Beneath a scarlet sky, p.8
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       Beneath a Scarlet Sky, p.8

           Mark Sullivan
 

  now. When Pino saw Luigi turn his head to do just that, he said, “Describe your store to me.”

  Luigi’s eyes found Pino’s. “Oil-rubbed wood floors and counters,” he said, chuckling and taking the turn with ease. “Tufted leather chairs. And an octagonal humidor that my late wife and I designed ourselves.”

  “I bet the store smelled good.”

  “The best. I had cigars and tobaccos from all over the world in there. And dried lavender, mints, and Sen-Sen. And fine brandy for my favored customers. I had so many good and loyal customers. They were my friends, really. The shop was like a club until quite recently. Even the filthy Germans came in to buy.”

  They were all through the cleft and climbing diagonally toward the rim again.

  “Tell me about your wife,” Pino said.

  There was a brief silence behind him, and he felt resistance on the rope before Luigi said, “My Ruth was the most beautiful woman I’ve ever known. We met at temple when we were twelve. Why she chose me, I’ll never know, but she did. It turned out we couldn’t have kids, but we spent twenty wonderful years together before she just got sick one day, and sicker the next, and the next. The doctors said her digestive system had reversed, and they couldn’t stop it from poisoning her to death.”

  Pino flashed with a pang on Mrs. Beltramini and wondered how she was, how Carletto was, and his father.

  “I’m sorry,” Pino said, climbing up over the rim.

  “It’s been six years,” Luigi said as Pino helped him up and then the couple. “And not an hour goes by when I don’t think of her.”

  Pino clapped the cigar trader on the back and grinned. “You did it. We’re at the top.”

  “What?” Luigi said, gazing around in wonder. “That’s it?”

  “That’s it,” Pino said.

  “That wasn’t so bad,” Luigi said, and looked to the sky with relief.

  “Told you. We can rest ahead. There’s something I want you to see first.”

  He led them to where they could look over the back side of the Groppera.

  “Welcome to Val di Lei,” he said.

  The slope of the alpine valley there was gentle compared to the front side of the mountain and was covered with low, wind-stunted mountain shrubs with leaves turning rust, orange, and yellow. Far down the valley, they could see its namesake. Fewer than two hundred meters wide and perhaps eight hundred long, the alpine lake ran north-south toward that triangle of woods Father Re had described.

  The lake surface was silver blue normally, but that day it reflected and radiated the flaming colors of fall. Beyond the lake, a bulwark of stone rose and ran off to the south a long way toward Passo Angeloga, and the stone cairn where Pino had turned around his first day of training. They began to hike down along a game path that ran along a creek fed by glaciated snow still clinging to the highest peaks.

  I did it, Pino thought, feeling happy and satisfied. They listened to me, and I got them over the Groppera.

  “I’ve never been anywhere more beautiful than this,” Maria said when they reached the lake. “It’s incredible. It feels like . . .”

  “Freedom,” Ricardo said.

  “A moment to cherish,” Luigi said.

  “Are we in Switzerland, already?” Maria asked.

  “Almost,” Pino said. “We go into the woods there a ways to reach the border.”

  Pino had never been beyond the lake, so he walked to the woods with some apprehension. But he remembered Father Re’s description of where he’d find the path, and he soon located it.

  The dense grove of fir and spruce was almost like a maze. The air was cooler, and the ground softer. They’d been climbing for close to six and a half hours, but no one looked tired.

  Pino’s heart beat a little faster at the thought that he’d led these people to Switzerland. He’d helped them escape the—

  A big bearded man stepped out from behind a tree three meters ahead. He pointed a double-barreled shotgun at Pino’s face.

  Chapter Nine

  Petrified, Pino threw up his hands. So did his three charges.

  “Please—,” Pino began.

  Over the barrel of the gun, the man snarled, “Who sent you?”

  “Father,” Pino stuttered. “Father Re.”

  A long moment passed as the man’s eyes flitted from Pino to the others. Then he lowered the gun. “We must be careful these days, yes?”

  Pino dropped his hands, feeling sick and weak on his feet. Icy sweat dripped down his spine. He’d never had a gun pointed at him before.

  Luigi said, “You will help us now, signore . . . ?”

  “My name is Bergstrom,” the man said. “I’ll take you from here.”

  “Where?” Maria asked fretfully.

  “Down through the Emet Pass to the Swiss village of Innerferrera,” Bergstrom said. “You’ll be safe, and we can figure out your next journey from there.” Bergstrom nodded to Pino. “Give my best to Father Re.”

  “I will,” Pino promised, and then turned to his three companions. “Good luck.”

  Maria hugged him. Ricardo shook his hand. From his pocket, Luigi pulled a small metal tube with a screw cap. He handed it to Pino. “It’s Cuban,” he said.

  “I can’t take it.”

  Luigi looked insulted. “You don’t think I know how you got me up that last bit? A fine cigar like this is hard to come by, and I don’t give it away lightly.”

  “Thank you, signore,” Pino said, smiling and taking the cigar.

  Bergstrom said to Pino, “Your safety depends on staying unseen. Be careful before you leave the forest. Study the hillsides and the valley before you move on.”

  “I will.”

  “We go, then,” Bergstrom said, turning away.

  Luigi patted Pino on the back and followed. Ricardo smiled at him. Maria said, “Have a good life, Pino.”

  “And you.”

  “I hope we have no climbing to do,” he heard Luigi say to Bergstrom as they disappeared into the trees.

  “A climb down is not a climb up,” Bergstrom replied.

  After that, all Pino could make out was the snap of a branch, a rock tumbling, and then nothing but the wind through the firs. Though happy, he felt oddly and acutely alone when he turned around and walked back into Italy.

  Pino did as Bergstrom had instructed. He stopped and stood inside the tree line to study the valley and the heights above it. When he was sure as he could be that no one was watching, he set out once again. By his watch it was nearly noon. He’d been on the move for nearly nine hours, and he was tired.

  Father Re had foreseen his fatigue and told him not to try to make the trip back that day. Instead, his orders were to climb southwest to an old shepherd’s hut, one of several on the mountain, and spend the night. Pino would return to Casa Alpina via Madesimo in the morning.

  As Pino hiked south through Val di Lei, he felt good and satisfied. They’d done it. Father Re and everyone else who’d helped get the refugees to Casa Alpina. As a team, they’d all saved three people from death. They’d fought back against the Nazis in secret, and they’d won!

  To his surprise, the emotions that flooded through him made him feel stronger, refreshed. He decided not to spend the night in the hut but to push on to Madesimo, to sleep at the inn and see Alberto Ascari. When he was almost to the ridge, Pino stopped to rest his legs and eat again.

  When he was finished, he looked back at Val di Lei and noticed four tiny figures moving south along the stone outcropping above the lake. Pino shaded his eyes, trying to see them better. He couldn’t tell anything about them at first, but then made out that they were all carrying rifles.

  Pino got a sickening feeling in his stomach. Had they seen him go into the forest with three people and come out alone? Were they Germans? Why were they out in the middle of nowhere?

  Pino had no answers to the questions, which continued to trouble him after the four men disappeared from view. He made his way down the goat trails and through the a
lpine meadows to Madesimo. It was nearly four in the afternoon when he walked into the village. A group of boys, including his little friend Nicco, the innkeeper’s son, was at play not far from the inn. Pino was about to enter and inquire about a room, when he noticed Alberto Ascari hurrying toward him, clearly upset.

  “A band of partisans was here last night,” Ascari said. “They said they were fighting the Nazis, but they were asking about Jews.”

  “Jews?” Pino said, and looked away, seeing Nicco squat in the high grass and pick up what at a distance of nearly forty meters looked like a large egg. “What did you say to them?”

  “We told them there were no Jews here. Why do you think that they—”

  Nicco held the egg out to show his friends. The egg became a flash of fire and light a split second before the force of the explosion hit Pino like a mule’s kick.

  He almost fell but regained his balance drunkenly, disoriented and unsure what had happened. Even with his ears ringing, he could hear the children’s screams. Pino lurched toward them. The boys who had been closest to Nicco were down. One had lost a hand. The other’s eyes were bloody sockets. Part of Nicco’s face was gone, and most of his right arm. Blood pooled and spattered all around the little boy.

  Hysterical, Pino scooped Nicco up, seeing the little boy’s eyes roll back in his head, and raced him toward the inn and his mother and father, who’d burst out the front door. The boy started convulsing.

  “No!” Nicco’s mother screamed. She took her son. He convulsed again, and then sagged dead in her arms. “No! Nicco! Nicco!”

  In a daze of disbelief and horror, Pino watched Nicco’s sobbing mother go to her knees, lay her son’s body on the ground, and cover it with her own—as if she were leaning over his crib when he’d been a baby. For many moments Pino just stood there, numb, watching her grieve. Glancing down, he saw he was smeared in blood. He looked around and noticed villagers rushing to treat the other children, and the innkeeper staring forlornly at his wife and dead son.

  “I’m sorry,” Pino whimpered. “I couldn’t save him.”

  Mr. Conte said dully, “You didn’t do this, Pino. Those partisans last night must have . . . But who would leave a grenade where . . . ?” He shook his head, and choked, “Can you get Father Re? He needs to bless my Nicco’s body.”

  Even though he’d been up since the dead of night, and had covered nearly twenty-three kilometers in steep terrain, Pino was determined to run the entire way, as if his feet and speed alone could separate him from the brutality of what he had just witnessed. Halfway up the trail, though, the smell of the blood on his clothes, and the vivid memories of Nicco boasting about being a better skier than Pino, and the fiery flash that took the little boy were too much for him. Pino stopped, bent over, and vomited his insides out.

  Weeping, he staggered the rest of the way to Motta as daylight faded to dusk.

  When he reached Casa Alpina, Pino was ashen, wrung out. Father Re was shocked when Pino came into the empty dining room.

  “I told you to stay—,” Father Re began, then saw Pino’s bloody clothes and struggled to his feet. “What’s happened? Are you all right?”

  “No, Father,” Pino said, starting to cry again, and not caring as he told the priest what had happened. “Why would someone do that? Leave a grenade?”

  “I have no idea,” Father Re said grimly as he went for his jacket. “What about our friends you guided?”

  The memory of Luigi, Ricardo, and Maria disappearing into the woods seemed like ages ago. “I left them with Mr. Bergstrom.”

  The priest put on his coat and grabbed his cane. “That is a blessing, then, something to be grateful for.”

  Pino told him about seeing the four men with rifles.

  “But they didn’t see you?”

  “I don’t think so,” Pino said.

  Father Re reached up and put his hand on Pino’s shoulder. “You did well, then. You did the right thing.”

  The priest left. Pino sat on a bench at an empty table in the dining room. He closed his eyes and hung his head, seeing Nicco’s missing face and arm, and the boy who’d been blinded, and then the dead girl with the missing arm from the night of the first bombardment. He couldn’t get rid of those images no matter how hard he tried. They just kept repeating until he felt as if he were going crazy.

  “Pino?” Mimo said sometime later. “You okay?”

  Pino opened his eyes to find his brother crouched at his side.

  Mimo said, “Someone said the innkeeper’s little boy died, and two other boys might.”

  “I saw it,” Pino said, and started to cry again. “I held him.”

  His brother seemed frozen by the sight of his tears, but then said, “C’mon, Pino. Let’s get you cleaned up and to bed. The younger boys shouldn’t see you like this. They look up to you.”

  Mimo helped him to his feet and down the hall to the shower room. He stripped his clothes and then sat a long time in the lukewarm water, mindlessly scrubbing Nicco’s blood off his hands and face. It didn’t seem real. Except it was.

  Father Re gently shook him awake around ten the next morning. For a few moments, Pino had no idea where he was. Then it all came back with such force that it took his breath away all over again.

  “How are the Contes?”

  The priest turned grim. “It’s a terrible blow for any parent to lose a child under any circumstances. But like that . . .”

  “He was such a funny little kid,” Pino said bitterly. “It’s not fair.”

  “It’s a tragedy,” Father Re said. “The other two boys will live, but they’ll never be the same.”

  They shared a long silence.

  “What do we do, Father?”

  “We have faith, Pino. We have faith and continue to do what is right. I got word in Madesimo that we will have two new travelers for dinner tonight. I want you to rest today. I’ll need you to guide them in the morning.”

  It became a pattern over the course of the following weeks. Every few days, two, three, or sometimes four travelers would ring the bell at Casa Alpina. Pino would lead them out in the wee hours of the morning, climbing by what light the moon offered, and using the carbide miner’s lamp only during cloud cover and the dark of the moon. On these trips, after handing over his charges to Bergstrom, he went to the shepherd’s hut.

  It was a crude affair with a stacked-stone foundation dug into the side of the slope, a sod roof supported by logs, and a door that swung on leather hinges. There was a straw mattress and a woodstove with split wood and a hatchet. Those nights in the hut as he stoked the fire, Pino felt lonely. He tried to summon up memories of Anna to comfort him more than once, but all he could recall was the squall of the trolley as it blocked her from his view.

  His thoughts would then turn abstract: to girls and to love. He hoped he’d have both in his life. He wondered what his girl would be like and whether she would adore the mountains as he did, and whether she skied, and a hundred other questions with maddeningly unknowable answers.

  In early November, Pino led the escape of a British Royal Air Force pilot, shot down during a bombing raid on Genoa. A week later, he helped a second downed pilot to reach Mr. Bergstrom. And almost every day more Jews came to Casa Alpina.

  In the dark days of December 1943, Father Re grew worried because of the increased number of Nazi patrols going up and down the Splügen Pass road.

  “They’re becoming suspicious,” he told Pino. “The Germans haven’t found many of the Jews. The Nazis know they’re being helped.”

  “Alberto Ascari says there have been atrocities, Father,” Pino said. “The Nazis have killed priests helping Jews. They’ve pulled them right off the altar while they were saying Mass.”

  “We have heard that, too,” the priest said. “But we can’t stop loving our fellow man, Pino, because we’re frightened. If we lose love, all is lost. We just have to get smarter.”

  The next day, Father Re and a priest in Campodolcino came up with an in
genious plan. They decided to use watchers to track the Nazi patrols on the Splügen Pass road, and they improvised a communications system.

  In the chapel behind Casa Alpina there was a catwalk around the interior of the steeple. From it, through shutters that opened on the flank of the tower, the boys could see the upper floor of the rectory fifteen hundred meters below in Campodolcino, and one window in particular. The shade was drawn in that window when the Germans were patrolling the Splügen. If the shade was up during the day or a lantern shone there at night, refugees could be safely taken up the mountain to Motta in oxcarts, buried under piles of hay to avoid detection.

  When it became clear that Pino could not lead every Jew, downed pilot, or political refugee who came to Casa Alpina seeking a way to freedom, he began to teach the routes to several of the other older boys, including Mimo.

  Heavy snowfall held off until mid-December of 1943. But then it turned cold, and the skies began to dump, hard and often. Feathery powder snow built up in the chutes and bowls of the upper Groppera, making them avalanche-prone, which soon shut down the preferred northern route to Val di Lei and the Emet Pass into Switzerland.

  Because many of the refugees had never faced cold, snowy conditions before, nor had the faintest idea about mountain climbing, Father Re risked sending Pino, Mimo, and the other guides along the easy southern route over the Angel’s Step. They started carrying skis with climbing skins to speed the return trip.

  The brothers left Casa Alpina the third week of December and joined their family in Rapallo to celebrate Christmas and to wonder whether the war would ever be over. The Lellas had all hoped the Allies would have freed Italy by now. But the Germans’ so-called Gustav Line of pillboxes, tank traps, and other fortifications was holding from the town of Monte Cassino east to the Adriatic Sea.

  Allied progress had ground to a halt.

  On Pino and Mimo’s way back to the Alps, the train passed through Milan. Parts of the city they barely recognized. When Pino reached Casa Alpina this time, he was more than happy to be spending his winter in the Alps.

  He and Mimo loved to ski, and they were experts at it by then. They used skins to climb the slopes above the school and schussed in the fresh deep powder that had fallen during their brief time away. Both boys adored the speed and thrill of skiing, but it meant more to Pino than adventure. Swooping down the mountain was the closest he’d ever come to flying. He was a bird on skis. It warmed his soul. It set him free in a way nothing else did. Pino would fall asleep tired, achy, and happy, and wanting to do it all again tomorrow.

  Alberto Ascari and his friend, Titiana, decided to host a New Year’s Eve party at the Contes’ inn in Madesimo. There had been a lull in the number of refugees during the holiday week, and Father Re granted Pino’s request to attend the bash.

  Excited, Pino oiled his climbing boots, put on his best clothes, and walked down to Madesimo in lightly falling snow that made everything look magical and new. Ascari and Titiana were putting the finishing touches on the decorations when Pino arrived. He spent time with the Contes, who, though still grieving for their son, were glad for the business and distraction the party afforded.

  And what a party it was. There were twice as many young ladies present as men, and Pino had a full dance card for much of the evening. The food was wonderful: speck ham, and gnocchi, and polenta with fresh Montasio cheese, and roe deer venison with dried tomatoes and pumpkin seeds. The wine and beer flowed.

  Later in the evening, Pino was slow-dancing with Frederica and realized he hadn’t once thought of Anna. He was wondering if the night would end perfectly, with a kiss from Frederica, when the door to the inn flew open. Four men with old rifles and shotguns walked in. They were shabbily dressed with filthy red scarves around their necks. Their gaunt cheeks were red from the cold, and their sunken eyes put Pino in mind of feral dogs he’d seen after the bombardments began, scavenging for any scraps they could find.

  “We are partisans fighting to free Italy from the Germans,” one of them announced, and then licked the left inside corner of his lips. “We need donations to continue the fight.” Taller than the others, he wore a knit wool cap that he pulled off and waved at the partygoers.

  No one moved.

  “You bastards!” Mr. Conte roared. “You killed my son!”

  He charged at the leader, who clubbed the innkeeper with the butt of his rifle and knocked him to the floor.

  “We did no such thing,” he said.

  “You did, Tito,” Conte said lying on the ground, bleeding from his head. “You or one of your men left a grenade. My son picked it up, thought it was a toy. He’s dead. Another boy has been blinded. Another lost his hand.”

  “Like I said,” Tito said, “we don’t know a thing about it. Donations, per favore.”

  He raised his rifle and fired a bullet through the ceiling, which provoked
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