked.

  “I don’t know how to ski,” Ascari said.

  “What? You live in Madesimo and can’t ski?”

  “My mother sent me here to be safe. I work in my uncle’s shop and drive.”

  “Ski racing’s the same as driving,” Pino said. “Same tactics.”

  “You ski well?”

  “I’ve won some races. Slalom.”

  The driver looked impressed. “We were meant to be friends, then. You will teach me to ski, and I will teach you to drive.”

  Pino’s grin couldn’t have been tamed if he’d tried. “You have a deal.”

  They reached the tiny village of Madesimo, which featured a stone and slate-roofed inn, a restaurant, and several dozen alpine homes.

  “Are there any girls around here?” Pino asked.

  “I know a few from below. They like to ride in fast cars.”

  “We should go for a drive sometime with them.”

  “A plan that I like!” Ascari said, pulling over. “You know the way from here?”

  “I could do it blindfolded in a snowstorm,” Pino said. “Maybe I’ll come down on the weekends, stay at the inn.”

  “Come look me up if you do. Our shop’s beyond the inn. You can’t miss it.”

  He reached out his hand. Pino winced and said, “Don’t break my fingers this time.”

  “Nah,” Ascari said, and pumped his hand firmly. “Nice meeting you, Pino.”

  “You, too, Alberto,” Pino said. He grabbed his rucksack and climbed out.

  Ascari squealed away, hand out the window waving.

  Pino stood there a moment, feeling like he’d met someone important in his life. Then he put the rucksack up on his back and set out up a two-track path that headed into the woods. The way got consistently steeper until, an hour after he’d started the ascent, he emerged from the forest on a high alpine plateau below a rocky mountain face that climbed nearly twelve hundred vertical meters to a crag of stone called Pizzo Groppera.

  The Motta plateau was several hundred meters wide and wrapped around the Groppera to the southeast. The western edge of the wide bench ended where it met a small forest of spruces that clung to the rim of the towering cliff that fell away toward Campodolcino. Late in the day, with the sun like hammered copper shining on the autumn Alps, Pino felt awed by the setting as he always did. Cardinal Schuster was right; being in Motta was like standing on a balcony in one of God’s grandest cathedrals.

 
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