“A Single Furtive Tear” – a short story by Dora Emma Esze

January 16th, 2024

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“A Single Furtive Tear” was a short-listed entry in our recently concluded 64th Short Fiction Contest, and is published with the consent of the author.

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Francesco Coghetti/via Wikimedia Commons

Gaetano Donizetti, 1837

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A Single Furtive Tear

by Dora Emma Esze

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…..Hey there, buddy, hi, Gaetano!

…..It’s me, Robbie. How’s tricks on the other side? Thought I’d check in on you, it’s been a while. Not that you’re not with me basically all the time. Once or twice a week I purposefully listen to something you’ve created, and even when I’m not, your orchestra and soloists keep playing in my head. The harder they come, they keep me alive.

…..As for me: same old, same old, still at the mag. I am regularly tempted to drop everything and break away, get into a radically different business. This happens about once a month, around the time we wrap up an issue and send it to print. The red flags are tiny for now, crimson seedlings barely showing their itsy-bitsy head above the ground. Again: the harder they come, they keep me alive.

…..I am trying to find the answers in your early years. Your parents, bless their soul, were simple people, an impoverished family with no interest in music or art, and yet your father insisted you receive the best education. How did he know?

…..Was it the region? Up North where purple clouds lend their cloak to the traveler who feels cold? In the Middle Ages Bergamo was ruled by The House of Malatesta. The morning you start working on Don Pasquale, setting the insolent world record of completing it in eleven days, do you see this as an omen?

…..There came a choir practice – an ordinary afternoon, the score was Palestrina, your voice hasn’t even dropped yet, you can’t have been more than ten – when all of a sudden Maestro Simone Mayr’s hand froze in the air. He had to lower his baton in awe. A piece of amethyst with wings, soaring towards Jupiter, that’s what your voice sounded like. See, there’s no turning back, you meet the clavichord, the cello, the flute. You dash into harmonics, the trigonometry of music. You find your way in the maze of the fugue like you were keeping your wooden toys in it. No matter, shortly before your fourteenth birthday you try your hand at an arietta – a simple exercise, nothing more – and your fate is sealed.

…..Did all of this suddenly come back in the end giving you vivid nightmares? Who was holding your hand in the asylum? Leonora, crownless queen of a love triangle? Lucia, blood-smeared Scottish bride? Norina, young widow, your smart, snarky sunshine girl? Did you fly away with them, letting them take you where your music took the audience? Did they drag you down the abyss? Did you tell them you had already visited the place, long before your condition had become fatal?

…..At thirteen your voice breaks and you are no longer useful in the choir. That must have been tough, buddy, watching your golden ticket drifting away. Enter Maestro Mayr from upstage left again: he makes you part of his elite group, Il piccolo compositore di musica. Let’s face it, that privileged team of adolescent composers was the most exclusive club Bergamo had ever seen. By then Mayr surely knows. I wonder if he had any idea of the seventy-something operas you would leave us with.

…..Did you know, now that you have been dead for over seventeen decades, that pizza places love to call themselves ‘La Favorita’? Can you imagine the impact your reputation had on your soft-spoken hometown? Are you aware that your teenage hit, Pygmalion, the one-act opera that probably never made it to stage during your lifetime, is now just one YouTube click away from all of us?

…..Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen. You travel a bit then return home for a few months and run into an old schoolmate, Bartolomeo Merelli. At the time he’s experimenting with librettos but in twenty years he’ll be a mighty impresario at La Scala. One fruitful clash, you and him – but most of all you and the muse, you and the goddess, you and the fairy of antigravity.

…..Many years and a few sharp bends in the mountain road later, bathing in fame and glory, you hire an amanuensis, a young German bloke. Boy, was he a schtick! Grumpy, tense, always in a stale mood. Three years before you die you hear his name again: rumour has it he has achieved stellar success with a piece called Tannhäuser. What did you think of that overture, Gaetano, fifteen minutes and counting, streaming attacca into the first scene set in Venus’ cove? Just admit it, buddy, that shit is out of this world. A French grand opera and yet a German one, quite the feat, wouldn’t you agree? Did the boy have it in him when he was getting on your tits? Were you dead bent on finding fault with his copies? Was he just too good, too tidy, too meticulous? I mean, it’s the hell beast of German romanticism we’re talking about – you don’t think he picked you on purpose, do you?

…..Two weeks before your twenty-first birthday your official debut as an opera composer remains frighteningly silent. Rather than gasping at your trills and frills the audience admires the frescos on the ceiling. Maddening, considering you had gone the extra mile: you put eight singers on stage for them, three of them tenors. Three!! Out of eight!!! Is that even possible? – It is. But only in Italy.

…..Yet, silver lining, there is one article in the Nuovo Osservatore Veneziano where the critic emphasizes your exceptional talent and paints you a very bright future. As you reach Rome with your ninth opera already in the bag – you finished your first manuscript at thirteen or fourteen, after all – raging success is in order.

…..Twenty-four. Twenty-five. Twenty-six. Twenty-seven. Palermo, Milan, Bologna, Mantua, Naples. The audience starts to measure you against Rossini, but then again, Rossini was the absolute yardstick in anything music-related those days. Born five years before you, dying much older than you, quitting composition at thirty-eight to live exactly thirty-eight more years, bidding his career adieu with William Tell right at the peak, Gioacchino is a titan bar none. ‘Rossini might have composed the first and the last act of William Tell but surely God wrote the music in between’ – your words about your friend’s swan song, Gaetano, remember? A hundred years later one whirlwind of a revolution called Maria Callas turns all three of you into rock stars. Thanks to her, your trio becomes the Ultimate Nightmare 20th Century Boy Band Blunt Rotation. Dazzling Rossini, beautiful Bellini, and yourself. Your tunes, any of them, either of you, could make walls crumble to dust in ten seconds.

…..As you turn thirty, your life turns a corner. New librettist, new contracts, new position at the Royal Theatre in Naples. You propose to Virginia, little sister of your friend, Totó.

…..The one who almost became a doctor.

…..International fame gives you a spin as soon as Anne Boleyn is staged in Milan. You are thirty-three. Up and down The Boot, and then some, why not conquer Europe, one luminous city after the other. For ten years the audience takes solid interest in Anne. Then enter Lucia, L’Elisir D’Amore, Don Pasquale: sweet gods of pure honey, what did you do there, Gaetano, pulling up these masterpieces in a few weeks, sometimes days, often still lacking a recitativo or two for the dress rehearsal but what of it. You were the comet that shot higher and higher every time you touched paper, ink, and pen. Nothing else mattered.

…..Of course you visited Paris, of course you got established all through and through. You start working on Lucia di Lammermoor – hello, my fairy aunt, blood-soaked Scottish bride – and somehow the timing is simply flawless. Rossini had just retired, Bellini had just died. That poor, sweet, innocent, beautiful and surprisingly tough boy, yes, him, died at thirty-four. A year before everything was coming up Badass Of The Belcanto. Now it’s one man standing: you, Gaetano.

…..Tell me, when Lucia entered your life, was that a warning? That superhuman key, those eerie hights, the glass harmonica, the cadenzas, the runs, the trills, the mordents, the additions, the interpolations, her spooky beauty – madness, madness on every level. Did it all begin when the first child closed her eyes? When you had to lay fatherhood in the grave?

…..The second baby died, too, and then the third one. None of them stood a chance.

…..Whilst Virginia was losing her mind next door, whimpering, praying, clutching onto premature little body number one, number two, number three – you never stopped working. Spilling your Mediterranean vivacity all over the bars.

…..Not long before she fell, too.

…..One bump, barely the size of a bean. (Paris, Vienna, crystal chandeliers all over Europe. What a trail of success.) The tiny red push right above your right elbow, only slightly protruding. (Signore, Maestro, what divine talent you have!) The little bulge your future brother-in-law didn’t notice. (How you have the instinct to work wonders on stage!) Even though he scanned your body for the signs of syphilis three days before the wedding.

…..Totó. The one who almost became a doctor. Four or five semesters at medical school: he meant business, him.

…..God bless your eye for a stage plot, dear Maestro, God bless your ear for those liquid gold melodies that trickle right into the heart. (Totó looked and scanned.) And your stamina, Maestro, working like a madman day and night, you should pay more attention to your health, you know? (Totó investigated and explored and scrutinized.) We are so happy you will be conducting Rossini’s Stabat Mater!

…..Oh, the Stabat Mater. Not only were you forty-four, at long last you finally had the chance to meet Rossini in person.

…..That handshake, that embrace. Two true Italians, two artists beset with longing, with a ray of sadness always sifting through their sweet smile. Both of them struck with the incurable disease of the century. None of them knowing just yet.

…..Your particular syphilis was a subtype Totó had never heard of. That evening when he scanned your body to see if you are clean enough to enter his virgin sister, he missed the lump above your elbow – and even if he hadn’t. You contracted the malady at fifteen. From a hooker in an inn. Anonymous at the time, definitely anonymous two decades later. Your first time. Virginity, Virginia. Right when you need a cloak like never before, the purple sky of Bergamo takes one good look at you and says: “I do not know this man.”

…..Maybe that is the answer. Maybe your out-of-this-world musicality had become so powerful that it needed vessels, it needed bodies, so it took everyone’s around you. You infected your wife, she passed it on to foetus one, foetus two, foetus three. You destroyed their healthy organs, you crushed everyone’s sane mind, including your own.

…..Years after Virginia’s death you score the Kapellmeister position in Vienna. Someone introduces another Italian to you. He is young and humbled and surprisingly wise. He’s your successor, the future King Of Italian Romanticism. And you are the one who puts him on the throne: “I am very, very happy to give way to people of talent like Verdi… Nothing will prevent the good Verdi from soon reaching one of the most honourable positions in the cohort of composers.” Did you know that the first few bars of Alice Cooper’s Poison are the spitting image of Sweet Child O’ Mine? For we do sometimes get it wrong and confuse Verdi’s first operas with your works.

…..Whilst in Vienna, you got word about Mayr. He was poorly so you upped sticks and ran to Bergamo. The darling man seemed ancient and fragile but eventually the journey turned out to be your wake-up call. How rapidly your condition was deteriorating, that lump was now so much bigger than a tiny push hiding from the curious eyes of the one who had almost become a doctor. When you tried to sell the family house in Naples it was time for your first meltdown and you snapped like a string of spaghetti. Virginia had died in that very bed.

…..How did you conceive all that joy? How did you squeeze the Mediterranean vivacity of a dang hot widow into three cascades of coloratura and an optional cadence? Where did you find the tight rhythm and the featherweight melody that shot Norina’s aria to the top of the charts at once? Virginia and you never became parents, still – still – you had three children, can such things be? How did you survive? Compose twenty-four more operas? Keep traveling, go to work, think about money, eat dinner?

…..One day you receive a letter from your brother, Giuseppe. He is dead bent on doing all kinds of crazy things in Europe, he says, so why don’t the two of you embark on an adventure! He’s sending his son, Andrea, to pick you up. He says.

…..His lines find you relatively well, you’re on a roll: still busy, still popular, writing for the French, breaking a contract or two, orchestrating, overseeing Nabucco, being pleased with it. It’s just that… oh, how you find it harder and harder to stand on your feet. Oh, how concentration feels like lifting a rock, a bit taller than you, in the woods. Oh, how wonderful it will be to leave the country with Giuseppe.

…..Andrea bamboozles you to believe the two of you are headed to Vienna. With the good doctor Ricord following in a second coach. One evening the convoy stops just outside of Paris. You see a mighty huge building towering over a surprisingly small garden. They tell you it’s an inn.

…..It takes you two days to understand where you are. You start pouring your desperate rage into letters. They are never delivered.

…..Tell me, Gaetano, when they locked you up like a useless broomstick, what happened on the inside? Did Lucia’s madness start to pulse in your nerves? Did the sextet’s pizzicato-suspense – Who restrains me in such a moment – bounce off the walls in those sombre corridors? Were you inundated by the tornados of emotion originally springing from the bottom of your heart? Were you nailed to your seat by the brass section? Did you have prophetic hearing, knowing that Bartók, Messiaen, Cage were already on their way? Are you all friends today? Party much on the clouds? The entire Italian pop of the so-called sixties, Pappa Pomodoro, la dolce vita, café Roma – every bit of it, every sugary crumb is inspired by you, Gaetano. The hits that lifted up a whole generation, that is your legacy, too.

…..You live to see one more miracle. Eventually, they have to let you die under the purple sky. No one can take that away from the man who put Bergamo on the map. Eight months into a season in hell the very same men who ditch you in a mental asylum drive you home.

…..The trip lasts two and a half weeks. Slow and careful. You have six more months left on Earth. The generous and noble Scotti family offer you three rooms in their palace. By the time you’re home, Andrea has it all sorted. You spend most of your days in a large, comfortable armchair in the salon. You could call it armchair express, the train that never goes anywhere – if you were still on speaking terms with the world, that is. Occasionally you mutter monosyllabic words, there are famous sopranos and tenors visiting, there are arias sung, your arias, of course, they are not always recognised. Your face is covered by chancres, your eyes can no longer see. You suffer a stroke on April Fool’s Day. A week later it is all over.

…..You never tell anyone but you certainly remember one detail vividly right until the end. You are twenty-four, you travel to Rome for the rehearsals and premiere of Zoraida di Granata, your blood is on fire, you are unstoppable. Lightning strikes: the star tenor of the house dies three days before opening night. Hit on the head, stabbed in the back, pushed from a cliff – are you? Maybe for two seconds. You are way too young, you pull three all-nighters and, lo and behold, it’s done! True, you turned the tenor part into mezzo. First man down, secunda donna in. Problem? Oh, please. As if this was uncommon in the Belcanto.

…..I see you, I hear you through The Maid of the Regiment, Lucia, Adina, Norina, La Favorita. I would like to think Nemorino’s romance will stay with me till the end, or further. When we come back, and I know it can take up to eight hundred years, please, Gaetano, I want to fully work your magic: Una furtiva lagrima. In my next life I want to be a singer for nothing else but this aria, the all-time tenor dream. After being introduced by the sweet legato of that melancholic B flat minor, that lonesome bassoon solo slowly riding the beat, there is so much to sing. The lyrics talks about hope, the melody is all about the art of letting go. The vocal part begins in a comfortable register, the peak notes are medium-high, their hidden difficulty is a sly bitch but opera singers are used to dealing with it – and you know what, Gaetano, none of that is really important. What matters is how you widen that modest minor setting into the enormous, shimmering major confluence at the climax of the melody. Is that the secret code of four people waving at you from the other side? Heavens, you can die, you can die. I ask for nothing more. You can die of love. They surely did, Gaetano, the ultimate quartet of your life: Virginia and your three children. Clad in diamond white, hovering in infinity, waiting for you to join them.

…..The spirit standing by your cradle in 1797 and bending over your death bed in 1848, your nurse and your officer, your despot and your rebel, your mistress and owner and torturer and feeder and dictator and sex witch and huntress and saviour remains devoted all through and through. She is always two steps behind you during the glorious years, she is right by your side when your sane mind crumbles to dust. For she is your divine talent, the one who had kept you in the Belcanto flair all along. And the reason, Gaetano, is us. There is a hidden piece of you in all my articles, and in all of the articles, too. Grazie mille, carissimo signor Donizetti is all I can say. Thank you for the music.

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Dora Emma Esze is the mother of two sons and a bilingual novelist currently living in Budapest and sometimes in the United Kingdom. She has written nine novels in Hungarian and a few short stories in English who is in awe of languages and enjoys working as a translator.   

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Watch Luciano Pavarotti perform Una Furtiva Lacrima, an aria from Donizetti’s opera L’elisir d’amore

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Click here to read “The Old Casino,” J.B. Marlow’s winning story in the 64th Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest

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