Chapter no 3

Beneath a Scarlet Sky

Screaming, the audience stampeded and charged the theater doors. Pino and Mimo were terrified and stuck in the surging mob when, with a deafening roar, a bomb exploded and blew out the theater’s back wall, hurling chunks of debris that ripped the screen to shreds. The lights died.

Something hit Pino hard on the cheek, gashed him open. He felt the wound pulsing and blood dripping over his jaw. In shock now more than in a panic, he choked on smoke and dust and fought his way forward. Grit got in his eyes and up his nostrils, which burned as he and Mimo made their way from the theater, bent over and hacking.

Outside, the sirens wailed on and the bombs kept falling, still far from the crescendo. Fires raged in buildings up and down the street from the theater. Antiaircraft guns rattled. Tracer rounds scrawled red arcs across the sky. Their loads blew so brightly that Pino could see the silhouettes of the Lancaster bombers above him, wingtip to wingtip in a V-formation, like so many dark geese migrating in the night.

More bombs fell with a collective sound like buzzing hornets that erupted one after the other, sending plumes of flame and oily smoke into the sky. Several went off so close to the fleeing Lella boys that they felt the blast waves pound through them and almost lost their balance.

“Where are we going, Pino?” Mimo cried.

For a moment he was too frightened to think, but then said, “The Duomo.”

Pino led his brother toward the only thing in Milan lit by anything but fire. In the distance, the spotlights made the cathedral look unearthly, almost heaven-sent. As they ran, the hornets in the sky and the explosions dwindled and stopped. No more bombers. No more cannon fire.

Just sirens and people crying and shouting. A desperate father dug through brick rubble with a lantern in his hand. His wife wept nearby, hanging on to her dead son. Other crying people with lanterns were gathered around a girl who’d lost her arm and died there in the streets, her eyes glazed open.

Pino had never seen dead people before, and began to cry himself. Nothing will ever be the same. The teenager could feel that as plain as the hornets still buzzing and the explosions still ringing in his ears. Nothing will ever be the same.

At last they were alongside the Duomo itself. There were no bomb craters here by the cathedral. No rubble. No fire. It was as if the attack had never happened but for the wailing grief in the distance.

Pino smiled weakly. “Cardinal Schuster’s plan worked.”

Mimo frowned and said, “Home’s close to the cathedral, but not that close.”

The boys ran through a maze of dark streets that led them back to #3 Via Monte NapoleoneThe purse shop and their apartment above it looked normal. It seemed a miracle after what they’d been through.

Mimo opened the front door and started up the stairs. Pino followed, hearing the sighing of violins, a piano playing, and a tenor in song. For some reason, the music made Pino furious. He pushed by Mimo and pounded on the apartment door.

The music stopped. His mother opened the door.

“The city’s on fire and you’re playing music?” Pino shouted at Porzia, who took an alarmed step back. “People are dying and you’re playing music?”

Several people came into the hallway behind his mother, including his aunt, uncle, and father.

Michele said, “Music is how we survive such times, Pino.”

Pino saw others in the crowded apartment nodding. Among them was that female violinist Mimo had almost knocked over earlier in the day.

“You’re hurt, Pino,” Porzia said. “You’re bleeding.”

“There are others who are far worse,” Pino said, tears welling in his eyes. “I’m sorry, Mama. It was . . . awful.”

Porzia melted, threw out her arms, and hugged her filthy, bleeding boys.

“It’s okay, now,” she said, kissing them each in turn. “I don’t want to know where you were or how you got there. I’m just happy you got home.”

She told her sons to go upstairs and get cleaned up before a doctor, a guest at the party, could look at Pino’s wound. As she spoke to them, Pino saw something he’d never seen before in his mother. It was fear—fear that the next time the bombers came they might not be so lucky.

Fear was still on her face as the doctor sewed shut the gash on his cheek. When he was done, Porzia cast a judgmental gaze on her older son. “You and I will have a talk about all this tomorrow,” she said.

Pino lowered his eyes and nodded. “Yes, Mama.”

“Get something to eat. If you’re not too sick to your stomach, that is.”

He looked up and saw his mother looking at him archly. He should have kept up the act that he was ill, telling her he’d go to bed without eating. But he was starving.

“I feel better than before,” he said.

“I think you feel worse than before,” Porzia said, and left the room.



Pino followed her morosely down the hall to the dining room. Mimo had already piled his plate and was relating an animated version of their adventure to several of his parents’ friends.

“Sounds like quite the night, Pino,” someone said behind him.

Pino turned to find a handsome, impeccably dressed man in his twenties. A stunningly beautiful woman held on to his arm. Pino broke into a grin.

“Tullio!” he said. “I heard you were back!” Tullio said, “Pino, this is my friend Cristina.”

Pino nodded to her politely. Cristina looked bored and excused herself. “When did you meet her?” Pino asked.

“Yesterday,” Tullio said. “On the train. She wants to be a model.”

Pino shook his head. It was always like this with Tullio Galimberti. A successful dress salesman, Tullio was a magician when it came to attractive women.

“How do you do it?” Pino asked. “All the pretty girls.” “You don’t know?” Tullio said, cutting some cheese.

Pino wanted to say something boastful, but he remembered that Anna had stood him up. She had accepted his invitation just to get rid of him. “Evidently, I don’t. No.”

“Teaching you could take years,” Tullio said, fighting a smile. “C’mon, Tullio,” Pino said. “There’s got to be some trick I’m—” “There is no trick,” Tullio said, sobering. “Number one thing? Listen.” “Listen?”

“To the girl,” Tullio said, exasperated. “Most guys don’t listen. They just start blabbing on about themselves. Women need to be understood. So listen to what they say and compliment them on how they look, or sing, or whatever. Right there—listening and complimenting—you’re ahead of eighty percent of every guy on the face of the earth.”

“But what if they’re not talking a lot?” “Then be funny. Or flattering. Or both.”

Pino thought he’d been funny and flattering to Anna, but maybe not enough. Then he thought of something else. “So where did Colonel Rauff go today?”

Tullio’s affable demeanor evaporated. He grabbed Pino hard by the upper arm and hissed, “We don’t talk about people like Rauff in places like this. Understand?”

Pino was upset and humiliated at his friend’s reaction, but before he could reply, Tullio’s date reappeared. She slid up alongside Tullio, whispered something in his ear.

Tullio laughed, let go of Pino, and said, “Sure, sweet thing. We can do that.”

Tullio shifted his attention back to Pino. “I’d probably wait until your face doesn’t look like a split sausage before you go around being all funny and listening.”

Pino cocked his head, smiled uncertainly, and then gritted his teeth when the stitches tugged in his cheek. He watched Tullio and his date leave, thinking once again how much he wanted to be like him. Everything about the guy was perfect, elegant. Good guy. Great dresser. Better friend. Genuine laugh. And yet, Tullio was mysterious enough to be following around a Gestapo colonel.

It hurt to chew, but Pino was so hungry he piled a second plate. While he did, he heard three of his parents’ musician friends talking, two men and the violinist.

“There are more Nazis in Milan every day,” said the heavier-set man, who played the French horn at La Scala.

“Worse,” the percussionist said. “The Waffen-SS.”

The violinist said, “My husband says there are rumors of pogroms being planned. Rabbi Zolli is telling our friends in Rome to flee. We’re thinking of going to Portugal.”

“When?” the percussionist asked. “Sooner than later.”

“Pino, it’s time for bed,” his mother said sharply.

Pino took the plate with him up to his room. Sitting on his bed while eating, he thought about what he’d just overheard. He knew that the three musicians were Jewish, and he knew Hitler and the Nazis hated the Jews, though he really didn’t understand why. His parents had lots of Jewish friends, mostly musicians or people in the fashion business. All in all, Pino thought Jews were smart, funny, and kind. But what was a pogrom? And why would a rabbi tell all the Jews in Rome to run?

He finished eating, looked at his bandage again, and then got into bed. With the light off, he drew back the curtains and looked out into the darkness. Here, in San Babila, there were no fires, nothing to suggest the devastation he’d witnessed. He tried not to think of Anna, but when he rested his head on his pillow and closed his eyes, snippets of their encounter circled in his head along with the image of Fred Astaire frozen cheek to cheek with Rita Hayworth. And the explosion of the theater’s back wall. And the armless dead girl.

He couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t forget any of it. He finally turned on the radio, fiddled with the dial, and found a station playing a violin piece he recognized because his father was always trying to play it: Niccolo Paganini’s Caprice no. 24 in A Minor.

Pino lay there in the dark, listening to the frenetic pace of the violin playing, and felt the wild mood swings of the piece as if they were his own. When it was over, he was wrung out and empty of thought. At long last, the boy slept.



Around one o’clock the next afternoon, Pino went to find Carletto. He rode the trams, seeing some neighborhoods in smoking ruins and others

untouched. The randomness of what had been destroyed and what had survived bothered him nearly as much as the destruction itself.

He got off the trolley at Piazzale Loreto, a large traffic rotary with a city park at its center and thriving shops and businesses around its perimeter. He looked across the rotary at Via Andrea Costa, seeing war elephants in his mind. Hannibal had driven armored elephants over the Alps and down that road on his way to conquer Rome twenty-one centuries before. Pino’s father said that all conquering armies had come into Milan on that route ever since.

He passed an Esso petrol station with an iron girder system that rose three meters above the pumps and tanks. Diagonally across the rotary from the petrol station, he saw the white-and-green awning of Beltramini’s Fresh Fruits and Vegetables.

Beltramini’s was open for business. No damage that he could see.

Carletto’s father was outside, weighing fruit. Pino grinned and quickened his pace.

“Don’t worry. We have bomb-proof secret gardens out by the Po,” Mr. Beltramini was saying to an older woman as Pino approached. “And because of this, Beltramini’s will always have the best produce in Milan.”

“I don’t believe you, but I love that you make me laugh,” she said. “Love and laughter,” Mr. Beltramini said. “They are always the best

medicine, even on a day like today.”

The woman was still smiling as she walked away. A short, plump bear of a man, Carletto’s father noticed Pino and turned even more delighted.

“Pino Lella! Where have you been? Where is your mother?” “At home,” Pino said, shaking his hand.

“Bless her.” Mr. Beltramini peered up at him. “You’re not going to grow any more, are you?”

Pino smiled and shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“You do, you’ll start walking into tree branches.” He pointed at the bandage on Pino’s cheek. “Oh, I see you already did.”

“I got bombed.”

Mr. Beltramini’s state of perpetual bemusement evaporated. “No. Is this true?”

Pino told him the whole story, from the time he climbed out his window, until he got back home and found everybody playing music and having a good time.

“I think they were smart,” Mr. Beltramini said. “If a bomb’s coming at you, it’s coming at you. You can’t go around worrying about it. Just go on doing what you love, and go on enjoying your life. Am I right?”

“I guess so. Is Carletto here?”

Mr. Beltramini gestured over his shoulder. “Working inside.” Pino started toward the shop door.

“Pino,” Mr. Beltramini called after him.

He looked back, seeing concern on the fruit vendor’s face. “Yes?” “You and Carletto, you take care of each other, right? Like brothers,


“Always, Mr. B.”

The fruitmonger brightened. “You’re a good boy. A good friend.” Pino went inside the shop and found Carletto lugging sacks of dates. “You been out?” Pino said. “Seen what happened?”

Carletto shook his head. “I’ve been working. You’ve heard of that, right?”

“I’ve heard stories about it, so I came to see for myself.”

Carletto didn’t think that was funny. He hoisted another sack of dried fruit onto his shoulder and started down a wooden ladder and through a hole in the floor.

“She didn’t show up,” Pino said. “Anna.”

Carletto looked up from the dirt-floored basement. “You were out last night?”

Pino smiled. “I almost got blown up when the bombs hit the theater.” “You’re full of it.”

“I am not,” Pino said. “Where do you think I got this?”

He peeled off the bandage, and Carletto’s lip rose in disgust. “That’s nasty.”



With Mr. Beltramini’s permission, they went to see the theater in the light of day. As they walked, Pino told the story all over again, watching his friend’s reaction and feeding off it, dancing around when he described Fred and Rita, and making booming noises as he related how he and Mimo ran through the city.

He was feeling pretty good until they reached the cinema. Smoke still curled from the ruins, and with it a harsh, foul stench that Pino would come to identify instantly as spent explosives. Some people in the streets around the theater seemed to wander aimlessly. Others still dug through the bricks and beams, hoping to find loved ones alive.

Shaken by the destruction, Carletto said, “I could never have done any of what you and Mimo did.”

“Sure you could. When you’re scared enough, you just do it.”

“Bombs falling on me? I would have hit the floor and curled up with my hands over my head.”

There was silence between them as they contemplated the theater’s charred and blown-out back wall. Fred and Rita had been right there, nine meters high, and then—

“Think the planes will come back tonight?” Carletto asked. “We won’t know until we hear the hornets.”

You'll Also Like