The following piece of fiction is included in this work of scholarship for its human interest value alone. Its accuracy and tenor are highly suspect. The Committee urges readers to enjoy it as interesting historical fiction, but not to take it seriously.
"Fucking Croats," Arpesani muttered, curling his lips, ready to spit. "Smell like cabbage and horseshit." Bottesini pressed his knuckles against Arpesani's elbow. The soldiers, pale little men with round faces, smirked and rolled their eyes, but their hands were tight around the butts of their rifles. Their plumed and swathed imperial uniforms dwarfed them, made them look like stiff dolls. Bottesini propelled Arpesani forward, looking straight ahead until they were past the soldiers. Arpesani didn't resist, but his shoulders stayed high, his back stiff. "This is Italy," he said. "Oh no," Bottesini said. "This is Austria." He paused, looking behind. The soldiers had turned away. "For now," he added. "For now," Arpesani echoed. The street, the stone houses, the heavy November sky-- all were wet from a morning rain and glowed with a pewter gray that was hard to look at. The streets were nearly deserted: Sunday Mass. The only people they met were the occasional old men hurrying along: atheists, bent as if under the weight of their black hats, barely nodding acknowledgement as they passed. And the soldiers, surly Croatian militiamen who spoke no Italian but gruff versions of "Go!" and "Halt!" As they passed an older house--its dirty facade traced with cracks and decorated along its ledges with black-green moss--a young woman leaned out a second story window, bare breasts hanging over the sill, her black hair falling limply across her face. "Carlo! Gianni!" she cried, singsong, waving her hand slowly from side to side. "God," Arpesani said. "Look at those." Bottesini glanced up once at her, then looked down at the ground. They passed under her, Arpesani staring upward, mouth open, the whole time. "Natalia," Arpesani said. "Have you had her?" Bottesini hesitated. "I don't know," he said. Arpesani laughed. It sounded like a dog barking. "You don't know," he said. Of course Bottesini was lying. He knew--he knew he had never had her, or any other woman. He was afraid of women, the way one might be afraid of tigers or buffalo: he found them beautiful, fascinating to look at; he did not, however, dare to get too near. But he had learned the music student's language of lechery; he spoke it well, and had the reputation of a great conqueror of women. He enjoyed the reputation, the attention and free drinks it got him--"Gianni!" they'd say. "Come here and tell us about Natalia!" So he laughed with Arpesani as they walked along, quickening their pace. As they neared the theater, a cortege of fine carriages stormed noisily past them: enamel-white with gilt flower designs, plumed white horses, bland Austrian women, staring insipidly out the windows, whitened hair piled so high they might have concealed second heads. As the last carriage passed, Arpesani spat after it; he missed. "Shitheads," he said in German, looking down at the shiny spot on the ground where his spit had fallen. "Not much longer, Giovanni." Bottesini nodded. "Yes yes yes," he said, hurrying forward. Arpesani moved ahead of Bottesini, then walked backwards in front of him. "I heard that bastard Vaccai thinks you should go to Vienna," he said. Bottesini faltered. "It's true," he admitted, looking away from Arpesani. "He says that Vienna is the musical capital of the world, that you have to go there to get anywhere, that they love Italians there." Bottesini didn't tell him the rest of what his composition teacher had said: "You have to go abroad where people are intelligent enough to see your worth." "Dancing monkeys," Arpesani said. "That's all they want in Vienna." He continued walking backwards, somehow managing to avoid lampposts and hitching rails. "Forget that Young Italy shit about Vienna," Vaccai had said. "The Austrians are good people, cultured as hell. They want our music, and they pay for it. It's not all German grunt and grind--you'll hear more good Italian melody in Vienna than anywhere in Italy." Arpesani drew close to Bottesini, forcing him to stop. "Promise you won't go to Vienna, no matter how well you do," he said. "Stay in Italy. Vienna is the whore." "Of course," Bottesini said as Arpesani fell back into place beside him. Rossi had told him the night before at his lesson: "Get the hell out of Italy. Go to Vienna. Play for Schumann. You'll always be another section man at La Scala until you get away from here." He'd twisted his face into a leer, jaw jutting, eyes asquint, then he leaned over his bass and grasped the fingerboard with a crablike hand. "Maestro," he'd grunted, affecting a Genovese accent, "can I take that down an octave? I'm just a fucking section man. I can't hear those high notes." They rounded a corner onto a small piazza with shuttered shops facing a dry fountain. A theater seemed to huddle in one corner, limp Austrian banners hanging from its blank marquee. "There you go," Arpesani said, bowing. "Teatro Lentasio," Bottesini said. "I thought that was a marionette theater." The front doors were painted with gaudy figures with huge eyes and ferocious, teeth-filled grins. "Best puppets in the city," Arpesani said; he held up his arms and moved them jerkily into a shrug as if dangled from above by strings. Bottesini held back. "Carlo, are you joking with me? I'm not paying nine hundred for a breadbox. What did Fiando tell you?" "Fiando thinks he's robbing you. But he's stupid-- stupid, stupid, stupid. He likes his shiny new Goetz, wants to get rid of his dirty old Testore." He marched forward. Bottesini followed. "Nine hundred francs," he said. "You can trust me, Giovanni. I'd buy it for a thousand. Two thousand, if I were you and not me; it has your voice. I just touched the A string and it said to me, 'Bottesini.' This bass will sing for you, Giovanni." Bottesini followed Arpesani into a narrow passage between the theater and the house next to it. A vivid orange mold grew in patches on the damp walls; a bullet-shaped rat scrabbled along the wall before them. Arpesani pulled a lump of chalk from his pocket and scrawled, "LONG LIVE YOUNG ITALY" on the wall. It was barely visible in the dim light. "I once saw a bass infested with termites," he said. "Holes all over the back. This guy kept playing it, even though you could see the goddamn things crawling in and out, looking out the f-holes just to see what was around. He was in a municipal band--had only three fingers on his right hand." "I don't want to hear about this," Bottesini said. The only thing that upset him more than the idea of a bass being destroyed was the thought of hand injuries. He would awaken at night, sweating, from dreams in which his hand had been pulled into the gears of some huge machine and the fingers ground to flat, flapping ribbons. But a termite-eaten bass-- he shuddered. Better, almost, to have maggots crawling out of your own belly. Arpesani stopped before a small wooden door and kicked it a few times; it shook and the wood splintered. "They're sending this place to hell," he said. They waited for a minute, then Arpesani kicked the door again; it opened immediately. A short, pale old man with an over-sized head looked out, cursing in German. He stopped and stared at Bottesini and then Arpesani for a long time. "What you want?" he finally said. "We're here to see Signor Fiando's bass," Arpesani said. Both of his hands had tightened into fists. "Who?" "Signor Fiando," Arpesani said. The man started to close the door. "Herr Fiando is not here." "God-damned Austrian bastard," Arpesani whispered. Then aloud, "We want to see Signor Fiando's bass. His contrabass, here in the theater." The old man stopped and stared back at them, his head to one side. "Contrabass," he said. Then he opened the door all the way. "Oh, yes yes. Herr Fiando's contrabass. He told me to show it to some students. You are students?" They followed him into foul-smelling darkness. "So you are from the Conservatory, yes?" the old man said. Bottesini could see nothing; he followed the voice, shuffling over the gritty floor. "The contrabass is here, I think. Yes, here." The old man, still talking, seemed to have lapsed into German, and Bottesini lost sight of both him and Arpesani. Suddenly he stopped. The body of a small, fat man, neck elongated grotesquely at the rope, dangled before him. Bottesini stumbled backward into a flimsy canvas backdrop, hissing, "Holy Christ." The free-standing backdrop, painted to look like a brick wall, fell forward onto him, tearing apart as it fell. All at once he realized that the hanged man was only a sandbag counterweight. He stepped out of the tangle of thin lumber and rotten canvas and slapped the sandbag; it released a dry mildew odor. "Giovanni!" came Arpesani's voice. "We found it." Bottesini went toward the sound of Arpesani's chatter, which seemed to float like a melody over the drone of the old man's mumbling. He parted a torn curtain and found the two of them bent over a waist-high pile of rags--old puppet costumes--while the old man held a dim, smoky lantern aloft. Under the rags, still half covered, lay a bass. "This is it," Arpesani crowed. "Is it beautiful?" "Yes, yes. The contrabass," added the old man. The bass had a light but dull finish. Three of its strings were broken and hanging to the side; the bridge was badly warped and the front was white with rosin dust. Shaking, Bottesini bent over and lifted it up by the neck. It seemed light for its size. For Bottesini, the moment felt like his audition to the Conservatory four years earlier, when all else but he and the bass had seemed to fade away, leaving him in a cocoon where all that mattered was music. His life had changed then, and he could feel another change coming now. He ran his hand up and down the neck; it felt right; it fit organically under the curve of his fingers. He leaned into the instrument and it went with him easily. He could feel a pulse, a swelling rising out of his torso, coursing down his arms into his fingers. It was there: all the music he had yet to play, every note he would some day commit to paper. It would carry him out like a boat, across the world on waves of rich sound, with winds of overtones whirling around him. There was no bow, so he plucked the one remaining string; it was loose, so it made only a flabby twang. He tightened the peg, pulling the string into tune, then tried it again. The note seemed to course outward, a purity of tone that thrilled him as if waves of liquid azure had washed around him. He ran up to the octave then down, testing the string and the fingerboard. Each note resisted, then fell through perfectly, sounding out and surrounding bass and bassist. He played a fast series of pizzicato arpeggios, travelling out to the end of the fingerboard and back. Suddenly, the string went slack under his fingers, then snapped at the bridge, whipping the back of his right hand. The bridge clattered to the floor. He put his stung hand to his mouth. The theater, flickering light, dank smell, rags arrayed around his feet, reappeared; Arpesani and the old man stood before Bottesini, both of them shaking their heads. "That is your bass, Giovanni," Arpesani said quietly. Bottesini took a deep breath. "It is," he said. And he felt, he knew, that within a year he would be in Vienna.
"We all must learn where to place our fingers."
© 1997, Jeff Brooks (email@example.com)