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By LOUISE MARLEY
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Louise Marley
All right reserved.
Chapter OneQuel sangue ... quella piaga ... The blood ... that wound ... -Donna Anna, Act One, Scene One, Don Giovanni
The old woman hummed to herself as she crumbled bits of black paste into a little clay pot and added wine and water. "Good Roman wine," she said as she stirred it with a wooden spoon. "And honey," she added, smiling, showing blackened teeth. "To cover the taste."
She had told Ughetto and the other boys to call her Nonna. But she was nothing like Ughetto's nonna. Ughetto's nonna was plump and easy, with soft arms and warm fingers. This crone, this vecchia, was scrawny and dry and twisted, like a dead olive tree.
Ughetto knew what the black paste was. He had seen it often in his mother's tavern in Trapani. The sailors carried it in their pockets, wrapped in bits of Chinese silk or Indian cotton. Their eyes gleamed with anticipation as they unwrapped their little bundles, opening them carefully on the wooden tables. They shaved the paste into clay pipes with small, sharp knives, and when they smoked it, the tavern filled with the pungent scent of poppies.
Ughetto's mother always drove him out then, him and all six of his sisters. She shooed them down to the beach to search for mussels, or over to the docks to drum up trade for the tavern. They went running down the twisting streets, laughing, shouting, a horde of ragged girls with Ughetto, the baby, the only boy, struggling to keep up.
He wished his real nonna were here now, or his mamma. He wished his sisters were here, or he with them, though they ordered him about like a small slave. Home had been noisy and warm. Home had felt safe, most of the time. He didn't like being alone, didn't like this place, this Nonna, or Luigi, her slack-lipped son.
They had taken him in Trapani. Mamma had sent him to the docks, telling him to wait beside the pile of empty crab pots for a woman with a package. This Nonna had appeared, with her big-shouldered, big-bellied son. Nonna asked Ughetto's name, and when he gave it, Luigi picked him up and carried him onto a waiting boat.
Ughetto was the package, it turned out, and though he wailed for his sisters, there was no one to save him.
Now, in this fearsome little casetta, Ughetto wrapped his arms around himself and shivered with fear. Luigi had already carried two other boys, eyes glazed from the opium, legs flopping limply over his big arms, into the tiled room where the tub was, where the knives waited. Ughetto crouched in the atrium under Nonna's watchful eye, listening to the whimpers and moans as the deed was done. Luigi brought the boys back, swaddled in bloody linen, and carried them through the atrium and on into the tiny house.
Ughetto tried to turn his head away when Nonna held the cup to his lips, but she seized his hair with her brown claw and twisted his head to face her. "Cretino," she hissed. "Don't be an idiot. Drink, or you'll be screaming."
He cried, "No! Mamma, Mamma." Hot baby tears burned his eyes.
Nonna showed her jumbled teeth. "No more mamma, little one. Musica."
She pressed the cup against his mouth, forcing his lips open with its metal rim. The sweet strong wine flooded his tongue, and he had to swallow, or drown. He closed his eyes, and gulped pungent sweetness. The room began to dissolve around him. He spun, stomach and brain and feet all mixed up, like diving too deep from the rocks into the warm Mediterranean waters of Trapani and not knowing which way to swim to the surface.
Nonna tipped up the cup again, and he drank, drank until it was dry.
She spoke. Ughetto heard her voice, but her words made no sense. He tried to open his eyes, but the lids would not obey him.
Perhaps he would die. Boys did, hundreds of them. Everyone knew that. They died under the knife, or they died afterward, bleeding and swollen, burning with fever. Would his mamma know if he died? Would they tell her?
Would she care?
It was possible she would not. She had regarded him so strangely, ever since that night when the family-all six girls, Ughetto, his nonna, and Mamma-had gone down to the docks in the darkness to wait for the squid boats to come in. Far out on the water, the fishermen shone their torches over the water to entice the squid to the jigs. The lights danced on the waves, shifting as the water tossed the boats to and fro.
When the moon rose over the sea, Ughetto's sisters exclaimed at its brilliance. They turned, all of them, and lifted their faces into its silver glow. It was full and round, and its crystalline light turned the low roofs and rough-cobbled streets of Trapani into a scene of magic, a fantasy village, its dirt and poverty transformed by the moon.
Ughetto was seven years old, already wriggling with energy and pleasure at the novelty of the night. When an unfamiliar sensation came over him, standing there in the moonlight, it seemed part of the strangeness. He felt as if he were becoming someone else, someone new and powerful instead of small and insignificant. His skin itched, and his jaw ached. When he began to scratch at himself, his mamma slapped at his hands. He tried to hold still, but he felt as if he were burning, as if he had rolled in too-hot sand. He scrubbed at his belly with both hands, grunting at the fierceness of the sensation.
It was his nonna who seized him up then, lifting him in her arms as if he were still a baby. She hissed something at his mamma, who drew a sharp, shocked breath. His nonna carried him away, up through the moonlit streets to the tavern, leaving his mamma and his sisters on the docks. He remembered kicking at her, whining, but she only held him tighter, and made no answer. She bundled him into the tavern and into his bed, folding him into his blankets, ignoring his protests. She lit no candles, nor did she stoke up the fire, but held him there in the darkness. In time, the burning of his skin subsided. By the time his mamma and sisters came home with their buckets of squid, he felt himself again. But Mamma looked at him as if he were a stranger.
And now she was lost to him. It was Luigi's strong arms beneath him, Luigi's rough hand seizing his head as it lolled backward. There was movement, the air changing against his face as Luigi carried him. The smell of the bath filled his nostrils with the essence of vinegar. Water rose around his legs, warm as blood. His buttocks settled onto a wooden bench that was wet and hard and splintery. Hands took hold of his feet and pulled his legs apart.
Someone held his head, murmuring something, laughing.
Someone else wielded the knife.
There was pain, sharp and surprising, and he gasped, breathing water, choking. He struggled, and someone cursed. There was a splash, and more swearing, and then someone ... Ughetto fought his eyelids, trying to see.
Someone was growling.
His eyelids lifted, and his mind cleared all at once, as if a fog had burned away under a quickly rising sun. He peered around him through slitted eyes.
Faces looked back at him, horrified faces. Nonna shrieked something, and an open-mouthed stranger, the surgeon, backed away, knife held out before him, dripping blood onto the tiled floor. Luigi gave a guttural cry and dropped Ughetto's head into the water.
Ughetto blew water from his mouth as he grasped the edge of the tub with both hands. He pulled himself to his feet, dripping, hot, and angry.
There was blood on his thighs, warmer than the water. His head hummed with sounds and smells he had not noticed before: the wheeze of Nonna's breath in her aging lungs; the fetid odor of Luigi's sweat; the scent of blood on the surgeon's knife, on his clothes, his hands. The surgeon whimpered and backed away.
Ughetto splashed out of the tub. Nonna tried to seize him, and he struck at her with his nails, slicing her dark skin, drawing blood. She dropped him with a cry, and he whirled to slash at Luigi next. Luigi scrambled out of reach. The smell of his fear filled the room and made Ughetto's mouth fill with saliva. Ughetto rounded on the surgeon next, but he saw only his heels as the man fled.
Ughetto fell to all fours in a movement that felt perfectly natural. He spun in a circle and saw that Luigi and Nonna dared not come close to him. His mouth opened, and his tongue lolled, saliva dripping as he galloped from the room. He slid on the wet tiles, finding his footing once he reached the dirt floor of the atrium. The sun warmed his back as he dashed away from the house. He ran swiftly, strongly, too fast for them to follow. They had no will to chase him, in any case. The pungence of their fear assured him of that.
He raced toward the orange grove, eager for the sanctuary of its drooping branches.
Chapter TwoAnima mia, consolati, fa' core ... My love, console yourself, take heart ... -Don Ottavio, Act One, Scene One, Don Giovanni
Octavia waited between the chaise longue and the mock fireplace as the rest of her colleagues, one by one, stepped through the Met's curtain. Heavy gold damask muffled the roar of applause. When the stage manager parted the panels for the singers to pass through, the noise swelled, waves of sound breaking over the stage, then ebbed again as the immense curtain closed. Perspiration soaked Octavia's ribs beneath the layers of Violetta's third-act peignoir. She leaned against the scrolled back of the chaise, one hand pressed to her heart. It still thudded with the emotion of the last scene.
The stage manager gestured to her, and she moved forward. The clapping beyond the curtain diminished as the audience waited, saving itself, gathering its energy.
Octavia drew a deep breath of preparation. This was the telling moment, after every performance. This was what mattered, not the fee, not the notices, not the dozens of small things that had gone wrong, the multitude of things that had gone well. Her conductors might love her, her stage directors respect her. Her colleagues might criticize behind her back, or ply her with compliments to her face, but in the end, that didn't matter, either.
The unfathomable, unpredictable creature that signified was the audience. It was to them, her public, that she offered herself. With every performance she delivered over the sum of her years of study and practice and discipline. And it was from them, and only them, that her reward could come.
She arranged the folds of the peignoir, straightened her back, and stepped out into the hot light of the spot.
She was met by thunder, a storm she never wearied of. Buffeted by the torrent of sound, she dropped into her curtsy, layers of lace and silk pooling around her. She lifted her face to accept her ovation. She didn't smile-Violetta's grief was too recent-but she opened her arms, gracefully, gratefully. The cries of Brava, brava! were her manna. They fed her in a way matched by only one other.
She bowed, and retreated behind the gold curtain. They called her back again, then again, and released her with reluctance only when the curtain rose and Octavia took her colleagues' hands to join in the company bow. Her heart soared as she savored her triumph. She knew well how transitory such glory was. These moments were ephemeral, fragile as bubbles of foam floating at the crest of a wave, and she knew better than to take them for granted. Such successes had not always been hers.
Octavia found her dressing room empty. Ugo usually waited for her there, relaxed on the little settee. He was in the habit of laying out a towel for her to use after her shower, of brewing a fresh cup of tea for her to sip as she took off her makeup.
The dresser also looked around the cramped space in surprise. "Your assistant isn't here tonight?"
"He was," Octavia said. "I expected him." She looked about for a note, for some reassurance, but she found nothing.
"Do you want me to go look for him?"
"Oh, no," Octavia said. "That's nice, Lucy, but it's not necessary." She went in and began to slip the peignoir off her shoulders. "He'll meet me at the reception, I imagine."
Lucy held out her hands for the peignoir. She opened the glass doors of the closet, extracted a padded hanger, and arranged the long folds over it.
Octavia unpinned her wig and fitted it over its Styrofoam stand. She pulled off the wig liner and ran her fingers through her hair to rub circulation back into her scalp as Lucy undid the hooks and eyes on Violetta's voluminous nightgown. Octavia stepped out of the hot costume, shivering as sudden goose bumps prickled across her arms and shoulders. She wriggled out of the nylon corset and pulled on a silk kimono.
The costumes from the first and second acts had already gone down to the costume shop to be dry-cleaned and stored for the next Violetta. The closet was empty now, a sign of the last night of the run. Lucy maneuvered herself toward the door with her arms full of fabric. Octavia took up a small wrapped gift waiting on the dressing table, and she perched this on top of the mound of ivory silk. "Thank you so much for everything, Lucy," she said. "I look forward to seeing you next year for Rusalka."
"That will be great," Lucy said. "I hear it was a wonderful show tonight."
"It went well, I think." Octavia held the door for her, and the dresser sidled out into the corridor, joining a little stream of other dressers, assistants, well-wishers. Octavia peered out, hoping that Ugo might make his appearance now, but he wasn't there. She closed the door and went to the dressing table. She began to rub cold cream on her face with tense fingers, her ebullient mood evaporating.
He should have told her he was going to be delayed. He knew how she worried.
Octavia, in silver-beaded black silk, stood with the other principals to shake hands with opera patrons who strolled through the Upper West Side apartment. Tuxedos and designer gowns studded the crowd. The air was redolent with the scents of money and privilege, a cultural incense that swirled over trays of champagne glasses, among white linen tables with platters of caviar and canapés, and over the heads of the gay bejeweled company.
The room warmed as more people pressed in through the French doors from the foyer. Octavia held her smile, accepted compliments, made polite conversation. The little line of singers dominated the room as if they were still performing. Admirers came and went, looking pleased to have touched the hands of these unique personages.
When one person stepped away, another took the empty place, beginning afresh with comments and questions. The air grew close, and Octavia felt sweat begin to bead anew beneath the silk sheath, to trickle down the small of her back.
When the flow of well-wishers began to lag at last, she slipped away to the coolness of a large, elegant bay window facing the park. Someone pressed a glass of champagne in her hand, and she drank half of it down straight away. Not a good sign. Thirsty already.
She leaned close to the glass so she could see past the shimmering silver of her own reflection. A couple, walking hand in hand, was just crossing the avenue to go into the park. As she watched, they stopped to kiss. When they moved on, they slipped their arms around each other, melding them into one person in the glow of the streetlights. Octavia sighed and finished the champagne. Someone refilled her glass, and she drank that, too, though she knew she probably shouldn't.
Damn Ugo. She hated being alone at these things.
She tried not to think about where he might be, what unsavory character he might be meeting. She hardly knew enough to be able to imagine these things, in any case. He refused, ever, to tell her.
She turned away from the window, thinking perhaps it was not too early for her to make her escape. She found the shy young mezzo who had sung Annina standing just behind her.
"Oh!" Octavia said. "Hi, Linda."
"I just wanted to say good-bye," Linda said. She was a plump, freckled American with a sweet smile. "It was so nice working with you, Octavia."
"It was lovely," Octavia agreed. "You were a perfect Annina."
The girl shrugged. "Oh, well. Comprimario rôles. Where I'm stuck, probably."
Octavia said what she always said in such situations. "You must keep trying. I know what it's like." And she did. She had struggled herself, in ways this nice young singer could never understand. "You have to persevere."
"Oh, I'll hang in there." Linda gave a self-deprecatory laugh. "But you know what they say about opera-voice, voice, and voice."
"Yours is very pretty."
"That's nice of you to say." Linda put out her hand. "Yours is magnificent, Octavia. And I hope to see you next year for Rusalka. I'm hoping they'll cast me as one of the Wood Nymphs."
Octavia pressed her hand. "I'm so glad. If someone asks me, I'll tell them they should give you a contract right now."
Linda blushed and admitted, "I hope they ask you, then! A Met contract makes my whole year."
"Mine, too." Octavia set her empty glass on the windowsill. "I think I'm going to say good night to everyone. I'm tired, and I still have to pack."
Excerpted from Mozart's Blood by LOUISE MARLEY Copyright © 2010 by Louise Marley. Excerpted by permission.
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