Chapter no 8

Beneath a Scarlet Sky

Pino was up and dressed ten minutes before Father Re came to wake him. Brother Bormio made oatmeal with pine nuts and sugar, and laid out dried meats and cheeses. The smoker and the young couple were already eating when Father Re came over and put his hands on Pino’s shoulders.

“This is your guide, Pino,” the priest said. “He knows the way.” “So young,” the smoker said. “Is there no one older?”

“Pino is very experienced and very strong in the mountains, especially this mountain,” Father Re said. “I have great faith he’ll get you where you want to go. Or you can find another guide. But fair warning: there are some out there who will take your money and then turn you over to the Nazis anyway. Here we wish only that you find safe haven.”

“We’re going with Pino,” the younger man said, and the woman nodded.

The older one, the smoker, remained unconvinced.

“What are your names?” Pino asked, shaking the younger man’s hand. “Use the names you’ve been given,” Father Re said. “The ones on

your papers.”

The woman said, “Maria.” “Ricardo,” her husband said. “Luigi,” the smoker said.

Pino sat down and ate with them. “Maria” was soft-spoken, but funny. “Ricardo” had been a teacher in Genoa. “Luigi” traded cigars in Rome. At one point, Pino glanced under the table and saw that though none wore boots, their shoes looked sturdy enough.

“Is the way dangerous?” Maria asked.

“Just do what I tell you to do, and you’ll be fine,” Pino said. “Five minutes?”

They nodded. He got up to clear plates. He took them over to Father Re and said in a soft voice, “Father, wouldn’t it be easier for them if I took them up over the Angel’s Step into Val di Lei?”

“It would be easier,” Father Re said. “But we used that way just a few weeks ago, and I don’t want to attract attention.”

“I don’t understand,” Pino said. “Who used it?”

“Giovanni Barbareschi, the seminarian,” Father Re said. “Just before you came up from Milan, there was another couple here with their daughter trying to escape. Barbareschi and I came up with a plan. He led the family and twenty boys, including Mimo, on an all-day hike over the Angel’s Step to Val di Lei. They had a picnic between the far end of the lake and the woods. Twenty-four people hiked in, twenty-one left.”

“No one would ever know the difference,” Pino said appreciatively. “Especially if they were seeing the group from a long way off.”

Father Re nodded. “Those were our thoughts exactly, but it’s not practical to send big groups like that, especially with winter coming.”

“Small is better,” Pino said, and then glanced over his shoulder. “Father, I can do my best to keep them hidden, but there are a lot of places where we’ll have no cover.”

“Including the entire length of Val di Lei, which is what makes this especially dangerous to you because you’ll be coming part of the way back in the wide open. But as long as the Germans keep patrolling the pass roads, and don’t use planes up high to survey the border, you should be fine.”

Father Re surprised Pino by giving him a hug. “Go with God on your side, my son, every step of the way.”

Brother Bormio helped hoist the rucksack up onto Pino’s back. Four liters of water. Four liters of sweet tea. Food. Rope. Topographical map. The anorak. A wool sweater and cap. Matches and lint to make a fire in a little steel canister. A small miner’s lamp loaded with dry carbide. A knife. A small hatchet.

Together the load was twenty, maybe twenty-five kilograms, but Pino had been climbing with weight on his back since the day after he arrived at Casa Alpina. It felt normal, and he supposed Father Re had wanted it that way. Of course he had wanted it that way; the priest had to have been planning this for weeks.

“Let’s go,” Pino said.



The foursome stepped out into a chilly autumn night. The sky was crystal clear, the moon still high and to the south, casting a thin light across the western flank of the Groppera. Pino led them down the cart track at first, just to get them away from the gas lamp outside the school. Then he had them stop so their eyes could fully adjust.

“We speak in whispers from here on out,” Pino said in a hushed voice, and pointed up at the mountain. “There are places where noises echo a long way up there, so we want to be timid, quiet as a mouse, you know?”

He saw them nod. Luigi lit a match for a cigarette.

Pino got upset, then realized he had to take control. He took a big step toward the smoker and hissed, “Put that out. Any flame can be seen for hundreds of meters, more through binoculars.”

“I need to smoke,” Luigi said. “It calms me.”

“Not until I tell you to. Or you go back and find another guide, and I take them alone.”

Luigi took one last puff, dropped the butt, and crushed it. “Lead on,” he said in disgust.

Pino told them to rely on their peripheral vision as he led them in the low light across the plateau to the north, hugging the base of the slope until it petered out to a path about fifty centimeters wide that cut laterally across several steep faces. He uncoiled the rope and tied four waist loops in it with gaps of three meters between each loop.

“Even with the rope, I want you to keep your right hand on the wall, or on any bush that grows out of it,” Pino said. “If you feel something to grip, like a little sapling, test it before you commit to its holding your weight. Better yet, put your hands and feet where I do. I know it’s dark, but you’ll get the idea of what I’m doing by my silhouette.”

“I’ll follow you,” Ricardo said. “Maria, you’re right behind me.” “Are you sure?” Maria said. “Pino?”

“Ricardo, you can do more for your wife from the back, with Maria walking third, and Luigi right behind me.”

That annoyed Ricardo. He raised his voice, “But I—”

“It’s safer for her and for all of us if the strongest are at either end of the rope,” Pino insisted. “Or do you know more about these mountains and climbing than I do?”

“Do what he says,” Maria said. “Strongest at the back and front.”

Pino could tell Ricardo was in a quandary, irritated at being ordered around by a seventeen-year-old, and yet flattered at being called the strongest.

“Okay,” he said. “I’ll be the anchor.”

“Perfetto,” Pino said after they’d climbed into the waist loops.

He put his gloved right hand on the rock wall and set off. Though the way was wide enough in most places for a normal gait, he imagined the path fifteen centimeters narrower to his left and moved tight to the wall. The worst thing that could happen was for one of them to pitch off the low side of the trail. They might get lucky, and the weight of the other three might be enough to hold them all on the mountainside. Or they might get unlucky, and a second person would go, and then a third. The slope below them was nearly forty degrees. Sharp rock and alpine brush would chew them up if they all started to tumble.

He led them at a cat’s pace, slinking along, careful, easy, and sure. They moved with little incident for almost an hour, until they were roughly above the village of Madesimo, when Luigi started to hack and to spit. Pino was forced to stop.

“Signore,” he whispered. “I know you can’t help it, but cough into the inside of your elbow if you have to. The village is right there below us, and we can’t take the chance of being heard by the wrong ears.”

The cigar trader whispered, “How much farther?”

“The distance doesn’t matter. Just think about your next step.”

Five hundred meters farther on, the slopes they crossed became less sheer and the trail more moderate.

“Is that the worst of it?” Luigi asked. “That was the best of it,” Pino said. “What?” Maria cried in soft alarm.

“I’m joking,” Pino said. “That was the worst of it.”



By dawn, they were climbing up through the alpine meadows high above Madesimo. The mountain grass that had reminded Pino of Anna’s hair was seedless now, and dying. Pino looked around behind him and across the valley at the rugged massif rising on the other side. He wondered if there

could be German soldiers over there up this high, watching the Groppera through binoculars. Pino thought it unlikely, but he led the three of them off to the side of the meadows where they could climb in the shadows of trees until those gave way to rock and sparse juniper that offered little concealment.

“We’ll need to move faster now,” he said. “With the sun behind the peak, there are shadows up in the bowl that will help us. But the sun will be on us soon enough.”

Heading into the bowl at the bottom of the north cirque, Ricardo and Maria kept pace with Pino. Luigi, the smoker, lagged behind, sweat pouring off his face, his chest heaving for thin air. Pino had to go back for him twice as they negotiated fields of glacially cast boulders and stuck to the ancient path to the back wall of the bowl.

Pino and the young couple rested and waited for the cigar trader, who was coughing, spitting, and moving at a snail’s pace. He reeked of fresh tobacco smoke when he lay down on a flat-topped rock by Pino and moaned.

Pino got out sweet tea, dried meat, and bread from his pack. Luigi devoured his meal. So did the young couple. Pino waited until they were done, then ate and drank smaller portions. He’d save some to eat on the way back.

“Where now?” Luigi asked, as if he’d only just become aware of his surroundings.

Pino gestured at the goat trail that cut a sharp series of steep zigzags up the wall.

The man’s chin retreated. “I can’t climb that.” “Sure you can,” Pino said. “Just do what I do.”

Luigi threw up his hands. “No. I can’t. I won’t. You just leave me here. Death is coming for me sooner than later, no matter what I do to stop it.”

For a moment, Pino didn’t know what to do. Then he said, “Who says you’re going to die?”

“The Nazis,” the smoker said, hacking, and then gesturing up at the path. “And this way says that God wants me to die sooner than later. But I will not go up there and fall and bounce over rocks in my last moments. I will sit and smoke and wait for death to come for me here. This spot will do.”

“No, you’re going with us,” Pino said. “I’m staying,” Luigi said forcefully.

Pino swallowed, said, “Father Re told me to get you to Val di Lei.

He’s not going to like my leaving you, so you’re coming. With me.” “You can’t make me go, boy,” Luigi said.

“Yes, I can,” Pino said, angry and moving fast toward the man, “and I will.” He loomed over the smoker, whose eyes widened. Even at seventeen, Pino was much bigger than Luigi. He could see those facts playing on the cigar trader’s face, which contorted in fear when he glanced again at the steep walls of the cirque.

“Don’t you understand?” he said in a defeated tone. “I really can’t. I have no faith I can make it—”

“But I do,” Pino said, trying to put a growl in his voice. “Please?”

“No,” Pino said. “I promise you you’re getting to the top and over into Val di Lei if I have to carry you myself.”

Luigi appeared convinced by the resolve in Pino’s face. With a quivering lip he said, “Promise?”

“Promise,” Pino said, and shook his hand.

He had them rope up again with Luigi right behind him, followed by Maria and her husband.

“You sure I won’t fall?” the cigar trader asked, clearly terrified. “I’ve never done anything remotely like this. I’ve . . . always lived in Rome.”

Pino thought, said, “Okay, so you’ve climbed around in the Roman ruins?”

“Yes, but—”

“How about those steep, narrow steps in the Colosseum?” Luigi nodded. “Many times.”

“This is no worse than that.” “It is.”

“It isn’t,” Pino said. “Just imagine that you’re in the Colosseum and you’re cutting back and forth across the seats and steps. You’ll be fine.”

Luigi seemed skeptical, but he did not fight the rope when Pino started up the first leg. Pino kept up a running banter with the smoker, telling him how he was going to let him have two cigarettes when he reached the top, and advising him to keep the fingers of his inside hand trailing along the slope as they climbed.

“Take your time,” he said. “Look ahead, not down.”

When the going got rough and the wall turned nearly sheer, Pino distracted Luigi with the story of how he and his brother had survived the first night of bombing in Milan and come home to find music playing.

“Your father is a wise man,” the cigar trader said. “Music. Wine. A cigar. The small luxuries of life are how we survive what the mind can’t fathom.”

“You sound like you do a lot of thinking in your shop,” Pino said, wiping the sweat from his eyes.

Luigi laughed. “A lot of thinking. A lot of talking. A lot of reading. It is . . .” The joy left his voice. “It was my home.”



They were well up the wall of the cirque now, and the trickiest part of the climb was just ahead, where the way cut hard right for two meters and then hard left for three in a cleft in the face of the slope that dropped away sharply. The challenge was a psychological one because the trail through the cleft was plenty wide. But the thirty meters of air right there off the trail could rattle even a veteran climber’s confidence if looked at too long.

Pino decided not to warn them and said, “Tell me about your shop.” “Oh, it was a beautiful place,” Luigi said. “Just off the Piazza di

Spagna at the bottom of the Spanish Steps. Do you know the area?”

“I have been to the Spanish Steps,” Pino said, pleased that Luigi had not hesitated to follow him. “That’s a fine neighborhood, many elegant stores.”

“A wonderful place for business,” Luigi said.

Pino walked through the back of the V. He and the cigar smoker were on opposite sides of the cleft now. If Luigi was ever going to look down, it was 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


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.

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