Singing With Caruso Questa o quella
by Sherman Smith
part 1 of 2
The last time I saw Mr. Nibs was in Paris in 1927, or at least that is what he wanted me to believe. Trickery, or had that been the craziest dream of my whole damn life? Perhaps. Is Nibs a figment of an overactive imagination, or am I nuts? Allow me to laugh out loud on that one.
When I opened the door to my loft in Portland to find Nibs sitting at my kitchen island with an open bottle of wine, glass in hand, he made my day. That he had raided my refrigerator leaving jam, butter, bits of cheese, ham, and chunks of bread across the counter and the kitchen floor I tried to ignore. Frankly, I wasn’t sure if I would ever be graced by his presence again, so I forgave his manners. A Clurichaun will be a Clurichaun, and there is no changing that.
“I see that you have found one of my better vintages,” I said as I stepped around a blob of Humbolt Fog Goat Cheese on the floor.
“Salut, Charles.” He raised his glass, giving me a mischievous smile, his accent hinting of Irish with French undertones.
Nibs looked exactly the same as the first day he had appeared four years earlier. He is small in stature, four-foot five would be wishful thinking. You might think him to be somewhere in his mid-seventies, but I know that he is far older than one can imagine.
His eyes, set deep into a ruddy face, are an intense green that peer through a set of thick spectacles perched upon a large blue-veined drinker’s nose. His head is an explosion of red hair, finished with a well groomed flaming red lion’s beard. He is very much a Dapper Dan, always dressed to the nines, stylish to the wrong era.
“I haven’t seen me old friend in a while and thought I’d drop in for a visit, and a glass or two,” Nibs said as picked a few crumbs from his beard.
I refilled his glass, pouring myself one as well, as we began to discuss the great weighty issues of the world according to Nibs, and anywhere else his brilliant tongue might take us too.
“Family, you ask?”
I hadn’t asked, but was about to. Nibs can be annoying in his ability to catch your thoughts before you can change them into words.
Nibs looked a bit perplexed at the question. “No, I’ve got no family, at least in the way you’re thinking. Clurichaun are of the spirit world, with neither a beginning, nor an end. When I first appeared on this earth I was very much as you see me today.” He laughed at that, his wrinkled face rising with his rose-red brows, highlighting the twinkle in his eyes, that told of a thousand secrets he will never reveal.
“Surely you have parents?” I asked as I poured Nibs a third glass of wine. Nibs is a storyteller, and it is often hard to separate the fable from the truth.
“Parents? My dear fellow, there are no female Clurichauns. I am as I have always been, and I’ll remain as I am, until it’s time to become something different.”
I thought about that, and he was right. I did not understand.
“Lonely, you were about to ask?” Again, Nibs answered before I could ask. “That is not an emotion Churichauns have.” He chortled, then drained his glass as he studied me. “It doesn’t pay to get too attached to you humans. Now and then, an exception can be found.” He held out his glass for more. “I know what you’re thinking before you think it and I’ll trade you what you want for another bottle.”
What did I want?
“A story. Are you daft? You want a story, and I’ll not be giving it to you.” He paused, chewing on his next thought. “Ah, you’re a good friend, and I’ve got a charitable heart. You choose a good bottle while I think of a good tale you might find entertaining.”
I caught a sparkle in his eye as he began. “You know that I’ve never been fond of children. They’re noisy, and ask too many questions. The problem with human children is that they have unfettered imaginations; if not reigned in, they create nothing but problems. You see me, Charles, because I allow it. You believe that I am real; which I am. Children believe that shadows in the dark are real, which allows some of the little rascals to see me, whether I like it or not.”
I picked out a second bottle of wine, but couldn’t find the opener. Nibs giggled, the only way a Clurichaun can: infectiously. His glass filled magically with wine, as did mine, the cork still in place. With that he told me to close my eyes. “You are about to meet a young friend of mine, Leah. She can’t see you, or hear you, because you do not exist in her world. You are there simply as my guest. I shall warn you that everything you will experience is very real, as it is to Leah.”
He walked around the table and touched two fingers to my head as I closed my eyes. “Off we go. Young Leah lives with her Grandma in San Francisco. She is ten years of age. It is April, 1906, and Leah’s world is about to change dramatically.”
* * *
The gas lamp that hung just above the stairs lit with a slight whoosh casting a flickering glow that searched the shadows below. Grandma’s cellar held many treasures, old clothes, dolls, and boxes of stuff of never-ending interest to a ten-year old girl. Grandma had gone to the store, which was why Leah had gone to the basement, the one room in the house where she was never supposed to be. “Razzberry,” she whispered, “don’t be afraid. I only want to be your friend.” She glanced timidly into the shadows and recesses below as she took the stairs, slowly, one at a time.
A few days back she had set a small teapot and two cups on an old crate for a tea party with her favorite doll when she heard what sounded like a laugh. It had come from the little room beneath the stairs where Grandpa had kept his wine. Grandma didn’t drink and hadn’t touched any of the wine since Grandpa had passed away.
Leah should have been afraid, but she wasn’t. She put her tea cup down, then tiptoed to the stairs where she could see through the slates. It was too dark. She looked up the stairs wondering if she should just run upstairs, close the door, and lock whatever it was in the cellar until Grandma got home. She didn’t. Instead, she climbed onto a chair, stood on her toes, until she was able to light a candle that was in a glass box that hung down from the ceiling on an old chain.
As the candle sputtered, she turned, and there, just for a second she saw a small little man, with a lion’s mane of flaming red hair, and a full beard as red as a bowl of razzberries. He had a bottle of Grandpa’s wine in hand, which he dropped as he was caught in the candlelight.
“Ooh,” she said surprised, as the strange little man vanished before the bottle could hit the floor. She climbed down from the chair, slowly approached the room, where she found no one. There was no window or door for him to escape. The bottle, unbroken, sat upright on the floor the cork still in it, the wine mostly gone. She couldn’t believe her eyes: she had seen a fairy. A pretty funny looking one too. She named him Razzberry because of the color of his hair.
Twice again she had snuck into the cellar when Grandma was not around. Each time she thought she heard Razzberry, but never caught sight of him again. She put a bottle of wine on her tea table for his next visit. When she returned the bottle was empty, the cork still in it, and her tea pot lay broken in three pieces on the floor. The top of her makeshift table was sticky with the remnants of the blueberry pie that had disappeared from the kitchen. She had taken the blame for that. Her new friend was a mischievous spirit she had better be careful of.
This time she took two bottles, carrying them carefully up the stairs and across the street to the front porch of a house that was vacant. The bottles she placed just behind a pillar where no one could find them except Razzberry.
After dinner Grandma put a record on the gramophone as she did most nights. She only had four records, all opera, tonight it was Enrico Caruso.
Per me pari sono...
Questa o quella a quant’altre d’intorno mi vedo...
Her special moment of the day was when Leah would sing along with the record. It didn’t matter that Leah couldn’t reach all the lower notes, she knew every one, without understanding a word that was being sung.
When the record finished she kissed Grandma good night and went to bed, Instead of climbing beneath the covers she sat by her window and waited for her red-haired fairy to come for the wine. She tried to stay awake, but it wasn’t long until she crawled into bed having seen nothing.
She woke early.
The house was quiet, the sun lazy in the early morning sky. The aroma of fresh-baked wheat cakes and sausage wafted up from Grandma’s coal stove. The clop-clop-clop of a horse pulling the milk wagon passed on the street below. She went to the window. The horse reared, the whites of its eyes bulged white. She looked across the street, expecting to see a wild dog, something that might have spooked it. The only thing she saw was an empty wine bottle on the front porch. Behind the pillar she thought she could see some red hair. She leaned out the window to get a closer look.
All at once, the house began to rumble and shake. The street ruptured, a giant crack opened right before her eyes. The milk wagon tilted, its cargo splashed onto the street, the milkman flying head over heels. The horse reared, scared to death, its hooves kicked stones into the chasm. That poor thing was so scared, it pulled the wagon sideways down the hill.
A brick chimney crashed down off Mrs. Cassidy’s boarding house, burying the milk man. She was almost thrown from her perch in the window but was pulled back by tiny but strong hands. It was Razzberry, her red-haired fairy. In a blink of an eye he was gone. She turned back to the window as a lone wheel wobbled like a top as it rolled down the hill.
“Leah!” She heard Grandma call out her name. Just once. Then the house took a terrible jolt. It sounded as if the world was ending. The wall near where she stood ripped free, the floor beneath her tilted, everything rose, then fell, the world suddenly topsy-turvy. The furniture was going every which way. She threw herself onto her bed and clung to it for dear life as it was thrown into the street.
The gas street light at the corner shattered, its small flame suddenly a gigantic dancing genie. The house behind it, a Queen Anne, crumbled, its beautiful wood instant fuel for the fire. The hillside around her was crowded with boarding houses surrounded by small wooden Victorians and shanties. They collapsed, one after another.
“Grandma!” Leah screamed with tear-clouded eyes as she searched the wreckage of what once had been Grandma’s house. Then she found Grandma’s hand where she had tried to reach through the rubble. A pool of blood slowly oozed from beneath the shattered cottage. Through a small crack Leah could see her eyes. The sparkle was gone. Grandma wasn’t there anymore. A fire spread around her, the heat and smoke taking her away.
“It’s time to go, little one, she’s gone.”
“No, I can’t leave her,” she cried as she felt herself being pulled away.
“You’ve got to go now, little one, the fires are growing.” The hand on her shoulder, though small and wrinkled, felt strong and reassuring.
Copyright © 2013 by Sherman Smith