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‘QUESTA O QUELLA’
by Sherman Smith
The last time I saw Mr. Nibs was in Paris in 1927, or at least that is what he wants me to believe. Trickery, or had that been the craziest dream of my whole damn life? Perhaps. Is Nibs a figment of an over-active imagination, or am I nuts? Allow me to laugh out loud on that one.
When I opened the door to my loft in Portland to find Nibs sitting at my kitchen island with an open bottle and glass in hand he made my day. That he had raided my refrigerator leaving jam, butter, bits of cheese, ham, and chunks of bread across the counter and the kitchen floor I tried to ignore. Frankly, I wasn’t sure if I would ever be graced by his presence again so I forgive his manners. A Claurichaun will be a Claurichaun, and there is no changing that. “I see that you have found one of my better bottles.” I said as I stepped over a blob of Humbolt Fog Goat Cheese on the floor. “Salute, Charles.” He raised his glass, giving me a mischievous smile. His accent hinting of Irish with French undertones.
Nibs looked exactly the same as the first day he appeared. He is small in stature, four-foot five would be wishful thinking. You might think him to be somewhere in his mid-seventies, but I know that he is far far older than one can imagine. His eyes, set deep into a ruddy face, are an intense green that peers through a set of thick spectacles perched upon a large blue-veined drinker’s nose.
His head is an explosion of red hair with a well groomed flaming red lion’s beard. He is very much a dapper-dan, always dressed to the nines, stylish to the wrong era.
“I haven’t seen me old friend in awhile and thought I’d drop in for a visit, and a glass or two.” Nibs said as picked a few crumbs from his beard. I refilled his glass, pouring myself one as well. And so we began to discuss the great weighty problems of the world, according to Nibs, and anywhere else his brilliant tongue will take us too.
“Family, you ask?”
I hadn’t asked, but was about to. Nibs is annoying in his ability to catch your thoughts before you can change them into words.
Nibs looked a bit perplexed at the question. “No, I’ve got no family, at least in the way your thinking. Claurichaun are of the spirit world, with neither a beginning, nor an end. When I first appeared on this earth I was very much as you see me today.” He laughed at that, his wrinkled face rising with his rose-red brows, highlighting the twinkle in his eyes, that told of a thousand secrets he will never reveal.
“Surely, you have parents?” I asked as I poured Nibs a third glass of wine. Nibs was a storyteller, and it was hard to separate the fable from the truth.
“Parents? There are no female Claurichauns. I am as I have always been, and I’ll remain as I am until its time to become something different.”
I thought about that, and he was right, I did not understand.
“Lonely, you were about to ask?” Nibs answered before I could. “That is not an emotion Churichauns have. It doesn’t pay to get too attached to you humans.” He chortled, then drained his glass as he studied me. “Now and then, an exception can be found.” He held out his glass for more. “I know what you’re thinking before you think it. I’ll trade you what you want for another bottle.”
What did I want?
“A story, are you daft, you want a story, and I’ll not be giving it to you. Because if I told you what happened you’d be thinking me a liar.” He paused, chewing on his next thought. “You know that I’ve never been fond of children. their noisy, and ask too many questions. The problem with human children is that they have unfettered imagination, if not reigned in, that creates nothing but problems. You see me, because I allow it, and you believe that I am real; which I am. Children believe that shadows in the dark are real, allowing some to see me, whether I like it or not. So you see, its best that we keep our distance. I opened a second bottle of wine.
Nibs giggled, the only way a Claurichaun can, infectiously. His glass filled magically with the wine as he told me to close my eyes. “You are about to meet a young friend of mine. She can’t see you. or hear you, because you do not exist in her world. You are there simply as my guest. I shall warn you that everything you will experience is very real. as it is to Leah.” He walked around the table and touched two fingers to my head as I closed my eyes. “Off we go. Young Leah lives with her grandmother in San Francisco. She is ten years of age. It is April, 1906 and Leah’s world is very much going to change.
The gas lamp that hung just above the stairs lit with a slight whoosh casting a flickering glow that searched the shadows below. Grandma’s cellar held many treasures, old cloths, dolls, and boxes of stuff of never ending interest to a ten year old girl. Grandma had gone to the store which was why Leah had gone to the basement, the one room in the house where she was never suppose to be. “Razzberry,” she whispered, “don’t be afraid. I only want to be your friend.” She glanced timidly into the shadows and recesses below as she took the stairs, slowly, one at a time.
A few days back she had set a small teapot and two cups on an old crate for a tea party with her favorite doll when she heard what sounded like a laugh. It had come from the little room beneath the stairs where grandpa had kept his wine. Grandma didn’t drink and hadn’t touched any of the wine since grandpa had passed away.
Leah should have been afraid, but she wasn’t. She put her tea cup down and tip- toed to the stairs where she could see through the slates. It was too dark. She looked up the stairs wondering if she should just run upstairs, close the door, and lock what ever it was in the cellar until grandma got home. She didn’t. She climbed up onto a chair, stood on her toes, until she was able to light a candle that was in a class box that hung down from the ceiling on an old chain. As the candle sputtered, she turned, and there, just for a second, was a small little man, with a lion’s mane of flaming red hair, and a full beard as red as a bowl of razzberries. He had a bottle of grandpa’s wine in hand, which he dropped as he was caught in the candle light. “Ooh,” she said with surprise, as the strange little man vanished before the bottle hit the floor. Peeking into the room she found no one, and there was no window or door for him to escape. The bottle, unbroken, sat upright on the floor the cork still in it, the wine mostly gone. He couldn’t believe her eyes, she had seen a fairy - a pretty funny looking one too.
Twice again she had snuck into the cellar when grandma was not around. She heard him once, but never saw him again. She named him Razzberry because of the color of his hair and put a bottle of wine on her tea table for his next visit. When she returned the bottle was empty, the cork still in it, and her tea pot lay broken in three pieces on the floor. The top of her make-shift table sticky with the remnants of the blueberry pie that had disappeared from the kitchen. She had taken the blame for that.
This time she took two bottles, carrying them carefully up the stairs and across the street to the front porch of a house that was vacant. The bottles she placed just behind a pillar where no one could find them except for Razzberry. After dinner grandma put a record on the gramophone as did most nights. She only had four records, tonight it was Enrico Caruso.
‘per me pari sono . . .
Questa o quella A quant'altre d'intorno mi vedo . . .‘
It didn’t matter if she couldn’t reach all the lower ones, Leah knew every note, without understand a word sung. When the record finished she kissed grandma good night and went to bed, Instead of climbing beneath the covers she sat by her window and waited for her red haired fairy to come for the wine. She tried to stay awake, but it wasn’t long until she crawled into bed having seen nothing.
She woke early.
The house was quiet, the sun lazy in the early morning sky. The aroma of fresh baked wheat cakes and sausage waffled up from grandma’ coal stove. The clop- clop-clop of a horse pulling the milk wagon passed on the street below. She went to the window. The horse reared, the whites of it’s eyes bulged white. She looked across the street, expecting to see a wild dog, something that might have spooked it. The only thing she saw was an empty wine bottle on the front porch. Behind the pillar she thought she could see some red hair. She leaned out the window to get a closer look. All at once, the house began to rumble and shake. The street ruptured, a giant crack opened right before my eyes. The milk wagon tilted, it’s cargo splashed into the street. The milk man flew head over heels. The horse reared, scared to death, it’s hooves kicked stones into the chasm. That poor thing was so scared it pulled the wagon sideways down the hill. A brick chimney crashed down off Mrs. Cassidy’s boarding house burying the milk man. She was almost thrown from her perch in the window but was pulled back by tiny but strong hands. It was Razzberry, her red-haired fairy. In a blink of an eye he was gone. She turned back to the window as a lone wheel wobbled like a top as it rolled down the hill.
“Leah!” She heard grandma call out her name. Just once. Then the house took a terrible jolt. It sounded as if the world was ending. The wall, near where she stood ripped free, the floor beneath her tilted, everything rose, than fell, the world suddenly topsy-turvy. The furniture was going every which way. She clung to the bed as it was thrown into the street. The gas street light on the corner shattered, it’s small flame suddenly a gigantic dancing genie. The house behind it, a Queen Ann crumbled, it’s beautiful wood instant fuel for the fire. The hillside around her, crowded with boarding houses, surrounded by small wooden Victorians and shanties, collapsed, one after another.
“Grandma, ” Leah screamed. With tear clouded eyes she searched the wreckage of what once had been Grandma’s house. She found grandma’s hand where she had tried to reach through the rubble. A pool of blood slowly oozed from beneath the shattered cottage. Through a small crack she could see her eyes. The sparkle was gone. Grandma wasn’t there anymore. A fire spread around her, the heat and smoke taking her away.”
“It’s time to go, little one, she’s gone.”
“No, I can’t leave her,” she cried as she felt herself being pulled away.
“You’ve got to go now, darling, the fires are growing.” The hand on her shoulder felt strong and reassuring. “Grandma, please don’t go . . ,” she cried as she turned towards whoever was helping her. There was no one there. It was then that 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.. It’s 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, too frightened to cry.”
She sat there 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. 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 her, but 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 climbed a mountain of bricks, only to see great plumes of brooding smoke snaking into the sky that came 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 side ready to crumble with the next aftershock. She followed him until they reached Howard Street where she 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 her. The firestorm created its own winds, which blew hot 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 white caps 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 purple, her night gown 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 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 had once had., “not Razzberry, nor Gooseberry, or any other obnoxious fruit. “Nibs.” He gazed out across purple wasteland. “Not a bottle to be had . . . shame it tis.” 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.
The beam was unsteady from the start and twisted a little to the right with her every move. Nibs danced across the bean weightlessly. The hot wind of the fire pushed against her, the smoke made it hard to breath. On hands and knees she crawled, 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, then 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, if not a foot wide, filled with water, ran from underneath a heap of bricks, to a pier across the way. The pier was the loading dock for the slaughter houses and the stockyards. The quake had liquified the ground and the slaughter houses had been sucked into the mud. Hundreds of carcasses, sides of beef, 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 my 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 fire storm consumed all of the buildings on the surrounding hills threatening everything before 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 tea cup, 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 to 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?” She looked up with small eyes.
“Yes, your heart needs lightness, sing to your grandma, as she rises to the heavens.”
The 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 four 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 ‘per me pari sono Questa o quella A quant'altre d'intorno mi vedo, through the dust and smoke, the stampede of frightened people, with their life’s possessions in tow, through the clamor, 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 . . .
“My god, “ I stammered, my eyes flying open, as Nibs welcomed me back to my own kitchen. “My god! Holy . . . 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 . . ?”
“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 isn’t?”
“Dead. Yes, she’s dead, but not that day. She died three days shy of her 91st birthday in Naples, Italy. Curuso could not let his little song bird molt in an orphanage, so 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 Nip’s. “Salute.”
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, with millions of gallons of wine flowing into San Francisco Bay that day.
That Leah did not understand what she was singing is in itself unimportant. For the curious:
Questa o quella, the Duke's aria from Rigoletto
Questa o quella per me pari sono!This girl or that girl are just
! ! ! ! ! ! thesametome,
a quant' altre d' intorno mi vedo,! to all the others around me del mio core l' impero non cedo! ! I won't give away my heart meglio ad una che ad altre beltà!to this beauty nor to the others.
La costoro avvenenza è qual dono !
di che il fato ne infiora la vita!
s' oggi questa mi torna gradita!
forse un' altra doman lo sarà.!
Their charm is a gift
Given by destiny to embellish
If today I love this one
I'll probably love someone else
We hate constancy, the heart's tyrant,
La costanza tiranna delcore!
detestiamo qual morbo crudele,! ! as if it were a cruel plague, sol chi vuole si serbi fedele;! ! Let those who wish to be faithful
! ! ! ! ! !
Non v'ha amor se non v'è libertà.!
De' i mariti il geloso furore,! !
degli amanti le smanie derido,! !
anco d' Argo i cent'occhi disfido!
se mi punge una qualche beltà.! !
Translation by Guia Monti (email@example.com)
keep their fidelity alive;
There is no love without
The rage of jealous husbands
and lovers' woes I despise,
I can defy Argo's hundred eyes
If I fancy a beautiful girl.