Part 2: Chapter no 5

Beneath a Scarlet Sky

At the central train station late in the morning of the following day, Michele put a roll of lire in Pino’s hand and said, “I’ll send your books, and someone will be waiting for you at your stop. Be good, and give my love to Mimo and Father Re.”

“But when will I come back?” “When it’s safe to come back.”

Pino glanced unhappily at Tullio, who shrugged, and then at Uncle Albert, who studied his shoes.

“This isn’t right,” he said, furious as he picked up a rucksack filled with clothes and boarded the train. Taking a seat in a near-empty car, he stared out the window, fuming.

He was being treated like a boy. But had he gone to his knees and cried in public? No. Pino Lella had taken the blow and stood there like a man. But what was he supposed to do? Defy his father? Leave the train? Go to the Beltraminis’?

The train lurched and squalled, pulled out of the station and through the train yard where German soldiers guarded hordes of vacant-eyed men, many in shabby gray uniforms, loading flatbed cars with crates of tank parts, rifles, submachine guns, bombs, and ammunition. They had to be prisoners, he thought, and that upset him. Pino stuck his head out the window and studied them as the train left the yard.

Two hours into the trip, the train rolled through the foothills above Lake Como, heading toward the Alps. Ordinarily, Pino would have stared lovingly at the lake, which he thought the most beautiful in the world, and especially the town of Bellagio on the lake’s southern peninsula. The grand hotel there looked like some rose castle in a fantasy.

Instead, the boy’s focus was down the hill from the train tracks, where he kept catching glimpses of the road that hugged Lake Como’s eastern shore and a long line of lorries crowded with filthy men, many in the same sort of dull gray outfits he’d seen back in the train yard. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of them.

Who were they? he wondered. Where were they captured? And why?

He was still thinking about the men forty minutes and a change of trains later, when he got off at the town of Chiavenna.

The German soldiers on duty there ignored him. Pino walked out of the station feeling good for the first time that day. It was a warm, sunny, early autumn afternoon. The air was sweet and clear, and he was heading up into the mountains. Nothing else could go wrong now, he decided as he crossed through the station. Not today, anyway.

“Hey, you, kid,” a voice called.

A wiry guy roughly Pino’s age leaned up against an old Fiat two-door coupé. He wore canvas work pants and a grease-stained white T-shirt. A cigarette smoldered between his lips.

“Who you calling kid?” Pino asked. “You. You the Lella kid?”

“Pino Lella.”

“Alberto Ascari,” he said, thumbing his chest. “My uncle told me to come pick you up, bring you to Madesimo.” Ascari flicked the cigarette and held out his hand, which was almost as big as Pino’s and, to his surprise, stronger.

After Ascari had almost broken his hand, Pino said, “Where’d you get the grip?”

Ascari smiled. “In my uncle’s shop. Put your stuff in the back there,


The “kid” thing bothered Pino, but otherwise Ascari seemed decent

enough. He opened the passenger door. The car was immaculate inside. A towel covered the driver’s seat, protecting it from grease.

Ascari started the car. The engine had a sound unlike any other Fiat Pino had ever heard, a deep, throaty growl that seemed to make the entire chassis shake.

“That’s no street engine,” Pino said.

Ascari grinned, and shifted the car into gear. “Would any race car driver have a street engine or transmission in his own car?”

“You’re a race car driver?” Pino said skeptically. “I will be,” Ascari said, and popped the clutch.



They went screeching out of the little train station and swung onto the cobblestone road. The Fiat bounced sideways into a slide before Ascari whipped the wheel the other way. The tires caught traction. Ascari shifted gears and hit the accelerator.

Pino was pinned against the passenger seat but managed to brace his feet and arms before Ascari shot them across the little town square, deftly dodged a lorry filled with chickens, and shifted gears a third time. They were still speeding up when they left the town behind them.

The Splügen Pass road climbed in a steady series of chicanes, S-turns, paralleling a stream at the bottom of a steep-walled valley that cut north into the Alps toward Switzerland. Ascari drove the Splügen like a master, diving the car into every turn and weaving past the few other vehicles on the road like they were standing still.

The whole time, Pino’s emotions ran wild from abject fear to joyous exhilaration, envy, and admiration. It wasn’t until they were approaching the outskirts of the town of Campodolcino that Ascari finally slowed.

“I believe you,” Pino said, his heart still pounding. “What’s that?” Ascari said, puzzled.

“I believe you’re going to be a race car driver someday,” Pino said. “A famous one. I’ve never seen anyone drive like that.”

Ascari couldn’t have smiled more if he tried. “My father, he was better. The European grand prix champion before he died.” He raised his right hand off the wheel and pointed his index finger out the windshield and up toward the sky. “God willing, Papa, I will be European champion and more, world champion!”

“I believe it,” Pino said again, shaking his head in awe before looking up at a sheer-walled gray cliff that rose more than 450 meters above the east side of the town. He opened the window, stuck his head out, and scanned the top of the cliff.

“What are you looking for?” Ascari asked. “Sometimes you can see the cross on top of the belfry.”

“That’s right up ahead here,” Ascari said. “There’s a notch in the cliff. That’s the only reason you can see it.” He pointed up through the windshield. “There.”

For an instant, Pino caught a glimpse of the white cross and the top of the stone belfry of the chapel at Motta, the highest mountain settlement in this section of the Alps. For the first time that day, he allowed himself to be relieved he was out of Milan.

Ascari took them up the treacherous Madesimo road, a steep, narrow, potholed, and switchback route that hugged the steep mountainside. There were no guardrails and no shoulder to speak of in many places, and several times during the climb Pino thought for sure Ascari was going to drive them right off the side of a cliff. But Ascari seemed to know every centimeter of the road, because he’d tweak the wheel or tease the brake and they’d glide through every turn so smoothly Pino swore they were on snow, not rock.

“Can you ski like this?” Pino asked.

“I don’t know how to ski,” Ascari said. “What? You live in Madesimo and can’t ski?”

“My mother sent me here to be safe. I work in my uncle’s shop and drive.”

“Ski racing’s the same as driving,” Pino said. “Same tactics.” “You ski well?”

“I’ve won some races. Slalom.”

The driver looked impressed. “We were meant to be friends, then. You will teach me to ski, and I will teach you to drive.”

Pino’s grin couldn’t have been tamed if he’d tried. “You have a deal.”

They reached the tiny village of Madesimo, which featured a stone and slate-roofed inn, a restaurant, and several dozen alpine homes.

“Are there any girls around here?” Pino asked.

“I know a few from below. They like to ride in fast cars.” “We should go for a drive sometime with them.”

“A plan that I like!” Ascari said, pulling over. “You know the way from here?”

“I could do it blindfolded in a snowstorm,” Pino said. “Maybe I’ll come down on the weekends, stay at the inn.”

“Come look me up if you do. Our shop’s beyond the inn. You can’t miss it.”

He reached out his hand. Pino winced and said, “Don’t break my fingers this time.”

“Nah,” Ascari said, and pumped his hand firmly. “Nice meeting you, Pino.”

“You, too, Alberto,” Pino said. He grabbed his rucksack and climbed


Ascari squealed away, hand out the window waving.



Pino stood there a moment, feeling like he’d met someone important in his life. Then he put the rucksack up on his back and set out up a two-track path that headed into the woods. The way got consistently steeper until, an hour after he’d started the ascent, he emerged from the forest on a high alpine plateau below a rocky mountain face that climbed nearly twelve hundred vertical meters to a crag of stone called Pizzo Groppera.

The Motta plateau was several hundred meters wide and wrapped around the Groppera to the southeast. The western edge of the wide bench ended where it met a small forest of spruces that clung to the rim of the towering cliff that fell away toward Campodolcino. Late in the day, with the sun like hammered copper shining on the autumn Alps, Pino felt awed by the setting as he always did. Cardinal Schuster was right; being in Motta was like standing on a balcony in one of God’s grandest cathedrals.

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



“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 mountains, 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.”

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