For much of my life I have struggled with a rather annoying little talent. I have a weird sort of photographic memory for … music. I can hear a song or a soundtrack a single time, and it will be playing in my head for weeks. Often, I can’t even remember where I heard it, or what it is, but I’ll be humming it and hearing it play like an endless loop in my mind. I can remember nearly every word of almost any given television show theme song from the 70s, and I can sing songs I haven’t heard for years without missing a single word. I have rarely found this talent especially useful.
Until it came to the idea for my December book, Prima Donna.
I’d always liked “Back on the Chaingang,” by the Pretenders, but I hadn’t thought about the song for some time. Then my husband bought me a CD of the Pretenders’ greatest hits for Christmas, and I looked at the listing of songs, and suddenly there it was, plunging into my head in one beautifully honed crystalline moment, every single word of the song, about two people torn apart by circumstance, who may or may not have been good for each other, and I thought, “What a great story idea.”
That was the inception of Prima Donna.
I knew then that the story would have to be in two parts: the past and the present, and that it would be about a woman on the run from something terrible, something she’d been responsible for. I knew her life forever after would be broken into two parts: before and after. I knew the story would be about how she came to terms with the past. Then I realized that the conflict had to be bigger, that she also had to be in hiding, and that meant she had to be famous in some way. The most famous and beloved women in the 19th Century were opera singers. Which meant that for the plot to work the way I wanted it to, she had to be a prima donna.
The only problem? I knew nothing about opera.
But part of my love for writing historical fiction is because of my love of research, and so I plunged in. Day after day, reading about opera, checking out endless CDs from the library, and tormenting my children by constantly listening to opera in the car, where they are hapless prisoners (a punishment I highly recommend!). Given that talent of mine, I imagine you can guess what happened. I began hearing “Faust” and “Tosca” and “La Traviata” with every waking moment. And the most extraordinary thing happened; the thing I did not expect: I fell in love with it.
For the two years that it’s taken to write this novel and bring it to imminent publication, I’ve put aside my usual fare of alternative music to listen to Verdi and Wagner, Puccini and Bellini and Gounod and Mozart, and it’s not just the music that compels me so; it’s the stories. So melodramatic! So emotionally intense! I guess you could say that opera was made for someone with my sensibilities. Gypsy curses! Disguises! Murders! Tragic love! Betrayal! I mean, what’s not to love?
In a way, Prima Donna became my love letter to opera, my own tale of disguise and betrayal and murder and love, informed every step of the way by the great composers and the librettists who knew a great story when they heard it. Inspired by alternative music and brought to life by opera. What a strange alchemy!
But mostly, I’m thankful that I finally found a better use for that talent of mine than singing “The Beverly Hillbillies Theme” at parties.
Megan be giving away a free copy of Prima Donna to one lucky commentor. Please make sure and leave an email addy also to be entered. Winner will be announced on Sunday.
Behind me, I heard his gurgling, choking breath, the sound of him drowning on his own blood, and then, suddenly, it stopped altogether.
I didn't dare turn to look. I heard footsteps in the hallway outside the door, and in a panic I lifted my hands from the water in the basin, dark red now, more blood than water, and grabbed the towel, pressing it hard against my face to stop the bleeding, despite the pain that brought tears to my eyes. In the armoire there was a dark blue wool among the ballgowns of silk and lace. I had to put the towel aside to put it on, and the blood dripped relentlessly into my eyes. My hands shook so hard it took forever to make the buttons go through the hoops. I shoved my stockingless feet into boots and left them unbuttoned and looked wildly about, trying to think. Money—I would need money—but there was none, only my jewels. I grabbed what was on my dressing table, shoving necklaces and rings and brooches into my pockets, and then I yanked on my cloak, pulling up the hood to to hide my loose and tangled hair, and pressed the towel again to my face and went to the door, nearly tripping over his bare feet—such lovely feet, so well-shaped for a man. The sight of them startled me anew. I forced myself to look away.
Beyond the door, the hallway was silent. I stepped out, trying to make no noise. There was the elevator, but I didn't dare take it, not looking like this. Instead I took the stairs, the back ones for the servants. My bootheels clattered on the wood; the stairs were narrow and dim and I was shaking so badly now that I wasn't certain I could make it to the bottom. I heard footsteps below me, and I drew into a darkened corner and turned my head away to hide my face. A steward hurried up the first flight and paused when he saw me. "Miss?" he asked, and I motioned roughly for him to go on, muttering something—I hardly knew what—and he hesitated, trying to peer into the dark. He could not have seen anything, and he was in a rush; he didn't delay.
I waited until he had gone by, and then I raced down as if speed alone would keep me from discovery. The kitchen, swirling with movement, was on one side of a narrow hall half obstacled with carts and laundry bags meant for the washroom on the other side. Maids dodged about carrying glasses and linens; there was no way to avoid them. I hesitated and then I moved quickly and with purpose to the back door.
No one stopped me; most simply moved out of my way as if I were part of the dance of their hurry, and then I was outside into the dark alley, past the garbage, running, my unbuttoned boots nearly slipping off with every step. I dodged the streetlamps and kept close to the shadows, where no one could see me clearly, if they saw me at all. The only sound I heard was my own breath, and with it came the echo of his, the images that flashed before my eyes as if they were happening anew: his hands on my hips, holding me helpless ... my scream as he'd cut me ... the knife in my hand, the spurting blood....
I did not realize where I'd been going until I was already there. Until I'd gone blocks and blocks, until my side hurt and my whole face was a throbbing stinging ache. Past the dead-end warrens and the tenement buildings, until I stood in an alley littered with fish bones and trash piles pulsing with rats, potholed with shallow pools of emptied spittoons and chamber pots and the dregs of emptied kegs. The night was warm and the stink stung my nostrils along with the nauseating smell of my own blood.
I was before the propped open back door of a beer-hall. I heard the music from within, a polka orchestra, and the clanking of pans from the kitchen, shouted orders: "Two fish!" "Get the spatzel down!" "Kartoffeles! Hurry now!"
I had not stepped foot in the place for years. But I had nowhere else to go. I eased through the back door into the storage room. The shadows of stacked kegs filled the near darkness. The kitchen was beyond, men rushing about, their movements staccato and strange in the haze of greasy steam. The air was loud with the hiss of frying fish, the clank of plates, the thump of Herr Meyer's wooden leg as he moved efficiently about, shouting instructions.
They were too busy to notice me, and I was in darkness besides. I had played hide and seek among the kegs since I was very small, and now I found my way easily through them to the hallway that opened into the beer hall at one end, to stairs at the other.
The music was louder there, as was the talk. The heavy press of smoke and the smell of sweat and beer made me dizzy. I pressed the towel to my face, and blood seeped from it, dripping down my hand to my wrist. I waited until the hall was clear and dashed out—up the peeling and scarred blue painted stairs, not slowing until they turned and I was out of sight to anyone below. Then I paused, waiting for a shout of discovery. There was none, thank God, but now I began to feel sick and uncertain. The door of the apartment at the top was closed and I did not know who would open it. I did not know what my reception would be.
I knocked. Very quietly at first, and then, when I heard nothing, more loudly. I heard footsteps, rapid and light, and then the door cracked open. I saw a blue eye, dark hair, pale skin, a hand reaching round that was red and chapped from hard work—such a strange contrast on one so pretty.
"Willa," I breathed.
She frowned and glanced behind her. "Gott im himmel. What are you doing here?"
I threw back the hood. "I've had a bit of trouble—“
Her eyes grew round with horror. "Lieber Gott." Her voice was a whisper. "Bitte Gott, rette uns."
In my dismay I pressed the towel harder. I felt again the dripping blood and I saw her gaze dart to it in fear. "Please ... if I could come in.... There was ... an accident—“
"Mama?" The voice came from behind her. A child's voice. A plump face peeked around her skirts, and then those blue eyes too widened in horror and fear. The child shrieked and burst into tears.
"Ssshhh, ssshhh, liebling," Willa said. She bent to take him into her arms, and glared at me. She whispered something to him and closed the door and I heard her steps moving beyond, the muffled sound of her voice, and I was helpless with despair.
Then the door opened again. She stepped into the hallway and closed the door behind her, looking at me with a gaze so venomous I stepped back. "Where is he?" she demanded.
The tears welled so in my eyes that they blurred my vision. I could only shake my head.
"How dare you come here! How dare you bring trouble upon this house! Did you even stop to think what would happen to us?"
"I didn't know where else to go—“
"What? You mean your patrons and your four hundred have abandoned you?" The sneer in her voice was painful to hear. "They can bear the police better than we can and you know it. This kind of trouble would ruin us. Papa's old now. This would destroy him."
"You made your choice—did you think you could so easily take it back?"
"Please. I have nowhere else."
"Go to your Mrs. Astor," she said cruelly. She opened the door, stepping back inside. "Now get out of here before someone sees you."
I took a step toward her, reaching into my pocket, pulling out a necklace, pink diamonds. "Please, Willa. I can pay you—“
She recoiled as if I repulsed her. "I don't want your money. You ignore us when you like and now that you're in trouble you bring it here. Look at you! You're covered in blood! I have a child now. I can't help you. None of us can. For God's sake, think of us."
She slammed the door shut. I heard the turn of the key in the lock, and then the muffled cry of a child.
I had no memory beyond that. Not of going downstairs and past the kitchen, not of the alley outside. Suddenly I was in some dark tangle of buildings and corners somewhere, and I had no idea where and no idea of where next to go. I was bleeding and in pain and I needed to hide and to escape, but how to do that now was impossible. How had it never occurred to me before now that I had no friends? That I had nothing? My mind was muddy and confused and I saw things I knew rationally could not be before me. His face. The broken teapot. The knife, still greasy with capon fat....
It was very late now. The performance would be over. They would find him soon. They would come looking for me.
Despite the warmth of the night, my hand was frozen where it clutched the towel to my cheek. I crawled into the corner behind an old barrel and pulled my cloak more closely about me. I shook with cold all the night through. I did not sleep.
Copyright Megan Chance 2009