La Serenissima

by Catherynne M. Valente

In the Year of Our Lord 846, Narentine pirates, the last of the Slavic nations to resist conversion to Christianity, crowned their long campaign of irritation against the golden might of Venice by most foully raiding one of the nine cities of the Republic, the lagoon—town of Caorle.Then Doge, Pietro Tradonico made a dubious kind of peace with their prince, Drušak.

Note: the Narentines did not finally convert and cease their activity in the Adriatic until nearly one hundred and fifty years, and thirteen Doges later, during the reign of Orsoleo II, all praise to his name. The peace of Tradonico is thus hardly to be credited.

—Alessandro de Caravello, called The Fool
Historia Nationum Dalmatiae, 897
Further Notations by Giuliano de Marcalla, 1762

I: Virago

I remember, when I must remember anything, that it was always wet. Never since I was a girl did my feet grace a stair but that the embroidery of my shoes was soaked through, red thread to black, green to black, blue to black: rain–sodden, rimmed with street–mold. The doused hems of my skirts lapped behind me, leaving a trail of old rain,and I moved through the city like an exotic snail. I wore combs of bronze crab–claws in my hair, which was even then more silver than blonde, and on my fingers were knuckle–rings of coral, and around my waist was ever a belt of pearls. Yet still I walked alone on those jagged streets and no man would hinder me, for the snail of Venicemoved through her city in the days of the eleventh Doge, the Idiot Soldier, who could neither read nor write, who compressed an incomprehensible cosmos of parchment beneath his great silver seal, and who was also my father. He called me Uliva, for the endless dusty groves of olives that waved in the sea wind, and it is Uliva who writes these things,who writes these things in the dark, upon strips of birch bark flattened with iron, who writes these things in cuttlefish–ink and sturgeon blood, whose shoes are now brighter than any she owned on the canal–bridges, but still wet, as wet as they have ever been.

He was determined that I and my brother would read where he did not. Giovanni, so much handsomer than I, with his black eyes and his manfully scarred lip, was eager and apt, always a good boy, always the child I was not: heir, thinker, soldier. I wandered canal–side and stared into the water, trying to see the cart–strewn bottom at the end of all that green.I plaited my hair, and unplaited it, staring out the window at the melted golden sky. I spoke little enough that for a time I was given up as mute. I plucked a psaltery that had been cut for me from yellowish olivewood, tooled with silver chisels, and which sounded like a woman weeping. My fingers grew bloody with playing, but I did not see them. I did not see the sun riseor set — I wanted only to hear that keening voice grieve beneath my hands. I did not want to read the dry, rasping, hissing pages my father set down before me. I did not like Latin, or French, or my mother. She was Istrian, her hair dark and coarse, and made love to historians in the high palace rooms. I heard them by the half–moon, crying out genealogies in the garrets.My father Pietro heard them too, and listened eagerly for silence, as he took the historians when she was finished, and kissed their ink–stained fingers while he begged them to call him wise. My childhood was a jangle of archival ecstasy.

Though I was recalcitrant always, Pietro, with his historians fanned out behind him like a peacock’s tail, was inventive. He began to bring me, not dusty pages, but strange and ingenious things: a mouse with its sleek fur cut away and a terrible tale of a drowned monk inked around his belly and his tail, a servant girl sent to bring me little broiled larks and smoked minnows who wore a long green dress stitchedin red with the story of a nun who became a blackbird. There was a copper clock whose pendulum was painstakingly etched with the tale of a blackbird who became a nun. On my pillow each night would appear a white rose whose text flowed around and around, on either side of each petal. The edges of the words browned the flower–flesh, and I peered at a cautionary tale about a noble virgin who bled to death after allowing a commoner a single kiss.

At first I ignored these, too, but it was not long before I searched for them all over the great house, desperate to find the next delicate, serene object with its stories blazing. Soon the stories faded into embroidery patterns and canal depth charts and other practical things — though once in a long while I would find curls of birch–shavings in the wood pile extolling the beauty of a miraculous Moorish girlwho woke one morning to find the feathers of the dove of Christ covering her body like a child’s blanket. I forgot my weeping psaltery. I forgot my brother. I even forgot to look for carts at the bottom of the canals, until I wondered if perhaps Pietro might have hidden an inscription on one of their shattered wheels. When the light slanted pale into the water, I dove down, soaking my dress and my shoes and my hair,and while my breath burned within me read some few letters cut into an axle.

Nothing can be written in the book of the canal but this: a child of Venice must learn to swallow the sea.

The tips of my hair were green and black when I was pulled from the waves. I spoke no more than I ever had, but between the groans of the historians beneath my parents, I snuck like a fox, growing long and sleek and able. I did not see Pietro often, only his lovers’ inscribed presents, strewn over the city like breadcrumbs for an Uliva–pigeon. They were not signed — I could not guess at their authorship.In my mind all the historians were the same, with smoky hair and furtive faces. I could never catch them at it, and Giovanni got nothing but plain vellum and a pot of ink at his desk — my parents’ pets and I chased each other around the palace like grand hunting parties.

There came a night when there were a great many summer stars sweating in the sky, and I had run a quick circuit of rooms looking for a plate or doll’s head black with verses. Finding nothing, I went into my old rooms to find the psaltery, hoping, though I had neglected her in favor of the tiny calligraphies, to hear the olivewood woman weep again. I lifted the instrument, and my fingers found theirplace — but the wood was already warm, even hot, and the stitches of my skirt began to melt beneath it. I lifted the great harp from me and saw that letters had been burned black into its back, curling and still smoking. On my beautiful yellow–green psaltery were written these things:

Let me tell you about a girl I once knew. She was born a Doge’s daughter with olives in her mouth and catgut strings wrapped around her hands like rings. When her hair grew long enough to reach her waist, and her brother’s arms were as big around as banisters, and folk with high–sounding names began to look askance at her and wonder what she might look like with their names burned into her heart,she was sent away from Venice proper, which had loved her and taught her what color wharfside houses should be, and what foot to place first on a canal–bridge. She was escorted by two black horses to a town called Caorle, with a green lagoon and so many seabirds the roofs flutter white in the sun. There she took the copper crab–claws from her hair, and the coral rings from her fingers, and unclasped her belt of pearls.The sisters of the Church of the Blessed Virgin of the Angel took her naked down to the shore, which is so near to the door of the chapel that sand scrubs the path to God, and put her jewels into the blue surf, and drew from their black habits a golden ring and instructed the girl to place it on the little foaming waves, and to say after them: Desponsam te, mare! Which is to say: thus I wed thee, O sea.

Into the water the ring sank; the girl I knew watched it dim and darken. She followed her sisters away, with the sea licking its new bride’s heels, and walked through the church–arch where the shadows puffed and blew.

There was no more: desperate for another word, two, three, I peered beneath the soundboard, and glimpsed there in a tiny hand this last:

Know, Uliva Tradonico, that alone between the copper canals, your Father’s Fool loved you, and made the city’s flotsam speak for your sake alone.