I should have known they’d given up on saving Venice when the extra order came in. Late August is busy anyway, full of chatty tourists slogging ankle-deep through water; shipping boats have a lot of business, carrying three-inch masks, glass beads, and authentic Venetian stationery from the mainland factories to the islands. So it was the type, not the suddenness, of the order that struck me.
“Books,” my dad said. “Hell on water. You better pack ‘em in plastic.” I nodded and turned away from him on the dock as he made further arrangements with the man placing the order. I took my shirt off. Most boys who run the boats out here are bronzed from sun and taut with hard-earned muscles. This was my first summer on the job, and my skin showed it, gleaming under its pale sheen of sweat. I sneaked a glance back at dad’s client. His skin, hidden beneath layers of cardigan and khaki, glowed even brighter.
I took off my glasses. I didn’t think the man had noticed them.
Dad and I spent the evening piling plastic-wrapped stacks of books into our stripped-down motoscafi. The air was cool, almost as pleasant as the depths of the school library, but the wind stung my sweaty back, and by the time we were done, every muscle in my arms and neck was jumping. I skipped dinner and instead climbed into bed to retrieve Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. On second reading, I was becoming more and more convinced that Joyce had laid the novel out like a thread to trace the labyrinth of Ulysses, which I found impenetrable. I fell asleep dreaming of the stone walls of Dublin.
The next morning, I went to the docks without a shirt or glasses on at all, my mind disorganized by sleep. The canal blurred as I waited for the usual grunt from my father and my orders for the day. He came over and fiddled with the boat’s mooring for a second. Then, seemingly without thinking, Dad kissed my hair and handed me a pile of books to begin loading. I stared at him. I spent the rest of the day working beside him like any other boy might, getting burned and not caring. I wish now that I’d looked to see what books I was carrying.
That night, I slept soundly for the first time all summer. I would have gone on like that forever, I know it, if only the new shipping route hadn’t opened up in the sestiere San Marco.
The Piazza San Marco opens directly onto the lagoon. During rains or high tide, hollows and dips in the stone fill with water, causing the tourists and pigeons to clog the area even more annoyingly than usual; the pigeons, at least, are kickable. If the puddles are deep enough and last long enough, the city builds wooden walkways over them. Fat Englishmen totter across these with umbrellas held high, like overstuffed acrobats.
When we went out to pick up the morning’s orders, we found that poles had been pasted onto the piazza overnight. Rough-hewn, like the splintery beacons in the lagoon, the poles were sunk beneath the water in neat lines that formed a shipping lane between the piazza’s docks and the backside of the doge’s palace. The poles were thirty feet tall.
That day, it drizzled, a light warm rain that kept me bailing the boat every twenty minutes or so and made my feet ache. We didn’t venture into the piazza–my dad simply snorted at the suggestion–but I caught glimpses of other boats running in the freshly marked lines. They were blue and bore the seal of the city of Venice. The tourists clapped and laughed and took pictures. The pigeons, for once, stayed out of the way, perhaps sensing the urgency expressed in the frowns of the uniformed men running the boats.
I remember that day because it was the last time that I felt the heat of the Venetian sun on my back. I found out later that it was also the day they stopped letting tourists into the city. At the time, all I knew was that something had gone out of me. Venice is a city of light and shimmer; its palazzos and streets are filigreed with metal, named for gems or gold. That was the last day the stones of the Rialto glowed red in the sunset. Whenever I touched the city’s masonry after that, it felt worn and familiar, but cold.
The living left the city in streams. Dad had no business shipping to Venice for the factories anymore, but he made up for it by using his old water-taxi for its original purpose. I went along, helping with baggage and peering at passengers from the tiny hold. I couldn’t believe there were that many tourists in Venice, especially ones who were willing to put up with Dad’s surliness, which increased hourly. Soon, though, I saw bigger taxis being hired by single passengers, and I realized that these were natives from other parts of the city. I asked Dad when we went home one night if we could fit all of our stuff into our boat. He froze; he might have hit me. Instead, he went silent and remained so for the next fortnight, cooking all our meals without a word.
The days got colder and colder. School should have started for me again, but the term was suspended. The day Dad took off to visit the cemetery, I stole some books from the library and snuck them back to my room. I sat alone in the house with The Great Gatsby until I heard Dad come in. I slammed the book shut two lines from its end and hurled myself into bed, lights out. I heard him open the door.
“Hey,” he said softly. I answered him. “Hey.”
He paused. I lay still, as if I were asleep, perhaps talking in my sleep, my greeting an unconscious reply. I heard him shift his weight. The floorboards creaked.
“I think you better do the cooking from now on,” he said at last, swallowing.
“Okay,” I replied, still not moving. He left without saying anything else.
The nights grew noisier as fall descended. It rained constantly in big crackling thunderstorms that I’d never seen the like of in the city. Boats taxied to and fro across the piazza, carrying furniture, households, and pets, even in the early hours, some of them much bigger than before. They didn’t have to be as shallow on the draft now: the entire piazza was submerged in five feet of water. I looked up at the remaining twenty-five feet of those poles when I passed them and thought of what I might carve into their tops.
Dad stayed at home most days that season, so I ran the boat. I wouldn’t have had any idea how to get clients; fortunately, we were approached by the city and hired as workers for the state. The blue boats weren’t enough anymore. The tide had already swept into the Ca d’Oro and the Guggenheim before the government could reach them. They needed all the hands they had to salvage what was left.
I went to work in my long school pants and jacket, to stave off the cold and protect my arms and legs from the rough-wrapped packages I was handed. The sky remained a stubborn grey, and it only got darker. The whole city fell into shadow. I saw parts of neighborhoods I’d never been to before. One day, I was sent onto a recently opened shipping route between the Rialto and the Ghetto. My boat skimmed above flowerpots and street signs that advertised shops. The confines of the Ghetto made the green tidewater reflect up onto the walls, and it looked like the buildings were melting away right into the canals below.
Nights after cleaning up dinner, I waded through Henry James, wondering if Venice was the sort of city that killed you if you stayed long enough, and if so, whether sixteen years sufficed. Some other student had underlined and penciled notes all over this copy; whoever it was had a penchant for analyzing symbolism that mystified me. The characters seemed straightforward enough, unable to admit their attachment to one another, giving their love to the city instead. In one margin, the annotator had written: “Everything in Venice has wings.” “Wings” was underlined several times.
I fell asleep shivering and listening to the cracks and groans in the rock beneath me, feeling as though something was lurking below the surface.
Dad stopped coming with me altogether. The nights became longer and noisier; he spent them packing our house into boxes and shipping the boxes away. Our white-beamed rooms began to look like forests of winter-bare trees, bone-white branches caving under the weight of the gray autumn sky. I thought of skeletons dancing on Halloween.
I didn’t live there anymore. I borrowed other people’s lives instead, ancient lives captured in paintings and books and medieval manuscripts, which I carried personally ashore. They were the last warm things I touched there. I held them snugly, fit my body around them tightly, looking askance at the government workers who were handing them to me now without even wrapping them. I was one of a hundred precious capillaries, bearing away the lifeblood of a city. I took pride in the perfection of my work.
I realized then, also, that the books my dad and I had first carried must have been part of a private collection. It occurred to me that the client, the man who owned those books, had known. For weeks he must have known, to prepare all those books. He’d known that Venice was sinking. He hadn’t told me.
I ignored reports on TV and warnings from the officials who hired me that I ought to think about leaving myself. I shrugged and took more jobs. The prow of my boat turned orangey-brown from flakes of rust and paint that fell off of buildings to float on the water. Sometimes my hair would be full of them. Venice was shedding its leaves.
One day in November, I was told to go to the students’ quarter of Dorsoduro and look through the upper apartments to see if, by chance, some university valuables had been left behind. The boat’s engine echoed deafeningly off the walls as I turned into the window of one apartment’s third floor.
Inside, clothes and books formed sandbars between rooms. Light pieces of furniture swayed in the current; cigarette cartons, papers, rotten fruit, beer cans, and unpaid bills drifted from one hall to the next. I felt my jaw drop, dazed, and my boat bumped into a table, overturning a box of trophies and child’s toys. I gunned the motor and left. The dorms had become a series of flipped beetles, and I did not want to watch them wriggle in their carapaces.
That night, I read C. S. Lewis, imagining carpets of flowers parting before the prow of my boat as I glided into the Basilica San Marco. The next day, I carved another notch in the piazza’s pillars, marking the waterline. I shivered in the cold and felt numb.
In the following weeks, Venice became quieter again. Almost everyone had left, even the boat-runners, save for me and some of the blue-boat men. Occasionally a helicopter flew over, cameras clicking at the half-vanished architecture. The government’s intense salvaging efforts had slowed to a crawl, and often they had no work to give me. I sat huddled in my boat and motored around, picking off pieces of fresco and tile and gathering them into piles that later filled the corners of my room. When I lay in bed at night, I could hear water lapping at the stairs only a floor below and the moans of the city as it lost its purchase on the world it knew.
When I ferried Dad over to the mainland with our stuff, there was frost on the houses, and some of the smaller canals were coated in a thin layer of ice. The boat’s hull crackled against the broken pieces as it cut through.
Dad didn’t say anything when I told him I had some stuff to take care of in the old place. He just nodded as if he understood and handed me a slip of paper with an address on it before walking away toward the buses.
By Tuesday I was the only human left. I wandered around the piazza again, sailing in and out of windows in the Museo Correr, reading placards for empty cases and handling museum treasures for which no one would be coming. I boated over to the Basilica, too, but I didn’t go inside. I didn’t know if they had taken out the gold mosaics or not; it might have been dark, and if the last spark of life had died in Venice, I didn’t want to know. I amused myself in the shopping districts instead and stole dinner from an empty Da Fiore. Instead of sleeping that night, I cried.
On Wednesday, the pigeons left. I hadn’t even realized they were there until they disappeared. Without them, the city was a smooth fantasy of ice, a half-blown glass sculpture from Murano.
I stared through the walls of my apartment, seeing nothing, barely feeling the timid December sun go down. I couldn’t move. The water was so high that I had tied my boat up to my bedpost, and the sheets were soaked. Joyce floated past me on a ripple of black water. I closed my eyes and rocked back and forth. I rocked, and I rocked, and I thought: At least the sun will not harm me now.
On Thursday, the first day of winter, I woke up to silence. My bed was almost entirely submerged in water. I climbed up into my boat and started the engine. On the way out the door, I passed my copy of Portrait of the Artist again and took pity on it; I dragged it up into the boat and shook it out. All but the last page had been soaked through so as to be illegible. “Old father, old artificer,” I read, “stand me now and ever in good stead.” I closed the book.
The sun was rising over the lagoon as I pulled out from between the buildings. In the morning air, my breath fogged up my glasses; I wiped them off on my shirt and stared out at the sinking city.
The sunrise hit the lagoon’s surface at such an angle as to turn it into a prism and a mirror at the same time, and Venice’s rainbow-hued towers and campaniles glittered above and below the surface, sending shots of multi-colored light into the depths. It looked as if underwater fires had been lit; I could see the dawn’s rays dazzling off of marble streets in hues of coral, turquoise, sapphire, amethyst, garnet, topaz, and rose. Silvery fish winked and sparkled. The Basilica, glory of the city, was ablaze with gilded sunshine, its mosaics burning brightest at their last before being claimed by the deep.
I stopped the boat’s motor. I stood breathing, gazing at a sight no man would see again, when I heard and felt a screaming lurch. The city shook. I shut my eyes, afraid. From the east, I heard the beating of wings.
They landed on rooftops, spires, balconies, and windowsills; they descended on arcades; they choked the tops of monuments with their bodies. They latched their claws into shingles for purchase and curled their tails around the ironwork. They prowled and pawed at the city. They waited.
I stared at their wings, their jaws. There were thousands of them, a hundred thousand. They covered the city in a layer of rippling, shifting gold. They were staring intently in one direction, and I followed their gazes.
At the entrance to the lagoon, atop the pillar by the drowned basilica, the lion of St. Mark turned its head and roared. The earth shook as a hundred thousand winged lions roared back, and the city cracked.
In the surge of waves and foam, I scrambled to hold onto my boat and watched as the stone lion, protector of Venice, unfolded its mighty gray wings. Rising slowly to the west, it sailed up into the clouds’ glare, followed by a tawny mass of lions clutching rooftops. With a great heave, they carried the city of Venice up and off into the sky.