Singing With Caruso Questa o quello
by Sherman Smith
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
“Grandma, please don’t go,” she cried as she turned towards whoever was helping her. There was no one there. It was then she got scared. She looked down towards the bay where great plumes of smoke rose from the devastated city below. She looked up the hill to where one house stood intact.
A mansion clinging precariously to the hillside, as it groaned, creaked, and shuddered. Its intricate redwood woodwork seemed to be in motion as it threatened to slide down upon its neighbors in a massive avalanche.
She looked to where Grandma was buried as fires were breaking out everywhere. She was too frightened to cry. Then her torrent of tears broke free. She was on her knees, wailing, frozen in fear. The front of a house slid into the street with a terrible noise, exploding in an instant into a gas-fed fire. She wanted to run but couldn’t.
Leah, darling, this way. Follow me, she heard a voice say inside her head. She wasn’t alone amongst the mountains of debris. There, standing on top of a pile of bricks was Razzberry. He wasn’t much bigger than she, but he was quick and light of foot as he scampered across the debris, waving for her to follow. She got to her feet and followed, there was nothing else to do.
This way. Be quick about it. Follow me.
She followed, quickly losing sight of him, his voice always just ahead, beckoning. She climbed a mountain of bricks; from the top she could see great plumes of brooding smoke snaking into the sky and coming together like a colossal hungry beast above the city. A sharp crack, followed by a thunderous roar sounded behind her. She turned to see that the mansion at the top of the hill had given way in an avalanche of redwood, brick, fire, and debris. A massive bonfire crowned what was left.
Canyons of rubble blocked her way as she tried to follow Razzberry through it all. The buildings on all four corners of Folsom Street had collapsed into a mountain of brick and shattered glass. She climbed over a collapsed wall into a narrow alley, the walls on both sides ready to crumble with the next aftershock, or perhaps a sneeze. She followed him until they reached Howard Street, where she finally spotted him standing on top of a partially collapsed wall shaking his head.
“It’s a sad day, this one, a sad day indeed,” he said as she reached his side. Ahead lay a vast purple swamp, where millions of gallons of wine had spilt. The California Wine Association’s huge warehouse lay shattered. The dark purple sludge covered a vast junkyard of twisted cooperage, brick, iron, and glass from a million shattered bottles.
The air was pungent with the sweet smell of fermented grape and smoke from the firestorm that ravaged everything above them. The firestorm created its own winds, which blew in hot waves as the fires raged. When a massive brick wall collapsed nearby, a great purple wave slapped against the wall upon which they stood.
The lake was impassable. An aftershock struck, the wall collapsed, dropping them both into the purple sea. The wind from the firestorm grew, creating ruby whitecaps around them as they shook the wine from their hair.
It was the first time Leah had tasted wine, which she spit out, as Razzberry magically pulled a wine glass from a coat pocket, dipping it into the wine in which they sat. He tasted, wrinkled his nose, and spit it out. “Ruined it is, and there is no magic that will ever make it right again. ’Tis a sad day, indeed.”
Tears flowed from Leah’s bloodshot eyes; her blond hair was purple; her nightgown streaked and torn, her slippers soaked.
“Darling,” the fairy said, “dry your tears, we’ll get out of here, safe and sound, that I promise.” He reached for his top hat that floated nearby, placing it on his head without bothering to empty it of wine.
She both giggled and cried as the wine ran through his once great red mane of hair. He then tilted the hat in a gentlemanly way. “Me name is Nibs,” he said with a broad smile and a twinkle much like her Grandpa once had, “not Razzberry, nor Gooseberry, or any other obnoxious fruit. Nibs.” He gazed out across the purple swamp land. “Not a bottle to be had... shame it is.”
That was when he saw it, a long metal beam, one end caught on the remnants of a brick wall on the far side of the lake. “There it is, child, take me hand, and we’ll get out of this wretched place.” He rose, dripping wine, as did she, as he led her towards their bridge to safety.
The beam was unsteady from the start and twisted a little to the right with her every move. Nibs danced across the beam weightlessly.
The hot wind of the fire pushed against her, the smoke made it hard to breathe, as she crawled on hands and knees, the distance down growing with each foot. The shards of glass shimmered in the purple pool below. She crossed over that pungent pool and the millions of shards of glass gleamed like so many diamonds caught in the light.
She made it to the brick wall that proved to be no more steady than the beam. Nibs was just ahead, not to be seen, his voice always beckoning. She followed Nibs until a pile of brick led her down into the last few blocks of ruins.
She stepped out into what had once been the industrial section. In front of her were the piers and warehouses all broken and torn asunder. To her left was the Ferry Terminal. To her right, a trench, eight inches wide, if not a foot, filled with ash-thickened wine, ran from underneath a heap of bricks, to a pier across the way. The pier was the loading dock for the slaughterhouses and the stockyards.
The quake had liquefied the ground and the slaughterhouses had been sucked into the mud. Hundreds of carcasses, sides of beef, and body parts floated in the surf.
Nibs tried to guide her towards the ferry terminal. The ground was too soft, her feet sinking deeper into the muck with each step until her slippers were sucked right off her feet.
“This way, girl,” Nibs said, sounding a little annoyed. They worked their way back through the ruins until they found Market Street, where hundreds of people were pouring out of the blazing hills. The air was thick with smoke. Cannon-like booms resounded as walls and buildings collapsed across the city. A firestorm was consuming all the buildings on the surrounding hills and threatening everything between it and the bay.
When they found themselves across the street from the Palace Hotel, Leah could go no further. She collapsed on the front steps of a large building that was mostly intact. “Grandma,” she sobbed.
Nibs rubbed his beard, not sure what to do. Where was he to take her? Her Grandma was gone, as was her home. She had no other kin that he could sense. She was exhausted and just about at her wits’ end.
Nibs reached into his coat pocket and took out a teacup, followed by her teapot, whole again. The tea wasn’t hot, but he hadn’t the time or the inclination. She sipped, wiping her tears with the back of her wine-stained hand, wide-eyed at the porcelain pot, as if it were the one of the seven wonders of the world.
Nibs spotted amongst the calamity and chaos the miracle needed. “Sing little bird,” he whispered. “Sing.”
“Sing?” She looked up with small eyes.
“Yes, your heart needs lightness. Sing to your grandma, as she rises to the heavens.”
Across the street, a well-heeled man stood apart in the crowd. “Mario, come quick,” he yelled back through the doors of the Palace Hotel. “This man, he wants to take my luggage.” There were a half dozen large trunks stacked on the sidewalk, and no one to cater to his inconvenience. He turned to a passing soldier.
“Please, help me, this man is a thief. I am Enrico Caruso, and I sang in Carmen last night.” The soldier recognized him, chasing the thief away. Mario, his valet, appeared, dragging another large trunk out of the hotel.
Caruso turned slowly, following the sound of a child singing through the dust and smoke, the stampede of frightened people with their life’s possessions in tow. A sweetness rising above the clamour.
Per me pari sono
Questa o quella
A quant’altre d’intorno mi vedo...
Caruso heard this child’s voice sing as sweetly as he had ever heard Questo o quella sung. Then he saw her, a little waif of a girl, still in her nightgown, stained in purple and soot, from her head to her filthy bare feet. She sat alone, with a teapot, and a cup in hand, looking straight across the street at him.
Aghast, the crowd momentarily parted, as Enrico Caruso answered this child’s song with his own rich voice, both manly and powerful, sweet and lyrical.
Del mio core l’impero non cedo
Meglio ad una che ad altre beltà...
He reached her, as their voices came together, a mighty giant and a fragile little song bird.
La costoro avvenenza è qual dono
Di que il fato ne infiora la vita...
When he knelt down beside her Leah closed her eyes, the last note parting her lips as the Great Caruso took her tiny teacup from her hand.
* * *
“My God,” I stammered, my eyes flying open, as Nibs welcomed me back to my own kitchen. “My God! That... that really happened. I was there!”
I coughed, my throat still coated with the ash of a burning city, my eyes stinging and red. “Please, take me...”
“There is no going back,” Nibs said. “You experienced all this through Leah’s eyes. When the song was over she collapsed, too tired to go any further.”
I drank down the wine in one long gulp, the last drops dripping down my chin. “She didn’t...?”
“Die? Yes, but not that day.” He chuckled. “She died three days shy of her 91st birthday in Naples, Italy. The great Caruso could not let his little songbird molt in an orphanage; he arranged to take her home to Naples, where she was raised by a Nanny paid for by the great Caruso.”
My glass filled magically, as did Nibs’.
I raised mine to his. “Salute, Mr. Nibs.”
Enrico Caruso recorded “Questa o Quello” from Verdi’s Rigoletto in 1904. It was his first U.S. Victory Records recording.
Two wineries controlled wine production in 1906: the California Wine Company and Swiss Colony. The California Wine Company took up an entire city block at the base of Rincon Hill, where the footprint of the Bay Bridge is today. It was totally destroyed in the earthquake, with millions of gallons of wine flowing into San Francisco Bay that day.
Copyright © 2013 by Sherman Smith