The House of Serenades - By Lina Simoni

“Le apparenze ingannano.”



MONTHS LATER, removed from the world, her frail, unnourished body ravaged by pellagra and scurvy, her mind muddled with visions of black devils and fire-spitting monsters, in rare moments of lucidity Eugenia Berilli would revisit the events that marked the end of her privileged life and the beginning of her and her family’s fall to disgrace. Her memories would manifest in fragments, disconnected images and sounds, snapshots of a time gone by, flashes that struck her in the heart with the suddenness and the fury of lightning bolts.

But on that mild mid-April morning of 1910 she, the taller and older sister of Giuseppe Berilli, Genoa’s most prominent lawyer, had no reason to suspect or fear. She was henceforth surprised when she awoke in her canopy bed one full hour earlier than usual, drenched in cold sweat. As she eased her feet into padded slippers and wrapped her thin body in a dressing gown, she mulled over her early rising, attributing it to at least three factors: her advanced age, the humidity, and her anxiety over the future of the Berilli law firm, whose reputation had worsened ostensibly over the past weeks. She paced the bedroom back and forth while her discomfort grew. A vague uneasiness had taken hold of her, a throb in the pit of her belly rising all the way to her throat. Her armpits were wet, and the handkerchief she dabbed repeatedly on her forehead couldn’t keep the watery beads at bay. In search of cooler quarters, she headed for the den, a small square room with no stove tucked away at the north end of the apartment. Its scarce furnishing—two Louis XV armchairs and matching end table—gave it a stern look. Eugenia found it cozy. The only other object in the room, resting limply on the end table, was a soft pink knitting bag with needles showing. Eugenia took it and sat on the stiff red and gold cushion of the nearest armchair. She rummaged in the bag for her eyeglasses, placing them gingerly on the bridge of her nose. A faint smile streamed across her lips as, by the soft glow of a single lamp, she began knitting a shawl.

It was moments before dawn. The city roused from its slumber. In the port, warehouses opened their doors, longshoremen and coal heavers streamed towards the docks, and loaded cargos towed by agile tenders trumpeted their ways towards the moorings. On land, bordering the port, the downtown streets awoke as well with shutters pushed open and grocers loading fresh produce on kiosks and stalls.

Known to the locals as the caruggi, those streets were narrow alleys flanked by a continuous façade of tall buildings scarred by time and sea salt, facing one another so closely the inhabitants could shake hands by leaning out the windows. Starting at the port, cutting through the maze of the caruggi, was Via San Lorenzo, an uphill wider street bordered by a mix of middle-class dwellings and patrician buildings. That’s where Eugenia’s ten-room apartment was: half-way up Via San Lorenzo, on the second floor of a stately building a short walk from the cathedral. She lived there alone. The many maids she had hired over the years had left her one after the other, put off by her overbearing, dictatorial ways.

At exactly eight A.M. that morning, from the den, Eugenia heard church bells ringing. The tolls were deep and lethargic, and their meaning was unmistakable: someone had died. At once, Eugenia halted the tic-tac of her needles and rested her bony hands on her lap. Her eyeglasses fell from her nose, hanging by the links of a delicate silver chain. In silence, she counted along. One, two, three, four … Sadness arose in her. Death bells always reminded her of her niece, Caterina, dead of tuberculosis one week short of turning eighteen. The whole family had gathered at the cemetery two weeks earlier to remember Caterina on the second anniversary of her death. No words could describe the depth of everyone’s pain and sorrow. She, for one, had cried like a baby in front of her niece’s tomb.

She turned to the east wall, where a charcoal drawing of Caterina hung in a silver frame. It was a self-portrait the girl had sketched three years earlier and given to her aunt as a birthday present. It was all Eugenia had left of her, plus the memories and the tears. Such a talented artist Caterina had been, for a high-school student. “Life can be