The Secret Daughter of Apollo
In the novel Gabriella’s Voice (Dead End Street, LLC), opera aficionado Bill Harness offers encouragement both personal and financial to a young Seattle soprano, Gabriella Compton. When her new patron begins to demonstrate some unstable behavior, however, Gabriella demands an explanation.
I took her to Fort Ward, on the south tip of the island, where they have old cannon placements from World War Two, designed to guard the entrance to the Bremerton Shipyards (they were never used). The cannons are no longer there, just the big concrete placements, with stairs leading down to tiny shelters. We were walking on the lawn next to them when Gabriella let out one of her involuntary songbursts. There was something moving in the grass.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “It’s just a garter snake. Nothing harmful.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yep. I used to have one when I was a kid.” I took a big step toward our new friend and he slithered off under a hedge, a four-foot, dark green rope.
“Well,” she said. “I’m glad you know your reptiles. Are we almost there? I have to be back for rehearsal at noon.”
“Uh-huh. Sure. Over this way.”
I took her down a path curving through tall hedges like an English labyrinth. Fifty feet on we took a sharp right, passed through a couple of pleasantly grassy waterbanks, then turned left onto a clearing edged in tangles of blackberry vines. At the end of the clearing was a white wooden belvedere looking out over the dark waters of Rich Passage.
“Ooh!” said Gabriella. “D’you suppose they’re ripe?”
“They’re a little picked over, but I think you’ll find a few. Be careful, though. If they’re not real dark, chances are they’ll be a little...”
“Tart.” I turned to see Gabriella’s lips performing various gymnastics (the uneven parallel bars, the balance beam) trying to drive out the sourness. She popped in two berries of a riper disposition, and this seemed to balance things out.
I entered the belvedere and sat on its gray, windworn bench, looking up to study the vines winding their way in and out of its roof slats. Gabriella settled on the grass a few feet outside, a pyramid of ripe berries balanced in her left hand.
“Is this about... last night?” she asked. “Because you really don’t have to...”
“No, I think I do need to explain. You know, at first I took that strange hostility of yours as something resembling normal, everyday jealousy. But when you brought up the yodeling, I think I understood, because you know the moment those notes came out of my mouth in that ferry shelter, I felt guilty about it.
“I’m sure you’ve figured this out, Rosina, but you and I have sort of a strange friendship – wonderful, but strange, and it seems to be built largely on music. You have given me so much of it, and I have only talked about it, and, also, I’ve been hesitant to give you any pieces of my past. So you felt betrayed when I revealed a sort of singing talent to someone else.”
Gabriella pursed her lips together in a satisfied way. “Exactly,” she said.
“And I got some ‘splainin’ to do.”
“Well. I’m not really up to yodeling for you just yet, so instead I will give you another piece of my past – a piece that no one on this planet besides yourself will ever receive. I hope you can see the spirit in which I’m giving it. God, I sound like a damn lawyer up here.”
Gabriella popped another trio of blackberries in her mouth, turning her tongue to a ripe purple. “So... this is part two.”
She caught the look in my eyes and hesitated. “This isn’t easy for you, is it, Billy? I mean, you really don’t have to do this. You can save this for later. I’m really over what happened last night and...”
“No,” I said. “I think I need to get a little tougher about things like this. If I keep saving my little stories up for later I might blow up someday. Maybe my traumas need to be a little more... casual.” I looked around for something to do with my hands. There was a square of latticework at the side of the belvedere, and in the middle of the square was a single red blackberry. I plucked it and threw it in my mouth. It was awfully tart, but the snap of it threw me off for a second and gave me a chance to get started.
“I saw an interview once with a soprano who was doing Madama Butterfly, and they asked her what it was like, having to go out and off herself ever other night. She said, ‘It’s just nice to be considered important enough to die.’
“My mother spent a lot of time dying. Well that’s a strange way to put it. But anyway, my father and she had some sort of secret agreement that she wouldn’t sing. I could never quite understand that. I loved my mother’s voice; I lived for it. Especially after I’d heard my grandmother sing, after I understood the connection. There was nothing more thrilling to me than listening to my mother sing. And she did sing, agreement or not – there’s no way she could stop it. Of course she only say during my father’s business trips, so, in a strange way, I looked forward to his absences. And I began to resent him and his silly rules.
“And what glory, about a week after his departure, when my mother’s voice began to break its way out of the chrysalis and take over the household. It always took her a few days to warm up, but by the end of that second week she was performing entire scenes for us, acting them out, pouring out that gorgeous lyric soprano like... like.… I always had a hard time coming up with a description for it, but one time in a college English class I came close, in a poem that I wrote for an assignment.
“I wrote that my mother was one of the secret daughters of Apollo, and one long summer day Apollo had became tired of his work and left his chariot high in the heavens while he went to visit his favorite daughter. But he didn’t have a gift to bring her, so he caught a meteorite shooting down toward the earth, cracked it in half and hollowed it out to form a goblet. Then he took a single ray of sunshine and squeezed it in his hands until it came out as pineapple juice and dripped into the goblet. He offered the goblet to my mother, and after she drank the juice she could feel the light coursing through her body, and she had only to open her mouth to let bits of it back into the sky as sound – courageous, bronze, tropical sound. I never turned that poem in; I couldn’t bear to let it go. I turned in something else and got a C.
“She liked death scenes most of all. Cio-Cio-San. Violetta. Mimi. The slow poisoning of Leonora. The selfless leap of Gilda into Sparafucile’s knife. The mournful wasting away of Melisande. The shocking strangulation of Desdemona. She’d set up a mattress next to the kitchen table and perform Tosca leaping from the parapet of the Castel Sant’Angelo.
One summer we had one of those above-ground swimming pools, and she would swim off to the Flying Dutchman’s ship, and then ascend to heaven once she reached the other side. Only it was my mother’s notion that Senta would not ascend to heaven with a bathing suit on, so halfway across the pool she would take it off, and rise from the far side in the nude. This might have been no big deal, except that old Mr. Shoriff next door was outside mowing his lawn, and nearly had a heart attack.”
Gabriella snickered into her hand, then popped in a few more berries, like a kid eating popcorn at the movies. She lifted her eyes skyward and smiled.
“She really, really loved it, didn’t she?”
“The opera? Yes. She was born to it. And… I grew fond of watching my mother die.
“And after she was done, she taught my brother Bobby and I to yell ‘Brava! Brava! Bravissima!’ and to keep clapping until she could make two or three appearances from behind the living room drapes. One day she splurged and bought two dozen long-stem roses so we could toss them at her as she made her deep, humble diva bows. And then, when we had thrown every one, we’d pick them up and do it all over again. My mother was the greatest of the unknown prima donnas.
“After her performances, she was always so hyped up that she would let us stay up late with her and watch great old black-and-white movies, and she’d bake us cookies: peanut butter cookies, oatmeal cookies, ginger snaps, macaroons, lemon bars – and if she had sung really well, chocolate chip cookies.
“The idea of death, in my impressionable ten-year-old mind, became a fascinating and playful thing, and I grew so fond of it that I would take it to school with me. I was constantly dreaming up new ways of killing myself. I would be leaning peacefully against a brick wall when suddenly it would fall on top of me, pinning me to the ground as the remaining bricks fell down one by one, each smashing a different bone as it landed, until I was nothing more than a sheet of pulpy flesh. Or I would trip and fall backward through a window, but I would come out the other side without scratch, just like a hero in an old-fashioned Western – but then, just as I was celebrating my good luck, dusting off my chaps and preparing to go back in the saloon to rejoin the brawl, one last tiny sliver would slip from the window frame and pierce me, with the greatest possible degree of irony and fatality, right in the jugular. Or I would be happily playing on the swing when a sudden gale would blow me over, and my neck would land squarely on the leather strap, and then the wind would spin me around until the strap tightened around my neck and strangled me slowly to death.
“And sure, you know little boys, they make up these kind of things all the time. Watch them play with toy soldiers sometime. But they don’t sing thrilling arias as they twist in the wind – and being neither strong of voice nor compositionally attuned, my melodies were not arias so much as rough-cut cascades of whines and moans and shouting. I was sent home several times with a note from the principal suggesting I seek some sort of counseling. And my father would look at my mother in that accusing way, because little boys don’t start singing death scenes all by themselves, of course, and that would usually be enough to send my mother into one of her days-long funks.
“Her depressions were generally triggered by conflicts like these – many times just by the guilt she would feel when my father returned from his trips, whether he knew about her singing or not. She was pretty much an invalid during these times, confined to her bed, barely uttering a word or moving a muscle, eating only when it was forced upon her, and completely devoid of any capacity for joy or hope.”
Gabriella’s eyes were open and bare to me now, so intent I could not quite stand it. I drifted off over the water, scanning the green stripe of Point Glover, and sought out a single spot of blue in the overcast, cut out in the shape of Indiana. I aimed my words directly into it.
“My father had been gone a week. My mother had worked past humming to trilling and I knew I was due for a meal of her tangy Italian diction any day, so I walked quickly home from school. It was spring. I remember, a little drizzle falling in the sunlight, golden showers, and the asphalt giving off that delicious smell it gets when it’s warm and wet. I’ve always wondered what it is that causes that. But anyway, when I got home, the front door was open, and my mother was nowhere in sight. I went to the kitchen, where I found a BLT – my favorite sandwich – waiting for me on the counter, next to a glass of chocolate milk. Bobby was asleep in the family room, which was sealed off with one of those contraptions that look like little tennis nets. I stepped over it with my milk and my BLT and settled in front of the television to watch some cartoons.
“It was only about fifteen minutes later, during a few seconds of dead air between commercials, that I heard the low rumbling sound coming from the garage. I ventured on out there, switched on the garage light and discovered my mother behind the wheel of our station wagon. Her head was tilted back against the seat, and she looked like she was asleep. I knocked on the door, but she didn’t answer. Then I tried all of the door handles, but they were all locked.
“I slid around to the back to check the rear door, and there I found the strangest thing… a black rubber hose taped to the exhaust pipe, and stretching up through a crack at the top of the rear driver’s side window. The window opening was taped closed, sealing off the inside of the car.
“Only then did I recognize the set-up from an old movie that my mother and Bobby and I had watched after one of her performances. So that’s what Mom is up to, I thought. She’s playing another game with us.
“I went to the porch in front of the kitchen door and sat there watching her, but I thought it was strange that she wasn’t singing this time, and she wasn’t making those big ballet gestures with her arms. Still, I thought, maybe this time she would die first, and then sing, and then I would laugh at her little joke and clap and yell ‘Brava! Brava!’ and then we’d go inside and she’d make cookies for us. And I would playfully scold her for trying to trick me like that, for dying first and then singing.
“But I waited another twenty minutes and my mother still didn’t move. Not only that, but the fumes had begun to seep out of the car and into the garage, and I was starting to feel nauseous. I went to the big garage door and turned the handle, but could only manage to push it halfway open. The fumes cleared out a little, though, and I could breathe better. I went back to the porch and resumed my waiting.
“A few minutes later the door lifted up the rest of the way, and there was old Mr. Shoriff, with a curious look on his face. He was about to ask me something when he saw my mother in the car, spotted the rubber hose in the exhaust pipe and said a bunch of crackly-sounding words that I’d never heard before. He went to the window and ripped out the hose, then ran around the car, trying all the door handles. I tried to tell him it was okay, that my mother and I were just playing a little game, but he wouldn’t listen. Instead he shoved me away, grabbed a baseball bat from the shelf and started smashing all the windows. The glass fell to the floor of the garage in thousands of little diamonds, and smoke curled out from the top of the interior. Mr. Shoriff managed to unlock the passenger-side door and reach over my mother to turn off the ignition, then he held a hand to my mother’s neck. He whispered some more of those crackly words and slipped back out the door, standing there with his hands on his knees, gasping for breath and repeating the words, ‘Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God.’ His face was very red, and he was coughing from the smoke.
“It was all a great show for me, of course, all the flying glass and the smoke, and then the flashing lights of the police cars and the fire engines, and all the adults of the neighborhood walking around talking in hushed, excited tones. And I kept waiting for my mom to wake up and start singing, and then the neighbors would laugh and applaud and throw flowers at her feet.
“They took me to my grandma’s house, where I was carried upstairs and tucked into bed, even though it was hours before my bedtime. And I stayed up past midnight, anyway, because I heard all those people downstairs, and they were all singing to each other, only it wasn’t my mom’s kind of singing, and it wasn’t my grandma’s big butterfly voice – it was my kind of singing, the kind I would make up for my death scenes at school. And I was terribly excited, because I didn’t know there were so many people who sang exactly like me.”
You can’t tell a story like that without working yourself into something of a daze, and once I regained my bearings I realized the sky-blue memory of Indiana had closed back up, the sky had grown dark, and it was raining, bringing up the smell of the grass along the clearing and tapping out hundreds of little beats on the roof of the belvedere.
I turned and found Gabriella kneeling on the grass, frozen in place, the rain turning her hair into wet ropes. Her hand was clenched in a tight fist, and streaks of blackberry juice ran out between her fingers.
I found myself in a clear and calm kind of shock, and was unable to react normally when Gabriella came to me. She put both arms around the statue and kissed his marble brow, then buried her face in his hair and kept crying.
Photo by MJV