Friday, May 16, 2008

The Desk Piano

The Saga of Fray Paco
Book 5: The Indomitable Lucrezia
Chapter 3: My Desk Piano

The ambush and massacre of Montalban had changed everything. Lucrezia held herself incommunicado – she didn’t speak at all, but she did write notes when absolutely necessary.

She also read, no, she devoured all sorts of books, especially Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. She enjoyed Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Her parents, Camilla and Edmond, were aghast. "What? These authors write about murder most foul! After what she's been through, it isn't healthy for her."

"Now, now," soothed Dona Esperanza, mother of Camilla, "let's not act as censors, that's deleterious. Lucrezia's been reading most of her life, hasn't she?"

At their baffled expressions, Dona Esperanza went on, "Well, figure it out. She startled us when she was three by reading the headlines of the Manila Bulletin out loud. She's been a passionate reader since then. Lucrezia is now 7 years and five months, so that makes my statement more than true, right?"

"You're right, of course," Camilla grudgingly told her mother, "but still ... the good news is the child is eating well again although the food has to be served in her bedroom by Amah Ah Wei. She remains firm in her silence, but she sometimes scribbles replies to some of our questions. I'm at the end of my tether. How does she behave with you?"

"My dear, I don't ask any questions. I let her be. When she feels like it, she'll talk. All the doctors and experts have said time will heal her shock. What do they really know about Lucrezia? Did they start reading at age three? Do they play the piano? Are they at the top of their class in the 4th grade – after skipping two grades already? Have they been exposed to someone as unique as Fray Paco? Were they in a massacre recently?"

"Oh Mamma! Thank God you're here," Camilla had embraced her mother affectionately.

"Thank you for all you've done, Dona Esperanza," echoed Edmond von Remo.

"Listen," Dona Esperanza advised them, "Fray Paco is in the middle of his version of the 'Divine Comedy' as only he can recite Dante, at the most opportune moments and inTuscan Italian."

"I'm sure he keeps Lucrezia amused and attuned to what is going on around her," opined Edmond.

"And injects his expletives for maximum effect. That doesn't seem quite right, Mother," Camilla declared.

"When Lucrezia starts using Fray Paco's oaths at her age, or in her early teens, I'll worry but until then - I have other more pressing problems," Dona Esperanza informed them.

Fray Paco declaimed before a smiling Lucrezia. "Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita (Midway along the path of our life) mi ritrovai per una via oscura (I found myself in a darkened wayside) UrrrKa! (expletive) perche la via ritta era smarrita (because I had lost the straight and right way). Che cazzo bischero (expletives), che idiota (insult)."

"La Divina Commedia L'inferrno di Dante (The Divine Comedy - Dante's Inferno)," Fray Paco announced. Lucrezia was almost enjoying herself in spite of the horrible experience she had lived through.

According to her grandmother Dona Esperanza, Fray Paco used the same inflection the Tycoon Don Cesar possessed when he recited Dante (to Fray Paco) over 25 years ago.

"Vien dietro a me, e lascia dir le genti (Come after me and let the people talk). Oh! Christ," Fray Paco's addition. The cockatoo alighted on Lucrezia's narra (rare Philippine mahogany) wood desk. He looked at Muzio Clementi's Sonatina and sharply eyed the child. "L'amor che muove il sole e altre stelle (The love that moves the sun and other stars)" from Dante's Paradise in the "Divine Comedy."

Fray Paco scanned Lucrezia's face intently, then he examined her hands as she practiced on her desk. "Porrque? (Why?) Cosa? (What?)" Fray Paco could not be blamed for his confusion. Since the ambush Lucrezia had refused to play on the upright Steinway piano. Even after Dona Esperanza and her parents had moved the piano into her bedroom.

"The piano is no good. It was almost always out of tune. Some of the notes stayed down when you played on them, the high notes were too weird and dissonant. Something has happened to the piano. Perhaps it too had been ambushed by awful people?

I prefer playing on my desk. Anyway, the sounds of the notes, the e sharps, the flats, the naturals are all in my head. If I concentrate, I can detect the mistakes and repeat the passages again and again until I am satisfied I have mastered the difficulties.

“What is wrong with all these grownups anyway? Don't they have ears? Can't they tell the Steinway upright died and can't be resurrected?”

Lucrezia's desk accommodated three and a half octaves. Some of the pieces had more octaves, like Ludwig van Beethoven's "Fur Elise." Never mind. She would calculate the octaves in her mind (if they didn't fit in the desk) or she'd continue in the air.

Amah Ah Wei asked, "Why you write on pretty desk? No play piano?"

Lucrezia put her forefinger forcefully over her lips and urged Ah Wei to silence. Since she could only read a rudimentary English and hardly any Chinese, there was no way for Lucrezia to explain to Ah Wei what she was doing and why. Lucrezia took a black crayon, a wooden ruler and began to measure the width in centimeters between each note (the ivories) and then the ebonies. She started drawing the notes on her desk.

Ah Wei raised both her hands to her head in genuine horror. She moved her head so violently from side to side her single thick braid flew up and tears came down in rivulets on her face.

I know, Ah Wei, you're afraid they'll blame you for not being a good Amah. They wouldn't dare! The only way any one can stop me from carrying on would be to tie me up. So there. But, what am I to do about Ah Wei?

She was now moaning softly, "They will send me away for letting you be too naughty. It’s my fault, child. All my fault."

The Chinese could be so emotional, mused Lucrezia. She hugged Ah Wei and kissed her tears away. That brought some respite and comfort.

The poor in China had a never-ending series of tragedies in their often short lives that they hardly ever realized what they suffered physically, emotionally and mentally. Earthquakes, typhoons, floods, cyclones, droughts, plagues, diseases like malaria, tuberculosis and leprosy assailed them, plagues came and went with resignation and acceptance. The constant warfare between the warlords meant that an ambush and a massacre remained the order of the day. Those who died, died. Those who survived and somehow escaped being taken as slaves, returned to their rice and cornfields as soon as they could. That was all that mattered. You had to survive until the next time. Thinking about your misfortunes was a waste of time. No one would lift a hand to help you because they could not do so. Capture meant slavery and almost certain death. Death, Death, and more Death. It will never change.

Ah Wei, in her own way was cleansing herself of her own demons.

Fray Paco had watched wordlessly as Lucrezia drew the notes of the piano on her desk. He spoke sotto voce to Ah Wei in a mixture of Chinese and Spanish, "Gan san, calma," Gan san meant shadow in Cantonese and in Hakka. It was the proper word to describe a nanny in the olden days as they never lost sight of the child and spent 24 hours with them. Ah Wei was encouraged to take time off (at least one day a week) and enjoy herself among the other amahs in Luneta Park.

The word amah came into use when the Manchus of Mongolian origin, took power away from the Ming Emperor in the 16th century. The Manchus used the word amah to mean he-who-provides-care. The Prime Care Giver had been Genghis Khan. Centuries later, the word entered popular usage when the Jesuit priests and missionaries referred to the Chinese nannies and nurses as Amahs.

Ah Wei was so taken aback by the sweetness of Fray Paco's tone that she stopped crying.

“China, calma, okay? (Chinese woman, be calm),” Fray Paco repeated. Then Fray Paco did something shocking to Ah Wei but very clever in Lucrezia’s eyes. He shouted at the highest pitch he could muster (Enrico Caruso and Mario Lanza would have been jealous), “Help! Help! Aaarrrg! Socorrro! Socorrro! Aaarrgk!”

“He’ll get hoarse if he keeps this up,” marveled Lucrezia. She signaled Ah Wei to join Fray Paco, repeating, “Help! Help! The child! The child!”

Lucrezia was moving her hands and arms as she had seen the directors of orchestras do before a hundred musicians. The whole household should be by her door round about … now. She froze. Grandmother Esperanza strode in, followed by mother Camilla and father Edmond, Aunt Dahlia and husband Rudy, an engineer and mathematician from MIT, Aunt Allegra and Uncle Arthur, the Casanova of the Philippines.

Fray Paco could still hold an audience better than anyone – well … almost anyone. Lucrezia could magnetize a crowd but she had chosen to be a mute for the time being.

“Mira (Look).” Fray Paco planted his talons inside the notes Lucrezia had drawn. Inwardly she laughed. His talons were on C and E. She heard the notes in her head, clear and limpid, not the tinny sounds of that poor old Steinway upright.

“Oh my God!” cried her mother Camilla as she caught sight of all the notes her daughter had drawn with black crayons on her desk. “What’s gotten into her?”

Dona Esperanza was delighted.

This is a marvelous reaction. Lucrezia is healing herself.

Everyone stood around as Lucrezia scrawled in capital letters on the back of Clementi’s Sonatina, “Don’t be melodramatic. I just want a good upright piano and a grand piano.”

Dona Esperanza read it, her blue eyes blazing and passed it without comment to Camilla and Edmond – who then handed it to all the other members of the family to read. Everyone started talking at once. It was the perfect bedlam for Lucrezia and Fray Paco. He screeched and howled “Yippee!” “Hee Haw!” “Ooo La La!” “Mamma Mia!” “Atten-Hut!”

Lucrezia took up an imaginary broom and started to sweep it towards the assembled members of the family. “Via! Via! Go! Go!” Fray Paco screamed at them. Lucrezia put down her non-existent broom and waved them all goodbye the way royalty do it, with limp wrists and pasted smiles.

“We’ll think about it, darling,” said Edmond.

“Two Steinways? An upright and a grand? That is extravagant, even for a 7 year old Von Remo, granddaughter of Dona Esperanza de Montebello,” affirmed her Mother Camilla.

Dona Esperanza embraced Lucrezia. “Sssh! We’ll find a solution.” She caught a glimpse of Ah Wei cowering in the corner.

What happened to the feared and ferocious Ah Wei, I would like to know. “You’re the best. You’re an angel. Come here, Ah Wei, what are you doing there in the corner all by yourself.”

This gave her back her self-assurance. “Child no like real piano anymore. It sound too plinky plink! She draws on desk. No can stop her,” the amah said gently but firmly.

“We understand, Ah Wei,” Dona Esperanza soothed her. “As I just mentioned, you’re an angel.”

“We are grateful to you for your saintly patience with our Lucrezia,” Camilla reassured her. This brought fresh buckets of tears from Ah Wei. Now most of the family was teary with the exception of the Materfamilias Dona Esperanza and Lucrezia.

Holy Gazooka! I only asked for two pianos. What do we have money for?

Lucrezia rolled up her eyes and repeated “Holy Gazooka” in silence. She wrote hastily, as Fray Paco often described himself, “Magnas interopes inops (a beggar amidst great riches). I am one too. That is all.”

“Carina, we’ll find the right solution. Trust us,” restated Dona Esperanza.

Lucrezia’s face remained devoid of expression. She turned around and sat down on her desk, playing on her imaginary yet very real piano because she perceived the tones clearly as she pressed down on the wood.

“Can’t you all see her back’s to us?” asked Dona Esperanza. “It’s time for us to make an exit.”

“It’s clear. We’ve been dismissed,” exclaimed Uncle Rudy, absolutely amazed that Lucrezia could hear the piano in her head.

We’ve got to get the child a real piano – she’s a god-damned prodigy, he thought.


  1. Buon giorno, Isabella,

    Another great chapter! Fray Paco and Esperanza are so endearing. Lucrezia is emerging as an exceptional child, one for whom the reader has sympathy as well.

    I think there are a few errors in the Dante quotes:

    "Nel mezzo del camin di nostra vita
    Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
    Che la diritta via era smarrita."

    (selva oscura)

    "l'amor che muove il sole e l' altre stelle"

    "Vien dietro a me, e lascia dir le genti"

    (articles l' and le)

    Wonderful saga. I am totally immersed.



  2. Author's note:

    Thank you Jeanne for the corrections to Dante's La Divina Commedia. However the errors are deliberate. The recitation was Fray Paco's version of Dante. His monumental ego would not tolerate corrections. He always remained the oldest member of the Ortigas Nieto Clan. To do him honor I kept the errors in the Saga of Fray Paco.
    Cari Saluti,
    Contessa Isabella Vacani

  3. Buona sera, Isabella,

    I stand corrected! I should have guessed the Dante quotes were unique to Fray Paco.

    It also occurred to me that Lucrezia is following a pattern that pianist Walter Gieseking was known for -- supposedly Gieseking never practiced, but just heard the notes in his head, then sat down and played.



  4. As Fray Paco was not a native speaker of Italian, actually I'm pretty impressed by his improvisation.

    Small children tend to mishear complex lyrics. When I was six years old, the Beatles' song, "Get Back" often played on the radio. The first line goes, "Jojo was a man who thought he was a loner." But I began swimming lessons that year, and my swimming teacher was a horrible, big fat woman named "Fritzi", who looked like a typical butch-lesbian and traumatised me by stuffing me under water while I struggled against her huge, fat gut. So at age six I THOUGHT the lyrics said,

    "Fritzi was a man who thought he was a woman."

    Then at age seven I read - or read little parts of - one of my Dad's books titled "The Soviet Union". I wasn't able to read much more than the pictures' captions. But I saw a picture of Karl Marx, and the book said he was a "revolutionary" and I kept seeing the word "revolution", and I knew America had a "revolution", so I deduced that Karl Marx was a great American patriot.


Isabel Van Fechtmann

Create Your Badge