(For a more enriching experience, click the link to listen to the madrigal "Se La mia Morte Brami by Carlo Gesualdo)
They are my friends, these sparrows. Always reliable. Here they come again, one after another, on this ordinary afternoon. I merely swing open the kitchen scullery door to the cobbled courtyard and there they are, waiting patiently by the well. Looking for your dried crusts of bread, are you, my little ones? Ha! Look—there’s the fat old father sparrow with his brood loitering furtively just behind him. Here, mama—for you, some extra flax seeds, dark and glistening like the apple pips of your eyes.
Day in and day out, year after year I open the cook’s door and repeat the same routine. How many dozens and dozens of generations of sparrows have flown this way, I often wonder. And do they even know my name? No. I am the nameless one, the old man just doling out sustenance, lending out a helping hand to the Lord’s needy creatures. Papa! Stop that right now. No, you mustn’t stab your poor wife with your needle-sharp beak. Let her be! She needs must enjoy a morsel or two, also! Selfish, jealous bird! Here, some more tasty tidbits for you, you old buzzard. What do you know, eh? Don’t worry—I forgive you your transgressions. Who am I, an ancient man of no importance, to judge another?
Dusk is settling in fast. Soon, the birds will bed for the night, some in the nearby cypress trees, others in the gaping mouths of the corner gargoyles, and then…and then! I can hear it already. The rush down the marble staircase. A cry from above through the loggia windows. I flatten myself against the cool stone wall and make myself invisible as the Master Astrologer scurries by shaking his head. All these years and not once has he asked me my name. Oh well, I am a nonentity, a person of no consequence. House servants come and go, but we are the silent keepers of the archives, the repository of the castle’s unwritten secrets. “Full moon tonight,” the astrologer murmurs to himself shaking his head. “Wretched soul, born under Saturn, that man—what a doleful, unfortunate aspect, square to Mercury, too. So unstable. Accursed, even. Tsk, tsk. Too much thinking. His thoughts are twisting him into pretzels. They will surely kill him one day...”
Yes. Accursed, my master is, this Carlo Gesualdo, Principe di Venosa. As twisted as a Taralli pretzel. “Go to him,” the astrologer commands me without even condescending to cast me the courtesy of a glance, and slams the gate behind him. Hard and cold are these cruel flagstone tiles on my old bones. I can hear him already, high up on the second story. He’ll be needing me soon. The musicians are already there, those genteel young striplings with their smooth complexions and lacy frippery. What sounds! Heavenly voices, unearthly harmonies. Painful anguish—the music of a madman! Who can bear it, these chords like blocks of sound shifting and merging into one another. Tidal waves of emotions, they are. Oceans of sadness, one tear melting into another, piling higher and higher forming wave upon wave upon wave of undiluted torment. They crash onto the shore for a brief moment of safety and repose, like hapless shipwrecked victims, disappear, and begin all over again from a source of pain no one can fathom. Oh, my poor master! I am coming!
Barely down the long, endless corridor and I hear it already, those softly echoing, deceptively angelic voices crooning damnably heartless words. If you desire my death, Oh, cruel one, I shall die happy, and after death, I will adore only you. But if you desire that I not love you, ah, with the thought alone grief kills me, and my soul flies away quickly. Indeed, his grief is killing him slowly, steadily. How can he rest with such words gouging gloomy holes deep in his soul?
I nudge open the heavy door, and when they see me, these young beardless fops, they fly away like so many disembodied spirits; one of them holds a switch of birch over my master’s bruised back as he sits crunched over his upholstered privy stool. Why does he let himself be lashed like this? His knotted muscles are macerated beyond recognition.
“Enough!” he shouts. “Get out, all of you! Help me, my friend,” he pleads turning his dolorous eyes to me. I wipe away the beads of perspiration from his anguished forehead. His cheeks are gaunt and shrunken. Never trust a man with thin jaws and a receding widow’s peak, I heard the astrologer once mumble to himself years ago. “There you are,” the prince says. “Only you can understand.” We say nothing.
I hold his hand and he is quieted. It is our little secret. The world knows but says nothing. It is the prerogative of the privileged class. But it was also justified, by decision of the magistrates. Yes, I was there with him on that afflicted day as we dragged the mangled bodies out onto the palace steps for all the world to witness: The ravishing Donna Maria—his miserably faithless wife—with that model of manly beauty, her lover Fabrizio, in flagrante! Oh, but my jealous wild-eyed master Don Carlo flung at them savagely with his barbed dagger, mutilating them both beyond recognition. We say nothing. Time will surely heal his wounds if his thoughts do not consume him first.
“You have a kind face,” he tells me as I spoon him his broth and wipe the drivel from his chin. “Ha, ha! Lined, like the staves of my music paper! What stories do they tell, eh, those wrinkles of yours? What thoughts do they hide, my friend? What unsung madrigals lie concealed from the world?”
“All is well, sir. Do not trouble yourself, master.” I help him to his bed, then shuffle back downstairs into my den and wonder, who will feed the poor sparrows when I am gone?