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an excerpt from


a novel by Juliet Waldron

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Nightingale by Juliet Waldron book cover

      Klara remembered the first time she’d gone to Manzoli’s apartment, how she’d been shown up the dingy stairs to his third floor apartment, quite a climb in heels and panniers and pillow bustle, high wig and hat, all the paraphernalia of the prima donna which Max insisted she always go out wearing. The woman who’d opened the door to the apartment was a curious creature, painted and wigged, too, but less than four feet high, her voice squawking harshly, like someone mimicking a parrot.

      There were smells too. Some were foreign kitchen smells, Italian ones of garlic, oregano and basil. Some Klara recognized from her own house: there was vinegar used for cleaning and a musky odor of felines, who might sometimes make use of the low bins into which the ashes were swept. The furniture was heavy, gilded in a style that was now old-fashioned, with stuffing poking out through frays at the corners and bottoms in a way that confirmed the presence of cats. This desire to scratch was a perennial household war Klara also fought. Although Max insisted that cats properly belonged to barns, kitchens and roof tops, not in parlors with the good furniture, Klara allowed her Satz everywhere, with similar annoying results.

      In fact, as she came further into the room, her eye was attracted by a long-haired black cat gliding away under a couch. The plumy tail, like an animate feather duster, twitched upon the terrazzo floor for a time before withdrawing into shadow.

      “The Maestro will be right with you, Prima Donna Silber. He begs your patience.”

      The door had closed behind the squat little maid, leaving Klara alone in the music room. A monstrous, painted harpsichord had once been the centerpiece, but one of those dainty new fortepianos had been tucked in beside it. Both were neatly placed with their keyboards facing the window, so that anyone playing or reading music would have the best light.

      There was music everywhere, heaps in boxes beneath the instruments and sheets on the music stands. The first ones she picked up had words in French, though it was a piece with which she was unfamiliar. Ordinarily Klara would have been intrigued and would have begun to hum what she was reading, but the strangeness of the room compelled her to study it further. She saw several wing chairs upholstered in scarlet rowed against the wall. The longest uninterrupted space was decorated with lively and well-drawn classical frescos in the Italian manner, a tall, handsome Apollo, whose expression, Klara noted, was more than usually ecstatic, perhaps because of the scantily clad Muses dancing before him.

      The back of the long room was dim. It was an unfortunate fact that in this, as in so many other apartments, the middle and inner rooms had no direct access to light. As Klara’s eyes became accustomed to the shadows, she saw several items of furniture. One was a baize covered card table with four chairs around it.

      In the farthest corner was a long divan covered with pillows, a sensual touch, which, considering the condition of Signor Manzoli, gave her an unpleasant shuddery flicker, calling up murky visions of appetites hitherto unimagined. She imagined obscure perversities of the sort Max liked to threaten her with when he was angry.

      On the darkened wall, however, she spied something comforting. A violin and a viola hung neatly side by side, in a place where neither heat from the stove nor light from the window could easily reach them, the way a real musician would care for them. She moved toward them, wanting to see them better.

      As her eyes adjusted, her gaze fell onto the card table where she saw cards laid out in a circle, not in the rows of solitaire. It wasn’t only the pattern, but the cards themselves which were unfamiliar. They were large and marked with suits Klara had never seen before. There were stars, Swords, Cups, and another, a face card, she guessed, of a queen on a throne holding a leafy staff.

      Tarot cards? She’d heard of them, but had never before seen any. There was another disturbing thing, too. The round ivory base upon which a guttered candle sat proved to be a human skull. As she came closer, the floor boards set up a noisy squeaking, but she was willing to risk the noise in order to be certain of it.

      Resting a hand beside it, Klara bent to stare into the empty sockets. Layers of pale yellow wax had cascaded down the cracked dome like a bizarre wig. This emblem of mortality seemed an odd bit of decoration.

      Just then the door opened, and through it came the dwarfish woman and her Signor Manzoli, dressed in long black robes like a surgeon or an apothecary. He was extremely fat, his once legendarily beautiful face now doughy. His approach was almost silent. Klara was to become familiar with that stealthy glide, though she never did quite understand how a man so enormous could step so lightly.

      “Prima Donna Silber.” He gracefully inclined his head, and a hand with long nails gestured. “I apologize for keeping you waiting. I hope that you are not out of patience.”

      “Not at all, Signor.”

      “Strega!” The plump face, jowls wobbling, had turned to the little woman. “Did you not show the lady into the light by the harpsichord?”

      The woman’s painted mouth drew into a pout and she glared up so fiercely from under her heavy black brows that Klara quickly said, “Ah, the good woman did as you asked, but I am afraid I did not stay where I was put.”

      Manzoli turned and apologized to the woman in a gracious ripple of Italian. She, slightly mollified, bobbed a stiff curtsy and then went out.

      “On occasion, she can be quite spiteful.” The castrato gestured towards the light that came filtering in their direction. “To the harpsichord, Fraulein Silber. We shall away from this dusty lair.”

      Klara obeyed, but not without another glance into the empty sockets of the skull. Who might it have been? Some luckless creature mired in poverty, no doubt, consigned to the common pits which were dug up every eight years to make way for other unfortunates.

      “An unusual candle stand, isn’t it?” Manzoli had followed her eyes.

      “I hope I haven’t trespassed, Signor.”

      “Not at all. I often find myself imagining that this long room is rather like the world itself. Half of it is dark, the other half is light. The plain fact, however, is that the room cannot be complete without both sides.” His voice was a melodious alto, the voice of a singer, issuing from that robed, amorphous body.

      “Then you believe,” said Klara as they moved together into the light, “that evil is a natural condition of our world?”

      “Decay is a natural condition,” Manzoli said. “The unraveling comes to us all.” He gestured at himself.

      His features, Klara saw, were oddly delicate, the cheek bones high beneath the powder covered peppering of smallpox to which his skin had long ago been subjected. Made up and upon stage, in younger, thinner days, he was said to have made a handsome hero, or even heroine! Though his brows were absent, his eyes were a lovely pale blue. In them Klara saw experience and suffering yoked together by a lively awareness.

      “Forgive me for the presumption, Fraulein Silber, but when I came into the dark side of that room just now and saw you gazing into the eyes of my friend there, well, it was a moment I believe I should like to have painted. Youth, beauty and talent of the highest sort, the glory of the world, contemplating the eventual end.”

Vanitas still life, late 17th century