COIN TRICKS & OTHER
WAR TACTICS
by Richard Squires
SECOND
PLACE
GeminiMAGAZINE
2016
Short Story
Contest
$100 Prize
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
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