The Harpischord Man
Bart leaned to his left and swayed slightly, acting inebriated. His shoulder length dark curls obscured one eye. This alehouse was far beneath his
father’s standards, and that was the whole point. He had dirtied his face a bit, neglected a shave, and wore his oldest britches, the ones he hunted in when
escaping without his entourage. He wore no wig and it felt wonderful! He hated wigs. They were silly things, and itchy.
His steed was tethered with his valet’s across the street, three blocks down, in front of The Grinning Cup. The valet guarded the costly animals
patiently. Angi was the only person who knew of Bart’s deceptive addiction. Whether he understood it or not, he was loyal and kept Bart’s secrets
without question. Ten years earlier, Bart, in his quest for a valet, had found the orphaned lad in a workhouse thinly disguised as a home for orphaned
boys. The two had grown into brothers. The disheveled loose weave shirts and long waistcoats they wore Angi had bought from a couple of older, bigger
lads from the home for a mere livre each, a fortune to the boys, and perfect disguises for blending in with the riffraff.
If his father knew he was here, in The Gelded Unicorn, appearing a commoner, he’d surely disinherit him. This thought added an element of
dangerous excitement. The barmaids added another.
Ah, the women! So much more substance to them than the high-haired, powder-masked, fluffballs he regularly met in his father’s circles. No
amount of brightly colored silk or colorful paint could make them less dull. He was fascinated by the torture devices they wore; the corset must have been
invented by a sadist. No wonder they fainted all the time. Ironically, they were as fake as the character he was playing at now.
The tavern wenches were real women. Their open-mindedness excited him far more than their open leggedness. Occasionally he did partake, he
was a human male after all. And there were never any strings attached. No matter how intoxicated, Bart never neglected to inspect certain details in the
boudoirs upstairs: the bedding had to be fresh, unstained, and free of crawlys. He inspected woman parts in the same intense fashion. God-forbid he catch
a cock-rotting disease.
Bart sipped his ale. He grimaced and spat out a bit of something that squirmed on his lip. That was the significant downfall to his little forays into
what he called ‘the other dimension’. The ale was watered down and stank of donkey piss. ‘Damn. I really need a better quaff.’ He put out a black
leathered hand to get the barmaid’s attention. Inside the glove, the manicured nails would point a siren’s finger at him like a big red carriage light.
The wench came immediately.
“Something stronger Lass, from the top shelf.” He said in his lowest gutter Italian.
The young woman was very attractive, an exotic raven-haired beauty. He had not seen her here previously and could not help being intrigued.
Her chemise was finely woven linen, the laced-up mantua ruby red silk. He noted the stitching was superb, if she had sewn it herself, she would need not
work this filthy tavern. If she had the means to afford a top rate seamstress, she must be very good at her profession. She had decorated the hem and
bustline with feathers, dark and shiny, as if they’d grown from out her own head. The only tell-tale sign of her station was her hemline. Sparkling paste
brooches held up her airy ruffled underskirt, exposing one finely boned ankle, as white as sun-bleached bone.
She dared to stare insolently into his eyes, but he did not mind. Her eyes were as mysterious as priceless emeralds, they flashed golden sparks in
the candlelight like a cat’s.
“Right away my lord.” She said in rural Italian as fake as his.
The fake wench swirled away on wings of flaming silk, an ebony feather drifted in her wake and alit on the grimy table.
Bart suddenly felt very intoxicated, he shook his head. ‘What am I doing?’
“Oh Bartolomeo, whatever do you mean?”
Bart jumped out of his seat; his arms prickled with a thousand cactus pokes. It was her. Right next to him. And too close for comfort. She pulled
a soft knit shawl around her shoulders. A whore would be revealing, not covering up.
He was one hundred percent intrigued now. At the same time, an alarm was blaring in his head, like bells ringing down on the avenue when a
candle caught drapery afire.
“How---” he started but the woman shushed him with a slim pale finger to his parted lips. She smelled of vanilla and lemons and smokey sage.
He knew that scent, but his mind was caught in a trap, and he could not recall from where or when. He could barely remember his own name. She knew
it though. He was a tiny gnat in the web of a shiny dark spider, one with a red hourglass on her belly.
The exotic, stunning woman said, “You deserve to know my name I suppose. Since you will be accompanying me upstairs.” It was not a request.
“I am Miriam Florentiss Damascus. Come with me now, it is dangerous for you to be seen here. Besides, I have the finest Barolo Vino upstairs, just for
Bart hesitated. His mind bells were blaring but he craved danger as an addict craved the opium pipe. He rose as if floating and followed her to the
staircase. Not one patron even glanced their way…as if they were invisible.
He followed Miriam up the stairs and to a door at the end of the long feebly lit hallway. Without turning around, she plucked a key from between
her breasts and unlocked the thick, bare wood door. The room was merely 8ft square, with an extra high wooden beamed ceiling that angled down
towards a small window. Above the square window, in the V of the eave, was a half-circle of red and amber stained glass. ‘Ah.’ They were under one of
the two eaves the building boasted, he’d admired the jewel-like glass from the street when casing the neighborhood for taverns. A gauzy faded red curtain
wafted gently in the open window as the door was closed behind him. The bed had a thick feather mattress covered by a red silk duvet as finely sewn as
Miriam’s dress. It was embroidered with a gold and green dragon and a gold and blue phoenix. The tall armoire was dark polished wood with ornate
brass handles. To one side of the armoire was a discreet brass chamber pot under a small table. On the table, a pale-yellow ewer in a bowl. A simple
nightstand draped in a sheer red fringed shawl was the only other furnishing in the clean, cozy room. On the floor, between the nightstand and the
window were two small wooden bowls, one held water.
Two shelves on the walls and the nightstand held amber colored oil lamps turned down low. They burned lemon verbena infused oil. A small
Japanese porcelain plate, white with roses, held ashes and dried sage leaves wrapped tightly in string.
Miriam pulled a bulb shaped bottle from the armoire and two simple, thick-based glasses. The bottle was undecorated and looked black in the low
lighting but when she passed it by the wall’s oil lamp, it glowed iridescent green, blue and gold. She handed them to Bart and motioned he should sit on
the bed. She did not undress. Instead, she pulled out a stool from under the bed. She flicked a lever and the wooden stool unfolded into a seat that was as
tall as the mattress. She sat and he handed her a glass of rich burgundy wine as black as tar and placed the bottle on the nightstand. He inhaled the fumes-
fruity, smokey, and just bitter enough to make the back of the tongue salivate. The taste was heavenly, he could practically hear the harp’s strings
vibrating angelic song.
“You cannot be seen with me. If you are, they will come for you as well.” She started mysteriously.
“You know my name. How---“
“Not important. I know a great many things about you. You are the most talented harpsichord maker in all of Italy. Perhaps the world. You
come to decrepit alehouses and taverns to experience real emotion, real lives, real people. You hide your talents and intelligence from these people. You
love your father but feel oppressed in the household you share with him and your sister.”
Bart suddenly epiphanized. “You are a witch!”
“The accusation of witchcraft had me flee my home in Florence nine months ago.”
Bart shuddered, “I have heard that Florence is besotted by what they’re calling the ‘black death’.”
She looked down into her half empty glass and said softly, “My mother and both my brothers died from it. My youngest brother was only ten.
Half his class at school suffered it. He brought it home.” She looked up then and added quickly, “It wasn’t his fault!” Her eyes shone with unshed tears.
Bart inadvertently searched her exposed skin for dark bruising or lesions.
“I never caught it.” She said accusingly.
Bart asked, “You cared for them all on your own?”
“Yes,” she said, “Hospitals were overflowing with death. Doctors thought bleeding was the answer. Fools!” she spat. “I gathered herbs, made
concoctions. I visited the apothecary outside of town for specialty ingredients. All I did was ease their pain. I could not save them.”
Fat glistening drops rolled down her pale cheeks, she furiously brushed them away.
“Why me? Why do you tell me all of this?”
“My mother practiced witchcraft.”
He started to rise from the bed. Alarm radiating from his wide eyes like a deer who’s caught the scent of gun oil.
She put a hand on his arm, and he felt as though he’d inhaled a hit of opium. Calm, warm inside. Charmed. Falling in love.
“I am doomed to the stake. The pope has decreed my name amongst the witch ‘infestation’ blamed for causing the plague. The woman who sold
me tinctures in the apothecary was burned alive. The holy men came for my mother, but she was already buried in a grave alongside my brothers-
unmarked, to not offer the temptation of desecrating her body.”
Bart held out his arms and Miriam fell into them. He was smitten. He felt he had to protect this special woman, keep her safe. He wanted to be
with her, to know her inside and out. He was confused, like he was wading through a sea of thick fog, searching for a lighthouse. He said, “Your mother
is the one who told you all about me.”
Miriam nodded against his chest.
He said, “For some reason, she told you to seek me out. She thought I could save you?”
“Yes, but she was wrong. She was only human after all. I only came to urge you to seek your fame in Florence.”
“I can run away with you! We can leave right now…go to Paris…!”
“No Bartolomeo, your future is here in Italy. You are destined for greatness in Florence. Prince Ferdinand needs you. To alter the path to your
future would deprive the world of your talents. And I would find a nail covered seat in the hottest theatre-beneath-the-world for all eternity.”
Shouting arose from the hallway! And heavy bootsteps clomped, growing louder with the voices.
A cat suddenly darted out from under the bed. It was a blur of white fur, the tips of its paws were black, like it was wearing little girl shoes. It
leapt to the windowsill and dove through the window. Shocked, Bart jumped up and looked out after it. He saw the tip of its sleek white tail disappear
behind the other eave across the roof. He turned back towards the bed. She was gone. From the corner of his eye, he glimpsed the armoire door closing.
Banging fists at the door rattled it in its frame. Mighty fists they were, it was a heavy, solid door.
Bart was at a loss at what to do, they were coming in no matter what, better to attempt dissuasion.
He opened the door six inches and shouted indignantly, “What the devil is going on?! How dare you disturb my rest!”
The pounder shoved the door. He was a foot taller than Bart and as solid as a wall of rocks, as ugly too. He was dressed all in worn black wool.
His hat was short, flat topped, with a narrow brim. He had the sweaty, unshaven face of a dock worker or a street thug. He remained silent as he stepped
aside to let a second man into the now crowded room. The smaller man was Bart’s height, thin to the point of near-skeletal, and dressed all in black as
well. His clothing was simple but of costly quality. He wore a long cape and stiff high collar with a silver cross on a chain beneath it. His hat was
pointed on the sides and front, with a round cap center.
Rudely, he said, “The woman! Where is she?”
“There’s no one here but me. I have rented this room for the evening.”
The thin man said, “Lying is a sin. And hiding a witch is cause for execution.”
“A witch! Here?! Are you mad!?”
“Zanobi!” he shouted towards the hulk who was clenching and unclenching his fists as if cracking walnuts.
Zanobi stepped to the armoire and opened it quickly. Pale silks amongst heavy wool and deep blue velvet fluttered. One fell to the bottom as the
man shoved the feminine clothing aside. The armoire was empty. Thug-man dropped to his knees at the bed and threw up the quilt. Nothing but a few
white cat hairs stirred.
Shouting from outside! The three men ran to the window. Angi was below, by the front door of the Alehouse, he was pointing north up the road.
His face an animated mask of excitement. In his arms was the cat.
The bony Catholic priest slapped Zaboni’s arm, the thug responded like a horse under a crop. He ran out the door, his footfalls down the stairs
shook the foundations. The priest said, “I am far from not done with you.” He did not shout but the words were as loud and clear as thunder on a crisp
He spun like a circling crow out the door.
Bart investigated the armoire a last time, looking for any sign of Miriam. He knew he’d not find one.
The cobblestones were glistening, wet from the misty night air. The fishy stench from the river assaulted his nostrils. Angi stood under the
awning by the front window of The Gelded Unicorn. The horses were dark shapes hitched to the railing behind him. Bart’s horse, Massimo, chuffed
through his lips and pawed the street when he recognized his master. The cat in Angi’s arms glowed like a ball of fresh snow. As the shouting and
hoofbeats faded up the street, Bart heard the cat purring as loud as a tiger.
At the Cristofori home two hours later, Angi, after two full minutes of contemplation, said, “Well, I suppose we’re off to Florence then.” He did
not question his friend’s story. Did not accuse him of partaking of the pipe and could plainly see he was not drunk. His complete trust brought tears to
A month later, Bart was hired by Prince Ferdinand de Medici. He was issued a house, complete with tools and equipment, by the prince’s father’s
administration, and set to work. For the Prince, he tuned, maintained, and transported instruments. He also did restoration work on valuable older
harpsichords. As often as he could he worked on his invention, a variation of the harpsichord.
One day while working in his large airy studio, the cat, whom he’d named Merry, came in and sat atop the ornate harpsichord he was tuning. He
asked her, “Are you hungry Merry?”
The cat tapped a key with her paw as if in answer to his question. ‘Ping.’
Humored, Bart asked the cat, “Was that a yes?”
Again, the cat tapped the high-pitched key with her black shoed paw. ‘Ping.’
“How about a nice bowl of lima beans?”
The cat tapped the lowest pitched key. ‘Pong.’
Astonished, Bart asked, “Liver then?”
“With fisheye gravy.”
‘Pang.’ A key in the middle.
“I do believe that is a maybe.”
Over the next few years, Bart had regular conversations with Merry.
One day, in the spring of 1700, he was working on his invention. It was nearly completed but he had an issue with the keys to work out. For the sound he
desired, he needed more keys. “Perhaps half keys?” he queried out loud.
Merry sat on the harpsichord he kept just for her. He asked, “Add more keys?”
“Does that mean ‘maybe’?”
As Bart watched the long white arm with the small black paw tap the keys, he suddenly understood what Merry was saying.
Two hundred and twenty years later…
The room was dark, the sleek art deco moldings framing the palm tree paintings were hidden in the dark. The globe lighting on the long circular
stairs to the stage was turned off. The tables surrounding the large, polished dancefloor flickered with candles in votives. It was as dark as a starless sky.
A single spotlight of purest white blinked on with a twangy pop. The dark brown fingers began to tap the keys. The patrons packed into the tables
clapped and roared with delight. When the lively jazz chorus began, the dancefloor lit up in pink and green lights. The brass joined in the song, the drum
kept beat. The crowd rushed to the dancefloor as the nimble fingers boogied over the black and white piano keys.