The tiny oval of Orefine has a remarkable number of canals. The island once served as a center for the islands nearby, many of them even tinier. In this network, the earth dug from the canals was used to fill in the shallow straits and connect some of the islands. The main canal, Canale Grande, went through Orefine in an elongated S. On every island, this shape created backwaters in the larger canals to protect ships from rough seas. The Orefine main canal didn’t merit the name Grande: the smallest galley would not have taken shelter here. During the day, the canal was plied by local boats or the squat sloops of vendors from other islands; in the evening, all traffic ceased, and the boats moored along either edge—but now and then one of the two gondolas of the Podesta would pass, lantern flickering, black paint flaking, because Don Massimo’s requests for new paint were never granted. Narrower canals branched off from Canale Grande, crisscrossing the island, and the inhabitants traveled home on these. Garbage was dumped into them, but the side canals, thanks to Orefine’s inlet currents, seldom stank.
In summer, the quiet water around the island, green-gray, was not prone to storms, encouraging people to spend all day on their boats. Even the spray was pleasantly cool and quickly dried in the strong sun. Protection from the S-shaped Canale Grande wasn’t needed then, as the weather never threatened.
“Frutta è verdura!” cried the vendor, mooring his bark at the mouth of the canal. It was gusty today, and his boat dipped up and down, the line of hemp squeaking and cracking as it rubbed against the bollard.
Women gathered at the shore. Because Orefine had become so built up—there was no longer space for a vegetable plot—produce was brought in from neighboring islands. The women were delighted by the sight of the ripe, plump tomatoes, or those that were longer, redder, and sweeter, each with a green stem as proof that it had just been picked. The women loved the white fuzz on the pastel peaches, took pleasure in the green and yellow peppers that looked sculpted, each like a work of art or piece of jewelry, and the women showed them to one another. They pointed to the fruit and vegetables they wanted, and Beppino bagged and weighed. When he made a mistake or tried to trick someone, slipping in a different, ugly item, the women howled with indignation.
Mònica, the wife of Lorenzo the teacher, selected ripe tomatoes. She pointed clearly, but the sun blazing off the waves blinded her, and the merchant repeatedly tried to take advantage of the young mistress of the teacher’s house.
Beppino believed that despite the passage of the years he was irresistible to women. Wrapping the vegetables, he flexed his burly arms to make their blue-pink tattoos look larger, and he held his head to display better his sun-bleached hair and at the same time hide his bald spot, which had become quite red in the sun. He particularly wanted to make an impression on Mònica, but because that beauty would not respond to him, he teased her.
“He wears gold earrings, like a fisherman, but he’s only a vendor,” Mònica thought with a grimace. “And his legs are shorter than his arms.”
She was the youngest there, and the other women did not share her indignation. They didn’t like her—some still envious because she had become the wife of il grammatico.
When Mònica had purchased what she wanted, Beppino fell into a better mood and began distributing herbs among the women. “Rosemarino, prego signora Mònica, prego!” he exclaimed, pressing a few leaves into her hand. “Basìlica! Salvia!”
The women reached for the gift, which was traditional. Only the lovely wife of the teacher snorted: just a moment ago he was trying to deceive her, and now he was being nice. But she accepted the rosemary and even added to it a thick clump of parsley and some basil.
“He treats me like a girl.” She glared at the vendor with her dark eyes and adjusted her black shawl with care so the afternoon sun would not burn her skin.
Lorenzo went out to the canal, the backwater side: today they would be bringing supplies for the school in Orefine. Two or three small packages, probably, no more, since there were fewer than twenty students. The squat mercatu was supposed to bring a number of other items too, ordered by the Podesta himself.
In the distance one could see, in a long band, the nearest islands that provided Orefine’s food. As there was no fog, several white houses and rust-red roofs were visible. Separate clouds had lined up along the horizon.
The water rhythmically hit the rocks buttressing the shore. Green algae grew on the wet stone. The sea was not so fertile here; there was a little foam, an occasional brown crab looking for something to eat. The seaweed below the surface was darker. A small colony of oysters among the rocks, but who would gather them? Small, immature, they’d only cut a person’s feet. Even the crabs weren’t interested.
Pointing to the sea, a long pier with rotting planks. The water desultory against the dark posts. Today it was quieter on the lee. With its typically mild wind, Orefine was fine with only a pier, needing no port. During the spring gales, when the bubocco roiled even the backwater and when waves swept the walkway and reached the steps of the nearest houses, no one in Orefine sailed and people avoided even Canale Grande.
Lorenzo took a seat on the walkway and watched the oared boat pull the freighted mercatu, too large to enter the canal, to the pier. Under the waterline of the vessel, a broad belt of green scum and mussels. Clothes were being brought for the store, no doubt, some medicine, little else.
“Once again Massimo will fume that they forgot his black paint,” Lorenzo thought. “If they continue to ignore our Podesta, we must open a paint shop on Orefine. I should be able to design a still for the linseed oil.”
The teacher reached to grab the line, but as the mercatu approached the walkway slowly, one of the crew leaped gracefully to the pier, sneezed, wiped his nose on his sleeve, and secured the rope. The sailors began unloading the packages onto the shore. Lorenzo looked for the school supplies, which had been paid for. A few compasses and wooden rulers, loose. A small packet of chalk had been added. He signed for the shipment on the skipper’s clipboard. He opened the chalk in the men’s presence and tried it out on a slate. And winced, because the chalk was too hard, too gray, once again.
“As usual, they bring us garbage,” he muttered. “Anything decent they keep in Malamocco.”
Although Orefine was the residence of the Podesta himself, not that many people lived here now. One teacher, one physician, the old painter Bòcline, who immortalized young couples for a few pennies and did landscapes on his own, scenes of Orefine or still lifes, which he later exchanged for fish, bread, wine, vegetables, and there was a sculptor who for lack of work carved ornaments on gravestones. Bòcline, laughing, told people he painted with the clay collected from the street, because the stuccoed walls of the houses on Orefine were yellow ocher, red ocher.
The houses of the teacher, the physician, the painter, and the old sculptor Bassagno all had balconies. Some said with sarcasm that these balconies had been put in so that every inhabitant could admire the palace of the Podesta. Lorenzo, from his balcony, could see the backwater and quite a bit of Canale Grande, but a roof blocked his view of the Podesta’s residence. Mònica in her free time loved to gaze into the distance or watch her husband return from school in his boat, so she was often on the balcony. Sometimes one of the gondoliers transporting a dignitary would sing to her. A beautiful woman is a magnet. She once asked her husband if Bòcline might do her portrait. “He paints the rooftops of Orefine,” she said. “Perhaps he could capture me too before I turn old and ugly.” “He lacks the crimson to do your dress justice,” Lorenzo replied. “He says himself that he uses only ocher swept from the street. And he may have forgotten how to paint people.” But, not telling his wife, he began to put money aside for her portrait. Oils cost a lot, and Lorenzo didn’t know the solitary old painter that well.
All Orefine got sick. Everyone ran a fever and ached. The symptoms were similar, yet some people were up and about after three days while others lay in bed for more than a week. The tavernmaster, Ipòlito, suffered nosebleeds, and it was said that when he coughed hard, drops of blood came out of the corners of his eyes. The physician had his hands full, going from house to house. His opinion was that the crew of a mercatu bringing supplies had also brought a flu to the island. Spring infections usually did not reach the small community, but this flu was bad. “It’s only the flu,” Michele said over and over. But life on Orefine came to a halt because of it.
The physician was concerned about the tavernmaster and spent most of his time with him. “On Orefine, we typically have one death a month,” he thought, “but that needn’t be a rule.” He was fond of Ipòlito and didn’t want the old man to confirm the statistic.
Mònica nursed her husband, who was one of the first to fall ill. “The bastard,” he repeated in his fever, meaning the unnamed sailor who sneezed and had no idea that he was now being cursed in so many households. Lorenzo’s wife was among the few who resisted the epidemic. She spent hours at his side as he raved, and she fed him when he began to recover.
Before long, almost everyone had returned to health, and old Ipòlito stopped bleeding. He became strong enough to sit on a stool in his tavern. But now the flu attacked those whose constitutions had resisted the longest. Among them was Mònica.
Lorenzo took pleasure in caring for his sick wife. He made tea and spooned the medicine; the cooking, however, lost its variety and became pasta every day. Mònica in any case ate practically nothing, at most some broth brought in from the tavern. Her fever was high, and sometimes she didn’t recognize Lorenzo.
Her condition finally improved.
Lorenzo propped her up in bed so that the broth wouldn’t spill.
“It was hard to talk to you, in your delirium,” he said.
“You were delirious too, so that I feared for your life. Michele even advised that we put you in cold water, but it didn’t come to that.” Then silvery sprites danced before her eyes. “It’s hard to talk to you anyway, even when you don’t have a fever . . .”
Mònica got better but was still very weak. Lorenzo carried her out onto the balcony, because she complained that she couldn’t breathe in the dim room.
Life on the island resumed its usual routine. The decision was made to reopen school the following Monday. In the gathering dusk, two lanterns winked in the distance: two boats fishing at night. Mònica, comfortably arranged in an armchair set on the balcony, watched those points of light beneath the black horizon.
“It races, as if to catch up with the fishermen . . . ,” she said, laying a pale hand on her chest.
“It . . . ?”
“My heart. As if it would break free.”
He studied her. She spoke calmly. There was no reason for alarm.
“It will pass soon,” he said then. “Your heart will realize that it cannot catch up with the fishermen. And why should it? It already caught the teacher . . .”
Lorenzo didn’t sleep that night. Mònica was fading before his eyes. Too weak even to lift her head from the pillow. Her hands and feet were cold, yet her forehead burned once more. Her heart beat like a wild thing, unevenly, hesitating, racing. Her breathing was heavy, yet at times she gasped for air.
He wanted to go for the physician, but she told him he would not find her alive on his return. He didn’t believe her but didn’t want to upset his sick wife.
The nearest neighbor was the rich Càmilo Gianni. An ill-natured man who disliked and looked down upon the teacher. Lorenzo forced himself to go to the man’s door. No one answered the knocking at the gate, but Lorenzo woke the owner by throwing little stones at the window on the first floor. Surprisingly, Càmilo listened, said nothing, dressed, and went to fetch the physician.
Michele arrived in an hour. He did not know what Mònica suffered from, had never before seen so unthreatening an illness take such a turn. He prescribed something to lower her fever and something to calm her fluttering heart. He sat on a stool by the bed and watched her gravely.
“What is it?” Lorenzo saw that the physician was not rising to leave, as if rising would invite an explanation, the husband’s question of prognosis.
“We must wait and let time work,” said Michele. “I can do nothing here.”
“Wait? Till morning?” Lorenzo still did not understand the situation.
“Till morning perhaps, or a little longer.”
Lorenzo took Mònica’s hand. She fell into a doze filled with phantoms; she muttered now and then.
Toward morning the fever broke, but that was not the crisis. The patient was covered with sweat. Her heart hammered, and Michele’s medicine did not help. Lorenzo wet her lips with it, to get more of it into her without her choking.
Mònica grew quiet, breathed more slowly, not as deeply, and moved less. Lorenzo sat holding his wife’s cold hand. Michele, gloomy, watched with him, occasionally getting out of his chair to take the patient’s pulse.
“Enough, Lorenzo,” he said after a while. “Mònica is gone.” With his fingertips he closed her eyelids.
“What?” Lorenzo looked at him blankly.
“The illness has taken your wife. I could not help her. On Orefine, no one could.”
“But how? Mònica? She?” Lorenzo did not comprehend.
The old man nodded. “I am not needed here now. I was unable to help,” he said. He left the room, leaving the widower alone.
On his way, Michele stopped at the Podesta’s residence. The bereaved teacher would need help. Someone to arrange the funeral.
The physician himself had trouble accepting what had happened. He talked to himself. “I expected a few people to die this month in Orefine—but this beautiful woman?” He shook his head. “Young, strong, giving birth only once?”
He went home, bent.
Lorenzo found himself in a waking dream. The death of his wife came so suddenly, it had no reality. The funeral too had no reality. The black gondola of the Podesta, newly painted, carried Mònica’s body to San Tomaso, a small unoccupied island also called Cimetiere, and the other mourners in their boats accompanied her. Standing on his punt, Lorenzo rowed right behind the draped coffin on the funeral gondola. To him, the procession was a parade that made no sense.
The meal at the wake for the wife of il grammatico was provided by the office of the Podesta, and it too made no sense.
The pain came only with the day-by-day emptiness, when Lorenzo missed his companion, the confidante with whom he shared all his little bits of business, whose advice he sought in all his difficulties. He saw more clearly, with the passing of each day, that what had happened in a blink would never be undone.
He tried to concentrate on his work in the hours, too short, of giving lessons. When he drew dashes on the board with thick chalk, each dash resembled a bone—the thicker dashes perhaps thigh bones with a knob at either end, because a moment of thought before and after the line, from the pressure of his hand, would spread the chalk there. The lines of hard chalk on the board wouldn’t form circles or rectangles; rather, they were splinters of bone wounding the smooth black slate.
For some reason the students had grown duller. They didn’t answer his questions, didn’t jump up to speak. Or was it simply that they couldn’t hear, because the teacher was swallowing his words?
On the other hand, the students openly played marbles during recess. Those who didn’t play marbles smoked cigarettes outside the building, and the most insolent students finished their cigarettes even as they returned to class. Not that Lorenzo challenged them. He saw them smoking but didn’t react; it no longer concerned him.
When he turned to the board to explain something in a clumsy murmur, two of the biggest troublemakers, the swarthy Ruggiero and his best buddy, the nervous, scrawny, fair-haired Stoiano, stood up in the back and aped the teacher.
“His brain is too small to control his actions,” Lorenzo thought, instead of shouting a reprimand when he happened to catch Stoiano’s antics. The boy in fact had an unusually small head.
As the days went by, things grew worse—Lorenzo began drinking. Il grammatico, without desire or energy, had more and more difficulty dealing with his routine affairs and spent more and more time in Ipòlito’s tavern.
Once, when he asked for another grappa, Ipòlito shook his head, wiped the counter, and said, “You come here too much. Il grammatico shouldn’t break down like this.”
“And you could endure such a loss?” Lorenzo said.
“For fifteen years now I’ve been alone.”
“Can you help me?”
“Not I. The painter maybe.”
“We have no other painter,” said Ipòlito, thereby hurting the teacher, though he did not know it. Mònica too had painted.
The door of Bòcline’s house was open. Lorenzo looked into the workshop. Bòcline was applying a wash to the painted waves of Canale Grande, in which were reflected a row of yellow homes and, to one side, the prow of the houseboat of the solitary Beppino Corelli, decorated with a traditional figurehead representing Abundance. The painter kept lacquering a section of wave, but then he wiped his hand and offered it to Lorenzo. They went out together into the sun and sat on a bench.
“I can guess why you came,” said Bòcline. “Ipòlito told you about the Isle of the Dead?”
“No. He said only that the painter might help me.”
“I am not sure I can.” He gave Lorenzo a searching look. “I am not sure I can overcome your skepticism.”
“Far to the southwest of Orefine, in the lagoon, lies the Isle of the Dead. Perhaps there you will meet your Mònica.”
“You joke. Everyone knows Cimetiere. They placed her body there. Besides, Cimetiere is to the north.”
“I speak of an altogether different island. Once, by accident, I sailed to the Isle of the Dead.”
“You set foot on it?”
“I had not the courage to leave my boat.”
“How do you recognize it?” Lorenzo didn’t believe the painter; but these words, though Lorenzo looked for contradiction in them, held hope.
“The Isle of the Dead is surrounded by a wall of white stone. Big stones, all the same size. In a few places the wall is reinforced by flat pilasters. It cannot be breached. There is a gate, but when I sailed to the island, the gate was guarded. The guard is black, and I think it has wings.”
“You could see nothing beyond the wall?”
“I could see, I could see. Tall cypresses, dark, tapered.”
In the east, a white cloud towered, approaching. It was dark at the bottom, yet there were brighter puffs there, and below the puffs a deep gray mist connected the cloud to the earth. Both men observed the growing, branching, mushrooming storm as it spread across the horizon. In the core of the cloud, like a main trunk, was a featureless wall of gloom, with threads of gray that separated from the trunk but went nowhere.
“Come inside, or we’ll be soaked,” said Bòcline. “I’ll show you the Isle of the Dead.”
Lorenzo gave him a sharp look.
“I paint apples and tomatoes,” said Bòcline, “but also paint what I saw then, in that place.”
“You never told me about this.”
“These are not pictures to show. I told a few people, and fewer believed me. Since you are in despair, I will make an exception for you.”
The pictures all showed a high stone wall, taller cypresses pointing upward, a tranquil sea, and a scene as if emerging from mist. In one painting there was no mist; you could see distinctly the gate and the dark winged figure standing by it and holding up a lamp.
“They are beautiful.”
“She is there now.”
“Mònica, your wife.”
“On that island?”
“So they say. Everyone ends up on the Isle of the Dead.”
“But they buried her on San Tomaso. I ordered the gravestone made.”
“It’s on the Isle of the Dead that you can meet her, speak with her.”
“Who has sailed there and found the one he loved?”
“No one that I know. I went close.”
“How do I find this island?”
“You must sail southwest, beyond Bocca del Babón.”
In the evening, Lorenzo readied his boat. He didn’t go sailing as often as the fishermen and was out of practice. A few dozen vessels rocked in the tiny marina; only the wharf for the keelboats was empty at day’s end. People who used their boats infrequently docked them at the marina. Mooring posts, paline, in the canals of Orefine were the property of the Podesta, and a fee for their use had to be paid through Massimo. The Podesta’s hope was that this tax would lighten traffic in the narrow canals. The teacher could afford the fee but was accustomed to going to school on foot. He enjoyed walking on the paved paths and across the small bridges. This exercise helped him put his thoughts in order, prepare his lessons. But now walking gave him no pleasure; like everything else, it had lost its point.
By Lorenzo’s boat bobbed the scrupulously maintained vessel of Pantalazzi, and next to that was Càmilo Gianni’s, colorful and sporting shiny brass fittings. Only the boat of the shipwright Battacci was in as poor shape as Lorenzo’s. The water was quiet; the setting sun shone on the boats as in a mirror—as if there were two marinas, the ordinary one, in Orefine, and the second, fantastic, the masts all pointing down and twisting slightly with the current. “I might reach the Isle of the Dead on an upside-down boat,” Lorenzo thought.
He tossed his bundle onboard and jumped on deck. Bòcline had sailed at night, in foul weather, reaching Bocca del Babón by morning. The painter also said that one couldn’t find the Isle of the Dead if there was no fog. Lorenzo intended to do exactly what the painter had done. This evening was clear; there were strings of cloud only on the horizon; but fog often arose on the lagoon, even after such sunsets.
The rope creaked as the boat nodded lethargically in time to the loading. Lorenzo finally released the line and pushed off from the wharf. He put the oar in the high oarlock and, standing, maneuvered the boat through the marina with short shoves al gusto veneto. When the boat left its backwater, he hoisted his new sail, sewn not so long ago by Mònica, but it was only when the boat passed the spur Signale that wind filled the sail.
He headed southwest, navigating by the stars. A lantern glowed at the stern. For a while he saw the lights of other boats in the distance—fishermen out at night—then found himself in complete darkness. The wind died, so he had to use his oar. By morning he was in a dense fog. Since the day was just beginning, the fog was an impenetrable gray. He had now gone far beyond Bocca del Babón.
After a time the fog separated into strips. In one of the brighter places between them he saw a distant light. He rowed in that direction, slowly, with each push leaning on the oar so much that he hung over the side of the boat.
The little light neared. In the pale dawn, Lorenzo could see a stone wall, and an arch. Here and there the wall supported winged statues—most of them skeletons, but also angels—and in between were bas-reliefs of skulls, winged skulls. The light came from the arch, which was supported by two caryatids, naked, each wearing only a veil thrown over her head and falling to her knees. Above the portal was the figure of a muscular man with arms outstretched but eyes averted. The arch itself was a dark female figure with bat’s wings. The light at the gate glimmered on her breasts.
Lorenzo sailed past the arch and along the wall. It was day now, but the fog did not lift, and heavy clouds made everything dim. He followed the shore of the Isle of the Dead. Green moss grew in crevices in the wall; the shore was covered with seaweed, but the land was wet higher up as well. Above the crenallated wall jutted plumes of cypress, their branches almost black. He did not see the pilasters of Bòcline’s paintings, but busts of Hermes and caryatids, faces veiled or covered or shielded with hands, jutted from the wall. And again angels like supporting atlantes, and the other figures with bats’ wings. Snakes curled everywhere, winged snakes, normal snakes, skeletons of snakes, some with human heads or skulls. There were skeleton angels, too, holding the wall, as well as skeletons with bats' wings. It was hard to distinguish the kind of wing, eagle or bat, and some skulls had horns and some feet had hooves. All the statues, the winged caryatids and the atlantes, together embellishing the wall, had been rendered flawlessly by the chisel of an unknown master.
In shadow, Lorenzo rowed in slow, measured strokes along the shore. He hesitated. Bòcline had returned safely. But the painter saw less than Lorenzo was seeing now. This scene was beautiful, strange but not frightening. “I didn’t come here to give up now,” he thought. “If she is here, I must meet her.”
Leaning on the oar, he turned, and returned to the arched gate. It seemed to him that the stone figures at the portal were in slightly different positions.
He approached with caution, though if attacked he would have been unable to escape in any case. Water slapped at stone steps. Lorenzo had the impression that the dark guard shot a glance at him. The light apparently originated in its chest.
“A lighthouse statue?” he thought. “Waiting for me . . .”
He saw a stone bollard. “Who would sculpt such an object?”
He moored his boat and set foot on land. He went up the slippery steps. One wobbled, loose. He stopped by the black figure. The giant, three meters tall, glowered at the newcomer with its arms folded across its chest. Silent, wrapped in its black wings.
“May I enter?” Lorenzo asked.
There was no answer.
He took a few steps, his eyes on the guard.
Still no response.
Lorenzo passed through the gate to a wide walk paved with limestone, a row of impressively high, dark cypresses on either side. In the shade of the trees were small buildings of white stone. The silence was tremendous. No buzz of cicadas. With his back to the guard, Lorenzo continued down the walk.
“Who will I ask about Mònica, if that one won’t talk?”
The place was deserted, but no, now he noticed people, actually quite a few. Some strolled; some sat on the steps before their residences; and some, visible through the small windows, were engaged in ordinary housework, washing dishes, sweeping. Perhaps the reason he hadn’t seen them at first was that they were dressed in muted clothes. This island did not differ greatly from any village. No loud conversation, but why did there have to be chatter?
“Will I be able to understand them?” he wondered.
Communication, it turned out, was no problem. A pretty young woman in black came up to him. She wore heavy makeup and a low-cut blouse.
“You are not from here,” she said. “I am right, yes?” The whites of her dark eyes flashed.
“I am from the farthest island in the lagoon, Orefine.”
“I was never there.” The young woman smiled and waited.
“I wish to meet my wife here.”
“What is her name?”
“She is not here.” The woman turned her head. “I would know her.”
“How can she not be here? After all, she has passed—” He stopped when she put a finger to her lips.
“Yes, but you took the wrong gate,” she said.
“Sail with me. You’ll show me the right one.”
“I cannot. I am here to find my heart.”
He did not comprehend, so the nameless woman opened her blouse and displayed her pale skin and red nipples.
“You see?” she asked.
“Yes. You are a beautiful woman.”
“Not that,” she said impatiently and with her fingers parted the skin at her sternum, to reveal a long purple gash that went deep into her body. It did not bleed. “I thought it was a game, but they ripped my heart out.”
“I mustn’t leave until I find it,” she said. “And then let them look me in the eye.”
“They hurt you.”
“They did for sure.” The young woman took out a pack of cigarettes. “Do you smoke?”
“No, thanks. On our island old Guido smokes, and Bòcline the painter. And a couple of students, and Beppino, our vendor. No one else.”
“The worst students, I bet.”
The nameless woman lit up and inhaled. Smoke seeped from the wound on her chest.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to disgust you.” She put her blouse back on, in the process pressing together the edges of the gash so the smoke wouldn’t exit. She was a sweet, agreeable thing: slender, brunette, too thin. Her disfigurement stirred his sympathy.
“Why is it,” he asked, “that you people here don’t talk to each other?”
“And what is there to talk about? Everything is known.”
“How should I sail to reach the right gate?”
“I don’t know. Make a circuit so you don’t miss it. It could be on the opposite side. Go now, because the Sentinel may become a problem.”
Lorenzo looked uncertainly at the black giant, who had twisted its neck to keep track of him. The guard couldn’t turn, obliged as it was to show travelers the way with its light.
“What is your name?” Lorenzo asked.
“Find your heart.”
Giulia nodded and left, but at a distance she stopped and faced him.
As Lorenzo passed the guard, it watched him carefully but allowed him to leave the island.
“It inspects everyone,” Lorenzo thought as he freed the line of his boat.
He sailed on, more at ease: if they let him enter this gate, they would let him enter another. But uncertainty kept him from admiring the mournful beauty of the figures that adorned the wall of the Isle of the Dead.
He came to several gates. He saw the Stone Sentinel, the Bronze Sentinel, the Silver Sentinel. Their wings were strange: azure fans, opalescent seashells cut to resemble feathers, ribbons of color moving in the wind. Beyond each gate was a wide walk paved with limestone, shadowy cypresses, and small stone houses, some of them tiled with slate. Nobody knew a woman by the name of Mònica, formerly of Orefine.
Finally he reached a gate whose guard was all in feathers: wings, arms, trunk, legs. The feathers on the wings were long, those on the extremities shorter, and the trunk and face were covered with down. A bronze caryatid, naked, oddly stooped, had her hands clasped behind her, the weight of the portico full on her shoulders, while her neighbor to the right sat with her back against it, as if the arch had grown too heavy for her and she needed to rest awhile. The sculpted bollard here was fluted, as if fashioned from a column. Lorenzo tied the rope with care. “Lest one of the grooves cut the fiber,” he thought.
The stairway up was slippery with seaweed that had risen higher than usual. Every step wobbled, because the avid growth had separated the stones, so Lorenzo went slowly. The guard observed him but did not turn; it only brushed aside the feathers on its chest to make the light more visible.
She was standing on the other side of the gate, waiting for Lorenzo, her hair in a thick black braid. She looked at him somberly, yet her appearance was as if they had parted a moment ago.
“Mònica!” He went to take her in his arms.
“No, we can’t here,” she said, stepping back. “You know where we are.”
She wore her favorite dress, the crimson one, which she had been buried in. They both loved that color.
“You were waiting for me?” he asked.
“Yes. They told me that you sought me. But even before then I didn’t doubt that you would come.”
“You haven’t changed.”
“I have. On the outside you don’t see it. I have changed a great deal. But you don’t look well. There are shadows under your eyes.”
“I sailed all night. So, because you are a shade, I may not touch you?”
“This is my body, but it also lies in the earth on San Tomaso. We may not touch.”
Since he seemed unconvinced, Mònica plucked a blade of grass and offered it to him. “Take it, but without touching my hand.”
“Ordinary grass,” he thought. He asked, “Will you stay here forever?”
“No, but possibly for some time. You should return now. You have been on this island too long. It is not permitted for you.”
“The place here is so quiet. I miss the buzz of cicadas in these trees.”
“They are silent. Once they were given lessons in buzzing, but it didn’t help.”
He wanted to ask her many things, about his parents, about little Domenica who had died a year before, but Mònica insisted that he leave.
“May I come again?” he asked, his heart sinking.
“It depends on you. Try.”
“In which direction should I sail, to return to Orefine?”
“Straight ahead will take you there. The fog will guide you.”
It was dusk, and the Isle of the Dead was bathed in the red of the setting sun. Across the feathered shoulders of the Sentinel, Lorenzo thought he could see the slender silhouette of his wife.
The sun sank below the horizon, the wind died, and the familiar fog gathered. He abandoned the sail and began rowing, which at least would keep him awake. In steady, even pulls, his body pressed against the wooden oar. Also, he had lit the lantern at the stern, in case it was needed.
After an interminable time, the fog thinned. The night too appeared to be over. Had he passed Bocca del Babòn?
The silence made him drowsy. He forced himself to keep rowing. Sleep imperceptibly worked its way into waking. Sometimes it seemed to him that Mònica sat at the prow and that he was bringing her back from the Isle of the Dead. When he awoke, the crimson of her dress dissolved. Two sleepless nights were taking their toll on his mind. To dispel his dream, he hoisted the sail. Surprisingly, the canvas filled with wind. He could put down the oar, splash water on his face to stay in the world. With relief he noted the first lights of the night fishermen.
In Orefine, he was greeted as an apparition.
He secured his boat, tossed out the baggage, and jumped ashore. People surrounded him, as if they had been waiting. Someone must have spotted his approach and called everyone to the marina.
At last a child—it might have been the resolute Gino, in the first grade—dared to touch Lorenzo with a finger, then fled, crying, “Il grammatico is alive, alive! Not dead, though so pale you can see through him!”
Lorenzo put on his pack and headed home, and several people followed.
But when nothing happened—the ghost didn’t vanish, walked normally, not even lurching—the spectators lost interest and one by one went on their way.
He called off his classes. He cooked something for himself at home, because if he took a meal at the tavern, there would be questions. Nothing gave him pleasure. He moved slowly, was exhausted. Unpacking his things, he noticed that his skin had undergone a change: it was gray as lead, as if the flesh beneath had no blood. Very much like the skin of poor Giulia, whose heart had been ripped out. In the mirror he beheld a monster: matted, wild hair, red eyes circled with black. And that ghastly skin.
To whom should he turn for advice? He decided on the old painter.
Bòcline’s eyes widened. “Ah,” he said.
“Will you be painting me?” Lorenzo said, trying to smile.
“You went there? Or did you die yourself?”
“Enough. I know how I look. The effect, it seems, of paying a visit to the Isle of the Dead.”
“You actually landed.”
“Four times before I found the right gate.”
“And you saw your wife?”
“Mònica was waiting for me. They know when someone is coming.”
“How does she look?”
“Better than I do now. She wore the same dress as at the funeral. She may have grown a little pale. The others are worse.”
“Will you exhume her body, to make sure?”
“What is the island like?”
“More beautiful than you painted it. I saw no pilasters on the wall, but there are many statues, bas-reliefs. I’ll tell you tomorrow, after I’ve slept.”
“You need sleep now. I slept almost twenty hours straight, afterward, and I never landed. Get the rest you need, and you’ll tell me everything in detail. I will paint the Isle of the Dead from your account.”
A day later, Lorenzo sailed to Cimetiere. The only building there was a small church falling into ruin. The apse a simple block, the belltower atilt, its one bell swaying in the breeze. Inside were crumbling plaster, a few pews, a niche for the Madonna, two stained-glass windows. One window held a radiant Santa Giustina in green and a nimbus of gold; in the other, a mosaic cast multicolored light. Above the altar, a simple cross and a wooden carving of the One Crucified.
The modest cemetery behind the church was surrounded by a wall of broken stone,just high enough so the bubocco could not blow out the lanterns or scatter the flowers.
Lorenzo walked down a path between gravestones. There was some ostentation: a stone supported by lion paws, a box of many chambers reserved for the future podestas of Orefine, as well as for dignitaries whose titles passed from father to son.
“They cannot lie beside their wives,” he thought, passing a high mausoleum. “And good old Guido asked that an exception be made for him. The young Massimo would not hear of this breach of tradition.”
Near the place of importance were the graves of the teachers, for in a small community a teacher too is a personage. But teachers, like other citizens, could have only la catacomba. Mònica’s coffin had been conveyed to the new crypt. The old crypt was full—too many sudden deaths in the family—and it was only recently that Lorenzo could afford a place in the new one. There was room enough in this cemetery still.
He placed a bouquet on the grave of his wife. Mònica Martelli, said the even letters cut by Bassagno. There hadn’t been money for an elegant piccolo angelino in white stone. It didn’t need to be made by the chisel of the great Saltimbassa, like those stern lions at the foot of the Podesta’s staircase, brought all the way from Malamocco; Bassagno too could hew lovely, nostalgic angels. “When I save enough,” Lorenzo thought, “Mònica will get a weeping angel half the width of her stone.”
His mind moved to her inscription on the plaque. “Are you still there . . . ? Have you dried up completely, and is your dress now a rag the color of rust?” The dead on Cimetiere didn’t decay into skeletons but became mummies, not much browner than the people had been in life.
His bouquet went beside the previous one, now desiccated. “The sea is all around us, and yet everything on Cimetiere dries up,” he thought.
Lorenzo still took no comfort in his work. He would fall into reveries, gaze out the window, while his hyperactive troublemakers pinched one another or threw spitballs. The principal, Pantalazzi, informed him that parents had complained to the Podesta himself that Lorenzo, detto il Morto, was not doing his job. Out of delicacy he said il Morto, the Dead One, instead of using the name the students called Lorenzo, il Cadàvere, the Corpse. Lorenzo had trouble looking the principal in the face, for the reprimand was deserved. Pantalazzi’s face hung on the bones of his skull like wet laundry on a line: bags under the eyes, a nose lumpy and pocked. In that face you read a desperate struggle between the liver, on the one hand, and, on the other, a lake of sour wine, a mountain of charred greasy meat. The principal’s double chin shook in time to his words. “What sort of school is this?” Lorenzo asked himself. “Mònica left Pantalazzi with only one teacher to supervise. In twenty years I would hate to look like that.”
This meeting with the principal made little difference. Lorenzo tried but could not spark any enthusiasm for teaching. At least the classroom grew quieter. He no longer had to shout—the students dreaded his dull monotone.
Then the Podesta, in response to another complaint, summoned Lorenzo. The official was at his desk all day, from dawn to dusk, during siesta time as well, though in Orefine some joked that he preferred to doze in the cool of his office walls than bake in the afternoon sun by sailing to his palace two canals away.
Massimo was pasty, fat, and looked older than his years, having turned gray at the temples and with tired eyes and heavy lids. He got little exercise, wrote a great deal by candlelight, rarely went to the window. His obesity made his duties difficult.
Orefine was too small to need a podesta. The office had been maintained for the sake of tradition. Massimo felt that increasing his activity would justify his existence, so he applied himself tirelessly, though for years the moroppo had sent no inspector to the island.
“You wish to resign from your position of teacher, signore?” the Podesta began. “It is one that for generations has been filled by Martellis. You are the only teacher left, so it will be difficult for me to replace you, and even more difficult for you to find another occupation, since no one else has expressed the intention to resign from his position.”
“I was on the Isle of the Dead, and that changed me.”
“We know this, but your private matters should be kept separate from your work in the school. It is upon you, after all, signore, that the future of our little ones depends.”
“Each day I am better. My normal color has returned. My apathy leaves me. More and more I am leading a regular life. We have made up for most of the lost time caused by my absence.”
“That is good.” The Podesta nodded, relieved. He was not a bad man, only inexperienced, and the situation in which he found himself now had not been faced by a podesta in living memory. He wished to avoid making a decision in this matter. Let it be postponed aslong as possible.
Lorenzo shook off his stupor and resumed work. Before long, the lessons were all back on schedule, and even the most vexing students, reined in, stopped their mischief. “Il Cadàvere torments us, wanting to turn us into a thing like himself,” they said. They rolled their eyes, yet their progress in their studies was unexpectedly swift. The insufferable Stoiano, who before couldn’t sit still for five minutes, now drew triangles in the sand to learn his geometry. Lorenzo carefully counted the money he was saving for Mònica’s piccolo angelino, but another plan occupied his mind: to visit the Isle of the Dead again. He had survived the first time; perhaps he would survive a second.
He said nothing of this even to the painter. But he promised his students two days off if they got ahead in the lessons, thinking that the chance of avoiding contact with their strange teacher would spur many to work harder. Not all took to the idea of working harder, however, so he added that on their free days they must review on their own the material they had covered.
He packed for the trip and, to depart without being observed, carried his bundle to the shore toward evening. But there at the marina he met old Silvia, who was standing and waiting for her Renato. The fisherman had failed to return a few years ago, but every evening his wife went out to the water’s edge and waited. Lately, though, her faith must have faltered, because more and more she did not keep this nocturnal watch.
The old woman looked at Lorenzo.
“You sail again to see your Mònica?”
There was no point in lying.
“Ask after my Renato,” she said. “Ask if he is there.”
This night too was calm. Lorenzo fell into a state that he remembered from his previous excursion: indifference, the feeling that he was not really there, half asleep, half awake—an indication, probably, that he was going the right way. He leaned into his oar, pulling, pushing. The boat moved without a sound. The lights of the night fishermen dwindled. The fishermen, spotting his solitary lantern, may have said to themselves, “Il Morto goes to see his family.”
When Lorenzo approached Bocca del Babòn, fog rose, as if on cue. “Again the baboon puffs,” he thought, repeating the adage. The fog always rose at night here, as if over a marsh and not over a lagoon.
He slowed, afraid of passing the Isle of the Dead. Sailing there was possible only just before the break of day. The voyage, as in a dream, seemed to last forever; the silence was broken only by an occasional gurgle of water after the sweep of his oar.
A pale dawn began to brighten the fog, which as if on command parted into strips and thinned. Lorenzo saw a point of light, an illuminated stretch of wall, and, over it, the tar-black spears of the cypresses. He made for his destination.
Again he reached the gate of the Gloomy Sentinel. When he tied his line to the bollard, which today appeared to be more coarsely fashioned, the horned guard impatiently moved its bat’s wings. It had two pair. As Lorenzo crept past, the giant muttered. On the other side, there was no one, just a woman sitting in the distance near the wall, beneath a tree. He recognized Giulia.
“Did you find your heart?” he asked.
“Ah, it’s you, Lorenzo,” she said wearily. She was dressed as she had been before. When she got up from the stone bench, her blouse, too open, revealed the purple wound.
“Do you have a cigarette?” she asked, but her eyes didn’t sparkle this time. Her makeup had been put on carelessly.
“Don’t smoke. It’s ugly to see the smoke come from your chest.”
“How did you know my name?” he asked.
“They said it here. My feet have begun sinking into the ground.”
The soles of her shoes were in fact in the earth.
“Find your heart, Guilia.”
“I won’t stop looking until I find it,” she said. “But go, and watch out for the Sentinel, because today it is angry. It’s good that you’re here.”
The giant, when Lorenzo passed it, growled.
This time Lorenzo dared to moor at the gate of the guard with rainbow wings. He hadn’t stopped here before, sailing past instead, but today the ornamentation of the arch was different. Also, the wall that surrounded the island was supported in places by pilasters, though the sculptures remained.
His wooden shoes clacked as he ascended the wobbling steps. The wings of this guard were like dozens of ribbons of every color in the spectrum, fluttering in a breeze that did not make itself known otherwise, and they spread in all directions from the lantern at its chest.
“What brings you here?” the Sentinel asked. “You know no one here.”
Lorenzo froze, astonished.
“I seek Renato, the husband of old Silvia.”
“Good. He is here.” The Sentinel let Lorenzo pass.
Beyond the gate Lorenzo saw a wide walk paved with limestone, and little buildings huddled in the shadows of the cypresses. The people moved listlessly. How was he to find the old man? The inhabitants usually knew when they were to be visited.
Lorenzo looked around. Not far, a man was repairing a net. The work went slowly, was evidently trouble. Lorenzo went up to him, but the man spoke first:
“Silvia was always the one who patched the nets. She had better eyes.”
“Of course,” the old man said. “I recognized you, Lorenzo. I would have come to you, but the thread dropped.”
“Silvia waits for you.”
“Tell her to stop going to the shore. It’s better for her not to see me. The sight would terrify her. Better for people not to drag my body out: I’ve been too long in the water.”
“How did it happen, Renato?”
“The anchor caught in seaweed. I dived in to free it, but I got tangled too. Tell Silvia. Let her take satisfaction in each day she has, because now there is no cause for worry. You should not stay here too long. No one told you this?”
“I know few people here.”
It was now day. Lorenzo went in search of the gate of the Sentinel of the Feathered Wings. He sailed for quite a while before he came upon the gate that he remembered, although this time the caryatid on the left was stretched out and dozing while the one on the right supported the portico, bent but apparently enjoying the effort. “The sculptures at this gate are the loveliest,” Lorenzo thought.
Feathered Wings stared at him, something like amusement in its eyes. It held the lamp in its other arm. “She has waited a long time for you,” it said. “The next visits come at greater intervals.”
“Really?” Lorenzo asked, but the Sentinel said nothing more.
When Lorenzo entered, Mònica was sitting on a distant bench. She came to him.
“It’s good that you’re here,” she said, paler this time. Unless it was the shade of the cypresses taking the color from her complexion.
“A present for you,” he said, producing from his pocket a box that contained a little cage with thin bars.
“What is it?”
“A cicada that will buzz.”
“Keep it in its box. It drinks sugar water. Perhaps it will start a school to teach buzzing to the silent cicadas in this place.” Handing the box to her, he took care that their hands didn’t touch.
“But if they don’t learn quickly, I must free it. I hate to cage anything,” Mònica said.
“It likes its little house. It will live longer in the cage. Is there anything new with you?”
“How can anything be new with me?” She laughed. But quickly added, “No, I was wrong. Old Gianluca is building a galley for us so that we can fly away.”
“One cannot remain forever on the Isle of the Dead.”
“Your parents left on the last galley,” she told him. “Since then, none has taken to the air.”
“A galley that won’t fly is dismantled?”
“No. If it won’t fly, it sinks into the ground. Right after I arrived, that happened. The oarsmen became rooted to their benches; the feet of the passengers grew into the deck. You should have seen the faces of those who descended with the ship. A good thing I did not board that galley. I felt that I was not yet ready.”
“How will you know which one to board?”
“I have no idea. Nor does anyone. But that one I chose not to board.”
“Where is there material here to build a ship?”
“In the center of the island we have a supply of timber. There is enough for everyone.”
“I do not know the shipwright Gianluca.”
“He comes from another island. Farther than Orefine.”
“Giulia told me that I should not stay here long.”
“I should have warned you too, but I was too weak. I love your visits.”
“You have grown paler.”
“A little. It’s the shadows. But when we fly on our galley to the light, I will regain my color.”
“Mònica, I want to fly with you on that galley.”
“What nonsense you talk. You cannot possibly make that one. Prepare yourself for something different. But in the meantime, do visit me. Sail here at least once more. And tell Giulia she must find her heart. It’s time for you to go.”
He reached Orefine, as before, on the evening of the following day. The voyage went without incident, though he had to force himself to row. His soul yearned to remain among the dark-green cypresses, to live in a white stone house no larger than the mausoleum of the podestas, but he rowed, with tremendous effort. Many times he had to lie down in the boat to gather his strength.
A few people were waiting for him on the shore. No one would look him in the eye. They turned away, said nothing, quickly dispersed. He must have looked terrifying.
Only old Silvia remained, wrapped in her long fringed shawl.
“Was Renato there?” she asked.
“Yes.” It was hard for Lorenzo to speak. “He is tangled in seaweed. He said people shouldn’t search for him, because he looks bad.” He thought, “Worse than I do.”
“Did he have anything to tell me?”
“He said that you should stop going to the shore. You should resume your life, because much that is good awaits you.”
“Good?” She grunted. “Mateo and Sandro are fishermen now, and what happened to the old one could happen to them as well. But he always knew best.”
“That’s what he told me.”
The old woman nodded.
Lorenzo went straight to the painter.
Bòcline whistled through his teeth. “But you . . . are il cadàvere now indeed. Does your skin strip off?”
Lorenzo examined himself. “Do you see cracks?” he asked.
“No, but that yellow-green color, and those purple blotches on your hands . . . Your eyes are completely dull, as if dried up.”
“There is purple on my forearms too, because I lay with them behind my head.”
Bòcline looked with disbelief. “Pull up a trouser leg,” he said. “Yes, they’re on your calf as well. It’s pooling blood.” He shook his head.
“And I have trouble speaking. I’ll come here every day, and you make a note of these changes. To see how quickly they go away.”
“Very well. But have a bowl of soup. It’s left over.”
Lorenzo felt the soup, with each warm spoonful, restore to him the tastes and smells of the world.
In the morning the students competed to give correct answers. They had not wasted their two days off. “Everything is better,” he thought with irony, “as long as they don’t have to look at such a teacher.”
When he gave them the next assignment, the classroom fell silent. It may have been the funereal tone of his voice that struck fear into them. One student whispered, “il Cadàvere,” but that was the only moment of insubordination throughout the day.
The Podesta asked the granddaughter of the sculptor Bassagno to clean the teacher’s house. The dignity of il grammatico required a housekeeper. The Podesta had not provided one before because Mònica herself saw to the domestic duties and did not want a helper. The girl did her work quickly and vanished like a ghost, leaving a meal on the table and the rooms all swept.
From Zùrtano, a neighboring island, il moroppo himself, whose rank was a step higher than that of the Podesta, came to Orefine. Lorenzo was summoned to the Podesta’s office. Il moroppo was gray as a pigeon and wore black, and one addressed him as Don Pasquale Derpù. The old man sat in a corner of the room and observed Lorenzo from under the brim of a three-pointed hat.
The dignitary’s piercing gaze made Lorenzo uneasy. “They can’t reproach me for neglecting my duties,” he thought.
But his teaching was not the subject. Lorenzo was asked to give an exact account of his two voyages.
“Signore Grammarian,” the gloomy old man finally said, “can you place the Isle of the Dead on a map of the lagoon?”
Lorenzo leaned over the parchment that had been unfolded on the desk of the Podesta. The map showed many islands whose names he did not know, but it definitely did not contain all of the lagoon, as it failed to reach, to the northeast, for example, the archipelago of Malamocco with the city of the same name, which lay at the border of the lagoon, as Lorenzo taught his students in their geography lesson. But possibly Malamocco existed only in fairy tales, since in the latest revision of the textbook there was considerably less mention of that city. The southwest of the map ended with a face, eyes bulging and cheeks puffed, of Bocca del Babòn.
“In that direction, farther, a distance that might be covered in one night, given a middling wind,” Lorenzo said, pointing in the air beyond the sheet.
“I would have you take me there,” said il moroppo.
Massimo glanced at his superior with surprise.
“That I may see my son, who died last year. It is with this thought, not to move my office to Orefine, that I came here.”
“But of course, Don Pasquale,” the Podesta was quick to interject.
“I cannot sail yet. I must recover,” Lorenzo said.
“I will wait.”
After a week Lorenzo said that they could leave. His face had ceased to draw attention. Bòcline swore that his friend looked fine. The best proof was that for a few days now Chiara, the housekeeper, did not flee after she swept the rooms and served his meal. In fact, once she even stayed longer and ate with him.
At the arranged hour, Lorenzo sailed to the steps of the Podesta’s office. Don Pasquale was waiting in his long black cloak and three-cornered hat,. He leaned a little on a black cane with a silver head.
The dignitary, taking advantage of arm Lorenzo offered, stepped nimbly on deck. Lorenzo unmoored andgradually pulledthe ship from the shore. Il moroppo sat at the stern beside the lantern. When they passed Signale, a languid wind filled the sail. Lorenzo steered first toward the fishermen’s lights. As soon as they were behind him, the wind picked up.
The stars were hidden by clouds. The vessel leaped forward, Lorenzo at the side to lessen its roll.
“In this gale, signore, we should be there soon,” he told the old man.
“I am not sure,” said Don Pasquale. “How do we tell the lights of the guards from those of the fishermen?”
“First the fog rises. The lights that appear through it cannot be mistaken for anything else.”
It grew harder and harder to keep the boat on course. Lorenzo was impatient to see Mònica again. The boat gracefully cut the waves of the lagoon, but no fog gathered.
Finally the sea grew too rough, and he needed to trim the sail, but even so the speed of the boat did not decrease. Or at least such was his impression as he peered into the darkness.
It began to dawn, and the darkness thinned. No fog came. When it was light enough to determine their position, Lorenzo found, to his amazement, that they were approaching Orefine.
“How . . . ?” he blurted.
“The bubocco in the night must have taken us off course. A few claim that this can happen,” Don Pasquale remarked, giving himself a shake like a wet bird. He seemed resigned. “Evidently each must sail on his own to the Isle of the Dead.”
Lorenzo did not answer.
“Perhaps I am too old to see my son.”
“I will ask about him on my next visit.”
Il moroppo did not answer.
Chiara stood at the promontory of Signale, holding a basket. Lorenzo stopped, and she stepped onboard, supported by his arm.
“I came here, by chance, just as you returned,” she explained.
Which wasn’t exactly true, because then she took from her basket a jug of coffee that was still warm and with a cup offered some to the dignitary and then to the teacher.
Don Pasquale smiled in a knowing way at the pretty girl.
Chiara responded with a frown and a look of denial from her large dark eyes with their long lashes.
Lorenzo conveyed the old man to the Podesta’s office, then moored at a rarely used palino in front of his home.
“We can drink this coffee on the balcony. It’s well brewed.”
On the far horizon, the red disk of the sun had sunk half into the sea.
Il moroppo left Orefine, not waiting for Lorenzo’s next voyage. If il grammatico met the young Ermane on the Isle of the Dead, he was to provide an account in writing at the Podesta’s office, and the mail would relay it to Don Pasquale. This procedure was odd, but it may have been necessitated by il moroppo’s official functions. Although the dignitary would soon be entering a time of rest and, freed from a mountain of work, could move to tiny Orefine. Or did the old man simply wish to avoid conflict with the younger Podesta?
Don Pasquale sent the blueprint for a small galley of sixteen oars—not the regular one used to travel among the islands. The blueprint arrived in a special package delivered to the office of the Podesta, and Massimo handed it to Lorenzo.
Lorenzo’s house regained its former appearance. Chiara planted new flowers in the wooden boxes. She cut the grass with a scythe. She saw to the maintenance of the school hall. For this work, the Podesta paid her a modest fee.
When Lorenzo reminded her of the next voyage he was planning to the Isle of the Dead, her lovely face darkened.
“La catacombara calls you again . . . ,” she muttered, lowering her eyes.
“Could Chiara be jealous?” he thought, taken aback. He looked at her slender figure as she busied herself in the kitchen. “And she so beautiful?”
Chiara said no more on the subject. She prepared a basket of provisions for his trip, wrapped herself tightly in her tasseled shawl, and left without saying good-bye, without even looking at him.
The weather that evening was fine. The starry sky promised pleasant night sailing.
He traveled slowly with the wind, sipping his hot coffee every now and then, its aroma a satisfying contrast to the smell of sea spray. He was touched by Chiara’s thoughtfulness. He had scarcely finished his cup when the boat picked up speed and left behind the lights of the fishermen. Before long the familiar fog came and the wind died. The monotonous rhythm of his oar brought memories. At last, in the graying dark, loomed the pale outline of the wall, as expected, and over it the treetops. The boat approached the gate of the Rainbow Sentinel. Lorenzo had no idea why it came to this gate and not another.
He didn’t leave the boat but cried out, “I seek moroppo don Ermane, the son of Don Pasquale.”
The Sentinel turned its head. “There is no one here like that. You will not find him with me.”
Lorenzo rowed on. The bas-reliefs adorning the wall of the Isle of the Dead were unusually beautiful today and somehow different from what he remembered. Unless he misremembered, being away too long. No: today there were many more skulls and skeletons, and lovely naked giantesses between.
The Feathered Sentinel, he thought, greeted him like an old acquaintance, for it waved, or maybe it was only flexing its hand, numb from holding the lamp so long.
Lorenzo moored and, with the rolled parchment under his arm, proceeded to the gate.
“Slower!” The Sentinel blocked his way with a hand of steel.
“Yes . . . ?”
“Caution, not confidence, here. This is not your place.” The feathered giant spoke in a rumbling bass.
“Very well . . . sir,” Lorenzo gasped, startled, and walked more meekly.
Mònica was waiting for him not far from the gate, as if she had been hiding among the cypresses so the guard would not see her.
“You can sail here only by yourself,” she began, admonishing him. “It’s good that nothing happened to you. That night, the bubocco wailed like a thing possessed. I feared for you.”
“I would have made it to your galley then,” he said with a smile.
“Before you lies something other. Consider instead the hearts around you, lest you throw away your happiness.”
He did not understand. “The Podesta sent you a blueprint for the galley.” He handed the roll to her. “It’s for all of you. How could you people obtain such a thing otherwise?”
Mònica opened the blueprint.
“It’s good. Gianluca will be here shortly.”
“You will call him?”
“I don’t need to. He wishes to speak to you himself about the galley. He is indeed at a pass with its design.”
“And is Don Ermane here, the son of il moroppo Don Pasquale?”
“I did not hear of him.”
“How is the cicada managing?”
“I let it out of its cage. I couldn’t help myself.”
“Did it teach the others to buzz? These cypresses are still quiet.” He looked around.
“In its freedom, it fell silent. It buzzed only in its cage. Perhaps the other cicadas told it there must be no noise here.”
He sighed and said, “Then it died.”
Down the wide walk came a gray old man.
“That is Gianluca?”
She confirmed it.
The man stopped near them. He wiped his nearly bald pate, which had a few fine hairs like down.
She turned to Gianluca. “See, Lorenzo brought us a blueprint for a galley. A gift from il moroppo Don Pasquale Derpù. See if it is what we need.”
When the shipwright unrolled the parchment, his eyes lit up. “Wonderful,” he said. “I have forgotten my craft, but with this sketch I can direct the work. My thanks to your husband, Signora Mònica.”
“He stands here.”
“My thanks.” The old one bowed. “What sort of man are you to have sailed to us three times now?”
Lorenzo did not know what to say. Surely it was obvious why he had come.
Gianluca studied the sketch. “But we might alter this a little . . .” He thought for a while, then said, “We’ll row al gusto veneto. Rower behind rower.”
“But no one rows a galley like that. The design is correct: the oars go al gusto clàssico, two rowers at each station.”
The old man cocked his head. “We should change that.”
“Lest the galley fall into the earth,” Mònica explained. “Vertical oars will ease our way into the air.”
Lorenzo didn’t agree. “It would be better to build it so that both ways of rowing are possible. Just in case.”
When they took their leave of the shipwright, Lorenzo remarked to her, “You grow paler.”
“I must fade in your memory.” She smiled—her first smile for him since he met her on the Isle of the Dead.
Lorenzo sailed away, but a current or imperceptible breeze took him instead to the gate of the Black Sentinel, so he stopped there, even though the sullen giant had wrapped its light in its bat’s wings and glared at the visitor. Today there were three pairs of horns on his head, forming a kind of garland.
“Perhaps I shouldn’t disembark here,” Lorenzo thought. The covered lamp might be a warning. “This guard is dangerous.” But since the water had led him to this place, he went up the slippery steps.
On the Isle of the Dead, those with whom you wish to speak are always awaiting your arrival. Scarcely had his heels begun to click on the white stones of the wide walk when Giulia emerged from the cypresses, practically running. He recoiled, knowing that their bodies must not touch. He saw her joy, unusual among the inhabitants of this island, and guessed immediately what she had to tell him.
“I found my heart!” were her first words. “It’s here, where it belongs,” she said, placing her hand on her chest.
“I’m glad for you.”
“But to be safe, I won’t smoke until the wound heals.”
“You must have had difficulty finding your heart.”
“Actually, no. The one who tore it out was nearby. A couple of the others too. All I needed to do was look. He still had it in his pocket. I noticed right away that his jacket in that spot was soaked with blood.”
“He was kind enough to return it?”
“What else could he do?” She chuckled. “They were already in the earth up to their waists. It’s hard to move like that.”
“They were sinking?”
“Yes. For them, the ground appears to be much lower, but every attempt to move meets with such resistance, it’s like walking through earth.”
“You also were sinking.”
“A little. But when I started looking for my heart, I could walk normally. You were the one who gave me hope.”
She thought a moment.
Lorenzo too was silent.
“You know, when he tore out my heart, while I was dying, he kept his eyes on me, and I wanted to claw those beastly eyes,” she said at last.
Lorenzo watched her.
“Now he couldn’t defend himself,” she said. “His hands were deep in the ground. I could easily have put out his eyes. With a stick.”
“I didn’t even want to.”
Lorenzo smiled. “And you’re no longer in black,” he said.
“I changed that. I hope to fly, but no one is building a galley. Everyone, each day, is sinking. Must I speak soon with heads sticking out of the ground?”
“Find people under the Feathered Sentinel. They are building a galley. Perhaps they will take you with them.”
“If you advise it, I will try to find them. But you should not return to this gate. The Black Sentinel might claim you in my place. When it covers its light with its wings, it can be dreadful.”
“I am leaving.”
Lorenzo tiptoed past the bent black figure. Behind him, he heard a violent shift and a roar. Instinctively he ducked, ran without turning, shoved off from the shore, and jumped on deck, making the boat rock wildly. The Black Sentinel did not come after him—evidently its duty forbade it to leave its station. It growled and bared its long, sharp fangs.
On his return, Lorenzo was barely able to drag himself to Bòcline’s house for the painter to observe his condition. Chiara, when Bòcline sent a message for her to come, could not take Lorenzo home: il grammatico was so weak, he was unable even to drink soup through a straw. That evening, two villagers were paid to carry him home on a door.
“You even smell like a corpse now,” Chiara complained. “What will it be next, teacher?”
He mended slowly. He did not leave his bed for several days, though his appearance returned to normal. Chiara still watched him with anxiety, her eyes eloquent. He felt relief when at last she looked at him as she had done before. This happened when he managed to sit up in bed by himself, using his elbows. He now could swallow the soup made for him. She prepared and put hot poultices on him, because, she said, he was cold as a cadaver. A day later, the stink of putrefaction on him went away.
Chiara led Lorenzo, supporting him on her arm, to the balcony first, then, when he could negotiate the stairs, to the bench in front of the house. He sipped her coffee; his health improved. He noticed how hard she worked to care for him. When a curl of dark-brown hair fell across her nose, she blew it aside with a puff.
The Podesta summoned Lorenzo and informed him, in a circumspect way, that Don Ermane had been stabbed to death by a man whose inheritance he had taken. Don Ermane had more than once enriched himself through the abuse of his high position, thereby causing his father much vexation. Lorenzo guessed that he would find the young moroppo only with the Black Sentinel, but he feared to go there again. Besides, there was no guarantee that Don Ermane’s head would still be above the ground.
Chiara began giving students lessons in sculpting. She had assisted her grandfather Bassagno in his workshop and knew the craft well enough to teach it in the small school on Orefine. It was the Podesta’s idea. He believed that her knowledge qualified her to help in the education of the island’s children. Lorenzo thought, “The next generation will sculpt, not paint.”
He decided to go see how Chiara taught. He didn’t need to conceal himself; it was enough to stand outside in the corridor, because her voice was strong and clear, so that one could hear every word through the classroom door, which was slightly ajar.
She immediately captured the children’s interest with a project. They worked in clay, using as a model the turtle in the school’s terrarium. She didn’t need to silence noisy misbehavers. The one time she scolded was to forbid students to say il Cadàvere when they referred to him. Even when he sat on the bench in front of the school, he could hear her. “Is it possible that she left the door open intentionally?” he wondered.
On that bench, he listened to the next lessons Chiara gave—as he waited, because her class was before his—and soon grasped the depth of her knowledge. She taught the students drawing skills as well as Mònica had. The children preferred Chiara’s lessons to the boring lectures in geography, biology, and mathematics given by Lorenzo. She had formed a rapport with them, or perhaps there was simply no contest between a beautiful young woman and the fright that was il Cadàvere.
Time passed quickly, somehow, since his last voyage. When he realized how long ago he had been on the Isle of the Dead, he decided to visit Mònica at once. He promised Chiara that the visit would be short—so that he would be sure to survive it afterward. Worried, she accompanied him to the marina. From the sea he could see her small silhouette on the shore. The voyage fell into its usual rhythm. “It’s always the same,” he thought as the fog began to form in strips. And wondered, “Is this voyage in my mind?”
A few pulls of the oar. “No,” he remembered then, “because one time we couldn’t sail, the bubocco prevented it.” And concluded, “The similarity of the route must serve as a signpost to that island.”
The Feathered Sentinel paid no attention to Lorenzo. It sat on the pavement with its back to the visitor, staring inside the arch. Its lamp had been set to one side. Lorenzo, going by, greeted the giant quietly, but it made no response, intent on what was taking place on the island.
That Mònica was not at the gate alarmed Lorenzo. He had grown accustomed to her waiting for him. He saw several people he did not know. They were turned toward, occupied by, something farther in. Not noticing him, they did not hinder his passage.
He beheld the graceful hull of a galley. The upturned stern, the quarterdeck, the shield crowned with a triple lantern, the row of slightly raised oars, the pointed prow, to which Gianluca had added a short bowsprit, a single lantern as figurehead—everything had been fashioned out of wood. Lorenzo saw no iron fittings. As his eyes swept the lovely faultless curves of the hull, he could almost feel its bright, polished surfaces on the pads of his fingers. Not a rough edge anywhere. Even the hinges on the glazed windows of the forecastle had been carved with the utmost precision. A few people stood on the quarterdeck, leaning against the balustrade.
He caught sight of the crimson of Mònica’s dress. She had opened the window of the lantern and was lighting the wick. He called to her. She saw him and waved. “In a minute,” she seemed to say and continued with her task.
After she closed the window, she came down the gangplank to him.
“Today is the day,” she said. “It’s good you made it in time.”
His smile was faint: his arriving on this day was a coincidence.
“Your ship is a great success. Beautiful in shape and ornamentation.”
“Some of the ornaments are my own design. I drew that kneeling nymph on the shield. Do you like it?”
“Its proportions are perfect.” He was filled with admiration for the brilliantly rendered woman’s body. “It’s as fine as that caryatid at the gate.”
“She posed for me.”
“It must have been hard to sketch her from land, as she is better seen from the water.”
“I asked her to come here,” Mònica said.
He had no answer to that.
“And those two maidens recumbent on the forecastle window frame, they are also mine. I wanted you to be pleased.” She smiled.
“And the dancing porpoises . . . ?” He shared her pleasure, yet could not rejoice in her voyage. More passengers boarded. Some assumed positions at the oars; some busied themselves with chores on deck. Gianluca moved among them. He was in charge here, though without a captain it must have been difficult to establish order.
“The porpoises, the sea horses, and those waves. Really all the figures and most of the patterns.” Mònica—he had never seen her glow like this—watched as preparations were made for the beautiful vessel to embark.
“Porpoises don’t have the amusing snouts that dolphins do; theirs are shorter.”
“But they are more playful. And smaller, which is convenient, because there was not much space for them.”
It was his turn to smile.
Suddenly someone carelessly bumped against, or leaned too heavily against, a raised oar, and the galley lifted into the air, pulling at the securing line.
“Oh!” cried Mònica. “They are taking off without me!”
There was a stir among those assembled on the ground. They pointed at the ship.
“Lorenzo, I have been waiting for this so long!” Her eyes seemed to say, “Do something.”
“I too want you to go with them,” he told her. It was only when he said this that he realized it was true.
She smiled at him. “Good. And you will return to Orefine.” A slight hesitation. “You must not miss the joy that has been inscribed for you.”
He did not know what she meant.
Someone onboard let fall a rope ladder, which unfurled to the ground.
“For another passenger,” Lorenzo said.
“Yes . . . I will try. Thank you for your visits.”
“I too needed them.”
“Yes. More than I,” she said and took hold of the ladder.
At first she was nervous about putting her full weight on it, as if that weight might cause the galley to sink into the earth. Now she was climbing rung by rung. Not many steps, thirty, no more than forty.
“How is it that they did not depart without her?” Lorenzo asked a man standing beside him, watching the crimson dress of his wife.
“Evidently they couldn’t,” the man replied with a shrug. “Maybe the bitt wouldn’t release. I don’t believe they let the ladder drop deliberately. Once they were aloft, would they permit anyone to hinder their flight? No . . . it was definitely not their choice.”
No one climbed the ladder after Mònica.
She appeared on the forecastle deck, leaned against the railing of the balustrade, and waved. Lorenzo waved back. A slender woman in a darker dress stood by Mònica. Giulia . . . ?
He was sad to say farewell to his wife but thankful that the galley had not taken off without her.
The line around the bitt was released. The ropes all snapped taut, like plucked strings, and several people lost their balance for a moment. Those at the oars pulled the air, and the vessel rose majestically. When a stronger wind caught it, they let the oars hang vertically, and Gianluca ordered the sails hoisted, both sails the color of an intense rose madder, like Mònica’s dress. “He has become a good captain so quickly,” Lorenzo thought, following with his eyes the dwindling silhouette of the old shipwright, who was coordinating the work on deck.
The sails sparkled with silver as the galley headed for the single shaft of light that had pierced the clouds. “Could that be pearls of dew on the sails?” he wondered, admiring the vessel, which like a marvelous butterfly ascended into the brightness in the sky. The tunnel of light was like an arrow for the travelers to follow.
Mònica, barely visible, kept waving to him. The distance was so great now, he could no longer make out the crimson of her dress.
When he could no longer see the tiny grain of the flying galley because his eyes brimmed with tears from the blaze, he became aware that he must leave this island at once. Permission for him to be here had been withdrawn, he felt, and any further time spent on the Isle of the Dead would be at his peril.
“Do I stagger?” he thought as he went to the gate. The path seemed to shrink from his feet. “No, I am merely avoiding contact with the inhabitants of this island.”
Except he wasn’t sure: was it the dead shrinking from his feet, or the paving stones? At last he saw the tall, naked, dark-skinned woman bent over as if making a bow. “Ah, it’s you,” he said to the bronze caryatid and steadied himself by putting a hand on her thigh. “Now if only I can keep from falling off the steps to the water, because I’ll surely drown.” The dark blur against a green background was his boat. He didn’t try jumping but stooped and clutched the side. It was an effort to drag his body across to collapse onboard. He still needed to unmoor. He gathered his strength, finally stood, reached, released the line. He pushed off, and the boat left the shore. But the momentum was lost, so he had to force himself to stand again, row again, which he managed three times before he fell to the deck. He knew he must leave this place immediately and that the boat, if not rowed, would slow, would stop, so he stood again as soon as he was able and rowed, and fell again, exhausted, but the boat now made for Orefine. He stood and fell a few more times before his strength left him completely. After a while the boat came to rest and rocked gently on the small waves of the lagoon, rocking with it an unconscious Lorenzo.
Toward morning, as the fog thinned, a dark shape loomed, a small boat lit with a lantern. Its single sailor, seeing the light of the drifting boat, approached and fastened the boats together. The sailor then stepped onto the boat of the teacher.
“How you stink,” said Chiara under her breath, holding a cloth to her mouth. “At least I don’t see those purple blotches of pooled blood. But,” she added with worry, “could that be the green of putrefaction?” She covered him with a blanket. His skin was like ice. “Lorenzo, Lorenzo, allow yourself to be saved,” she pleaded. She didn’t attempt to give him soup, as he was unconscious.
She knew that she must get him to Orefine as soon as possible, that only there could he heal. She tied her boat more securely and began rowing his. Moving two boats was difficult work for the young woman, and her progress was extremely slow. The corpse smell coming from Lorenzo weakened her, and in his exhalations there was less and less breath. Chiara persevered in her struggle to reach the harbor in time.
At long last a gust of wind came and the air improved. She raised a sail; the two boats moved as one. The dreadful smell was carried away, and she could now rest from her rowing. She refused to think that she might be, was, too late. After his last visit, he also stank like this—it did not signify.
She reached the marina in the afternoon. She paid men to carry Lorenzo’s body home on a door borrowed from the tavern. They pinched their nostrils closed and made no secret of their revulsion. The teacher looked hideous: black blotches on greenish-yellow skin, and an unbearable stench of death.
Bòcline came and made a careful observation of Lorenzo’s condition. He had no advice to offer. He watched helplessly, scratched the gray stubble on his cheek. “The man overdid, overdid his grief,” he finally said and shot a questioning look at Chiara. She blushed.
The physician, when summoned, could not say whether Lorenzo would live or die. All they could do was watch over him and change the hot compresses.
It seemed to Chiara that she didn’t sleep a wink all night, yet there were gaps somehow in her keeping watch, and the next thing she knew, it had grown light in the room.
There must have been another gap, because now Bòcline sat on the bed beside her and was shaking her, his hand on her shoulder.
“He is awake,” Bòcline said, pointing.
Chiara looked but was confused. Then, fully awake, she smiled wanly. “I’ll heat some broth,” she said, getting up with difficulty, because she ached all over from sitting through the night. They would talk later; the patient now needed something hot in him.
Lorenzo’s eyes peered from under the wet compress on his forehead. They were still dull, but the whites, Chiara noted, were white once more. She propped him up with a pillow.
“You made it back,” she said, holding out a spoonful of broth. “Eat as much as possible, even if you are not hungry. You must warm up.”
“Each time, you will save him in this way?” asked Bòcline.
“It worked before, it will work again,” she said with hope. “But I will not allow him to go again.”
“You will forbid him?” the old man asked with a grin.
“In his place,” said Bòcline, “I would obey you.”
She said nothing, still glaring, but her face burned.
Lorenzo returned to health. Chiara had saved him. That was the opinion not only of Bòcline but also of the Podesta, to whom Lorenzo gave a full account of his voyage. Both were happy to hear that this voyage to the Isle of the Dead would be his last, but Chiara was the happiest.
There was no explanation for the strange condition that came from landing on the island. The symptoms, though, were unambiguous: the traveler reached the boundary between life and death there and very likely crossed it. Lorenzo felt, even so, that his visits to his dead wife had helped both of them. He repeated Mònica’s words that he was the one who needed the visits more.
They were sitting and drinking coffee with Bòcline. Winter had arrived, and the wind carried tiny flakes of snow, therefore the table had been moved inside. Through the windows you could see Lorenzo’s boat bobbing on the water. Canale Grande was empty, and an occasional wave was so strong that it knocked the boat against its post. In winter, the Podesta allowed mooring free of charge, because the lagoon often grew quite choppy. Today no one went out for fish.
Chiara served little cakes, sweet and studded with dried fruit. The perfect accompaniment to bitter coffee. They reminisced: how Lorenzo looked when Chiara brought him home the last time. Bòcline insisted that he was certain, had no doubt, that Lorenzo was dead then. Chiara didn’t want to hear this: what a shocking thought, to be marrying a man who had been a corpse.
“I don’t want the students to call her la Cadàvera,” Lorenzo said.
“I’ll pour coffee on you,” she threatened, brandishing the pot, but her eyes said something very different.
“They won’t call her that,” said Bòcline. “She doesn’t look at all like Lorenzo.”
“Hold out your sleeve. I’ll pour it on you too,” she laughed. “He deserves his fate. First he was with la Catacombara, then with me, la Cadàvera.”
“I’m content,” Lorenzo agreed with a nod. “I need no more. But we have not resolved everything,” he said, changing the subject. “For example, we row al gusto veneto or al gusto clàssico. The word veneto is unclear.”
“It’s whether you hold the oar vertically or horizontally,” explained the painter. “Veneto is an old form for verticale.”
“No, veneto is a different word. It comes from the name of a city in a fairy tale. But none of us has been even to Malamocco, about which Chiara teaches the children in school. That city may not exist either . . .”
“You sail to Malamocco by the lagoon. Holding steady to the northeast.”
“So says the textbook. But who ever attempted it? We sail only to a few nearby islands, or when we go out fishing. Sailing northeast is not possible: the wind does not permit it, a stormy sea bars the way.”
“Yet we receive supplies, everything, regularly from them. The vendors bring us vegetables and fruit,” Chiara put in.
“They bring us vegetables and fruit, yes, but none of us ever gets around to sailing to their islands.”
“Well, but there’s the superstition that carrying foreigners on one’s boat brings misfortune. You will not persuade a soul to take you.”
“It may be just a superstition,” said Lorenzo. “Or it may be that we may not leave our islands.”
The painter laughed. “That’s possible. But in exchange for our isolation we have the balm of a long farewell.”
“No one took advantage of it before.”
“No one needed to, apparently. But you, you alone, discovered this gift that has been given to us.”
Fusina, Cortina d’Ampezzo, Kraków
15 August–15 September 2005
"Balsam dlugiego pozegnania," from Balsam dlugiego pozegnania (Wydawnictwo literackie, 2006), © 2006 by Marek Huberath. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Michael Kandel. All rights reserved.