Milan, 1838

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 
     "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 
     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 
     "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 
     "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.
     "Signor Fiando," Arpesani said.
     The man started to close the door.  "Herr Fiando is not 
     "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 (