Simona’s view of the modern city dropped away as the cable car rose toward Città Alta. Above the ancient city wall, she could see black-clad families milling about in the pre-dawn glow. Services would begin in twenty minutes, at 5:00 a.m. Those who had risen early were enjoying the beauty of the upper city, its medieval architecture and narrow cobbled streets unaltered since Renaissance times.
Simona’s black shawl rubbed against her lips, and she brushed it away. She had been awake longer than any of her neighbors. In Bergamo—or any northern city—the women did not prepare feasts on All Souls’ Day, nor leave their homes open for the spirits. But Simona kept up the southern traditions, even if her grandmother would have cringed to see her preparing portions of that feast in the microwave.
The funicular deposited Simona near the Piazza Vecchia. The other women greeted her warmly as she crossed the square. They asked about her work, which made it necessary to lie. “Making progress,” she said.
Two years earlier, most of them had come to see L’Applauso È Napoletano in its first few weeks at La Scala. They were not habitual opera-goers, but they knew the composer and took neighborly pride in her success.
It was an easy story for northerners to love. While her opera gave an inevitably nostalgic, romanticized view of Campania, her southern home, it was ultimately a paean to everything Bergamo had taught her to love about the north: its scenic beauty, its air of civilized contentment. The southern heroine does not return home in the end; she finds home.
Every line of the square’s architecture drew Simona’s eyes upward—the arches and pillars of the library’s white façade, the stony bulk of the ancient bell tower. An archway led to the chapel. Simona found a seat near its acoustic center. Stefano, her fiancé, would be attending services with his family in Milan, an hour away. He had invited her, but she had a plan of her own for this morning, and it could only be accomplished here, in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.
Simona joined her neighbors in lighting candles for the departed and reciting the prayers. Some of the women who had lost relatives within the past year wept while the organ played.
Simona’s analytical facility had outgrown its proper place in her mind. She did not hear the organ music as a unified whole; her ear picked the musical phrases apart into individual chords, and the chords into isolated notes. This rendered the composition meaningless; any arbitrary substitution could have been made, and would neither improve nor damage the music.
A-flat? Why not G?
Half note? Why not two quarter notes?
Composer’s intuition, she answered herself. I used to have it too.
The mass ended. While the other churchgoers dispersed to tend family graves, Simona made her way to the rear of the church, where lay the one dead Bergamasco to whom she felt any connection.
Simona knew of no more touching monument, anywhere, than the relief carved on Donizetti’s tomb. It depicted a group of cherubs at the moment when they heard of the composer’s death. Several were bending and breaking their lutes; one, angry-faced, held his lute over his head with both hands, ready to smash it upon the ground; another stood poised to crush his lute beneath his upraised foot. In the center of the relief, a kneeling cherub wept, hands covering his face, while the cherub at left gazed heavenward in despairing incomprehension.
Simona traced the relief with her fingertips, then began to speak.
From its long rest, Gaetano Donizetti’s consciousness flickered into existence, so that a sound might intrude upon it. A woman’s voice said, “… to pay respect to you on this day.”
Inside the tomb, Donizetti’s soul formed a vague head-shape and nodded it in recognition. The living often stopped by to honor his memory. On All Souls’ Day, when the barrier between worlds was thinnest, he could hear them.
“Great master, offer me guidance—”
Guidance? There was a dangerous word. She hadn’t fallen to her knees before his tomb, had she? His senses sharpened; he tried to be certain.
“I have succeeded once. And now, no music I write approaches the beauty of what I’ve already written. But you, you breathed music as others breathe air—”
Excessive flattery. I worked at my music.
“Teach me to remember what I once knew. Help me to release the music in my soul—”
He formed a face, which formed a scowl. I joined the army rather than teach music. Know me before you ask these things.
Her voice was growing ever more frantic. “Don’t leave me in this state: silent, unheard. I exist for Music—”
No, no, this is all wrong. An ember of outrage began to glow in the dark of Donizetti’s tranquility. Music should give joy to its creator, never enslave her. Else, why create?
“Inhabit me, if you can.” Her voice was choked. “Make me your instrument. If I can no longer create, I can still … I can …”
Must you make me care for you? There should be peace in death.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what I’m saying. Forgive me.”
Pity overcame Donizetti at last, if only by a narrow margin. He gathered himself and stepped from his tomb, but there was no one kneeling before it.
Footfalls echoed on the flagstones. He caught the barest glimpse of her flushed, tear-streaked cheek as she ran from the chapel. But today, on All Souls’ Day, he could be anywhere within Città Alta, instantly. Anywhere that he had been before. So, the barest glimpse would be enough.
Simona walked the narrowest of the old streets, turning her face to the walls until she had composed herself enough to be seen without loss of dignity. She descended to Città Bassa via the funicular and went home.
Stefano arrived that evening. His gaze lingered on the feast she had left for the spirits. She’d been composing, and had not yet cleaned it up.
Stefano had advised against leaving her home open all day, but now he refrained from comment. She loved him for all the protective things he obviously wanted to say, and loved him even more for having enough respect not to say them.
She cleared away the dishes and prepared a dinner. While they ate, Stefano told her stories about his family, with whom he had spent the day. His younger sister had a new boyfriend, of whom Stefano did not quite approve. Simona found it adorable that his protective tendencies applied to everyone he loved, not only to herself.
Stefano’s older sister worked as an assistant manager in a hotel. She always had hilarious, and sometimes infuriating, stories about the guests, which Stefano recounted in as much detail as he could remember.
For Simona, whose thoughts of late had revolved entirely around her music and how little of it she was writing, Stefano’s willingness to carry the conversation came as a welcome diversion. She could forget her concerns for a while, as he chattered on.
Then, for an instant, they were not alone at the table. One of the empty chairs was occupied by a … trick of the light. But it was a man-shaped trick, with a wild curl of shadow atop its head and another that might have been a bow tie beneath its chin. When she turned to glance at it, one of its eye-shimmers disappeared and reappeared. On a more solid form, it might have been a wink. Then the figure vanished.
“Are you all right?” Stefano asked, breaking off in the middle of a story.
He smiled. “You went away for a minute there.”
He hadn’t seen it, then. “Oh, sorry. I was just wondering … can you stay the night?” She picked up her empty plate and carried it into the kitchen.
He followed with his own plate. “I hadn’t planned on it, but I’d love to. You know I have to wake up early for work?”
“I know. It’s just … there’s something a little spooky about this holiday, isn’t there? The spirits of the departed walking around? Your presence would be comforting.”
She didn’t want to tell him what she had seen. For one, she wasn’t certain she had seen it. And even if she had, Stefano tended to worry when she had a problem he couldn’t solve, or wasn’t supposed to.
“And your presence would be delightful,” he replied. He kissed her, and she kissed back, made it last longer than he had planned, turned his casual gesture into one full of longing and love.
“Yours too,” she said. “Especially if you can get up for work without waking me.”
“I’ll do my best.”
During breakfast the next morning, alone in her apartment, Simona put on her recording of L’Applauso. She had not listened to her own work in months. She had polished it so lovingly, and they had found the ideal performer for every role. The recording had captured her music the way it was supposed to sound. It made anything different—anything new—seem wrong. She worried that her next work would sound like a soulless imitation of her one great success. That was the easiest thing for reviewers to write about any composer’s second offering. They almost didn’t need to attend a performance.
So instead, Simona’s new work accumulated in her wastebasket over the course of each day. Soulless imitation might be an improvement.
She sorted through piles of CDs. Mozart … Rossini … trick of the light.
There he was, depicted on the cover of a CD. The same wild curl of hair she had perceived as a shadow. Not a bow tie, but a cravat. Donizetti. And he had winked at her.
She rushed from the apartment without finishing breakfast.
All Souls’ Day had passed, and the barrier between worlds had begun to thicken. Normally, it would have taken enormous energy for Donizetti to travel the city freely—the sort of energy that comes from unresolved grievances against the living. Donizetti had no unfinished business, but now he had a connection to a mortal.
They had kept his old bed, all these years. It was on display in his museum, a small, second-floor suite of rooms that also housed his sheet music, instruments, clothing, and other personal effects.
He knew that the woman would come. She had asked for him, and he had appeared. It had taken all of his concentration to make himself visible in Città Bassa, even just barely visible, even just for a moment. But he had done it, and she would come.
His old doublet hung on a wooden tailor’s dummy. He touched it, let his fingers pass through the velvet, let the feel of it come alive in his memory. Then, with a moment’s concentration, he shaped the matter of his soul to resemble it. He repeated the trick with his old walking stick, touching the original and creating a spirit replica that he could hold.
So he lay on his old bed, wearing his old finery, one sole planted on the mattress, his knee pointed jauntily upward. He twirled the walking stick in his fingers, and he waited.
The woman arrived flushed and panting. There was something tentative about the way she walked, the way her eyes traced each surface, wondering if it might be inhabited by a spirit, if ghosts really could exist and answer people’s prayers.
When she saw Donizetti, she froze for a moment, taking in the sight of him. She swallowed. “It was you,” she said. “You came to me.”
“And you,” Donizetti replied, his nasal voice resonating off the walls, “took your time returning the favor!”
He sprang from the bed in one fluid motion, rapped his walking stick twice on the floor. “Come! We have work to do.”
In Florence, which had been home to Leonardo and Michelangelo for long portions of their lives, Donizetti might have been dimly remembered, a historical footnote. In the quiet mountain town of Bergamo, he was the most renowned of the city’s sons, the single greatest source of civic pride. One could not spend much time in Bergamo without hearing his name. That was one reason Simona had chosen him to hear her prayer.
Still, praying to the great man’s tomb had been one thing. Sharing his company, bearing the weight of his full attention, was another, and far more exhilarating.
“Begin by showing me how you compose,” Donizetti said.
“What … what do you mean?”
“I mean, here is pen! Here is paper! Begin!”
Simona wondered how long their privacy would last. “What about …” She gestured toward the ticket-taker in the hallway, her back to the museum’s entrance.
“These rooms are my domain. She will not hear what I do not wish her to hear. Now, begin.”
Simona stood over an exhibit case, drew a staff on the blank page, hummed a few notes, and wrote them down. She ran a hand through her long hair, blew out a breath. Then she wrote a few more notes.
Donizetti stood at her shoulder, watching the pen move.
She paced the length of the main room once, twice. She picked up Donizetti’s old violin. Conveniently, the museum kept it strung for appearance’s sake. She gave it a cursory tuning, carefully played a few notes on it, and wrote them down. Then she snatched up the paper in one hand. She would have crumpled it, but hesitated, not sure whether she had permission.
The first ruined sheet of the day had come even faster than usual, with Donizetti watching.
He sighed theatrically. “I see. You know quite well how to compose. I am not so sure you remember why. Come, then.” He swept out of the museum. The ticket-taker showed no awareness of him as he passed, but nodded to Simona as she followed.
In the Via Gombito, the ever-present Roaring Old Man tottered by, emitting nonsensical syllables and daring anyone to meet his gaze. He was a fixture in the afternoons; Simona encountered him nearly every time she visited Città Alta. “Arrrrhh!” he yelled, and, “Aiieeeee!” He tottered on his way. Donizetti leaned close to Simona and spoke in her ear. “A comic buffoon?” he suggested. “A drunken, declaiming baritone? Or a fallen genius—a strident tenor, lamenting his lost glory? Perhaps a spy, concealed in plain sight? The stuff of opera, in any case. Compose him.”
At the fortress called La Rocca, atop a broad tower of sand-colored stone, a stiff wind flapped the Italian flag. Donizetti stood in the center of the stone courtyard and shouted over the wind: “A mighty fortress! A symbol of liberty!” He stepped closer to Simona, lowered his voice. “But it was also a prison, once. And the French used it when they conquered us, and the Austrians too. There is music here. Stirring, patriotic music, and dark, oppressive music.”
Simona looked at the fortress, trying to make the music come, but it would not come. She avoided meeting Donizetti’s gaze, fearing to admit that she could look at La Rocca and hear nothing.
“Come,” said Donizetti.
They climbed the bell tower and looked down into the Piazza Vecchia. Donizetti offered no commentary, seeming to wait for something. As Simona turned to face him, the huge bell tolled, just meters above her head. Donizetti flickered translucent and vanished. The sound took away Simona’s ability to think, to descend the stairs, to do anything but cringe, hands over her ears, and wait for the bell to finish.
Finally she descended the tower and found Donizetti waiting. “You looked like you could use a shaking,” he said. Simona stared at him in blank amazement, then laughed. Her eyes closed and her chest shook and as the tension left her, she realized it was the first time she had smiled in Donizetti’s presence.
They walked along the city wall that divided the upper and lower parts of Bergamo. Simona wondered how Città Bassa must look to Donizetti, with its automobiles, with people tapping at their smartphones, skateboarders with their blue spiked hair, chemical plants and apartment complexes made of concrete, glass, and steel. Here stood one of Bergamo’s most celebrated ancestors, surveying what his grandchildren’s grandchildren had made of themselves. How would he judge it all?
She tried to put the question into words, but the thoughts seemed too large, and the words came out awkward, incomplete.
“I’ve never thought about it,” Donizetti said.
They stopped and leaned against the wall, looking out over the valley. “Behind each window, along every street,” said Donizetti, gesturing broadly across the expanse of orange-tiled rooftops that stretched all the way to the mountains, “a life runs its course. All of those lives, orbiting one another like planets, twinkling in isolation like the stars … and finally, scattered like dust.” He blew on his upturned palm. “Compose them.”
“Have you done anything other than compose today?”
Simona jumped, her pen making a streak across her sheet music. She hadn’t heard Stefano enter the apartment. “No, not today,” she said. “Today was a composing day.”
“It looks like it’s been a composing week.” He started making a circuit of her apartment, picking up her discarded clothing from the backs of chairs, the couch, the floor, the dining table where she now sat working. He carried the clothing into her bedroom.
“You don’t have to do that,” she called after him.
“Which makes it wonderfully generous of me, don’t you think?” He returned, gave her a quick smile that was probably supposed to be charming, and picked up a few of her discarded coffee mugs. He swept off to the kitchen.
Simona turned her attention back to her music. She tapped her pen against the table, trying to focus on the rhythm. Clattering dishes broke through her concentration, as Stefano began washing the ones she’d left in the sink. She stood and went into the kitchen.
“Was I expecting you tonight?” she asked.
“No. But your friend Donna called me and asked if you were all right. I told her I’d check on you.”
“Donna called you?”
“She tried calling you, last night.”
“I know. I wasn’t answering the phone. I was—”
“Apparently it was her birthday? And you were invited to the—”
“Oh, damn. That was last night.”
“Great. That’s fantastic.” She stared at the ceiling for a moment. “Okay. I’ll have to make it up to Donna, after I’m done with all this.”
“Done with all what?”
“Finding my way through this … this darkness in my mind. The music still isn’t coming. It’s not like writing L’Applauso. That’s probably good. I’m not trying to write the same opera over again. But if L’Applauso had failed, no one would have noticed. And if this fails, everyone will notice.”
“People seem to notice when you forget their birthday parties, too.” He gave a little chuckle, as if trying to make a joke of it.
“I know. I know what I owe my friends. But I know what I owe my audience, too. And I’m afraid, Stefano. It may be that what I owe them”—she tapped at her breastbone—“isn’t in me anymore. What then? What am I supposed to do?”
“Well, I think you could start by taking a breath or two,” he said. “Go for a walk, get some fresh air, have a nice meal. The audiences aren’t demanding anything right now. You’re the one putting all this pressure on yourself.”
“No, of course the audience isn’t demanding anything. And they won’t. Audiences are always willing to forget you ever existed.”
“I don’t think they’ll forget about you in the time it takes to … I don’t know … go out for some gelato. Or go to a birthday party when you’re invited.”
“That’s your solution to all this? Gelato?”
“Gelato is the solution to many of life’s problems.”
Simona rolled her eyes.
“I know it helps me when I’m having a hard time at work,” he said.
“It’s different for you. You leave the lab at the end of the day, and your work stays behind. It’s just something you do; it isn’t who you are.”
“This isn’t who you are, either,” he replied. “This is a downward spiral. Look at this place. You’re not taking care of yourself, you’re not eating well …” He opened one of her cupboards and removed a package of penne. “Let me cook you a nice dinner—”
She took the package from his hand. “Look, Stefano,” she said. “You’ll be a good father someday, but don’t practice on me. I’m not a child.”
“That’s not what I—”
“And I don’t think I’m hungry tonight.” She replaced the penne on the shelf and closed the cabinet. “And I … I don’t think I’m in the mood for company. You should go.”
“Simona, you need to—”
They stood facing each other for a long moment, each staring at a different spot on the kitchen floor, not moving except for the heaving of their chests as they breathed. Finally, Stefano left the kitchen. A moment later, Simona heard her front door open and close.
She returned to her dining table and began again to compose.
Donizetti took to unlocking his museum for Simona after the building had closed for the night. He never had to wait long for her to arrive. He insisted on candlelight, and on working long past midnight.
“Working through your fatigue will force your inhibitions aside,” he said.
“Couldn’t I just drink a bottle of wine?”
“No. Artists deprive themselves of sleep. Poseurs drink.”
Città Alta had been wired for electricity, but he refused to permit its use while composing. We must give you an authentic experience, after all, he thought. You believe that music must be a struggle. Let us take that belief to its extreme, and see what we may find there.
“There is no music in these electric lights,” he told her, his footsteps echoing in the silence of his museum as he slowly paced. “They don’t flicker; they don’t dance.” He noticed a gutter of wax forming. “They don’t weep. They only buzz, steady and atonal. We must surround ourselves with music, and weed out that which is not music.”
Simona dropped her head back to the page in front of her and filled a few more measures.
Donizetti had learned to sneak glimpses at the music; Simona could not work while he stared. Her music is beautiful, he thought, watching her with sympathy. Almost as good as mine. He stepped closer to her and peered down his nose at her current score.
She had taken a modern office worker as her heroine. Her introductory scene was ambitious, panoramic. It began with an alarm clock, followed the young woman out of bed, through the horns-and-tubas rush of morning traffic, and into an office building. Percussion imitated the clack of computer keys, the clink of tiny espresso cups against saucers and desktops; strings toyed with the repetitive swoosh of a photocopier, the monotone flickering of fluorescent lights; a chorus of voices brought in the chaos of many distinct telephone conversations. Remarkably, the elements all blended, forming a unified impression that somehow gained in beauty the more hectic it became.
Donizetti stood dumbstruck. She had found the rhythm of her own world, the hidden melodies in those very aspects of modern life he had called devoid of music.
The heroine switched on her computer. Simona wrote: “Sintetizzatore”—synthesizer—then crossed it out, then began to write it again. She gave a cry of disgust, hammered her fist on the desk three times, and snatched up the paper. She crumpled it in one hand and threw it in the trash.
“Well, try again,” was all Donizetti said. Encouragement might have helped her, but not in the way she needed.
She stayed there through the night and into the morning, composing and destroying, and did not leave Donizetti’s rooms until nearly midday, as the museum began to receive its first visitors.
Donizetti followed her, to her surprise. “Not to worry,” he said. “A change of scenery may do you good. Find a rock to sit on. Compose out here. There are no instruments here, but you can whistle.”
She turned around to face him, staggering with fatigue. “Please, I need a break.”
Donizetti nodded solemnly. Then I shall break you.
“All right,” he said. “Follow me.”
He led her to a restaurant and watched her order a margherita pizza. While she waited for her food, Donizetti stood over one of the other patrons, leaned in close and sniffed at her cappuccino. The woman seemed oblivious.
“Mmm,” he murmured to Simona. “Such dark beauty in the scent of coffee. One forgets it as the decades pass. It entices you with its aroma, makes you feel strong even while wearing away at your insides. It is the most dangerous of lovers: the Seductress and the Destroyer. Soprano, perhaps? But slow and sultry in her rhythms. Even in coffee, there is music.”
Simona was only half listening. Now that she had stopped moving, stopped working, hunger and fatigue threatened to consume her. The thought of coffee was tempting, but she needed solid food more urgently. Her skin felt tight on her bones, and the ambient sounds had taken on a tinny quality—not much bass, lots of treble.
The pizza arrived. Donizetti stood behind Simona’s chair; he bent to position his lips behind her ear. “Good,” he whispered. “Now a bite of pizza. Don’t rush it. Taste the sunlight that shone on those tomatoes, the wood that fired the crust, the vitality of fresh basil. Yes.”
Simona bit off a chunk of the pizza.
“Oh,” said Donizetti, sounding rapturous. “In pizza one can taste all the bounty of nature, the benevolence of God. It is life’s goodness in microcosm.
“Now: don’t eat it. Compose it.”
Simona’s head snapped around to stare at him in horror. “Don’t eat—?”
“You have tasted it once. Don’t dilute the memory of that first taste.”
But I’m so hungry.
Donizetti was relentless: “Feed your music first. You can feed your body afterward.”
She stared at the slice of pizza in her hands.
Donizetti straightened from his crouch and looked down his nose at her, ready to issue his ultimatum. “Is this where I belong? You are not the only composer in Bergamo.”
He turned away, took a step.
Simona leapt from her chair, reaching after him with both arms. “Wait! Don’t go!” Her voice echoed off the nearby buildings. He felt her fingertips pass through the velvet of his doublet and continued walking.
Behind him, Donizetti heard a small crowd detaining Simona, asking her if she felt all right. They could not see him; they would think she had been shouting and clawing at empty air. He allowed himself to fade from her view. Let her reassure them as best she could.
Only after she felt that she had hit some sort of a bottom could they attempt the real work of building her back up.
The crowd would have put her in the hospital if they’d had the power; Simona could see it in their faces. But she never asked for help, so eventually, they had to disperse.
Donizetti, when she found him again by the city wall, had softened somewhat. He looked her up and down as she approached, then said, “You may be right. You need to untwist yourself. Perhaps I have been too strict, depriving you of other composers’ music all these weeks. Let your man take you to a concert tonight. Verdi is playing at the Teatro Donizetti, and he is … competent. Enjoy yourself.”
Donizetti vanished, his body distorting inward toward his own navel and shrinking to nothing. Simona wasn’t sure, but she thought she heard a popping noise.
Space twisted around itself, and Donizetti felt himself spiraling through it, as if down a drain. Something had him by the soul. He hoped Simona could not tell that his disappearance had been unintentional. He hoped immortal souls could not be destroyed.
He hoped this was not what it felt like if they were.
He appeared with his back to his own tomb in Santa Maria Maggiore, contained by a half-circle of candles. He looked at the priest first, and did not recognize him. The man next to the priest, though, was Simona’s lover, Stefano. They both held crucifixes.
“I saw you,” Stefano said without preamble.
Donizetti made no reply.
“I saw Simona from below, walking along the city wall with another man one night,” he said. “I wondered who you could be. Then her head eclipsed the moon—and yours didn’t. The moon shone through your head. I knew immediately. What other spirit than you would she have chosen as her companion?”
“I am not a rival to you,” said Donizetti. “I have no desire to—”
“She is unraveling. You had one full lifetime in which to compose. She is not your opportunity to live again.”
The priest was chanting softly behind Stefano. Donizetti felt himself being pulled toward the inside of the tomb. The pull was soft, but getting stronger.
“She is an independent soul,” Stefano continued, trembling with fury, “not a conduit for you to reclaim your—”
“She is dying,” Donizetti said.
That stopped Stefano for a moment. Donizetti could see the doubt in his eyes: Have we drifted so far apart that I would be the last to know? Then he stood straighter, as if preparing to close a door in Donizetti’s face. “No. She would have told me.”
“Not her body,” said Donizetti. “But you must have seen it by now.” He tried to step forward out of the circle of candles, but met an invisible wall.
“Yes, I have. I’ve seen her obsessed by work as never before. An obsession to which you must have incited her. I’ve seen her neglecting her health, her friends—”
“Spare me,” Donizetti spat. “She’s told me of your great concern for her social obligations.”
“Is that so?” Stefano’s voice dropped to an injured whisper. “Because she’s told me nothing of you.”
“I can’t imagine why not. You show such understanding of the work that’s important to her.”
Stefano turned his face away sharply, as if presenting the other cheek for Donizetti to strike. “Don’t presume to judge me,” he said. He met the composer’s gaze again, his eyes glistening. “You may see her only as a musician. I see her as a whole person. I love her. And her friends, they love her.”
“Then tell me: how much love do you think she could give to her friends if she had none left for herself?”
Stefano opened his mouth to reply, and closed it again.
“I would never deny the importance of friends and family,” said Donizetti. “Nor do I doubt that they would provide shoulders for her to cry on, as she mourned the death of the music within her. But would they—would you—rather have a Simona who weeps on your shoulders, or one who stands proud, full of life, full of joy?”
“I have not seen that Simona since you arrived on the scene, Signore.”
“You lost her before I arrived. And you can hardly expect me to bring her back in a day.” He opened his palms toward Stefano. “Music is not giving her any joy. She hungers only for more of the fame she has tasted once. I’ve known fame; I’ve walked this path. Have you?”
Again, Stefano stood silenced. Donizetti felt the pull from his tomb strengthening still; he fought not to stagger visibly backward. He spoke faster.
“Because if you can heal her, then yes, please, send me back to my rest. But if you can’t … then for the rest of your life, you can look back on this as the night that you, and you alone, chose to consign her best hope to the grave.”
Stefano’s fist tightened on the crucifix, until Donizetti thought the wood might snap in his hand. Then, of a sudden, he lowered it to his side. He stepped closer to the circle of candles, to within a few centimeters of Donizetti’s shimmering face. “You had better be right. About what she needs.”
He turned to the priest. “Thank you, Padre. And sorry to have troubled you.” The priest lowered his own crucifix and slumped with relief. Stefano extinguished one of the candles beneath his shoe.
Donizetti stepped over the dark candle, out of the circle.
“Thank you for trusting me,” he told Stefano.
“Who said I trusted you? I’m a desperate man.”
Donizetti nodded and said, “It should not be much longer.” Then he vanished.
That night, when Simona met Stefano at the concert, he smiled cautiously and gave her a slow nod that was almost a formal bow. He said nothing in greeting, likely for fear of saying the wrong thing. It felt to Simona like the first meeting of ambassadors after the conclusion of a war.
They took their seats. Stefano, to break the tension, read an anecdote about Verdi from the program. “Have you heard this story before?” he asked. “While writing Il Trovatore, Verdi received a visit from a noted critic. He played three tunes from his work in progress, and the critic informed him that they were all absolute, irredeemable trash. ‘My friend,’ Verdi enthused, ‘thank you! This is to be a popular opera. If you had liked it, no one else would. But your distaste promises me great success!’”
It was a hopelessly awkward attempt at safe conversation, reading from the program instead of sharing their own thoughts. But it was also a relief, so Simona went along with it.
“I’ve never heard that,” she admitted. “But then, Il Trovatore is what, his twelfth opera?”
“It says here his eighteenth.”
“Well, then. I hope by the time I’ve written eighteen operas, I’ll have the stature to tell the critics how useless they are, too.”
“If I know you, I think you’ll prefer their approval, even then.”
She smiled, a little ruefully. “You do know me.”
She held his hand while the music played, adjusting her grip constantly. Tighter to reassure him, then looser because her palm felt too clammy to inflict on him.
She felt Stefano lose himself in the music when it started. He did not compose, and played with only a hobbyist’s skill, but he was a knowledgeable, appreciative listener. Beside her, he closed his eyes. His head drifted from side to side with each swell of the music, like a conductor’s baton in slow motion.
Images of written music tumbled through Simona’s mind as the orchestra played. For brief stretches, she could stop herself compulsively rewriting the music as it entered her ears. But soon, the concert became just another exercise in composition. She could improve upon the music for a few measures at a time, then her rewrites would dissolve into cacophony—while the original continued to fill the theater with its infuriating flawlessness.
“I’m sorry I sent you away so abruptly the other night,” she told Stefano at the intermission. “My work has me on edge, but I never meant to make you doubt our relationship.”
“No, I’m sorry,” he said. “For trying to protect you from yourself. You were right. Your gift for music is part of what I love in you. I have no business telling you how to write it.”
You love me for my music, she thought, but what if my music is gone? That thought would not reassure him. So she wrapped her arms around him and said nothing.
They returned to their seats. The second half of the concert proved more trying for Simona than the first. She listened with a feverish intensity, gripping her armrest with white-knuckled force. She listened as if lives were at stake.
She wanted to be uplifted by the music, enlightened, transformed. She wanted the sounds of instruments and voices to part like a curtain, to reveal some large and glorious truth. She wanted a dormant part of herself to awaken, to resonate with Verdi’s music and answer it in a voice of her own.
The music was lively and lovely, but she wanted it to be more than it was. It blithely refused, and she felt sick. Betrayed—though whether by Verdi or by herself, she could not be sure.
Am I learning to hate music? Is that what’s happening to me?
At the end of the night, Simona had no auditory memory of the concert. She recalled only the gleam of brass, the black of formal wear, the dancing baton.
The next morning, a Saturday, Simona called her friend Donna. She apologized for missing her party and made plans to meet her that afternoon for a belated birthday lunch. Then she went out to find Donizetti and tell him she would not be continuing her studies. She would not frame it as an admission of failure. It would be an admission that the joy had gone out of trying.
She could not find him in his museum, though. Nor was he at Santa Maria Maggiore. Could he have anticipated her decision to abandon the composing life?
She looked for him in each of the places they had haunted: the bell tower, La Rocca, the café on the Piazza Vecchia. She did not expect to find him, but she felt a duty to be thorough.
When she saw the billowing flag at La Rocca, she heard music in her mind, very faintly. She caught herself humming along with it, and made herself stop.
She drifted through the city, meandering toward the path that ran along the inside of the city wall. The sun shone in a clear sky, and a warm breeze carried the scent of autumn through the streets.
What will I do in the next phase of my life? There was optimism in the question, she was surprised to discover.
She wondered again about Donizetti. Had she disappointed him, or had he meant for her journey to lead here? She stopped at the point on the city wall where they had talked before, and tried to imagine seeing Città Bassa through his eyes, watching his descendants’ headlong rush toward the future.
She sensed him at her side before he spoke.
“Two hundred years ago, that was a field of trees,” said Donizetti. “They were just beginning to build houses down there. How do I feel about your automobiles, your Internet?” He shrugged. “How would my ancestors have felt about my pocket watch, when the clock on the bell tower was once the only timepiece in the city? Who were they to judge, and who am I? People are still people, and that is all I ever was.”
He turned to face her. “If I may presume to speak for the long-dead, I thank you for preserving our old, familiar home in a position of honor.” He looked out over the wall again, and so did she. “But thank you also for continuing to build. I am pleased to see that Bergamo still lives and breathes.”
Simona smiled. She turned to look at Donizetti, to thank him for the time he had spent with her—even to kiss him, if his cheek had enough solidity to receive the gesture—but he had vanished.
She had never actually said the words to let him know that their study sessions were at an end. Somehow, he had seemed to know it already.
If he had, in some oblique way, replied to that knowledge, it was without the disappointment she might have expected.
She lingered by the wall for a moment, overlooking the modern city that was now her home, beneath the stately city that had once been all of Bergamo. Then she set out walking. It was nearly time for her lunch with Donna.
The birds that nested in the trees beneath the wall were singing. Simona whistled a few notes back to them, first mimicking, then harmonizing. Until recently, she would have felt an anxious impulse to remember those notes for later, in case they might be the seeds of her next great work. Now that impulse was gone. The birdsong existed in that one beautiful moment—and when the moment passed, it simply passed.
She was still whistling to herself when she approached the restaurant. Donna had secured an outdoor table for them and was waiting. She stood up to greet Simona, smiling.
“You sound like a bird.”
Simona looked confused for a moment, then realization dawned, and she laughed. She hadn’t noticed herself whistling. “I must have been imitating them.”
Simona apologized again for missing the party, but Donna waved it off. “Like I said on the phone, I’m glad you were just doing your tortured artist thing, and not sick or injured.”
It was the same restaurant where Donizetti had taken her, just prior to her breakdown. Simona ordered a small pizza, knowing that this time, she would be permitted to eat the whole thing, instead of trying to compose it.
She and Donna had known each other since childhood, and could talk to each other about anything. So when Donna asked her how the ‘tortured artist thing’ was going, Simona decided to tell her the whole story. It wouldn’t have felt right talking to Stefano about Donizetti’s ghost; it would only have made him worry. But Donna, after a few moments of understandable disbelief, reacted with simple wonder—and most of all, with interest in the relationship Simona had formed with her celebrated mentor.
“So, let’s pretend I believe you,” Donna said, “that you could really give up composing for more than a month or two.”
“You’re so accommodating!”
“Purely for the sake of argument. Have you thought about what kind of work you’ll do instead?”
Simona pursed her lips. “I might teach children to play,” she ventured. “I know the violin, cello, and the piano well enough to teach them.”
Donna nodded encouragingly. “That’s good!”
“Maybe write the occasional advertising jingle. Score a few episodes of TV, if I can find out who I need to know.”
Donna let a wicked gleam come into her eye. “So you’re giving up music to work with … music?”
Simona grinned sheepishly down at the table. “Well, that’s hardly real composing, you know? It’s more … are you a chef going for that next Michelin star? Or are you just grilling a quick dinner on your terrace?”
The waitress arrived and set a plate in front of each of them.
Donna sipped at her drink. Simona expected her to continue asking questions about her music, and her identity as a musician—questions for which Simona didn’t have coherent answers yet. But Donna must have sensed that it was a tender topic, so instead, she launched into a bit of gossip about her birthday party. Two of their mutual friends had arrived separately, but left together.
“Oh, they’re all wrong for each other!” Simona exclaimed with delighted horror.
“Completely,” Donna agreed. “But I don’t think they’ll realize it for a while, so I’m happy for them. It will be a beautiful mistake.”
Simona glanced upward. She could see a jet rising into the sky, leaving a thin trail of white across the clear blue. It passed behind the dome of the basilica and continued on its way—a modern marvel slicing across the medieval skyline.
“A beautiful mistake,” she echoed. “I have to say, that would be a great title for a piece of music!”
Donna raised an eyebrow as innocently as she could. “Really?”
“Oh, sure,” Simona enthused. “You could have the lovers who seem all wrong for each other … only in the end, of course, they aren’t. Total opposites: one sings high and lively, with a lot of suspended chords. The other sings low and slow, and everything resolves neatly.”
“And the ‘beautiful mistake’ motif wouldn’t only appear in their relationship. You could work it into other parts of their lives, into the set design, the architecture. The costumes.”
Donna was biting down on her lip, and Simona abruptly realized she was doing it to prevent herself from bursting out laughing.
Simona leaned back in her chair, shaking her head slightly. “I guess that habit isn’t going to disappear overnight.”
Donna grinned broadly. “Clearly not.”
“You’re apologizing to me?”
“You have to understand,” Simona said, “I’m not latching onto this idea because I think it’s magically going to wash away all of my troubles and turn me into a great composer again. I’m just …”
“Being playful,” Donna supplied. “Over lunch.”
If Donna realized that it wasn’t quite the first time Simona had playfully talked over a musical idea during one of their meals together, then at least neither of them felt compelled to comment on the last time it had happened, nor on how very far that idea had gone.
“Exactly,” Donna echoed.
Simona took a bite of her pizza—and as the flavors burst across her tongue, the world seemed to slow, so she could linger in their perfection. She made a soft noise of pleasure. Her features melted into a serene smile, and her eyes closed.
Donna watched her head sway slowly as if she were dancing, while, in her mouth, the flavors sang.