Finalist in the Utah Book Awards 2012
What becomes of a woman who strives to live by her own vital principal, to find and embrace her own ‘electrical’ impulse?
Young Chjara Vallé, full of irrepressible music and sensuality, is exiled from her Corsican homeland, sold as a servant to an opium addict in Paris. Music paves the way for her to flee with Henry, her love, to New England. There the new freedoms and Puritan vigor vie for ascendancy. What will the Americans make of this throat-singing, harmonica-playing exotic who lives to make a virtue of pleasure?
From Chapter One
On the morning Chjara Vallé quickened in her mother’s womb, the sun reached its red fingers over the Mediterranean Sea, onto the shore of Bastia, Corsica. Light rose up the cathedral’s bell tower, which recently had been painted apricot. Chjara’s mother swept the courtyard — feet swollen, breasts like anchors. Inside the cathedral, five men stood with shoulders together and eyes closed, rehearsing the chant for the dead, their voices resonating against the stone walls.
The great doors hung open to a breeze carrying salt and sage, and the early light failed to hide that a woman was leaving the priest’s private quarters. She hesitated. She was tall and narrow, with simple shoes and hair a flourish of dark curls. Her hand tarried on the priest’s doorknob and she looked so solitary, there against the blooming vine and the black sea wall. She was the priest’s concubine, the mother of his son, and the secret of their affair was known to everyone in the village including the five men watching through the open doors. Usually the lovers were more discreet. Here she was, daring to leave in the light of day, as the gossips would soon report.
For a long moment she stood, summoning strength. She was doubly grieved today: her father was the one for whom the singers practiced the funeral chant. Her father was dead and she’d taken comfort in the arms of the man who could never be her husband. Now she had to walk across the broad swath of the cathedral courtyard in front of the world that judged her. Her shoulders caved toward her chest, her neck bowed. She was long-legged as the red deer, and when she turned, her face brave and grief-stricken, the men sang to her. They sang, led by the bassist who was Chjara’s father, their voices reaching deep to where notes roll over themselves like stones rolling in the wash of the sea. They assured her that life was so sad as to be worth living, and the blooms in the courtyard wilted with their feeling.
Pregnant for the seventh time, Chjara’s mother scoffed at the men’s sentimentality. Marie-Fiore Vallé leaned against the thin support of her broom and felt the child flutter for the first time. So many women sloughed off new souls when they were still angels and not yet human, but she, every single time, had to give birth. Breathless, exhausted, frustrated by her fertility, Marie-Fiore watched the harlot cross the courtyard. She heard the men’s dolorous music turn into something more swinging, more luscious, and she began to sweep behind the footsteps of the harlot. She swung her broom like a military baton, stiff needles of straw flying out from the broom’s loose clasp, and she knew, suddenly, that she made a comical figure. She was fat. Ludicrous. And this made her more bitter. Furious. If she were a woman of words, she might have been able to tell herself the truth of her feeling, that it was wrong for the man who was God’s representative to pick one of them. To love one especially. Instead, she who washed the priest’s clothes, who was his servant, his household help, she who went to the confessional booth as if to her lover’s pillow and said there what she could say nowhere else… she stood there, consumed with a pang of sexual jealousy, of intimacy betrayed, that shivered through her like a knife and drove into her womb.
The bud of Chjara’s spirit woke, awash in her mother’s strong vinegars. Then her tiny violet-petal ears perceived a humming, a thrumming. It was her father’s voice, reaching toward her as waves reach into a sea cave. A tall man, so tall he was called Paulo u Longo, Paulo the Long, her father could sing in the lowest possible register of the human voice, and he sang not only to the priest’s bereft lover but to his own, fierce cupulatta wife, his tortoise-shelled wife whose tenderness he caressed with his sound. In this way, emotions more suited to adults flooded Chjara’s infant sensibilities. How is one to know if these passions explain the life that Chjara would lead?
Chjara first began to show her character when she was six years old, on a wet night when much of the town was gathered in the Rue du Dragon tavern for a harvest meal. The village buildings glowed in shades of almond and orange. Rain pricked the gray sea. Inside the tavern, the stink of wet wool mingled with a stew of cuttlefish, garlic and sea juices. Chjara sat fidgeting in the small space on the bench between her mother, who was pregnant again, and her eldest brother. She was small-shouldered, with bright, mischievous eyes and her hair in a long braid because she liked the way it felt when it swung side to side. People slurped their soup, shouted to each other, clanged spoons against the crockery – and all of this distracted attention from her father and the other men, singing ‘Barbara Furtuna’, ‘Barbarous Destiny’, in a corner at the front. The chant circled the inconsolable grief of a Corsican unable to return home to the island.
People weren’t listening. They didn’t even seem to notice when the primo began to cough. They were at the part — ‘chi tristu ghjornu’, ‘what a sad day’ — that led to the song’s heart. The primo still struggled. Chjara slipped out of her mother’s grasp and ran to the front. She hesitated at the dividing line between the rows of tables and the space reserved for the men. Through the slit of his half-closed eyes, her father observed her from his great height. He shook his head — no. She stepped forward anyway. With her shoulder reaching only to her father’s hip, she pressed in, joining the connected line of the men. She took the melody, helping the primo. Her voice was timid, and she heard them laughing and clucking. She didn’t want to be cute. She didn’t want to be a silly girl. She could sing it as it was meant to be sung, so she did, throwing the sound from her throat as loudly as a muezzin: ‘Addieu Corsica mamma tanta amata, Nel separa di te senza ritornu’. The notes and the words blended and rattled the cage of her throat, just as her father had taught her. The laughter stopped and she could sense people staring and listening.
At the end, no one seemed to breathe. Then there was a crash of applause and her father lifted her to his shoulders. She laughed, the primo bowed extravagantly to her, and even her mother smiled from out of her face of misery. Chjara’s scalp tingled with happiness and she looked down at everyone from her father’s shoulders. From that night, she fell into the habit of believing that the world was a good and warm place, and that transgressions would be rewarded, as long as they were committed with a full heart.
She became the darling of the village and also of the priest, who sang her name, Chee-yah-ra, and taught her to read to him in her lively little voice. Decades later, when news came from America of Chjara’s infamy there, men in taverns as far away from Bastia as Calvi or Bonifacio would tell the story of her first public performance as if they, too, had been at the Rue du Dragon. The men added the kind of embellishments that come naturally to a people who cannot sing a simple tune without twirling the melody on their tongues like a Frenchman tasting wine. Their exaggerations flew into the air on the basis of a torn faded newspaper clipping from New York City, stating that Chjara had been arrested in that new country on a charge of ‘indecent entertainments’. This was the kind of news that left much to the imagination.
When Chjara’s hips began to curve into a handsome vase, when her neck seemed to lengthen, and her breasts began to show like little chestnuts under her chemise, the men stopped asking her to sing with them. Custom forbade women to sing in public places. The injustice made her hands hang at her sides. She could see by her mother’s example that life would be a series of chores from now to eternity.
From Chapter Seven
‘There cannot be many places to hide an elephant.’ The Englishwoman had minty breath. The river water sluicing under the bridge stank of fish guts, and something swooped in the rafters above them.
‘Let’s look.’ The Englishwoman ducked out the other side of the bridge, pulling Chjara with her. They moved away from the bonfires and the crowd, onto the peninsula with its dark copses of trees. Chjara smelled it: she smelled a sweet-sour aura which was the anxiety of the beast. She had never experienced the world of odor so keenly before America. The Englishwoman stepped in a pile of dung.
‘Who goes there?’ The animal keeper appeared out of the shadows.
The Englishwoman shook off the dung. ‘I want to ride it.’
‘You don’t,’ Chjara said, surprised.
‘I saw it done. In Liverpool for King George’s birthday. I want to ride her.’
‘You aren’t a Fraid?’
‘I’m not a coward.’ The Englishwoman’s chin thrust up.
‘But you don’t have to prove…’
‘It’ll be a dollar to ride it tomorrow,’ the keeper said.
A dollar was a king’s fortune.
‘Here.’ The Englishwoman produced a coin.
The keeper took it and put it away in a purse which he pocketed but still he didn’t move for a long moment. ‘All right then, she’s over here.’
She was a shadow darker than all the other shadows. When the animal keeper struck his flint and lit his torch, the elephant’s eyes shone inside folds upon folds, full of foreignness and misery. She was exotic, she was unknown, she was beastly – and while the keeper talked with the Englishwoman, Chjara reached out and touched the trunk of it. Of her.
‘You can go too,’ the keeper said. ‘There’s room for two.’
The torch light drew the crowd’s attention. ‘There it is,’ someone shouted.
The keeper switched the animal behind her knee, and she obediently bent low. The Englishwoman waited but the keeper lifted Chjara first. The creature allowed Chjara to step up its great gray belly. She found her footing on ridges of wrinkled flesh. Then Chjara was on top, a broad and flat place with a harness easy to grab. The crowd shouted encouragement and warning. The elephant began to rise.
‘Wait! I’m the one who paid,’ the Englishwoman scolded the keeper, who twitched the animal behind the knee once more. It bent down again.
Chjara pitched forward. To stay balanced, she embraced the neck of the great beast, which was studded with black bristles as stiff as sewing needles. Blinking with pain, she clung to its enormous collar of muscle.
The Englishwoman, meanwhile, tipped and wobbled up the elephant’s side. Her arms cartwheeled. The crowd roared and laughed as if she were clowning. Janet climbed onto the back and the animal heaved itself up. Chjara straightened from her crouch at the same time, and then they rode toward the crowd to enormous cheers.
Chjara looked out over the Americans. She remembered riding on her father’s shoulders in the Rue du Dragon tavern. It had been like this only now she wasn’t a child and, though the townspeople cheered, they had seen Henry’s father rebuff her. Who would protect her here? Would Henry? She closed her eyes briefly and when she opened them, she felt that she was the beast, with folds upon folds around her eyes. The elephant’s footsteps shook the ground. In the tremor of it, there was the memory of electricity. Embers from the five bonfires crinkled the dark. The crowd’s exclamations could turn to jeers, and looking over them, Chjara understood that destiny was made by such people, by crowds of people — by their opinions which gusted into the air like the fires’ heat and created currents of praise and rebuke. On top of the elephant, she felt small and apart. She held on. Her heart swelled hot inside her while her skin felt cool, exposed. Nausea rose in her throat.
Then the elephant swung its trunk up and bellowed.
It was an inhuman trumpet. It sounded part bird, but bird magnified to mountainous size. The vibration shook through Chjara, the sound coursed between them, and Chjara breathed a long outward breath, joining the sound inside herself. The sweat of nausea disappeared as quickly as it had come.
Henry returned up the bank to the bridge, and from beside his parents he watched the Wonder of India and the woman who would be his wife. He saw how Chjara’s shoulders moved with the animal, up and down in the same slow and sure rhythm. The Englishwoman struggled. Teetered. She leaned forward, clutching onto Chjara. Chjara guided the woman’s hands onto her hips, and Janet began to ride with the elephant, not against it, following Chjara’s example. Henry thought, Where did you come from? How are you the person you are? She moved with the beast as if she were a part of it — part of the mystery itself. He looked at her with wonder and he wanted to possess her. He wanted to be for her what she was to him: necessary. He wanted her intelligence cleaved to his own.
‘She is a fine woman,’ Henry’s mother blurted.
‘Anna!’ Randall Garland glared at Henry’s harlot. On his elephant. A beautiful face. A full figure. How could he convey to Henry that he understood the temptation to do as one pleased? He himself would like to hold Henry to himself, his prodigal son. ‘Henry, if you marry the Papist,’ he said, ‘I cannot love you.’
‘Oh Randall,’ Anna said.
‘Freedom of religion is also the letter of the law,’ Henry said hotly. ‘Why can I not marry whom I choose? Because of religion?’
‘Sophist,’ Randall said. ‘You know you transgress. You feel it — here.’ Randall placed his hand on his son’s chest.
Henry looked away, his lip twitched. ‘I will marry her.’
Randall stared at Chjara Vallé on the elephant, and he knew she would only make Henry’s chance at grace more difficult. Wasn’t it difficult enough? Randall wanted to cry out. He looked at her and he looked at the female elephant, which now showed him her backside with a huge slit that dripped urine. He smelled the urine and the fetid female odor.
‘I will renounce you and all I’ve promised you,’ Randall said.
‘Husband, would you cast the first stone?’ Anna said, furious.
Chjara looked down and saw Henry’s father and mother beside Henry, all their eyes fixed on her. Chjara understood Henry’s parents about as well as the elephant did. She watched the beast’s long ears rippling. They were arguing about her, no doubt. She couldn’t join the conversation. She felt a thousand miles removed from them and their angry gestures and red faces. As if from the distance of a dream, she observed them caring; feeling urgently. That was what it was like to care. And yet it didn’t matter what the content of feeling was at this moment. She remembered being in the chapel in Paris after leaving the arms of the baker; how she had wept. She had wanted so much to feel certain of each choice she made and instead everything had been confusing. Here on the elephant, she felt like a foreigner to feelings, their language distant and confused.
The elephant swung toward the river. She dipped her trunk into the water. She tilted her head back, and Chjara leaned with her. The elephant bellowed again, this time spraying water over the whole gathered crowd. Children squealed with delight. Fires hissed with the spray.
Henry walked away from his father. He was no longer a rich man’s son. With part of himself, he knew this outcome was what he’d feared. He knew his avarice. And he knew now that he would have to sell something from his new supply of Husbands and buttons. A frisson electrified him all the way to his stockings. It was a feeling like looking down from a great cliff, and anticipating the fall.