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  • Liar Moon by Ben Pastor
  • Ben Pastor |  Liar Moon
Liar Moon by Ben Pastor

Verona, German-occupied Northern Italy

9 September 1943 

Si deve far coraggio, maggiore. 

Martin Bora was in too much pain to say he understood. 

Dobbiamo pulire le ferite. 

In too much pain to say he understood that, also. 

Courage. Cleaning the wounds. Blood throbbed in his lids, by quick flickers in the blind glow of eyes tightly shut, and at the back of his mouth, where his teeth clenched hard, another heartbeat scanned frantic time in his head. 

Coraggio, coraggio. Try to take heart.” 

A small pool of saliva rose under his tongue, until he had to swallow. The lifting of the stretcher so exasperated the agony in his left arm, the whole length of his body crumpled with it. All he could gather was a convulsed short breathing at the top of his chest, as in one who must cry, or cry out. 

They were laying him on the emergency-room table. Taking off his boots. His left leg seemed to tear open with the removal of the rigid leather, as if they were wrenching the bone from his knee. Lights burst over him, human voices travelled from great distances to him, at him, into him. 

Blood sprayed as medics cut and dug through the gore of his clothes, and Bora would not let go but grew hard and grim and desperate, trying to resist the pain. To fight it, as if one could fight this, when his whole left side felt crushed in a giant vice and there was no hope of pulling himself out without shredding arm and leg in the process. His left hand, torn already to filaments and gushing blood, gulped and gulped his life out – lungs, stomach, bones – all seemingly heaving from the severance at the end of his arm, a sick red jumble of what had filled his body until now. 

They were undoing his army breeches. Anxious hands reached into the blood-matted fleece of his groin, searched thigh and knee. His neck arched rigid in the strain of his back to rise. 

“Hold him down, hold him down,” a voice said. “You’ll have to hold him down, Nurse.” 

Joints braced as in a seizure, Bora was fighting pain, not being held down. 

He could not swallow nor could he say he could not swallow, and when someone gave him water – he knew his mouth was unclenching because breath surged out of it in spasms – it gurgled back up his throat to the sides of his face. 

They would work on his left arm next. He hardened for it, and still a paroxysm of pain wrenched his mouth open and he was racked into a fit of trembling but would not scream. He groped for the edge of the table, would not scream. Neck flexed back, hard, unable to close his mouth – it was hard, hard! – he struggled and butted his head against the hard surface and would not scream. 

“Put something under his head, Nurse, he’s battering it on the table.” 

The digging of hands into the meat of arm and groin and thigh accelerated and then halted. It began again slowly. Slowly. Digging, pulling, coming apart. Being born must be like this, a helpless nauseous struggle to get out in the overwhelming smell of blood – a butcher-shop smell – pain jagged immeasurably high in it. 

He would break. If he pushed through he would break into aborted flesh, and die if he didn’t. 

“Hold him down!” 

Then someone forcibly pried his right hand from the side of the table and clutched it. 

Bora could weep for the comfort that came with the hold, as if the act were his midwifery from death, delivering him from the mandible and womb of death. He stopped fighting, and was suddenly coming out of the vice. 

Lights blinded him, he saw blood quilting his stretchedout body and people working into the naked red quilt with shiny tools, wads of cotton. 

Out, out. He was coming out. 

The clasp wrested him to a threshold of agony, brought him forth, and pain was extreme, unbearable at the passage. Bora cried out only once, when birth from pain tore what remained of his left hand with it. 

In the morning, the sky was the battered colour of a bruise. The tall hospital window was made sad and livid by it, and in that bruised light Bora asked, unflinching, “Will there have to be a graft, or was there enough skin left?” 

“We were able to repair it with what skin there was, Major. We tried to shield the stump and remove enough nervous terminations so that it will not hurt too much later. I am very sorry.” 

Bora looked away from the surgeon. 

“What about my leg?” 

“If gangrene doesn’t develop, we hope to save it.” 

Suddenly Bora felt the need to vomit. Only it had nothing to do with anaesthesia this time, nor with pain. He said he understood, but would not look at his left arm. 

The Italian surgeon, who was high-ranking and old enough to speak his mind to a German officer, shook his head. “It didn’t help matters that you waited two hours to be evacuated.” 

“My wounded men came first. I lost two of them as it is.” 

“You lost three. Anyway, since you must be wondering, the metal fragments in your groin have not injured the genitals.” 

“I see.” Bora did not look up, staring at an indeterminate place on the bed. “Thank you.” 

The wretched odour of disinfectant and blood filled the room. His body smelled of them. “My wedding ring, where is it?” 

“Here.” 

Beyond the bed, everything was a livid off-white colour. The window had a veined marble sill, like mottled flesh. Small cracks in the wall beneath it drew the eyeless, approximate profile of a horse. 

“Will you accept something for the pain?” 

Martin Bora moved his head from side to side on the pillow, but was too weak to say that he wouldn’t.

Lago, 18.5 miles north-east of Verona

21 November 1943 

Two months later, when he opened his eyes in the dark, Bora found himself holding his breath. Thinking, he went up and down his limbs, checking with hesitation the usually aching areas of left arm and leg – regions in the dark, uncertain of boundaries as even one’s body is when awakening. 

It was seldom that he had no pain, and the grateful lassitude, derived from feeling nothing, had become a luxury in the past few months. Face up in bed, he avoided any motion that might endanger the precious, transitory balance, though not feeling was far from feeling well. It would be so, it would have to be so until his body forgave him for what had happened in September. 

The grenade attack had been unavoidable, but his flesh rejected it, and the truth of mutilation. He was still ashamed for helplessly lying on the butcher block of the emergency table, sewn in his wounds and bloodied as at birth for the length of his limbs, whose ordure a Sister of Charity sponged. The mortified nakedness of chest and belly and thighs and groin under the patient wipe of her virgin hands stayed with him. Forgiveness to himself would not come from simply surviving the agony of it as a wide-eyed animal, without crying out. 

So Bora woke holding his breath so as not to rouse pain, while outside of the room – outside the command post – the wind rode high and pushed ahead a moon thin as an eyebrow. 

By seven o’clock that morning, a keen, colder gale had blustered out of the north to empty the streets of Lago, a small town like many others, without a lake despite its name, lost in the fields of the Veneto region. Bora sat in his office minding paperwork, with an ear to the hum of vibrating telephone wires outdoors. He heard, too, the idling and then stopping of a motor car before the command, but had no curiosity to reach the window and find out who it was. 

Even when the orderly came to knock on his door, he did not stop writing. 

“Yes, what?” he limited himself to saying. After being told of the visitor, he added, “All right, let him in.” 

The newcomer was dark and wiry, with vivacious black eyes and a moustache like a caterpillar lining his upper lip. The sombre Fascist Republican Party mixture of field-grey and black formed a light-absorbing stain in the dim autumn day. Skulls and bundles of rods on the epaulets identified him as a member of the shock troops. 

Viva il Duce. 

Bora did not return the Fascist salute, and stared up in a noncommittal way from his chair. He set his face inexpressively enough, while “How can I assist you?” rolled out of him flatly. 

“Centurion Gaetano De Rosa, of the Muti Battalion.” 

The visitor spoke in the manner of training camp, projecting his voice across the office. 

“Major Martin Bora of the Wehrmacht,” Bora replied. And it took him aback that the little man addressed him in German next, in good German, with a pompous, selfconscious ring to the use of tenses as he introduced his reason for being there. 

It had to do with a murder, so at first Bora listened, sitting back in the chair with his left arm low and his right hand calmly fingering a fountain pen over the shiny desktop. 

“Why don’t you speak Italian?” he asked then, in Italian. 

“Why? Well, Major, I thought—” 

“There’s no need for you to go through any such effort. As you can see, I speak Italian too.” 

It was obvious that De Rosa was disappointed. Bora knew well enough these Fascists moonstruck with all things Germanic, who patterned themselves after his own people to the extent of sounding obnoxiously servile. He had learned to cut short all attempts to favour him with familiarity with German customs and places. And now he went straight to the core of the matter. 

“I appreciate your coming to me, Centurion De Rosa, but I don’t see how or even why I should offer assistance. The violent death of a Party notable is serious business. Your Verona police will be much better qualified than myself to conduct the investigation.” 

De Rosa was not easily outdone this time. “I thought you might answer that way, Major. That’s why I brought this along. Please read.” He handed an envelope to Bora, who sliced through its side with a penknife and began reading. Against the light from the window, De Rosa seemed to glow with pleasure at the sight of the letterhead, the squarish spread eagle of the German Headquarters in Verona. 

There was little arguing with the brief of presentation. Bora put the sheet down, glaring at the little man, and prepared himself to listen. 

Twenty minutes down the road from Lago, the few houses of Sagràte were buffeted by the pitiless wind. The naked bushes rattled like tambourines when Police Inspector Guidi got out of his old Fiat service car. 

Corporal Turco hastened to reach the door of the police command ahead of him, opened it, stepped aside and let him in. He had the encumbering figure of a Saracenblooded Sicilian, and when he joined Guidi inside, a wild whiff of clothes worn outdoors came with him. 

Arsalarma,” he let out in his dialect. “With one shoe missing, Inspector, he can’t have gone far.” 

Guidi did not bother to turn around. He removed from around his neck the bulky scarf his mother had hand-knit for him. “Why, Turco, haven’t you ever walked barefoot?” 

There wasn’t much else for Turco to say, since his first footwear had come with his induction into the army. He brought to Guidi’s desk the laceless, worn shoe they had just recovered, careful to place a newspaper under it before laying it down. 

“Without a shoe, and crazy, too,” he mumbled to himself. “Marasantissima. 

Guidi had started pencilling lines on a topographic map tacked to his office wall. In a wide semicircle that began and ended at the river, fanning out from its right bank, he enclosed the stretch of flat countryside they had searched the night before. It seemed much larger when one had to slog across it, he thought. 

Past the river, long and narrow fields, now mostly bare, ran to the guerrilla-torn piedmont, home to partisan bands. Guidi knew there were no farmhouses there to offer shelter to a fugitive – only fields, and irrigation canals bordering them and intersecting with deep ditches alongside endless hedgerows. His instinct told him he should continue to search this side of the river. Guidi marked with a dot the place where the shoe had been found, nearly halfway between Lago and Sagràte, where groves of willow trees flanked the county road. 

“Let’s give the men a chance to rest until tomorrow,” he told Turco. “Then we’ll see what else can be done. The carabinieri assured me they’ll continue the search on their own until sundown.” Guidi nearly laughed saying it, because Turco (who was far from daft, but loved theatrics) stared at the muddy shoe as though he could stare it into giving information. 

As for Bora, he sighed deeply to conceal his boredom at De Rosa’s narrative. Because the talk gave no sign of ending, “Colonel Habermehl is surely aware that I’m very busy,” Bora interjected at last. “I have no free time.” 

In front of him, Habermehl’s letter agreed that it was all a bother, but advised him to please the Verona Fascists. Bora knew the arguments by heart: this was northern Italy, four years into the war, and the Italian allies had become potential enemies. The Americans had landed in Salerno and were inching up the peninsula. Why not please the Verona Fascists, who remained pro-German? Habermehl asked “as a family friend, not out of rank”. But the rank was there, of course, and Bora knew better than to fall for the outward courtesy. 

“Look,” he told De Rosa. “If you wish me to get involved in this case, you must supply me with all information gathered by the Italian police and carabinieri to date. When did the murder take place?” 

De Rosa frowned. “Day before yesterday. Didn’t you read it in the Arena? It was the most important piece of news, it took up nearly the whole front page.” 

Bora had spent all day Friday at the hospital in Verona, where the surgeon was still extracting shrapnel from his left leg. He’d had neither the time nor the inclination to read the Italian newspapers. “I must not have paid attention,” he said. 

Promptly De Rosa pulled out a newspaper clipping, laying it square on the desk in front of Bora. 

Bora read. “Here it says that Camerata Vittorio Lisi was the victim of a stroke in his country villa.” 

“Well.” De Rosa gave him an unamused smile, a grimace really. “You understand that when it comes to a man of Lisi’s fame and valour, the public must be kept from scandals. Lisi was from Verona. All knew him, all loved him.” 

“All but one person at least, if he’s been done in.” Bora gave back the clipping, which De Rosa carefully folded again but left on the desk. “What chances are there that it was a political assassination?” 

“None, Major Bora. Lisi was not a controversial man. Solid, with a heart of gold.” 

“I’m not aware that partisans or political adversaries would be impressed by a Fascist’s golden heart.” 

De Rosa’s grimace caused the well-combed caterpillar on his upper lip to tremble. “With all respect, Major, I know the political climate of the region better than you do. I assure you it is Fascistissimo.” 

Bora was tempted to phone Habermehl with an excuse to avoid the incestuous little world of local politics. His urge might have been visible, because De Rosa spoke up. 

“Colonel Habermehl informs me that you have already solved difficult cases.” 

“By accident.” Bora minimized the report. “Always by accident.” 

“Not according to the colonel. He says you distinguished yourself in the case of a murder in Spain, and of a dead nun in Poland. And in Russia…” 

The silvery skulls on De Rosa’s uniform glinted dully. The angry eagle clutching a fascio on his chest pocket, and the fanaticism it stood for, was beginning to annoy Bora. He said, “All right. Tell me all that is known about Lisi’s death, and provide me with the dossier as soon as possible.” 

“May I at least sit down?” De Rosa asked tartly. 

“Sit down.” 

On that Sunday, Guidi’s mother was shelling peas into a colander set on her knees, rolling them out of their green casing with swift, hooked strokes of the thumb. These were the last peas of the season; it was amazing how they’d managed to ripen despite the cold nights. But how well they went with pasta sauce, and how Sandro liked them! 

Near the kitchen door, she could now barely make out the voices of the men talking in the parlour. Her son had a soft voice as it was. Only a few of the words he spoke to the German were comprehensible to her, and as for the German, he was even more controlled in his speech.  

Signora Guidi was curious, but sat shelling peas with the offended dignity of the excluded. 

Bora was saying, “No, thank you, I’m in a hurry.” 

Having refused to take a seat, he stood rigidly by the set dining-room table, opposite a mirrored credenza. On the credenza sat the black-ribboned photograph of Guidi’s policeman father, with the date 1924 penned at the bottom, preceded by a cross. 

“That’s what De Rosa said, Guidi. And although he came under some pretence of secrecy, God knows why, he did not expressly forbid me to talk it over with others, so here I am.” 

Compared to Bora’s impeccable German uniform, Guidi grew aware of his shirt-sleeved frumpiness, perhaps because Bora seemed to be appraising him. He could feel the scrutiny of his own unprepossessing lankiness, his melancholy features drawn under the limp, swept-back wave of his sandy hair. Bora, on the other hand, looked like steel and leather and immaculate cuffs. 

Perhaps he ought to feel flattered by the visit. “Major,” Guidi said, “is it proven that Lisi’s death was not an accident, first of all?” 

“It seems so. His wife’s sports car has a sizeable dent in the front fender. De Rosa is convinced it resulted from her purposely running into Lisi’s wheelchair. As I said, it happened in the grounds of the victim’s country place. Unlikely that he was struck by a passing motorist.” 

Absent-mindedly Guidi nodded. From the kitchen wafted the odour of frying onions, so he went to shut the door. “Are they keeping the widow under surveillance?” 

“Virtually house arrest.” 

“In the country?” 

“No, she lives in Verona.” Without stepping forward, Bora handed over a slim folder tied with a rubber band. “These are the notes I took after De Rosa’s visit.” 

While Guidi read, Bora took off his cap and placed it under his left arm. Italian officials made little money, he knew. Dated furniture, old school books lovingly arranged on the shelf, a rug brushed threadbare. The punctilious modesty of this room spoke of the ever-losing struggle of the middle class to keep respectable. More importantly, it might speak of Guidi’s honesty. 

From the credenza’s mirror, unbidden, the stern clarity of his own eyes met Bora. The finely drawn paleness of the face his wife called handsome looked to him new and hard, as if Russia and pain had killed him and made him into another. He took a step aside to avoid his reflection. 

Guidi said, “We’ll need the physician’s report and autopsy.” 

“I requested them.” 

From where he faced now, Bora noticed how the photograph of Guidi’s father occupied the centre of an embroidered doily, between two vases filled with artificial flowers. A regular home altar, complete with lit taper. Memory of his younger brother’s death hit him squarely (Kursk, only a few months ago, the crash site in the field of sunflowers, blood lining the cockpit), so that Bora moodily looked down. 

“When the housemaid came out after hearing the noise, the victim had been thrown several paces from his wheelchair. According to De Rosa, Lisi had only enough strength left in his arm to trace a ‘C’ on the gravel, and then lost consciousness. He had already slipped into a coma when help came, and was dead in less than twentyfour hours’ time.” 

Guidi closed the folder. “I don’t see how this detail particularly relates to his wife.” 

“Her name is Clara.” 

“Ah. But even then, it all remains circumstantial. Were there problems in the Lisi marriage?” 

Bora stared at him. “They were living apart, and their separation had been unfriendly. Apparently there were still occasional violent arguments between them. Naturally the widow denies all accusations, and insists she had nothing to do with the matter, although she was reportedly unable to offer an alibi for the afternoon of the killing. Without an eyewitness, there’s no way of knowing whether she drove to the country on that day or not. Whoever killed Lisi, though, arrived and left again within a few minutes.” 

Noise from the kitchen intruded. Guidi stole a look to the door, embarrassed that his mother was banging pots and covers as a not-so-subtle hint that lunch was ready. Bora’s dark army crop moved imperceptibly in that direction. 

“Well, Major, I have to think about it—” Bora interrupted him. 

“What do you intend by ‘thinking’? That you haven’t decided whether you’ll collaborate with me, or that you need time before offering me suggestions?” 

“I need to think of a plan of action. I’ll phone you at the command post this evening.” 

Bora, who had scheduled an anti-partisan night raid and would not be at the post, nevertheless said it was fine. 

Over the occasional banging of pots, “We’re agreed, then.” Guidi rushed to say, “What I meant to pass on, Major, is that an escaped convict is at large between Lago and Sagràte.” 

Unexpectedly Bora smirked. “Why, thank you. We’ll lock our doors at night.” 

“He was diagnosed by Italian army physicians as criminally insane, and carries a marksman Carcano besides.” 

“6.5 or 7.35 mm calibre?” 

“8 mm.” 

Bora frowned. “Ah. Those made for the Russian campaign. They have a brutal recoil. Well, for us it’s just one more bullet to dodge, Guidi.” 

“I did my civic duty by informing the German authorities.” 

After a particularly syncopated rattle of cooking pots, the kitchen became peaceful again. Guidi breathed easily. “Did De Rosa tell you why they want to keep the murder a secret?” 

Bora openly grinned this time. “For the same reason why there are no more suicides in Fascist Italy, and people just happen to stumble on the tracks while there’s an oncoming train. Perhaps there are no murders in Fascist Italy, either. It seems Lisi was of some importance. A comrade of the first hour, in Mussolini’s words.” Bora swept his army cap from under his arm and put it on, taking a rigid step toward the door. “Colonel Habermehl recommended my name to the Republican Guard because of what he terms my part in solving other small matters. It’s only natural I should contact you, since you are the professional in the field.” He opened the door, through which a field-grey BMW was visible, with driver waiting at attention. “My apologies to your mother for delaying your holiday meal. Goodbye.” 

Guidi waited until the army car left the kerb before calling out to his mother. “He’s gone, Ma.” Because she did not answer, he opened the kitchen door and peered in. “He left.” 

His mother had taken her apron off and was wearing her good shoes. “Gone? Why didn’t you ask him to stay for lunch?” 

“I thought you didn’t want the likes of him in the house, Ma.” 

“Honestly, Sandro! Now God knows what he’s going to think about us Italians, that we didn’t even invite him to lunch.”

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  • Ben PastorLiar Moon