Anno Fascista XXII
8 September 1943
Porto Sant'Andrea, Liguria
Northwestern Coast of Italy
A simple answer to a simple question. That's all Werner Schramm requires.
"Where's the church?" he yells, belligerent and sicksicker yet when his shout becomes a swampy cough.
A small crowd gathers to appreciate the spectacle: a Waffen-SS officer, thin, fortyish, and liquored up. He props his hands against his knees, coughing harder. "La basilica!" he gasps, remembering the Italian. "San Giovannidove è?"
A young woman points. He catches the word campanile, and straightens, careful of his chest. Spotting the bell tower above a tumble of rooftops that stagger toward the sea, he turns to thank her. Everyone is gone.
No matter. Downhill is the path of least resistance for a man who's drunk himself legless. Nearer the harbor, the honeyed light of the Italian Riviera gilds wrecked warehouses and burnt piers, but there's not much bomb damage inland. No damned room for an explosion, Schramm thinks.
Jammed between the Mediterranean and the mountains, the oldest part of Porto Sant'Andrea doesn't even have streetsjust carrugi: passages barely wide enough for medieval carts. Cool and shadowy even at noon, these masonry ravines wind past the cobblers' and barbers' shops, apothecaries, vegetable stands, and cafés wedged at random between blank-walled town houses with shuttered windows.
Glimpses of the bell tower provide a sense of direction, but Schramm gets lost twice before stumbling into a sunny little piazza. He scowls at the light, sneezes, wipes his watering eyes. "Found you!" he tells the Basilica di San Giovanni Battista. "Tried t'hide, but it didn' work!"
San Giobatta, the locals call this place, as though John the Baptist were a neighborhood boy, poor and charmless but held in great affection. Squatting on a granite platform, the dumpy little church shares its modest courtyard with an equally unimpressive rectory and convent, their builder's architectural ambition visibly tempered by parsimony. Broad stripes of cheap black sandstone alternate with grudgingly thin layers of white Carrara marble. The zebra effect is regrettable.
Ineffective sandbags surround the church, its southeast corner freshly crumpled and blackened by an Allied incendiary bomb. A mob of pigeons waddle through the rubble, crapping and cooing. "The pope speaks lovely German," Schramm informs them. "Nuncio to Berlin before he got his silly hat. Perhaps I ought to go to Rome and confess to Papa Pacelli!"
He laughs at his own impertinence, and pays for it with another coughing fit. Eyes watering, hands trembling, he drops onto the basilica staircase and pulls out the battered flask he keeps topped up and nestled near his heart. He takes small sips until brandy calms the need to cough, and the urge to flee.
Prepared now, he stands. Squares his shoulders. Advances resolutely on massive doors peopled with bronzed patriarchs and tarnished virgins. Curses with surprise when they won't yield to his tug. "I want a pries'!" he yells, rapping on the door, first with his knuckles and then more insistently with the butt of his Luger.
Creaking hinges reveal the existence of a little wooden side door. A middle-aged nun appears, her sleeves shoved into rubber gauntlets, her habit topped by a grimy apron. Frowning at the noise, she is short and shaped like a beer keg. Her starched white wimple presses pudgy cheeks toward a nose that belongs on a propaganda Jew.
Excerpted from A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell, pages 9-16. Copyright © 2005 by Mary Doria Russell. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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