Florence, Italy – 1789
Carlo Signori had been eight years old when they’d taken his testicles.
Castrating juvenile boys stopped the hardening of the ribs as they blossomed into manhood, allowing for greater lung capacity, while the bones of the throat never fully developed to hinder the voice box. This was the secret of the Castrati, whose singing was said to be the closest thing to an angel’s voice, and thus had they gained their nickname: the sacred monster.
Now Carlo was twenty and he stood alone over the body of another child, also eight years of age, in a cold room in a cold manor—a feeble fire in the hearth doing nothing to warm the space. The boy’s parents were local administrators assigned to the region by King Leopold. It was the Eve of Christmas, and the family had left to attend midnight mass at their church and pray for the eternal soul of their lost boy.
Singing over the recently departed was not uncommon employ for Carlo and his fellow eunuchs, and the child’s mother had paid him in advance. But it was nearly twelve, and he’d been singing for hours now: having worked his way through Vitorrio’s Nocturnes, the Plowman’s Paean from Gottervold’s DeStuppenvaas and many of his own portmanteau arias. Carlo’s lungs ached and his throat was raw. He began to feel faint. He needed some wine to soothe his throat. He searched around for assistance—but the boy’s family was all at the church, and their servants were downstairs, celebrating. Carlo feared someone returning and demanding back the money he so desperately needed if he stopped singing, so he continued. He began anew with some intonations from DeLongre’s Histoires Ordinaires. His voice had been trained for years by the maestro at the seminary, with his soft speech and his slashing switch. It was strong. It would hold out.
Now as Carlo sang the Egret’s Demise from Caduta del Dio Degli Uccelli, he thought he finally heard the footfalls of the boy’s family returning—or at least a servant attending to his needs.
But the footfalls sounded odd to his trained ears—slow and with a sharp metallic dragging sound—like a poorly shod horse was coming up the stairs. Carlo’s immaculate voice wavered, but he continued to sing as the strange steps came down the hall towards the room’s open door—just shy of the portal, and then stopped. Carlo’s eye glanced towards the darkness beyond the doorway and caught a glimpse of something shaped like an old twisted man, but grey as ash with hunched shoulders and hissing breath. A reek like burnt hair came from the shape, and Carlo knew this was no human mourner but something from the Pit, intent on taking the boy’s soul with him. After a moment’s pause, it took a heavy step forward.
Carlo was no cavalier. He was slender and soft and always fearful. But in this moment, confronted with something monstrous seeking to rob Salvation from the child, he found courage in his remarkable voice, and switched his song to take up the Sacred Hymns he’d learned as a boy. So much had been taken from him. He would not see this boy robbed of Eternity.
The shape in the doorway paused. Carlo’s angelic voice grew in strength and volume. He sang The Sacrament of Eosus. The shape’s eyes burned at him, hissing in fury as he sang on and on until his voice began to break, and his vision darkened. The thing took an expectant step forward, and Carlo rallied with a final burst of song from the Holy Canto. But that was all he had. He’d failed. The boy was lost.
As his voice finally broke, though, the clock downstairs struck midnight. It was Christmas. Hope was born into the World, and the Shape in the Darkness now flinched away, retreating back down the stairs.
Carlo’s singing ceased. He had earned his pay. He went to find some wine.
This story was originally published in 2017 as part of “Shades of Santa”, a publication of Things in the Well, edited by Steve Dillon.