The Girl From Venice
Without a moon, small islands disappeared and Venice sank into the dark. Stars, however, were so brilliant that Cenzo felt drawn to them, even as mud oozed between his toes. The faint report of church bells carried over the lagoon, from farms drifted the smell of manure, and once or twice he caught the tremolo of a German gunboat plowing the water.
A curfew barred all nighttime activity, no exceptions except for fishermen. Fishermen were nocturnal creatures who slept by day and fished by night. They stayed out on the lagoon for days at a time and when they came ashore they smelled so much of fish that cats followed them through the streets.
Cenzo’s only illumination was an oil lamp that hung on the mast, but he didn’t need to see his catch; one touch told him whether he was handling sea bass, mullet, or a lost boot. He wore no shoes or boots himself; the mud would only suck them off. He did have a variety of nets and traps, tridents and rakes, for catching
fish and damp sailcloth to cover them with. Every night was different. Tonight’s catch was mainly cuttlefish come to lay their eggs. They rolled their otherworldly eyes toward the lamp. Fifty percent of fishermen said that cuttlefish were best caught on a full moon. Another fifty percent claimed the opposite. Sole, sea bass, and orata Cenzo laid in wicker baskets. Bullheads he threw back into the water.
The air reverberated as Allied bombers passed overhead on their way to rain destruction on Turin or Milan or Verona. Anywhere but Venice. Sacred Venice was attacked only by pigeons. The population of the city had tripled as refugees poured in, hidden by the blackout.
From the market Cenzo planned to sail home. For a week he had not bathed in freshwater or eaten more than grilled fish and polenta cakes. He pushed the boat off the grass to drop in the rudder when something sizable rose to the surface. Cenzo held his lamp over the water as the body of a girl took shape.
A chill ran through Cenzo. He expected any second that the girl would become a hallucination. Fishermen saw all sorts of things at sea and eyes played tricks at night. At a touch she might separate into the white belly of a ray and the blank face of an octopus. But no, she stayed intact.
She floated faceup in a dirty nightgown. He was no expert on the ages of girls but he guessed she was in her late teens. She was barefoot, her eyes were closed, and her skin was a nearly translucent white. Her lips were purple and long hair and sea grass wrapped around her neck. Cenzo was hardly a believer but he crossed himself automatically and lifted her into the Fatima—no easy task, because the dead were so loose-limbed. Even as he laid her out on the bottom of the boat he knew that he should have left her alone. A woman on a boat was bad luck, and he supposed
a dead girl was even worse.
Trouble he didn’t need. On one side were Fascists, on the other side partisans, and on the third side German soldiers who would shoot you as soon as look at you. Only a madman would raise his hand and say, “Excuse me, signori, I found this dead girl floating by.”
Still, Cenzo wondered how a girl had gotten so far from land. Granted, most of the lagoon was shallow, but its channels were labyrinths, and between channels and the push and pull of different currents a person was trapped as much as a fish in a net. Someone must have brought her this far and then, for whatever reason, abandoned her, although Cenzo did not see any bruises or signs of violence.
Cenzo untangled her hair. She had feathery black lashes and a small chin and with her closed eyes and youth she looked as serene as a Virgin in a painting. He couldn’t throw her back as if she were trash. For decency’s sake, he folded her hands over her breast and covered her with sailcloth he kept damp to cool the fish.
What to do? According to the Bible, the dead had to bury the dead and it was the business of the living to keep on living. All the same . . . all the same, there was something about the death of anyone young that was a slap in the face. He didn’t count himself a virtuous man. In his experience, no survivor could. But he could compromise. In this blackness no one had seen him. He could deposit the body on the Ponte della Paglia in Venice, where the dead were displayed for identification, and still sell his catch before the fish market closed.
Enough! Decided! Cenzo stood facing forward, fit his oars into their locks, and rowed cross-handed, thrusting his entire body forward with each stroke. In a moment he found his rhythm and moved swiftly toward the margin between night and an abyss.
He deliberately did not speculate on the origins of the girl. A cruel father, a jealous lover, a suicidal impulse, insanity? Perhaps she was sent by the devil to lure honest fishermen to their doom. At the first tug of wind he ran up his sail, a sheet with the emblem of three cupids barely visible in the dark.
Fishermen believed in demons and wraiths. Everyone knew stories about men who took their place at the family table a day after they had drowned. Or of a miraculous vision of Saint Angelo that calmed a storm. Or of a captain who ignored a warning from the Madonna herself and was sucked by a whirlpool into the drink. Superstitions. Fables. Bedtime stories to scare children.
He had barely passed from marsh to open water when the motor he had heard before returned, but much closer. A German gunboat was bearing down on him like a train and its spotlight crisply outlined him in white.