Castrati by Kenneth Radu

The Church had once conserved the voices of boy sopranos by castration. Listening to the counter tenor sing a love song in a finely-tuned falsetto, Julian searched relevant websites for information. Contemporary singers like Alfred Deller underwent rigorous vocal training to achieve his otherworldly and haunting pitch. They didn’t submit to the knife before puberty struck. How effective had anaesthesia, if any, been, and how many boys died from subsequent infection? True, a sacrifice for art had its rewards: food and lodging; musical training in the conservatory, originally a home for orphaned or abandoned children, and now a place to train the vocal chords of boy sopranos. Money was paid to parents who offered their sons before their voices cracked. They raised their voices in the Sistine chapel choir for the Pope. Later, a few achieved sensational stardom on the operatic stage, or became a patron’s personal favourite like Farinelli who sang arias for 23 years to the King of Spain. It was technically incorrect to call them male sopranos although in the past they had been regarded as such. Only a few castrati had achieved such eminence. Most lived a mediocre or worse life with unnaturally high voices. The trip to Italy had not served its intended purpose. Julian remained miserable over pasta and gelato.

“No, grazie,” he remembered waving the waiter’s espresso aside, adjusting his iPod earbuds and absorbing songs of lovers satisfied, lovers betrayed, and lovers dying. Since he had begun downloading tunes and passing much of his time plugged into one musical lament or another while he edited manuscripts and checked the veracity of facts, he did wonder if a more or less steady exposure to the agonies of love, operatic and popular, had in any way determined the outcome of his own supposedly passionate romance. Across the piazza stood the yellow conservatore with worm-eaten wooden cherubs rolling over each other in the lintel above studded double doors. It looked more like a prison than an institute of music attached to a flaking and mottled church with two square towers and dirty stained glass windows the sunlight did not penetrate. He had paid his admission fee that Saturday morning after reading her abrupt email: I do believe we’ve come to the end. It’s not working for me anymore.

In London where they spent what turned out to be their last night together in a bed and breakfast townhouse within walking distance to the British Museum, he had proposed marriage. Miranda’s ardour cooled as if flash frozen and she rolled aside. Their room directly above the kitchen, he heard voices and the sizzling of bangers through the grate followed by the aroma of English fried food.

“Why do you have to be so … so ordinary?”

The idea of marriage deflated her passion. He had tried to arouse it again by caresses and strategically applied kisses, which worked to a degree. Her fires rekindled and his proposal forgotten, they made hurried love before showering.

“I have a brilliant idea” he said over the scrape of marmalade on toast. “Come with me to Italy, to Naples.”

Hoping this expression of spontaneity would obscure the fact of his banality, he was more than willing to pay for the entire trip.

“You know I have to work.”

“Then we’ll book a flight for Friday night and come back late Sunday.”

“You go Friday and I’ll join you Saturday afternoon. Mum’s expecting me for dinner Friday.”

Mum lived on the far side of Kew Gardens, a long tube and subsequent bus ride from Russell Square, a woman about whom Julian had no curiosity, despite having slept with her daughter a dozen times or so in the past year. He had met Miranda at an editorial conference in one of London’s major publishing offices and they went for coffee and scones – she hated tea – in Leicester Square, only minutes from the office. She wanted to buy a present for Mum’s birthday. Perhaps he had been expecting too much. Perhaps at last she took to heart the twenty year difference in their ages: a sexual liaison with a 46 year-old Canadian who jogged along the Thames embankment was one thing, but fidelity till death do them part quite another. Her response had unsettled him, and Julian wondered if she had found him lacking when the promise of permanence reared its demanding head.

Seduced by the scent of spice-infused bath oil on her skin as pink and white as a hybrid daffodil, Julian believed her. In Naples, after making and paying for all necessary bookings online, he’d inspect their room in a pensione and change if it proved unsatisfactory, regardless of the cost. He’d also locate the most charming piazza and ristorante,  and decide upon one or two must visit places since they wouldn’t have much time for sightseeing, just enough to restore her faith in his spontaneity and heal his wound. He would not, however, propose again, at least not in Napoli.

The web-site said that audiences cheered the singing eunuchs, long live the knife they shouted, viva il coltello. By then surely Senesino and Carestini, two of the popular castrati, had forgotten the boyhood operation. Deprived of testosterone, their bones tended to remain relatively soft and become elongated, including longer ribs which allowed their lungs to expand, increasing capacity, ideal for the demands of arias, opera houses and audibility.

An early April snow covered his garden and Julian remembered the one hundred pure yellow King Alfred daffodils he had planted in the fall, the tips of their stiff leaves now poking up through the snow which would soon melt. His ginger cat, Holo, short for Holofernes, was neutered last month before he began prowling for females and marking his territory. He hunched on a garden stepping stone and licked a cold wet paw. Why, as a freelance editor and researcher, Julian had chosen to buy a small house on a large lot in the country an hour’s drive from Montreal, separated from where most of his assignments in French or English originated, he couldn’t say. Space and green growing things seemed necessary for him to observe through the window above his desk.

Now he trolled the worldwide web for information, flipped through his lexicons and reference books, made notes on post-its, corrected manuscript pages, and remembered Miranda’s upswept red hair at the breakfast table that morning. He had sliced through his thick bangers with so much force that grease splattered the white table cloth. She kissed him on the cheek before they parted for the day. Fortunate enough to book his plane seat that very evening and Miranda’s for Saturday, room reservations confirmed in the afternoon, as tourist season was not yet in full force, he flew to Naples in the early evening without seeing her again. He landed at the Capodichino airport, having hoped for a rush of breathless email messages throughout the flight.

Holo with drooping tail slinked out of sight. Perhaps he had not been devoted enough, had not trained his ardour sufficiently to meet Miranda’s exacting standards of romance and adventure. Despite his return messages, phone calls and attempts to see her again in London before he returned to Montreal, he could not breech the gap. For months he experienced her absence like a knife ceaselessly sawing through flesh and bone. And then he felt nothing, nothing at all, as if his head simply floated in a pool of anaesthesia.

He had entered the rooms of the young castrati: a chair, a chest, a crucifix, a bed frame in one or two, not much else. Small as convent cells, narrow windows dimmed by the centuries, he supposed the conservatory offered an escape from poverty, at the price of separation from all the normal course of events. Had they been grateful? He looked for a room where the operation occurred, assuming some kind of surgical theatre, or a table in the sacristy where priests kept their vestments, cruets, patens and other sacred items, including the piscina down which they poured baptismal waters. It could well have been used to drain away the blood of a child sacrificing a part of his body for high art. Did the boys scream to heaven for mercy? The artefacts on display in various cases set in nooks and crannies had more to do with music and religion than knives and genitals. A lucky few had made something out of their agony and thrilled audiences for a brief time. Miranda had not taken the time to write at length or call him or speak the truth before he left. She had simply cut him to the quick.

He needed to run. Changing into his jogging gear, he did warm-up exercises outside, seeing his breath in the frosty air. Holo appeared with a field mouse dangled from his mouth. Neutering had not damaged the cat’s instincts or hunting skills although after gnawing and tearing, Holo seldom ate what he killed. Upon his return, Julian would find the flesh on his deck.

Kenneth Radu has published several books of  fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, the most recent being a volume of new and selected short stories, Sex in Russia (DC Books Canada). His first collection of stories, The Cost of Living, was nominated for a Governor General’s Award. Two of his works, A Private Performance and Distant Relations, received the Quebec Writer’s Award for Best English-language fiction. A former English teacher at John Abbott College, he is a contributing editor to Linda Leith’s online literary magazine Salon II which has recently featured his travel writing. Another collection of stories will be released by DC Books in the fall of 2012.
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