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Never have I heard a voice so rich—like the best zabaglione, made with egg yolk, sugar, sweet wine.
It is a large hat, with many feathers, much fruit on the top.
Mrs. Pigafetta Swims Well
by Reginald Bretnor

Mr. Coastguard, this is what has happened to Pietro Pugliese, who is captain of the fishing boat Il Trovatore, of Monterey. Me, Joe Tonelli, I am his engineer. I know.

It is because of Mrs. Pigafetta, from Taranto. It is her fault. Also the porpoises. It is also because Pietro has been famous—

You do not know? You have not heard how one time he is the great tenore? Yes, in Rome, Naples, Venice—even in La Scala in Milano. Do, re, mi, fa—like so, only with more beauty. Caruso, Gigli—those fellows can only make a squeak alongside Pietro, I tell you.

So what, you say? It is important. It is why Mrs. Pigafetta becomes his landlady. It is why she hides his clothes so that he cannot run away like her first husband who maybe is in Boston. It is why the porpoises—

Okay, Mr. Coastguard, okay. I will tell one thing at one time. I will begin when first I hear Pietro sing, last Tuesday night.

He calls to me when he is at the wheel. Our hold is full of fish. The sea is smooth. The moon hangs in the sky like a fine oyster. But I can see that he is still not happy. He has not been happy for two months. All the time he shakes his head. He sighs.

I am worried. I ask if maybe he has a bad stomach, but he does not reply. All at once, his head is thrown back—his mouth is open—he sings! It is from the last act of Tosca, in the jail. They are going to execute this guy, and he is singing good-bye to the soprano, who is his girl. You know? That is why it is sad.

I am full of surprise. Never have I heard a voice so rich—like the best zabaglione, made with egg yolk, sugar, sweet wine. Also it is strong, like a good foghorn. Even the mast trembles.

I listen to the end. I look at him. His face is to the moon. He weeps! Slowly, many tears roll down his cheeks. What would you do? I want him to feel good. I tell him he is great. I cry, Bravissimo!

At last he speaks, as from the grave. "Joe, it is as you say. It is true I am a great man. Even the angels do not have a voice like me. And now"—his chest goes up and down—"it is this voice which cooks my goose! Almost, I lose all hope. But I say, 'Joe is my good friend. Maybe he can help—' "

Then, Mr. Coastguard, I hear the story. His papa is a fisherman. Once, they come to Naples. While Pietro mends the nets, he sings. He is young, handsome. A rich marchesa hears him. And it is done! A year—the world is at his feet. He has a palace, a gold watch, mistresses—yes, principessas, girls from the ballet, the wives of millionaires! He sings. All—kings, queens, cardinals—they cry with joy. Even the English often clap their hands.

He is an innocent. He does not know the other singers burn with jealousy. He does not know the critics envy him. They plot. Always they say bad things. One day there is no place for him to sing! Ah, he is wounded to the heart. He goes away. He takes a cabin on a little ship. For two days, without a fee, he sings to the waves, the passengers, the crew. But he is betrayed! The sea has envy too. There comes a storm. Those people on the ship are stupid fools. They say it is his fault. They—they throw him overboard!

He tells me this. Again he sighs. "I cannot swim. I fight against the waves. I call aloud the names of many saints. I sink! But I am not afraid. When I come up, I sing! Again the water swallows me. Then—all is black. My friend, when I awake I think that I am dead. But I am not. I am in Mrs. Pigafetta's house."

Mr. Coastguard, it is a miracle! The ship is near Taranto. There is this island. And on it is the penzione of Mrs. Pigafetta, for shipwrecked sailors. She has heard the fine voice of Pietro in the storm. She has rescued him. It is nothing for Mrs. Pigafetta. She swims well.

He wakes—and she is sitting there, all wet. He is surprised to see her. He makes the sign of the cross, but she says nothing. There is love in her eyes.

And she is beautiful. Not thin, like a young girl, but plump and strong, with fine hips—wide like so. Her lips are red. Her hair is black, done up on top. It shines like it has olive oil on it. Besides, she is a woman of experience—

Still, when Pietro tells me this, he grinds his teeth. "Why do I stay with her, my friend? It is because at first I am in love. It is a madness. All night, all day—such passion. There are two sailors there, Greeks; she does not speak to them. Each month she makes them pay. But me—one month, two months, three—I get no bill. She teaches me to swim. We sit on the rocks in the sun, and we sing to each other—La Forza del Destino, Pagliacci, Rigoletto. My love has made me deaf. I do not notice that her contralto has the sound of brass. Imagine it!"

Then, in one moment, Pietro's eyes are opened. A day comes when Mrs. Pigafetta pushes him away. She lets him kiss her neck, her ear—that is all! He does not understand. He asks, "Carissima, my sweet lobster, what is wrong?"

She pushes him some more. She makes her lips thin. She says, "No, no, Pietro mio! We must marry in the Church."

Even as Pietro tells me this, his face is sad. "At once, all is changed. It comes to me that her voice is loud, of poor quality. Besides, I am Pietro Pugliese—there is my public. I must not stay always with one woman. I make a long face. I ask about her first husband, Pigafetta. I ask her, 'He is dead?' And she laughs at me. She shrugs. 'He is in Boston. It is the same.' "

From the wheelhouse of Il Trovatore, Pietro looks to port, to starboard. There is light from the moon on the waves. All over, porpoises are playing—

"Ah, she is stubborn! She makes me afraid. I see I have a great problem, with much trouble. Why? You ask me why? Joe, I have one more reason I cannot marry Mrs. Pigafetta in the Church. It is because—"

He moves his hand to show me. His voice shakes.

"—because Mrs. Pigafetta is a woman only from here up. From here down, she is a fish!"

· · · · · 

Okay, Mr. Coastguard, you do not believe. It is because, like me, you have never seen a woman like Mrs. Pigafetta. A mermaid? That is what I ask Pietro. He says no, that it is different. Mrs. Pigafetta is a woman of experience—

The days pass. Always she pushes him away. Always she says, "No, we must marry in the Church."

He argues. "If we are married, sometime we have a son. You think I want my son to be a sturgeon, a big seabass, perhaps a flounder? I do not know your family."

She laughs. She tells him this cannot be. She says, "Our son can be a bosun in the navy, no worse. Even so, he must know his papa. That is why I push you away."

Soon Pietro tries to escape. He sees a sailing boat. He shouts at it, and runs along the shore. After that, Mrs. Pigafetta takes his clothes. She hides them in her house, which is made in a large cave in the rocks.

But he is brave. Twice more he tries. He swims at night. Each time, the porpoises swim with him. They turn him back, like dogs with a sheep. They are her friends.

When he tells this, he shakes his fist at the porpoises in the sea. "That is when I know that I must be more smart than Mrs. Pigafetta. Again, I sing to her. I praise her voice. And all the time I watch. Ah, she is vain! Two, three times a day she puts on her best hat. She sits at her mirror. She looks at herself one way, then another. She smiles. It is a large hat, with many feathers, much fruit on the top."

Mr. Coastguard, you ask why does she want a hat? But why not? Where she puts the hat she is a woman, not a fish.

Okay. Pietro makes a plan. He promises that they will marry in the Church. After that, she does not say, "No, no." She does not push. But every time she asks when they will marry, he delays.

"Now? My pretty perch, my sea anemone! It is the tourist season. You will be kidnaped for your lovely silver tail—sold in the black market to rich Americans!"

For weeks it is like that. At last she loses patience. "You say we go to Rome. You promise a cathedral. You even tell me I will meet this Rossellini. Bah! Tomorrow you will swim with me to Taranto. The priest will marry us." She is very angry. "You say it is not safe. All right! There is a church by the water. I will bring a long dress. I will wear perfume. No one will know."

Pietro pretends that he is pleased. He kisses her. Then he looks sad. "But, cara mia, there is—there is one small thing." He points at it. "You cannot possibly be married in this hat."

She weeps. She tells him if he loved her he would like her hat.

He kisses her again. He protests his love. It is only that the hat is out of fashion. The women in the town will laugh at her. Besides, the sea has spoiled it. Then he tells his plan. They will swim together, but she will wait for him in the water. He will buy her a new hat.

"Joe, I am smart," Pietro says. "I know that she is mad with love. In the morning, we swim to Taranto. She gives me back my clothes. I put them on. I leave her in the water. Quickly, I take a train. Then I come to America. I buy this boat, Il Trovatore. I make an oath—"

Again the tears fall. "My friend, I know that if I keep this oath I will be safe. Four years, I do not sing. Then, two months ago, you go to visit your papa. While you are gone, I bring a lady on the boat. Ah, she is beautiful—the wife of an old man who has a bank. She gives me wine. And—and for one moment I forget! I sing for her. From Don Giovanni, from La Traviata. But suddenly she points her finger at the sea. I look—and my heart is dead! I see the porpoises. They, too, are listening!"

That is why there has been a sadness on Pietro's soul. The porpoises are Mrs. Pigafetta's friends. He knows that they will tell her where he is.

I say, "Have courage! Taranto is a long way. The porpoises will not want to go so far. It will take many months for her to come."

His tears fall like rain. "No, no," he cries. "The porpoises shout to each other through the sea. Also, there is the Panama Canal. She swims well. She will be here soon!"

· · · · · 

Mr. Coastguard, the sea is full of porpoises. They play. They leap into the air. There are more now. Also they seem more glad.

"Joe, look!" Pietro grabs my arm. "That is how they are when she is near. I tell you, she comes tonight! You must help me, Joe!"

I say to him, "Have no fear. I do not let her take you back. I will do what you want."

He embraces me. He says, "I have a plan. Maybe once more I can be more smart than Mrs. Pigafetta. You remember one week ago, when we are in San Pedro, I go ashore? Okay, I go to buy a hat. It is a fine hat, the new style, green, with bright things that hang down and a long plume from the top."

The box is in the wheelhouse. He opens it. "I have paid eighteen dollars. Maybe when you give her this fine hat she is shamed and will go away."

"Me?" I say.

"Yes, yes! We watch the porpoises so I can tell when she has come real close. We bring Nick from the galley to hold the wheel. You tie me to the mast—"

I ask, "Why must I tie you to the mast?"

He looks over his shoulder. He makes his voice low. "Because it is a smart trick, made by a Greek. You tie me to the mast with lots of rope, good and strong. You wait on deck. She calls out from the sea, Pietro mio, where are you? I sing a little bit. She comes more quickly. She grabs the rail. She wants to climb aboard—Joe, that is when you must think well! You must say, 'Mrs. Pigafetta, it is nice meeting you. Pietro has bought for you this hat. It is expensive. It is a token of his love. But he cannot go with you to your house.' Then you must tell her something so she goes away."

For two hours, we talk about what I must tell to Mrs. Pigafetta. Sometimes Pietro weeps. Sometimes he is angry. But at last I get a good thought. I say, "I will tell her that I tie you up because you are crazy in the head with love—that you try to jump into the sea—that you believe a fat porpoise is Mrs. Pigafetta."

It is now very late. The moon has fallen in the sky. There are more porpoises even than before. They swim around Il Trovatore. All the time, they look at us.

Suddenly, Pietro starts to tremble. He whispers, "She is near!" He crouches by the mast. We call for Nick to hold the wheel. I take the rope—

And then—crash! bang!—something hits Il Trovatore a great blow on the bottom. The stern lifts in the air. I fall. Pietro cries aloud.

What is it? A great fish? A whale? I do not know. Next thing, I hear my engine. It runs fast—faster, faster! It screams—

I forget Pietro! I forget all but my engine. I go to it like a mama to her child who is hurt. Nick is there too. He shouts, "What is wrong?" I shout back, "A fish has broken the propeller!" I turn the engine off.

We look to see if there is a bad leak. Maybe for five minutes we look. Then, all at once—I remember! We leap up to the deck—

The boat has stopped in the water. It rocks gently. All is still. The porpoises have gone. I guess the big fish has gone too. And Pietro? He is not there any more.

Across the deck, there is sea water. In a strip—wide like so—it is wet. Also, on the deck there is the box. Next to it is a hat. But, Mr. Coastguard, it is not the fine hat Pietro buys down in San Pedro. Here, look at it! See how it is out of fashion? See the flowers, the fruit? See how it has been spoiled by the sea?

Ah, when we see it, we are just like you. At first we have no words. Then, to port, to starboard, we shout loudly, "Pietro! Where are you, Pietro? Answer us! Come back!"

There is no answer. Only, far away, we hear this voice singing. It is strong and full of joy. But it is not Pietro's voice. It is a contralto—with the sound of brass.

No, Mr. Coastguard, I do not think that you will find Pietro. It is too late. Mrs. Pigafetta is a woman of experience. She swims well.

The End


© 1959 by Reginald Bretnor. First published by Peninsula Spectator Oct 23 1959. Reprinted in The Timeless Tales of Reginald Bretnor selected and edited by Fred Flaxman (Story Books, 1997). Used by permission of the author's estate represented by Fred Flaxman.