Like all the pharaohs, emperors, and tyrants before him, Il Duce had seen his empire rise only to crumble. Indeed, by that late-spring afternoon, power was bleeding from Benito Mussolini’s grasp like joy from a young widowed heart.
“I am going to meet a beautiful girl today,” Pino said, wagging his finger at the scarlet, threatening sky. “And we are going to fall in mad, tragic love and go on grand adventures with music and food and wine and intrigue every day, all day long.”
The screen froze in close-up on Astaire and Hayworth dancing cheek to cheek, their lips and smiles to the panicking crowd.
As the film melted up on the screen, antiaircraft guns cracked outside the theater, and the first unseen Allied bombers cleared their bays, releasing an overture of fire and destruction that played down on Milan.
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.
As the train rolled back into Milan shortly after dawn the next day, black scrolls of smoke unraveled, twisted, and curled above the city. When they left the train and went out into the streets, Pino saw the physical differences between those who had fled the city and those who had endured the onslaught. Explosive terror had bowed the survivors’ shoulders, emptied their eyes, and broken the set of their jaws. Men, women, and children shuffled timidly about, as if at any second the very ground they trod might rupture and give way into some unfathomable and fiery sinkhole. There was a smoky haze almost everywhere. Soot, some of it fine white and some a volcanic gray, coated almost everything. Torn and twisted cars. Ripped and crushed buildings. Trees stripped bare by the blasts.
Pino left the chapel believing that he’d entered it as a boy and now exited it having made the decision to become a man. He was frightened by the penalty for helping the Jews, but he was going to help them anyway.
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.
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.
They lost sight of Mrs. Napolitano and the others almost immediately, but they could hear her playing beautifully, with passion, each note carrying through the thin, crisp, alpine air. They reached the tree line and put on their skis as she took the tempo up again, casting forth the melody of the triumphant aria like some radio wave that hit Pino in his heart and vibrated in his soul.
“Pino was quiet for a long time before saying, “Father, is it a sin if I’m asking myself if I did the right thing in not killing that man?”
The priest said, “No, it is not a sin, and you did the right thing not killing him.”
But he felt good about it, elated actually. Fooling the Nazis like that made him feel empowered. In his own way, he was fighting back. They were all fighting back, part of the growing resistance. Italy was not German. Italy could never be German.
Vorarbeiter Lella had little faith in God’s plan for him by that point. Indeed, as he entered the station, he was still fuming mad at his predicament. His mother had railroaded him into this. At Casa Alpina, he’d been doing something that mattered, something good and right, guiding as an act of courage, no matter the personal risk. Since then, his life had been boot camp, an endless parade of marches, calisthenics, lessons in German, and other useless skills. Every time he looked at the swastika he wanted to tear it off and head for the hills to join the partisans.
They were all emaciated, filthy, with scraggly beards and long tangled hair. Many of them had vacant, dead eyes and wore ragged gray trousers and tops. There were letters on their chests he couldn’t make out. Manacled, they moved at no better than a shuffle until the guards tore into them, hitting a few with the butts of their rifles. As lorry after lorry emptied, there were soon three hundred of the men, maybe more, moving en masse to the stadium’s north end.
He glanced in the mirror at the general and realized he hated Leyers. He was a Nazi slave driver. He wants Italy destroyed, and then rebuilt in Hitler’s image. He works for Hitler’s architect, for God’s sake.
Part of Pino wanted to find a secluded spot, get out, pull his gun, and kill the man. He would head for the hills, join one of the Garibaldi partisan units. The powerful General Leyers dead and gone. That would be something, wouldn’t it? That would change the war, wouldn’t it? At some level?
“I’m not ready to reveal my scars to you. I don’t want you to see me human and flawed and whole. I want this . . . us . . . to be a fantasy we can share, a diversion from the war.”
“Doing favors,” Leyers said. “They help wondrously over the course of a lifetime. When you have done men favors, when you look out for others so they can prosper, they owe you. With each favor, you become stronger, more supported. It is a law of nature.”
“It would be surprising if you didn’t hate me for what I’ve had to do today. A part of me hates myself. But I have orders. Winter is coming. My country is under siege. Without this food, my people will starve. So here in Italy, and in your eyes, I’m a criminal. Back home, I’ll be an unsung hero. Good. Evil. It’s all a question of perspective, is it not?”
Three little fingers stuck out of a crack on the rear wall of the last cattle car. The fingers seemed to wave at Pino as the train gathered speed. He stared after the train, seeing the fingers in his mind long after he couldn’t see them anymore. His urge was to go after the train and set those people free, get them to safety. Instead, he stood there, defeated, helpless, and fighting the urge to cry at the image of those fingers, which would not fade.
The general opened the rear door and looked in at them, smiling. “Vorarbeiter, tell them my name is Major General Hans Leyers of the Organization Todt. Ask them to repeat that, please.”
“Repeat it, mon général?”
“Yes,” Leyers shot back, irritated. “My name. My rank. The Organization Todt.”
Pino did as he was told, and they each repeated his name, rank, and the Organization Todt, even the little sick girl.
Pino felt chills go through him as Leyers drove them out of San Babila and toward the address Mimo had passed along from the partisan commanders. He had no idea why he was supposed to bring Leyers to that specific address, and he didn’t care. He was no longer in the shadows. He was no longer a spy. He was part of the rebellion now, and it made him feel righteous as he barked directions and turns at the general, who drove stoop shouldered.
The crowd around him bellowed and jeered its approval while he just stood there, hunch shouldered, whimpering at the agony that possessed him, so powerful it almost made him think it couldn’t be real, that his beloved was not lying there in a pool of blood, that he’d not watched her take the bullet, that he’d not watched life flee her in a blink, that he’d not heard her begging him to save her.
Pino would remember little of the journey. Milan, Italy, the world itself had become unhinged for him, disjointed and savage. He watched the scarred city as if from afar, not at all a part of the teeming life that was beginning to return after the Nazis’ retreat.
Someone put a toy scepter in Mussolini’s hand. Then a woman old enough to have been the crone in Dolly’s apartment building waddled out. She squatted over Il Duce’s mistress and pissed on her face.
Pino was repulsed, but the crowd went feral, sinister, and depraved. People were laughing hysterically, cheering, and feeding on the anarchy. Others began shouting for more desecrations while ropes and chains were being rigged. A woman darted forward with a pistol and put five rounds in Mussolini’s skull, which provoked another round of jeers and catcalls to beat the bodies, to tear the flesh from their bones.
The general looked at him without remorse and added, “If there’s anyone directly responsible for Dolly and Anna’s death, Pino, it’s you.”
Now you understand, Observer.