Skip to main content



Beneath a Scarlet Sky

They crossed the Po River, and long before dusk, while the countryside still lay blanketed in summer torpor, the train squealed and sighed to a stop amid gently rolling farmland. Pino carried a blanket over his shoulder and climbed after Carletto to a low grassy hill above an orchard that faced southwest toward the city.

“Pino,” Mr. Beltramini said, “watch out, or there will be spider webs across your ears by morning.”

Mrs. Beltramini, a pretty, frail woman who always seemed to be suffering some malady or another, scolded weakly, “Why did you say that? You know I hate spiders.”

The fruit shop owner fought against a grin. “What are you talking about? I was just warning the boy about the dangers of sleeping with his head in the deep grass.”

His wife looked like she wanted to argue, but then she just waved him away, as if he were some bothersome fly.

Uncle Albert fished in a canvas bag for bread, wine, cheese, and dried salami. The Beltraminis broke out five ripe cantaloupes. Pino’s father sat in the grass next to his violin case, his arms wrapped around his knees and an enchanted look on his face.

“Isn’t it magnificent?” Michele said.

“What’s magnificent?” Uncle Albert said, looking around, puzzled.

“This place. How clean the air is. And the smells. No burning. No bomb stench. It seems so . . . I don’t know. Innocent?”

“Exactly,” Mrs. Beltramini said.

“Exactly what?” Mr. Beltramini said. “You walk a little too far here and it’s not so innocent. Cow shit and spiders and snakes and—”

Whop! Mrs. Beltramini backhand-slapped her husband’s arm. “You show no mercy, do you? Ever?”

“Hey, that hurt,” Mr. Beltramini protested through a smile.

“Good,” she said. “Now stop it, you. I didn’t get a wink of sleep with all that talk of spiders and snakes last night.”

Appearing unaccountably angry, Carletto got up and walked downhill toward the orchard. Pino noticed some girls down by the rock wall that surrounded the fruit grove. Not one of them was as beautiful as Anna. But maybe it was time to move on. He jogged downhill to catch up with Carletto, told him his plan, and they tried to artfully intercept the girls. Another group of boys beat them to it.

Pino looked at the sky and said, “I’m only asking for a little love.”

“I think you’d settle for a kiss,” Carletto said.

“I’d be happy with a smile.” Pino sighed.

The boys climbed over the wall and walked down rows of trees heavy with fruit. The peaches were not quite ripe, but the figs were. Some had already dropped, and they picked them up from the dirt, brushed them off, peeled the skin, and ate them.

Despite the rare treat of fresh fruit right off the tree in a time of rationing, Carletto seemed troubled. Pino said, “You okay?”

His best friend shook his head.

“What is it?” Pino asked.

“Just a feeling.”


Carletto shrugged. “Like life isn’t going to turn out the way we think, that it’s going to go badly for us.”

“Why would you think that?”

“You never paid much attention in history class, did you? When big armies go to war, everything gets destroyed by the conqueror.”

“Not always. Saladin never sacked Jerusalem. See? I did pay attention in history class.”

“I don’t care,” Carletto said, angrier still. “It’s just this feeling that I get, and it won’t stop. It’s everywhere and . . .”

His friend choked up, and tears ran down his face while he fought for control.

“What’s going on with you?” Pino said.

Carletto cocked his head, as if peering at a painting he didn’t quite understand. His lips trembled as he said, “My mama’s really sick. It’s not good.”

“What’s that mean?”

“What do you think it means?” Carletto cried. “She’s gonna die.”

“Jesus,” Pino said. “Are you sure?”

“I heard my parents talking how she’d like her funeral to be.”

Pino thought of Mrs. Beltramini, and then Porzia. He thought about what it would be like to know his mother was going to die. A vast pit opened in his stomach.

“I’m sorry,” Pino said. “I really am. Your mama’s a great lady. She puts up with your papa, so she’s like a saint, and they say saints get their reward in heaven.”

Carletto laughed despite his sadness and wiped at his tears. “She is the only one who can put him in his place. But he should stop, you know? She’s sick, and he’s teasing her like that about snakes and spiders. It’s cruel. Like he doesn’t love her.”

“He loves your mama.”

“He doesn’t show it. It’s like he’s afraid to.”

They started to walk back. At the rock wall, they heard the strains of a violin.

. . .

Pino looked up the hill and saw his father tuning his violin and Mr. Beltramini standing there, sheet music in his hand. The golden light of sunset radiated off both men and the crowd around them.

“Oh no,” Carletto moaned. “Mother of God, no.”

Pino felt equal dismay. At times, Michele Lella could play brilliantly, but more often than not, Pino’s father would stutter his rhythm or squall through a section that demanded a smooth touch. And poor Mr. Beltramini had a voice that usually broke or went flat. It was excruciating to listen to either man because you could never relax. You knew some odd note was coming, and it could be so sour at times, it was, well, embarrassing.

Up on the hill, Pino’s father adjusted the position of his violin, a beautiful central Italian petite from the eighteenth century that Porzia had given him for Christmas ten years before. The instrument was Michele’s most treasured possession, and he held it lovingly as he brought it under his chin and jawbone and raised his bow.

Mr. Beltramini firmed his posture, arms held loosely at his side.

“There’s a train wreck about to happen,” Carletto said.

“I see it coming,” Pino said.

Pino’s father played the opening strains of the melody of “Nessun Dorma,” or “None Shall Sleep,” a soaring aria for tenor in the third act of Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turandot. Because it was one of his father’s favorite pieces, Pino had listened to a recording performed by Toscanini and the full La Scala orchestra behind the powerful tenor Miguel Fleta, who sang the aria the night the opera debuted in the 1920s.

Fleta played Prince Calaf, a wealthy royal traveling anonymously in China, who falls in love with the beautiful but cold and bitchy Princess Turandot. The king has decreed that anyone who wishes to have the princess’s hand must first solve three riddles. Get one wrong, and the suitor dies a terrible death.

By the end of act 2, Calaf has answered all the riddles, but the princess still refuses to marry him. Calaf says that if she can figure out his real name before dawn he will leave, but if she can’t, she must willingly marry him.

The princess takes the game to a higher level, tells Calaf that if she finds his name before dawn, she’ll have his head. He agrees to the deal, and the princess decrees, “Nessun dorma, none shall sleep, until the suitor’s name is found.”

In the opera, Calaf’s aria comes with dawn approaching and the princess down on her luck. “Nessun Dorma” is a towering piece that builds and builds, demanding that the singer grow stronger, reveling in his love for the princess and surer of victory with every moment that ticks toward dawn.

Pino had thought it would take a full orchestra and a famous tenor like Fleta to create the aria’s emotional triumph. But his father and Mr. Beltramini’s version, stripped down to its tremulous melody and verse, was more powerful than he could have ever imagined.

When Michele played that night, a thick, honeyed voice called from his violin. And Mr. Beltramini had never been better. The rising notes and phrases all sounded to Pino like two improbable angels singing, one high through his father’s fingers, and one low in Mr. Beltramini’s throat, both more heavenly inspiration than skill.

“How are they doing this?” Carletto asked in wonder.

Pino had no idea of the source of his father’s virtuoso performance, but then he noticed that Mr. Beltramini was singing not to the crowd but to someone in the crowd, and he understood the source of the fruitman’s beautiful tone and loving key.

“Look at your papa,” Pino said.

Carletto strained up on his toes and saw that his father was singing the aria not to the crowd but to his dying wife, as if there were no one else but them in the world.

When the two men finished, the crowd on the hillside stood and clapped and whistled. Pino had tears in his eyes, too, because for the first time, he’d seen his father as heroic. Carletto had tears in his eyes for other, deeper reasons.

“You were fantastic,” Pino said to Michele later in the dark. “And ‘Nessun Dorma’ was the perfect choice.”

“For such a magnificent place, it was the only one we could think of,” his father said, seeming in awe of what he’d done. “And then we were swept up, just like the La Scala performers say, playing con smania, with passion.”

“I heard it, papa. We all did.”

Michele nodded, and sighed happily. “Now, get some sleep.”

Pino had kicked out a place for his hips and heels, and then taken off his shirt for a pillow and wrapped himself in the sheet he’d brought from home. Now he snuggled down, smelling the sweet grass, already drowsy.

He closed his eyes thinking about his father’s performance, and Mrs. Beltramini’s mysterious illness, and the way her joking husband had sung. He drifted off to sleep, wondering if he’d witnessed a miracle.

Several hours later, deep in his dreams, Pino was chasing Anna down the street when he heard distant thunder. He stopped, and she kept on, disappearing into the crowd. He wasn’t upset, but he wondered when the rain would fall, and what it would taste like on his tongue.

Carletto shook him awake. The moon was high overhead, casting a gunmetal-blue light on the hillside, and everyone on their feet looking to the west. Allied bombers were attacking Milan in waves, but there were no sightings of the planes or of the city from that distance, only flares and flashes on the horizon and the distant rumor of war.

Beneath a Scarlet Sky
by by Mark Sullivan

  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • paperback: 524 pages
  • Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
  • ISBN-10: 1503943372
  • ISBN-13: 9781503943377