Bone-barges, tiny coins, Daguerre photographs, pestilent centuries, Carnevale romances, high-water marks, ancient nuns, tricorne hats & the Square of the Pork Butchers.
W alking the fondamenta on Venice’s north lagoon, I see the snowy Dolomite Alps as if through a lens. This rare sight, such clear skies in February—a good omen, I decide. Somewhere out there in the bright lagoon is an island of bones, a mountain of skulls—skools, says Antonello, the bearded Italian archeologist. Plague victims from 1300s to the 1600s and bodies exhumed from San Michele and moved by bone-barge to the osseria, thousands of nameless skeletons.
Antonello tells me he worked mapping the north lagoon and its scattered islands. “What is word in English?” I realize their survey used a drone. Si, si, his drone passing over a mountain of skulls, bones dumped over pestilent centuries. Medical students stole skulls and bones for study. Antonello worked repairing the façade of the church on San Michele, the cemetery island—high tides washing into the stone church. Antonello mentions the poet Joseph Brodsky buried close to Ezra Pound and Olga Rudge and a few drowned sailors. Antonello likes Brodsky, but says Ezra is problematic, fascista. That’s why only a bush at his grave while flowers blanket the others. Stravinsky lies there with coins on his slab, Russian dancers with rain-grey ballet slippers left for them, Doppler’s coloured lights on double stars!
We drift to a bar on the canal, amber Nuda & Cruda beer at sunny outside tables. Winter, but we’ve had such good luck with the sun. Don’t forget that Ezra was a sharp editor for T. S. Eliot and sent shoes to James Joyce.
I like a table where locals can roar up in speedboat wash and shout such a line.
A speedboat pulls up beside our table, at the wheel a man yelling wildly, “Ubriaconi molesto!”
Clarissa translates: “Drunkards! I molest you!”
Someone inside the bar waltzes out and bear-hugs the man beside the canal. I like a table where locals can roar up in speedboat wash and shout such a line.
By our tables a sign reads, “Table Service? No Fucking Way!” When you go inside to order, the tip jar is labeled TRUMP ASSASSINATION FUND. The bartender wears an LA Kings hockey jersey and a ton of rings and gold chains; he cranks up crap rap and we move on, walking secret routes to avoid the horrible Strada Nova, the main artery through Venice from the train station to San Marco square. The Bridge of Fists, the Alley of Assassins, Square of the Pork Butchers, Street of Proverbs, the Bridge of the Honest Woman, Ponte delle Tette, literally the Bridge of Breasts, where ladies once displayed themselves in windows above.
An African guy sees me walking and his face lights up. “You look like my father! You from Kenya?” He is very dark and I am pale as Santa. I greatly admire this line, but it is a ploy for money that I have heard before; forgive me if I do not stop to chat with my new son.
Africans and locals are rare, but Venice is crammed with Brits. “Shooting is canceled Monday; that means we get rat-arsed Sunday night!” “Oy, you right cunts, I’m out 50 quid!” Once the English tongue was posh and snotty; now the lexicon is garbled yob-speak, and the shift happened in minutes.
Near Santi Apostoli a café plays old jazz standards, big band, swing, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, “Love for Sale” (who’s prepared to pay the price?). Dominating an entire wall is an impressive black-and-white Daguerre photograph of Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five circa the Roaring Twenties.
The Bridge of Fists, the Alley of Assassins, Square of the Pork Butchers, Street of Proverbs, the Bridge of the Honest Woman, Ponte delle Tette, literally the Bridge of Breasts, where ladies once displayed themselves in windows above.
The waitress is formal, almost flamenco: raven hair pulled back, starched white top and black tights. She brings me an Ichnusa lager from Sardinia and she shows me a turntable and racks of LPs. I find Howlin’ Wolf on vinyl and am happy.
They show me how high the floodwater reached inside, the stain on the wall knee high, but they point to their chest for the height of tides filling San Marco Square a few blocks away—all these lanes roiling with filthy, salty water.
The salt rots a place if not cleaned with freshwater. How to make it dry? “We turn up the heat and it dries. We cleaned and opened every night,” our waitress says proudly.
A chef in Cannaregio tells me the tide came over the gates in his doorway, destroying a refrigerating unit worth eight thousand euro—his first year in business, all new equipment.
“Bad luck,” he says, rubbing his head, “but we are Venetians, we are stubborn, we’ll survive. It’s water; we’re not dead.”
At a tiny table, a couple finishes a big bottle of red wine. The young British man has a giant Jimmy Durante nose and is thin as a cricket in the limpest T-shirt in history and striped sweatpants—a tall insect cut from a soccer tryout. A demure young Asian woman sits across from him, her jet bangs trimmed just so, scarlet lipstick, a fashionable scarf draped over her fashionable sweater. The two do not match.
He says, “You have a type. Maybe it’s tall, dark and handsome. But at the end of the day, that doesn’t matter. If an attraction is there, at the end of the day types go out the window.” She is shy, her voice quieter than his. A Carnevale romance and he is trying for philosophy, trying to keep her from slipping away. Beau Brummell doesn’t care about any virus, leans to kiss her, but she looks at her phone. Her smile, however, is playful.
The salt rots a place if not cleaned with freshwater.
“The boat is at ten-forty, one hour, drink up.” I can’t hear her reply. “Does he know you’re seeing me?” A quiet yes from her. “Really! He knows?! I’m surprised. If I knew, I wouldn’t talk to you.”
She says, “No use being jealous. It leads nowhere. He is also English.” The wine bottle almost empty. Both a bit drunk?
He says, “If we did break up, you’d be the one that got away. Yeah, no, it’d be like—”
She says, “If we did…I just get really…it’s always difficult…I don’t want to be hurt.”
“I feel the same! You just need, at the end of the day, someone who makes you happy.” He is trying to close a deal, preserve this fever, this contagion.
Outside the café window costumes pass, Venice’s Carnevale still going full steam despite the virus. Periwigs and vast hoop dresses, Johnny Depp pirates, Batman and Spiderman, Boy George, sexy cops and nuns, steampunk goggles, zebras, pandas, bunnies, even a young woman with a small basketball hoop propped above her head. Not sure how this plastic geegaw is linked to Venezia’s larded history. Locals hate Carnevale’s hordes of drunken outsiders, but a tiny girl gleefully throws confetti on anyone passing her; confetti is sold in small bags and is strewn everywhere.
He says, “I’m happy with you. You’re still happy with him, obviously.”
“If I say something to him…” She trails off.
He passes her his phone to show her a football match, his favourite club. Very romantic. “It’s a draw now, but look, seventy-one percent possession. You have the ball that much, you’ll score. The second half will be good. Want to finish your drink?” He pulls on his cap, waiting for her.
“Did you pay?” she asks, standing unsteadily. He tries to help with her jacket, but their arms get crossed up, pulling her backward clumsily, and her small green sweater lifts, reveals to us a taut abdomen and lovely rib cage, the startling belly he wants his face to stay near.
They exit and turn left toward the north lagoon. In the lane, she really leans into him and laughs, clutching his arm tight as they speed-walk and the little girl throws confetti over them.
The young British man has a giant Jimmy Durante nose and is thin as a cricket in the limpest T-shirt in history and striped sweatpants—a tall insect cut from a soccer tryout.
They all look very happy; outside she is a different person than inside the café. She was holding back; she is playful! I was wrong in my pessimism; I will imagine happy endings for them. But the boat on the lagoon: is it to one last night of romance or the airport and separation on different planes to different worlds?
Walking the quays earlier, I saw an ancient man loaded into a low-bobbing ambulance boat, oxygen tubes jammed into his nostrils, his brain. The crew moving awkwardly to transfer him into the unstable speedboat, his head lower than his feet as they load him; he must feel so vulnerable. I stop out of dubious respect for the moment; we make eye contact. Does he hate me watching or do we connect? Are his lungs working? Just offshore, the brick walls of San Michele cemetery glow a salmon hue. Does he have a spot waiting for him on that pretty island?
Loaded up, the boat shoots over the laguna and another ambulance boat honks at it cheerfully. To pick you up, an ambulance boat must thread the canals closest to your door and walk the rest of the way with a stretcher. Venice’s canals and calles, a mysterious network where the young leave and old people wait for a knock at the door. Antonello watches Batman walk past and tells me the last real Venetian died fifty years ago. I give him my old, underlined copy of Watermark by Joseph Brodsky. “Thank you lots, signore,” he says. He is formal in posture and bearing, always calls me signore. Antonello says Hemingway hunted ducks on Torcello Island in the north lagoon, near the island of skulls.
Every day more talk of the virus, “the vee-roos,” and in a matter of hours Carnevale masks give way to surgical masks. On the Strada, a few diehard revelers pass in carnival masks and tricorne hats and capes and skull masks; keep the party going, man. The skull masks seem apropos now.
Italy pulls ahead of China in COVID-19 deaths, but Venice is calm. The lockdowns are on the mainland and this island is not really Italy. Napoleon once gave Venice to Austria. Venice is more an idea. But Venice is familiar with plagues. Thirteen forty-seven, 1361, 1528, 1575 to 1577, 1629 to 1633, 1656. Endless bubonic plagues (the dreaded Black Death), Asiatic cholera (Death in Venice was set in the time of cholera), smallpox, leprosy, Spanish flu and malaria emptying many islands in the lagoon.
Walking the quays earlier, I saw an ancient man loaded into a low-bobbing ambulance boat, oxygen tubes jammed into his nostrils, his brain.
In some plagues, two of three died and died quickly, ulcerated bodies thrown into carts and boats; imagine throwing down your tiny daughter or son like fluid garbage. On one, Lazaretto Island, five hundred deaths a day. The word “quarantine” is from Venice—your ship sitting forty days and forty nights, a nice biblical number. Many churches in Venice are dedicated to deliverance from mysterious plagues from the east, plagues traveling the Silk Road to Europe with merchants and soldiers, plagues along the Amber Road, the Incense Route, the Spice Road.
Antonello the archeologist vanishes from our campo; he is from Lombardia, a badly affected area; he is needed with his mother and family; I hope they are all right. Maddening crowds no longer clog Strada Nova.
“Usually this street is packed,” says Eduardo, a charming man serving us cicchetti at La Cantina. He makes his hands tight to mimic the press of bodies at the finale of a typical Carnevale. “They all escaped,” he says in a mournful tone.
Thank God the drunken bozos are gone, I think, but poor Eduardo sees the loss of his livelihood. A tough time on top of Venice’s terrible flooding—what a year.
“The politic.” He struggles for the word in English.
“Si, the government canceled Carnevale at 1 p.m.”
The skull masks seem apropos now.
The last Tuesday of Carnevale is usually a frantic party; the next day is Ash Wednesday, Lent, penance. The statues remain, but the last tourists melt away as if fleeing an invading army, lines of wheeled suitcases pulled to the boats on the Fondamenta, suitcases filling the boats on the airport run, a minor Stalingrad. Ryanair plucks the drunkards from a plague city as signs are taped up at pharmacies on the Strada: Sold out of surgical masks. Sold out of hand gel.
Do we need masks? Gel? No drugs work on this virus. We have Venice to ourselves, so few people, forcing me to see how outnumbered the locals are by us visitors, hordes of us like tribes of Vandals running amok in Gaul and the local Venetians made exiles in their own city.
Only a few nights ago, at the height of Carnevale, we almost died in a crush by the Rialto bridge; florescent polizia stood with arms out in a scarecrow stance to divide the pedestrian mayhem, a human wall to force us into one-way lanes. Arms out to almost touch the next polizia. I was glad they were there in the tourist chaos, and I said grazie to each officer.
Now we live in a ghost town, which I enjoy—enjoy the Rialto eerily empty. I buy souvenir T-shirts at bargain prices, using pennies and small coins that we collect and never spend. The merchant grimaces, but accepts my envelope of tiny coins. I am his only customer.
Our apartment has no television and Venice has no cars and we are always walking and climbing small bridges to cross water; this is the way to live! For six weeks we have walked and walked a floating village. Everyone walks and takes the bridges; on Sundays the older women on our campo stroll in boxy fur coats, men in dark suits and Homburg hats. Occasionally a haughty face from five hundred years ago. Venetians hate us, but I hate to leave, don’t miss home at all.
I decide I am not paying a cent. We have done nothing wrong.
One night we walk to see the Korean film Parasite at the Italian cinema above the grocery, looking forward to the odd mix. What language will the subtitles be?
But we see a poster: Avviso al Pubblico. All cinemas closed. “The vee-roos.” The museums closed last Sunday. Will stations and borders close on us? We register with the Canadian Embassy and wait for directives, hoping to stay as long as possible.
As the last tourists, we receive attention from the Vaporetto Gestapo when we return from the island of Giudecca visiting Il Redentore, a stunning plague church (plague of 1575 to 1577); arches inside float in light, the high ceiling weightless. Our day started with a splendidly affordable vaporetto voyage around the end of Venice and San Pietro, the boat doggedly crossing waves and spray to a narrow island and its altered views of Venice.
Now in my face a glum woman in a municipal uniform. “Ticket,” she asks me. We both show our tickets confidently.
“No, something is wrong here, you didn’t validate twice.”
“We bought return tickets. Return means both ways.”
“No, only an hour. Coming back you must validate again. There are signs!”
I saw the Alps; maybe he saw the high icy massifs from his boat pitching on the waves.
I show her my Visa receipt and our tickets. We made sure we had tickets because we saw them checking on the Grand Canal. We stepped on a boat for a fast hop across the canal, but partway across I noticed them questioning a nearby passenger. I pulled Clarissa to the port gunwale and we jumped off at the next dock, very cloak-and-dagger and oddly fun. So this time we paid and we validated.
“You must validate twice.”
“The same ticket twice? Why?”
“Because people could use them again and again.”
The total fines for two of us plus the original ticket cost hits about $200.
“Cash or credit?” A younger uniformed man joins her and they press us. “Cash or credit?”
What if we just run away from the boat? I’d pay a lower fine just to be rid of them, but $200 is far too high. “I’ll go to jail,” I say, then worry I might regret those words.
“Cash or credit?” They keep up the pressure. An older man in uniform joins her, three uniforms leaning at us. He says, “Why don’t you just pay and be done with it?” as if I am the one being unreasonable. “Cash or credit.”
ABC, Always Be Closing, like the big-nose guy in the café, close the deal before it’s too late. I wonder if that couple will stay in touch; will they catch the virus? I decide I am not paying a cent. We have done nothing wrong. I tell them repeatedly, “I will not pay.”
Clarissa said later that they seemed to wilt when we didn’t buy their pitch. Wearily, they filled out tickets to be paid later. “The fine will double if you don’t pay in five days!” warns the older man sternly. But they know the dead hand of Italian bureaucracy (another form of pestilence) and they know we will never pay. In five days we’ll be in Slovenia; in seven days Venice will be quarantined, borders closed, doors in Europe slamming shut. Hence the pressure right off the bat for cash or credit, their little machine held out, poised for my tourist moolah.
She might be a hundred, not much left, no eyebrows, as if someone took a pencil eraser to her features, but she is present and watching us.
I wonder if the old man in the ambulance boat is dead. That tube taped to his face—hard to be dignified with tape and plastic glued to your nose, dropped into a boat, me staring. I saw the Alps; maybe he saw the high icy massifs from his boat pitching on the waves. Hemingway had so many concussions, his brain and skull attacked; that is what ruined him.
Before the Gestapo caught us, nuns boarded our small boat at a stop, two nuns shepherding an ancient nun in a wheelchair. The lagoon is windy, shutters above banging with metal excitement, and the crewman holds the rocking boat with only a single rope as the nuns struggle to push their wheelchair from solid dock to heaving deck.
Her skin is of no colour and the younger nuns (young as in seventy) pull low a white wool hat to keep her warm in the wind. She might be a hundred, not much left, no eyebrows, as if someone took a pencil eraser to her features, but she is present and watching us. They back her wheelchair into a sheltered alcove and set the brakes. Va bene!
The oily engine roars, the workhorse of a boat reverses, backs out briefly, then lurches forward and the wheelchair rolls loose on the deck, our Methuselah nun free to fly overboard into the drink or pitch headfirst down the stairs.
She might drown or crack her skull, but we are products of our time and it strikes me as a Monty Python moment (more Brits!). Several of us chase her liberated go-kart and hang on.
The old girl is calm about her ride. The two nuns drape themselves over the arms and wheels, almost falling down, but their heads are up, eyes wet, and they’re laughing exultantly. We are all laughing soon, a healthy approach to a slapstick world, a world that has such funny moments and has Dolomite peaks in that magic direction and a world also home to the Vaporetto Gestapo and a virus wanting to lodge in our lungs and send any number of us to Skull Island.
Do you know Eden Robinson, the Haisla-Heiltsuk writer? Years ago I took her and her earthquake laugh to the Cabin Diner on Woodstock Road; soon her giant laugh had everyone else in the room laughing over their coffee and fried eggs. A tiny diner in New Brunswick and nuns on a tiny vessel in Venice. It is the same: no distance between people, mad laughter and no one really sure why this is happening to us.
Mark Anthony Jarman is the author of Czech Techno, Knife Party at the Hotel Europa, 19 Knives and the travel book Ireland’s Eye. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a fiction editor for The Fiddlehead literary journal in Canada. This story was first published in the Summer 2020 issue of Queen’s Quarterly. It was a finalist for Nowhere’s Spring 2020 Travel Writing Prize.
Lead image: Vitalie Sitnic