"Always a mistake," the Italian remarks. "Where are you staying, Oberstabsarzt? Would you like to come back another day?"
Schramm shakes his head stubbornly. "'Dammte Schpageddi-Fresser. Italians're always late! Where is that shit of a priest?"
"Lie down, Herr Doktor." Schramm feels his legs lifted onto the pew. "Rest your eyes. The priest will come, and then we'll get you back where you belong."
"No, thank you," Schramm says firmly. "Hell exists, you know. Any combat soldier can tell you that." The other man stops moving. "I knew you'd un'erstan'! So heaven's real, too! Logic, ja?"
Their moment of communion is over. "I myself am not a devout Catholic," the Samaritan informs him regretfully. "My opinions about heaven and hell needn't trouble you."
"Righ' . . . righ'." Almost asleep, Schramm mumbles, "You're not a bad fellow . . ."
Moments later, he is snoring like a tank engine, and does not hear the hoot of delighted laughter that echoes through the basilica. "Did you hear that, Sisters?" his intepreter asks. "The Nazi says I'm not a bad fellow!"
"For a spaghetti chomper," Suora Fossette amends solemnly.
Musical giggles are quickly stifled when swift footsteps and whispering fabric announce a priest's approach. "Grüss Gott, mein Herr," he says, shooting a stern look at the novices. "I am Osvaldo Tomitz, secretary to His Excellency Archbishop Tirassa."
"Don Osvaldo! Piacere: a pleasure to meet you!" says a well-dressed civilian. "I'm Renzo Leoni."
Tomitz's confusion is plain. Suora Marta undoubtedly told him that the man wishing to confess is an obnoxious German drunk. "How may I be of service to you, signor?"
"Ah, but I am not the one who sought your services, Don Osvaldo." Leading the way toward the confessionals, Leoni presents a Waffen-SS officer passed out cold on a pew.
Nose wrinkling at the sour smell of vomit and brandy, Tomitz snorts. "So that's the Aryan superman we've heard so much about."
"Yes. Disappointing, really," Leoni concurs, but his eyes are on the priest. "Tomitz, Tomitz . . . You're from Trieste, aren't you? Your family's in shipping!"
Don Osvaldo draws himself up, surprised by recognition. In his early forties, of medium height and medium weight, with medium-brown hair framing regular features, not one of which is memorable, Osvaldo Tomitz must introduce himself repeatedly to people who have already met him. "My father was with Lloyds Adriatico. We moved here when the Genoa office opened a branch in Sant'Andrea. How did you know?"
"The name is Austrian. The German is Habsburg. The Italian is Veneto. Ergo: Trieste! As for the rest? I cheated: my father was a commercial photographer. Lloyds was a good customer. I met your father when I was a boy. You must have been in seminary by then. How is Signor Tomitz?"
"He passed away last year. I was teaching at Tortona. I asked for a position here so I could be nearer my mother."
"My sympathies, Don Osvaldo. My mother, too, is a widow."
Satisfied to have established a connection, Leoni returns his attention to the drunk. With an almost professional efficiency, he pats the Nazi down and removes the man's wallet. "Herr Doktor Oberstabsarzt Werner Schramm is with the Waffen-SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, Hausser's Second Armored Corps, late of the Russian front . . . Currently staying at the Bellavista. He's in Sant'Andrea on two weeks' leave." Leoni looks up, puzzled.
"Odd," Osvaldo agrees. "To come from such a hell, and spend his leave in Sant'Andrea?"
"Why not Venice, I wonder? Or Florence, or Rome?" Leoni glances apologetically at the frescoes. "No offense, Padre, but San Giobatta is not exactly a top draw." Leoni replaces the wallet and resumes his frisk. Withdrawing a silver cigarette case, he offers its contents to the priest with exploratory hospitality. "Prego! Take half," he urges. "PleaseI'm sure the doctor would insist."
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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