1. The House on the Canal of Miracles
On a foggy day in May of 1764 Mr. Zaharija Orfelin received a new name, of which he was totally unaware. He descended near Venice from a Viennese carriage lined with terracotta-colored cloth. The coachman in a three-horned hat handed him his trunk and a red leather pillow stuffed with the down of Pannonia geese and the passenger had to continue by water. As soon as he then set out through the salty mist and invisible waves of the Venetian lagoons in a termite-ridden gondola with what little luggage he had, Mr. Orfelin became known to those around him as signor Saccarias. And by this name only. From this unusual vessel the passenger stared in amazement at the palaces built on water, and the ladies passing by at the funny, handsome man hugging a red pillow in a gondola. The stranger wasn’t wearing a wig, but had tied his black hair with an amber rosary into a tail thick as that of a horse. He had rouged his lips, which suited him well, and lit a long-stemmed pipe that protruded from the gondola and smoked above the water fumigating the bridges.
The gondolier, who seemed to be steering his vessel more through time than through the canal, suddenly switched from the customary Venetian curses to polite Italian, presuming that the foreigner would understand it better, and said:
- I have two valuables for sale! If the gentleman is not of a breakup, I will let you have them cheap.
- No, I am not purchasing your valuables – Saccarias retorted and tapped the ashes from his pipe into the sea. The gondolier either didn’t hear or chose not to hear the reply, but put down his oar and let the vessel glide across the water while he reached under the seat and took out a beautiful globe all in gilded leather.
- Just look! Made by none other than signor Coronelli! Only five silver coins!
The voyager was silent, watching as they drifted towards Rio San Giovanni Christostomo, where Teodosi the Greek had rented chambers for him on the corner of the Miracoli canal.
- I would bet my oar that you cannot guess what else I am offering for sale to the gentleman – the gondolier was persistent.
- You win the bet, I am not even going to try.
- If you guess I will give it to you for free!
- A glass blown on the island of Murano? – Zaharija laughed – that’s what everyone offers foreigners here.
Quite unexpectedly, the gondolier seemed to give up on the conversation, pressing upon his oar and starting to sing softly in some indistinguishable language.
- Perhaps you would like to sell me your song? – Zaharija jabbed.
- By the cat of St. Mark, the gentleman has almost guessed! How did you know?
- So you will give me the song for free?
- Oh no, not that. What I have for sale is not a song, all I have of it is one of its tiniest parts, and it is much dearer than the globe.
At those words the gondolier pulled out from beneath a curtain in the gondola a straw hat in which Saccarias caught sight of a glass.
- So I did guess, it is a glass after all?
- No. I am not offering to sell you the glass, but what is inside it.
- What could be inside the glass?
- See for yourself – the gondolier concluded and handed the glass to his passenger – but make sure you look carefully, for what is inside is worth more than the glass and this gondola with myself in it.
Zaharija peered into the glass in surprise and found it empty, like a mouth before lunch.
- Look harder – remarked the gondolier – there is something inscribed on the bottom of the glass. What is written there is, in fact, what I am selling.
- It looks like some kind of saying… It is not very clear.
- Of course it is not very clear. It is not read by peering into the glass like you are doing, it is read differently – retorted the gondolier, taking the glass from the passenger carefully – this here is a verse for sale, but you did not guess, for I told the kind sir almost everything myself and lead him to the clue as I lead this gondola to the corner of Chrisostomo and Miracoli… We have arrived. This green building with three windows that the sound of the harpsichord is coming from is your destination, but before you pay me make up your mind to buy the verse, for if you do not, you shall regret it bitterly. You have no idea what you will be missing…
Zaharija paid the gondolier, tossed his leather case onto the steps of the dock and leapt out onto dry land with the red pillow under his arm. Then he turned and asked through the fog:
- What is this verse for sale, and dear too, as you told me? Is it some sorcery, protection from evil spells, something of the kind?
- No. The verse is in a language older than death, in Etruscan, and Venice is its younger sister. I do not understand it, but it works. If you decide to buy it, seek me out in my gondola. It has a canopy with the effigy of St. Sebastian. See, there is the effigy down there at the bottom. That is how you will know me. We shall have spaghetti con nero together and I will tell you everything an owner should know about the verse. But now I must go.
When Zaharija found himself alone on the stone sidewalk, some invisible church began to chime. The silence around him sat deep in the fog and in it each stroke of the church bell remained as if frozen.
Zaharija slowly climbed the stairs to the first floor unconsciously matching each pace to the striking of the bell in the distance. Upstairs they showed him to his room. It smelt of the day before yesterday, the day when he had still been in the Alps, in a carriage. He opened a wardrobe and in it found clothes-hooks, washing utensils (a glass basin with legs), and on the door of the wardrobe a comb for untangling wigs. The thing that surprised and delighted him the most was a window in the wardrobe looking down on the intersection of the two canals – Saint Chrysostom and the canal degli Miracoli. In the window there were apples and a bottle of wine. He looked outside, where the day was sinking through the fog, and then took his things from the bag. Several books, among which Chrysostom, the same Greek church preacher after which the canal that Zaharija now lived on was named. In Zaharija’s room there was a commode finely decorated with flowers from the previous century, which had a lid that could be used for writing upon when it was lowered. Inside it he placed his quills, blotter and paper, and on top the servant bell on the handle of which was a link with a tiny mirror. He put into a drawer the manuscript of his work of art, an elaborately decorated song collection with notes to sing them by entitled “Greeting to Mojsej Putnik”. To be true the book was a draft, since the original, much more beautiful and ornate, had remained with its owner Episcope Mojsej Putnik somewhere in Bačka. Then Mr. Zaharija tossed the red pillow onto the bed of his new room and went out to stretch his legs, which were stiff from the rattling in coaches and swaying in boats. As he passed through the house he noticed in a niche in the wall a bust of Voltaire dressed in a proper coat of red silk. Voltaire also had a “jabot” – a lace scarf – tied around his neck. While he was looking at this wonder, Zaharija noticed a strange scent. It came from a closet on the stairs and the chest beneath the windows of the entrance hall. The whole house smelt of plucked flowers, dried fruit, grass and all sorts of vegetation. The windows were full of colored bits of glass, jars and cups from Murano and Murcia, full of buds, twigs, pine needles and stripped bits of bark… Someone in the building worked with plants.
He started out at random. Soon he was lost in the vapors and among the little bridges and when he came to a square, the first thing he saw emerging from the fog was a girl. Her appearance, or rather her surreal beauty and graceful movements, struck him completely unexpectedly, he was terrified and hastened his step in the other direction determined to avoid all temptation and finally, seeing that the girl was headed in the same direction, fled mindlessly. He ran all the way to the water, but it blocked his path and he had to return to the square, where the girl was, of course, gone and where he read the name of the Gothic brick church:
Sancti Giovanni e Paolo
At least he knew where he might perhaps look for the girl again, if he should overcome his fear and if she sometimes passed this way.
And so he experienced that first day in Venice a completely unexpected and previously unknown feeling – fear of beauty. He fell asleep that night in his Venetian bed, actually an ordinary sailors’ bed, surprised and scared by this new fear. He was woken by music.
The sound of a harpsichord came from the room next door, and then he heard a female alto hot as a drink boiled on black sugar. Zaharija leapt up as if scathed. The unknown girl was singing his composition. The very one the notes to which were in his manuscript of songs “Greetings to Mojsej Putnik”.
- That is impossible! – were the first words that crossed his mind. How could somebody here, in Venice, on the first day of his stay, already know of his unprinted composition and even perform it with stunning perfection? He jumped from his bed, opened the drawer of the writing commode, but his manuscript collection of songs with notes lay peacefully inside just as he had left it the night before. The matter was now particularly impossible. The soft, warm voice still wafted from the room next door and he listened for a few moments holding himself in his arms and in uncertainty, and then started, threw on his clothes and without much ado rushed off to the other part of the house where the music was coming from. As soon as he opened the door, he closed it again without entering.
- Faster fro than to – Zaharija thought, laughing at himself. He was even more confused. The canal that he lived on was called Rio degli miracoli – the Canal of Miracles – for a reason. In the room next door at a rosewood harpsichord sat, singing his composition, the girl he had seen the day before in the square of Sancti Giovanni e Paolo. The girl whose beauty had terrified him so, from which he had fled heedlessly. And now he was forced to face her, but did not know how.
2. Bridge of Tits
That day was the first time Zaharija went to the Venetian printing house of mister Dimitris Teodosi, where he was hired as a proof-reader. The Greek published material in the Greek and Slavic-Serbian language in Venice, or rather books for those of the orthodox faith, distributed throughout the Austrian empire wherever there were Serbs. On that first day the Greek received Zaharija well:
– We could hardly wait for you to arrive – he remarked, although there was no way of telling if he really meant it or was just saying so. He was an old man with an over-sensitive nose, so he kept blowing the tobacco smoke and his companion’s breath away from himself. In his vest he carried a constantly buttoned prayer-book the inscription of which showed that it had been published at the “printing house of the Slavic-Greek Dimitris Teodosi”. Of course, in his office he had the promptly provided curriculum vitae of his new employee.
This document stated that Zaharija Stefanović Orfelin (born in 1726) was of the Greek Orthodox faith, that he was a subject of the Austrian empire, and that he was by nationality of Slavic-Serbian origin. He began his professional activities by serving as a “Slavic school master” in a small town on the Danube, Novi Sad. Around mid-century he stayed and studied engraving and painting in Buda, Vienna and Augsburg. (Not mentioned here, as is to be expected in documents of this kind, are two charges filed against Mr. Zaharija with the local authorities for unpaid music lessons he had taken with a Slovakian harpsichordist exiled from Pest). He became heard of in 1757 at the time of the initiation of the Episcope of Bačka Mojsej Putnik when he presented the man of honor with an exquisitely graphically ornamented manuscript collection of his songs. This “Greeting to Mojsej Putnik” included poetic, artistic, musical and dramatic expression and paved the way for new successes of its author, so Zaharija soon moved to Karlovci as chancellor of Metropolitan Pavle Nenadović and began to make ornate grammatta and syncellus manuscripts. (Here the marriage of Mr. Zaharija was left out.) He brought to the Karlovci metropolitan residence a copper-engraving press from Vienna, where he had been with the Metropolitan. And thus began his publishing and engraving activity. In 1760 he printed the “Oda na vospominanije vtorago Hristova prisestvija” and created drafts for the small and large towers of the cathedral in Karlovci. (The birth of a male child was omitted here.) Mr. Zaharija began writing poems once more in 1761 and sending them to Venice, where they were issued at Teodosi’s printing house in separate booklets, but their political messages caused Zaharija trouble both with the Metropolitan and with the Austrian authorities. (Here the expulsion of Zaharija from the Metropolitan’s service was left out.)…
Luckily for Zaharija, the cooperation with the Venetian publishing house for Greek and Serbian books of mister Teodosi continued to their mutual benefit. It was crowned with the coming of Mr. Zaharija to the Venetian Republic, and soon after that with the arrival of a crate of books that Zaharija had sent forth from his homeland to Venice, and now found already unpacked and set out on a shelf above his desk at the printing house.
They had some Greek wine, but mister Teodosi wasted no time. Zaharija was immediately set to the task of preparing for print a book with a longish title:
KRATKOE VVEDENIJE V ISTORIJU PROISHOZDENIJA SLAVENOSERBSKAGO NARODA
The book was a historical piece, which matter Teodosi wanted to spend more attention to since they were in demand, the author was some Russian diplomat of Serbian origin, Pavle Julinac, and it was to come out of print by the following 1765. Zaharija also promised the publisher that he would give him some of his new poems. They were, as they had agreed, to come out one by one that year and the next. Apart from the poems, Zaharija also offered to write a work entitled “Small Speller”.
- You are an incorrigible pedagogue – remarked mister Teodosi with a smile – even though you know that the road to failure and misfortune is paved with successful pedagogical accomplishments…
May was coming to an end when the fog lifted one morning and Zaharija, through the window in his wardrobe, caught sight of where he was living and what surrounded the house he resided in. He was in the most beautiful and most smelly town in the world. From the room next door he could here the striking of a clock, a male cough with decades of practice and a nurtured female alto, already familiar to Zaharija. The scent of herbs drifted into the room from the hall, and a male voice was very distinctly pronouncing some unconnected sentences in the Venetian dialect:
Memorize, oh, memorize! Our Savior, Jesus Christ, thought from right to left! Christ counted from right to left! Jesus read from right to left!… Not like us!… Have you memorized it? Anna, have you memorized what I just said?
- I have – replied a female voice kindly, but listlessly and devoid of timbre.
Mankind is more gifted in sleep than in wake… - continued the male voice and then the issue was interrupted, for the narrator was once again overcome by his cough.
- That must be my landlord – Zaharija thought. In his coughing fit the old man must have signaled Anna to leave.
That is indeed what happened, for a moment later she knocked on the door of Zaharija’s room. He now knew her name, even before she came in. She knocked with her bracelet and that was heard very distinctly. She entered without waiting for a reply and sat on the only chair looking carefully all around. She wore green lace bands on her wrist and over one of them a bracelet shaped like a golden lizard.
- So you are Mr. Saccarias, our new tenant.
- So you are Anna, my new landlady – Zaharija retorted and sat on his sailors’ bed.
- I am nobody’s landlady. I assist your landlord maestro Jeremiah in his work. And I am here now, with you, at his orders. And you, Mr. Saccarias, where do you come from?
- I am from Petrovaradin.
- And what is Petrovaradin?
- A handsome town with a fortress on the Danube.
- What is the Danube?
- One of four rivers originating from Paradise.
- Indeed? The kind sir looks surprisingly well for somebody coming all the way from Paradise. So, that is very far from here.
- Yes, in the land of the Austrian court.
- And why has mister Saccarias come to Venice?
- Your master Jeremiah was recommended to provide me with accomodations by my employer, mister Dimitris Teodosi, inhabitant of Venice and local printer and publisher, so you know why I am here. I am proof-reader at the “Slavic-Greek” printing house of mister Teodosi. He and I have shops in Petrovaradin that sell our publications.
- But that is not to say you have become a citizen of the Venetian Republic?
- Not yet, no.
- In that case you shall have to pay maestro Jeremiah in advance for your board. Right now would be best. You can give the money to me, and I will sign a receipt, if you have ink…
And so this first meeting was sealed by the signature of Anna Pozze. She paused at the door on her way out, and before she left she said:
- I see you have a hand bell. If you need anything before you settle in, feel free to ring. The old gentleman has been hard of hearing for a while now, so it will not bother him, and if I am anywhere in the house at all I shall hear the ringing and come to your service.
After this visit Zaharija could not stay in the room. He could hear the harpsichord once more from the premises next door, but it wasn’t Anna that was playing, that could be recognized straight away by the tremendous, almost mechanical speed of the fingers on the keyboard.
The music began to breathe, something terrible was coming from it which wasn’t music at all and Zaharija already knew when “it” would emerge. The sounds were mingling with the sound of the bell marking the hour of five after noon. Zaharija wasn’t to know that his landlord maestro Jeremiah would play Scarlatti at this hour every day from then on.
He stepped out onto the pavement treading on his shadow full of water beneath a filthy wind that choked birds upon the canals. There was no fog, but silence was descending like fog onto the lagoons. Walking slowly, Zaharija was thinking that hope was always an impolite and not quite clear affair.
One afternoon in June Zaharija was once again startled by the deep voice of maestro Jeremiah from the neighboring room. As if through a barrel of water the old man was voicing his mysterious sentences:
The difference between two men can be greater than the difference between a man and a woman… Have you memorized it, Anna? But, the difference between two women is always greater than the difference between a man and a woman… Are you following, Anna? You will not get it confused?… That is enough, for today. Go now. I have to cough…
Grabbing the opportunity, Zaharija jingled his old bell. At the sound that it made he started, for here, in Venice, his bell didn’t sound as it had in Petrovaradin, or Vienna. He took a careful look at it, almost thinking that it had been replaced. And that is how Anna found him when she brought him a glass of wine sent, she said, as a gift from maestro Jeremiah.
- How can I help the young gentleman? – Anna asked as she placed the glass on the table.
- I have two questions for you and a small surprise.
- That is nice, let me hear the questions first, and we shall see about the surprise later. It is never too late for the right surprises.
- To what does a stranger owe such attention of yours, Miss Anna?
- We are akin.
- Why would you think that?
- I read it.
- Where did you read this?
- In kind sir’s travel documents. It says there that you are a widower, that you have one son whom you did not travel to Venice with and that one of your last names is Orfelin. Meaning orphan. I, too, am an orphan. A foundling. Is that sufficient explanation?
- No. As you said yourself, you went though my drawer in secret and examined my papers. And you took the sheet with the notes of my song in greeting to Episcope Mojsej Putnik to transcribe it. That is how you knew the melody that morning.
- The young gentleman has got it all wrong. I examined your papers at the order of your landlord, maestro Jeremiah. And that is when I saw the song in your drawer and I memorized the melody.
- Saw it and memorized it?
- Yes. I have the gift of reading from a sheet, as musicians say, or from any notes at all, as soon as I set eyes on it I can remember it in full and turn it into song and sound immediately, or later on. Besides, I learned that at the orphanage, which is perhaps where you studied music as well.
- I must disappoint you, dear Miss Anna, the word “orfelin” that my second surname derives from came from alchemy and demarks a specially cut gem.
- So you are not an orphan?
- What I can say is that I do not remember my parents. And you? Are you the adopted daughter of maestro Jeremiah?
- But no, I have already told you, I grew up at the Ospedaletto di santi Giovanni e Paolo.
- What is that?
- A kind of orphanage for musically gifted female foundlings. There are four such sanctuaries in Venice and lessons were always held there by the finest musicians such as Galuppi, Propora, Scarlatti or Cimarosa. Perhaps you have heard of them? Maestro Jeremiah gave me harpsichord lessons there, and they also taught me to sing, which you have heard. If you should have the chance, come to one of our musical evenings, “accademia”, and you shall hear us perform. Venice is the musical capital… And now, for your second question.
- It is of a somewhat personal nature. I am unable to understand what maestro Jeremiah sometimes dictates to you in the afternoon, before his coughing fit?
- Those are “gnomes” – replied Anna with a laugh – but we shall discuss that some other time. For your surprise is now in order.
- You asked me the first day what I do at the printing house of mister Teodosi. I shall show you something that I have just set and printed there for you to see.
- It is a greeting booklet in verse that I have begun writing, and when I complete it I shall print it with Teodosi and give away copies in my homeland, in Petrovaradin and Novi Sad as the new 1765 approaches, like it says on the cover… God willing, I shall give one copy to yourself as well, to wish you a new and healthy new year.
- And which language shall it be printed in?
- In my native language, Slavic-Serbian, the language I write in. I shall read you the first verse, for it is already composed, so you can hear the sound of it:
Glorious weather soon shall meet us
Winter now is clearing
Spring is nigh-on here to greet us,
Summer it is nearing.
The sky above us blue and clear
Already brighter doth appear.
OH GOLDEN SPRING!
- Wonderful! Now sing the verses – exclaimed Anna in delight.
- But Anna, this will be a new year’s greeting in the form of a printed booklet, it is not to be sung.
- Permit me to ask, esteemed sir, who needs verses that are not to be sung? I do not. I shall be honest, it is best you leave this be. Forget it. Do not waste your time fruitlessly. You people from across the Alps are always gloomy and running toward misfortunes that you impose upon yourselves. It is hard to understand and reeducate you. But we shall try, immediately. I too have something I would like to show you. I have a surprise for you as well. Come to the Ponte delle Tette this afternoon, it is on the other side of the Rialto, where the Santa Croce is. Or better yet, come to my orphanage Ospedaletto on the square of Santi Giovanni e Paolo. Where you saw me for the first time that evening and fled from me. That is where I still live, and we shall take out a boat together. But do not be late, for I must be there on the bridge with you at precisely twenty six minutes past five. Remember, at 17:26…
- Many centuries ago, says the tale of this place, men lost their will to mate with women, and women their lust for man. They mated with animals and sodomy reigned throughout Venice…
These are the words with which Anna Pozze began her story as she sat beside Zaharija on the railing of the bridge delle Tette.
- To break free from the sodomy, since the population rate in Venice and the surroundings had begun to decrease, the authorities permitted the ladies of the streets to air their charms here, in this spot, and to attract passers-by with their nudity. And so the bridge got its name and kept it to this very day – the “Bridge of Tits”.
Upon those words Anna Pozze threw her shawl from her shoulder and presented herself to Zaharija in all her radiant beauty, in a dress cut so as to leave both her tits nude and staring right at Zaharija, who, frightened of such gifts, almost fled again, like that first day on the square of the Apostles. He was stayed by Anna’s words:
- Do not wonder that I am showing them to you. These days, as you might have noticed, most women in Venice wear their tits in the windows of their dresses, but I am not showing you mine for fashion. Take a good look at them, and if you like them, they shall be yours, but not now. One fine evening, if you listen to me, and if you do not leave me for “more important” things, you shall receive them as a gift.
At these words Zaharija drew Anna to him and kissed her, and she asked:
- Did you read my lips?
- Can lips be read?
- Of course. So can any kiss. I read yours.
- And what did they say?
- I have already told you. You from across the Venetian Bay, which you call the Adriatic, are difficult in all respects. It is hard to teach you joy and love. But kind sir shall also have to teach me something in return. I have not had any experience with men. I saw boys urinate from a boat into the Canal of Saint Luke, but that is not the same. You have to show me something of yours as well. Not now though. Give me some time. Female time does not flow in the same direction as male does. And I hope kind sir had realized that his time was better spent on this bridge than had he racked his brains over bad verses not to be sung…
Amazed and confused, Zaharija froze. He didn’t know what next.
- You act as though you had not yet paid – she joked and kissed him again, wrapping herself in her shawl.
The window was closed. Zaharija wondered if he had made a mistake. They were returning to their part of Venice, to the Castello, when he asked suddenly and dumbly:
- Why at twenty six past five?
- What do you mean why?
- I don’t understand why we had to be at the “Bridge of Tits” at 17:26?
- Because I wanted to show myself to you at the exact time of your birth. You were born, as I saw from your papers, in 1726, were you not? Well it was good for you to see me at 17 hours and 26 minutes, that time is a daily birthday of yours in a way. And the “Bridge of Tits” was a birthday present of sorts from myself. If you listen to me, you shall receive birthday gifts every day at that hour and after that hour. But remember, if you put love last, after all other obligations, that is where it shall remain, the last thing in your life. And the last thing in the world.
3. Orphanage for the Incurable
- What a mess, Dio mio, what a mess! Candles burned to the candlesticks, mirror not seen for the smoke, the bell on the table and Anna Pozze forgotten, Mr. Saccarias has lost two more of his valuable Venetian nights over some new idea, some thick book in a strange language degli schiavoni not even understood by those that speak it. Meanwhile, outside reigns the finest town in the world and peace, our mighty fleet sits in harbor, Doge Mocenigo has gone to Lido to throw a ring into the lagoon and marry the sea and Venice. The whole town is there. We shall go as well. Maestro Jeremiah has ordered a gondola and the gondola is waiting for us down at the Canal of Miracles. May master Saccarias awake and rise, for we are not alone. My friend Zabetta has come to visit. Do not be shy on our account, for all that can be seen we have seen already, since master Saccarias pleases to sleep in the nude…
These words by Anna Pozze and a torrent of many more awoke Zaharija and he leapt from his bed as though scathed, but considering the circumstances returned to it swiftly and covered himself to his chin. Before him were two three-headed beauties. Nearer him was an unknown girl with bare shoulders. The color on her cheeks began harshly from below the imaginary line connecting her nose and ear, giving a sharpness to her features. Behind her he spotted Anna. They each had two carnival masks upon their chests. The unknown girl had the Sun and the Moon, and Anna two beaked creatures. Each of the masks had a nipple protruding from its mouth like the tip of the tongue or a finger. Zaharija immediately concluded that Zabetta had much larger nipples than Anna and in a flash decided to strike back. Wrapping a sheet around his waist he rose with the words:
- Are you, Anna, not jealous of Miss Zabetta? She could steal me away.
The girls burst into laughter, and Anna retorted wistfully:
- No, I am not. Zabetta, unfortunately, no longer sleeps with men…
The gondola that Zaharija was propelling by oar as best he knew how, to the great mirth of the young ladies, traveled at snail pace through the Chrisostomo Canal towards the Canal Grande. As they were embarking Zaharija had noticed at the bottom of the gondola something that surprised him. There was an effigy of Saint Sebastian.
- Is the glass with the verse for sale in the gondola as well, at the bottom of that straw hat? – he wondered and felt the hat. The glass, of course, was gone.
Considering the clumsiness that their schiavone had displayed in the art of rowing, they decided not to go to Lido. They stopped and disembarked at the Zannipolo square where they were amazed by the behavior of their companion.
In the center of the square stood a huge bronze horseman. Ready to gallop. Zaharija froze, struck by the impression of this magnificent sight that he had never seen before. The masterpiece was as radiant as though it had just arrived into this world. The arms–one holding the reigns and the other resting upon the horse’s flanks, seemed to be subduing the world around them. Zaharija stood before this wonder for a moment, and then to his misfortune he was overcome by his familiar frenzy. Somewhat like a sudden onset of illness. He was seized by too much beauty and began to run. Just as he had fled that day from Anna’s eyes, when he had first seen her on this same square of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, he now fled from the beauty of the equestrian statue that galloped after him. Horrified and helpless at the same time, he fled without even realizing that he was leaving far behind him the two three-headed beauties, who were chasing after him.
His amazed companions barely managed to catch up with him and pacify him in some hidden yard, where an inn was located. There, at the corte sconta, they ordered some wine to help him recover and then moleche fritte con polenta, which Zaharija did not understand until fried crab on cornmeal was placed before them. Listening to the bells from the church nearby, they ate, drank and chatted as they calmed from the surprise and shock that the behavior of their schiavone had caused.
- So, what new project is mister proof-reader of the Greek-Slavic printing house working on? – asked Anna in a conciliatory tone.
- I have envisioned – Zaharija said absentmindedly – a magazine. Or a calendar.
He, too, wished to leave his embarrassing episode behind him as soon as possible.
- What would it be entitled?
- “Almanac”, “Magazine”, “Serbian Bee”, or something like that. There would be a little of everything in it, something for everyone. I would write an essay as introduction, then there would be talk of the language of literary works, followed by articles on geography, learnings about man, pedagogy, history, the law, with a review of newly published books. It would include an oriental tale here and there, a sonnet or two, writings in defense of women…
At these words both of Zaharija’s guests applauded, took the masks from their bosoms and began cooling themselves with them as though they were fans. Confused and not knowing where to look, Zaharija rushed on with his story:
- Then there would be word on housekeeping, trade, craftsmanship, architecture, music and painting, and especially on the field of the engraving and carving arts, namely copper engraving… I would ask of the readers to send me a description of their most interesting dreams…
- And you would publish this? – Miss Zabetta interjected.
- Yes – he retorted.
- And the readers would read their dreams in print? That’s wonderful! – Zabetta remarked. – Have you received any of the dreams yet?
- Not exactly.
- Well what will you do in a situation like that?
- I do not know.
- I do – Anna joined into the conversation – publish an interesting dream of your own. Under a false name perhaps. Have you dreamt of anything unusual lately?
- I have, but that is not for publication! – Zaharija retorted.
- Why not? Here, tell us, and we shall tell you what we think.
- Think you this or that, the dream is not for telling, let alone for printing.
- Tell us quick! – shouted the girls together.
- I dreamed I was crossing your famous Rialto bridge. I know not who built it, if it was Michelangelo, Paladio, da Ponte or Sansovino, but it is beautiful. As you know, there are shops all along the railing of the bridge on both sides, and bookshops among them. I dreamed that I must cross this bridge through the largest crowd and thickest traffic. I was rushing somewhere on important business, so I did not have time to get dressed. And so I found myself almost nude on the bridge: on my upper body I had a shirt, and on my lower body nothing.
Here the girls giggled and waved their masks like fans once more.
- I somehow hoped that it would not be too noticeable. I ran like that through the masses, and I cannot quite say that the whole crowd was paying particular attention to me, but in the middle of the bridge a woman cried: Maladetto! I do not know if she was referring to me. The worst thing of all was that in the squeeze of elbows, hands, chests, bottoms and thighs, both male and female, my pride leapt to attention, and when I broke out on the far side of the bridge I fell onto a rock and in wakening smeared my sailors’ bed in the green house of master Jeremiah…
The tale was once more greeted with laughter, but Anna suddenly became serious and whispered:
- My dear mister Saccarias, shall I tell you something about that dream of yours and about your running away? You are fleeing from beauty at all costs. You avoid in fear all that is beguiling, as though beauty were a threat to you here, in Venice, instead of accepting it and seeing it as a gift from God. You flee from beauty in stone: across a beautiful bridge as quickly as possible, even nude! The bronze horseman Colleoni, condotiere della republika, on the Zannipolo square terrified you not because he is a warrior, but because he is beautiful! Because he was created by a genius, Verrochio. Stay away from the hand bell in your room with which the beautiful Anna Pozze can be summoned! Flee from love so you can crawl into your little room and not snuffing your candles wear yourself to death writing books that shall not bring you happiness, nor shall they serve a purpose to anyone. I do not mean the spellers, the school books on Latin and calligraphy, those are necessary, and you as proof-reader in a printing house must live on something. But that shall bring you neither love, nor health, nor happiness. You are excellent at drawing and skilled at composing as well. And Venice is the mother of artists and the mother of music. Look around you not as proof-reader of mister Teodosi’s Slavic-Greek publishing house, or whatever it is called, but as a painter and composer. The two of us are here to save you. To offer you something different. Besides, you shall draw your own conclusions. We shall go to the “Novissimo” opera to listen to Monteverdi, to the “San Kasijan” to hear Cavalli and the castrates, and Cesti at the “Santi Apostoli” opera… Do not be afraid of beauty! You yourself are an artist. We shall go to a concert this evening. Do not tell me that tonight you must write patriotic poems that are not to be sung, or the cries of your fatherland, which, as soon as you publish them with mister Teodosi, will cause you great trouble with censure in your fatherland, in your church and in Vienna alike …
The sound of the church bells chiming the hour of five in the afternoon on the Castello mingled with the sound of a harpsichord from the green house. It startled Mr. Zaharija from his afternoon nap. He listened to the harpsichord for a while with the double attention of a connoisseur and a freshly woken man. The person playing was better suited to the major than the minor zones, the legato was thick and white, the tierces the result of great mastery and much practice. The rhythm was slightly off in unexpected places and within the permitted boundaries. This was called rubatto in Leipzig: the first note of a beat was slightly held by the stranger so that the composition seemed to have been written in three quarter and not four quarter time. Then a presto as though shot from a sling… The player was undoubtedly a man. But then Zaharija noticed that something unusual was happening with the performer. In some places, or more accurately some notes, something resembling weariness could be heard, as though these places on the harpsichord keyboard frightened the fingers of the player, as though he choked slightly as he approached some of the keys. Zaharija began to follow the playing more carefully and realized that he could precisely determine which notes this was happening on. More frequently on the re and slightly less on the fa, but only on the tenor octave of the keyboard.
- Strange – he thought, but then he heard the tinkling of the bell on the door of the green house. Zaharija quickly got ready and went down into the street where a gondolier was waiting to take him to the concert, as he had agreed with Anna Pozze.
The afternoon was warm, and the oarsman, whom Zaharija recognized straight away, was smiling and in a good mood. He babbled on and on and so his passenger found out that the gondolier had the same name as the effigy of his patron hung in the gondola, Sebastian, that he lived on the Canal of Miracles right next to the green house, that he had been lucky recently and had sold the globe and that he had found a buyer for the glass with the letters on the bottom and that, if mister Zaharija was still not interested, he would fetch it that same evening from his apartment and sell it…
At the question of where he was taking him and where he was to meet with Anna Pozze, Sebastian replied that the place was the famous Conservatorio degli incurabili.
- What is the Conservatorio degli incurabili? – Zaharija asked, to which Sebastian retorted in surprise:
- Do you not know? It is the famous sanctuary for the incurable. That is where, next to a monastery, girls and young ladies with incurable illnesses live, those with leprosy or ailments named after the ancient goddess of love Venus.
- But is this where concerts are held?
- Of course, girls with great musical talent are gathered for treatment here and the Conservatorio degli incurabili has musicians and holds concerts comparable with those in the finest music halls in Venice.
- Incredible – remarked Zaharija as he gazed into the water. As he listened to the incessant babble of the gondolier Zaharija noticed something that caught his eye: something had been snared by a plant growing from the wall at the edge of the canal, something he did not recognize straight away. When they came closer it seemed to him like a discarded or lost female glove. A glove of green lace… They passed by it heading towards a larger canal when the gondolier continued his tale:
- For example, the Conservatorio degli incurabili has first-rate violinists and singers and is in no respect lesser that the hall of Santa Maria della Pieta, on the Riva degli Schiavoni, where classes were held for a long time by our old abbot Antonio Vivaldi, and where the famous violinist Chiaretta now plays…
- You are surprisingly familiar with the musical life here – Zaharija noticed.
- That is understandable. My customers most frequently ask of me to take them to the opera or to concerts.
And at this Sebastian began to sing, quietly and very finely. Turning at the intersection he added:
- I myself learned to sing at one such “musical orphanage”. As the gentleman has surely witnessed by now, we gondoliers are expected to be able to break into song at the appropriate occasion… That is not difficult to learn here. There are famous musician and music houses all over Venice, for example Marietta di San Lazzaro dei Mendicanti is unsurpassed as a singer, the bow of Anna Maria that made famous the Ospedaletto di Santi Giovanni e Paolo, where our Anna Pozze lives and plays, barely makes any concessions at all to the artists offered by the Conservatorio degli incurabili, where we are headed…
In the large stone hall of the conservatory Zaharija found much murmur, gaily adorned visitors, and among them Anna. She took him to a chair near the corner, close to where the musicians would be seated, and she herself remained standing and pacing. So did the others. When they settled down he asked if the building they were in was a hospital or a music hall.
Anna laughed and replied:
- Do not fear, my handsome, nobody has yet caught anything from the musicians here. You will not kiss them…
Zaharija expressed his surprise that Zabetta, too, had not come to the concert, and was told that she would be there for sure. Just then an applause broke out and musicians began stepping out onto the stage. The last was a woman with a violin in her hands and, receiving ovations, she took a bow and waved to Anna and Zaharija, who recognized in her, with amazement, his visitor of the morning.
- That’s Zabetta! – he whispered to Anna.
- Of course, she is the first violin of Italy.
At that moment Zabetta walked up to them, took a rather large stone ring off her hand and gave it to Zaharija:
- Look after this ring for me, it will get in my way – she said and added – take care of it, it is worth all and nothing.
Zaharija had not even managed to slip the ring onto his thumb before the performers began playing the “Four Seasons”. Listening to Vivaldi Zaharija did not know that the stone ring would remain on his finger, because Zabetta would tell him after the concert that he was to keep it, since the ring was of no use to her.
Midnight had already passed when Anna and Zaharija returned home and found a gondola before the entrance. They were a bit surprised when they noticed that Sebastian was sleeping inside it, seeming very pale to Zaharija, but that might have been because of the moonlight. Then Anna screamed. A man wrapped in a black cape emerged from the green house. On his face he wore the terrifying protective long-beaked mask.
Anna recognized him. That was, she whispered to Zaharija as she drew close to him in fear, the Venetian cazzamorte – death warden, or coroner. He let them pass without a word, for he had already completed his dark duty and they rushed into the Green House, the stairs of which were smeared with blood. There were several persons in the room of maestro Jeremiah, where they were directed by a police officer. It was the first time that Zaharija was seeing this room, from which he had heard voices, music and a striking of the clock in his own chambers. It had two windows – a large one looking down on the Canal of Miracles, and a smaller one on the Canal of the Saint Chrysostomo. The large one was open. The room contained a harpsichord, two mirrors, a clock with rubies instead of numbers, several carnival masks on the walls, a spinning rack with books and a desk. On the wall hung an image of Venice on which the Rio dei Mendicanti was penciled in, probably drawn by Canaletto, and another painting or two. A large settee covered in Venetian silk sweet beneath the tongue took up one corner. There was blood all over the floor of the chamber.
Standing inside were one chimico – a Venetian inquisition poison expert (successor to the famous Casanova at this task) and a huge, terrifying figure well known to all on this town on the lagoons – the high priest of the Venetian Republic supreme court, Cristofolo Cristofoli. It was said of him that his appearance alone was enough to drive terror into the very bravest.
Slumped before them in an armchair was master |Jeremiah. His hands were bloody, and on the floor by his feet lay a broken glass, which Zaharija immediately recognized and connected with the gondolier lying in his gondola downstairs. Beside the glass there was a tiny clay vial that Zaharija had never seen before. It was uncorked and seemed to be empty. Maestro Jeremiah had a stone ring on his finger. A police officer was bending over the old man making strange gestures before the maestro’s mouth. Zaharija concluded with horror that the ring on maestro Jeremiah’s hand was very similar to Zabetta’s ring that was now on his thumb, so he cautiously pushed his hand into his pocket to hide the gift.
- Dead since yesterday – said the man as he straightened up with difficulty, rubbing the small of his back in obvious pain.
When Anna cried out, the huge priest turned and placed his heavy hand on the back of her head to calm her:
- Do not cry my child, this blood is not his. Nobody killed him. We shall know right away if he poisoned himself, perhaps.
At Cristofoli’s signal the chimico said:
- It can be said that he died around six o’clock yesterday afternoon, for the froth has crusted on his lips. That is approximately how long the hardening takes.
Then the man kneeled by the feet of the deceased. He picked up the clay vial and sniffed it.
- Empty. There was water inside – he concluded… - Water. Judging by the vial, probably the kind brought here from Turkey.
Then he picked up the fragments of the glass and examined them.
- The maestro has not been poisoned. Nobody has drunk from this glass in months. It has not been used for a long time and is full of dust… One moment!
The man turned towards the maestro and carefully raised the hand with the stone ring. Then he lowered it and looked closely at the fingers of the other hand.
- Yes, it is clear what happened, but it is unclear why.
- What does that mean? – asked Cristofolo Cristofoli.
- It means that maestro Jeremiah, God rest his soul, wiped the dust from the glass before he died. That is what he did. But why he did it, we do not know. We do not know why or how he died either. We do not know where all this blood on the maestro, the vial and the glass came from, though the blood is not his. It was brought up the stairs on the soles of someone’s feet…
Cristofolo then slowly took the ring from the finger of the deceased, placed it in a small pocket of his priestly robe, lifted the left foot of maestro Jeremiah with the tip of his boot and saw smeared blood on the soles of the maestro’s shoes.
- It was him, God rest his soul – concluded Cristofolo – let us hurry to the gondolier, God rest his soul as well.
And the policemen rushed down the stairs with the priest.
When all had quieted and the body of the late maestro had been taken from the house in the same gondola as the body of the late Sebastian, Zaharija walked Anna to the chambers on the ground floor where she sometimes spent the night. In parting he said:
- I know why Jeremiah killed the gondolier.
- You mean because of the glass? – Anna retorted to Zaharija’s amazement – I do not know… I am not sure. The glass was Jeremiah’s. He bought it from Sebastian and duly paid what was asked, but Sebastian was blackmailing him and refused to give it him, but threatened to sell it to another, if Jeremiah refused to pay more. And so he kept extracting money from Jeremiah. The maestro was desperate. The glass was of more value to him than it was worth. It was at once both everything and nothing.
- Like my new stone ring? – thought Jeremiah as he retired.
As he was closing the door he heard Anna’s voice behind him:
- All that is of no importance. The only riddle in it all is why and how Jeremiah died. This is what I would ask you to think of tonight… Although, I believe I know how my maestro died.
Zaharija stood by the window looking out of his wardrobe onto the Canal of Miracles and gazed upon the water. Bad weather was approaching, the wind was drowning birds in the sea once more and Zaharija remembered the winds of his homeland, and for a moment he could revive in his memory their taste and smell of snow and fir wood… And he imagined the silvery tinkle of church bells that he had memorized once, in Hungary, traveling along the Danube, in a place called Sent Andrea. They were striking as he was riding along the road to Buda, from the tower of the Church of the St. Iconographer Luke, and had remained hidden in his memory until this night… He started from these musings and cleared his vision. On the dark waves of the Canal of Miracles, like a wavy flag, a pale square could plainly be seen – the gleam of a lamp from Anna’s room on the ground floor. Zaharija stood watching. His mouth was full of fluid, not saliva but some kind of bitter sweat. When the light in Anna’s room was snuffed he stepped out into the corridor quietly carrying a lamp and a quill that he had dipped into ink, and entered the maestro’s room silently. On the table he found the pieces of the broken glass and transcribed the magical verse from the bottom:
atto’tseuq ehc ero’uqnic ertlo uip rei
Then he picked up the glass fragments and threw them all into the canal. He returned to bed, forgetting to blow out the lamp. As he drifted to sleep he had the feeling that he had dome something wrong. Enlightenings take place between wake and sleep. And he remembered. But it was too late to do anything about it now. The remnants of the glass were already being carried by the Canal of Miracles. The Gondolier had told him that the verse in the glass was not read by peering into it, but differently. Differently in which way? He racked his brains and finally it struck him that he might still be able to rectify the matter, although the glass no longer existed. He had transcribed the verse that the gondolier had told him was to be read differently, meaning that it was to be read from the outside of the glass. He got up and took the note with the verse transcribed from the glass to the tiny mirror on the handle of his bell. In the mirror he could see the verse the other way around. The letters in this new order read:
ier piu oltre cinqu’ore che quest’otta…
Now they had a meaning, the words were in Italian but their sense was still incomprehensible to Zaharija.
In the morning Zaharija found plenty of oil remaining in the lamp, which meant that it had not burned all night. Somebody, who forgot nothing in the green house, had entered Zaharija’s room unnoticed and snuffed the wick in time.
4. The Devil’s Trill
- Do you know, dear mister Saccarias, how many kinds of writers there are in this wide world? You do not? Of course not, for you are a writer. Poli kalo! But I, praise the Lord in Heaven and the saint Chrysostomo, I am not a writer, but a publisher, so I do. I have to know. Two kinds. Do you hear me? There are only two kinds of authors. One senses the taste of the readers and caters to this taste not paying attention to what their books would turn out like. The others want to change the world and literature and do so not paying attention to the taste of the readers and the interests of their publishers. Well, our dear mister consul Julinac is of this second type. He is adored by the court of the Russian Czar, but not liked at all by the Viennese censure, my dear sir. Do you know what this means? You do not? It means that we did not receive the imprimatur for his book with a difficult title in which Serbian history is set forth. The Viennese censure did not grant permission for the printing of Julinac’s book and is asking for a signature sheet to be changed, and you, of course, as proof-reader of the book know which sheet is in question and why and how it has to be changed according to the censure objections. And of course you know full well what will happen if we do not comply. We shall be unable to sell the book on the Austrian market for Serbs, your compatriots, those living there. And who shall buy it in that case? Nobody. That means we shall have loss, that we shall not be able to recover our money from this book. My money, that is. So, dear mister Saccarias, take this sheet from Julinac’s book and correct it! In such a way that both the censor in Vienna and the Russian Major Julinac in Naples are satisfied, and above all the readers of your tribe, our customers!
- But, mister Teodosi, if we do this, Major Julinac and the entire world from Vienna to Trieste and Moscow shall know that we, here in Venice, have included a censored sheet in this book! Printed a chapter that Julinac did not write! Added water to wine! Since I am your proof-reader for Serbian books, it will immediately be known who has done this, it will be known that Julinac’s book was marred and altered by myself, Zaharija Stefanović! Consider whether this is wise?
- Wise or not, that is your problem, dear mister Saccarias, your problem, and unfortunately, my money!
With those words mister Teodosi’s smile dropped from his face like a fake mustache and he turned his back on his proof-reader for Slavic-Serbian publications. He had no choice but to start off home with a long-forgotten look in his eyes and the incriminated sheet of Julinac’s book, which he would have to alter.
Venice in June was blooming outdoors, the Sun was shining on the Canal of Saint John Chrysostomo, but despite this Zaharija felt as though his hair had been grazed and his beard scythed. He started out through town following his legs, and was stopped by a man who could immediately be recognized as a policeman. He had followed him from Teodosi’s publishing house and now addressed him by name, duly presenting himself and stating that he had a summons.
- What kind of summons? – asked Zaharija, afraid.
- You are to come in for an interrogation at the Bussola building early tomorrow morning.
- An interrogation by whom? – asked Zaharija clumsily and received a curt reply:
- That you can ask there. And do not be late, for that we do not like…
Dazed from it all, Zaharija found an inn and ordered a glass of “Malvasia” to come to his senses and gather his thoughts. After the funeral of maestro Jeremiah, Anna rarely came to the green house, wore black lace and was depressed for days. She kept waiting for something. And he messed around with his proof-reading at the publishing house and had the Viennese censorship and the Venetian police breathing down his neck. He had been asked to trample his face for a piece of bread. Deep in those dark thoughts was how Zabetta found him when she passed by the inn with her Cremona “Amati” instrument it its case, waved a sweet-smelling fan in front of his face and sat down beside him.
-What has gotten into you, dear Mr. Saccarias? – she wondered at his appearance – you seem as though all your ships had sunk!
At those words Zaharija told her all his woes. He spilled it all before her, from the nasty breakfast on rancid oil to his troubles with the authorities, censors, authors of two hands, to the Greek printing house for Serbs in Venice.
- Let us see – she said, willing to help – the order of moves should be calculated. Of the two evils, the one with the Bussola is worse.
- It is? What is the Bussola?
- That is where the seat of the Venetian inquisition is. And the chambers of the three supervisors of the Council of Ten and the office of the state inquisitor. From there you can find yourself in a room under lead, and then at the Bridge of Sighs.
- You are frightening me. What is a room under lead?
- Those are the “piombi”, the Venetian dungeons beneath the metal roof of the Doge’s palace… But do not immediately think of the worst. Venice is very weak at the moment and that is your strength. I believe that we cannot hold out much longer. Besides, the dungeons are almost empty, the Venetian fleet is in Corfu and shall probably remain there forever, for the Republic does not have the money to bring it home… We are poorer and poorer, we here are tired and misfortune is inevitably awaiting. The entire Republic of Saint Mark is ill and fading. It is near its end.
- How do you know?
- I know, my dear schiavone, for I too am ill. Only the music, the painting and churches shall remain… And the gondolas! They are eternal for they came from Egypt. In short, a sad story in which there shall be neither place nor time for yourself, so you can sleep peacefully and go to the interrogation tomorrow quite carefree. The Venetian inquisition is long since not what it used to be. The authorities here are currently preoccupied with the ban of games of chance to be proclaimed any day now… Your other concern is regarding the book. For that matter as well let us calculate what can be done. How did you think you might get out of it?
- Here is how – Zaharija could hardly wait to confide in someone the plan forming in his mind – I would correct the incriminated signature sheet as the Viennese censorship wants me to, but into these amended passages I would insert a patriotic poem of mine and attack myself by full name and surname for this poem! And in it I speak of the same issues against the Austrian authorities as Julinac in that part of his book that I shall have to cut out.
- Brilliant! It is so complicated that the Devil himself would not make sense of the mess! Do so and it shall turn out well, but then forget about it right away and take a look at where we are! In Venice! Venice is for enjoyment. And you? You have not even told me how you liked my playing at the conservatory Degli incurabili?
- I was delighted. Here, see, I wear your ring on my hand all the time.
- In that case you owe me something in return. Anna told me that you came to Venice with a little painting of your own crafting. She says it is charming. Angels carrying sheets of music. I would like you to show it to me. Anna thinks you are an excellent sketch artist. Look around you, there is plenty to be seen here by the Venetian painters, down to Tiepolo who throws the legs and elbows of his figures over the frames of the paintings. They run from Tiepolo’s images, but not like you in fear of beauty. They run bringing the beauty to us. You paint as well! I have never heard of any good painter from your homeland, and yet there must be some.
- Of course there are.
- Maybe you will become one of them? What do they paint?
- Frescoes in churches.
- And who is the most famous of them?
- I do not know.
- You do not know? How can that be?
- Nobody knows. They do not sign their paintings.
- But the paintings are there and they must be lovely. Do they paint the “Annunciation”?
- They do. That goes on the doorway of the church.
- That is the scene I love the most. Perhaps because I shall never have children… The conception of a new world and the conception of God… The scene always captivates me. Always three persons of which the two most important (God and Jesus) are never seen in the picture… Just a woman and an angel. Would you like me to show you something? Not far from here is the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. In it there are two famous paintings. Both represent the same event – the “Annunciation”: the angel bringing the Virgin Mary the joyous news that she shall have a child. One of the paintings was made by Leonardo, the other by Tintoretto. Let us go there and I shall show you the two canvases. They are well worth seeing.
And Zabetta hailed a gondola, they sailed across the Grand Canal and docked in front of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. There was only one painting on the ground floor of the building. They paused before it and Zabetta whispered:
- This “Annunciation” was painted by Leonardo da Vinci. His picture flows horizontally, or rather, levitates like scales. On one side is the angel, on the other the Virgin Mary. They are in perfect balance in a perfect garden. She had only just put down her book, he had just alighted with a lily in his hand. Everything is motionless and harmonious. Now we shall climb a few stairs and see, here is Tintoretto’s “Annunciation”. It is a square, and within it a diagonal is woven. The Virgin Mary is sitting in her house, and crashing through the roof from the heavens a flock of angels is descending into the room, with the Archangel Gabriel as the bringer of the glorious news. If all those seen in the flock in the sky rush in, not only the house will fall apart but the entire landscape around it as well, just as the entire world of sin will burst apart with the birth of Jesus Christ. Tintoretto painted the Immaculate Conception as an explosion… If you want to know the thoughts of these two painters, listen to their names.
- How? – asked Zaharija.
- Pronounce their names and you shall hear their paintings. Leonardo da Vinci, which is andante cantabile, and Tintoretto’s burst, subito sforzando! Will not mister Zaharija also try something? Why do you not paint the “Annunciation” as well?
- My nephew Jakov, there, in our homeland, paints effigies, and he has painted the “Annunciation” as well.
- And you? Leave it to others to copy the medals received in battles and priestly robes, even if those copies would bring you membership in the Viennese Academy of Arts, which you dream of, as Anna has told me…
- If I were to paint – Zaharija whispered – I would paint Anna and yourself – but there is one thing in this world that artists are unable to paint. That is the Sun. Nobody has yet painted the Sun, my dear Zabetta…
- But still, how would you paint, for instance, me?
- I dare not say – Zaharija retorted, laughing – it is a bit like my dream on the Rialto…
- Still, do tell!
- It would be a nude.
- A nude?
- Yes. You would be naked in the painting. I thought up such a painting quite a while ago. At the concert. I would release your hair in four thin wisps like the four strings of the “Amati” down your body. These wisps of your hair would be tied to a tuft on your Mound of Venus. They would be borne by a comb that (just like a bridge on a violin) would keep the strings, made of your hair in this case, taut. In my painting you would be fingering the hair with your left hand just as you would a violin, and you drawing a bow across the wisps of your hair just as you would across an instrument built in Cremona… I would paint you playing your own body. And in my painting your body would be an “Amati”. And one more thing. I also know what you would be playing.
- What? – hastened Zabetta excitedly.
- Of course, it would not be seen on the canvas, but I can tell you what it would be. In my painting you would be playing the composition that is said to have been dreamt by its composer. The devil came into his dream with a violin in his hands, sat upon his bed and played an enchanting tune. As soon as he woke the composer wrote it down and so we now have the “Devil’s Trill” by Tartini…
5. The Scales from Pompeii
On that day at the end of June 1765 an Austrian subject of Serbian nationality, belonging by faith to what was in Venice called Graeci non uniti, namely, a Serbian Greek of the orthodox faith independent of the pontificate, found himself by order of the Venetian authorities in the building of the Bussola, where he was shown into a small waiting room full of people. To his amazement, Zaharija found Anna there. She was sitting on the only stone bench, dressed in mourning. So they waited together. People around them came and went, and for the first hour they sat in silence. By the second hour of waiting they remained alone in the room and began to converse.
- That night when maestro Jeremiah died you told me I should think about what actually happened to him. Do you have an answer now? I do not.
- Of course you do not. And so when they ask you here do not give answers you do not have.
At that moment one of the policemen came out of the room and told Anna and Zaharija curtly that they could go home. Zaharija was astounded, and Anna grabbed him by the hand and quickly pulled him into the long corridor leading towards the exit. There they were met by the ghostly apparition of Cristofolo Cristofoli, who raised both his arms and whispered:
- How good that I came across you. How are you Miss Anna? In mourning. Of course. Please come this way. I have a s…s… small chamber for friends hereabouts, I would like to have a chat. If you have a moment?
And Cristofolo shoved them into a tiny room with two benches and a revolving book rack, on which there were no books. On the wall hung the lion of Saint Mark, on the kneeling bench was an open copy of the Bible into which half-filled sheets of paper had been inserted.
- I have long since wanted to ask you, Miss Anna, do you know what this is?
And with an incredibly sweetened right smile Monsignor Cristofolo took from his robe the stone ring that he had taken from maestro Jeremiah’s finger that evening.
- I do – retorted Anna without hesitation – it is a ring believed to change color.
- Do you know what it is for?
- I do. It can foretell if your wishes will come true.
- What wishes?
- Whether you shall have health, happiness or love in life. If it turns green, that means health, red means that you shall be happy, and if it has a bluish gleam, you shall have love. The ring is some kind of luck charm ensuring the soothsayer the fulfillment of what has been foretold.
- Excellent. And now please tell me are you familiar with what was written on the bottom of the glass that was found broken in the room of the late maestro Jeremiah?
- Yes, I am.
- And what was written?
- A verse. Some of the former owners of the glass believed that the incomprehensible verse was in Etrurian.
- Very well, Miss Anna, very well. And can you t… t… tell me what this is?
With these words father Cristofolo turned the revolving rack so that it exposed to the view of Anna and Zaharija the small clay vial found at the feet of the deceased maestro Jeremiah that night.
- I can, Monsignor. It is a bottle that you can usually buy at carnivals where the masked comedies are performed. They are very rare. Brought from Turkey, they call them the Tears of the Madonna, selling them here as a magical potion.
- You are very informed in this matter, dear Miss Anna, so you could tell me one more thing that I would like to know. Do all t… t… these things have something to do with the gentleman here pres… s… sent, Saccarias? Your name is Saccarias, is it not? You have come here from Vienna. So, are there things connected in any way with Mr. Saccarias, with some ring that he possesses, or the l… l… like?
With these words one of his involuntary smiles escaped the Monsignor, and this time it was a left, terrifying smile, one that made Zaharija freeze.
- No, Monsignor, they do not – lied Anna not batting an eyelid.
- Very well, young lady, very well. Now another thing. Does this here present mister Saccarias have bouts of frenzy in which he runs from time to time across the square of Santi Giovanni e Paolo fleeing from you and your beautiful friends mindlessly?
- Yes, Monsignor, he does have bouts of frenzy occasionally.
- Now I would like mister Saccarias to answer me quite briefly… Did you hear the sound?
- The sound? – asked Zaharija in confusion – what sound, Monsignor?
- Never mind, forget it!… Now one more question for signorina Anna, which, to be true, shall not be the last. Are you aware of what maestro Jeremiah used the mentioned objects for?
At this point of the conversation a right smile escaped the Monsignor’s face, one that was enchanting, but that promised nothing, since these smiles obviously escaped him at random and were able to get away because they could not quite be tamed.
- What do you think, signorina, did maestro Jeremiah use these objects, the mentioned glass, ring and magic water, for soothsaying, sorcery, and the casting of spells?
- I think not.
- And why do you think that?
- What would an old and sick man stand to gain from fortunetelling? And the ring and the other items can be used only if you have the desire to forecast your own future. Could maestro Jeremiah hope for health? Happiness? Love?… Besides, if he did wish to try soothsaying, he did not succeed.
- How do you know?
- The ring did not change color. I noticed that before you took the ring from his finger and placed it in your pocket. So either he did not try soothsaying, or he did not get any results.
- Do you know whom the late maestro Jeremiah left his house on the Canal of Miracles to?
Concluding the conversation with this question the Monsignor fired out his left, truly terrifying smile.
- I do not.
- He left it to you… And now you may go.
As they departed from the tiny room, almost running, he startled them once more with the remark:
- Signorina Anna!… Do not let this schiavone get away…
- We can go now, but not home – Anna said outside, her head spinning. – If we go to the green house so full of evil energy, we will unload it all there and breakfast for days on fish with wine tied into knots.
- You are right – Zaharija agreed, but added that he was still racking his brains over something that Monsignor Cristofolo had said.
- What was that sound he asked me about?
- I have no idea. Let us find Zabetta, and I shall ask her. We shall take out a “sanpierotta” for the day and go to the lagoon to bathe.
Zabetta and Anna, while Zaharija waited in the “sanpierotta”, a flat-bottomed rowboat easier to guide than a gondola, arrived carrying a bottle of wine and three masks, two of which were male, and one female. Then they started off towards the lagoon, where they found a deserted cove and disembarked.
There they placed the female mask on Zaharija, removed his clothes, looked him over carefully (which was not a first to them) and, roaring with laughter, pushed him into the sea. Then they hid themselves beneath the male masks, stripped naked and swam after him. A while later, when they returned to shore, Anna opened the bottle, took a sip and gave this mouthful to Zaharija to drink, which they repeated several times. Then Zabetta drank several gulps from the bottle and hurled it into the sea half full, since for understandable reasons it was not prudent to drink from the same vessel after her.
Zaharija wanted to take advantage of the kisses and embrace Anna, but she pulled away with the words:
- Not now, my handsome schiavone, you shall receive all you wish in three months’ time. And now we shall weigh you.
Zabetta burst out laughing, and Anna took tiny scales from her purse and said that they were scales from Pompeii, where they were still made.
- What are they for? – Zaharija asked, and Anna hung the scales upon his male member, stiff as it was, and placed a stone on one of the trays. Seeing his confusion, Anna tried to reassure him:
- Do not misunderstand what is taking place here. It is an ancient custom of measuring happiness and is frequently portrayed on old wall paintings. The more pebbles, the more happiness! Let us see how many pebbles you will be able to bear – she added, at which Zabetta, too, placed one on the scales…
Suddenly Zaharija spilled the stones into the sand, took off the scales and asked:
- Why in three months’ time?
- Because that is when the carnival in Venice begins.
6. The Green Lace Glove
On the fortieth day upon the death of maestro Jeremiah, Anna and Zaharija paid for a mass to be held for him at the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo on the Zannipolo square, where Anna bought three candles that they would light for the dead.
- Who is the third for? – asked Zaharija, and the girl astonished him with her reply:
- You could light one for your brother in skill and compatriot, who is buried here.
- How should I know who. They say he wrote comedies for alley theaters and that his name was probably Marino. You should know better than I do, but you schiavoni know nothing about yourselves. He was a Raguseo and he died here like a banished soul.
Zaharija did not have a clue what Anna was talking about, but still lit a candle for the banished souls.
On their way back they stopped at Anna’s orphanage on the same square, Zaharija took her suitcase, closed his eyes as he passed by the equestrian statue by Verochio and so they moved Anna into the green house, which now belonged to her.
In an ostaria along the way they bought “maialino alla sarda” and some Greek wine from the island of Cyprus, and partook of them for the soul of the deceased. They sat in the maestro’s room in silence, when Zaharija asked:
- What is it that he actually died of? You said that you knew.
- You never give up?
- This time I have several questions to which I can find no reply. Perhaps you can provide them.
- First, did maestro Jeremiah kill the gondolier?
- To come by an object. An object that was very dear to the maestro. A glass. I already told you about that the night we found Jeremiah dead. They had an unsettled score over it. The gondolier was blackmailing the maestro about the sale of the glass. And kept on extracting money from him.
- First of all I have to tell you that maestro Jeremiah was of unusual preferences. Besides being an excellent musician and knowledgeable about herbs, he also gave into darker inclinations from time to time.
- What do you mean?
- He knew how to tell fortunes. For the last year he had been preparing carefully to perform an act of sorcery, or if you prefer, a soothsaying that he cared deeply about. For that he needed the glass.
- Why did he care so much about this fortune telling?
- He wanted to see the future. Maybe because he was so old and ill, he wanted to know something about the days remaining to him. He wanted to know if there is life after death. He wanted to find out if man has a second body after death like our Savior. A ring, holy water and a magic verse can tell a person that. Under the right circumstances. It has been said long ago that truth lies in water, stone and words! And so he decided on a soothsaying that is done with the help of the three mentioned objects. The ring he came about a long time ago, and perhaps it was what lead him to the idea of the fortune telling, for this stone ring (found on his finger the night he died) was of the kind that changes color depending on the energy of the body bearing it. To bring about this change, it was necessary to use the other two things during the sorcery as well, the holy water and some magical mantra. The holy water he bought last year from the local actors, who brought it from Turkey. It is shipped from there to Venice at a dear price, under the name the Tears of the Madonna. The magic verse – the mantra that was also needed for the sorcery to be effective Jeremiah sought for a long time and was finally offered it inscribed on a glass by Sebastian the gondolier, who lived here, near the green house. The maestro bought the glass immediately and paid the price in full, but was not given the glass by Sebastian, who found various excuses to delay the matter. And so the maestro had all he needed for the sorcery except for the verse from the glass, which had remained in Sebastian’s possession. As soon as he had the glass as well he would be able to begin the fortunetelling. However, Sebastian was constantly asking for more money and the night that we went to the concert he told the maestro that he would sell the glass to another if the maestro did not pay more. Then the maestro took his crossbow and from his window shot Sebastian, who was already stepping into his gondola with the glass. Then he went down to the gondola, took the glass and returned to his room where he had the other items he needed for the soothsaying. And so Jeremiah finally had his hands on the magical verse from the glass and began the sorcery.
- And how is that done?
- It is simple. You drink some of the holy water from the vial with the Tears of the Madonna, speak the magic verse and place the stone ring on your finger. If it is all done right, the ring should change color. What your future will be like depends on the resulting color. Like I said at the Bussola to Monsignor Cristofolo, if the ring turns blue it means that the soothsayer shall have love in his life. If the color is green, it means that your life shall be filled with health, and if the ring is red, that foretells happiness.
- So, who should like to see the future can achieve that this way… Does that also go for the afterlife? For the second body?
- Jeremiah hoped that it did.
- And if the sorcery fails?
- The ring does not change color. It remains an ordinary stone ring, just as it was before.
- So maestro Jeremiah attempted sorcery in this fashion and since the spell would not come to him, the ring remained an ordinary piece of stone. This I understand. I also understand why you told Monsignor Cristofolo that the maestro was not soothsaying, since the sorcery had obviously not succeeded, and so the inquisition would not be able to pursue this. But how and why did the maestro die? His heart failed during the sorcery? Was he killed? If so, who killed him?
- His death will surprise you, for on the surface it is not at all in accordance with the relationship between Jeremiah and myself as you might have imagined it. Namely, I am sure you saw our relationship as hearty, almost as one between a father and daughter, or at least a music teacher on one side and his most talented student on the other. However, never trust musicians! There was a horrendous conflict between us, and even a secret war at the time when he bequeathed the house to me, and I would not lie with him in that same house. He was so embittered and, since he had lost all hope that he would break me and drag me into his bed of my own free will or by force, he got it into his head that I wished to poison him. He decided he would beat me to it. He even told me this openly once. He threatened me. He obtained some hemlock in secret and soaked it in white wine. I discovered it by the new smell that ruled the house. I had to use tremendous effort and concentration to find out where and how he was going to use the poisonous plant against me. As you know, he had a great knowledge of herbs and this house was full of plants dried between the leaves of books, crushed and pounded in glass bottles from Murano, which were of different colors, for he knew which color best protected which plant from the sunlight. First I put on my green lace gloves and came to my customary lesson one afternoon. I took care to touch as few objects as possible in the house. When I sat at the harpsichord, I thought I could smell the stench of the poisonous plant more strongly than before and felt that it was best not to take my gloves off before playing, just in case. I must say that I was unsure off all that was passing through my mind. As I was playing I had the feeling that I was wronging my maestro terribly in presuming that he might be able to poison me. And so the lesson ended and I returned to my orphanage with a guilty conscience, but as a precaution I still threw my green lace gloves into the Canal of Miracles. Maestro Jeremiah usually looked out of the window during lessons so I believe he did not notice I was playing in my gloves. I remember that he was not satisfied with how I had played that day. While we were all getting ready to go to Zabetta’s concert, he sat at the harpsichord at the time when he always played, and began playing thinking that the hemlock he had smeared on the two keys of the harpsichord had not adhered, since I had played, and nothing had happened that would harm my health. Had he not noticed that I had not taken off my gloves, or had he forgotten that he had smeared the hemlock on those two keys, I do not know, but he began to play Scarlatti as usual. And then Sebastian cried out to him from the street.
- Chi se? – asked the maestro, not realizing who was calling him.
Sebastian began blackmailing him, requesting that he pay more for the glass. Furious, and probably already affected by the poison that was seeping in to his body through his fingers, Jeremiah, as I told you, killed the gondolier from the window, took the glass from the gondola and returned upstairs to tell his fortune. The hemlock was having a stronger and stronger effect and he did not have time to finish the sorcery. Perhaps he did not kill Sebastian because he was being blackmailed, but because he was fighting for his own life. He felt that he had poisoned himself and was rushing to get to the glass, so that he could try to prevent death with the sorcery. Perhaps he knew also some other spell, similar to the first, that could help against poison. Medicinal even after death… However, God did not give him speedy days and the poison finished him off in the armchair in which we found him after he had drunk the water with shaking fingers and dropped the glass not managing to use the magical verse written on it in time. The only thing he did succeed in doing was wiping the dust from the writing in the glass and that is why the chimico of Monsignor Cristofoli was unable to detect the traces of poison on our maestro’s fingers… That is my assumption.
Night had taken firm hold over Venice when Anna finished her sad tale. Zaharija listened to her completely motionless.
- I shall come to fear you, Anna. It was no accident that I tried to escape from your eyes the very first day. How do you know all this? So much sorcery cannot be picked up at the fish market by the Rialto.
- Do not forget that I am a foundling. We, female foundlings, we grew up and lived in Venetian orphanages full of incurable female secrets. We matured without our parents. No mothers were around to teach us anything. We were mothers to one another. And so our mothers were sometimes younger than ourselves, as is the case with Zabetta and I. The incurabili, the lepers, those that cannot be cured know more than the rest of us. It was from Zabetta that I learned all about the ring, the glass and the Tears of the Madonna…
- And about the hemlock? Who smeared the keys of the harpsichord with poison?
At these words Anna started, froze and hissed through her teeth:
- You tell me, if you know.
- I think you killed him. By poisoned harpsichord. But that is not up to me to investigate. Whoever smeared the two keys of the harpsichord with hemlock, Jeremiah played on this harpsichord and was poisoned. I saw that you had removed the two poisoned keys from the maestro’s instrument – added Zaharija icily – I knew which ones were in question when I listened to the maestro play for the last time that day.
- How did you know?
- I heard. But how did you know? They were fa and re. The very two notes the keys of which are now missing on the harpsichord, because you removed them. Now I know, I listened to Jeremiah play Scarlatti, dying each time he touched the fa or the re on the tenor part of the keyboard… But I do not know and I do not wish to know how you knew which were the two keys smeared with the hemlock? I do not wish to know whether the maestro or someone else smeared them with the poisonous oil. I will not wrong my soul, perhaps you discovered them by the smell. And in the canal that afternoon I saw a discarded green lace glove…
7. The Sonic Thread
The night had entered the hour of fear, for nights in Venice are divided into the time in which you can see the future, the moment of memory and the hour of fear. And at that moment, at the hour of fear, the sound was heard for the first time. Anna and Zaharija turned towards the window as though bewitched. The sound was coming from outside. A thin sonic thread was descending from somewhere in the endless heavens and piercing Venice like a pin would pierce a bug.
The sound was drawn out, rather high and at first nobody in Venice paid it any attention. It was not particularly loud. Then the dogs became uneasy. They began barking in boats as they do at somebody’s invisible presence in the night. Then the birds stopped singing. And the sound continued. Flat, changing neither height nor magnitude, it came down from the sky onto the Earth like a tiny vertical ray or waterfall. It made sleep difficult the first night. In the morning the birds did not rise from their perches, and it was still there. And then, suddenly, another sound could be heard as well, deeper, and obviously spreading horizontally, cutting through the thin sound descending from the heavens. The second sound now seemed to be coming in through one ear and out the other, and the people prayed in the streets, churches and gondolas, some women crossing themselves backwards as against an unholy force. The traders from Egypt claimed that they had trod upon a similar sonic sound stretched taut between the pyramids. It was very much like the one that could now be heard in Venice. The churches began to sound an alarm, and then upon somebody’s order fell silent, the priests began claiming in their sermons that the sound could only be heard by sinners, but then the thing with the frogs occurred. They began falling from the sky. Children cried, and some people spread rumors through the marketplaces that it was the roar of eternity that could be heard at night, descending from the heavens to the Earth and piercing it like a needle, cutting time in half, that came from Satan. And indeed everybody could see that a sound as thin and swift as a female glance stood above Venice splitting the sky, dividing it into light and darkness. And everybody could see that to the left of the sound night had stopped, and day had remained to the right…
Anna and Zabetta were strangely calm, for, as they told Zaharija, they knew when the sound would cease. Zabetta added:
- It is somebody that would like to talk to us, the Holy Spirit is contacting us this way, but we do not understand Him. Not yet…
And just as it had suddenly descended upon Venice, the sound stopped unexpectedly and once more nobody seemed even to notice at first. Everybody was simply awakened one morning by the silence, the chirping of birds and the whisper of the waves, and not by the sound. It had gone. It happened two days after the day that Zabetta and Anna had mentioned…
Zaharija suddenly remembered something. He remembered that Monsignor Cristofolo had asked him at the Bussola if he had heard the sound.
- But that was weeks before the rest of us in Venice heard it! – he told Anna, who calmly retorted that there had been others apart from Monsignor Cristofolo that had also heard the sound before her and Zaharija.
- Who? – blurted out Zaharija as though he knew.
- Zabetta heard it at the same time as the Monsignor.
- You must have frequently heard maestro Jeremiah from your room, as he spoke some strange things and forced me to memorize them…
Anna continued the conversation with Zaharija with these words on an evening three days after the sound had stopped. As though she wanted to patch up life where the sound had torn it in half. And it did indeed turn out to be the finer part of her story. Zaharija absentmindedly struck chords on the harpsichord, the keys of which had now been mended. Anna listened to him in wonder, for it was the first time that she had heard him play, although she knew full well that he must play something when he composed. He was playing a sad song that Anna did not know, a song coming from a nostalgic distance.
- Music is passing through a labyrinth – Anna though. While she was listening to him, Zabetta’s ring gleamed on Zaharija’s hand.
- Where did Zabetta get a ring worth everything and nothing? – he asked and stopped playing – this one, the one on my finger, that she gave to me?
- She was given the ring by the one from whom she got her incurable disease.
- And why did she entrust it to me? Could she not use its magic power herself, having paid so dear a price?
- She told you, the ring could not help her for it could soothsay. Zabetta, with her illness, was horrified at the very thought of her future. Besides, I would not dare peer into my future either. No thank you! That frightens me. And you?
- I think I have no reason to fear my future. I do not know why I think so, but I do. It is somehow all the same to me.
- All right. If you wish, you can very easily see your future. The ring is on your finger, you have the magic verse from the glass, it is sufficient for you to read it only once, at any time, and it shall serve you for the rest of your life. All you need is a clay vial with the Tears of the Madonna. That we shall obtain at the carnival. If you change your mind and decide not to foretell the future, nobody shall be any the worse. The ring looks good on you anyway. Do we understand each other?
- Wait a minute – replied Zaharija – how do you know that I know the verse from the glass?
- Did you not write it down that night, hiding from me, before you threw the remains of the glass into the Canal of Miracles?
- Do you never sleep?… Did the verse not lose its value since it had been used by maestro Jeremiah?
- It did not, for he had used nothing, his sorcery had failed, so the verse and the ring remain effective, which the magic water from the clay vial would also be had Jeremiah not drunk it. The maestro’s ring is with Monsignor Cristofolo, but you have your own. So, as soon as we acquire the magic water, namely the Tears of the Madonna, you shall have it all. It will be for you to decide whether you would like to see what will happen to you in life or not.
- And when can the Tears of the Madonna be obtained?
- I told you, when the carnival begins. But, my handsome schiavone, are you that keen to see your life around the corner?
- It does not mean I shall see only my life around the corner, but yours as well! I want to see our joint future.
- But I do not… and now kiss me, and then to bed!
8. The Comedy of Servants
- You still owe me one more explanation. What was it that the maestro was saying to you incomprehensibly in this room when he forced you to memorize some strange sayings? It could all be heard through the wall.
- I told you that they were “gnomes”. I will explain what that means. It is connected to the comedy of masks, which some call “zanni”, meaning the comedy of “servants”. Others call it “commedia del’ arte”. Whatever they name it, it is eagerly watched by those that do not go to the theater.
- Well where do they watch it then?
- In the street, although street theater and “learned drama”, as some call it, now mingle. Learned drama you can see at the Grimani theater that has existed for over a hundred years, or in the street Cale del teatro. But the carnival here cannot be imagined without the other, street comedy, the “comedy of servants”. They bring before the audience five or six characters that always have the same names, the same masks and the same clothes, but perform a different story every time. There are servants (zanni) and maids (servette), a learned doctor or Balanzon the lawyer, the devilish Harlequin, Punchinello and many more. The most famous are Pantaloon, an old lascivious creature with a black mask and Captain Cocodrillo, whose picture the late maestro had on his wall as you can see.
So, like I said, the actors at the commedia del’ arte wear masks known to everyone and there on the spot, during the performance every evening think up a different game, always some new plot and a solution all’improviso. That is not easy. That is why there are certain aids for the needs of such actors, namely handwritten or printed collections of monologues and tirades, juicy retorts called “lazzi” or lists of sayings (“gnomes”). The late maestro loved the comedy of masks and created and compiled collections of sayings for the Venetian group Gelosi. When he was already getting on in years and had tired, knowing that I had an excellent memory, he dictated the sayings to me, and I memorized them and wrote them down when I got the chance, so that the Gelosi always had new sources of witty words and twists. Finally, I have to tell you one more thing, something directly related to the two of us.
- The two of us? You are joking!
- I am not joking at all. Two characters without masks regularly appear in the performance del’ arte. They need not even be actors in the true sense of the word. It is a young couple in love, bringing as yet unseen costumes into the performance, since they are dressed according to the latest fashion and only they are with uncovered faces. I have already promised the Gelosi group that the two of us shall play the young lovers at the carnival this fall.
- But Anna, I barely even speak Italian, let alone Venetian. Besides, I have never acted in the theater before.
- My dear Saccarias, do not be afraid, you are very good at kissing. I shall do all the talking, and the only thing you shall be expected to do on stage is to kiss me. Basta! The matter was settled long ago and we cannot leave the actors high and dry…
There is a holiday in Venice that lasts half a year, and is awaited the other half. It is the carnival. The matter begins in October and lasts for about five months. During that time anyone, from a maid and a beggar to a Doge, can come out into the streets with a mask and concealed from himself and from others become part of a crows of thousands of people disguised in the most incredible clothes and prepared for countless follies.
Zaharija lost and re-found Anna again with incredulity in the canals and bridges full of Harlequins, Punchinellos, Pantaloons and Brigelles, satires and devils, fishermen from Chigoja, old ladies with cats on their backs, Spaniards, Armenians, peanut vendors, kings, sorcerers, healers, fake noblemen, fake highwaymen, pirates from non-existing ships, fake peasant girls, fake old men, fake gondoliers, fake charcoal peddlers, and fake grand dames. And all of them frequented the animal fairs, puppet shows, fortune tellers’ tents and charlatans, or balls and festivities. There were witchdoctors healing sorrows with hot colored stones, healers curing old age by forcing you to run backwards with the assurance that this method was brought to Venice from the Far East as early as by the famous Marco Polo.
It seemed that this is where half of Europe wished to be, and among others countless courtesans found their place here as well, for to them this carnival was always a golden time and a matter of prestige in their trade. Hearing that Voltaire could be run into in the streets of Venice those days, Zaharija was extremely excited, for in his new manuscript he was leading a heated debate with this French writer. But in Venice during the carnival nobody could be found, so Zaharija could not even dream of meeting this French philosopher whose judgment regarding a conspiracy against the Russian Czar Peter the Great Zaharija was unable to agree with. Disguised as adventurers, this was the gathering place of foreigners persecuted at home for a thousand and one frauds who rented the safety of a Venetian stay under masks, while the sovereigns of foreign countries chose, instead of the pomp and ado of official visits, a private respite and anonymous good time at the carnival. And at the bottom of each male mask, one could expect, which the women around Zaharija did expect all the time, the irresistible Casanova, of enchanting good looks, the poisoner, informer and lover without match, who was all the rage of the Republic of Saint Mark in those days. Thefts, snatchings, adultery and procuring of women, murders and poisonings natural leapt out from beneath the carnival robes of the visitors all the time, and Zaharija, amazed at all these wonders, asked Anna:
- Are the Venetian authorities going to permit such crowds and unruliness in the squares and canals to drag on for months?
Instead of a reply Anna raised her hand and rubbed her thumb and finger together before Zaharija’s nose.
- Money, my dear, money. Now gold and silver coins are running through the canals of Venice instead of water! Everybody here stands to gain from the carnival. From innkeepers and caterers, gondoliers, porters, tradesmen, to tailors, wigmakers and manufacturers of masks. All of them, down to the Andalusian gipsy who came here to sell scented soap from Seville. And let us not forget that the most profit from the carnival shall be gained by the Venetian republic and – the actors. They are the gods of the carnival, for they wear masks all the time, and not just for masquerades. And since we have a performance with the Gelosi troop tomorrow, you too shall profit, my fine schiavone… You too shall profit, do not worry!
Around six o’clock in the afternoon a large lacquered gondola dropped two young people off at the Campo Morosini where they could barely step out onto dry land from the masses crowding the square. The girl wore a white silk dress and white gloves with fingernails of red varnish attached, and her companion a white silk robe and embroidered shoes. They both wore small masks called bauta, and were handsome and slender so that the crowd cried out when they saw them. They were Anna Pozze, harpsichordist from the Ospedale di Santi Giovanni e Paolo and Zaharija Orfelin, proof-reader at the Venetian publishing house of mister Dimitris Teodosi.
Among the vendors of magic potions, charms and relics, who had already gathered under a stage, they knew that they must first seek out somebody from Turkey. In Venice that meant a person from the other side of the border that the Turks had penetrated to in Europe. Two actors from the Gelosi group pointed out to them an old lady shouting out in Venetian with her arms raised:
- May I be endowed only by those ladies that have never been unfaithful to their husbands! Only by them!
- She is not from Turkey – Anna said.
- How do you know?
- She speaks Venetian better than Alviso Mocenigo
- Who is Mocenigo?
- What do you mean who? The Doge!
The next woman shown them was young and beautiful in black clothes. She was eating goat cheese with baked pumpkin. Zaharija thought that this could be their opportunity, but instead of replying whether she came from Turkey, she opened her mouth and out came a live snake flicking its tongue. Then the young woman turned towards a Venetian in a purple mask and started casting witchcraft to protect her from evil spells. Swiftly she said:
The cheese was hard as bri, bri, brick,
he had an aching di, di,
dingy tooth from the cheese,
the priest called barber, please,
do come help.
Barber came to the ya, ya, yard
And he grew rightly ha, ha,
hearty and very kind,
said if the priest won’t mind,
let’s have a look!
As he listened to her Zaharija burst out laughing and said to the fortuneteller:
- You are from Turkey, one of ours! I can see how you are making jackasses of these Venetians here.
The terrified fortuneteller began begging Zaharija not to renounce her. Anna listened to her in amazement as she fired out in some incomprehensible language:
- Do not betray me, my kind sir, bless you! I shall take your fine soul to water morning and night, I can be of use to you, so help me Archangel, I am no imposter, seven goats were offered for me in Captat and in Drievo a wreath of the hottest peppers… I shall sell your missus this wooden clock cheap, to be carried in her waistband when she travels!
And the soothsayer took from her scarf a wooden triangle etched with some lines and handed it to Anna, offering it in poor Italian.
- How can this be a clock? – Anna retorted, her hackles rising – what moves it? The wind?
- Not wind, sun, my dove – the soothsayer began in what little Venetian she knew – if you not want, maybe you want stud to make you clap?
Luckily, Anna did not understand the double entendre of the fortuneteller or she would have lashed out at her right there on the Morozini square. Zaharija interjected into the quibble:
- Now my dear, enough fun and games. I am here because I am needy, just like you.
- And what do you need, my pretty?
- I am looking for something, and perhaps you will know where it can be found.
- I will know, my Jurje, I have bewitching eyes that see everywhere, I can raise a man from his sleep with my glance, and drive his woman into another’s dream. I shall find you what you desire, if I have to seek water in fire…
- I need a vial of Tears of the Madonna.
The fortuneteller fell silent. Then she said gruffly:
- I have none. And it shall do you no good either.
- Because it is worth everything and nothing. Have you the saying of Artemis and the ring? If not, it is worth nothing.
- That is my concern. Just find me a vial of the Tears of the Madonna and that is all.
- For that one has to go all the way to Constantinople. It is expensive. And I do not have it.
- Who does?
- I will pay. Ask Djurdje.
- Djurdje is not here. Djurdje you have to wait for.
- How long?
- A little while. Until the clock strikes.
The fortuneteller, however, did not omit to serve other customers. And she was less frightened than she made out. From the Venetian lady in the purple mask she took a tip as though she had indeed performed her sorcery, and at an old man who moaned and wailed about the price for the green egg of a rooster asking if devils hatched from it she snapped:
- You want cream with the egg as well? Well, no cream, my friend. I have not milked myself for a long time so there is none.
And she said all this in Zaharija’s and her own language not at all distracted by the fact that they did not understand her, and that did not prevent her from selling her goods and services well. She offered magical buttons that fell off when sang to, and could show tits of an occasion, she offered edible female panties and the finger of the unbelieving apostle Thomas in a small box of camel bone. When a young man asked her to cast a spell on matters of love she told him to close one eye and fired out:
If you saw my leg to the knee
You would not know whence came you
And if you were to lay with me
You would not know who bore you…
Interrupting these petty matters Zaharija asked the fortuneteller:
- How much longer do we have to wait?
- Until the stroke of midnight, my friend. It cannot be faster than it is.
- All right, but tell me what it is that you shall sell me in fact?
- What you have asked for, you shall receive. Did you not seek the Tears of the Madonna, my fair one?
- What are the Tears of the Madonna?
- You do not know, yet you wish to buy?
- If I did, I might not be buying them.
- Well, let me tell you. Look up, above you. What do you see?
- Stars, what else would I see at night?
- Ah, those are not stars. They are the Virgin Mary’s tears. The souls of young children that have died, as they pass into the other world, hold on to the Virgin Mary’s tears so they do not lose their way and fall into the hands of the black princes of heaven. And they feed on those tears along the way. And tears, my friend, are salty, just as we are. Just lick the sweat of that beauty of yours and you will know that life is but salty water… There, we have bided the time with this talk, and midnight has struck…
When the final strike fell silent, the fortuneteller shouted out:
- Djurdje, oh Djurdje!
A tiny old man with hairy eyes and ears stepped out before them. All muddy.
- A mouth like the opening of a sock! – the fortuneteller jeered and whispered something into his ear. Djurdje bleated like a goat and shook his head, refusing the woman’s request. The fortuneteller stared straight at his mustache and right before Zaharija’s and Anna’s eyes the mustache ignited and was about to burst into flames, but Djurdje swiftly put it out with his hands. Then with his sooty hands he took from his pockets two clay vials just like the one that had been found by the feet of the late maestro Jeremiah.
- I had to go all the way to Ephesus to fetch them – he complained as he handed the fortuneteller one of the tiny bottles. She placed two fingers into her mouth and let out a loud, sharp whistle, adjusting its direction. Struck by this whistle, a small cut appeared on the old man’s forehead. He slapped the place as though swatting an insect and handed the fortuneteller the other clay vial wordlessly, and mumbled:
- There, there, why are you so down at heart? You get angry you little creature, and Djurdje was just confused!
The fortuneteller took the other vial and said to Djurdje:
- And now I shall pay you for your troubles and your goods.
Djurdje clapped his hands joyfully, and the woman stretched out her fist towards Djurdje, opened it, and on her palm there was a live butterfly that she offered to Djurdje. He laughed with that mouth of his like the opening of a sock, grabbed the butterfly and swallowed it hastily. Then he rushed off quick as a flash and disappeared in the crowd.
- Do not worry, it is real! – said the fortuneteller as she handed the bottle to Zaharija taking twice as much money for it as the buyers had expected.
- Is that not a bit much? – asked Zaharija in surprise.
- Well, my fine sir, you too must be from Turkey – the fortuneteller snapped – you raise an upir from the grave, spirit it to Venice so the upir could serve him, and he thinks it too much! Expensive! It is too much, my fine young man, when you are beaten!
- What is an upir? – asked Anna.
- A vampire. An upir is a vampire – Zaharija explained.
- So Djurdje was a vampire? – asked Anna, horrified.
- Of course, did you not notice?
At that moment a gaudy crowd of actors in masks started out onto the stage, dragging Anna and Zaharija with them. Pantaloon, in a mauve robe with a bird on his white cap removed their masks, while the rest of the actors remained disguised. The actor used the opportunity to give Anna a pinch, at which she giggled and slapped him on the hand. One of the servettes looked over Anna’s dress with envy and hatred, and then showed Zaharija how she could nurse herself.
And then a complete chaos set in. Zaharija understood nothing at all in the whirl of Venetian jokes, rush and tricks of light on the stage. All he could sense was that this turmoil was taking them all somewhere at lightening speed. At one moment he made out in surprise that one of the masks was saying: “the difference between two women is always greater than the difference between a man and a woman…”, which the audience received with roars of laughter. Zaharija remembered in a flash that those were the “gnomes” of the late Jeremiah that Anna had taken down for the actors. It made him feel more comfortable somehow and this whole affair he had found himself in that was unstoppably building up momentum seemed less terrifying and coarse. Then a Harlequin in a domino of green, yellow and red struck him from behind and shoved him straight into Anna’s arms. Anna noticed that Zaharija’s hair smelt of smoke, and his body of some unknown tea, kissed him passionately and cried out in some voice not at all like her own:
- Now you can take me, my love! We have awaited this moment of happiness for so long! I shall give myself to you here and now! Take me! – she shouted in a hoarse alto that resembled the actors’ sighs of the masks around them.
- But Anna – Zaharija whispered – there are hundreds of people watching us!
- And how will they notice that we are not acting, but truly making love? – she whispered – that you can never tell. Nobody here will be able to guess if we are really doing or are not doing what they expect to happen on the stage anyway!
- But Anna, these people are known to you, there, I see Zabetta in the audience – whispered Zaharija while Pantaloon moped around, using the opportunity to lean on Anna from behind, which she did not mind much, it seemed…
- May all of Venice see you make love to me and take my virginity! – she shouted to the crowd, and to Zaharija she whispered as she gave herself to him – that is all they wish to see. That is why they have come here tonight and they can hardly wait…
With those words Anna pulled Zaharija onto her, and he, like in the dream, when he was forcing his way through the masses on the Rialto bridge naked, pushed Pantaloon away and forced his way into the body of Anna Pozze. The applause with which the viewers greeted the female cry of pain and sweetness as they hailed the loss of Anna’s virginity could not be mistaken.
9. The Four-Zero Dress
That morning in 1768 mister Dimitris Teodosi put away his golden toothpick for good into his writing desk, since it could be of no more use. With it he forever stored into that desk all his golden and silver trader’s smiles and signed both documents that had been waiting there since the night before. He had always written, calculated and kept his trade books standing up. And now it was coming to an end. First he signed a petition for Zaharija Stefanovic Orfelin to be appointed auditor in his publishing house, reminding the Venetian authorities, whom he was addressing, that Zaharija and his wife Anna (nee Pozze) were citizens of Venice. The second signature he placed on a document by which he bequeathed his shops in Venice and the entire Austrian empire and his Venetian publishing house to his relative Pana Teodosi, with a period of two years in which to take over the operations.
Zaharija brought Anna the joyous news of his promotion together with a gift. He had obtained for her a book of compositions written by Giovanni Pauluci. Zaharija’s wife and he now lived at the green house. Anna had filled their marital bed with red and black cushions; and they had four head-rests, in the shape of spades, clubs, hearts and diamonds. The bed was always full of small copper coins, which were uncomfortable to lie on and served as protection against evil spells. At night, in her sleep, Anna cried blue boyish tears from the orphanage, which stained the bedclothes.
Zaharija accompanied the present and the good news from the publishing house, which also presumed a raise, with a proposal regarding an important acquisition:
- Now we will be able to buy a rowboat or Sebastian’s gondola. Nobody uses it any more!
- We will not be able to buy a thing – Anna replied coldly – for all you earn you spend alone. You are throwing money away.
- What am I throwing money away on? – asked Zaharija in shock.
- You spend it all on books.
- What books? – he asked in surprise.
- You know very well what books. You think I do not know you leave them at the publishing house so I would not know what you had used the money for.
- But those are just a few books I need for my work.
- Just a few books? And what is this?
And from a carnival mask hung on the wall Anna took a sheet of paper and raised it to his eyes. The sheet was full of mistakes and written in her plain handwriting:
Г. Ричков, Очерк казан’ској истории, Lib. I
Johann Frederick Joackim, I-II
Lacombe, Državne promene u ruskom carstvu, t. II
dr Bisching, Geographia, tom I
Описание Житија Пресветлејшеј Екатерини Алексеевни,Царици и Императрици Россијској, Frankfurt 1728.
Stralenberg, Historische und geographische Beschreibung der Nortоstlische Eurоpa und Asia. t. III
Florus, gest. Rom.
Diodor Sicul, Libr. II, Edit Wechel.
Constant. Porphyr. De administrando Imper. Constantinopol, Edit. Venet.
Rokoles, Pisma čuvenih obmanjivača (u dve knjige)
Voltaire, Histoire de Charles XII, 1731.
Voltaire, Histoire de l’Etat Russe sou la reigne de Pierre le Grand, 1760.
Isto, u redakciji Bišinga
Abbe Catifore, Vita de Pierre Le Grand
Meсјач. Сочиненија на год 1763. Tom II
Историја о Персидском Шахе Тахмас Кули-Хане, книга I
Шмаус, Историја соотношении между норд. силами, книга 2.
- Where did you get this? – asked Zaharija in amazement.
- You know where I got it and you know my memory is excellent – one look at the shelf with your books at the publishing house is enough for me to remember each title. And that is what I did, and then later on, at home, I wrote all the books down as best I knew how. Of course, there are more, but this too is enough to show that it is all turning into madness. Now you have to tell me where all this is leading us?
- I have decided to write and print with mister Teodosi the most luxurious book of the century! Just listen and you shall see what a grand project it is. It shall be a monograph on the Russian Czar Peter the Great! The title would be:
A History of the Life and Famous Deeds of the Great Master and Emperor Peter the First
I am getting ready to include a geographical and political description of Russia in eighteen chapters on more than 800 pages, the old Russian history, the rule of M. F. Romanoff and Aleksey Mihajlovich, the uprising of Stenjka Razin, the wars of the Russian with the Swedes and Poles, the accession of Feodor Aleksijevich to the imperial throne and the wars against Turkey…
At these words Anna sat at the harpsichord and began playing absentmindedly. Zaharija paused for a moment, and she asked:
- Are you intending to write the history of some kind of Scythian peoples?
- No! – he shouted out testily – on the contrary, it is just an introduction. In fact I shall portray the entire history of the Russian Czar Peter the First, describing his ascension to the throne, the peace with China, the war at Azov, construction of the great fleet, the Czar’s secret voyage to Germany, Holland and England, the beginning of the reforms in Russia, the war with the Swedes, inviting of foreigners to Russia, the descent on Arhangelsk and the confederation in Poland…
- Wait a minute, Saccarias, wait a minute! What are you talking about? Things that happened before the Flood and in places that the Flood never included? What do you want with this czar whose name I can’t even remember? Who is he?
- What do you mean who is he? He, Anna, built one of the most beautiful cities in the world, the northern Venice! A city on canals just like this here town of yours, but in the Finnish bay of the Baltic Sea.
- Where is that?
- Far up to the North.
- I do not understand. It must be cold there, what do those poor people do in this city on the water under snow and ice? Do you have much more to say about this?
- I do, by all means – Zaharija retorted and continued - I will then portray the Czar’s battle with the Swedes in Courland, the uprising of the Kazaks of the Don district, the marriage of Peter the Great to the Empress Katarina, preparations of the Swedish king Karl XII to invade the Ukraine, the betrayal of the Kazak hetman Mazepa, the battle of Poltava and the defeat of the Swedes. Then the description of the new war with Turkey, the moving of the senate from Moscow to St. Petersburg, adopting the law on the dividing of estate. After that there would be word on the Czar’s love of science, new wars at sea would be described, the trade relations with Persia and India, the relations with Montenegro, the creation of the geographic map of Russia and the founding of the marine academy…
As Zaharija listed his plans, short of breath, Anna continued to pick over the keys of the harpsichord absentmindedly. What she was playing was disturbing his concentration, for the melody that she was performing on the harpsichord was unfamiliar to him, but captivating. Like a child creating music. The song was in B-major, but in some strange way carried a parallel g-minor. He could hear Ana thinking with her ears and speaking with her fingers. And that she could no longer hear her husband.
- Listen! Why do you not return to music? You can do that, you proved it even before you came here – his playing was telling him. Return to me… And then she suddenly cut short the melody, struck an arpeggio and ended it with a loud chord. She turned to face her husband and closed her eyes, listening to him.
- The coming of the horde of Tatars, the Czar’s voyage to Germany, the beginning of the rift between the northern forces and Peter the Great, the voyage to Holland and France, the project of the theologians from the Sorbonne on the joining of the churches and the conclusion of the Russian episcopes on this matter…
- Stop, my dear, stop. I do not understand a thing, and I am not interested. What are you doing there?
- The Czar brings a decree on confession, a decree on monsters, founds shelters for the poor and begins peace negotiations with Sweden. Then comes the description of the construction of the Ladosh canal. the sending of an emissary to China, a census of the Russian population, banishment of Jesuits from the Empire, founding of the postal service, an attack on the Stockholm shore by the Russian fleet and the signing of a peace treaty with Sweden. The Czar secures the borders towards Persia, undertakes a descent on Persia and conquers Derbent. The onset of hunger in Russia…
- Now that is enough, my dear, for there shall be hunger in our family as well, if you realize that which you are intending!
- What do you mean?
- Hey, hey, hey! Come to your senses! Is there anything else in your mind except for this horror? Is there anything nice?
- There is – replied Zaharija and continued – the coronation of the Russian Empress Katarina! That was one of the most dignified and beautiful processions of the entire century! I shall begin a description of the joyous event by detailed reports on the imperial cavalry, then a description of the procession following behind, with the pages of Her Highness with their hoffmaster, grand master of ceremony, Brigadier Shuvalov with his staff, two state heralds in their robes of gold-threaded crimson velvet, with staffs in hand. They were followed in the coronation procession of the Russian Empress by the imperial regalia bearing the following:
1. An imperial robe, on two cushions, carried by the secret allies Grand Duke Galicin and Count Osterman. The robe had then been newly-made and was of a fabric embroidered in gold, lined with the fur of white ermine, thickly decorated with sewn-on two-headed eagles of gold. The buckle was made of huge diamonds…
Here Anna seemed to start paying attention to her husband’s words. She began running her fingers over the keys again, adding a dreaminess to the song she was playing.
2. An imperial apple on a golden cushion borne by the secret advisor Prince Dolgoruki. The apple was of pure gold, with a cross on top, which was, like the circumference of the apple, studded with diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds.
3. The state scepter on a cushion was carried by secret advisor Count Musin-Pushkin. This scepter is gilded and sprinkled with diamonds, with the Russian two-headed eagle on top. It is the same scepter borne by Russian Czars at coronations and anointments since the olden days.
4. The imperial crown on a cushion was carried by General Count Brjus. The crown was new, studded with diamonds of various sizes. The pearls on it were the most beautiful, fabulously large and all of the same color. The ruby, placed at the top of the crown and on which there was a cross also arranged of diamonds was of incomparable gleam and large as a pigeon’s egg, therefore it is no wonder that this crown, according to the testimony of a foreign chronicler, cost half a million rubles.
5. Behind them was grand marshal Count Tolstoy with his marshal’s staff on the top of which was the Russian eagle in massive gold, and above it an emerald the size of a chicken’s egg.
6. His Imperial Highness Peter the Great was also in this part of the procession. Beside him, slightly back, were General-Field-Marshal Prince Menshikov and Count Ryepnin.
7. Behind them was Her Lady Highness in an extravagant dress purchased in Paris…
At these words Anna Pozze, who was gazing through the window absently as her husband was speaking, suddenly turned around. Her eyes flashed and she asked with a flutter:
- How much did that dress ordered from Paris cost?
- The coronation dress, or Her Majesty’s cassock – replied Zaharija readily – cost four thousand rubles.
- What does that mean? How am I to know how much money that is?
- Six thousand six hundred sixty six florins… But let me finish what I started, I want you to know what else I planned to include in the book…
And as Anna Pozze was looking at her husband in amazement, he was drawing his endless listing to a close…
- At the end of the second book I shall describe the illness and death of the Czar and his daughter the Crown Princess Natalija Petrovna and the joint funeral of father and daughter. I shall publish two versions of the book – one signed and richly illustrated, and one unsigned, without illustrations. The book would include 65 of my copper engravings: there would be maps, medals, portraits, battle plans and fortress layouts and images of the punishment of rebels. The illustrated and signed version I would sent to the Russian Empress Katarina the Great as a gift… The image of Peter the Great I have already engraved from the medals forged during his day and I have printed one of the engravings at Teodosi’s publishing house to show you, for I am very pleased with it. Look!
While Zaharija was talking, Anna sat with her eyes closed, breathing deeply. She did not open them to see the picture that Zaharija was showing her. Slowly appearing on the face of his wife and rolling down her cheeks first from one eye and then the other were those blue boyish tears brought to the green house from the orphanage. Finally she smudged a handkerchief with them and said:
- Now listen to me carefully, Saccarias! You are to forget all that nonsense immediately! For ever! Can you not see where it is leading us? My dear schiavone, you are all talented and stupid. Such a book would give you immense headaches not only with the Austrian authorities, but wherever you go, and we would never recover! Besides, who will read a book like that? You say yourself that nobody speaks this language that you are writing in over there in your homeland, and certainly nobody reads it. You shall never sell it, and it will be banned before you even manage to place it in a bookshop. Not to mention the cost, the waste of energy and time. We shall never say another word on this matter…
- But Anna, it would be my life’s work! If I throw this away I shall never be able to be happy.
- Did somebody promise you that happiness, health and love would go together, like a tail and ears with an ass? Choose, my dear, choose at least one. Is it not enough that you have my love? It is not written that mortals shall have all three at the same time. Besides, you are already unhappy! You think I do not know that you have covertly been writing the book “Apostle milk” every night, for your child that you left in the arms of some maid over in your Sclavinia in the wind and the snow? But you know, you know damned well, that a book can never replace a father or a mother to a child. Nor a husband to a woman. And that makes you unhappy, but not unhappy enough to hear the sound that Monsignor Cristofoli asked you about.
- What sound? – asked Zaharia in surprise. Anna suddenly cheered up, wiped her tears and replied:
- The sound that all of Venice heard, including you. He who knows, knows that this sound is one that deeply unhappy people can hear all the time. Their misery seems to attract it. Zabetta, for example, can hear it whenever she likes… Now come here, my dear schiavone, and look through this window. What do you see?
- What do you mean? I see Venice.
- Is it pretty?
- Enchanting as always.
- That is not true! A hundred years ago it was prettier!
- You people from Venice have been saying that for three centuries now.
- Of course, and we are always right. Now tell me, do you know which day it is today?
- No. Why?
- You will find out immediately. Get dressed, we are going out. Today is the 21st of November, the day Madonna della Salute is celebrated, in gratitude for the fact that she stopped the plague several centuries ago. All of Venice is out on the water. Let us go and take part in the festivities and celebrate it in our own way.
And Anna showed her astonished husband her new dress.
- Do you know what this is? – she asked him, and immediately replied – it is a four-zero dress! But it truly is worth it.
The dress was long, of heavy, embroidered fabric, suitable for the time of year, and it had a very high slit in the back, reaching almost to the waist, but crafted so cunningly that it was unnoticeable.
When they reached the bridge that was to lead them across to the Dorso duro where the church of Santa Maria della Salute was located, they found a crowd of people looking on from the bridge at the gondolas and boats on the Grand Canal, decorated for the holiday with flags and artificial birds. Anna also leaned over the railing to take a look, the crowd pushed from behind them, Zaharija found himself pressed against her and she opened the slit of her new dress a bit and whispered to him over her shoulder:
- Now my love, now is the time! Take me!
And Zaharija forgot about their surroundings, forgot his name, what he did and where he was and plunged into Anna again as though he were thrusting naked through the masses on the Rialto bridge in his dream once more. He could feel all the touches, shoves and pushes of the crowd pass on through him to his wife, who, squeezed and bent across the railing, in a voice mindless with passion screamed out ostensibly to the people in the boats under the bridge:
- Bra-vi! Bravi! Bra-aavi!
There are many ways and paths hidden in things. There is an old legend on Corfu, where the Venetian fleet was frequently anchored. On Corfu, they say, ships and boats never had oars or sails. Since the ancient times of the “Odysseus” the vessels around the coast of Itaka, Zakynthos, Corfu and other Ionian islands, instead of utilizing the strength of wind and muscle, moved with the help of the currents. Perhaps the Venetian fleet managed to inherit a part of this ancient skill, and use this to become one of the mightiest masters of the Mediterranean. Perhaps its admirals, when the wind let them down, know how to make use of the hidden strength of the underwater flows running through the sea. Zaharija, whom Anna told this tale of strange vessels driven by a secret force, perhaps at a time when he felt all alone in Venice, without sails or oars, came to the conclusion that in life as well a person could be headed towards the future with the help of some hidden forces, not available to everyone… If he has no wind or oars to move him. We shall never know how he decided to try out other, secret possibilities of moving through his own life and the lives of others. But we do know that he made this decision… He had to choose between two of his loves, books and Anna. Anna made this clearly known to him. She said:
- Choose: either Peter the Great or Anna Pozze, the choice is yours!
And Zaharija made his choice.
On that afternoon in January Anna was returning home wearing her new, specially tailored dress, suited to the unusual love-making habits of her husband and herself. From the Santi Giovanni Christosomo canal she could hear music. Somebody was playing Tartini. She soon concluded with considerable anxiety that the sound was coming from the green house. Somebody inside it was playing a violin made in Cremona, as Anna could tell straight away. The instrument heard from the green house was one made by Amati. Anna knew who was playing it. Shaking slightly, she ran up the stairs and opened the door to the maestro’s room. Zaharija was lying completely naked on the settee with Venetian silk covers sweet on the tongue. Zabetta was sitting on top of him. All she was wearing was the “Amati” violin. She was playing Tartini. Her body conveyed the tremors of the “Devil’s Trill” to Zaharija, thrust deep inside her. Zaharija’s right hand was holding Zabetta’s huge nipple, and his left hung from the settee resting half-open on the floor.
One might think that the first thought in Anna’s mind was a curse directed at the bitch Zabetta, but no! There was none of that. She stood there watching like petrified. The tremors of the “Devil’s Trill” were slowly fading and Zabetta finally slumped over her lover. Her hand with the bow fell to the floor by the couch and upon it a stone ring could be seen. Anna’s eyes filled with the blue boyish tears from the orphanage and she suddenly realized several things. The ring was on Zabetta’s hand again. Meaning Zaharija had returned it. He had obviously also given her the miraculous water bought at the carnival. And the magic words from the glass. He, therefore, did not wish to see his own fate. It was obvious that Zabetta, and not Zaharija, had undertaken the mystical ritual with the verse, the Tears of the Madonna and the ring. It was obvious that they had decided to discover Zabetta’s, and not Zaharija’s future. That this had been successful could be seen by the fact that the ring on Zabetta’s hand had changed color. But what the color said was what would have been least expected. The ring on Zabetta’s hand was green! And that meant health! Anna read the message in amazement: the ring was announcing something wrong, something incomprehensible. Its green color was guaranteeing that Zabetta would have health, which was the only thing she did not have and could never have again! Was the ring lying?
At that moment Anna heard the sound.
The sound was high and thick like a swift female glance.