SHORT STORY CONTEST
COIN TRICKS & OTHER WAR TACTICS
by Richard Squires
Vittorio returned to camp elated. He had executed a classic conquest over a Danish socialite named Lina, and was eager to tell Uncle Giuseppe all about it. But parco Doria Pamphili was a shamble. Smoke canisters pumped a fog that muffled shrieks, made everything seem far away. Tents lay collapsed, their frames snapped. Romani stumbled about. Their clothing, trinkets, and trade tools littered the grass. Children were crying. Men and women were dazed and bloody, in a fever to grab what possessions had not been destroyed, pack their carriages, and move out. How had Vittorio not scented such a change of fortune on the wind? Secret police flailed swords, and Polizia a Cavallo galloped from out of the fog. They swung batons.
His brittle Uncle Giuseppe was nowhere. Vittorio found their tent flattened, their white-wood figurines splintered and scattered. He found the head and raised arm of a ballerina, which had taken many starry nights to carve and smooth. Police whistles blew. Two men in helmets toppled him, dragged him. Heaved him into a wagon teeming hotly with other men.
After a long and choppy ride, the wagon doors opened to a chill. Watchtower searchlights swept the ground and barbed wire fence. Cloud suffocated the sky, the grayest of dusks. Smudged in white powder, prisoners hobbled about. Steam tumbled from mouths and nostrils wherever light touched.
“Aussteigen,” a soldier yelled, and was echoed by a barking German Shepherd. Icy air whipped Vittorio’s mouth. A man stepped to the wagon bumper, fell to the dirt, and hobbled on bare, mutilated feet. Vittorio, looking down at his own boots, felt superior. Almost optimistic.
Everything in the camp was clean, like a set of stage props too new to feel real. The tan registration barracks, where the men lined up, looked recently put together of flimsy material. Shivering guards and their dogs paced perimeter fences. Their shadows slanted across prisoners who sat on logs and frozen mud slurping soup. The line slugged toward the door.
Inside, soldiers took prisoners’ belongings and recorded them on personal property cards, collected information and filled out labor registration forms. A doctor’s gloved fingers inspected each prisoner’s hair. The few prisoners wearing eyeglasses were allowed to keep them. All of the men in line had strong hands. A map pinned to the wall read Konzentrationslager Dachau, but this scanty place could not be Dachau. Silver pins spotted the map around Dachau, sub-camps, and one of the pins in southern Bavaria was circled. Pictures beside the map showed caves and stone quarries. This was a labor camp.
Vittorio was no laborer. When it was his turn, he provided the name of a rich man in Rome whose wife he had known well. After the soldiers confiscated what few lira they could find in his pockets, and after the bifocaled doctor ran his fingers through Vittorio’s hair, he was sent to a line beside a bunkhouse for a tin of soup, hot water really. As searchlights rummaged the grounds and mist whirled in those freezing shafts, Vittorio scoped the layout with the clarity of a raven hovering in the bitter air. The personnel, bunched in groups of three and four, also seemed new, disorganized.
Vittorio was still composed, but bravery has a half-life. The game is won in the first play. Before nerves, or fear. He needed something he could use, a signal or tool, and he expected that because he was looking for it, it would show itself. If he was ever to execute a deception, the time was now.
Headlights in the distance: another wagon carrying a slew of prisoners honked at the gate, the misdirection Vittorio was waiting for. He dropped to his chest and rolled under the bunkhouse. The raw whiteness of the camp lights rendered the shadow black. He crawled over hard dirt to the other side, waited for two soldiers and a dog to pass, hurried across the path and crawled under the adjacent house.
Across a field, a soldier scolded a teenage guard. The boy, a rifle slung over a shoulder, held a steaming tin of dinner. When the superior stomped away, the guard turned and walked in Vittorio’s direction, sniffling as he spooned the food into his mouth.
Vittorio crawled out, stood in shadow, and began to hum Monteverdi’s baroque “L’Arianna.” He started softly, then crescendoed as the guard approached so that by the time the guard realized he was listening to music, it was as though he had always been listening to it. Vittorio—like some picador from a Grimm fairy tale—poked his face into the light; the roof’s shadow fell diagonally across his neck and shoulder, hiding most of his body so that the guard could easily have assumed he was a fellow soldier. Vittorio flipped an 1861 Napoli-minted fifty-centesimi coin he’d pulled from the secret pocket beside his groin. It chimed off his thumbnail with each flick, rising, turning, falling. The watchtower’s passing light glinted off the copper, hypnotic.
Then Vittorio performed a sleight-of-hand coin trick he’d performed for countless tourists in the public squares of Rome, and the teenage soldier smiled. A child like this was among the easiest of patsies, an obvious mark. Uncle Giuseppe and Vittorio had always snorted at such a parochial fool, whose starchy pitapat through the city streets reeked of a future in the Polizia or a bank, whose money fold usually swished about in an accessible pocket or haversack. Whose shining watch, if he wore one, was a gift that hung loosely from the wrist for him to grow into. But a gift which, if he passed by the Roma, he would not possess by the time he had grown.
Drawing the boy’s sight up to a raised hand, then knuckle-rolling the coin and palming it so it appeared to vanish, Vittorio leaned forward as though to smell or look into the boy’s food tin, and swiped a mess-kit knife from his belt. Now the soldier was emerging from the spell, his mouth closing, eyebrows falling. Vittorio stepped back into shadow. The soldier followed him in, hand crossing for his rifle.
That is when the surreal and terrible reality of what Vittorio was about to do, had committed to doing and never undoing, blasted a cold and stinging vapor from his eyes, and shook the earth. In the nighttime shadows between bunkhouses, he lunged the tip of the blade into the boy’s ivory neck, all of his shivering weight behind it. As the soldier’s knees caved and he dropped, meat and gravy falling, rifle flopping, the gypsy towed the knife frantically across his neck then jolted it again, and again, following the boy to the ground. He pushed down on the knife handle until the blade was deep into the soldier’s chest.
Vittorio, chest pumping, straddled the boy, whose chest also pumped, not with breath but with want of it. Thick blood poured from the neck into small black puddles on the street-hard dirt. Gurgling, the boy looked into the gypsy’s eyes. Vittorio looked away and saw the chunks of beef still at the bottom of the soldier’s overturned tin. He slopped some into his mouth. But it tasted funny, and he realized it was the soldier’s warm blood coating the back of his hand and already hardening on his skin and under his fingernails.
During a deception, do not get excited. Keep equilibrium.
The searchlight swept Vittorio’s way. He froze, expected a watchtower shot to his temple. But the light, cut off by the overhanging roof, did not touch Vittorio or his kill. He crawled on top of the boy and, like undressing a giant baby, removed the bloody overcoat. He peeled the lapel over a shoulder, held the sleeve taut at the wrist, worked the arm, and finally freed the elbow. It was exhausting. He sucked from the sharp air as he put the coat on. The blood-sponged collar bled between his fingers, painted his chin and neck.
The wind whipped. He pulled off the boy’s rabbit fur-lined hat and pushed his greasy hair up into it, then slung the rifle over his shoulder. The boy’s lightweight hair flipped. His pale hand glowed against the house’s stilt.
Vittorio rounded the bunkhouse corner and marched with a stiff gait past soldiers and lines of prisoners. Across the field, a truck entered through the front gate. He raised his head, assumed the posture, stepped from shadow onto dirt illuminated by bare bulbs and pendulating watchtower lights. He held an even pace, passed a soldier walking a dog and did not meet either pair of eyes.
Men slammed the doors of two wagons and climbed into cabs. As they rolled toward the gate, Vittorio marched to the rear of the second wagon, stepped onto the bumper and clasped the locked door handle. Pressing his nose to the door, he told himself, Sono un mimo, so inert that his gray coat melted into the steel brown, that he was a simple part of the machinery. And he rode that wagon through the gates and into black night.
He looked back to see no sign that he had been noticed. His fingers pulsed against the freezing door handle. He pushed his left hand further through to fix it as the earth sped beneath him, and plunged his right hand into the coat pocket, but the rifle strap slipped and its stock tapped the wagon. Stupido! His hand burning cold, rifle dangling from his elbow, he let it fall; it hit the ground, flipped, and vanished. He worked his hand from the handle and tried to whip blood into it as he switched his grip.
Headlights in the distance. The wagon slowed and howled its angry horn, off key like a warped vinyl. Vittorio cursed, jumped, and rolled. The wagon stopped twenty meters ahead. He bolted into the blackness.
* * *
For days he scampered over ground as hard as bone, through stands of thorny briars, westward over the German wasteland toward Allied France, he hoped, with no stars or sun to guide him. He hid in abandoned corrals from passing vehicles, wandered fallow cutovers stippled by dead cattle, black eyes, forelegs folded under bodies.
Shrouded in steamy breath, his gaunt, whisker-specked face suffered the wind. Ice splinters whipped between rabbit-fur cap and turned-up collar. In the two days since Vittorio had escaped the labor camp, he had eaten nothing. The growl in his stomach became a claw. And the claw reminded him of the knife, of the dead boy whose coat he wore. With every replay of the scene, the memory grew more tactile. Each time the knife-tip pierced the skin and sunk, each time he brought forth the gushing against which the boy struggled for air, Vittorio had to spit. It wasn’t a matter of conscience. He had never thought of himself as a good person. If he was any one thing, he was a thief. But he didn’t like remembering the feeling of the knife sliding in.
He huffed up a hill and scoped the road for a patrol. Grain-sized hailstones pelted him. The wind eddied and shot dirt into his eyes. He shambled down the hill’s other side. Below the drift it was quieter. He pulled his earflaps down, rubbed his eyes, and scanned for something in all this nothingness. In the dwindling daylight, under a sickle-shaped moon, an old tractor with sagging belt treads slumped beside a low-roofed corral in the distance. Empty granaries, no livestock.
The boy was dead. Vittorio had killed him and he was not sorry he had done it. Because of boys like him, Uncle Giuseppe—the gypsy’s only friend, his only family—was lost, likely dead.
He knew this type of boy. He knew all the gadje who imagined they could dip into the Roma life and play pretend without cost. In the evenings or on the weekends or on holiday, gadje women and children slipped away from their glittering prisons to brush against the real-life, the low-life, the gypsy-life. All across the continent they sought the music and dancing, the fortune-telling and magic. What they could not understand was that the Roma live better, not for wealth but for life and love.
He remembered the knife, but could not remember the dead soldier-boy’s face. Instead, he saw the face of Flavio, a twelve or thirteen-year-old Italian boy he’d met perhaps six months earlier. Flavio and the soldier-boy had the same hair, the same air of misspent innocence.
One blue morning at the foot of the Piazza di Spagna, Vittorio and his troupe built crowds. Wearing painted nails, patchwork pants, and a ruffled shirt, he juggled leather beanbags. Ankle bells chimed as he kicked to Ilario’s flute. Vittorio spotted Flavio watching, his open lips glistening in the sun. With a glance, Vittorio surmised (and later learned he was correct) that this boy had a wealthy, boorish father—a Blackshirt, mean—whom he wanted to make proud but could not, and was therefore ridiculed as much through verbal abuse as through silence.
When Ilario blew his last note, Vittorio caught two of the bags in his hands and the third on his right shoe. He kicked it high into the air, bowed, caught it between his shoulder blades, and rolled it off his neck into his hand. Curly hair before his face and already bowed, he twirled a hand, then yelled to the crowd, “Volontari!”
Flavio’s face reddened, too shy to volunteer. An American tourist couple sat on the first step looking through a travel guide, and the man raised his hand. A businessman in an off-white linen suit stepped forward, as did a delivery boy who’d rested his bicycle on the steps. “Uno più,” and Vittorio waved Flavio down. The boy froze. He waved again. “Si, vieni.”
“Amorevole Joker,” Vittorio announced, pulling out a deck of cards. He fanned the deck. Each of the four marks chose a random card and, without looking at it, stuck it in their shirt pockets.
With the help of the joker, Vittorio explained, he would name each mystery card. He began with the tourist, kissed the joker to the card in his pocket and named it: four of clubs. The man pulled it out, gasped, and showed it to the crowd. “Bravo,” the American woman said. Vittorio did the same with the businessman, touched the joker to the card in the man’s blazer pocket and named it: ten of hearts. The businessman shook his head in wonder and showed the crowd that this gypsy was a true magician. He followed with the delivery boy, a two of spades, and Flavio, queen of hearts.
“Grazie, grazie gente. Il denaro è come viviamo.”
The take that day was average, never satisfactory.
“Che sono incredibili. Come si fa a farlo?” Flavio asked as the crowd dissipated. Unhooking his ankle-bell bands, Vittorio told Flavio he would reveal the magic if he visited him this evening at parco Doria Pamphili and brought some food. If Flavio did show up, perhaps he’d abandon his all-but-prescribed future and join the traveling Roma—though rare, this had happened before. And if he did, he could bring family heirlooms and valuables.
That evening, as Vittorio practiced a fire show routine, juggling three torches, again to Ilario’s flute, Flavio appeared. Uncle Giuseppe, small, old, and wizened—from a distance he could pass for a boy—pranced around the camp blowing alcohol-fueled flames into the twilit sky and igniting flambeaus standing in the grass. Vittorio noticed that Flavio had brought a friend and was, for a moment, crestfallen. But as is the way with the Roma, such is life.
As darkness descended like a dome, Flavio and his friend, Marcel, inhaled the milieu. Other gadje milled about, eating and drinking, smoking hookahs, listening to harp and fiddle. Flambeaus and cooking fires glowed throughout the park, pockets of light like tents of invisible canvas. Peacocks and pigs roamed. People squatted in carriages doing chores, singing, making crafts. Like so many gadje, Flavio and Marcel thought they’d stumbled onto a pastel land of dreams.
Vittorio doused his torches in a bucket. The sizzle diffused into the night sounds, the crickets and voices. He approached Flavio and without a word looked into his rucksack. Wine, cheese, bread, oil, and a bird: excellent. “Giuseppe, nutrimento.”
He and his Uncle Giuseppe lived in a small bender tent covered in wool and patched-cloth blankets. Giuseppe teased the fire. Vittorio pulled a folding table from the tent, skinned the bird, skewered it, and set it over the fire. The two Roma and the two boys sat cross-legged on the grass, and Vittorio explained a few superstitions—spiders and mountain-ash bring good luck, watch out for crows flying alone, never touch a dead body. After listening to a bit of Flavio’s life, Vittorio showed him Tarot cards and told, in a manner, his fortune. Flavio and Marcel slapped their thighs and gasped to each other. How could this gypsy know that Flavio had his mother’s frail build, his father’s light hair but not his temper, a girl at school he liked? Either he really could tell fortunes, or else he was wise. “Magia or saggezza?” Flavio wanted to know. Vittorio winked.
What Flavio needed to ease his stress and help him live a true life, he explained, was a talisman, an object imbued with special properties that would help clear the noise from his mind. It would help him to understand himself, to understand why others are shortsighted and how best to manage them. And if he chose the right talisman, it would never betray him. The more questions he asked of it, the more insights would blossom in his mind.
When they finished the meal, Flavio reminded Vittorio that he wanted to learn the card trick, so Vittorio stoppered the last of the wine and stowed it in the tent. The key to the trick was the double-card lift. When he lifted the face-up joker, he lifted a second card with it that only he could see. When he dipped the joker into the mark’s pocket, he let go the hidden card, took back whatever card was in the mark’s pocket, and announced the card he’d dropped. It was a trick that required practice, but one anybody could do.
As the boys practiced peeling from the deck two cards held so tightly they appeared to be one, Vittorio pulled from his tent some wooden figurines he’d carved. Placing them in front of the fire, Vittorio caught the gadje glimpse from Marcel: a quick look to the merchandise, not too quick to know it was merchandise though too quick to actually see the merchandise, followed by a puff from the nose and a glance to his companion. No, Vittorio knew, the boys would not buy anything.
“Il talismano,” he muttered, handing Flavio a wooden troll with bulging eyes and four-toed feet. “Piccoli soldi.” Cheap.
Flavio took the troll and looked it over as though it were a past-ripe fruit he probably would not eat. Marcel whispered to Flavio, then asked what the figurine cost. Vittorio asked what the boys thought was fair. And as the character of the interaction shifted from camaraderie to commerce, and Vittorio locked the boys in a construct of pity—for guilt, too, is a tool of deception—Uncle Giuseppe took Flavio’s rucksack from beside the tree, rummaged through, and returned it without the boys noticing.
Flavio cracked his knuckles as Marcel turned the figurine and pointed out its flaws. Vittorio understood that Flavio did not want to disappoint him. But he was weak, one more gadje parasite. Flavio would not actually say no, so as the troll was turned this way and that in soft hands, Vittorio called Ilario. “Grazie per il pasto,” he said to the boys and explained that it would be safer if Ilario walked them home. He did not explain that he wanted to know where Flavio lived, and perhaps would visit his house some midnight.
“Andiamo,” Ilario said. Before Flavio could say goodbye, Vittorio disappeared into his tent. Uncle Giuseppe came in, showed him the lira fold he’d taken from Flavio’s rucksack, counted enough money to buy a hundred figurines, and handed him half.
Yes, boys like Flavio grew into young men like the soldier Vittorio had killed.
It hardly mattered. Death hovered like a vulture. But Vittorio would take breath as long as his numb lungs kept breathing, and he would walk as long as his numb legs held his weight.
Then he smelled an earthy sweetness. He squinted toward the shack in the distance and saw that smoke rose from its roof.
* * *
Dry blood was smeared down the two doorposts and across the lintel. He pushed the door open and fought the wind to close it. A fire in the middle of the floor reached for a breached slat in the ceiling. The heat roused the blood in Vittorio’s hands, which was both painful and intoxicating. An old woman with long hoary hair sat in a rocking chair. Her feet did not reach the ground. Dusty quilts wrapped her shoulders. She poked the fire with a crooked stick.
He scanned the place—she was the type to look as though she had nothing but to actually have a cache she was not smart enough to hide well. He saw a sagging cupboard, a rusty cot, but the shack’s corners were too dark. He walked around the fire. When she saw him she recoiled and raised her arm as if to avert evil.
“Ah, no no no,” he said. She was afraid of the soldier’s coat, he realized. “Va bene. Bene.” He pulled off the hat and his hair flopped out. She examined him, then laughed an old lady’s laugh—creaky, eerie. She dragged her sleeve across her face and urged him closer to the heat. He sat on the dirt floor. She said something in a Bavarian dialect. Though he understood some High German spoken in the ethnic sections of Rome, he could not understand her. He nodded nonetheless.
He leaned back, but his elbow came down on a stone he hadn’t noticed in the pulsing light. He nudged it. It nudged back. It was not a stone, but a boot. Outside of the light’s faint reach, a man lay on the floor. A shovel leaned against the smoke-stained wall near his head. She spoke to him, then resumed poking the fire. She did not expect him to respond. He was dead.
Vittorio flinched and stood. He wanted to flee, but he could not leave until morning. Was she mad? Perhaps he would have to kill her. He hated this thought; he felt it was not his but was imposed on him, like an unwanted relative whom he had no choice but to let in.
He searched the woman’s wrinkled face for a trace of reason. Three warts jutted, one high on her cheek, one on the nub of her nose, and one on the tip of her chin. Dark hairs ranged her cracked upper lip, thickest at the corners. Her filmy eyes mirrored the flames. Tears surged down her cheeks. She pressed her face into her elbow. The wind howled.
“Er hat dem Juden geholfen. Ach, was ist Leben dann?” she murmured to the fire. Something about the Jews. Sad. “What is life?” a common saying. She bent forward and brushed her callused hand across the dead man’s face. “Mein armer Mann.” Vittorio understood. It was her husband. She blew her nose into the blanket.
In ordinary life, Vittorio kept control. But this new world was disassembling him. His hands were shaking, and he felt foolish. He leaned over the body and saw the chasm across the neck. Perhaps the same blood that had been wiped on the doorposts outside. The smell didn’t stray far from the body, but up close it was nostril-stinging, but with a tinge of sweetness.
With her stick the woman poked Vittorio’s leg, then touched it to an iron skillet on a stone beside the fire. Two steaming slivers of chopped beef lay parallel, flaccid like dead fish, pungent. He picked the skillet up and contemplated the slop—at the same time planning to search the shack’s corners while she slept—until she pushed the skillet with the tip of her charred stick toward his face. His stomach thundered. The lady laughed, a crow’s caw.
He ate the food in five determined swallows. His chest throbbed and he felt he would retch, so he swallowed again and drew breath until only a morsel thrust up his throat, which he spat into the hearth. A copper kettle sat on a stone bordering the pit. She poured steaming water into an earthen mug and handed it to him. He found it bitter, flavored with bits of wheat he pulled from his tongue.
They listened to the night. The door clattered and the fire crackled. The body’s wrists and fingers contorted as no pulsing wrists and fingers would. He looked away, queasy. The woman was mellower now. Her presence, though strange, felt kind. She was good. He’d barged into her home, yet she’d fed him. Her humanity would surely hinder her survival. Maybe to her survival and surviving, like life and living, were not the same. He wanted to do something for her.
He pulled a silver, twenty-lira coin from his pocket and displayed it in his palm. He waggled the fingers of his other hand over it, then closed the coin in his fist and hovered it over the flames. When he opened his hand, the coin was gone. The lady frowned. He hovered both hands over the fire and chanted, “Nero magia porta verità e libertà.” It was a routine he’d done thousands of times, but in this small shack his voice echoed. He turned both hands over to reveal two coins, one in each palm. He clinked the coins, twirled his hand, and mock-curtsied.
Rather than clapping or laughing, she humphed, and whipped him on the cheek with her burnt stick.
Never had he experienced such a reaction. She pointed the stick at the man on the floor.
Vittorio guessed he had been dead two days. The old lady gestured for him to put on his hat and drag the body outside. She carried the shovel, led him around the shack, and pointed to a small graveyard behind the corral, beside a furrow of dead winter wheat. The body was stiff, its clothes hardened too. The woman handed him the shovel and went back inside. He fought the sharp air for breath. With the shovel, he beat the earth, but it was solid. Pressing his foot on the shovel’s head, he stabbed the dirt, but it was like stone. Again he thrashed the ground, but the scoop dented and a screw fell out.
He launched the shovel into the wheat. Then he wrapped his hands around the body’s blue neck, above the gash, and pulled. The wheat folded under the body. At the bottom he found a complex of rusted junk—wheels and engine parts from obsolete farm machinery—so he dragged the body under and peppered it with straw.
Vittorio returned to the shack and sat. The lady stared into the fire for a while, then poured hot whiskey from a tin canteen into his mug. It struck him that he didn’t deserve it. The whiskey was strong. He coughed. “Kornbranntwein,” she said, stirring her hands through the air, gesturing that she’d brewed the drink herself, that she’d forgotten, or forgiven, whatever he’d done to upset her. She whispered a prayer before she drank. After the fire and alcohol made him warm, she said, “Sie bleiben mit den anderen, bis es sicher ist,” and motioned for him to follow outside again. He did not understand her words, nor did he want to go.
The wind bit their faces and whipped through the wooden shapes haunting the farm. The clouds diffused the moonlight and flattened it over the land. She led him into the corral, through the stalls, past the rotted manger. He wanted to return to the fire, but the lady pointed to a ladder that led up to the hayloft, and started back to her shack without him. He climbed, then traipsed across the rafter beam, as though in a high wire act, to a door that led into a low-ceilinged garret. He pulled the door shut from the inside, secured his hat tight over his ears, and lay back in the black isolation. Only the wind interrupted the silence. Only the wind could live without fire in this wasteland. He closed his eyes.
But there was a movement, a floor-scratch, a scurry near the opposite wall. A rat? It couldn’t be. Not up here. Not in the winter. Vittorio heard it again, closer, followed by a whisper. Then a hand was at his throat, and he could not breathe. In the blackness he clutched the hand and tried to pull it away, but it was fixed. Reaching with his other hand he lost balance and dropped to his back, his attacker on top of him. This was no soldier—a soldier would have simply shot him—but he didn’t understand.
He thrust his hip and sent his attacker hard against the pitched ceiling, and this loosened an already loose board guarding the garret from the sky. The wind peeled it from the roof and sent it flipping into the night. Moonlight illuminated the far wall. A woman in rags, emaciated, locked onto his eyes. The forearm of the man strangling him was veiny and malnourished, and wore a tattooed number. “Etan,” the woman said, raising her hand to her chest. The man let go and backed away to sit beside her. He rubbed his shoulder and took her hand. Her sleeve rose. She wore a number too. They were Jews, and they returned the gypsy’s fearful stare.
Toes peeked from under the man’s folded legs. Their clothes were striped black and white, sleeves cut off at the forearms—prisoners’ uniforms, caked in hardened mud and straw, evidence of an escape from some nearby camp, perhaps Dachau. His hair had been buzzed. How had this haggard man put him to submission? Vittorio had not felt so humbled since he was a boy, the day he became a man, a master magician, and thief.
The Jews clung to each other. A scarf covered her head, tight enough to show she also had no hair. Her eyes beetled from dark craters. Vittorio leaned against the wall, glad he wasn’t alone. The couple’s fear allayed his. They were lucky to have each other. Eyelids closing, he wished that he, too, had a companion while the hours writhed by.
Later, the rasp of a flame woke him. The man had lit a hand-rolled cigarette and it dangled from his lips. The sky hinted at dawn. The Jew ripped cloth from the bottom of his shirt and wrapped it around his feet. She nabbed the cigarette from him and drew, penning the smoke inside her for a long moment, appreciating it. He did the same. Then he leaned across the floor and outstretched his arm. Vittorio took the cigarette and drew deeply; it tasted like magic.
The Jew wrapped his arms around the woman and massaged her, pressed his chest to hers and kneaded her back. She buried her face in his neck. He rubbed her arm, rolled his knuckles up and down to thaw it, to feed it feeling. The Jew seemed a smart man, crafty like a Rom, but with intellect. Probably a teacher, when life was ordinary. Vittorio would never have picked this teacher’s pocket—too smart a mark and too light a wallet.
The Jew whispered to her, and Vittorio heard a rural German inflection. The woman smiled, and the way she lowered her face and looked up at him with big eyes and long eyelashes struck Vittorio as the epitome of beauty. Some sort of ruby life force glowed in her. The man glanced over and Vittorio looked away, embarrassed. Then the man pulled a brown leather pouch from her skirt pocket and tossed it over. Inside were tobacco, paper, and four matchsticks.
The dawn continued to approach. The Jew huffed into his palms, rubbed them together like fire pit kindling, and kneaded her other arm. They were so familiar with each other; it was hard to imagine they had not known each other before the war. The Nazis sent the men and women to separate facilities, but he’d escaped, and so had she, and they’d reunited.
The Jew’s cold hand on her shoulder was white in the dawn, white as the soldier-boy’s had been, limp against the bunkhouse stilt. Nausea returned, flavor of the old beef Vittorio had scarfed. He spat over his shoulder.
What he had done to the boy was no game, was different than any scam he’d ever played, or any lie ever told. But he was justified, he told himself, trying to shake the feeling he’d crossed some threshold. Perhaps the Jews had also killed to survive. He sucked cold air.
Survival had always revitalized him; survival was his whimsical life. But not this kind. This was no playground like Rome, like Naples, Salerno, Cosenza, to name a few. Sometimes, when he wasn’t Vittorio the Street Performer, he was Zorian, the Quiet Aristocrat from Little Egypt, ‘visiting’ Rome for a mix of business and leisure. Donning his pressed city clothes, clean-shaven cheeks and a tight, short ponytail, it was never difficult to honey-talk a tourist into having a cup of coffee or glass of wine with him. And he always made off with some money or jewelry when leaving her hotel or apartment the next morning or the next hour. Or, if it was a drawn-out romance, at the culmination.
His last conquest was Lina, the Danish socialite, who approached him as he sat enjoying a coffee at an outdoor café on Via Condotti, a street popular for its clothing stores. She wore the latest: white slacks with a high waist, a frilly button-down shirt with baggy sleeves, black and white Oxfords, and a maroon cloche hat with a gold band and flower. Her legs were long. After speaking for a while, she invited him dancing at a private jazz club with her Italian friends.
Later that night, after the fancy elderberry and black currant wines, after the skittish trumpet and piano improvisations, he sang to her as they strolled to her suite at L’hotel Hassler Roma. And in the morning, as she lay wasted across her bed and the rising sun pulled back the shadow of St. Peter’s Basilica, Vittorio sauntered from the hotel. Earrings, rings, and a necklace, all diamond, filled the secret pocket he’d sewn to the inside of his pants. They jiggled against his weary groin as he jogged down the Piazza di Spagna like a man who’d unloaded, rather than picked up, objects of great value. It was a flawless execution, and he could not wait to tell Uncle Giuseppe. Poor Uncle Giuseppe.
Gunshots reported in the distance. Vittorio perked, looked through a cleft in a panel to see a military vehicle climb the hill to the farm, its engine popping. Headlights sliced through the garret’s slats, sent ladders of light up the wall and across the faces.
The engine died, and its sound was replaced by fast, militant conversation—the conversation of someone whose pocket Vittorio would like to pick. Three Nazis, two men and a teenager, sauntered across the dirt to the old lady’s shack, their hair turning over in the wind. Smoke still rose from within. The men barged through the door and emerged with the lady in their grips. They guided her toward the flailing wheat.
Vittorio glanced at the Jews. They sat entwined with each other, and watched him. One of the Nazis withdrew his pistol and handed it to the milk-faced boy, who faltered with the safety. The lady stared into the furrow where her dead husband lay, but Vittorio couldn’t tell whether she saw the body or not. She raised her face to the light of the sky. The sun behind the clouds looked like a full moon. Perhaps she thought she was going somewhere better, that she’d rejoin her husband. Because she was honest and kind to others, perhaps she was satisfied she’d led a good life. If it was true, that’d be real magic. The Nazi shouted at the boy, and the other Nazi laughed. The boy’s arms shuddered as they rose.
The shot was no louder than the crack of a whip on a mare. There was no echo, and as the old lady rolled down to her final resting place, the meat Vittorio had eaten hours earlier rumbled and turned. He coughed, then dry-heaved. The two adult Nazis looked, searched the dark spaces between the wooden panels.
The Nazi took his pistol from the boy and marched toward the corral. The other two followed under the eave and through the stalls, their boots crunching frozen straw. They stood at the foot of the ladder, ready with cocked guns. Vittorio thought of the boy he’d killed. He thought of the old lady beside her husband. He fingered the leather tobacco pouch. He gazed at the Jews, who clung to one another, and was overcome with envy. For a frozen moment, they studied each other, unbreathing. The weight of this envy baffled him.
He ripped off the overcoat and handed it to the woman. He reached into his pants, pulled out his diamond-filled purse, and handed it to the man. As he descended the ladder on shaky legs, the Nazis raged. “Du,” they screamed, “hier kommen.” When his boots touched the straw, he bowed to the two men as though at show’s end. To push the fear of death from his mind, his eyes traveled the icy floor, the diamond-like palaces of frost, kingdoms to the world’s smaller organisms. The barrel of the gun pressed his scalp. He closed his eyes and thought, now I am nothing. “Ora sono niente,” he whispered.
And then an icicle fell to the ground. Spring would come.
He remembered. He remembered his power. “No, sono un clown,” he said, and stared into the barrel of the gun. He crossed his eyeballs like a clown. He pulled a coin from his pocket, and the men watched stone-faced. He displayed it on his palm, took it in his other hand, closed his fist and wagged it through the air. He opened his hand, and it was empty. He pressed his palms together, prayer-like, pulled them apart, and there the coin sat. The man lowered his pistol.
The two Nazis looked at each other. Then they broke into laughter, eyes bulging as though in desperation, as though they’d been hunting for laughter in a world without it. Laughter hypnotized them. Guns dangling at their sides, they were unsure what to do next.
Then one of them looked to the hayloft. He climbed the ladder and staggered across the beam. Vittorio searched another part of the icy floor. He knew what was coming. The soldier kicked the garret door in, and Vittorio waited for the shots. But there weren’t any. He waited longer, but the soldier came back down and stared at him. Vittorio didn’t know what to do, so he flipped the coin to the soldier, who pulled him by his shoulder.
He sat on the rear bench of the military truck next to the sullen boy, and he rolled three cigarettes. He handed one to each soldier in front, and with the driver’s lighter they lit up. As they rolled down the hill to the farm road, Vittorio wore a half-smile. The Jews must have climbed out the hole in the roof. Survival: the most beautiful and natural magic trick of all. He drew from the coiled paper and held his breath. He wanted to appreciate the flavor of the dry tobacco. It was sweeter than any he’d tasted before.
The paper dangling from his mouth, he sat on his palms. The vehicle turned the bend and sped north, probably toward another labor camp. The soldiers chattered between spurts of nervous laughter. Flicking the cigarette to the wind, Vittorio looked back and imagined that he could see, through the lank garret slats, two sets of eyes watching him ushered away. He made a wish that the couple would manage to make it out. Then he laughed. It felt like the end of a chapter in a story.
Richard Squires lives in New Jersey with his wife, their ambidextrous six-year-old son, and their spry and vocal fourteen-month-old daughter. He is a freelance writer, writing instructor, and rock ‘n’ roller. Recent fiction has appeared in The MacGuffin, Upender: Art of Consequence, and Jewish Literary Journal. Richard earned an MFA from Stonecoast, University of Southern Maine.
Photo credit: Helen Peppe