Chapter 1: Venice, August 1895
1 Venice, August 1895
I lifted up my newsboy cap, squinting at the stage door in the dark. It was much too early for anyone to arrive at the Minerva Theater, but I had no place left and no chance at sleep. I tried crouching against the wall, but my heart raced too fast to sit. So I paced and waited for dawn, sweating in the fog along narrow Calle Traghetto Vecchio, clutching my satchel in one hand and a knife in the other.
Indeed, no one did come for hours. It was midmorning when two men approached from the canal. Distracted by desultory talk of bad knees, they ignored me and stopped at the Minerva. One of them I recognized from the newspapers. The theater’s director, Pietro Radillo.
All night my mind had spun with how I might plead my case. Now, I froze as the director unlocked the heavy iron door. My mouth went dry. Speech fled. Radillo pulled the door with some force, a bracing screech after hours of silence, and the men disappeared inside.
I had no choice. I couldn’t go back home. So, summoning my courage, I strode over to the theater with more confidence than I felt.
At my knock, the man who’d accompanied Radillo peered out. Tawny and lean, he greeted me with only an arched eyebrow.
“I am here to see the director, Signor Radillo,” I said, trying to kill the quaver in my voice. “To audition.”
He shook his head no and started to close the door.
“Wait!” I protested, withdrawing my grandfather’s letter from my jacket. “I have a recommendation from my teacher, famed in Verona. This is what I have trained for, to join the Minerva Theater of Marionettes as Signor Radillo’s apprentice. Please.”
After a moment, the man took it and tore the seal. I fidgeted as his owlish eyes darted across the page. Then, without a word, he left the door open for me to follow.
Soon we were winding through a labyrinth of dark smoky wings, the floor fresh with sawdust. The burnt smell of last night’s gas lamps and limes hung in the clammy air as we traveled fast to a worn oak door at the back.
At the man’s knock, a voice replied, “Come in.”
We entered an office, where Radillo sat reading on a pale green divan. He glanced over his scuffed spectacles, first at me and then at the man who’d brought me in. “Who’s this, Leo?”
“The boy wishes to audition,” Leo replied. “He has a letter you might want to read.”
Radillo took the letter. Up close, he was older than I expected but spry, in his late sixties, I guessed. His skin was tanned and lined like leather, but his blue eyes were clear and intent on the words my grandfather had hastily scrawled last night. Feigning that he was a famous but itinerant Veronese puppeteer and I his protégé, my grandfather had written that I was a diamond in the rough, primed to shine on Radillo’s artistic fare. It wasn’t true, but as I gripped my trembling hands behind my back, I hoped it was enough.
Radillo folded up the letter and tucked his spectacles in his pocket. “Well? Don’t just stand there. Let’s see what you can do.”
“Here? Not onstage?” I asked. I’d envisioned a great height from which to drop a marionette down. To climb into the Minerva’s rafters would also conceal me. In this cramped office, I felt too seen.
“I can gauge well enough from here whether your esteemed teacher inflates his claims.” Radillo spoke with the derision of a man who knew the outcome long before a situation unfolded. “Besides, I need to see your hands on a holder and how you move. Leo”—he signaled to the other man—“fetch him something.”
“No, thank you, sir. I have brought my own.” I withdrew my grandfather’s elfin Carlita from the satchel. Rapidly, I unwound the strings encircling her walnut holder’s pegs, then I steadied her stance and held my breath to start.
When I lifted my left index finger and right thumb on the holder, Carlita’s hand extended toward Radillo in greeting. He moved to grasp her hand, but I withdrew it, making her skip in a turn and pace with her back to him, uncertain but proud. He laughed and I tilted her head back to mimic him, too nervous to make eye contact with Radillo myself.
Next, I began to make Carlita dance, shuffling her feet as if debating whether to let Radillo see her face—and veering from his gaze at every turn. When Radillo cajoled her to come forward, I felt his interest deepening. So I stepped her into profile, angling her head in imitation of his curiosity. I lifted her modified eyebrow string and made her curtsey, an action more daring than deferential.
“No voice?” Radillo said. “How can I know this flirtatious girl if she does not speak?”
In response, I made Carlita swoon, hands near her chest. “Oh, but for one dance with my beloved Scaramuccia!” I cried in a false girlish voice and swept up her long black hair as if preening at a mirror. “I would sooner die than live without his eyes upon me. Why, look—here he comes!” I threw the last words to appear as if they came from farther back.
Before I could do more, Radillo stood up. “Have you ever worked a proper stage?” he asked me.
“No, sir.” I nodded at the letter still in his hand. “My teacher handled marionettes and more at the Malibran just down the street.” Part of that was true, I thought. My grandfather changed lights for the Malibran’s shows.
“Ah, the ‘People’s Theater,’?” Radillo said. “Modern-day gladiators, I suppose, given how often the censors shut them down. Not much puppetry there now, but it’s where I had my start many years ago. How long were you training with him?”
“Since I was a child. He saw something in me.”
“He saw well. Your voice, too. Odd, like it’s neither you nor her.” He glanced at Carlita and then scanned the letter. “What’s your name again?”
“Franco Collegario.” I bowed. “I wish to train with you, sir, as an apprentice here at the Minerva.”
He drew closer. This time, I forced myself to meet his eyes. “How old are you?” he asked.
“No—dead,” I lied.
“Your accent,” he said with hesitation. “Pure Cannaregio.”
“That is where I grew up.”
Radillo folded his arms. “An orphan foundling lands on my doorstep, straight from the Ghetto Nuovo. The city is teeming with your kind, desperate and poor. Why should I give you a chance?”
“I trained on eight-stringed marionettes alone. They are all I wish to perform. Whole and serious performances like yours, not cheap glove puppet stalls in the street or mere comic sideshows to actors. Most places still only use two-stringed marionettes. You’re the master, the one who invented the art. Who made marionettes art.” I lifted Carlita up to make the point. “That’s what I want to do. I learn fast and am strong. I will work hard, sir—you’ll see.”
“You are bold to show up on my doorstep,” he said. “But I like that. You read or write?”
“Both.” The image of my grandfather, tracing the words of a book for me, flickered, but I banished it.
“Really?” Radillo leafed through the thick, yellowing tome he had been reading when I came in. It was Boccaccio’s early Renaissance classic, The Decameron. He held it open in front of me and tapped the page. “Show me. Read.’?”
“?‘Dear friends in the grove,’?” I began. “?‘Behold how history marches forward to forget the past. Rarely can we see what truths have been buried by time.’?”
Radillo snapped his fingers, halting my reading. He gestured to Leo. “Take him to Carmine. We’re down a man these days, thanks to that ingrate Stefano running off. Auditions take too long, and we’ll need help for the fall.” Radillo turned back to me. “Don’t even think about stealing. Leo, our stage manager here, will know. As an apprentice, you’ll come to the theater every day but Monday. Watch the shows every night. Same spot, back of the pit. Good thing you’re tall. You’re not ready for our stage—not yet. For now, you will learn repertoire and technique from Carmine, one of our head men.” He paused. “Of course, we’ll see if you last the week, Franco. Being an apprentice is harder than you think. But take heart. There’s no cleaning. We have women for that.”
After the horrors of my night prior, I stood stunned. It had worked. I was in. I heard Leo clear his throat.
“Thank you, sir,” I said. “Thank you.”
I rushed to shake Radillo’s hand, but Leo hustled me toward the door. Over my shoulder, I saw that the director was once more buried in his book. Leo led me back through the unlit theater. I struggled to keep up, the satchel clunking at my thigh as I stuffed Carlita back inside, entangling her strings.
“Café Titian’s nearby,” he called back. “Carmine’s there.”
I already knew the café. Yesterday morning, my grandfather and I had gone there for practice. We’d hovered at the curled tip of its mahogany bar. I’d watched men come and drink and go, tossing cigarettes into the gutter that beggars darted out for.
Yesterday, we’d thought I had plenty of time. Months, not hours, to prepare. We hadn’t known what my father had done, or that the neighborhood mafioso, Tristano, was coming for me that very night. I remembered my grandfather at the café, how he’d drawn close.
It’s working. No one looks twice. You’re more yourself as a boy, not less. They think you’re one of them, Francesca.
For yesterday, I was still a girl. Francesca. Not Franco. Not yet a boy or a man, never mind a puppeteer. Today, my aim was both more and less modest—to survive.