Beneath a scarlet sky, p.9
Beneath a Scarlet Sky,
the men at the party to turn out their pockets and the young ladies to open their purses.
Pino fingered a ten-lira note from his pocket and held it out.
Tito snatched it and then stopped to look him up and down. “Nice clothes,” he said. “Turn out your pockets.”
Pino didn’t move a muscle.
Tito said, “Do it or we’ll strip you naked.”
Pino wanted to punch him, but he pulled out a leather-and-magnet money clip his uncle Albert designed and removed a wad of lira, which he held out to Tito.
Tito whistled and snatched the money. Then he stepped closer and studied Pino, exuding a threat that was as strong as his foul body odor and breath. “I know you,” he said.
“No, you don’t.”
“Yes, I do,” Tito said again, his face close to Pino’s. “I’ve seen you in my binoculars. I’ve seen you climbing over Passo Angeloga and across the Emet with many strangers.”
Pino said nothing.
Tito smiled, and then licked the corner of his lips. “What the Nazis would give to know about you.”
“I thought you were fighting the Germans,” Pino said. “Or was that just an excuse to rob a party?”
Tito hit Pino in the gut with the butt of his rifle, knocking him to the ground.
“Stay off those passes, kid,” Tito said. “You tell the priest the same thing. Angel’s Step? The Emet. They’re ours. You understand?”
Pino lay there gasping for air and refusing to reply.
Tito kicked him. “Understand?”
Pino nodded, which pleased Tito, who studied him.
“Nice boots,” he said at last. “What size?”
Pino grunted an answer.
“Couple pairs of warm socks, they’ll work just fine. Take them off.”
“They’re the only boots I have.”
“You can take them off alive, or I can take them off you dead. Your choice.”
Humiliated and hating the man, but not wanting to die, Pino unlaced the boots and pulled them off. When he glanced at Frederica, she reddened and looked away, making Pino feel like he was doing something cowardly when he handed Tito the boots.
“That money clip, too,” Tito said, snapping his fingers twice.
“My uncle made that for me,” Pino complained.
“Tell him to make you another. Tell him it’s for a good cause.”
Sullen, Pino dug in his pocket and got out the money clip. He flipped it at Tito.
Tito snagged it out of the air. “Smart boy.”
He nodded to his men. They grabbed food from the buffet, stuffing it into their pockets and packs before leaving.
“Stay off the Emet,” Tito said again, and they were gone.
When the door shut behind them, Pino wanted to put his fist through a wall. Mrs. Conte had rushed to her husband’s side and was pressing a cloth to his wound.
“Are you all right?” Pino asked.
“I’ll live,” the innkeeper said. “I should have gotten my gun. Shot them all.”
“Who was he, the partisan? You said, ‘Tito’?”
“Yes, Tito, from over Soste way. But he’s no partisan. He’s just a crook and smuggler from a long line of crooks and smugglers. And now a murderer.”
“I’m getting my boots and my money clip back.”
Mrs. Conte shook her head and said, “Tito’s cunning and dangerous. You’ll stay away from him if you know what’s good for you, Pino.”
Pino felt disgusted with himself for not standing up to Tito. He couldn’t stay at the party any longer. It was over for him. He tried to borrow some boots or shoes, but no one had his large size. In the end, he took wool socks and low rubber overshoes from the innkeeper, and flailed through the storm back to Casa Alpina.
When he’d finished telling Father Re what Tito had done and that he or one of his men had killed Nicco and maimed the children, the priest said, “You chose the greater good, Pino.”
“How come I don’t feel good about it?” Pino said, still angry. “And he said to tell you to stay off Angel’s Step and the Emet.”
“Did he now?” Father Re said, turning stony. “Well, I’m sorry, but that we will not do.”
A meter of snow blanketed the mountains above Casa Alpina on New Year’s Day, followed by a day’s break, and then another meter fell. There was so much snow it took until the second week of January before the escapes could resume.
After locating replacement boots, Pino and his brother began leading Jews, downed pilots, and other refugees in groups as large as eight. Despite Tito’s warnings about using Passo Angeloga they stuck to the more gradual southern way to Val di Lei by constantly changing the days and times they’d go, and then skiing back along the northern route to Madesimo.
This system worked well into early February 1944. When the lantern was shining in the upper window of the Campodolcino rectory, a steady stream of refugees hiding under hay in oxcarts moved up through Madesimo to Casa Alpina, and then followed Pino or one of the other boys over the Groppera into Switzerland.
Reaching the shepherd’s hut in a daze early in the month, Pino found a note nailed to the wall of the hut. It read: Last warning.
Pino threw the note in the stove and used it to light the wood stacked inside. He adjusted the damper and went outside to chop more wood. He hoped Tito was out there somewhere in the vast alpine terrain around him, looking through his binoculars and seeing Pino refuse to—
A thunderous explosion blew open the hut door. Pino dove into the snow. He lay there shaking with fear for several minutes before he could build up the courage to look inside. The stove was barely recognizable. The force of the bomb, or grenade, or whatever had been put in the stove had blown the firebox apart, throwing shards of heated metal that chipped the stone foundation and stuck like tiny knives in the beams and woodwork. Glowing wood embers burned holes in his pack and lit the straw bed afire. He dragged them both into the snow and got them snuffed out, feeling completely exposed. If Tito was willing to put a bomb in the hut’s stove, he was willing to shoot him.
Pino fought off the sense that someone was aiming at him as he put his skis back on, hoisted his pack onto his shoulders, and picked up his ski poles. The hut was no longer a refuge, and the southern route was no longer a viable option.
“There’s only one way left,” Pino told Father Re that evening by the fire as the boys and several new visitors ate another of Brother Bormio’s masterpieces.
“With the snow piling up, it was inevitable that you would have to use it at some point,” the priest replied. “The spine of the ridge will be blown free of snow, and the footing will be the best on the mountain. You’ll go again with Mimo the day after tomorrow, teach him the way.”
Pino flashed on the chimney, the catwalk, and the cable traverse below the Groppera’s crag, and was instantly full of doubt. Any misstep up there in these conditions meant death.
Father Re gestured at the visitors and said, “You’ll take that young family, and the woman with the violin case. She used to play at La Scala.”
Pino twisted around, puzzled before recognizing the violinist he’d seen at his parents’ party the night of the first bombardment. He knew she was in her late thirties or early forties, but she looked like she’d aged and was ill. What was her name?
He put thoughts of the Groppera out of his mind, got Mimo, and they walked over to her.
“Remember us?” Pino said.
The violinist seemed not to recognize them.
“Our parents are Porzia and Michele Lella,” Pino said. “You went to a party at our old apartment on Via Monte Napoleone.”
Mimo said, “And you yelled at me in front of La Scala for being a little boy who couldn’t see what was happening all around me. You were right.”
A slow smile built on her face. “That seems so long ago.”
“Are you okay?” Pino asked.
“Just a little queasy in the stomach,” she said. “
“What shall we call you?” Mimo asked. “What do your papers say?”
“Elena . . . Elena Napolitano.”
Pino noticed the wedding ring she wore. “Is your husband here, Mrs. Napolitano?”
She looked ready to cry, hugged her belly, and choked, “He made the Germans chase him while we escaped our apartment. They . . . they took him to Binario Twenty-One.”
“What’s that?” Mimo asked.
“It’s where they take every Jew they catch in Milan. Platform Twenty-One in the central station. They put them into cattle cars, and they disappear, bound for . . . no one knows. They don’t come back.” Tears rolled down her cheek, and her lips quivered with raw emotion.
Pino thought about the massacre in Meina, when the Nazis machine-gunned the Jews in the lake. He felt sick and helpless. “Your husband. He must have been a brave man.”
Mrs. Napolitano wept and nodded. “Beyond brave.”
After she’d regained her composure, she dabbed a handkerchief to her eyes and in a hoarse voice said, “Father Re said you two will take me to Switzerland.”
“Yes, but with this snow, it won’t be easy.”
“Nothing in life worth doing is easy,” the violinist said.
Pino looked down at her shoes, low black pumps. “Did you climb up here in those?”
“I wrapped them in pieces of a baby blanket. I still have them.”
“They won’t work,” Pino said. “Not where we’re going.”
“It’s all I have,” she said.
“We’ll find you boots among the boys. What size are you?”
Mrs. Napolitano told him. By afternoon, Mimo had found a pair and rubbed the leather with a mixture of pine tar and oil to make the boots waterproof. He’d also gotten her wool pants to wear beneath her dress, and an overcoat, and a wool hat and mittens.
“Here,” Father Re said, handing out white pillow sacks with holes cut out for shoulders and heads. “Wear these.”
“Why?” Mrs. Napolitano asked.
“The way you are going is exposed in several places. Someone from far down on the valley floor might see your dark clothes. But with these, you’ll blend into the snow.”
Accompanying Mrs. Napolitano was the D’Angelo family—Peter and Liza, the parents, and seven-year-old Anthony and his nine-year-old sister, Judith. From Abruzzi, they were physically fit from a lifetime of farming and climbing in the mountains south of Rome.
Mrs. Napolitano, however, had spent much of her life indoors and sitting down playing the violin. She said she walked everywhere in Milan, rarely taking the trolley, but Pino could tell from her breathing at Casa Alpina that the climb was going to be an ordeal for her and for him.
Rather than dwell on what could go wrong, Pino tried to think of everything he might need. He got an extra nine meters of rope from Brother Bormio and had Mimo carry it bandolier-style in addition to his pack, ice ax, poles, and skis. Pino added several carabiners to his already heavy pack, another ice ax, crampons, skis, climbing skins, poles, and a handful of pitons.
They set out at 2:00 a.m. The moon was half-full, reflecting just enough light off the snow that they did not need the lantern. The early going could have been hellish, with all of them having to post-hole up the first rise to get to the spine, but the afternoon before, Father Re had sent out every boy at Casa Alpina to make the 122-meter vertical climb and descent, in effect boot-packing the hill. Despite the chronic pain in his hip, the priest had broken trail most of the way.
The result was a beaten-down path that climbed straight up the west flank of the Groppera. It probably saved Mrs. Napolitano’s life. Though she carried only her beloved violin in its case, she labored long and hard up that initial slope, stopping often, fighting for air, and shaking her head before hugging the violin with both hands and going on.
During the climb, which took her the better part of an hour, Pino said little other than to encourage her with phrases like, “That’s it. You’re doing fine. Just a little higher and we can rest for a bit.”
He sensed that more than that would do no good. This wasn’t like the psychological barriers he’d managed to break with the cigar store owner by deflecting his attention. Mrs. Napolitano was simply not in the physical shape necessary to make a climb this demanding. As he followed her up the mountain, he prayed she had enough spirit and will to compensate.
Deepening snow and crevasses had made the boulder field in the bowl all the more treacherous, but with Pino’s help, the violinist crossed it without incident. When they reached the tail of the razorback spine, however, Mrs. Napolitano began to shake.
“I don’t know if I can do this,” she said. “I should go back down with your brother. I’m holding the others up.”
“You can’t stay at Casa Alpina,” Pino said. “It’s too dangerous for anyone to stay there for long.”
The violinist said nothing, but then turned, held tight to her stomach, and vomited.
“Mrs. Napolitano?” Pino said.
“It’s okay,” she said. “It passes.”
“Are you expecting?” Mrs. D’Angelo said in the darkness.
“A woman can always tell,” Mrs. Napolitano gasped.
She’s pregnant? A leaden weight came down on Pino’s shoulders. Oh my God! A baby? What if . . . ?
“You should climb for your baby,” Mrs. D’Angelo said to Mrs. Napolitano. “You don’t want to go back down. You know what that might mean.”
“Pino?” his brother whispered after a long silence that followed. “I can take her back, let her get more used to the altitude.”
Pino was about to agree, but then Mrs. Napolitano said, “I’ll climb.”
But what happens if the altitude gets to her, and her baby . . . ?
Pino forced himself to stop. He could not let fear take control of his brain. Fear had no business here. He had to think, and he had to think clearly.
Telling himself that over and over, Pino took the second rope from Mimo and made a loop under Mrs. Napolitano’s armpits. Then he clambered up onto the tail of the ridge. With Mimo behind her, Pino pulled, dragging the violinist up onto the spine. It was a tough chore made tougher by the fact that she held her violin case and would not yield it to Mimo.
“You’re going to have to leave the violin,” Pino said as he threw the loop back down.
“Never,” she said. “My violin stays with me always.”
“Let me carry it, then. I’ll make room for it in my pack and return it to you when we reach Switzerland.”
In the moonlight he could see Mrs. Napolitano struggling with the idea.
“I’m going to need you to have free hands and feet where we’re going,” he said. “If you keep the violin, you’ll put your baby’s life in danger.”
After a pause, she handed it to him, saying, “It’s a Stradivarius. It’s all I have now.”
“I’ll take care of it like my father would,” he said, strapping the violin case under the flap of his pack.
In short order, Pino pulled up the D’Angelo children—who were treating the whole thing as a grand adventure—and then their parents, who were encouraging the idea. As he had with almost every group of refugees, Pino linked them together with rope, with Mrs. Napolitano right behind him followed by Mrs. D’Angelo, the children, Mr. D’Angelo, and Mimo bringing up the rear.
Before they could start up the ridge, the young boy made a whining noise and began bickering at his sister.
“Stop,” Pino whispered harshly.
“No one can hear us up here,” Anthony said.
“The mountain can hear us,” Pino said firmly. “And if you’re too loud, it will wake up and shift under its blanket and send avalanches that will bury us all.”
“Is the mountain a monster?” Anthony asked.
“Like a dragon,” Pino said. “So we have to be careful and quiet, because we’re climbing up
“Where’s his head?” Judith asked.
“Above us,” Mimo said. “In the clouds.”
That seemed to satisfy the children, and the group set out once more. What had taken him less than an hour the last time he’d climbed the hard route took them almost two. It was four thirty in the morning when they reached the chimney. Pino could make out the gouge in the nearly vertical mountain face, but he needed more light than the moon’s if they were to climb it.
He poured water into the carbide lamp and screwed the lid tight to seal the vapors that were rapidly filling the reservoir. After waiting a minute, he loosened the gas valve and hit the striker. On the second try, a thin blue flame burned against a reflecting pan, throwing enough light up the chimney that they could all see the challenge ahead.
“Oh my God,” Mrs. Napolitano groaned. “Oh my God.”
He put his hand on her shoulder. “It’s not as bad as it looks.”
“It’s worse than it looks.”
“No, it’s not. Back in September, when the rock was bare, it was worse, but see the ice on both sides? The ice has narrowed the chimney, made it more climbable.”
Pino looked to his brother. “This may take a little time, but I’m going to cut steps. Keep them moving and warm until you hear me whistle that I’m sending down the axes. Then rope up and send Mr. D’Angelo. I’m going to need his strength up there. You’ll come up last.”
For once, Mimo didn’t argue about being last. Pino freed himself from the group rope, dropped his pack, and put on crampons. With Mimo’s rope coil slung like a bandolier, he picked up his ice ax and Mimo’s and said a prayer before he began to climb. His back to the mountain, Pino reminded himself not to look down before he kicked in the blades of his crampons for support, reached overhead, and jabbed the pick points of the axes into the ice floe.
With every half meter gained, Pino stopped and carefully chopped out flat spots for the others. It was maddeningly slow work, and the higher he got, the more he was aware of lights coming on, one by one, down in Campodolcino. He knew that with binoculars someone might see the miner’s lamp lighting up the inside of the ice chimney, but he felt he had no choice.
Forty minutes later, drenched with sweat, Pino reached the balcony. He kept the lamp on long enough to attach a carabiner to a piton he’d driven into the rock the last time he’d climbed this way, and to pass one end of the rope through the carabiner before testing it with his weight. The anchor held.
Pino tied the ice axes and his crampons to the rope, whistled, and then lowered them down the chimney. Several minutes later, he heard his brother whistle, and he took the slack out of the rope. Mr. D’Angelo came up onto the balcony fifteen minutes later. Together they pulled his son, daughter, and wife up quickly.
Pino could hear Mrs. Napolitano moaning with fear even before she entered the icy slot. He lowered the mining lamp down for her to use. The additional light only seemed to deepen the pregnant violinist’s terror. Shaking head to toe, she took the ice axes and in crampons clomped into the chimney.
“Right hand first,” Mimo said. “Just give it a good whack in there where Pino’s leveled things off.”
Mrs. Napolitano did so, but halfheartedly, and the ax came free before she could get her full weight on it.
“I can’t,” she said. “I can’t.”
Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan / History & Fiction have rating 5.1 out of 5 / Based on82 votes