Author's Notes: This tale fits into the world of my Nightingale's Odyssey series. It's set in the first book, "Shadowcrest's Hammer", and takes place between Chapter 17 and 18. For those who have not read it, or for those who have but would like a reminder, here is what is relevant in the previous chapters. Erik and Nadir secretly fled Paris after the Phantom faked his death in Christine's arms leaving her to a life with Raoul. After the wintry voyage concealed as cargo on an ocean steamer they arrive in Manhattan illegally. Nadir, using some of Erik's money but limited in his ability to communicate, could only secure housing in the Bowery. The two share a lousy two room apartment on the top floor of a fourth story tenement building that leaves much to be desired. The Bowery is polluted, overcrowded as immigrants of all ethnic backgrounds are forced there, and has no gas lighting nor clean well water. Their downstairs neighbor, a woman named Chastity, works as a harlot. After a sour start she has become friends, and shown some affection for Nadir. It is the year 1883, and Erik's attempts to gain notoriety though his architecture have ultimately failed due to the condition of his attire and his immigrant status. Recently a desperate Erik discovered that he could play his Stradivarius violin on the street corner and earn money, primarily to feed his opium addiction. In doing so, he happened across a blind Romanian Jew named Blanjini, not his true name, but he reveals rather little about himself other than having fled his homeland due to religious persecution. The elder man plays an aged violin he made with his own hands, used to be a court musician, and proves very well read—prior to losing his sight in a factory accident. He and Erik have become fast friends through their music and shared tragedy that neither wishes to dwell on. On weekdays he and Erik play selections fit for concert halls on the Bowery street corner beneath the elevated trains to earn coins from passersby. On Saturday Erik has come to take part in a neighborhood tradition, he used to shun, the Saturday Nights on the Bowery, a raucous street party with a melding of international music, food, alcohol and all manners of sinful behavior. It is what is knitting the community together in their mutual suffering. To those who hear the strange masked violinist, he is known as the Bowery Nightingale, a nickname that stuck after Blanjini first called him Nightingale for the bird's literary significance. Blanjini does not know Erik's real name either. But through his connection with the old man, Erik has endured an ego check and come to terms with his current lot. At the moment, he is once again considered one of dregs of society. WARNING: I have always aimed for appropriate historical representation, as accurate as possible. This means there will be depictions of discrimination that were commonplace during this era: racism, sexism, classism, and religious discrimination themes will come into the plot. I am by no means excusing the behavior of the times, simply depicting it.
~Saturday Night on the Bowery~
Every eye fixed on the blank canvas of the growing night. Packed shoulder to shoulder beneath the rusty iron of the elevated trains, the impoverished immigrants stood ignoring the filth of the gutters and the putrid odors pervading the air. Saturday night meant one thing to all of them, and the anticipation pressed them all together into a tense throng.
"One …" A young boy hugged an iron beam and pointed up as a star appeared in the sky. Below him, a milky-eyed man dressed in a worn tunic with a wide, once colorful, sash tied around his waist, sat against the beam. A violin polished by the oils of his hands lay across his knees, the bow freshly rosined.
In the midst of the crowd whispers in a multitude of dialects traveled in waves. Men, women, and children; all poor immigrants deemed unfit for the more reputable neighborhoods, gathered in their ragged splendor. Calloused hands held coins, many a belly called out for the festivities to begin. But not until the proper time.
A young girl tugged on her mother's dress sleeve nearly knocking the tin whistle from her eager grip. "Ma, do ya think he'll be here tonight?"
"Him. I don't see him yet." Her wide eyes wrinkled the freckles on her cheeks.
Her mother smiled. "Lass, I don't know who you mean."
Standing on her tiptoes, she leaned out, only her grip on the iron beam kept her from falling. "You know, the bird."
Within earshot Blanjini, the violinist, chuckled. Though he did not speak their Gaelic, the Romanian picked up the one word he needed, and the child's eager tone conveyed enough. A child's voice he knew from her prior improvised singing to his violin in the daytime hours. Even if she wouldn't understand, he assured, "He will come."
"Two!" The boy's heartbeat entered his voice as he spied the second star.
The mother turned her head, bright red curls falling over her ragged shawl. She picked up enough of the old man's words to answer, "Who?"
Slowly, Blanjini tucked his violin beneath his chin, preparing for the boy's cue. His smile deepened the age lines on his face. His eyes took in nothing, but it left him all the more observant. Oh yes, Blanjini knew he would be here, just like every Saturday since he had first bent to the call of the music. How could such a soul avoid the temptation?
Blanjini did not answer the woman. He raised sightless eyes to the heavens, bow to strings, fingers in the position of the first chord; and waited as everyone held their breath.
"Three!" The boy shouted, scrambling to keep his hold as he pointed at a third star winking in the fading daylight.
A violin chord fractured the night followed by a slow, teasing series of notes. It did not come from Blanjini's instrument. The source higher up on the iron crossbeams of the elevated train, about halfway to the top. Blanjini smiled even as his hand hitched on the first chord.
"As I said," Blanjini shifted his fingers to the answering harmony, letting the first violin take the lead in the call and response, "he would appear."
Applause and cheers rent the air as the crowd located the elusive musician standing easily on his perch, a silhouette against the twilight. The wind ruffled his cloak and shifted the woolen vest he wore over the rough faded blue henley shirt. His raven black hair, tied back at the nape of his neck, shimmered with silver streaks. Waxing moonlight caught the dirt stained once white leather mask that covered everything above his upper lip. They knew, only by familiarity, that beneath his closed eyelids two different colored eyes peered out. The left a deep, nearly black, brown. The right an icy blue that gave his uneven stare an eerie feeling. In his hands not just any violin, but an antique Stradivari sang at his bidding with the voice of angelic grace.
The perch seemed precarious, and the mother gasped. Her daughter grinned and thrust her finger into the air towards him. "Ma! Look, there he is! The bird, the songbird!"
His cloak fluttered like wings as the lithe man leapt down to join the rest of the gathered musicians. He never missed a stroke in time with Blanjini's harmonized call and response, the tones toying off one another in the promise of a wild chase. On solid ground, the man offered the blind violinist an elegant half-bow, not at all in mockery but in true reverence.
Surrounded by an eclectic bunch of musicians bearing various instruments, Blanjini continued the teasing game and lowered the neck of his violin in a mimicry of a bow. "I knew you'd be joining us again, Nightingale."
Even his laugh was lyrical as he toyed with the strings, just warming up in the evening's stuffy humid air. He answered in a fluid Romanian tongue, "Come now, my dear Blanjini. You yourself know Aoide's lure is beyond resistible."
"Indeed, for a creature comprised of measure. Though some doubted you would come, I was certain you would spread your wings this eve."
"Enough wasting the night on vapid words." He pulled his bow to the end, pausing with his arm as far as it could go. "Our darling mistresses wish to sing. Let us get on with it."
"As you will, Nightingale." Blanjini's violin sang in tandem, matching the vigorous musical throes of the chase as the patterns wound one around the other. Two master musicians fit for the grandest courts tapped their worn shoes in the squalor of the slums. But on this eve no one cared for their wretched conditions. It was all about the music and celebration of one more week evading the Grim Reaper's grasp.
The little girl leapt off her mother's lap to spin and dance with the gathered musicians improvising to the leading violins. Her own voice joined others as they uttered in their own languages, "Blanjini and the Bowery Nightingale."
With each slash of my bow my heart took flight in the cascade of notes dancing on the strings. As I poured my soul onto my Stradivari's humming strings, I heard the marked name echoing. Some time ago that would have been sufficient to still my hand, force me to retreat to the relative solitude of my apartment. But not now.
The alternative would be to tell them my singular name, a fact few were privy to. I was determined that remain so.
Besides, the charming little birds were rather significant in many a worldly story. Not that I particularly wanted to be remembered now. My days of being a vain showman were over. At least for the matter of manipulation. I played now for another reason, fiddling on a remarkable violin like a common minstrel of old, because my life depended on it.
This had become my choice. As the music of the collective orchestra thrummed through my veins it lent me a vibrancy I had forgotten I possessed. The bright dancing folk tunes pervading the air every Saturday night were no longer merely outside my window, I emerged among them … one of them. In the gutters they gathered speaking different tongues. But their instruments did not care for country of origin. The cittern harmonized with the uillean pipes, the bodhran kept the rhythm as well as the doumbek. One culture's tune melded into the next as we shared in creation to counter loss.
The music covered the growling of underfed stomachs, a balm to those nursing wounds, lifted the spirits of those with one less soul beneath their rooves in this slum where soot permeated everything. For this brief stolen moment when we closed our eyes we were lifted free of our wretched existence.
Blanjini could not have been more correct, I had come to spread my wings.
So, I silently bid them call me Nightingale, and I let them be the emperors in the darkness of this festival of survival.
In the steamy night, before the first phase of our violin duel completed I had already drenched my shirt with sweat. Not that I would permit that to hinder me. I had been subjected to worse in the past. The music called me onward, a wild Irish tinged piece with our fiddle duel at the core. Blanjini rose to the challenge, the smile betraying his thrill as his nimble fingers raced across the strings against mine. The other musicians panted and fought to keep up, some resorting to simplified progressions to keep the base time. They grinned, none the less.
In a swirling mass the crowd danced amidst our kingdom of soot and iron. The waxing moon's rays cut through the crossbeams to light our celebration. Sawing away at the final movement in our concoction, I leaned against the iron column. A young girl with vibrant red hair twirled, her simple skirt flowing out as she threw her head back. Arms out full, one bare foot left the ground as she closed her eyes and smiled, lost to this world.
I wanted to be wherever she was. I knew this child. Blanjini and I had been subjected to her insatiable curiosity this past week when she had happened upon our daily performances on the Bowery street corners. Betha Sheehan, and where she was her little brother would inevitably follow.
I glanced to my side to find the rambunctious Ronan riding his father's knee up and down as he kept time. The Sheehans. I had come to know the recent arrivals through their loquacious daughter. Brennan Sheehan, a wiry fellow currently playing the uillean pipes, worked long hours at a factory. Enda, the sweet bright haired lass at his side playing a tin whistle with lightning fast fingers, was a seamstress at a factory. Betha knew this because her mother showed her needlework on the days when natural light permitted. Now Enda watched her daughter dancing, the glee flowed from her eyes as she played the merry tune.
I didn't want it to end. The spirals of colors, the laughter filling the air. I may have been dauntless, but it was not the case for the other flagging musicians. Wrapping the tune to a gradual decline, I pulled the bow and let the final cascade draw onward until without additional motion the strings fell silent.
Blanjini clapped a hand on my shoulder. "What a fine chase that was. Where did you first hear that?"
I shrugged, turning the tuning peg as the strings had warmed with the vigorous play. "At a European faire somewhere many a year ago, the name is lost to me." I did a test draw finding it much more to my liking.
Betha skipped up to me, one finger hanging from her mouth. "Mister Bowery Nightingale?"
Such a short little child, not even half my height, I had to crouch down to her level.
"Can you play again?"
I swung my bow lazily and raised an eyebrow, though the child could hardly have seen it for my mask, something that never seemed to intimidate her. "Remarkable formality from such a petite lady."
She blushed beneath the sooty smudges on her cheeks and grinned, showing a missing front tooth.
Brennan gestured to her, juggling the short-panted boy on his knee who tried to grab the uillean pipe's chanter from his hand. "Betha, come to me now, leave the good man alone."
I waved a dismissive hand to him. "What have we come here to do if not to play." Turning to Blanjini I switched to Romanian, grateful for the practiced ease that permitted me to switch tongues. "We have a request for more dancing music."
Blanjini searched his gray beard with a finger until he rubbed his chin for a moment. "Dancing music? Well, I'm not certain I know any more." He winked a milky eye in my direction. "There is this one."
He set his bow to the strings and instantly all the musicians fixed their attention on him. Myself included as I picked out the central melody. A sultry Romany tune with a lilting tempo, one I had heard and played a few times, but it too had been ages. I silently fingered the chords the first time through and wove the harmony around his violin on the second. Once more the air filled with music and the rhythm of dancing feet.
I had truly lost myself in the music for who knew how many songs before the first round of alcohol laden mugs made their why through the musician's ranks. Seated on a railing, I gave it a good sniff to be certain the concoction wasn't the rotgut that had nearly finished me off the first night I had engaged in this affair. Some form of ale, this one was safe. The flavor was certainly no fine wine, but it would suffice. With my violin and bow grasped in one hand, I sipped the ale from the other.
Nadir wandered my way, the Persian's jade eyes glassy and his breath kissed with whiskey. Indeed, I had been a bad influence on him since we had fled Paris. He went a bit cross-eyed as he attempted to fix the lapel of his jacket. "Have you seen … ummm … " He held a finger up and blinked slowly, his mouth moving but no words left it.
I cocked my head, waiting patiently. Oh I did not envy his headache on the morrow. All the more reason I took great care which gratitude I partook. I only needed one day with my head stuck out the window praying for the relief of death to learn my lesson. Nadir, it seemed, was a decidedly different story. After a long time of false starts I spared him, clearly in his imbibed liberation he could permit himself a little more courage for the one person he could possibly be looking for. "Chastity?" The harlot neighbor who lived one floor below us. Who also proved to be a remarkable seamstress, I had her to thank for fitting my secondhand garments. Oh how I missed my finely tailored suits. Clothing I dared not wear out now with such limited resources. What I did still possess could hardly be considered in good repair.
Upon hearing her name, he nodded and glanced around. "Yes. Yes, have you seen my Chastity?"
Fortunately the cover of the mug saved him as I mastered my mirthful fit at his unfortunate phrasing. Once I was no longer choking on the urge to laugh, I lowered the mug and glanced around. "I am certain she is around. If you do not find her soon, once the circle starts you will know where she may be found."
He teetered on his feet, too short to see much over the crowd before he wandered off. I should be forced to collect him before the night was through, if only to make certain he made it home again.
The clearing of a throat beside me caught my attention. I turned to find Brennan Sheehan's gaze fixed on me. In Gaelic he inquired, "That was not the same as I speak, nor the gypsy Blanjini."
I set my empty mug aside. "Romany." I corrected. "Blanjini is Romanian, not a gypsy."
Brennan cocked his head, lost for words for a long moment before he held up a hand. "My apologies. Here I am only a few weeks in this new world and making a grand ass of myself in public. I understand nothing, Lad. While ya … well, ya understand us all."
"I do." I leaned back and gazed up at the stars shining in the midnight sky.
There was no easy answer to this. Not without dredging up portions of my past I wished not to revisit. Instead the violin in my hand, my sweet constant companion, held the answer. "Words are just like music. A violin can play everything from the stately operas to fiddle the wildest jigs. It is the same instrument. The same notes at the core. Only the music is different."
Betha's small hand rested on my knee drawing my eyes to her as she twisted her foot in the dirt. "You're silly, songbird."
Such childish innocence. I smiled at her.
She giggled and spun away, trying to grasp her father's uillean pipes. "Can I play, Da?"
Brennan held out the chanter and guided her fingers to it. "Now, when I push the bellows, move yer fingers like this, then to this, and finally to this. Got it?"
With childish clumsiness, she copied his actions a couple times before nodding. "I got it."
"Alright, off we go." Pressing on the bellows strapped to his arm, the pipes groaned to life. A rather sickly one guided by Betha's hesitant attempts on the holes.
I fought the urge to cover my ears. Not that the pipes themselves were at fault. A well-played set of pipes could be captivating. However, a poorly played one sounded like a butcher torturing a cow. This was undoubtedly the latter.
Crestfallen with her efforts, Betha released the chanter to his hand and buried her face from the gawking of the onlookers. Brennan ruffled her hair. "Not bad for yer first try, my wee one."
Enda held out her tin whistle. "Why don't ya try mine first."
The whistle's shrill shriek broke through the crowd as Betha blew hard enough her eyes shut from the pressure. None nearby were spared the cringing, not even myself. Blanjini covered his ears, the poor fellow.
I held up a hand. "Softer. The tin whistle is a wind instrument and the muses are shy to new musicians. You wouldn't want to scare Aoide away."
"Who?" Betha leaned forward, the instrument in her white knuckled grasp.
With my violin and bow leaning against my chest, I rested my wrist on my cocked knee and noted Blanjini's smile as I'd mentioned the name again. "Aoide, the muse of music. She comes to those with the gift. But she is a timid creature who is bid by a soft voice and a gentle caress."
Betha glanced between her father and I. "But you all play loud and fast."
I bowed my head and eyed her sideways. "Indeed, but that comes from spending time with her. Quite, and soft. Learning to control our gifts through her subtle lessons. Speed and complexity come with time. No one is born a master, we all must engage in the give and take of dance to learn."
She took a deep breath, closed her lips over the mouthpiece and gently blew. With a slow, hesitant shift of her fingers a series of three notes hung in the air. Her eyes lit up. "Ma! Da! Did ya hear? I did it!" She leapt into Enda's arms and hugged her.
Brennan ruffled her hair and glanced my way, mouthing, Thank you!
I nodded my head with a smile. "A gift for a rather masterful musician. You are quite talented with your pipes."
Brennan held up the aged instrument. "I'm the third generation. These once belonged to my grandfather. Who taught my father. Who in turn taught me back before we left Ireland." His eyes lost a bit of their spark. He stared at his fingers on the chanter. "They promised this was a land of opportunity."
"Indeed. There are plenty of opportunities," I gestured to the north. "for those with the resources to seize them."
He gazed at his wife and children wandering off into the crowd in search of some treat their few pennies could procure. Brennan shook his head, glancing at the callouses on his hands, the filth of the factory pressed into his skin. "Where are the open fields, the farmlands?"
With my bow I pointed. "West, as rumor has it."
He followed the gesture and his shoulders only sank. "There is a river there."
"Have you been across there?"
I laid my head back against the iron column. "Would I still be trapped here if I had?"
Brennan sighed, his fingers started to play on the chanter. Before long his elbow pumped the bellows and a slow, wistful melody came to life. A song of dreams. Dreams still held, and not yet broken.
I lifted my violin and harmonized. Soon others joined us.
Glancing over his shoulder where the crowd had swallowed his family, Brennan whispered, "I brought them to escape the struggles of our old country. We came here for a new life."
Still drawing my bow, I muttered, "Welcome to disappointment. You are in good company here."
These wretched tenements held our lot captive, physically. But on nights like these we stole pleasure, escaping through creation. Along the Bowery in the teaming throng of the destitute, we offered to one another fleeting indulgence. Food, alcohol, gambling, sins of the flesh; all could be found along the cobblestones from the light of the third star of evening into the small hours of the morning. And all of it accompanied by the greatest balm—music.