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By Elana Gomel
It is easy to be lonely in Venice.
The beauty of the city is composed of sly memories and dignified decay. Sinking into the tarnished mirror of the Laguna, La Serenissima accepts everything and is troubled by nothing. She has seen it all: plague, war, massacre, politics, art, greatness and fall. She is an indifferent mother who has buried her children in the watery grave.
I walk down Calle del Magazen toward Canareggio. Tourist crowds are sparse and when I come to Ponte de Gesuiti they have melted away and I am alone with the peeling brick walls and the dazzling canal. Pigeons fly into my face, scattering dung.
When the last IVF cycle failed and Owen packed up and left I faced a well-trodden path. Depression, counseling, Xanax, and at the end, a life carefully glued together like a broken mug. Instead I sent a resignation email to my boss, emptied out our savings account, and bought a ticket to Venice.
I pass by an artless image of Madonna and child set into the chipped wall. It is a humble token of devotion, overshadowed by the magnificent paintings of Tintoretto and Bellini in every church and museum. But to me it is a sign that the old faith still survives in the city that is selling its past in order to have a future.
Why Venice? I don’t really know. I had dreamed about visiting one day with Owen and our child. But I will never have a child. And Owen, practical and domestic, would be immune to the watery magic of La Serenissima. When we were together I tried to be practical and domestic too. But after the first week in Venice, the old Jennie sloughed away, as if dissolved by the opaque waters of the Laguna. What has emerged is raw and unfinished. I don’t have a name for the new me yet.
I picked up a newspaper in the café where I had my evening espresso and tramezzino and now I sit on a bollard by the side of the canal, squinting into the dazzle, trying to read. My Italian is decent, acquired in the course of my studies in art history. My useless studies, as Owen had never failed to emphasize.
The roiling wavelets of the rio, which is the Venetian for “canal”, are throwing handfuls of sharp reflections into my face and I am almost glad I can’t read on because what I make out from the lead article is so shocking. The city is bankrupt. The rising water has destroyed too many historical sites, bred too many new infections, and cloyed the humid air with too much pollution. The tourist industry has hit the bottom. This much I know. But the new plan to bail out La Serenissima is to sell some of the contents of San Marco Basilica to an unnamed consortium. The article is vague about what those contents might be, and of course, the entire thing is wrapped up in thick layers of platitudes about “preservation” and “ensuring the viability” of something or other.
San Marco has been the patron saint of Venice for two thousand years, preserving the city from the devouring Laguna. Even if his protection has weakened, what will the city become when it is withdrawn? The saint’s relics are in the Basilica; how will he react when his home is plundered?
I know these thoughts are childish but I let them run through my head defiantly, silencing Owen’s taunting voice that has been lodged in my brain like an inflamed splinter. I am sure he could see the economic wisdom of this plan. What I see is sacrilege.
My sight is swimming with blue spots. I get up and water splashes over the lip of the embankment, soaking my sandals. I squint against the orange glow and see a dark shape pass sinuously between the narrow banks. No, this must be an illusion. There is no big fish living in the polluted urban canals. The only living things flourishing in the city are garbage eaters: pigeons and rats. The rotting body of the Queen of Adriatic breeds foul life. I imagine her body is like mine: lush and overripe, sliding into decay. “Fat and mad,” as Owen called me.
I walk through a covered alley toward my rental ground-floor apartment whose peeling walls weep with condensation. There is no air-conditioning but I keep the shutters closed and the apartment feels cool by contrast with the boiling streets. Sometimes I think of the winter storms when acqua alta – high water – rushes through the narrow streets. Will I be flooded? Probably. But whatever happens, I will not leave Venice.
I slept for a while but now I am tossing and turning in my sweat-soaked bed, the ancient fan fighting a losing battle against the heat. I get up and open the window. Something ghostly flutters in the night. It is my neighbors’ wash. Venice is festooned with laundry hung on lines strung across alleys. And because the air is so humid, the laundry takes forever to dry, sheets and baby clothes growing into the ropes like fruit on vine.
But this…this is something else. I squint, peer into the murk. Not much light in the alley but my eyes adjust and I can see that the flopping shape is too solid to be an ephemeral conglomerate of t-shirts and underpants. This is…what is it?
It is a bird. And it is too big for any bird in Venice. No, it is too big for any bird anywhere.
I lean out the window as I am trying to take in this impossible sight. The bird has gotten itself tangled in the laundry line but it is so heavy that the entire thing collapses with enough noise to wake the entire neighborhood. Nobody comes out and no lights turn on, which convinces me that it must be a dream. But how can I be dreaming when I am not asleep? This is too real, too tangible: the sweat on my face; the metallic taste in my mouth; the thrashing that fills the alley.
The bird struggles on the ground. I grab my iPhone, turn on the torch, and aim it at the floundering mass. The light picks out a round chest covered with dirty fuzz, a flapping wing, and a blood-red eye. A low cooing, as relentless as a dentist’s drill, rattles my brain. The creature has now extricated itself from the pile of laundry and is advancing toward me. The circle of light wavers on its wicked beak, as long as my hand, and festooned with feathery clumps.
My paralysis over, I bang the shutters closed and collapse on the bed. The shutters vibrate as something slams into them. The rotten brickwork of the wall cracks. I jump off the bed and scuttle into the corner. Another thud, and the shutters fly off their hinges. A nodding head pokes into the room, its spidery vibrissae twitching. A wave of stench, like limestone and shit, makes my eyes water.
I run into the living room, unlock the front door and rush out. In the damp darkness, I am running through the streets of Venice, clad only in panties and t-shirt, my bare feet slapping on the ancient cobblestones.
After a while, I slow down. My breasts wobble and I flash back to the time Owen had compared me to the Tintoretto painting of a lush nude I showed him. And another time, later, when he told me I look like a blancmange.
Well, never mind this now. My marriage is over. I am in Venice now. And La Serenissima, my adopted mother, has suddenly turned feral on me.
The stitch in my side makes me double over. I limp over to the wall and lower myself onto the ground. As my vision clears, I realize I know where I am. I am crouching in the lee of the brick church at Campo dei Santi Apostoli, dripping with sweat despite my state of virtual undress, my breath coming out in strangled gasps.
There is a carabinieri station nearby, I should go there…
And tell them what? That I have been chased out of my home by a giant bird? Yes, a bird. A pigeon, to be precise. As I am thinking back on the encounter, which is sharp and clear in my mind, with no hallucinatory blurring, I realize that, its size aside, the creature looked like one of those flying rats that foul Piazza San Marco, strafing timid tourists and snatching ice cream cones out of kids’ hands. A pigeon the size of a condor.
I am trying to imagine the reaction of a bored Venetian policeman to this statement. And while weighing my options, I am becoming aware how unusually dark it is. Despite its financial woes, Venice still maintains decent services, pathetically hoping for an economic miracle. At night, the orange glare of sodium lamps floods every nook and cranny of its street-maze. But now the only light is coming from the full moon above the ruined steeple of the church.
Ruined? Chiesa dei Santi Apostoli, a 7th-century Romanesque building, is intact. Its rectangular tower always welcomes me home when I walk back to Canareggio.
I stare up. A jagged nub looms above my head.
And it is not only the church. As my sight clears, I am confronted with a scene of utter devastation. Not a single building around the square is intact. The small coffee-shop where I drank my espresso is reduced to a heap of stonework. The well in the center of the campo is missing its cover and a whiff of rot comes out of its gaping maw. Glass slivers glisten on the cobblestones like hail. It looks like a scene from a World War 2 documentary: a city reduced to rubble by aerial bombardment. But even in that war Venice was spared; Allied bombers did not dare pounding the art treasures of La Serenissima. Whatever has happened in the hours between my falling asleep and awakening has not been so considerate.
Something moves in the shadows. A small boat is gliding into the canal. Not a touristy gondola but a small serviceable boat like the ones used to make deliveries and pick up the plastic bags of trash left by homeowners outside their doors. Its presence is a whiff of normalcy in this madness, and I even have a second to grow embarrassed at my state of semi-nudity when I see the boatman. My throat closes up once again. He has the face of a monstrous bird: chalky-white, with a curving beak and hollow eyes.
I would run away if I could but my legs refuse to obey. Another moment of blind panic…and then I grow so angry with myself that I miraculously regain my breath. What an idiot I am! I have seen this face in every souvenir shop in the city! He is wearing the mask of the Plague Doctor, modeled after the protective gear physicians put on during the numberless epidemics that bedeviled La Serenissima. The beak contained aromatic herbs to dispel the stench of corpses. The grimness of the story has been worn away by repetition, and the Plague Doctor today is no more than an amusing tidbit of Venetian lore.
But why is the boatman masked at all?
He stops paddling and stares at me through the shadowed eyeholes, the boat bobbing gently on the dark water.
“Who are you?” I ask in a wavering voice.
With one fluid movement he removes his mask and I see an ordinary face: youngish, dark-eyed, and thin. No, not thin. Gaunt. The man looks emaciated.
“I am Luca,” he says. “But who are you? You don’t belong in the sestiere.”
Is he making fun of my Italian?
“I live here,” I say angrily.
“I know everyone who lives here,” he replies.
What nonsense! Sestiere Cannaregio houses thousands of people!
His eyes grow round as he takes in my disheveled state. But I sense no danger from him and no prurience as he studies me. He looks genuinely perplexed.
“The Seppia told me there might be a guide,” he says, half to himself. “But a beautiful woman like you…”
I blink. Did he just call me beautiful?
And what is the Seppia?
“Where are you going?” I ask.
“San Marco,” he says.
Piazza San Marco is the heart of the city. Whatever strangeness has engulfed the rest of it, it is reassuring to hear the heart is still beating.
“I’ll come with you,” I say impulsively.
“I am likely not coming back,” he says. “The Wings will kill me and pick my bones. But if Signora wants to come with me, she is welcome. At least I won’t die alone.”
Luca is rowing quietly, trying to mute the splashing of his oar. The thick water smells of sewage. It is covered by a scum of feathers, small bones and unnamable rubbish.
I am sitting in the stern, huddled into the large cloak he gave me. The night is not cold but I am shivering, trying to wrap my head around what he told me.
What is this world? The future? Some sideline of time? Venice is soaked in history, the past alive in every stone. But according to Luca, history has been lost. There is no collective memory anymore. He does not know how this nightmare came to be; nor does he know how it will end. He only knows how to survive in the dwindling present. And yet he survives by raiding the past.
Luca is a treasure-hunter, a scavenger, a looter. He robs churches and museums. He collects precious works of art, paintings, sculptures, jewelry, knick-knacks; anything he can find in the ruins. He trades these priceless treasures for…yes, for fish. Because without fish he, and his family, whatever is left of it, without fish, they would starve.
“Why don’t you fish yourself?” I asked. “You have a boat.”
He shook his head.
“The Seppia won’t let us into the Laguna. And the Wings will attack any vessel on the canals. They have sunk most of our boats. I am lucky to have the Carina. I keep her in the basement.”
So the city is divided between the Wings and the Seppia. The Wings are some sort of flying monsters…the Seppia…I am not sure what they are. He speaks of them without rancor, even with a kind of remote respect. They are his buyers.
They buy the art he scavenges. They feed his family. But they are not human.
Why do they need Venetian art, then? He just shrugged and I realized it was a dumb question. Art is art. Surely whoever can appreciate beauty has a soul.
The Wings, on the other hand…there is real hatred in his voice when he speaks of them. Malice. Stupidity. Foulness. These are the words he uses.
But where did they come from? And if the situation in Venice is so dire, why didn’t the remaining humans try to escape to the mainland?
Luca’s answer is staggering. There is no mainland. La Serenissima is a world unto itself now, a watery world beset by monsters. And humans are clinging with their fingertips to the existence that is spinning away from them, falling into some dim abyss of which they have no understanding.
I wanted not to believe him. But how can I? I stare at the ruined, deserted city. Venice – this Venice – is an eloquent testament to the truth of his words. No house is undamaged. Many buildings are reduced to heaps of brick. Broken windows gape like screaming mouths. Bridges sink into filthy canals.
But as the moon climbs higher into the sky, I am beginning to see stranger things. Something the size of a dog but with a long naked tail crosses an alley. A campo is filled with an enormous nest made of old clothes. Wooden pillars sticking out of the canal are topped with piles of twigs.
The rhythmic splash of water lulls me into a dreamy reverie. Drops falling off the oar glisten like black pearls. But I should not succumb to the pleasure of this ride. According to Luca, we are heading into danger.
Piazza San Marco has become a death trap. Nobody goes into the forbidden sestiere. Nobody but him, Luca. Because he is desperate. His family are starving. And a Seppia, one of the mysterious Lords of the Laguna, has promised him a daily shipment of fish if he brings him what lies on the altar of the Basilica.
I try to puzzle this out. I, an art major, having spent uncounted hours in the golden splendor of San Marco, cannot put my finger on what Luca’s client wants. There is so much in the Basilica, with its Byzantine abandon of mosaics, statues, frescoes, paintings, sculptures… There is enough to satisfy a legion of art collectors.
But we shall see, I tell myself, as the gentle rocking of the boat slows down my agitated heartbeat. We shall see.
A splash! I jerk awake. Something rises from the viscid water in front of us: a banded tentacle, as thick as a light pole, swaying and rippling in washes of cobalt and slate. A blue luminescence sets the canal aglow as a torpedo-shaped body hoists itself onto its lip. The delicate mantle shimmers in many-colored swirls like Murano glass, and eight long arms spread along the embankment, anchoring the creature in place. Its large round eyes stare at me dispassionately. The pupils are shaped like the letter W.
Stupidly I flail around looking for something to strike the monster with. Luca pats me on the shoulder and addresses the creature calmly, like an acquaintance in a coffee-shop.
“Good evening, Signore!”
The mantle – it is not slimy but glassy like a jellyfish –ripples and a voice answers. The voice is slurred but its Italian is perfectly understandable. The beaky mouth remains closed, so the creature must generate sound by vibrating the fringe of its body.
“Are you going to San Marco?”
“Yes,” Luca replies. “But my bargain was with a Signora, not you.”
“…(an undecipherable sound) speaks for all of us. We will repay all humans if you bring us what we want.”
Before I know I am about to speak, the words are leaving my mouth.
“What do you want from San Marco?”
The creature’s W-shaped pupil stretches and distorts, spelling some incomprehensible thoughts in living hieroglyphs. A wave of purple washes over its body, darkening it to the color of a storm cloud.
“Stella Maris,” it says and contracting its arms, slides off the embankment and disappears into the canal with a strangely minor splash.
Luca and I stare at each other. My brain is so scrambled that the first question that pops out is totally irrelevant.
“How did you know it was a he, not a she?”
“Males have eight arms,” Luca answers equitably. “Females only six. The Seppia males use the two extra arms for lovemaking.”
I simultaneously blush, curse myself for blushing, and feel grateful that Luca forbore a smarmy Owen-style comment. He resumes rowing, as I mull over the encounter. So this was a Seppia! Well, now I know Luca neither lied nor exaggerated when he describes the situation in this drowned city.
But what did the creature mean by Stella Maris? This translates as Star of the Sea, one of the titles of the Virgin. But I can’t think of any specific painting with this name.
Something floats on the tarry surface of the canal, something sparkling and lacy. I reach for it. Luca whispers furiously. I lift the feather, as long as my forearm, moonlight shining through its wispy barbs, as I imagine masked and bejeweled women lazily fanning themselves with peacock plumes…
Spidery legs skitter on my hand as a coin-sized tick sinks its proboscis into my bare skin. I scream and shake my hand frantically, trying to dislodge the giant arachnid. Luca slaps it off and covers my mouth. His bony fingers linger on my lips.
The boat rocks violently. A whiff of acrid stench, and more ticks patter over my neck and shoulder, land in my hair, crawl on my face. A rain of parasites! And the rain cloud is falling out of the sky, the boat seeming to shrink under its spreading wings. A thunderous cooing drills into my head. Luca dives under the seat, pulling me down. A ruby eye the size of a dinner plate hangs over the gunwale like a bloody moon.
“A Wing!” Luca cries.
The ginormous bird is trying to perch on the stern but the Carina is too small to bear its weight. The boat is listing, threatening to overturn and chuck us into the polluted water where we will be picked out by that gaping, vibrissae-festooned beak as easily as worms. Luca’s hand snakes toward mine, grasping, our fingers intertwining.
“Stay under!” he whispers.
I understand. He wants us to stay under the hull if the boat overturns. But what if this creature can crack the waterlogged bottom?
And then the feathery cyclone suddenly doubles in size. I am blinded by flying plumage, battered by surges of acid air, deafened by chirping and cackling. A webbed foot grazes the stern, big enough to stomp a man into a smear. A scimitar-shaped beak closes on the Wing’s neck. Something the size of a small biplane is dunking the Wing’s head into the water, impervious to its thrashing. The canal is churned up into a stinking foam, the boat is jerked around like a toy…but Luca somehow manages to steer it into a side cutting. When I look back, I see a gull dismembering a pigeon.
We had to abandon the Carina. It was leaking too badly. We are skulking through the garbage-choked alleys, ducking through splintered doorways, crawling over piles of masonry and bricks.
We have not met a single human being. We saw plenty of rats. They dragged their well-fed bodies through the ruins of La Serenissima with unhurried insolence. I remember the t-shirt I saw in a tourist shop: the picture of a rat and the Gothic letters spelling “Nightlife in Venice”.
What surprises me is how thoroughly the city has been emptied of its treasures. When I first came to Venice, I would wander for hours, peeking into churches and galleries, gawping at the shop windows with displays of handmade paper goods, masks, glass, jewelry, silk, and paintings. And then I would realize I had walked just a couple of blocks. Each building held something worth seeing: an inset colorful icon; a bronze door with a guild design; a sculpted mask at the cornice; a tiny store selling handmade perfumes in Murano bottles. But now…The city has been denuded, ransacked; even the rubbish has been picked over. The buildings that still stand glare with the hollow stares of ravaged windows. Not just the panes but even the molded pilasters that gave them their traditional arched shape are gone.
But picking my way through the bare bones of La Serenissima, I suddenly realize that this is my city. Until now, I have been held back by Venice’s opulence, as humble and unsure of myself as a poor country girl in service to a great lady. But now the lady has been brought low. And I almost choke with love for those splintered sidewalks, polluted canals, and ruined palazzos. Now she needs me as she had never needed me before.
Luca is walking at a fast clip but I am beginning to slow down. I ask for a break and flush with shame when he turns back and looks at me. I have taken off the cloak he gave me and my baggy breasts and doughy forearms are exposed. And then something shifts between us and suddenly I see myself through his eyes, the hollow eyes of a perpetually hungry man, and my spillover flesh becomes a vision of abundance.
He drops his gaze and the moment is over. We press on.
The sky is turning silky-gray. I can see plaques with street names set into the brick walls and I realize I know exactly where we are. We are coming to the commercial heart of La Serenissima that used to pump the lifeblood of credit throughout medieval Europe. Even in my own time, the warren of alleyways and campi, small squares, between San Marco and Rialto throbbed with crowds of tourists, shopping for fake – and occasionally real – antiques. The Rialto Bridge was encrusted with small shops.
My own time? It was only yesterday. History has collapsed in upon itself.
The steely water of the Grand Canal glistens in the gap between two collapsed palazzos as we come to the embankment. I knew what to expect but my breath still catches in my throat. The biggest waterway in Venice is crawling with rafts of rot. Shoals of garbage span the remaining girders of the Rialto Bridge. The dome of Santa Maria della Salute stands out against the lightening sky like a broken eggshell.
I glance in Luca’s direction, wondering how the degradation of the city is affecting him. His face is impassive. He stares at the filthy water pullulating with nameless parasites. A whiff of a rotten-egg smell stings my eyes but he does not react.
“We can’t go across,” he says.
“There is no need,” I say. “I know a way.”
Indeed I do. Defiled as they are, the streets of Venice are still the same. Maps are useless in La Serenissima; one learns to navigate its dreamy maze by walking until the correct route is burnt into one’s aching muscles, as it is burnt into mine.
Luca obediently follows my lead. Owen would have argued…but I realize that I can no longer recall the sound of his voice.
As the sodden sky lightens to the color of milky coffee, the sickly life infesting the alleys is becoming more noticeable. Instead of disappearing at dawn, rats are scuttling around as bold as cats. Something invisible is shaking a pile of bricks. And I don’t need to follow Luca’s troubled glances upward to know that the shadows flitting above our heads are not clouds.
We reach what I recognize as the square of Teatro Le Fenice. Only one column is left of what used to be one of the most beautiful theaters in Europe. It is streaked with dirty brown and rust-red.
Not far now. Even though my feet hurt, I am almost running now, impatient to reach San Marco, as if expecting that I will see, once again, the heart of Venice as it has been for a thousand years: the glorious herringbone-patterned mosaic pavement; the glittering arcades; the soaring tower of the Campanile di San Marco; and dominating it all, the Byzantine splendor of the great Basilica. Surely, my journey with Luca has been nothing but a nightmare; surely, the only pigeons here will be the tame postcard doves. I will be back where I started: a stranger in a strange land, a homely woman, a failed wife, a childless mother…
I peer through an arched gateway, hearing Luca’s labored breathing behind me.
One glance, and I know that the heart of the city has been eaten by the same cancer as the rest of her body. Pigeons remain and flourish; everything else is gone or hideously transformed.
The mosaic pavement is drowned under billows of crusted guano. The loggia and the arcades are trashed with dry branches, stinking fish skeletons, piles of feathers and rags – whether of clothes or bodies, impossible to tell. And the floors above the arcades have become monstrous roosts. Protruding from broken windows and clinging to befouled walls are giant untidy nests. Clouds of flies fill the air and the acrid stench is so strong that my eyes tear up, mercifully blurring my vision.
The Campanile di San Marco lies in pieces, and its ruins are covered by a thick shroud of spiderwebs. The Basilica is still standing but its golden domes are hidden under layers of guano, so it looks like a crude model of itself fashioned out of bird-shit. One of the stone lions at the entrance is missing; the other’s face is pocked by holes as if somebody had taken a drill to it. But the worst are the pigeons.
Should I even call them that? I have already realized that the Wings are no ordinary birds. They are too big, for one; and strangely misshapen. And the sight before me makes it clear that some malevolent magic is at work here, having degraded the city of the sea into the nest of pests of the air.
There are actually fewer creatures than I expected. Perhaps it is understandable: some of them are so big that a flock would pack the entire Piazza. How can they even fly? The largest of them look like obscenely blown-up pigeons, nodding idiotically as they mince around or brood in their nests. But others are something else: human-avian hybrids, their naked bodies festooned with mangy clumps of feathers, their eyes red and mindless. I see a creature strutting around on plump naked legs and flapping misshapen wings. His face is dominated by a yellow-lined beak. And here is a fleshly caricature of an angel: a winged manlike body with a dog’s muzzle. White teeth flash in a chick’s hungry mouth opened to its parent.
Luca gasps. Hasn’t he seen it before? I remember that he referred to Sestiere San Marco as “forbidden”. Forbidden by who? Never mind. We have to get inside the Basilica. I have to get inside the Basilica. Why? I don’t know; I only know I will do it or die trying.
I turn to Luca.
“I know a way around,” I say.
He is staring at the Basilica, shocked. I risk peering through the arch again and now I see that what I took for a shapeless mound of guano above the portal of San Marco is, in fact, an enormous nest. On the pediment, where the triumphant horses of San Marco once stood, squats a molting sack of flesh, brooding her eggs.
“We have to go,” I say firmly.
Luca nods and follows me as I am creeping through the maze around the Piazza. The noise from the square recedes but I know that within a short distance is that avian hell, packed with mutated birds, fighting, eating, shitting, dying.
I spent a lot of time in the Doge’s Palace Museum adjacent to the Piazza and I know there is an underground passage leading into the Basilica from there. When I last visited the passage was guarded by a uniformed attendant but I don’t think museum rules apply anymore.
Amazingly, the Doge’s Palace is still relatively intact, its distinctive pink-and-white marble façade standing. I duck into the arcade. Above me on the pediment is the familiar huddle of small stone figures, representing the four sons of Emperor Constantine.
As we pass under them, one of the figures detaches itself from the rest and leaps down, landing on Luca’s shoulders.
“Run!” Luca yells, while the figure pummels him with its child-sized fists, grinning with bloody teeth. It is another Wing but its actual wings are two bony nubs sticking out from its shoulders.
I pivot and grasping the creature’s scrawny arm, drag it off Luca. It snarls. Its flesh is fever-hot, covered with unclean down. It is twisting in my hands, astonishingly strong. Its unfamiliar bones are grinding under its slick skin. Bubbles of blood pop from its mouth.
Luca jerks the creature away from me, hurls it on the ground and lifts his foot. I turn away. A piercing shriek and wet plop, then silence.
We dive into a shadowy hall. I am concerned that the interior of the Palace would be infested as well, so I promptly turn to the familiar side corridor leading to the underground prisons. It is cool and dark. But I don’t need light. I could navigate these corridors blindfolded. Even the flapping of wings and the high-pitched whistling somewhere above my head don’t faze me. I am buoyed with absolute certainty of purpose. For the first time in my life I understand how it feels to run an Olympic record or win in BGT.
I hear Luca’s ragged breathing behind me as he stumbles. I reach back, pat his hand in reassurance. There is a sliver of pale light ahead and I rush through, unmindful of danger.
Here we are. Inside the Basilica. And the leaden weight of disappointment drops on me.
It is not the lifeless light dribbling through a broken skylight in the dome. It is not the hillocks of guano on the flagged floor. It is not the stealthy stirrings in the shadows of the side-chapels.
I expected all of this. What I did not expect was the absence of everything else.
No statues or paintings. No mosaics. What used to be the shimmering golden heaven above is now dirty pockmarked plaster. No Byzantine Christ, no majestic saints, not frowning apostles. Somebody has removed all of them, stone by stone, tile by tile. Somebody has ripped off frescoes, packed icons in bubble wrap, stowed virgins and martyrs in crates among plastic peanuts. And where are they now? In some rich man’s collection in that other world that no longer has any need for La Serenissima? Ravaged of its treasures, she would be a reminder of the world’s shame, as embarrassing as a homeless beggar at a stockholders’ meeting. But she can still keep her pigeons, of course.
I walk toward the empty altar, dragging my feet like an old woman. I am old. And fat. And useless. As useless as this sodden, sinking city! My body blossoms with a bouquet of deferred pain as all the injuries that I have incurred in this fool’s errand of a quest wake up. My knees are skinned, my arms lacerated, my legs are throbbing with fatigue.
I hear Luca’s bewildered voice but it seems to be coming from very far away.
“Where is…Where is Stella Maris?”
Poor Luca! The Seppia have played a cruel joke on him. There is a legend that the relics of San Marco in the Basilica have kept the waters of the Laguna away from the city, letting her rule the Adriatic. Now the relics are gone together with everything else. There is nothing to trade anymore.
Where the altar stood, all that remains now a flat hollowed-out stone. There is stagnant water in the hollow. A fat pigeon is drinking from it, its stupid little head going up and down like a metronome, a burbling sound coming from its wheel-shaped chest.
This final desecration is too much to bear. I lunge at the altar-stone, grasp the pigeon, and wring its neck.
In its death-throes, the bird has lacerated my hands. Blood is dripping from my palms. More blood than a couple of scratches would account for. And more blood is gushing from my skinned knees, from the gashes on my back and my forearms. Strangely, I don’t feel any pain.
I touch the worn surface. The thought that the patron of La Serenissima had lain here for thousands of years is a source of comfort. I kneel by the altar, put my head down. The stone does not feel hard; it gently cradles my bruised body. Even the intensified bleeding does not bother me. It is pleasant, a dreamy dissolution. With no surprise, I notice that my breasts are also gushing blood – or is it water?
I lie on St. Mark’s stone bed and it embraces me like a lover.
Luca stared reverently at the woman as she walked toward the altar. When she touched the stone, he knelt down.
In the dirty light falling from the dome, Jennie’s white body glowed with an almost preternatural clarity. Her dark hair tumbled off the altar, falling down, lengthening…
No, it was not hair. Streams of clear water gushed from the altar, as if she were melting, a Snow White dissolving but not diminishing. Streams and jets of water, gurgling, joining, gaining strength, becoming a brook, a river, a flood…Washing through the Basilica, dissolving carpets of filth, drowning skittering vermin…And as Luca lurched to his feet, trying to make his way toward the altar where Jennie lay as white and serene as a marble statue, he heard a roar from the outside.
He gave up fighting the pressure of the water and let the gathering wave carry him out. The Piazza was a maelstrom of rubble and drowning birds; the flapping cacophony of their shrill calls deafened him and their flailing threatened to toss him aside like a piece of garbage. But Luca fought off their assault and swam toward the open water of the Laguna. Still, he would not have made it had not the murky soup of the flood suddenly lit up with multicolored lights. Pink, blue, emerald, aquamarine… Festooned with living jewels, a squadron of Seppia rode in on the rolling wave, snatching Wing stragglers with their tentacles and drowning them.
Luca trod water, barely keeping his head above the flood. He tried to find his client among the cephalopods but they all looked alike, decked out in triumphant lights and bright colors, asserting their dominion over the reborn Queen of the Adriatic. He would like to have been acknowledged as successful in his quest to find the Stella Maris but he realized it no longer mattered.
A wavelet slapped his face, cold water snaking up his nasal passages. He knew he would soon have to give up and plummet to the bottom where the new city was quickly taking shape, her sinuous alleys and green-roofed churches emerging from the ooze. He hoped he would be reborn as a quick, darting fish or an adventurous eel, exploring the drowned treasures of La Serenissima.
This story previously appeared in Nightscript IV, 2018.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Elana Gomel is an academic and a writer. She is the author of six academic books and numerous articles on subjects such as narrative theory, posthumanism, science fiction, Dickens, and serial killers. As a fiction writer, she has published more than a hundred fantasy and science fiction stories and four novels. She can be found on her website, Cities of Light and Darkness and on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.