The gift arrived for Alfredo's seventh name-day. It wasn't like his other gifts--the basket of candied cherries, the hobbyhorse, the toy drum--not a gift for a child at all. He opened the little leather pouch and pulled out a fine yellow chain, like the one his big brother, Giorgio, had been given to wear round his neck for his First Communion, but instead of a cross on the end this one had a funny little animal, made of the same yellow stuff as the chain.
He stared at it. The body was like that of one of the little brown lizards that lived in the cracks in the brickwork of the bakehouse, except that it had a long tail that curled under its belly, right round behind and over, with the end hanging down beside its front leg with a sharp hook at the tip. And the spread toes had small hooked claws, and not the sucker pads of the bakehouse lizards.
The head and face were even more different, not like any lizard's, but round and wrinkled, like the face of the little gray ape Alfredo had seen at the great Shrove Tuesday fair, sitting on a hurdy-gurdy with a leash round its neck. Except that the monkey had had a huge wide grin, but this thing's mouth was a little round hole.
"That's a funny animal," he said. "What is it?"
Nobody answered. He looked up, puzzled, aware of an uncomfortable silence in the room.
"What is it, Mother?" he said again.
Mother sighed and looked questioningly at Father.
"It's a present from my brother, your uncle Giorgio," said Father. "To bring you luck."
"You're not going to let him wear it?" said Mother.
"Better than not letting him," said Father, in the voice he used to settle an argument.
"He came to my christening too," said Giorgio, "but he never came to my name-day, or gave me a present, and I'm named for him. He could've brought one when he came to Alfredo's christening, but he never even looked at me. I knew he was my rich uncle so I was set to charm the heart out of him, but he pushed straight past in his posh getup and kissed Mama's hand, all la-di-da. Then he hung over the cradle for a bit, and went off and stuffed himself at the sideboard like he hadn't eaten for a month."
"He didn't pay much attention to anyone," said Mother.
"Never does," said Father. "Better that way. And you are named for my grandfather, not your uncle."
There was an edge in both his parents' voices that Alfredo didn't notice but remembered later, looking back to what had happened on his name-day. At the time he was busy puzzling over the gift his uncle had sent him.
"Yes, but this animal," he said impatiently. "What is it?"
"It's a salamander," said Father, with a chuckle that Alfredo, also later, realized must have been forced. "Perhaps it will bring you luck, little son of mine."
After the excitements of his name-day Alfredo found it hard to sleep. Restless, he crept down to the kitchen for a mug of water. There were cracks of light around the kitchen door, and the sound of Father's voice from beyond it. He hesitated. He caught a few words here and there.
". . . has no children, as far as I know . . . renounced my own birthright--I can't do that for him . . . make up his own mind when he is old enough to understand . . ."
Mother said something, too softly for Alfredo to catch, apart from the note of deep anxiety. Father sighed heavily and answered.
". . . must have its Master. That is the one thing on which he and I ever have been able to agree."
Alfredo crept back upstairs without his drink.
But perhaps the salamander did bring Alfredo luck. Nobody had been able to tell him much about salamanders, except that they lived in the fire in the heart of certain mountains, and that if questioned they would tell you the truth. He was pleased by the bit about the fire. Though he lived in a hot country, he had always loved the bakehouse, especially the glorious moment when Father opened one of the fire-pit doors to add a fresh log, and the huge orange energy, a power like that of the sun, came streaming out. Oh, to live in the heart of such a fire, like a salamander!
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 delighted--nobody had ever bothered to listen to his singing before--Alfredo 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.
"Bring him to the cathedral, the small north door, tomorrow, a little before noon. Ask for me, Father Brava."
Father came striding across, his face stiff with anger.
"No!" he said. "Absolutely not! My son is a man, and must remain a man, and beget sons of his own!"
"The decision is not taken at this age," said the priest calmly. "The voice may not develop. The Prince-Cardinal is both humane and generous. He does not go against the wishes of the parents, but richly rewards those who consent. Meanwhile, your son will go to school, learn to read and write, both Latin and the common tongue. These are gifts not to be despised. You are a baker, I see from your dress. The patronage of the Prince-Cardinal is not to be despised, whereas his disfavor . . . But you are a sensible man, sir. I do not need to tell you that. Come too, with the boy, if your ovens can spare you, and you will be able to discuss matters with the Precentor. . . ."From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from Tears of the Salamander by Peter Dickinson. Copyright © 2005 by Peter Dickinson. Excerpted by permission of Wendy Lamb Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.