Chapter 1: Singing to Vesuvius
I spend hours in trains now or shivering in borrowed Model Ts, bouncing down rutted roads between towns strewn like rocks across frozen fields. I wash in sinks and eat at roadside stands or from china plates, served by ladies with more wealth hung on their bodies than I’ll ever hold. I speak in parlors and parks, taverns, churches, and drafty union halls in the great Midwest. I can’t go home to Cleveland yet. “Believe me. You can win,” I tell those whose bodies are deformed by long hours in factories and mills. My voice grows ragged and rough, harsh as a crow’s. Who would guess my mother was the Naples Nightingale?
I ask for water, clear my throat, and say: “This is 1913. Your lives can change. Think of your children.” Workers stare, disbelieving. When their doubts claw me, I hear my mother whisper: “Lucia, even crows must breathe.” So I take a breath, plant my feet as singers do, and go on. When women kiss and thank me and men’s work-roughed hands press mine, then the torments of this path, the jail slabs where I’ve slept, the betrayal of friends, and the ache for those abused when I’d sworn they’d be safe, all these things have their purpose.
If our maps show rivers, lakes, or canals, I ask to see them, even when the shallows reek and oil slicks the water. I stand on shorelines and feel my body easing after so many hours of work. Inside laced shoes, my feet are bare again. I’m wading in the Bay of Naples, that warm scoop of blue held in a green embrace, watching the bright bob of fishing boats and hearing peddlers’ cries. It’s my last summer in Italy, and I’m still Lucia Esposito, passing out of childhood and content enough with my life. Mamma and I are servants to Contessa Elisabetta Monforte in her rosy villa that juts into the bay. I was born in the kitchen and never in my fourteen years slept anywhere but on a narrow cot with Mamma.
Where else would I go? Lemon, orange, fig, and golden plum trees filled the orchard. Lilacs and bougainvillea climbed our walls. On Sunday afternoons, our half-days off, we took bread and wine to the great flat rock turned like a stage to the cone of Vesuvius. If Nannina, the cook, was in good humor, we’d have chunks of cheese and earthen bowls of pasta with beans. Tomatoes and sweet peppers that birds had nibbled were ours. Ripe lemons dropped from trees; we scooped them in our skirts.
“I saw lemons at the fruit market,” says a young man from the union hall.
“Were they as big as two fists, with dimpled skin?” I ask. “Heavy as melons and nearly as sweet? Were the skins warm from the sun and the flesh inside cool as a sea breeze?”
“No,” he admits, “nothing like that.”
It would be hot on those afternoons along the bay, but not the heavy, coal-thick heat of American cities. Summer in Naples brought a soft, wrapping warmth. Our linen shifts, thin with age and damp with sweat, pressed like veils against our bodies. Mamma was beautiful at twenty-eight, with gentle curves, creamy skin, almond eyes, and waves of tumbling glossy black hair. Young men with baskets of mussels cut from the cliffs of Posillipo rowed by our rock, calling: “Come out with us, Teresa. You can bring your sister if you want.”
She ignored them or answered back so brusquely that once I asked if it was a mussel diver who had pushed her into the seaweed when she was just fourteen and made her pregnant with me. “No, it was someone from a costume ball. The bastard wore a mask.”
“Sing to me,” I’d beg in times like these, when anger darkened her face and her body shook. Then she’d turn toward Vesuvius, the brooding mound she loved so much, and sing “Maria Marì,” “Santa Lucia,” or “Sì, mi chiamano Mimì” from La Bohème, her favorite opera. She’d soften as she sang, letting me unpin her hair, wind it into braids and loops or loosen it across her back. In my earliest memory, I’m plunging my small hands into that silky mass and drawing them up like dolphins from the dark waves.
On those Sunday afternoons, children played on jetties, fishermen mended their nets, and lovers nestled between rocks. All were enchanted by her voice soaring and dipping like a seabird, weightless as wind. I leaned against her shoulder. She held me close, our skin melted together, and she was all that I needed.
I never saw signs that her mind was so fragile, or else I read them wrong. Her sudden rages, the precious porcelain figurines that slipped from her hands by seeming accident to smash on marble floors, the count’s threats to send us both away, and tense conferences between Contessa Elisabetta and Paolo, the majordomo, were the familiar texture of my days. What did I know of other mothers? Only now, looking back, do these signs speak to me as clearly as black woolen clouds over cornfields tell of coming rain.
If I thought of my future in those days, I imagined us both in service to an aging countess. “Lucia, if you read and do sums, you could manage a great house when you’re grown,” Paolo said once when we were alone. A wide smile cracked the solemn face he wore in public rooms, and I was thrilled. But what would Mamma do without me? No, I’d stay in the villa forever.
What would I do without the rock of Paolo’s steady watching out for us? Once I mused aloud how sweet our lives would be if he were my father. Mamma and I were dusting the sitting room perfumed with lilacs that framed the high windows. Her face turned wistful, then darkened like the moon masked by clouds. “Well he’s not your father,” she snapped, dusting a porcelain shepherd girl so roughly that it toppled. I lunged across the carpet to catch it.
“But all men can’t be so bad—” Her glare withered my words. When I reset the little shepherd girl, her silly painted face seemed to mock me, saying: “I have a good father.”
“Leave me alone! Go help Nannina,” Mamma snapped. So I was banished to the kitchen again and set to scrubbing crusted pots.
“What now?” Nannina demanded. I confessed my grating fear: that Mamma saw him, the masked bastard, whenever she looked at me. How could I dig him out of me? Hot tears dug holes in the billowing suds.
“Here,” said Nannina, handing me a slice of yesterday’s bread softened with ricotta. “First, lots of people don’t know their fathers, more than you think. And second, that man made you. Do you want to be not born?”
“No, but sometimes she’s so—”
“Difficult. I know. But she loves you. She loves only you. Remember that.”
“Unstable,” I’d overheard the count complain to Paolo. I pictured Mamma standing on a tottering rock in rough waters, unstable.
With nightfall, her anger faded. As she brushed and braided my hair for sleep, I tried, as I often did, to have her ease her mood with stories. “Tell me about your father, Mamma.”
“He was a—choirmaster.” And another fantasy began. Her father was a handsome fisherman, no, no, a cameo carver, a fencing master, an actor from Paris, a German prince. Once, after wine at a street fair: a magical fish-god. Now she muttered: “Here’s the truth: he left us and then my mother and brothers died of cholera. I found work with the countess and had you.” She never spoke of him again and I understood that we had no family but ourselves. We lived in the villa by Paolo and Countess Elisabetta’s good graces. “Close your eyes,” she said softly, “and I’ll sing you to sleep.”
Early the next morning as we swept the terrazzo, she suddenly stopped and hugged me fiercely. “My little Santa Lucia. Nothing bad will ever happen to us. Nothing!”
“No, Mamma, of course not.”
Just as suddenly, she set to work again, declaring it was my turn to spin a story. I made us mermaids in a watery villa where the sea washed all dust and dirt away, brought us food, and polished our coral dishes. We slept on seaweed beds that needed no ironed linen sheets. “We can read all day,” I continued dreamily. Mamma’s creamy brow creased as if this were the strangest fantasy of all.
Looking back, I find it odd that I never thought of leaving Naples. In 1905 ships sailed constantly for America. Peddlers, day laborers, fishermen, even water boys had someone “over there.” Paolo and Nannina, our gardener, Luigi, and Alma the laundress all had photographs of family and friends in America. Old Bernardo’s marionette shows about his brother’s adventures in New York featured splendid painted backdrops of the Statue of Liberty and magnificent palaces on Fifth Avenue. Yet none of these wonders seemed reason enough to leave Naples.
No, our path to exile began with an octopus the summer I was fourteen. Most summers Count Filippo fled the city heat for his hilltop villa in Capri, his pleasure palace where, Nannina muttered scornfully, “certain women entertain him.” That year malaria trapped him with us, restless and querulous. Early one steaming morning in August, he de- manded a lunch of pasta with octopus sauce, mozzarella, tomatoes from the slopes of Vesuvius, and lemon gelato from Caffè Gambrinus.
“Dr. Galuppi said to eat lightly,” Countess Elisabetta warned.
“I’ll eat what I damn please,” he roared. So Nannina sent us shopping with orders to hurry home; the sauce took time to prepare. At the fish market Mamma bargained skillfully for a fat octopus and slapped it dead. The Big Olive Man filled our jar, and then we bought tomatoes, bread, and milky balls of mozzarella. Now we carried the heavy basket together.
At the café we waited for gelato behind women talking excitedly about Milan’s great conductor, Maestro Arturo Toscanini, who was arriving soon at the San Carlo opera house. Mamma bent forward to listen, attentive as a bird. I tugged at her arm. “Look, Mamma, it’s the nice clerk scooping gelato. Maybe he’ll give us a taste.”
“Have you heard,” said the tall woman, “how handsome Maestro Toscanini is, and how ‘gifted’—and not just in music?” She tipped a hat brim toward her friend’s ear, whispering. The tinkling crystal of their laughter filled the café.
“Let’s go to the opera house,” Mamma announced, yanking me out of line. “I’ll sing ‘Sì, mi chiamano Mimì’ and be discovered like Enrico Caruso.” She pulled me along Via Roma.
The basket beat my thighs. Her flushed face filled me with dread and I gripped her arm. “No, Mamma, we have to go home. Count Filippo will be angry if we’re late.”
“The man was born angry. He was angry at seagulls this morning. If Toscanini likes my voice, we’ll be rich. You’ll have tutors. We’ll go to great cities.” She was panting now, damp curls pressed to her face. “We’ll have servants and eat off china plates. This is my chance to be a diva. I might not get another.”
“But the octopus sauce—”
She stopped, grabbed my shoulders, and shook me so hard that my head hurt. “Basta with the octopus sauce! Do you want to scrub floors all your life?” Near the opera house, an excited crowd spread like a skirt from the main door. “When Toscanini steps out of the carriage, stop him so he hears me sing.”
Blood pounded in my head. “How can I stop him?” Knowing nothing about opera, I knew this: servant girls must not bother gentlemen.
“Grab his coattails. There’s the coach! Hurry.” In the end I never touched him. Frozen with the certainty of disaster, I watched my mother plunge into the crowd, blocking the maestro’s path as three little girls brought him roses. She took a breath, settled her feet, opened her mouth, and sang. Terrified as I was, I knew her voice had never been so beautiful, so high and strong and pure. The crowd hushed. Some might have thought she was part of the city’s welcome. Arturo Toscanini was indeed handsome, with a white brimmed hat, black eyebrows that swooped over his piercing eyes like a hawk’s wings, a fine mustache, and an elegant dove-gray suit. When he cocked his head to listen, I held my breath. Perhaps she would be discovered. Then she reached for his jacket.
“No, Mamma, don’t touch him!” I called out, but she had already grasped his lapels, as if she were Mimì and he the lover Rodolfo. Toscanini leaped back, snapping his fingers.
He’s calling the guards, I thought in horror. Yes, red-cloaked officers were pushing toward her while Mamma’s voice made glorious waves of sound. I ricocheted between terror and pride: Mamma, stop, run away! I thought, and then: Maestro, make her a diva!
“The trouble with Naples,” Toscanini told a covey of young men, “is that even women of the street sing like angels. Listen to that agility, that timbre. Yet she’s obviously a servant or worse and too old for training. I can’t use her, but if any of you would like a private serenade, I’m sure it could be arranged.” Then he was gone, lithe as a cat slipping into the opera house with a swish of gray tails.
I dropped the basket and raced to Mamma. Her face bloomed with rage. She raised clenched fists, screaming after him: “You bastard! You whore of the rich with your lovers and silk shirts. You came from nowhere and now you won’t help an honest woman.” When she lunged for the door, I was left grasping her shawl.
The guards seized her. “Let me go! Count Filippo Monforte won’t have his servants mistreated,” Mamma screeched.
The guards called for a coach and pushed us in. “The basket!” I protested, watching, agonized, as young boys clawed at our basket, fighting for spoils. One waved the octopus. I closed my eyes. What would the count do to us now? In the hot, crowded coach I struggled for breath, wishing yet again that my mother could be reasonable and serene like the countess, who enjoyed elegant chambers that other women cleaned. Yes, the count was a crude and surly husband, but he was often gone. She had leisure to read, visit friends, and stroll by the bay. A rich woman had props that no servant possessed. Of course she’d be more stable, less difficult and vulnerable to the rages that Nannina called my mother’s demons.
“If you weren’t from a noble household,” one guard was barking, “you and your sister would be singing in jail.”
“My daughter,” said Mamma between gritted teeth. Wedged be- tween guards, she clenched and unclenched her fists, furiously repeating: “Woman of the street! ‘If any of you would like a private serenade, I’m sure it could be arranged.’ Bastard!” I shrank from the beautiful face, made grotesque by anger.
At the villa, guards marched us up the marble staircase and delivered us to Paolo, relating Mamma’s crimes: laying hands on Maestro Toscanini, threatening him and mortifying the city of Naples, where he was an honored guest. If not for Count Monforte’s generous patronage of the opera house, we would surely be in jail. “If this woman is ever seen near the San Carlo again, if she troubles Maestro Toscanini in any way, she’ll be locked up. You understand?”
“There will be no trouble, you may assure the maestro,” Paolo said with such magisterial certainty that the guards stepped back as if a lord had rebuked them.
When they left, Mamma sank into the French settee before realizing her error: the fine furniture was not for us. She stood again, weaving slightly. I hurried to her side.
“Teresa,” Paolo said curtly. “I’ll have to tell Count Filippo about this. Of course he’ll be angry. He might even send you away. Think of Lucia.”
“I was thinking of Lucia. If I sang for Toscanini, she wouldn’t be
“And the octopus? Count Filippo’s lunch?”
“At the San Carlo,” I stammered.
“I see.” Paolo’s voice was cold as the ice blocks he ordered. “Well then, Lucia, you tell Nannina why she can’t satisfy Count Filippo.”
I dragged myself to the kitchen, where Nannina slapped me for the money squandered and her own mother’s basket lost. “What can I cook for him now? What? Tell me!”
“Broth and rice as the doctor ordered,” said a soft voice behind me, the Countess Elisabetta. “And that’s enough, Nannina. None of this was Lucia’s idea. But the count wants to see her.” Fear stiffened my legs. A hand on my back pushed me gently along. “Remember that he’s sick. I’ve given him laudanum. He’ll be sleeping soon.”
Count Filippo’s room was a long hall away, but his voice already pounded in my ear as I walked stiffly forward. “And I let you keep your little bastardina.” The voice rose: “Is that right, Teresa? This is how you repay me? Attacking the Maestro Toscanini?”
I was in the doorway now. My mother’s back, stiff as a marble column, gave me courage. “She didn’t attack him, sir,” I said boldly. “She only sang from La Bohème.”
“You!” He pointed at me, his fleshy, blotched face damp with sweat. “Always reading! What servant girl, what bastardina, needs to read? You should be cleaning this cesspool.” He flung his hand around the room. Sunlight glistened on the china and wood I dusted daily. He yawned. “Get out, both of you. I’m surrounded by imbeciles. The laughing stock of Naples.”
“All Teresa did was sing,” said the countess, who had just arrived. “The maestro called her an angel. Who else has a servant like that? You should rest now, Filippo.”
“Where’s my octopus?”
“I asked her not to get it. Dr. Galuppi said to eat lightly.” We slipped out the door as the countess eased the fuming count back under his sheets.
In the windowless chamber off the kitchen where servants ate, I gripped my stool, which seemed to dip and sway as if at sea. If we were turned out with Count Filippo’s word against us, what noble house or even decent merchant would hire us? Tradesmen’s servants slept in stairways, eating scraps. But Mamma heaved with rage, tearing at her bread, cursing our life. Better a count’s servants than any other fate open to us. Couldn’t she see that?
“Are you crazy, Teresa?” Nannina demanded. “All the great divas of Europe want Maestro Toscanini. Madonna mia, why would he pick you?”
“I don’t know,” said Mamma in a voice suddenly dry and brittle as eggshells. Her wide, dark eyes raked the room. “Does he know we live here?”
I put my arm around her heaving shoulders. “No, Mamma. He doesn’t. He’s probably forgotten all about us. There’s an opera tonight, remember? He’s busy.”
“He heard me say ‘Count Monforte.’ ”
“No, he was already in the opera house by then.”
“The guards will tell him.”
“Maestro Toscanini doesn’t speak to guards,” Nannina snapped.
Paolo called for us. The matter of Toscanini, piled on other troubles, had given the countess another headache. The count’s debts and many dalliances tormented her. He constantly reminded her that his money had restored her family’s crumbling villa, that all she brought to the marriage was a noble title. After each tirade she suffered throbbing pains that only gentle singing eased. Each time my mother’s misdeeds threatened our place, I reminded myself that Countess Elisabetta needed her servant’s voice.
When the headaches came, she took to the sitting room, put a silk cushion over her eyes to block out light, and had the windows opened to the gentle wash of waves. Then Mamma sang softly: arias she heard from street singers, popular songs, French and Spanish airs she mimicked perfectly. I’d unwind Countess Elisabetta’s honey-brown hair, brush it gently, and rub lavender oil into her temples.
These were our golden hours, sweet relief from the cramping pain of work: scrubbing pots and marble floors, polishing silver, cleaning fireplaces, oiling woodwork, blacking shoes, and hanging suspended on ropes to wash crusted salt spray from the high windows. With relief came the pure pleasure of ease in that lovely room. Breezes found it on the warmest day. Damask curtains pulsed gently as if Mamma’s voice moved them. Even waves on the rocks below seemed to follow the rhythm of her song.
I see the room now. Tiny rainbows from a crystal chandelier dance over us. Polished silver glows. Sunlight glints softly on marble busts. Nannina’s flowers bloom in painted vases. The Persian carpet we beat in the courtyard is soft as moss under my feet, richly colored as a summer garden.
“Read to me now, Lucia,” the countess would say as the pain eased. Then I’d open a leather-bound volume of her favorite poet, Giacomo Leopardi. When I stumbled, she’d say, “Read slowly. Think of each word.” I would and she’d smile. These moments are wrapped in my heart forever. Yes, I was a servant and the count called me bastardina, but those afternoons I swam in beauty and the joy of being needed for more than the strength of my arms.
“If we’d had a child like you,” the countess once said when we were alone, “perhaps the count would be different.” What if I had been hers, I wondered. Then hot guilt seized me for abandoning my mother, even in dreams. “Lucia Esposito,” I repeated silently. “That’s who I am. Lucia Esposito, Lucia Esposito, daughter of Teresa Esposito.”
Laudanum lulled the count to sleep and the countess dismissed us when the headache passed. She would review accounts with Paolo and then retire. He met her in the hallway. I noticed, but put no meaning to how slowly they walked to her chambers and how close together.
Mamma and I went to our cot, sweating in the summer night. “Woman of the street,” she muttered. “He meant whore.”
“He also called you an angel. And we’re safe now. You just shouldn’t trouble him again.”
“I’m not like you. I don’t read books,” she said bitterly. “All I can do is sing. You’re Countess Elisabetta’s little pet, but what about me? Maybe she’ll find another singing servant and send me away. I’ll never be a diva. I’ll never be anything.” She turned to the wall, shoulders heaving.
I lay rigid, shamed and helpless. In the heavy darkness, I imagined myself vanished, like a reflection in wet marble, gone when the marble dries. Would Mamma be happier then? The darkness blurred with tears. Our damp shoulders nearly touched, yet our pains were oceans apart. When the great pendulum clock tolled midnight, Mamma slipped barefoot from the room. Was she taking one of her nighttime walks? I listened with dread for the low groan of the great front door. Silence. When she finally returned, a cool hand touched mine.
“Where did you go?” I whispered.
“For laudanum. Do you want some?”
“Of course not. You’re a child. You don’t worry about anything.” She gathered me in her arms, stroking my hair. “I’m so sorry, Lucia,” she whispered. “You know I love you. It’s like—when fog covers Vesuvius, it’s still there, but you can’t see it. Remember that with me. I’ll always love you. Always!” she said, her breath hot on my neck. “Now sleep.” I did, although in my jagged dreams a sea-monster count hounded us into a watery maze.