Beneath a scarlet sky, p.6
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       Beneath a Scarlet Sky, p.6

           Mark Sullivan
 

  “It would be,” Father Re said. “But I’m not interested in your speed, just that you can find your way and not be seen.”

  “Why?”

  “I have my reasons, which I’ll keep to myself for now, Pino. It’s safer that way.”

  That only deepened Pino’s confusion, but he said, “Okay. And then back?”

  “No,” the priest said. “I want you to climb into the bowl of the north cirque. Look for the game trail that goes up and over into Val di Lei. Don’t climb it unless you feel you’re ready. You can come back and try another day.”

  Pino sighed, knowing he was in for another rough hike.

  Weather wasn’t a factor. It was a beautiful late September morning in the southern Alps. But Pino’s muscles and taped blisters nagged at him as he maneuvered across rocky catwalks on the western face of the Groppera and through a ravine choked with old logs and avalanche debris. It took him more than two hours to reach the meadow Father Re had shown him on the map. He started uphill through deep alpine grasses, already turned paler than brown.

  Like Anna’s hair, Pino thought, examining the hairs that surrounded the seed pods, mature, and ready to spread on the wind. He remembered Anna on the sidewalk beyond the bakery, and how he’d rushed to keep up with her. Her hair was just like this, he decided, only riper, lusher. As he climbed on, the soft stalks of grass sliding across his bare legs made him smile.

  Ninety minutes later he reached the north cirque. It looked like the interior of a volcano, with three-hundred-meter sheer walls to his left and right and ragged, sharp stone teeth along the top. Pino found the goat trail and thought about climbing it, but decided he wouldn’t be worth a damn up there with his feet feeling like ground meat. Instead, he dropped straight downhill to Madesimo.

  He reached the village at one o’clock that Friday afternoon, went to the inn, ate, and reserved a room. The innkeepers were kind people with three children, including seven-year-old Nicco.

  “I’m a skier,” Nicco boasted to Pino while he wolfed down his food.

  “I am, too,” Pino said.

  “Not as good as me.”

  Pino grinned. “Probably not.”

  “I’ll take you skiing when it snows,” the boy said. “Show you.”

  “I look forward to that,” Pino said, and tousled Nicco’s hair.

  Stiff, but no longer ravenous, Pino went in search of Alberto Ascari, but the engine repair shop wasn’t open. He left a note telling Ascari of his plan to return in the evening, and hiked back to Casa Alpina.

  Father Re listened closely to Pino’s description of crossing the cliffy face of the Groppera, and his decision not to climb the north cirque.

  The priest nodded. “You don’t want to be in the rocks if you’re not ready for them. You will be soon enough.”

  “Father, after I’m done studying, I’m going to go down to Madesimo to spend the night and see my friend Alberto Ascari,” Pino said.

  When Father Re squinted, Pino reminded him that weekends were his own.

  “I did say that,” the priest said. “Go, have fun, and rest up, but be ready to start again Monday morning.”

  Pino took a nap and then studied ancient history and math, before reading the play The Giants on the Mountain by Luigi Pirandello. It was past five when he started back down the trail to Madesimo in his street shoes. His feet were killing him, but he hobbled all the way to the inn, checked in, spent time regaling little Nicco with his ski-racing stories, and then went to Ascari’s uncle’s house.

  Alberto opened the door, welcomed him, and insisted he come in for dinner. His aunt was a better cook than Brother Bormio, which was saying something. Ascari’s uncle loved to talk about cars, so they got on famously. Pino gorged himself to the point where he almost fell asleep during dessert.

  Ascari and his uncle helped him back to the hotel, where Pino kicked off his shoes, flopped on the bed, and slept in his clothes.

  His friend knocked on his door right after dawn.

  “Why are you up so early?” Pino asked, yawning. “I was going to—”

  “You want to learn to drive or not? The next two days are supposed to be clear, no rain, no snow, so I’m willing to teach you. You pay for petrol, though.”

  Pino scrambled for his shoes. They ate a quick breakfast in the hotel dining room and then went out to Ascari’s Fiat. For the next four hours, they drove above Campodolcino on the road to the Splügen Pass and Switzerland.

  On that winding route, Alberto taught Pino how to read the gauges and use them, and how to adapt to terrain, elevation, and direction changes. He showed Pino how to drift through some turns and to knife through others, and how to use the engine and the gears rather than the brakes to keep the car under control.

  They drove north until they could see German checkpoints and the Swiss border beyond and turned around. On the way back to Campodolcino, two Nazi patrols stopped them, demanding to know what they were doing on the road.

  “I’m teaching him to drive,” Ascari said after they’d turned over their papers.

  The Germans didn’t seem happy about it, but waved them on.

  When they returned to the hotel, Pino was as excited as he’d been in a long time. What a thrill it was to drive a car like that! What an amazing gift he’d been given to learn from Alberto Ascari, the future European champion!

  Pino again ate dinner at the Ascaris’ and enjoyed listening to Alberto and his uncle talk about auto mechanics. They went to the shop after dinner and tinkered with Alberto’s Fiat until almost midnight.

  The next morning, after early Mass, they set out again for the road between Campodolcino and the Swiss border. Ascari showed Pino how to use crests in the route to his advantage, and to look far ahead whenever he could so his brain was already plotting how best to run the car for optimum speed.

  On his last run down the pass, Pino took them around a blind corner going too fast and almost crashed into a German jeep-style vehicle called a Kübelwagen. Both cars swerved and narrowly avoided collision. Ascari looked back.

  “They’re turning around!” Alberto said. “Go!”

  “Shouldn’t we stop?”

  “You wanted a race, didn’t you?”

  Pino floored it. Ascari’s car had a better engine and was far more nimble than the army vehicle, and the Nazis were out of sight before they left the town of Isola.

  “God, that was great!” Pino said, his heart still slamming in his chest.

  “Wasn’t it?” Ascari said, and laughed. “You didn’t do too bad.”

  To Pino it was high praise, and he felt wonderful leaving for Casa Alpina, having promised to return the following Friday to continue the lessons. The hike back to Motta was far less painful than it had been coming down two days before.

  “Good,” Father Re said when he showed him the calluses building on his feet.

  The priest was also interested in his tales of learning to drive.

  “How many patrols did you see on the Splügen Pass road?”

  “Three,” Pino said.

  “But you were only stopped by two?”

  “The third tried to stop us, but couldn’t catch me in Alberto’s car.”

  “Don’t provoke them, Pino. The Germans, I mean.”

  “Father?”

  “I want you to practice being unnoticed,” Father Re said. “Driving a car like that gets you noticed, brings you to the Germans’ attention. Understand?”

  Pino didn’t understand, not completely, anyway, but he could see the concern in the priest’s eyes and promised not to do it again.

  The following morning, Father Re shook Pino awake long before dawn. “Another clear day,” he said. “Good for a climb.”

  Pino groaned, but he got dressed and found the priest and breakfast waiting in the dining hall. On the topographical map, Father Re pointed to a razorback ridge that started a few hundred vertical meters directly above Casa Alpina and made a long, steep, and serpentine climb all the way to the peak of the Gropp
era.

  “Can you do it alone, or do you need someone to guide you?”

  “I’ve been up it once,” Pino said. “The really hard parts are here, here, and then that chimney, and the thin spot up top.”

  “If you get to the chimney and don’t think you’re up to it yet, don’t go farther,” Father Re said. “Just turn around and climb back down. And take a walking staff. There are several in the shed. Have faith in God, Pino, and stay alert.”

  Chapter Seven

  Pino set out at dawn, hiking straight up the Groppera. Glad for the staff, he used it crossing a narrow stream before he flanked to the southeast toward that razorback ridge. Busted sheets of rock sheared off the mountain over thousands of years made the bowl chaotic terrain, and the going was slow until he reached the tail of the mountain spine.

  There would be no defined trail from here on up, just rock and the occasional grass tuft or tenacious bush. Given the cliffs that fell away on both sides of the spine, Pino knew he couldn’t afford a mistake. The one time he’d been on the ridge—two years ago—he’d been with four other boys and a guide friend of Father Re’s from Madesimo.

  Pino tried to remember how they’d gone up a series of broken staircases and treacherous catwalks that climbed to the base of the spire high above him. He felt a few moments of doubt and fear at the idea he might take the wrong route, but then forced himself to calm down and trust his instincts, handle each section as it came, and then reevaluate his route as he ascended.

  Getting up onto the actual spine was his first challenge. A wind-smoothed and rounded column of stone about two meters high defined the very base of the ridge and seemed unclimbable. But on the south side, the rocks were cracked and fragmented. Pino tossed up his staff, heard it clatter to a stop. He jammed his fingers and the toes of his boots into cracks and onto narrow bits of ledge and went up after the staff. A few moments later, he knelt on the razorback, his lungs heaving. He waited until they’d calmed, took the staff, and got to his feet.

  Pino began to pick his way higher, finding a rhythm to each footfall, reading the jigsaw terrain before him, and looking for the path of least resistance. An hour later, he faced another major challenge. Slabs of stone had broken away eons before, leaving the way up blocked except for a jagged gouge in the rock face. It was less than a meter wide and again as deep, and it climbed like a crooked chimney from the base up nearly eight meters to a ledge.

  Pino stood there for several minutes feeling the fear in him build again. But before it could freeze him, he heard Father Re’s voice telling him to have faith and to stay alert. At last, he pivoted 180 degrees and fit himself into the crack in the cliff. He pressed out his hands and levered his boots against the walls of the chimney. He was able to maneuver now and climbed with three points of contact supporting the moving fourth point—a hand, a foot—as it groped and probed for higher ground.

  Six meters up, he heard a hawk calling, looked out from the crack and down the ridge toward Motta. He was dizzyingly high up the mountain now, felt a rush of vertigo and almost lost his grip on the rock. That scared him half to death. He couldn’t fall. He couldn’t live through a fall.

  Have faith.

  That thought was enough to drive Pino up the chimney and onto the ledge, where he gasped with relief and thanked God for helping him. When his strength returned, he made his way to the southwestern ridge with little pause. The ridge was sheer and razorback, barely a meter wide in places. Avalanche chutes plunged to either side of the jagged way forward to the base of the Groppera’s craggy spire, which was more than forty meters tall and shaped like a crooked spearhead.

  Pino didn’t give the daggerlike crag a second glance. He was straining to spot where the various shoulders and clavicles of the mountain came together below the base of the spire. He found what he was looking for, and his heart began to slam in his chest again. He closed his eyes, told himself to calm down, and to believe. Making the sign of the cross, he went on, feeling like a tightrope artist as he passed between the two main avalanche chutes, not daring to look left or right down them, fixed on creeping straight ahead to where the catwalk widened.

  When he reached the end of the catwalk, Pino hugged the stone blocks jutting from the wall like they were long-lost friends. When he was sure he could go on, he climbed up the blocks, which were irregular—almost like a stack of bricks that had tipped over—but stable, unmoving, and he was able to climb higher with relative ease.

  Four and a half hours after he left Casa Alpina, Pino reached the base of the crag. He peered to his right and saw a steel cable anchored into the rock and stretched horizontally around the spire at chest height above a ledge perhaps eighteen centimeters wide.

  Feeling queasy at what he had to do now, Pino took several deep breaths to shake off his growing jitters before reaching out and grabbing the slack cable. The toe of his right boot probed for and then found the narrow outcropping. It was almost like being on the ledge outside his bedroom window at home. Once he thought about it that way, he was able to hold tight to the cable and scuttle around the base of the crag.

  Five minutes later, Pino reached the top of the broadest ridge on the mountain, south-southeast facing, wide, and covered with amber hummocks of lichen, ground moss, edelweiss, and alpine aster. He lay on his back, gasping with the noontime sun beating down on him. The ascent had felt completely different from the time he’d been guided up by a man who’d done the route thirty times, showing him each hand- and foothold. This climb had been the greatest physical challenge of his life. He’d had to think constantly, evaluate constantly, and rely on faith, which he realized was tiring—not easy to sustain at all.

  Pino guzzled water, thinking, But I did it. I made it up the hard way on my own.

  Happy, more confident, he gave thanks for his day and for his food, and then wolfed down the sandwich Brother Bormio had packed for him. Delighted to find more strudel, he ate slowly, savoring each bite. Had there ever been anything that tasted that good?

  Pino felt drowsy and lay back, closing his eyes and feeling like everything in that timeless place of mountain and sky was as it should be.

  Mist woke him.

  Pino checked his watch, surprised to see it was nearly two in the afternoon. Clouds had rolled in. He could see no more than ninety meters down the slope now. With the anorak on, Pino used game and shepherd trails to skirt to his east and north. An hour later, he came to the rim on the back side of the Groppera’s north cirque.

  It took him a few tries before he found a path that traversed down the steep interior of the bowl and then zigzagged to the point where he’d turned around three days before. He stopped and looked back up what he’d just come down. After the challenges he’d faced earlier in the day, it hadn’t seemed that bad at all.

  But by the time Pino had trudged down the mountain to Madesimo and then back up to Motta, he was exhausted. Light was dwindling when he reached Casa Alpina. Father Re was waiting in the hall off the dining area where the boys were studying, and the air was filled with the sumptuous odor of Brother Bormio’s newest creation.

  “You’re late,” Father Re said. “I didn’t want you out there at night.”

  “I didn’t want to be coming off the mountain in the dark, either, but it’s a long way, Father,” he said. “And the climb. It was more difficult than I remembered.”

  “But you have faith you could do it again?” the priest asked.

  Pino thought about the chimney, the catwalk between the avalanche chutes, and the cable traverse. He didn’t exactly want to do any of them again, but he said, “Yes.”

  “Good,” Father Re said. “Very good.”

  “Father, why am I doing this?”

  The priest studied him, and then said, “I’m trying to make you strong. You may need to be in the months ahead.”

  Pino wanted to ask him why, but Father Re had already turned away.

  Two days later, the priest sent Pino on the Angel’s Step route to Val de Lei. The day
after that, Pino worked the traverse route to the north cirque and climbed the goat trail almost to the rim. On the third day, he took the hard way up, but he had so much more confidence he cut an hour off the time it took him to reach the avalanche chutes.

  The weather held through the following weekend and through two more days of driving lessons. Remembering Father Re’s warning, he and Ascari stayed off the Splügen Pass road and practiced on the switchbacks around Madesimo.

  On Sunday afternoon, they picked up two girls whom Ascari knew in Campodolcino. One was Ascari’s friend, Titiana, and the other was Titiana’s friend, Frederica. She was dreadfully shy and would hardly look at Pino, who wanted to like her, but he kept thinking of Anna. He knew it was crazy to think about her at all. He’d talked to her all of three minutes and hadn’t seen her in almost four months, and she’d stood him up. And yet he had faith he’d see Anna again. She’d become this fantasy he clung to, a story he told himself whenever he was lonely or uncertain about his future.

  When Pino reached Casa Alpina after another three days of hard climbing in the first week of October 1943, he was exhausted and ravenous. He ate two bowls of “Spaghetti Bormio” and drank several liters of water before he could lift his head and look around the dining room.

  The usual boys were all there. Mimo was commanding an entire table of them on the other side of the room. And Father Re was entertaining guests, two men and a woman. The younger man had sandy hair. His arm was around the shoulder of the woman, who had pale skin and dark, preoccupied eyes. The older man wore a suit, no tie, had a mustache, and smoked. He coughed a lot, and his fingers softly drummed on the tabletop whenever the priest talked.

  Pino sleepily wondered who they were. It wasn’t that unusual for visitors to come to Casa Alpina. Parents often visited. And many hikers sought refuge there during storms. But these three were no hikers. They were dressed in street clothes.

  Pino desperately wanted to go to bed, but he knew that wouldn’t go over well with Father Re. He was trying to get up the energy to study when the priest came over and said, “You’ve earned a day’s rest tomorrow. And you can put off studying until then. Okay?”

  Pino smiled and nodded. He couldn’t remember how he managed to find and get into his bunk.

  When he finally awoke, it was broad daylight, and the sun shone in the window at the end of the hall. Mimo was gone. So were all the other boys. When he entered the dining room, it was empty except for those three visitors, who were having a heated whispered discussion at the other end of the room.

  “We can’t wait any longer,” the younger man was saying. “It’s all disintegrating. Fifty in Meina! They’re raiding in Rome even as we speak.”

  “But you said we were safe,” the woman fretted.

  “We are safe here,” he said. “Father Re is a good man.”

  “But for how long?” the older man said, lighting another cigarette.

  The woman noticed Pino looking their way, and silenced the men. Brother Bormio brought Pino coffee and bread and salami. The visitors left the room, and he didn’t think much about them the rest of the day, which he spent by the fire with his books.

  By the time Mimo and the boys trooped in from a long hike it was almost dinnertime, and Pino was feeling not only rested but as fit as he’d been in his entire life. As much as he was exercising, with the massive amounts of food Brother Bormio was feeding him, Pino felt like he was gaining weight and muscle every day.

  “Pino?” Father Re said as Mimo and two other boys laid out plates and silverware on the long table.

  Pino set his books aside and got up out of his chair. “Father?”

  “Find me after dessert, in the chapel.”

  That puzzled Pino. The chapel was rarely used for anything besides a small Sunday service, usually at dawn. But he left his curiosity aside and sat and joked with Mimo and the other boys, and then entranced them with his description of the perils of the hard way up the Groppera.

  “One wrong step up there and it’s over,” he said.

  “I could do it,” Mimo boasted.

  “Start doing pull-ups, push-ups, and squats. I’ll bet you can.”

  The challenge ignited Mimo as all challenges did, and Pino knew his brother was about to become a pull-ups, push-ups, and squats fanatic.

  After dishes had been cleared, Mimo asked Pino if he wanted to play cards. Pino begged off, saying he was going to the chapel to talk to Father Re.

  “About what?” Mimo said.

  “I’ll find out,” Pino said, grabbing a wool hat from the rack near the front door. He put it on and went out into the night.

  The temperature had fallen below freezing. Above him, a quarter moon shone, and the stars looked as brilliant as firecrackers. A north wind bit his cheeks with the first hint of winter as he walked toward the chapel, beyond which a grove of towering fir trees grew along the rim of the plateau.

  Four candles burned when he thumbed the latch to the chapel door and went inside. Father Re was on his knees in a pew, praying, head down. Pino shut the chapel door quietly and sat. After several moments, the priest made the sign of the cross, used his cane to drive himself to his feet, and then limped over and sat closer.

  “Do you think you can travel most of the northern route to Val di Lei in the dark?” Father Re asked. “No light other than the moon?”

 
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