"I didn't know! As a general rule, however, courtesy has much to recommend it in any language. This is a small port, but many of us have a working knowledge of German," the man continues, deflecting the conversation ever so slightly. "We've done a fair amount of business with Venezia Giulia since 1918. Pardon! No doubt you would call the region Adriatisches Küstenland."
"Mus' cost a fortune for new stationery every time the border moves," Schramm remarks, offering the brandy.
"Printers always prosper." The Italian raises the flask in salute and takes a healthy swallow. "If you won't be needing me anymore . . . ?"
Schramm nods, and the man strolls off toward an alcove, pausing to admire a fresco of the Last Judgment that Schramm himself finds unnecessarily vivid. Searching for a place to sit, Schramm gets a fix on some pews near the confessionals, takes another sip from the flask. "No retreat!" he declares. Probably aloud.
The tourist's slow circuit of the church is punctuated by murmurs of dismay. A fifteenth-century baptismal font is damaged. A colorful jumble of shattered glass lies beneath a blown-out window. "Verdamm' Tommies," Schramm mutters. "British claim're only bombing military sites, but Hamburg is rubble! Dehousing the workers, that's what they call it. Terrorflieger, we call it. Leverkusen, München. Köln, Düsseldorf. Rubble, all of them! Did you know that?"
"We hear only rumor these days, even with the change in government," the Italian replies, declining comment on Mussolini's recent fall from power.
Schramm waves his flask at the damage before taking another pull. "RAF pilots're so fugging inaggurate" Schramm tries again. "They are so . . . fucking . . . inaccurate." Satisfied with his diction, he swivels his head in the direction of his new friend. "They call it a hit if they aim at a dock and smash a church!"
"Very sloppy," the Italian agrees. "A shocking lack of professional pride!"
Slack-jawed, Schramm's skull tips back of its own accord. He stares at the painted angels wheeling above him until his hands lose track of what they're supposed to be doing and the flask slips from his fingers. He aims his eyes at the floor, where the last of the liquor is pooling. "Tha's a pity," he mourns. Laboriously, he lifts first one foot and then the other onto the pew, sliding down until he is prone. "Fat ol' nun," he mutters. Pro'ly never committed a sin in her whole life . . .
A sharp noise awakens him. Coughing and crapulous, Schramm struggles to sit up. His confessor hasn't arrived, but chunks of stone have been neatly stacked by the door. Sweeping shards of colored glass into a pile, the Italian flirts gallantly with the novices. The pretty one flirts back, dimpling when she smiles.
Schramm slumps over the back of the pew in front of him, cushioning his brow on folded arms. "I'm going to be sick," he warns a little too loudly.
The Italian snaps his fingers. "Suora Fossette! The bucket!" The newly christened Sister Dimples scrambles to deliver it, and only just in time. "Allow me," the gentleman says, courteous as a headwaiter while Schramm pukes into the dirty water.
Swiping at his watering eyes with trembling hands, Schramm accepts the proffered handkerchief. "Touris', translator . . . now you're a nurse!"
"A man of endless possibilities!" the Italian declares, setting the bucket aside.
He has a face off a fresco: bent-nosed and bony, but with a benign expression. Old enough to be tolerantly amused by another's disgrace. Someone who might understand . . . Schramm wants to tell this kindly stranger everything, but all that comes out is "I was tryin' t'make things better."
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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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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