Beneath a scarlet sky, p.5
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       Beneath a Scarlet Sky, p.5

           Mark Sullivan

  Motta was scarcely more developed than Madesimo. There were several alpine-style huts at the eastern base of the escarpment, and to the southwest, set back toward those cliffs and spruces, the small Catholic chapel Pino had caught a glimpse of from below and a much larger stone-and-timber structure. Happier than he’d been in months, Pino smelled baked bread and something garlicky and savory the closer he got to the rustic building. His stomach growled.

  He ducked under the roof over the entryway, stood before the heavy wooden door, and reached for a cord that hung from a heavy brass bell above a sign that said, “Casa Alpina. All Weary Travelers Welcome.” Pino pulled the cord twice.

  The clanging of the bell echoed off the flanks of the mountain behind him. He heard the clamor of boys, followed by footsteps. The door swung open.

  “Hello, Father Re,” Pino said to a burly priest in his fifties. The man, leaning on a cane, was wearing a black cassock, white collar, and leather hob-nailed climbing boots.

  Father Re flung open his arms. “Pino Lella! I heard a rumor just this morning you were coming to stay with me again.”

  “The bombing, Father,” Pino said, feeling emotional as he hugged the priest. “It’s bad.”

  “I’ve heard that, too, my son,” Father Re said, sobering. “But come, come inside before we lose the heat.”

  “How’s your hip?”

  “It’s been better, and it’s been worse,” Father Re said, limping aside to let Pino in.

  “How is Mimo taking it, Father?” Pino asked. “I mean, our house.”

  “You should be the one to tell him that,” Father Re said. “Have you eaten?”


  “Then your timing is perfect. Leave your things there for now. After dinner, I’ll show you where you’re sleeping.”

  Pino followed the priest as he caned awkwardly to the dining hall, where forty boys crowded the rough-hewn tables and benches. A fire blazed in the stone hearth at the far end of the room.

  “Go eat dinner with your brother,” Father Re said. “Then come sit with me for dessert.”

  Pino saw Mimo regaling his friends with some story of daring. He walked up behind his brother and said in a squeaky voice, “Hey, Mr. Short Stuff, move over.”

  At fifteen, Mimo was one of the older boys in the room and obviously used to being the center of things. When he turned, his face was hardened, as if he were about to teach the squeaky-voiced kid a thing or two for not knowing his place in the world. But then Mimo recognized his older brother and broke into a puzzled smile.

  “Pino?” he said. “What are you doing here? You said you’d never—” Fear robbed Mimo of his enthusiasm. “What’s happened?”

  Pino told him. His younger brother took it hard, gazed at the dark floorboards of the dining hall for several long moments before raising his head. “Where will we live?”

  “Papa and Uncle Albert are going to find a new apartment and a new place for the store,” Pino said, sitting down beside him. “But until then, I guess, you and I live here.”

  “Your supper tonight,” a man said in a booming voice. “Fresh bread, fresh-churned butter, and chicken stew à la Bormio.”

  Pino looked toward the kitchen to see a familiar face. A beast of a man with a shock of wild black hair and absolutely massive hairy hands, Brother Bormio was utterly devoted to Father Re. Brother Bormio served as the priest’s assistant in all things. He was also the cook at Casa Alpina, and a fine one.

  Brother Bormio oversaw the movement of steaming pots of the stew. When they were in place on the tables, Father Re stood and said, “Young men, we must give thanks for this day and for every day, no matter how flawed. Bow your heads, give your gratitude to God, and have faith in him, and in a better tomorrow.”

  Pino had heard the priest say these words hundreds of times, and it still moved him, made him feel small and insignificant as he thanked God for getting him away from the bombardment, for meeting Alberto Ascari, and for being back at Casa Alpina.

  Then Father Re gave his own thanks for the food on the table, and bid them eat.

  After his long day of travel, Pino devoured almost a loaf of Bormio’s brown bread and wolfed down three bowls of his heavenly chicken stew.

  “Leave some for the rest of us,” Mimo complained at one point.

  “I’m bigger,” Pino said. “I have to eat more.”

  “Go over to Father Re’s table. He hardly eats anything.”

  “Good idea,” Pino said, ruffled his brother’s hair, and dodged the sideways punch his brother threw.

  Pino wove through the tables and benches to the one where Father Re sat with Brother Bormio, who was taking a rest and smoking a hand-rolled cigarette.

  “You remember Pino, Brother Bormio?” Father Re asked.

  Bormio grunted and nodded. The cook took two more spoonfuls of stew, another drag off the cigarette, and said, “I’ll get the dessert, Father.”

  “Strudel?” asked Father Re.

  “With fresh apples and pears,” Bormio said in a pleased tone.

  “However did you get those?”

  “A friend,” Bormio said. “A very good friend.”

  “Bless your good friend, and bring us both two servings if there’s enough,” Father Re said before looking at Pino. “A man can only deprive himself of so much.”


  “Desserts are my only vice, Pino.” The priest laughed and rubbed his belly. “I can’t even give them up for Lent.”

  The pear-and-apple strudel was the equal of any pastry Pino had bought in his favorite bakery in San Babila, and he was grateful Father Re had ordered him two portions. Afterward he was so stuffed, he felt drowsy and content.

  “Do you remember the way to Val di Lei, Pino?” Father Re asked.

  “Easiest way is southeast to the trail to Passo Angeloga, and then straight north.”

  “Above the village of Soste.” Father Re nodded. “An acquaintance of yours went that way over Passo Angeloga, the Angel’s Step, to Val di Lei just last week.”

  “Who was that?”

  “Barbareschi. The seminarian. He said he met you with Cardinal Schuster.”

  That seemed ages ago. “I remember him. Is he here?”

  “He left for Milan this morning. You must have passed each other somewhere in your travels today.”

  Pino didn’t think much of the coincidence, and for a few moments he gazed at the blazing fire, feeling mesmerized and sleepy again.

  “Is that the only way you’ve gone?” Father Re asked. “To Val di Lei?”

  Pino thought, then said, “No, I’ve gone twice on the northern route from Madesimo, and once the hard way, from here up the spine and over the top of the Groppera.”

  “Good,” the priest said. “I couldn’t remember.”

  Then the priest stood, put two fingers in his mouth, and whistled sharply. The room quieted.

  Father Re said, “Dish duty: report to Brother Bormio. The rest of you: the tables are to be cleared and wiped down, and then you have to study.”

  Mimo and the rest of the boys seemed to all know the routine, and they got to their chores with surprisingly few grumbles. Pino retrieved his rucksack and followed Father Re past the entrances to two big dorm rooms to a narrow cubicle with bunk beds built into the wall and a curtain across the front.

  “It’s not much, especially for someone your size, but it’s the best we can do for the moment,” Father Re said.

  “Who else is with me?”

  “Mimo. He’s had it to himself until now.”

  “He’s going to be so happy.”

  “I’ll leave you two to figure things out,” the priest said. “You are older than the others, so I don’t expect you to follow their rules. So here are yours. You must climb every day on a route I prescribe. And you must study at least three hours every day, Monday through Friday. Saturdays and Sundays are your own. Does that work?”

  It seemed like a lot of climbing, but Pino loved being in the mountai
ns, so he said, “Yes, Father.”

  “I’ll leave you to unpack, then,” Father Re said. “It’s good to have you here again, my young friend. I can see now that having you around might prove to be a big help.”

  Pino smiled. “It’s good to be back, Father. I missed you and Motta.”

  Father Re winked, rapped on the door frame twice with his cane, and left. Pino cleared two shelves and put his brother’s clothes on the top bunk. Then he emptied his rucksack and arranged his books, clothes, and the pieces of his beloved shortwave radio, which he’d hidden among his clothes despite the danger he’d have been in if the Nazis had searched his gear. Lying on the bottom bunk, Pino listened to a BBC dispatch on Allied advances, then dropped off into nothingness.

  “Hey,” Mimo said an hour later. “That’s where I sleep!”

  “Not anymore,” Pino said, rousing. “You’re top bunk now.”

  “I was here first,” Mimo protested.

  “Finders keepers.”

  “My bunk wasn’t lost!” Mimo shouted before lunging at Pino and trying to drag him off the bed.

  Pino was much stronger, but Mimo had a warrior’s heart and never knew when to admit defeat. Mimo bloodied Pino’s nose before Pino could pin him to the floor.

  “You lose,” he said.

  “No,” Mimo sputtered as he squirmed, trying to get free. “That’s my bed.”

  “Tell you what. When I’m gone on weekends, you can use it. Four or five days a week it’s mine, and two to three it’s yours.”

  That seemed to calm his brother. “Where are you going on weekends?”

  “To Madesimo,” Pino said. “I have a friend there who will teach me to fix cars and to drive them like a champion.”

  “You are so full of salami.”

  “It’s true. He gave me a ride up from the train station. Alberto Ascari. The greatest driver I’ve ever seen. His father was European champion.”

  “Why would he teach you?”

  “It’s a trade. I’m teaching him to ski.”

  “Think he’d teach me to drive, too? I mean, I ski better than you.”

  “You have vivid dreams, little brother. But how about I teach you what the great Alberto Ascari teaches me?”

  Mimo thought about that, and then said, “Deal.”

  Later, when they’d turned off the light and Pino had buried himself under the covers, he wondered whether Milan was being bombed, how his family was, and whether Carletto was sleeping out in that meadow on the hill or if he was awake and watching more of the city go up in fire and curling smoke. And for a second he thought of Anna leaving the bakery, that moment he first caught her attention.

  “Pino?” Mimo said as he’d begun to drift off.

  “Yeah?” Pino said, annoyed.

  “Do you think I’ll grow soon?”

  “Any day now.”

  “I’m glad you’re here.”

  Pino smiled despite the swelling in his nose. “I’m glad I’m here, too.”

  Chapter Six

  Pino was dreaming of car racing when Father Re shook him awake the next morning. It was still dark out. The priest was silhouetted in the light of a handheld lantern he’d set on the floor outside the brothers’ narrow room.

  “Father?” Pino whispered, groggily. “What time is it?”

  “Four thirty.”

  “Four thirty?”

  “Get up and dress for a hike. You need to get in shape.”

  Pino knew better than to argue. Though the priest had none of his mother’s bravado, he could be as stubborn and demanding as Porzia on her toughest day. With people of this nature, Pino had long ago decided, it was better to get out of their way or go along for the ride.

  He grabbed his clothes and went to the washroom to dress. Heavy canvas-and-leather shorts, thick wool socks that came up over his calves, and a pair of brand-new stiff boots his father had bought him the day before. Over his thin loden-green wool shirt, he wore a dark wool vest.

  The dining hall was empty except for Father Re and Brother Bormio, who’d cooked him eggs and ham and toast. While Pino ate, the priest gave him two jugs of water that he wanted him to carry in his rucksack. There were also a large lunch and an oilskin anorak in case of rain.

  “Where should I go?” Pino said, fighting back a yawn.

  Father Re had a map on hand. “Take the easy way to the Passo Angeloga below Pizzo Stella. Nine kilometers there. Nine kilometers back.”

  Eighteen kilometers? Pino hadn’t walked that far in a long time, but he nodded.

  “Go straight to the pass and try to stay out of sight of others on the trail unless it’s unavoidable.”


  Father Re hesitated. “Some people from the villages around here think they own the Angel’s Step. It’s easier if you just stay away from them.”

  Pino felt confused by that as he set out on a full stomach in the low light before dawn, walking along the trail that led southeast from Casa Alpina. The trail meandered in an easy, long traverse that followed the contour of the mountain, before slanting and losing elevation on the south flank of the Groppera.

  By the time he’d neared the bottom, the sun had risen and was shining on the peak of Pizzo Stella ahead and to his right. The air smelled so fragrant there with pine and balsam that it was hard for him to recall the rank scent of bombs.

  Pino stopped there, drank water, and ate half of the ham, cheese, and bread Bormio had packed for him. He stretched a bit, looking off and thinking about Father Re’s warning to try to stay out of sight of people who thought they owned the pass. What was that about?

  Shouldering his pack once more, Pino started up the switchback trail that led to the Passo Angeloga, the Angel’s Step, the southern pass toward Val di Lei. Until that point, he had been cutting down a long sidehill. Now he was ascending almost constantly, taking big lungfuls of thin air while his calves and thighs burned.

  The trail soon left the forest, and trees dwindled to a few scraggly, wind-gnarled juniper bushes that clung to rocky outcroppings. The sun broke over the ridge, revealing other ground shrubs, mosses, and lichen—all muted oranges, reds, and yellows.

  Three-quarters of the way up to the pass, clouds started to scud across the sky, hanging up on the pinnacle of the Groppera far above Pino and to his left. The tundralike terrain gave way to rock and scree fields well below the saddle. Though there was still a solid trail, loose rocks slid beneath his new boots, the stiff leather of which began to rub at his heels and toes.

  His plan had been to reach the stacked-rock cairn at the middle of the Angel’s Step, and remove his shoes and socks. But three hours into his hike, the clouds grew large, ominous, and gray. The wind picked up. To the west, he could see the slanting charcoal lines of a storm.

  Putting on the anorak, Pino pressed on toward the cairn at the crossing of several trails at the top of Passo Angeloga, including one that led toward the shoulder of the Groppera, and another toward Pizzo Stella. Fog came swirling in before he reached the stack of rocks.

  The rain followed, a few drops at first, but Pino had been in the Alps often enough to sense what was coming. Ditching any idea of checking his feet or having something to eat, he touched the cairn and pivoted into the wind and the building storm. The rain quickly turned to marble-sized hail that battered at his hood and caused him to throw up his forearm to protect his eyes as he dropped back down the mountain.

  Hail burst against the rocks and loose stone on the trail, glazing them and forcing Pino to move slower. The hail died with the wind, but the rain kept on in a steady downpour. The trail became an icy sluice box. It took Pino more than an hour to reach the first trees. He was soaked. He was chilled. His feet had blistered.

  When he reached where the trail split and climbed back toward Motta and Casa Alpina, he heard shouting from ahead and down toward Soste. Even at a distance, even through the rain, he could tell that the voice was a man’s and that he was angry.

  Pino remembered Father Re’s war
ning about being seen and felt his heart race as he turned and ran.

  Hearing the man’s cries turn to outrage behind and below him, Pino sped on the uphill trail into the trees and didn’t slow for almost fifteen minutes. His lungs felt like they’d burst. He stood hunched over, gulping for air and feeling nauseated from the exertion and the altitude. But he no longer heard shouting, just the rain dripping from the trees and somewhere far below, a faint train whistle. As he pressed on, he felt good and laughed at having eluded the man.

  The rain was starting to let up when Pino reached Casa Alpina. He’d been gone five hours and fifteen minutes.

  “What took you so long?” Father Re asked, appearing in the front hallway. “I had faith, but Brother Bormio was starting to get worried.”

  “Hail,” Pino said, shivering.

  “Strip to your underwear and go by the fire,” Father Re said. “I’ll send Mimo to fetch you some dry clothes.”

  Pino took off his boots and socks, grimaced at the nasty blisters, all of which had popped and were a livid red.

  “We’ll put iodine and salt on those,” Father Re said.

  Pino cringed. When he was down to his undershorts, he chattered, hugged his chest, and hobbled into the dining hall where all forty boys were quietly studying under the watchful eye of Brother Bormio. The second they saw mostly naked Pino doing his awkward, exaggerated walk toward the fireplace, they broke into howls of laughter, with Mimo laughing hardest of all. Even Brother Bormio seemed to find it funny.

  Pino waved them off, didn’t care, just wanted to be as close as he could get to that fire. He stood on the warm hearth for several long minutes, shifting his body one way and then another until Mimo arrived with dry clothes. When Pino had dressed, Father Re came over with a mug of hot tea and a bowl filled with warm salt water for his feet. Pino drank the tea thankfully and had to grit his teeth when he plunged his feet into the salt water.

  The priest asked Pino for a complete rundown of the morning’s exercise. He told Father Re all about it, including his encounter with the angry man from Soste.

  “You didn’t get a look at his face?”

  “He was kind of far, and it was raining,” Pino said.

  Father Re thought about that. “After lunch, you can take a nap, and then you owe me three hours of studying.”

  Pino yawned and nodded. He ate like the proverbial horse, limped down to his bunk, and passed out cold the moment his head hit the pillow.

  The following morning, Father Re shook him awake an hour later than he had the previous day.

  “Get up,” he said. “You have another climb ahead of you. Breakfast in five minutes.”

  Pino moved, felt sore everywhere, but his blisters were better for the salt bath.

  Still, he dressed as if he were in a fog as thick as the one he’d encountered the day before. He was a growing teenage boy. He liked to sleep a lot and couldn’t stop yawning as he gingerly made his way in stocking feet back to the dining hall. Father Re was waiting with food and a topographical map.

  “I want you to flank to the north today,” Father Re said, tapping the wide lines that defined the bench at Motta, including the cart track that dropped down the mountain to Madesimo, and then a series of tight lines indicating increasing steepness beyond it. “Stay high crossing the face here and here. You’ll find game trails that will help you cross this ravine. And eventually you’ll end up over here in this meadow up the slope from Madesimo. Would you recognize it?”

  Pino stared at the map. “I think so, but why don’t I avoid that face, drop down to Madesimo on the two-track, and then climb straight up to that spot? It would be faster.”

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