Friday, July 8, 2011


From my place on the bridge, I could watch the gondolas being steered down the Gran Canal.The murky water parted to let the narrow bows through, leaving small ripples in an otherwise glass-like surface. The boats were filled with tourists, their pasty white excessive skin deceiving the efforts they had made to blend in. The gondola drivers, by comparison, were the vision of health. Skin bronzed by the sun and muscles built by the daily pushing of poles in the thick muddy bottom. With each push and pull, the sludge from the bottom would wind its way up, further clouding the surface of the water. It told the sad truth of this scene: looks were deceiving.

I didn't first view this little scene with such seeming cynicism.No, far from it!  Young, strong, and with thoughts of immortality, I first set foot on this land famed for its olives and kindness. I viewed the dirty city with glasses tinted with ambition and ignorance. It was a beautiful sight to behold and in an instant, I lost my heart. Every young girl that walked by, her dark hair flowing in the wind and her hips swaying to the rhythm of the city, could have been my princess. The tall aged buildings with their magnificent histories and awe-inspiring paintings could have been our palaces and country homes. Even the smell of ripening fruit mixed with decaying fish and salt from the ocean sprays carried inland by the wind was an exotic aroma that spun my head. Venice, in my mind, was not a city, but heaven on earth.

And it was in this lilting attitude that I walked through the first several weeks. I laughed with my friends; walked a great deal just to marvel at the sights, sounds, and smells; sat under the stars when they showed themselves; sang in the streets; wooed many women; and truly began to feel home. 

It was on Tuesday night, the eighth week after my arrival at an unknown late hour, that I stood in this very same spot on this very same bridge. Lanterns hung at the end of the gondolas, the boats flitting about on the canal like hundreds of fire flies in a farmer's field, when I learned that life was not always as it seemed. The occupants were quite. Their collective voices came up from the dark water as a loving murmur that caressed my soul while the soft glow of the windows fell to bathe my body. I drank it in, once again becoming drunk on the elements of the city.

I turned to venture toward my apartment. A few blocks later a sound unlike any I had heard before pierced my brain and drew from it an overwhelming curiosity to find the source. Slowing my steps to better hear the direction of the noise, I found myself needing to turn right into an unlit through-way. The tall buildings intensified the darkness of the late hour. To another it would have served to arrest their curiosity and send them back to the safer path. In my immaturity, I only hesitated before setting foot on that dark path, not considering the unpleasantness that I would find.

Placing one hand on the rough brick wall, I walked tentatively along. My eyes sought for light, opened wide as they were. I found little of it. Only a rare glint of a star in a piece of glass or shattered mirror. The sound came stronger and I stretched y imagination to identify it. It was at once low and high. Both deafening and impossible to hear. I didn't know then that it was the sound of the death of hope and possibility, a grief so deep that the resulting hole could never be filled. This loss was completely out of my realm of existence.

Suddenly, I tumbled sideways, the wall supporting my travel having ended a step earlier. Catching myself before more than my knee met with the concrete, I stood up and played mime until I encountered another wall. This wall was less sturdy. A creaking sound came from it if I applied little more than half the pressure I was capable of. My fingers scraped over the occasional gaps. It wasn't until a particularly shattered section sunk beneath my skin that I understood the wall was of an old dry wood. Even in the deep cover of night, I knew it held none of the charm of the buildings I had seen on the flowing streets.

My surprise was ended by a loud howling of the grief I have already explained. Forgetting the throbbing and sting of my palm and the collecting wetness of what I assumed was blood loose from my vein, I continued forward. At a corner, just on the other side of a large garbage bin, the light of Satan jumped on the wall. Spirits leaped and fell with the sounds. Sinking to the ground, I dirtied both knees to crawl over the ground and peer around the corner.

There, I saw a woman, inconsolably pulling at her hair and filthy garments. Her screams were loud, unforgiving, filled with rage. Behind her, a man stood, slumped over. Wretched groans seemed to come from his frame although I could not see his face. A young man of about my age stood behind him, dry-eyed but clearly driven to grief. His red face and clenched hands looked murderous. Sliding a bit closer, I could see the devil's light was a small fire in a barrel. The spirits were the shadows of the three occupants of that small space. What I had taken to be a mound of earth on the theater of the wall was the body of a young woman
Her stillness shouted her death. Pain still gripped the lines of her face. A greenish-yellow color tinged her skin and explained the sights and sounds. And still, she was the most beautiful creature I had ever laid eyes on. 

I sank back to my side of the wall. For hours, I listened to them howl, moan, and choke. In my bosom, I felt their grief and understood their desperation and disappointment. The death of this unknown woman impacted more deeply than any other event in my life. I mourned her loss. Slowly, there sounds subsided and still I remained. As the sun started to lick the sky, I rose and began the tortuous walk back to my apartment.

Having reached it just as the sun rose above the horizon, I tumbled into my bed and slept fitfully. Raising my arms in surrender, I pulled my body out of bed just before tea. The mirror reflected back my pale face and swollen eyes. No amount of water helped wash away the misery of the night before. The bronze coloring of my skin I had gloated about only days before had vanished. In its place was the skin tone of a tourist. 

That's when the first inkling of life's deception snuggled in. Those visitors to this fine country, the ones floating in gondolas, taking pictures of architecture, and laughing in the street were the blessed ones. The ones prone to lavish excess and ease of life, falling on the right side of an invisibly drawn line. They were the ones who knew little of grief and everything of hope and possibility. It was the bronze and olive colored residents with the deceptively strong bodies that toiled in the sun and died in back streets. Grief were there constant companions.

I could never look at the river, the woman, and the wonderful buildings with the same awe. For the next 40 years I became a slave to the city, doing what I could to spread compassion, opportunities, and hope. My undertaking emptied my chests and stunned my friends. I don't know when it turned my skin bronze and robbed me of the trivialities I had been so accustomed to living with. As I reflected from above Gran Canal and listened to the murmurs of lovers underneath the soft glow of lights, I knew my life turned out to mean something. If not to my peers, then to the people who aspired to more. But most importantly, It meant something as large and beautiful as the city of Venice meant to me.


  1. Wonderful. Great tension in the beginning and middle, and a very satisfying conclusion.