My Voice Is a Foreign Land | The New Engagement

My Voice Is a Foreign Land

By Giuseppe Gullo

A novel excerpt




“Sinfonia avanti l'Opera”

(Allegro – Andante affettuoso – Tempo di Minuetto)

A late-winter morning in Naples.

In the streets and narrow alleyways that cling one to the other around the church of San Gregorio Armeno, in the heart of the oldest neighbourhood of the city, life has just begun to spring forth again, only a few hours after having been pushed inside the small, dimly-lit rooms on the ground floors and basements of the tall palazzi that line both sides of the streets – a ritual, nocturnal suspension from the usual daytime bustle of wide-open doors and rowdy voices, both inside and outside of the poor homes. Only a temporary, cyclical pause, however, during which the city, otherwise implacably restless all the time, seems to have relented to an unexpected interlude of silence and inactivity.

Two figures walk hurriedly, only a few steps away from each other; not many other people are in sight at such an early hour of the day. A tall, slim man, badly hunchbacked on the right side; and a small boy carrying a fardel who seems to make a constant effort to catch up with him as much as he can. On a more careful look, one would notice that the boy proceeds with a rather peculiar gait; suddenly he stops, stands still for a second or two, and then makes a small leap – with one foot only, always the same – as if he wanted to skip a mud puddle; there are so many! He repeats this several times in cycles; halt – leap – a few steps with a limp; stop – another leap – walks again with some sort of struggle, now slower, now a little faster.

Naples, the big city, the capital that everyone at home so often talks about, is not at all as he had imagined arriving for the first time from his small village in the countryside, almost a one-week journey away. Silent, eerily deserted streets; taciturn, sleepy people ignoring each other.

Coldness. Dampness. Darkness.

Naples is dark. Dark last night when they arrived; dark this morning leaving the inn outside the city gates before anyone had even cared to light the fire in the main hall. And freezing cold.

It must have rained the whole night, but I was sleeping too tight to notice it. I didn’t have any dream – don’t they say that you don’t dream when you’re too tired? Too tired to dream, or even to be scared. I slept even with the Signor Organista snoring like a boar all the time, he’s even worse than Father!

Still, everything looks so different in the city, and so fascinating! The big squares that open unexpectedly one after another at the end of a small, winding street, as in the theatre the painted scenes with their ravishing perspective are unveiled for everyone’s admiration at the swift lifting of the stage curtain; the huge front gates of the buildings along the street, all of them carrying a massive crest over the arch entrance with odd signs and figures carved in stone, so big those entrances that one wonders whether the people who live in there are monsters, a family of giants perhaps.

Why then would one bother building such a huge door for people like me or anyone else?

However, the boy’s glance should not be distracted by what is being displayed so generously all around him. For no reason he would want to take his eyes off the man who is leading the way; losing sight of him would be an unimaginable disaster.  

For no more than a second the little boy would allow himself to look down at the many unsettled cobblestones in the pavement – he is well aware that a fall could ruin his new garments and he has to be very careful. They were made by the village tailor, those clothes, not the good one, of course, the fine man who keeps his shop near the cathedral and serves the wealthy but the old cripple who lives at the bottom of the street and whistles all the time like a caged bird, a dirty dog always sleeping by his feet.

How proud had the boy been to wear those long trousers for the first time –Look, there’s a coat too…I can’t believe it, Mother!” They are all a good deal bigger than his actual size and the sleeves had to be turned over a few times to let his little hands out, but hopefully they will fit for another couple of years, or at least so Mother had said, “At your age, children grow up so fast, one has to think about that. But now you’ll be well looked after, my boy, and getting clothes won’t be a problem any more for you.His first clothes like a real grown-up; so nice he could not believe that they were really his, made for him and nobody else. “A reward for all you’ve gone through these weeks, you deserve them,” Mother had said with a touch of softness in her voice, before adding briskly that he had to rush to get his things together, “He’ll come pick you up early, before dawn, and you have to be ready when he gets here.”

Now, had he gone lost in the huge city – Naples, where people say that everything can happen – he would not have a clue as to where he is or where he should go; for sure, that would be the end of him. So, better not to stay too much behind the Organist who walks a few steps ahead of him.

As he walks, the little boy keeps whispering to himself those few words – I Poveri di Gesù Cristo, ‘The Poor of Jesus Christ’ – that he heard for the first time from his parents just a couple of days before he had left home and that would not stop puzzling him since. At first, he was saying them not even knowing why, they just kept coming to mind, like this. Now, limping along the streets, he whispers those words slowly, tasting inside his mouth and nose the physical resonance of the syllables – especially the vibrations of the R in PooR and the prolonged hisses of the S in JeSuS ChriSt – with a barely perceptible movement of the lips and an attentive frown of the forehead. Replayed over and over, those sounds keep him company, as if they were old acquaintances met unexpectedly in a square of Naples and now walking by his side, or something familiar that he was allowed to take with him from home in his minuscule fardel. “You’ll have to get used to that place, son. Very soon it’s going to be your new home, and I’m sure you’ll like it. It’ll be great for you to be there, really great.”

What did Father mean? Why didn’t I have the heart to ask him? Was I afraid of him or of his answer? Perhaps Grandmother is right, I’m just too curious and once and for all I should just stop asking my silly questions of the adults.    

First of all, those words – ‘The Poor of Jesus Christ’ – remind him of something quite obvious, something he knows well, that he is poor.

Wouldn’t always Mother speak of us as “We poor people”? But what about Jesus Christ himself? Am I going to become a priest, maybe? I don’t want to be a priest! Priests can’t marry and have children and I want to have a nice wife and many children, like my parents. Once they’re not too little, my children will help me with the work and I’ll tell them: “You do this, you do that, and you’ve to do as I say, because I’m your father!” But I won’t forget their birthdays and I’ll give them presents, a long piece of rope or some dried figs, and I’ll never beat them with a whip or a cane, I swear to God!

Of this place he has heard people talking as a ‘Conservatory’ or a ‘Hospital’, even an ‘Orphanage’, as someone told him once. But if I already have a home and a family, why then have I been sent away there? For my own good, they say. They must be right; they are the adults. They always know better. But if there they say that they want to make me a priest, then I’ll run away and will go back home, I don’t give a shit. I won’t be afraid to walk for days and nights; not even the pitch dark will scare me. I’ll find my way home, it can’t be too difficult, just go all the same way back and there you are. Then I’ll tell my parents everything; at first, they’ll be a bit mad at me, I know, because they really wanted me to go to this Poor of Jesus Christ place, but then they’ll understand and will take me home, with my little brother Tommasino and the others. Actually, they’ll be very happy to have me back with them because they were missing me already, I know, I’m sure, and they’ll kiss and hug me – don’t always parents love their children, no matter what, as God loves us even if we do something wrong like in the story of the Prodigal Son?

The boy knows – this is what everyone has been telling him for months – that this new home of his must be some sort of school where he is going to become a real virtuoso, like one of those who sing on stage in the theatres or in the cathedrals, loved by everyone, admired and celebrated. And rich, of course. Everyone wants to be rich, especially the poor like him.

What if it’s a convent instead? Like the one on the main street of the village, where the first thing one does entering the church is to tilt the head up to catch a glimpse of the nuns passing behind the grates; so high near the ceiling with all those watery paintings of saints and clouds, white and soft like the shells of Grandmother’s silkworms.

They have always made him think of caged old birds, those nuns in the convent, wrapped in their black vestments – Or is it a dark brown, perhaps? Hard to say from a distance – except for the whitish spots of their faces scattered here and there in the gallery that run all along the church. Birds brusquely taken away from their woods before they could learn to fly and to whom nothing is left but to sing all their life; sing again and again, at every hour of the day and even at night, hoping to be freed at last, one day.

‘Nel suo carcere ristretto, pien d’affetto, l’usignol cantando va’ – weren’t these the words of that wonderful Aria I heard last year in the top gallery of the theatre? ‘In his prison enclosed, full of sentiments, the nightingale goes on singing.’ I’d never get tired of singing it.

Nicolino had let him in; his first time at the opera, even though he was still a bit too young, and once back home, that night he had been so excited he could not sleep a wink and the other two in the bed with him had kept groaning and slapping him in the face all the time. The thundering sound of the timpani, so deep and loud they boomed inside his chest as if the player were rolling those sticks right on his breastbone; the blares of the trumpets that, even if a little out of pitch at times, still made his heart run faster and his breath gasp a little; the singers – all types of voices, one male soprano, two altos, a tenor and a bass – striving to get the favour of the public with their trills, cadenzas, sighs and the theatrical gestures of their arms. Everything, down to the smallest detail in the theatre – even the heat and the sharp smell of people’s bodies pushing in him from everywhere in the crowded top gallery –  had gotten so deep inside him that it was that night, restless and confused as when he had had a high fever, that for the first time he had understood that his biggest wish was to do nothing else but stand on a theatre stage, every night for the rest of his life. 

To tell the truth, he had missed a few words in that ‘nightingale’ Aria – he could barely read the libretto in the dimness of the theatre, and those poems are always so difficult – but for days and days, anywhere he went and no matter what he had been doing, either walking home from Grandmother’s, or feeding her chickens and rabbits, he had sung the almost endless flows of trills and fast notes, the two-octave jumps, the echo effects of piano and then forte on the same passage, like a real nightingale would do, singing across the valley. People had taken to calling him ‘The Nightingale Boy’, and he could not have loved it more.

Those arias about birds – nightingales most times, but often there are tortorelle and rondinelle too, turtle doves and swallows – have always been his favourites. He cannot not say why, but only how much he does love them! He could always remember the music of a Bird Aria – as the knowledgeable ones would call them in a friendly tone that he admires – even the longest and most intricate ones. Nothing about singing could ever be too difficult for Leo.

Almost by chance he had realized that without any effort he could remember most music after listening to it no more than twice, and even the Maestro of the Cathedral, always so gruff and stern with everyone, was so surprised that one day, after all the other choir boys had gone home, he had made him stay and taken him aside. “How did you come to learn such a difficult piece on your own, guagliò? You’re barely able to read two lines of cantus firmus,” he had asked, with an unusually puzzled look. “And if you’ve never seen the score, how can you sing it without missing a single note?” Poor Leo did not know what to reply. It felt much harder to explain it than just doing it. “I do nothing, Maestro. It comes to me like this, I have it in my head and I sing it, that’s it,” he had wanted to say, but had remained silent instead, his eyes on the slightly disjoined floor boards of the choir balcony. Everyone, including him, was so afraid of the old man!

People say that those nuns in the convent sing rather beautifully – though not as well as them, the choir of the cathedral, of course – but they are all women; some young, some very old. Who knows if it’s true that some of the nuns are more than one hundred years old? My new school, this Conservatory where I’m going to, must be different because I am a boy, I’m still a boy. I won’t be a priest but certainly I am not going to be a nun; this would be impossible! Perhaps I know what it is: this place could be like the Seminary where we went to sing the solemn Vespers last year. Yes, it must be something like that. They were all boys there, and many grown-ups too; I remember they had said no girls or women could live there, just boys, I’m pretty sure of that. I am still a boy, right? Despite all that’s happened, I do feel like a boy, a real boy I mean, right as before, no doubt about it. Anyway, no matter what, I will never be a priest!

The sudden slam of a window breaks into the wet stillness of the early morning and the boy, lifting his eyes from the cobblestones, can see that his lead is walking faster and the distance between them has become alarmingly big. The man is now about to disappear around that corner.

Oh, good Jesus! I can’t see him anymore. I’m lost, lost! I knew I was getting distracted by my silly thoughts!

“Signore! Signore!”

The boy’s heart is beating fast – more from fear than the hurried walking. A sharp pain, a deep spasm, in his right groin suddenly cuts his breath off for a few seconds and makes him wince twice.

“Signore! Maestro!”, he shouts again, even louder now, when he can finally take a breath. “Please, Signore, wait! Give me only a little while, please. I can’t walk faster; that pain is back! Please!”— an audible vein of panic in his high-pitched, trembling voice.

The boy is standing alone, still in the middle of the alleyway. He leans slightly on his right leg, both his joined hands pushing on the groin. He is breathing heavily; his empty stare fixed at the wall that blocks off the view like the backdrop of a theatre scene.

Has he heard me? Will he come back to take me with him? He has to. He can’t leave me here; he can’t! Please, good Jesus, make him come back and take me. What shall I do if I’m left here alone? Nobody will ever find me, and I’ll be lost forever; I’ll become a drifter and I’ll die. 

All at once, he realizes that he is growing more and more aware of the surroundings. Of the pungent smell of urine, faeces and garbage. Of the balconies girdled by ironworks, suspended high, so near one to the other to form almost a parallel street that stretches all along above his head. Sharp stink of rotting fish. It is raining again.

What’s this crap on the pavement: people’s or horses’ piss? I’m about to throw up.

On the doorstep of one of the slums, an old woman is holding with both hands a filthy chamber pot and stares fixedly at him and then at the hunchback who has just appeared at the end of the alley. She moves her head very slowly, towards one and the other, as if she were about to say something but at a further thought she has changed her mind; still and inexpressive as one of the statues of the Theological Virtues on the pillars that hold the big dome in the cathedral.

“Boy, we’re very late already,” says the man. “We were expected at the time of the first Mass and that was more than one hour ago. Do try your best, please. You have to. I can even take your stuff, but now keep walking for God’s sake.”

The boy straightens up his back; a wince crosses his face again and a short moan slips off his mouth, just a muffled sigh.

“But, Signore, the pain is back and–”

“Listen boy, you had this pain earlier and you made me wait for a long time until it would ease off and we could leave the inn. Get used to it, what else can I say? It happens to everyone to be in pain, welcome to the world of adults. I have an awful back pain myself all the time, and there’s nothing I can do about it; I just keep going. So, don’t make a fuss about all this and keep walking.”

“But…when I try to walk it’s as if something is getting torn inside and –”

"Poor picceriello, come inside and sit down," says the old woman, still hugging her chamber pot. "Only the time of an Ave, a Pater and a Gloria. I can give you some water, to the two of you."

“Did you hear what I said? Stop complaining and walk, or next time my stick will tell you, understood?”

The old woman, turned mute, drags herself to the farthest corner of the lane and pours what is inside the pot on the pavement, just next to her bare feet, leaving a little stream that flows away from her and quickly slips in under a door nearby. 

Garbage and piss stink the same everywhere, even in the city.


Half of the large front gate slides smoothly, despite its size, on the old hinges to reveal a glimpse of a gallery inside. A thin strip of light suddenly appears on the stone floor of the atrium; as long as the door moves slowly, the strip expands and then little by little it becomes more and more deformed – a square first, then a triangle, a widened cone – until it dissolves, swallowed by the darkness again.

The square where the man and the boy stand looks too small for the imposing church towering at their back, and while the door of the Conservatory of the Poor of Jesus Christ opens up, it seems that the noises and the colours of the square itself – now lively with the usual little food market – for a few seconds want to engage in a fight to invade the venerable quiet of the building. 

“Good morning, Signor Organista; it’s always an honour not less than a pleasure to see you. I hope that your journey to Naples has been comfortable enough and that your delay wasn’t due to any serious inconvenience. Anyway, I don’t have too much to do these days and was waiting for you to arrive. You must be our little Leo, I guess. Welcome to the Conservatory of the Poor of Jesus Christ, Leo. You’re such a cute, well-formed boy.”

 “Good morning to you. My most sincere apologies for our delay; what happened was that Leo and I were about to leave the inn when he–”

“Do follow me to the reception parlour, if you please. There’s a nice fire there and we can talk for a few minutes before you go, Signore.”

Without waiting for an answer or a nod from his guests, the old man at the doorstep turns his back to them and begins to walk slowly towards the cold darkness of the building inside.

This man knew who I am, and called me by my first name; so, if I still have my name, if I’m still the usual Leo, then I must be the same boy as before, as always. Nothing seems to have really changed since my birthday. This crap is only in my stupid head; just the damned pain in the groin doesn’t go away. That man at home kept saying that it could have been much worse: “Much worse, Leo! You don’t know how lucky you are. I’ve seen so many boys die after an operation like yours, even if done by myself.” That old piece of shit couldn’t believe I was still alive.

“The same good Leo,” one of the older boys in the choir had said to him (the one who always used to sing next to him) the day he had gone to bid his farewell to everyone in the church. “You look right the same as before, Leo. Come visit us when you’ve become rich and famous and have travelled the world. Don’t forget your poor friends from the village, but I know you will; everyone does.” Right now, walking carefully in tiny steps to try to keep the groin pain at bay, he wants to cling tight to that boy’s few words. “The same good Leo as before, that’s it.”  

The old man walks slowly ahead of them; his imposing body – tall and fat – swaying unsteadily, aided by a long cane.

He looks so odd, with those long, thin arms and legs, and such a big belly and ass. It’s as if he’s hiding a big feather cushion under his clothes, but why should an old man keep a cushion on his ass?

After a short walk along the portico and from then, through a dark passage, to a slightly brighter corridor, the three enter a square room lit by a very large window with iron grates, which open on to the street at the side of the building. It feels warm and almost homey inside, though the space is unfurnished, only a few chairs and a small old table pushed against one of the walls.

Leo’s eyes shift quickly from one side to the other of the room. Three portraits of gentlemen are hung on the otherwise bare walls: ‘Munificent Benefactor of This Pious Institution’, says an inscription stuck to the frame of one of them. The boy is attracted to the elaborate jacket of the wigged man and feels as if those unknown, piercing eyes gleaming with the pride of displaying to everyone the many medals of different sizes and shapes stuck on the bright red velvet fabric of his jacket are staring right at him and are asking, “How could you ever have ended up here?” The other two framed faces look less interesting, their mild features almost indistinguishable from the brownish background, indifferent to his presence.

“Well, Signore, tell me now, when did Leo’s operation take place?”

The broad grin of the old man reveals two rows of straight, white teeth, oddly in contrast with his clothes, yellowed and greasy. He is talking to the Maestro but does not lift his eyes from the boy.

He didn’t tell us to take a seat. This pain is so bad again I wish I could sit down even if only for a little while. Would it be too rude to ask? I can’t make a bad impression the first day. I hope I won’t fall on the floor.

“Five months tomorrow, Signor Iacopino; precisely as stated in my last letter.”

“And how old is our little musico here?”

“Twelve, right the day of the operation.”

“Oh, I see. What a very special birthday gift these loving, thoughtful parents gave to their good boy! So…twelve, you said? A bit older than usual for the operation perhaps, Signore; wouldn’t you say? Most boys here would have had it done between their tenth and eleventh year. Even a little earlier, sometime, at eight or nine, which is fine for me, but not before, I don’t approve of that. Sometime ago they brought me a little peasant boy of seven – seven, you see? «Too little», I protested, for ‘na criatura he was, believe me, just a little more than a baby. But the parents were so insistent, “An accident,” they kept saying. The usual frightful accident that we all know about. And on and on they went, “You can’t let us down like this – do something, please – he’ll be ruined without your help – only you can save him,” and much crying and hand-kissing. And obviously I was right, for after two years wasted on him, we had to send him back to his place. We couldn’t make anything of him. If a poor boy is dumb, it’s not by calling the surgeon that he’ll become the greatest singer in the world, don’t you agree, Signore?”

“I do, I do, of course. Who could ever know it better than the famous Signor Iacopino da Todi?”  

“Too kind, too kind…”

The old man walks two steps towards Leo and up and down his fat, padded hips sway from side to side, sustained by the cane. Only the quiet crackling in the fireplace and the rain, now heavy again, can be heard in the silence of the room. Then he pats twice the boy’s head gently, whispering something inaudible.

“Was there any reason in particular? For this delay, I mean?” he resumes, lifting his eyes from the boy and looking intently at the Organist for the first time. “I hadn’t been told of that. Was the boy sick, or something else?”

“Not at all! Leo’s health has always been great; the boy’s fit as a dog. Never an illness, not even a minor one; and in the region where he comes from there’s no tertian or quartan fever. The parents are strong peasants, good workers. They just needed some time to think about it; I’m sure you understand. I heard that there might have been some – how should I say? – resistance?”

“What nonsense! Resistance! Resist such a natural talent would be like resisting Our Lord’s will itself. A blasphemy. Any…consequences of note?”

“Not even the smallest one, I checked myself. At the time of the operation, Leo hadn’t sprung a single hair, smooth as a nectarine as he’s now; and look, you can see yourself: he’s still such a little boy! He doesn’t even look his age; you’d say he’s only ten or eleven.”

“What about the voice then?”

“Not even touched lightly by any change; certainly not a hint of a break. If anything, in the few months before the procedure, it had stretched even more towards the high notes, and without losing any of the low ones. Trust me, Signore, this is the finest fillet cut, not giblets.”

Five months tomorrow. That day, the one of my twelfth birthday. I can name the months easily in the right order – January to December – but the reverse is much more difficult. Who knows why? Back five months to that day – February, January…December…November… I wasn’t expecting that kind of gift, as this old man says. She had promised the cookies I like so much, but then all this happened instead, and what could I do? It was for my good that they did it, and they know better.

“Very well. Very well. I’ve heard excellent things about you, Leo. The Maestro di Cappella of your town wrote me a very laudatory letter – and the Organist here, his pupil, and I both know how severe and demanding he can be. A respected musician of the Old School, the glorious Neapolitan tradition; and being appreciated by such a great man is not small a thing, dear Leo. You must be proud of yourself.” 

How forget what the famous Maestro di Cappella had said to him that day, speaking with his heavy accent from Naples, almost mumbling the words – his way of talking in those rare occasions he was particularly satisfied with a rehearsal or a performance? “The best ever,” these were the words he had muttered to the man who was standing next to him to turn pages and pull the organ stops in response to the slightest movement of his head or eyebrows. “I haven’t heard a little boy sing like this in over twenty years. Or never, perhaps. “

It was that day that the legend had been born of the two big tears making their way down the fearsome Maestro’s cheeks to the music sheet on his lap leaving two big black pools of ink in which the notes scribbled on the paper looked like people drowning in a very deep sea (in memory of the event, that page was kept in one of the books in the cathedral and shown to those who would not believe the story).

Nobody had ever seen him moved to tears listening to someone sing.

Leo had just sung the last note of the great man’s new Salve Regina in C minor.

An acute voice glides up a fast scale of two octaves in semiquavers and suddenly breaks the almost conventual silence of the columned courtyard.

It can be heard several times, each time up half a tone, higher and brighter as if it could just keep climbing up for ever, without limits. The notes roll one on the other, and the way each one springs off, swells and then dissolves in the air – all in less than an instant, with a perfect rubato, as the Maestro would call it – is so perfect and effortless to look as natural as a beam of sunlight through a window. They could not be sung better; perfection is not improvable.  

That’s a soprano! I recognise Nicolino’s kind of voice, and mine too. But an adult or a young one? A pupil or a teacher? Don’t people say that it’s impossible for anyone to judge the age of a castrato only by hearing him sing?

 Several times his Maestro had told the boys of the choir the story of that famous castrato who, many years after his retirement, still used to sing at the first Mass in a church near his home in Naples and so perfect was his voice, despite his age, and so miraculously untouched by the passing of time, that everyone – unaware of who was hiding behind the grates – praised that “young boy” who could move to tears the few early morning listeners.

So often had Leo thought of the old man, frailly walking back home after having sung at the last Mass of his life; on his own, nobody to greet him after that final performance of his very long career; unaware of the rowdy people’s voices all around. His ears, slightly deafened to the outside world’s sounds, would be still caressed by the memory of the soothing applause and the cries of the public in the theatre shouting loud his name when he had triumphed, decades before, still young, strong and admired by anyone. A familiar comfort, though lasting only a short while, just until the unavoidable awareness of the fast approaching end of his wounded life would have come to mind once again.

The thoughts and feelings of the old have always attracted Leo more than those of the young, who knows why.

Now I am a castrato, too.

An oboe has joined the soprano, immediately followed by a violin and another voice, this time of a darker tone – A boy alto, my age. They’re singing a slow duet. At first, each instrument and the voices seem to follow their own scores, oblivious to one another. However, the result is not entirely disturbing as one would imagine, and after a more careful listening, some superior force keeps everything together against the imminent danger of chaos. 

“You’re listening to the beautiful music we make here, at the Poor of Jesus Christ, aren’t you? We have great expectations from you, boy. Isn’t it wonderful that you can be part of all this? A true blessing from God, I’d say. For you and for us.”

The boy nods silently, immobile at the foot of an imposing stone staircase, and stares up at the old man who has not relaxed his immutable grin and looks so much bigger than him, as big and intimidating as a sacristy armoire.

The Organist has left; he gave Leo an embarrassed handshake and a hurried pat on the shoulder as between adults who barely know each other. That was it; the moment Leo had dreaded for days slipped away without him even noticing it. The big front door closed shut with a sudden, loud slam, and the moment afterwards he was alone with the creepy old man who kept staring at him in silence.

The music that surrounds them seems to pour down from some invisible space upstairs, an undefined somewhere above the courtyard. It is a sort of mysterious drizzle, a vapour floating in the cold, wet air, barely contained by the austere building like a rough wooden box filled with the finest kind of silk. The apparently meaningless confusion of sounds, timbres, rhythms begins to make some sense to Leo and inadvertently he lends his ear to one passage of the oboe, repeated a few times, then to an acute note of the soprano, a tremolo of the violin, a trill of the trumpet.

 “Let’s go upstairs now, Leo,” says Iacopino. “I’ll show you around and I’ll take you to the dorm rooms on the top floor where you’ll be staying with the others in the nicest part of the building. You’ll be very well looked after here, Leo. You’ll be warm and with your tummy full enough not to feel hungry ever. You and your companions – you special boys, I mean – are by far the most precious jewels in our crown and we do care about you.”

The old man has taken Leo by hand; his skin is soft and silky. Used to Father’s hands and to those of his older brothers (skin toughened by labour, dust, sadness, grief), grasping Iacopino’s hand instead feels like establishing an unanticipated contact with an unknown, entirely new world.

He must be old, very old; even older than Grandmother, perhaps. But his voice sounds so strangely young, lively. If I close my eyes, it’s like listening to someone my age rather than an old man. 

While the man walks his way up the stairs, Leo cannot help but look back to study that face in all its most minute details – the taut skin above the cheekbones, almost wrinkleless except for a few thin lines that run straight at the sides of his eyes; the small, round mouth with a slightly prominent upper lip; a big double chin that brushes the one-time-white collar of his shirt.

The steps are deep but not at all high; quite comfortable, in fact. They climb up together – slowly though, the old man seems not much at ease with them and would stop every five or six steps and stand still, staring at the ceiling for a few seconds, while catching his breath. He makes a high-pitched, chesty wheeze that fills the vast stairwell when the sounds of the voices and instruments are suddenly replaced by a low, distant muttering of speaking voices.

He’s like our bishop when he has to walk up all the steps to the cathedral. After two or three flights he becomes red in the face and starts making those strange noises – poof! poof! poof! – and we boys want to laugh but have to be careful or we’ll be beaten if someone sees us. But Signor Iacopino seems nicer than the bishop.

Leo lingers and squeezes tight the old man’s hand. Iacopino stops just one step before the landing and looks down at the boy as in a mute response. Standing one step above Leo, Iacopino seems even bigger and more imposing then he looked before; a giant as only Goliath could have been, just older. Enormous. Overwhelming.

The sounds from upstairs have started again and now are much clearer, not mysterious and unintelligible any longer. Leo can even recognise some familiar words, Eja Ergo, Advocata Nostra… The Salve Regina, his favourite church piece.

“You haven’t said a word since you arrived. What are you thinking, Leo? Don’t be shy, boy, you can talk to Iacopino. I want to do as much as I can to help you.”

“I am not going to become a priest, right Signore? I want to get married one day – when I am bigger, of course, sixteen at least – and have many children. But I also want to sing, I love it very much. This is a place where boys learn to sing and play an instrument, not to become priests, right?”

“Oh Leo, Leo! Come here. I know what you are thinking, my boy. I know your thoughts, all of them, because one day, many years ago, I was like you. I had the same look in my eyes, and your same doubts and fears. Possibly, I was standing on that very same step, would you believe it?”

Imperceptibly Leo’s lips move, as if to say something in reply, but no sound comes out of his mouth. Two big tears glide down his cheeks and fall on the stone step.

“Listen to what I’ve to tell you, Leo; even if you don’t understand everything, just listen to this old man. People would resort to many different words to name us without having to say what they don’t want to. They call us Musici, Virtuosi, or Cantori; all as they like. So, they do, not because they want to be kind to us, but to be kind to themselves. By not saying that word, not saying what we really are, they can pretend that we were born like this, and that all they had to do was to pick up the strange, rare creatures we are and nurture and flatter us to suit their own pleasures. And do you know who they are? The sooner you know this, the better, my boy. They are all the others; all those who are not like us, like you and me. We castrati are different from anyone else; far better, of course. I have no doubt about this, not anymore. I didn’t know it when I was young, and I wouldn’t wish my worst enemy the excruciating pain of the soul that I had to endure through all those years. You’re still a boy and know nothing about life, but I don’t want you to go through the same agony. Listen to me, Leo; don’t let anyone insult you or plant the vicious seed of doubt and unworthiness into your beautiful, pure soul. Never, not even for a minute. They will make every effort to do it, as they did with me, but with the help of Our Lord (he crosses himself) you’ll resist every attack, won’t you? You have to promise this to me, Leo; please do it. This is the very first lesson you’ve to learn; a lesson far more important than any musical teaching – and there will be a great many, you’ll see – that you’ll ever receive here. You’ll learn that every day of your life will be a fight between you and the others; you and them, Leo. Against the rest of the world. You’ll be alone all the time in this, since nobody ever will be there to hold your hand when you’ll need help; nobody will grab you when you’re falling down, nor will pull you up when you’ve fallen. Sometimes you will win a battle and you’ll feel like the most powerful victor in human history, the man born only to triumph and to be admired; other times they will be the winners and you will be utterly defeated, annihilated. Till the very last day, you won’t know who will win the war, if you or them. But throughout this endless war, one thought must sustain you all the time; and that is that we – those like you and me – are superior creatures, that we are well above those who despise us, because that day we were given the grace of being set free from all the worldly temptations, closer to heaven, like pure, blessed souls. Be prepared though: ignorant and evil people will tell you that you’re a monster, a beast that has no place in nature. I almost pity them for how mistaken they are! In truth, nobody could be closer to Nature than we are. Think of that: we’ve been brought back to the God-like condition that human beings enjoyed right after creation in the heavenly gardens of Eden, before Adam’s pure soul was soiled forever by the original sin he committed by Eve’s hand. We are the only men who don’t even have an Adam’s apple in the neck – you see? Look at me, I’m not lying – the most obvious sign that we are different, and that our Lord dotes on us, on all of us. You are special, very special. Do never forget this, Leo. That’s why nobody better than us could ever give voice to a triumphing Hercules on a theatre stage or to the despairs of the Virgin Mary of the seven sorrows juxta crucem in a church. Our uniquely nearly-divine condition gives us a power over other human beings as strong and mysterious as nobody else has ever had or ever will. Through paths that are too occult to be understood, our voices can reach their hearts, can move them to tears, rage, exaltation, as well as to pain, anguish, or to the deepest sadness. I’ve seen generals used to the cruellest war deeds sob before the great Matteuccio singing an aria, would you believe it? This is the battle you’ll have to fight from now on. The battle between the power that your voice will have over others and the resistance they’ll make against facing their own emotions. Isn’t it curious how nobody wants to look too deep inside themselves? As if they were terrified to death to discover something too horrible to bear and they’ll accuse you because of that. Since Our God Almighty (he crosses himself again and bows his head for a few seconds) has gifted you with a voice that everyone finds beyond extraordinary, I predict, my little Leo, that the moment you’ll realise what power you can have over others, that moment will be sublime and utterly frightening.”

Leo has remained silent, his mouth half open and the wet eyes fixed on the old man as he spoke. His words seemed to flow with a haste that was surprisingly controlled, one sentence piling on the other as if he were in a hurry to give voice to thoughts that had been hanging there somewhere unspoken for quite a long time, but also determined not to leave anything untold or unclear behind.

Now Iacopino has turned silent and pensive. He keeps walking up the stairs, slowly, looking down at the steps and then suddenly up to the ceiling while making again those strange sounds through his nose and mouth – poof, poof, poof… – like the bishop.

“You didn’t catch much of what I said, I would imagine?”

“You speak a little too difficult for me, Signore.”

“I know, I know. I shouldn’t have spoken like that, and I didn’t mean to scare you. I’m sorry, boy. I never speak to anyone like this, but those big eyes of yours are so deep and bright that they would make anyone want to talk to you like to a grown-up. Now, let me catch my breath a minute and then we should keep going. It’s getting late.” 

While climbing the stairs again, Leo whispers to himself some of Iacopino’s big words, those that have struck him the most, and that he has captured in his mind – “worldly temptations,” “obscure and mysterious paths,” “sublime…utterly frightening.” His words sound like those in the operas. Nobody ever speaks like that at the village, for sure not at home. But this is ‘home’ now and perhaps one day I’ll be able to speak like that, like the libretto of an opera. Will I miss my old home, Mother and Father, and little Tommasino and Grandmother? Or the other boys in the street I used to play with every day, even that asshole who throws horse’s shit at me all the time? Am I going to miss everything? Can I be happy again? Everyone keeps talking of my future, even Signor Iacopino here says, “You’ll do this – you’ll do that – you’ll fight your battles – you’ll make people cry…” but I can think only of what I’ve left, what I won’t have ever again. I don’t know a lot of things, but this even I can understand, that on top of this staircase that keeps going up and up, as soon we get somewhere near the attic, nothing will be the same as before, and even I won’t be the same Leo who used to live in the little house next to Saint Agatha’s church –

 “Why are you bending down like this, Leo? Are you unwell? You seem in pain…”

“I’m fine, Signore. Just a little…dart, yes…like a dart I feel here in the thigh from time to time. It’s a bit sore but I’m good to keep going, I’m sorry for this fuss. I’ve to get used to it and stop complaining, as the Organist says, that’s it. I beg your pardon.”

“Let me see… Is it perhaps from the…Oh, my poor boy! My sweet, little boy! Let me give you a hug, like an old relation who loves you. How bad that you’re in pain! That shouldn’t happen. Pain is not for children, certainly not for a cute, smart boy like you, my dear Leo. Life hasn’t been good to you, I see. Let’s go up to the dorms. Let me take good care of you before the others end their morning lessons – you listen how well they play and sing? – and then I’ll introduce you to everyone. You’ll love it here, better than home, I promise. You understand that this is the beginning of your new life?”

Sicilian by birth and Irish by naturalization, Giuseppe Gullo has divided his life between medicine, music and literature, not always sure in which order of importance. For nearly two decades he has been interested in the castrated singers of the Baroque era and after having published several essays on this subject, he has recently written a novel on the life of an imaginary castrato of the Eighteenth century. Giuseppe Gullo lives in New York.

Read more from Digital Issue No. 16

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On May 1st, we announced the winners of our Flash Fiction Contest: Thomas Garcia (1st), Rick Krizman (2nd), and Rios de la Luz (3rd). Read more.

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