Read an Excerpt
The Kingdom of Back
“Please, my love, let’s go home . . . call a carriage, quickly,” murmured the woman sitting wearily on a chair, pressing her stomach with her hands as if trying to hold it in. Her husband didn’t answer; he was waiting for the harpsichordist, whose playing was execrable, to finish her ridiculous performance. As she caressed the keys, she moved her shoulders gently and smiled, opening and closing her lips. Every nobleman could be sure that he could approach those lips, and enjoy them, and enjoy her entire body: he had only to ask.
“My dear, I’m serious . . . we had better leave.”
“Just a moment,” he said in annoyance, as
feeble applause broke out. Then he turned and jumped up. “Where did she go?”
“There, look . . . but don’t let it last too long, please.”
With a leap, the man reached the child who was squatting in a corner, absorbed, as she repeatedly opened and closed a fan; he tore it from her hand, made her stand up, and adjusted her dress. “Be good, Nannerl . . . as you always are, my angel,” he begged her, with a tremor of anxiety in his voice, while her blue eyes gazed into his and she uttered some strange monosyllables. She was odd, that girl. Anyone who didn’t know her well might have thought she was slow-witted.
“Are you ready?”
She nodded, still muttering to herself.
“Then go. Now!”
The whisper was lost in the breeze of chatter that began to blow through the salon. The little girl trotted over to the stool in front of the harpsichord, and with some effort climbed up onto it.
“Excuse me . . . most noble ladies, honorable gentlemen, a moment of your attention, if you please!”
Suddenly the chattering stopped, and all eyes were directed toward the stranger. He was certainly not an aristocrat; who knew what recommendation had gained him entrance to that salon. He might even be a professional musician! Irritation crept in among the patricians of Salzburg. Another performance now, just as they were finally returning to gossiping, to flirting, to showing off? And what sort of music could be produced by that little blond dwarf, whose chubby hands could barely encompass a fifth?
“I have the honor to introduce to you this spectacular child prodigy . . . Maria Anna Walburga Ignatia Mozart! She is, truly, one of the best harpsichord players ever to touch an instrument, and, wonder of wonders, she is only five years old. I, Leopold Mozart, her father, was able to perceive her great talent thanks to my own activities as a musician, in service at the court of His Excellency the Prince Archbishop. It would be an outrage against God himself if that gift were to remain unknown and uncultivated.”
The aristocratic irritation became palpable. One could only hope that the concert would quickly begin and end even more quickly, and that that pompous clown would stop strutting! Herr Mozart realized it, and hastily returned to his wife.
Impetuously the child began to play, and it was as if a lightning bolt had ripped through the frescoed ceiling, setting ablaze the curtains and the tapestries. There was nothing human about little Nannerl when she was making music; she seemed to be possessed by a primitive divinity, just waiting to get to an instrument to burst forth and leave listeners stunned. Her small hands produced clear and rapid sounds, obeying a supreme harmonic instinct, and the result was at the same time assured and undisciplined. The contradiction between her more-than-adult mastery and her child’s body was disconcerting. Her notes were words of a language still unknown, a language both fascinating and disorienting. Where’s the trick? No, there is no trick. And yet there must be! The lords and ladies approached, examined, were struck dumb; and, meanwhile, the child played melodies that she drew at random from her mind, inspired by the shapes of objects, by the crackle of the fire in the hearth, by the crash of a glass falling to the floor from the clumsy hands of one of the ladies.
Then, abruptly, she stopped, without even finishing the passage. She jumped down from the stool, ran to her father, took the fan, and began to open and close it again, swaying from one foot to the other and whispering strange words.
The ovation exploded, shaking the walls and the windows. How different from the applause for the voluptuous dilettante! It was the crash of an ancient tree trunk, the shouts and cries as a building falls. The women crowded around Leopold Mozart, who took his daughter in his arms and showed her off like a trophy, shaking jeweled hands, offering her to rouged mouths. Nannerl, however, showed no interest in that adoration meant for her alone; the fan absorbed her attention completely.
No one could hear the hoarse appeals from the woman in the chair, whose expression had become concentrated on a sudden internal upheaval; she raised her voice, but they all continued to ignore her, until a shrill cry burst from her.
“Leopold! Oh shit! Leopold!”
Those who heard her did not seem upset by the shocking words; rather, they looked at her as a member of an alien species.
With a great effort she took a breath and spoke again, holding her stomach: “Leopold . . . we’re there . . . we’re there; do you understand or not?”
Through the bedroom door came utterly unfamiliar sounds. They were cries and moans, and they were Mama’s; she was in pain, and to Nannerl it wasn’t clear whether her father and the fat lady from downstairs were helping her or were the torturers. Why had Papa forbidden her to enter? She had to intervene. The child stared at the mother-of-pearl door handle, too high above her head, and wished she were bigger. But a sudden sharp scream terrified her, and she jumped back. Then she heard, too, the excited voice of her father, and the fat lady’s hysterical tones. Nannerl took refuge under the harpsichord and stuck her fingers in her ears as deeply as she could, until she was practically digging out her eardrums: there, she no longer heard the cries. But gradually they reemerged from her memory in an amplified chorus, distorted and inhuman. Then she opened her mouth to cry and burning tears flowed from her eyes.
Her father came in, but she didn’t notice; she was crying too hard, and the sorrowful symphony in her head was deafening. Leopold drew her to him, put his arms around her, hugged her, while she struggled with her nightmare. For a long time the two remained sitting on the floor beside the harpsichord, holding each other, she out of terror, he out of love.
When Nannerl had calmed down, Leopold sat up on the stool and made her stand in front of him. He placed a finger on her nose: “Daughter, promise me that you won’t cry anymore. Ever, in your life. Remember: tears are useless.”
She nodded, drying her face with her sleeve.
“Now listen to me. Mama is fine, and you have a little brother.”
She stood motionless, bewildered.
“Yes—a fine little boy, completely pink and completely bald. His name is Wolfgang Theophilus. Would you like to see him?”
Of course! And she sped across the threshold. Her mother’s appearance alarmed her. She was in the bed, prostrate, and even though she was smiling, there was something abnormal about her. Everything in the room was abnormal; on the floor, at her feet, was a pile of blood- soaked rags, and, after wiping her hands, the fat lady threw another on top. Then, however, Nannerl saw the cradle; the sense of horror vanished miraculously, and she felt an intense desire to discover what sort of creature it held. She approached cautiously and slowly looked inside, enjoying every fraction of that memorable moment.
Wolfgang was pink, yes, and bald, yes, and he wasn’t aware. His head was elongated, like a bean, and his small, toothless mouth was wailing. His eyes seemed not to grasp space; his gestures were without meaning. But the instant she saw him, Nannerl knew that she loved him with her whole self, and that she would never love anyone else in the world the way she loved him.
Do you have sisters, dear Armand? I sincerely hope so, for your sake. Everyone should be lucky enough to have a special relationship like the
one between my brother and me! My mind and his have always been in unison, and we have never needed language in order to understand each other. As a child I liked to think we were a single body that had been divided by mistake. When I was eleven, in fact, an Italian painter made portraits of us, and it was disturbing to look at the paintings side by side. We had the same features: the same high forehead with prominent temples (which he naturally called “horns”), the same wide space between blond eyebrows and large light eyes, the same nose with the slightly downturned tip, the same full lips, with their mocking expression, the same strong-willed, pointed chin. Yet in character we were very different: he capricious, impertinent, and tirelessly in search of attention; I reserved, insecure, and fearful of imposing. I could express myself freely only in his company and in solitude—a condition not uncongenial to me even then.
In our games we were the king and queen of an imaginary land, the Kingdom of Back—a reality distinct from the tangible present and yet able to transform it and shatter its boundaries. How I yearn, dear Armand, for that enchanted land that I can no longer enter—a place inhabited only by children, where all make music the whole day long, and all are good and kind, and the bad are not admitted even for a visit. In the Kingdom of Back every pleasure was possible; you had only to utter the magic formula.
“Here forever happy are we . . .”
“And nothing bad will ever be!”
The rhyme echoed between the narrow balconies of the inner courtyard, shooting upward until it reached the pentagonal patch of sky and disappeared among the clouds.
For Wolfgang and Nannerl, every action had a sound, and every sound had a meaning. The noise of the traffic on the Getreidegasse, the nasal chatter of two women at a window, the splashing of slops emptied out of a chamber pot; the scuff of feet on grass, the rustling of Nannerl’s skirts and petticoats, the silent instant when she raised them to reveal long legs covered by scratches and bruises. And then the quick rhythm of running, he ahead and she behind, a tomboy, her hair loose and freely flying; and the crumbling mountain of garbage on whose summit rose the king’s throne. Wolfgang climbed up, triumphant, a crown of leaves on his head and a sword of reeds in his hand.
“Your Majesty, I haven’t done anything wrong!” Nannerl cried.
“When you speak to the king, you must kneel down!”
With a thud, she was on all fours. “Forgive me. I have no faults, my sovereign lord.”
“It’s not true! You don’t love your brother!”
“No, I adore him, Your Majesty! I adore him—and even more,” she said, seizing his feet and covering them with kisses.
“All right, I forgive you. You can be my queen again,” the tyrant said with a magnanimous scowl, and then he got down from the throne to tap one of her shoulders with the sword. But at that moment, like a castle of cards, the mountain of trash came crashing down and a long metal rod tumbled to the ground, the noise echoing painfully in their ears. Closing their eyes tight and sticking out their tongues, the two children groaned and, as the last vibration faded, emitted, in chorus, a sigh of relief. “What a horrible B-flat!”
Their mother leaned out the window of their apartment, on the third floor, and her sharp cry was the final blow: “Nannerl! Wolfgang! In the house, this instant!”
“You must be quiet when Papa is working!” yelled Anna Maria Mozart, who was washing the floor, as soon as she saw her children at the door. “And you, you’re older. You should be watching over your brother! Will you tie up that hair? You look like a witch!” She took a comb out of her own hair and started toward Nannerl, but the pail of dirty water was in the way and she bumped it with her clog so that the water sloshed out. “Holy shit!” she cried, raising her fists, as if to strike at random; she stood there like an enormous marble statue, the giantess Juno poised to transform the children into mice and the dirty water into a stormy sea, but instead she burst out laughing.
The children immediately followed, and how gaily! Wolfgang trotted around the puddle, and his laugh made the glasses on the shelf vibrate; Nannerl’s laugh was deep, and though she covered her mouth with her hand, it escaped anyway. “Hush, children, hush,” their mother begged. “Papa will be angry . . . Hush up, for heaven’s sake.” But she was giggling as she spoke, and could hardly be taken seriously. She pushed them along the hall with loving pats on the behind. “Go to the bedroom and be good. And please, be quiet.” Then she went back to the kitchen, and as soon as she saw the mess on the floor the desire to laugh vanished.
Exhausted, the children threw themselves on their backs on the bed, in which both had been conceived and born. They lay there without moving, staring at the ceiling that their imagination opened up to the sky, while the sound of string playing wound its way through the door with the mother-of-pearl handle.
It was Wolfgang who spoke first. “I’m going to be a coachman when I grow up. I’ll drive my carriage to the top of the mountains. I mean, to the top of the clouds.”
“I’m going to be a musician when I grow up.”
“What does that have to do with it! I’ll do that, too. But you won’t make it.”
“Because you’ll be a mama. You’ll have a bunch of children and you’ll be lucky if you’re even a music teacher.”
“I don’t want children. Not one! You’re enough for me.” She reached out a hand to cuddle him but encountered instead a large pear-shaped object hidden in the covers. “What’s your new violin doing here?”
He shrugged, and hugged the instrument case as if it were a doll.
“Will you let me try it, Wolfgang?”
“No. It’s mine.”
“Let me at least pluck the strings. I just want to hear the sound.”
“You’re not even supposed to touch it!”
“Come on, Wolfgang, let me try it. You don’t know how to play yet.”
“I do so!”
She laughed in his face. “Who do you think you are? You haven’t had a single lesson!”
A flash of defiance lighted the child’s eyes, and in an instant he had climbed onto a stool and turned the door handle. She jumped up and tried to grab him, but he was already in the middle of the music room, standing behind the string players and brandishing his violin like the Archangel Gabriel with his flaming sword.