The Marlboro Review - Issue 9

Lauretta by Charles Wyatt

Sometimes there is more to hear in the sound of an orchestra tuning than in the music it will eventually perform, often too carefully, presenting its treasures like a bored merchant. From his seat in the center of the orchestra, in the heat of performances, James has heard many things which he could not begin to describe. But during this maddening confusion of fragments that comes before the silence and the tuning A, he imagines he hears secrets -- a skull, a thigh bone, a lovers' quarrel, forbidden cries and moans. And when the music joins the orchestra together, they are locked, James feels, in their secret selves; and all he would know afterward to tell, would be of glasses of wine long after the concert's final chord.

This, then, is the story of something connected to the living world, only floating on the surface of the music, or perhaps hovering like a Mayfly, having risen from a great depth, through all that dark swarming and secret fife, but now not touching at all.

There was a time when James was the flute player in a small opera orchestra. Most of the performances were held in an ancient city in Italy in the province of Puccini's birth. The opera house was small, and the slightest breath into an instrument, or the most subtle sigh from the stage, would rise to the highest seat and beyond, where even the spiders would stop their careful weaving to listen. James would often come hours before the rehearsals began and practice his flute, sometimes improvising. When he stopped playing, the sound would continue, as if it were the hall itself playing the flute, and the sound was wonderful, made beautiful by the planes and curves of old wood and the ghosts who listened with him.

Now there was a very young girl in the violin section, (she could not have been much more than fourteen) who was a listener like James. He learned her name was Lauretta, but he never spoke to her. Whenever he had a solo to play, she would turn around in her chair and watch. It was as if she had never heard a flute before. She would ignore the conductor's scowls and continue playing as she watched. She had committed her music to memory. She was one of a group of students, of children, really, who toured with their teacher, the concertmaster. He would play the violin solo of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, and his students were his orchestra, playing their parts from memory, of course. James thought she was rather beautiful. She had long dark hair and lovely bones, but her beauty was in her shyness. Yet it was only her body which was shy; her eyes stared at him from that child's body with such intensity, he was deeply aroused. As he saw her day after day, or rather, night after night, he began to fall in love with her. And when she turned to watch him play, the boredom drained out of his soul and his playing sang. He began to play his solos for her and for her alone, and she always turned to watch him with her large eyes, never smiling.

Eventually there came a time when he felt he could endure it no longer. He took advantage of a rare morning rehearsal and decided to follow her afterward and discover where she lived. She walked with a friend, and James loitered behind them, pretending to be on a walk himself. enjoying the ancient buildings he passed. After a while, Lauretta and her friend parted, and by the way she often stopped, seeming to examine the contents of storefront windows, James became convinced that she was aware of his presence, using the 3 mirrors not so much to spy him out, as to see herself as he might see her. Encouraged, James continued to follow her, keeping in sight the bright red ribbon she always wore in her hair. He was determined to discover some secret of hers. She led him upward, through narrowing cobbled streets. He had seen cities like this from the train all along the way from Milan to Parma. A mountain thrust up and blossoming into this tiny welter of buildings and churches, almost carved from the stone. From the train it had all seemed unreal, distant. At the station there had been a rustic aviary, the birds flitting from perch to perch, their eyes and beaks sharp. The sounds they uttered were tiny, magical shards that disappeared like the white steam that twined above the sweating locomotive. And then he had wound his way up into the city, twining like the smoke, becoming smaller. Here, the buildings shouldered above him, exuding a mildewed breath mixed with faint cigar smoke. The sound of the main road with its miniature trucks and even tinier three-wheeled Fiats had faded to nothing. Now James was in a part of the city which seemed uninhabited and he found himself facing the highest building in the city, an ancient church. It was clear that it had been bombed in the war and left as a memorial to those days, a time barely touching James' life. He looked in at the rubble, forgetting his purpose for a moment. The sudden ringing of bells startled him and he looked in wonder at the ruin. Then he realized the bells were coming from another church nearby, probably built as a replacement for this one. All over the old city, the bells could be heard, descending scales superimposed over descending scales, becoming gradually more complex, more tumultuous, fleeing the great soft cloud of silence which always pursued them. James had heard the sound countless times before, but never so loud as this. It felt as if he were in the campanile with them. Just then he saw her disappear down another roadway which led down the other side of the mountain.

He was distracted and his ears were ringing, but he managed to keep her in sight, moving down a street much quieter than the one they had climbed. They passed by walls too warm even for the lizards, and finally, as James began to hear birds singing, they were walking along a straight avenue, and it became necessary for James to maintain a greater distance between him and the girl. Lauretta stopped to smell flowers, to pick up objects, examine them. James could not see exactly if she tossed them away, but it seemed so. When he reached the spot he could see nothing but small stones, gray with veins of silver. He picked one up and put it in his pocket. James knew nothing of flowers, but somehow he knew without bending down to them that they would have no smell.

Lauretta's awkward pace, pausing, then skipping ahead made his pursuit of her seem less difficult than embarrassing. Now most of the houses were walled and large trees and flowering bushes lined the walkway. James decided finally that he would walk briskly along, and passing her, pretend to just recognize her, and attempt to introduce himself. As he quickened his pace, she turned into one of the larger villas, and by the time he reached it, she was gone. James walked on for a while, discouraged, then turned and made for his home, a garret room overlooking a noisy nightclub.

And as he stared out the window, resting his head on the glass, it began to seem that Lauretta had been walking with him, that she had shown him something, revealed a secret known only to the two of them. James began to feel that he had walked hand in hand with her down that narrow avenue of birds and fragrant bushes.

But he still could not bring himself to speak to her. What if he had imagined everything? He felt worse, more uncertain than a schoolboy. His duties became a welcome distraction. Some wealthy patron had decided to sponsor a chamber music concert, and for several days his free time was filled with the extra rehearsals necessary to prepare the music.

The concert was held out of doors in the main piazza and was a great success. The musicians performed on an elevated platform from which they could look out over what seemed all the people of the town, listening with such intensity, that when an incautious person applauded between the movements of a composition, there was a sea of hissing and shushing. From his place on the platform James could see tiled roofs and shuttered windows of buildings climbing the mountainside interspersed with oddly slender evergreen trees. He could imagine the twisting dusty streets, cooling, already deeply shaded. Then he came to himself. The audience was applauding. A small child on the front row shouted, "Bravi! Bravi, tutti! " in such a queer, high-pitched voice that he felt the whole world must love this music. Afterward there was barely enough time to rush to the theater for the opera performance, and after that -- celebration. James joined his colleagues and drank much red wine.

Later, feeling the time had come, he wandered away from the tavern, his mind pretending to be occupied with fragments of the music he had played. He made his way upward toward the old church. There had been rain earlier that evening and the cobbles were wet and shining. A mist had risen from the river below and was gradually discovering the low places of the city. The moon was nearly full, almost too bright to gaze at.

James had been thinking of this since that moment in the opera, the moment when Lauretta turned back to watch him.

Then he saw her. She was turning the same comer where he had seen her before. This time he ran. He saw her as he ran along the cobbled street, darting around another corner. Then somehow she was headed up the hill again and the bombed- out church crouched before the two of them, smelling of damp hurt stone and darkness. James entered an open archway after her, and suddenly feeling dizzy, sat on a piece of rubble. Again the bells began to ring. It was as if he had sprung a trap. He turned and the sound was so close, so intense, it pounded against his chest. It was if the bells were tumbling down the mountainside and he with them.

He woke. The bells were gone. He was inside the church leaning on an enormous tilted stone. The only sound was water dripping faintly. His head ached when he tried to move. He stood unsteadily and relieved himself against a pile of stones. Then, supporting himself by grasping the stone walls, He made his way out and stumbled down the hill. As soon as he reached the main street his feet went out from under him and he found himself on his back. There was no pain. He might have lain there for a moment, dazed, when he felt a fight touch on his forehead. He tried to pull himself upward, perhaps hearing retreating footsteps, but his consciousness failed again for a moment. When he pulled himself upright again, there was nothing, nobody. Just the moon, cobbled in the wet reflecting stones down to the vanishing point of the river mist. He limped home, gradually noticing the grinding in his knee. That night he was visited by peculiar dreams, attracted like moths to the bright pain in his knee. When he woke, he could almost remember them. But they fled from him leaving only a single word, and that word fading, "tonight."

It was then he noticed that his knee was swollen twice its normal size and would not bear his weight. Later that morning he was taken to hospital in Milan.

It had been that night, the night of his last opera performance. In the moment of chaos when all the instruments were playing before the tuning note, he thought he heard the bells from the church, but he knew that they had always previously been silent during performances. He was terribly distracted, so he forced himself to concentrate on the music, and soon he was lost and healed in it. Then came the moment when the shimmering of the strings prepared delicately for a single calling flute, a long intricate solo like a night bird under the moon, a bright red ribbon of sound -- James looked toward Lauretta, and all that had come before, all that was yet to come, seemed to have been contained in that moment. Either he was imagining it, or it was imagining him. When he saw her, it seemed her lips formed a word.

There is another story which may begin now -- one in which James leaves the hospital in Milan and flies home without returning. One in which the woman he expected to find waiting for him upon his return is not waiting. And in which he leaves one city for another. And pages or even chapters pass, filled with ordinary events, until the gray which he had first welcomed begins to trouble him from his mirror, and his own children have long left him in quiet if not in peace -- and the story he might wish to tell is not far from that.

He did return to a city in America, and it seemed to him that time, having become at once more real and more ordinary, passed almost without his notice. The things he did or chose not to do seem not to have mattered. The pages of his story turned without him touching them.

Six years had passed when he received the telephone call. He had fit himself without any sense of effort into the musical life of the city. And in the same way he had discovered a life for himself. All he had not chosen was the passing of time, and this voice, coming from the telephone receiver. He had not chosen this. She was a self-possessed young woman, touring with a chamber orchestra. She asked him if he remembered her. Did he remember the way she used to watch him? She had a delightful accent, and she laughed musically as she explained herself to him. She asked if they could meet. He might have pretended he did not remember her. He might have offered some excuse. But he did not. For a moment, it seemed he was lying on an exquisite pillow of wet cobblestones, gazing at the moon, wondering if that bright dumb eye could see inside his soul. And in the next moment, a waiter brought them wine, and the two, saying nothing, touched the glasses, and, saying nothing, drank the wine, and, saying nothing, looked into each other's eyes. For what needed to be said?

In a story like this, the most distant moment is its center, where it is dead or even hollow, like the wood at the center of a tree, no longer growing. Only at the edges of time past, and time to come, can our fives exist, infinitely frail, only partially imagined, always trying to bridge across the hole at the center, stubbornly searching for a reference point, stubbornly insisting that they do, in fact, exist.

In this story, then, James and Lauretta made love, and in this story became gradually more real to each other. An ordinary story perhaps, each day following the next. A pretty story. They watched the edges of the days together. And, of course, in time, they returned to Italy, to the Province of Lucca, and the little theater.

It is not so much different. One large tree where the road forks near the bottom of the mountain is gone. It was near the place where a humpbacked man sat, always smoking, so near the road that the passing cars would cause the smoke to swirl and eddy above his bobbing head. Somehow James had expected him to be there. There are some new buildings, but the old city is much the same. The old church is still in ruin. James even found the meadow where he once took plums to the whiskered nibbling lips of a swaybacked horse.

And what difference does it make if the two returned or if James returned alone? If he may have mixed what was real and what was dreamed? What if he has invented his life for a moment, to console himself? Is there a difference, really? What is real is what he remembers of that night in the ruined church, among the tumbled stones, in the story, he began once... when he slid his hand against the warm skin of her back, holding her to him, and she, she guiding him, shaking the leaves from trees with the wind, scattering the sky's stars with her eyes -- he can still feel her hands, her small breasts like plums, her hands...

Stories are only those choices made helplessly as the moon rises and sets. Again and again. Stories are mere strings of events, threaded beads, scales of bells falling, and falling again, never learning the way. In stories our lives fail, our powers diminish, we sicken and die. But in a moment, a moment so fine it can scarcely be said to exist, in an exultant moment, a life can live itself forever. Is he not here in this theater alone? Waiting again?

Lauretta turns slowly, as if she does not know what the music will bring, as if she has not entered this moment before, and moments like it, when everything is waiting. She begins to turn toward him, and he begins to lift the flute to his lips, as if this has never been done before. She begins to turn slowly and he can hear what came before this moment, as if he had rewound the thread which has spun out, which has almost come to its end, and he can hear the sound of tuning, and in that opulent forest he can hear for the first time, the sound of her playing, as if a beam of light shone down from the high foliage and illuminated a flower. He can see her life, and his own as well, now as if from a great distance. He can see that this, before they have ever touched, is the ceremony of their parting. He can feel her fingers, light, but firm on the strings and the tingling of the sound moving in the violin. He can see the tender mark the violin has made in her neck. He can smell the sweat of her dress as her bow arm moves like a tree limb in rain. And she turns slowly. He win see her eyes when he begins to play. He draws in his breath.

Charles Wyatt has contributed stories and poems to various journals for the past several years. He was principal flutist of the Nashville symphony for twenty-five years. He is now an amateur flutist.
Copyright ©2000. Charles Wyatt. All rights reserved.