So he wore his uncle's gift every day, hidden beneath his shirt, even for church, when Mother had asked him to take it off in case the priests found out. She was nervous of people, but especially priests, because Father distrusted and despised them and said so openly, and Mother was convinced the priests would learn about it and make the whole family do horrible penances. That was one reason why she was so bewildered when it was discovered that Alfredo had a singing voice.
There was no musicianship anywhere in the family. Father would bellow popular songs, all on one note, to the rhythm of his dough-kneading. Neighbors said it was hard to believe anyone could sing so badly if he wasn't doing it on purpose. And Mother would warble as she went about her work with a more varied but no more accurate use of the scale. When he was smaller, Alfredo's attempts to copy his parents had combined the worst of both styles, but now he seemed more to be singing for the sheer joy of doing so, unconsciously putting the tunes to rights as he went. Before long he was singing, or attempting to sing, everything he heard, from the indecent ditties of the sardine fishers to some part in one of the convoluted polyphonies of the cathedral.
Living near the center of the city, they went there to Mass. Shortly after they had emerged one Sunday, Alfredo was sitting on a low wall beside Mother, while Father argued guild business with a rival baker and Giorgio larked with some of his cronies across the square. As he waited Alfredo was trying to re-create something he had just been listening to, the Nunc Dimittis at the end of the service, with the high voice of a single choirboy floating like a gliding gull above the waves of sound from the rest of the choir, and then soaring on alone.
"Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace," he sang, "according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen . . ."
A short, fat priest came stalking by, turned and stared at them. Mother gave her usual start of guilt.
"Don't stop, boy," snapped the priest. "Start at the beginning. . . . Louder . . ."
Astonished but delightednobody had ever bothered to listen to his singing beforeAlfredo stood, filled his lungs and sang. The chatter around them stilled. People turned to listen. There were amused bravos as he allowed his voice to fade, as the choirboy's had done, into the noon stillness.
"The child has a voice," said the priest. "Who has been teaching him?"
"No one," stammered Mother. "I don't know where he got it from."
She made it sound as though Alfredo had picked up his talent in the street and was now being accused of having stolen it.
Excerpted from The Tears of the Salamander by Peter Dickinson Copyright© 2003 by Peter Dickinson. Excerpted by permission of Wendy Lamb Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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