From "Caruso: A Novel" by Stephen Kuusisto

Pearls: or How the Tenor Learned to Sing in French



Listen: Caruso is holding his nose, practicing French. With his eyes closed he sees an onion field, a galaxy of  orange butterflies. Des cieux, des yeux, he sings, the heavens, the eyes, the heavens, the heavens, the eyes. His tongue can’t locate the difference. What if he were to sing under water? What if he were to kiss a priest? Eat an onion? He tightens his fingers over the fleshy bulb of his nose. 

This is how he grows, with a decisive loss of air, a wicked pinch.

Sweat begins under his shirt.

It is wonderful to be day-blind in the immense sunlight. 

Des cieux…

He sways on his tiny, girlish feet.

His tongue tastes the sweet kernels of nuts.

He hears the inward roaring of blood in his ears.

Des yeux…

The eyes, the eyes, and the dim, undetermined sense that he is about to fall into a serious mood. He is helplessly in love with two sisters, Rena and Ada Giachetti. Both are sopranos, both have raven hair, those dark tresses that give up traces of red in the afternoon light. 

With eyes closed, his nose pinched, his tongue spastic with wet aspirations, he thinks of Rena drawing aside her luxuriant, free falling hair, exposing her tender white neck.

There is a place behind her ear, where, as she lifts her hair he can taste the minty reeds of Lake Lentini.


Rena’s pearls have broken loose from their necklace and she gathers them up and carries them in her lifted dress. She bears them across the portico as if they were the precious ingredients of a soup. 

Poor Caruso, struggling with his French. The man is out of his mind with Gallic frenzies. He wanders the kingdom of vowels like a lost childIn just a few weeks he must sing of pearls, must transform himself into a pearl diver. 

She finds him seated at his white piano, sight reading from the dreaded score, humming cautiously, his fingers depressing keys.

“Hey, Nemorino,” she says, “Lover Boy, here is your Adina, ricca e capricciosa fittaiuola

And he looks up, dazed as an alter boy who has been fumbling with the towel and cruets.

He smiles the great smile, the sunlight smile, sunlight through a garden wall.

Quickly she passes her hand over her lips, for he seems about to speak.

She carries the pearls in the tent of her lifted skirts and now sits astride him on the wide piano bench. 

She throws her arms around his neck and cries, “I won’t leave you any more!”

Pearls are falling everywhere. 

Rena unbuttons her dress.

And Enrico Caruso enters the still country, a place thick with plants and emerald light.

Her breasts are pendant against him. Her unbound hair falls over his eyes.

If his fingertips could speak they would stammer. 

Lord knows his mouth can’t speak. She has swiftly opened his pants, and O so expertly! No pinch and ouch of heavy fabric. 

His brains go whirling through the white and yellow marguerites, such flowers at sunset! My God!

She is dropping pearls into his pants!

Caruso’s voluminous, satin underwear is open and in go the pearls, cool as fish eggs. 

“Little pearls,” she murmurs, “you swim with them, carry them to me from the bottom of the bay!”

And now she presses them into his mouth, one by one, little white grapes of the sea.

He is Demosthenese of Naples! 




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s