Chapter Eight

 

We shut the workshop. To the world outside
we were as scarcely living, quiet as mice.
But each one with a cough or fever came
to be a harbinger of something worse
that made us strip them, search, though all was well:
no sores or pustules, the Lord be praised. Our God
was merciful and took His children through.

The news, though, was of whole streets gone, of wharves
suspended, empty markets, thoroughfares
marked out with crosses and with stench of death.

Our rules said no one came and no one went.
We took provisions from the market towns
that serve our city but as sent by friends.

In all that interval I thought on Anna,
despite my workshop, no one else. I asked
of one who served the household: no news came.
My brother watched me, and my wife, as though
to interrupt unwanted trains of thought,
gave bulletins on friends and what they said.
The days turned weeks and months: the workshop stayed
a hermit's place of silence: in our prayers
we felt God heard us: we were safe.

A knock
one afternoon was met with rough instructions,
which were our rules. Again it came: insistent:
I went to add authority but saw
the little donna Anna. Pitiful
she looked and was admitted, hurriedly.
I took her hand, which trembled as she said.

'Good signor Caliari, give me shelter
a room to lay this weary body down
that has been travelling so endlessly
it seems each carriage jolt is in the bones,
each sentry warning wormed into the ear.

Take not this journey, lady, not to Venice,
but seek a healthier upland air. Those lakes
and sweltering littorals breed yet more plague
as seethings in the air, invisible, that shimmer
as tiny gnats disturb the water's sheen,
but with their flittings bring a fearful death.

Where could I go who had no place remaining?
I tried my mother's house but it was locked.
I knocked on palaces of old companions
but no one would remember. I had to walk
through heaped-up refuse in the streets, beside
canals that gibbered at me, fecklessly
their poles and mooring jetties jeered or sank
in stench and veiled malevolence. Among
the rubbish thrown out in the streets the rats
showed teeth or fastened on each other. I saw
50. the suppurating bodies of good folk,
our own true countrymen hauled by on carts
and thence to loading points for God knows where,
by boats and gondolas new draped in black.

More menacing were empty streets that moved
with shadows passing silently, each step
put down most carefully as though the sound
might draw behind them some more hideous thing
that reached and took them with the reaper's knife.

I saw a woman hawking rancid meat
that no one wanted. For pity's sake, she cried,
we have to live! I gave her half a soldo,
no more than that, but in the mud she knelt,
and blessed a woman more unfortunate
than her, who comes most fearfully because
you keep your workshop on, though seeming shut.'

We have commissions that we can't deny
or much delay. Besides, who knows when God
will call his ever thoughtless children home?
The manner of our going is not known
but hangs as do the seasons, now inclining,
promising but days returning: all
in prospect only, where it's never wisdom
to call in or discount.

How sad her words:

'Unwisdom? That was mine, was solely mine.
I would not heed your ever-kindly words,
but closed my ears and took that sinful path.'

What's done is done, my little lady. We
must look for lodgings in this frightened city.
Here you cannot stay: we have our rules:
but let us find some place more out to shore,
where air is clear of pestilence and death

We left, the workshop looking at us strangely,
poor brother Benedetto at his brushes,
my wife indignant, standing hands on hip.

And what a way we went! All places closed.
We asked each gondolier we came to: none
would go.

Good friends, for conscience sake:
this is a lady begs you take her safely
from these dark alleyways and fastened doors.
We are in health, moreover, have no signs
of sickness on us, neither. So, in short,
for courtesy and money, bear us on.

All shook their heads.

'You know, good Veronese,
that no one leaves this city at the plague
time but with written orders from the Doge.
But stay your haste, obtain those papers, when
even the most concerned of us will go.'

How long was that? Where could we stay?

They looked
uneasy, spread their hands. We tried afresh
100. the doors of taverns round us, each was shut,
some with crosses newly placed. I went
to friends and saw odd faces looking down,
and some were those I knew, but no one came.
From high and low we went, and calling out
arrived at those dark quarters of the northern
wharves, with stagnant waterways and tiny
streets, the houses leaning, packed together,
where, at the poorest, beside the little church
of San Alvise, a tavern reluctantly,
for ready silver, took us in.

I'll find
you better soon.

'No matter, this will suit me
well enough: the place is clean. But visit
me now daily, and bring news of folk
recovering and friends still safe.'

I will.
And did. Each day I went to one who took
precautions earnestly, and kept her place.

'But none are taken, master painter?'

None,
so far, my little lady, and God's grace
perhaps is looking on us, so we hope.

'Amen to that. My mother's house?'

Still locked.
We have no news.

'No matter. Come and sit
and tell me you will take a simple meal
as with an old-time friend.'

The poorest meal
is made most princely by those present.

She smiled.

'You have not lost the courtier's gift,
my mother spoke of, nor musician's skills,
I hope. So come with viol or pipe next time
that we may hear some merrymaking where
these walls are silent with long-stifled breath.'

And so I did. I played, she sung. And seemed
as those poor linnets shut in wicker pens
who sing their heart out fruitlessly and wait
till light drops further from them day by day.

One time she curtsied. 'Tell me, is your daughter
one to gladden a well-practised eye?'

Much, much more than that, I said. To me
she sings as do the angels out of heaven,
conjuring into this wretched place
of grief and shadow those bright crystal spheres
where all is intricate with inner peace.

'I am like my mother, am I not?'

In grace, in lively comeliness, but even
she whose sturdy presence would invest
the air with senates listening and with grace,
as we may think the angels have, still lacked
that faultless innocence and gentle step.

'Then why not wed my mother, as she asked?'

For pride, for her sake and because a painter
is but an artisan who trains his hands
150. but has no standing in the world that counts.

'You never entertained the thought, refused
to hear her, called yourself unworthy, cast
her off as some contrivance from the past.'

I did in kindness only, in accordance
to rank and precedence by which our Venice lives.

'For your commissions only, so as not
to wait on courtiers who had used your wife.'

That is not so.

She laughed. 'Of course it is,
my gran pittore. All Venice knows but does
not judge. Her courtesans are made for pleasure,
displayed in high-wrought, conscious ostentation,
as jewels upon a fabric, as you know
who paint the outward more than inner heart.

Alone to God is known that inner world,
and what I paint to His most truthful eye
will seem but baubles and poor children's toys,
for who can tell what stark depravities
may walk as nature in the stews of night?
What sins may smirk in courtesies but fear
the fire at last or lime as ends approach?

She shuddered. 'You are not cheerful, master painter.
Why should our ends be such, who have so far
survived against the odds?'

We have indeed,
and past the high-dressed fortunes of our friends:
so many dead, including our great Titian,
here gone the same despite his wealth and care.

'We need not follow, if we pray to Him
whose path brings ever-chequered light and shade.'

Most true, my little lady. With that hope
so may we look to Him as His great love
pours down in sunlight after scourging rain.

No one should read into the book of life,
for what is written there is writ in pain.

She sang, I played, the two of us. I thought
perhaps the months would see us through till frosts
would purge us of the plague. With that in mind,
with spirits mounting week by week, I came
one morning with a friend, who had his viol
and much good music in his head.

Arrived,
we found the doorway open. I stepped inside
and shouted. No one there. I went in further
until my friend with shaking hand pushed back
the door on which a cross was wet. He called
to me. I took the stairs, tried doors and rooms
and shouted at the street, though nothing came
but silent echoes and the smell of death.

Since when and where? I called. My friend made off,
crossing himself, as I continued, doors
and windows hammering, until at last
200. a voice came down from one high attic, said:

'My friend, enough. The occupants have gone.
They came this morning with the burdened cart
along this very passageway. All sped
to cemeteries and far-off smoking pits.'

But she, the little lady, where is she?

'I saw no lady with them, none like that.'

Impossible. I saw her yesterday
and nothing in her laughter spoke of death.

'Then she has fled, my friend, as you must too.
Leave off this foolishness and make your peace.
God grant the pestilence pursuing her
be not vindictive that it come for you.'

But where?

'To San Erasmo's monasteries,
for many go there when the sickness falls.'

I stared. The window closed. The silence dropped
a fearful stillness in my ears. I gazed as one
who sees the coloured daylight fall in sharp
portcullises of black. I then went
the whole way running to Rialto steps.

Resolved to go immediately I thought
of my own family and artisans.
I needed rooms made up, where she and I
could live apart, secluded, none to speak
with us, none eat with us, retired from chance
of any sickness striking if it would.

There was, of course, much uproar, consternation
at these words, my wife especially, flatly
folding her large arms and saying,

'No.
For God's sake, Paolo, would you harm your wife
and offspring, all about you for a whim,
a promise made in youthtime folly years ago?
Why should we suffer for that error's sake?
No, no, we want no pious words from one
whose bastard progeny — of course we know,
all Venice laughs at us — requires you show
acknowledgement at last of what you've done.

Much, much more there was of this, and I
was caught perplexed, in two minds wondering
how in conscience I should go.

'Suppose
you die, what then of us? Poor Benedetto
is not too capable, and honest men
for work depend on us. You shall not go.'

I went, but as a thief does in the night,
looking backward always, shunning folk
who walk in daylight consciences. I found
at last a gondola, black-draped, and sat.

'Take care, my gran pittore,' said the guide,
'for few come back from those far walls. The pits
are thickly limed but still you smell among
250. the leather-work and scrubbed interior
the stench of putrefaction, which will thicken
the more we row toward Erasmo Island,
where you will see the vapours barely lifting
from evil-coloured, putrid waters. But for
the coin you pay and pressing words I take
you as a sinner when the soul is lost.'

Evening when we got there, and the smoke
of oily torches and of burning cloth
stung throat and eyes, and on the walls made streaks
of flared out sooted black. Beneath were maggot's
nests of writhing bodies, hideously
distended though alive, and each one thick
with vomit, face encrusted, calling still,
between convulsions, on our Saviour's name.

Among them, quiet as flies that suck at meat,
there moved the convent sisters, tribes of them
that seemed suspended, hovering, held in fright,
but motioning the same that stretcher-bearers
cart off all at will, whatever age
or sex they might be in their final throes.
Alive and feebly motioning, so they went.
I stopped those dark-clad figures in their sleep,
but they avoided me or urged me on.
'Pray God your friend is elsewhere. Go from here!'

I searched along the heaped-up bodies laid
disorderly through rooms, beneath the walls,
in garden plots and orchards, everywhere
the same: some silent, sleeping peacefully,
some groaning in their agony, but most
transfixed with horror at their neighbour's plight.
The rich, the poor, the comely, young or old
were in one charnel house and under God.
I did not think or calculate but searched
more feverishly and helplessly as rows
turned into rows and rooms, more fields. A nun
then grasped my sleeve, and said,

'This place is deadly.
Believe the one you seek is somewhere else,
and therefore living still. My friend, go home.
Wash yourself. Burn clothes. Good brother, go.'

Where are those fearful pits, I asked, where all
the stretcher parties went with faces muffled?

How pitying she led me, where I saw
the piles of thousands dead, thick-sown with lime.
Dear God, they were as ragdolls, thrown in play,
but moving, some of them, with bloodshot eyes.

I turned away in tears and bowed my head,
and took the boat immediately, my guide
not looking so unkindly, but as one
inured to suffering, as will seek
300. some mark of justice in the wrath of God.

Repeatedly and endlessly the friends
and those we heard of, sometime friends of friends,
conveyed to San Erasmo's lime-draped pits.

In time the sickness lessened, though the storm
still poured its heavy drops as one by one
we heard of others when the church bells pealed,
old friends returned, and businesses resumed.
A long, long interval of mourning followed.

I stayed indoors, distressed, and could not speak.
I heard the Schiavoni had returned,
and sent a notice on: she did not come.
I went to service with a heavy heart,
with thanks for our deliverance but would
have given up our wealth and all commissions
to have one Anna safe.

It's true in time
I found new clients. As before, I drew and painted
riots of carnivals, but now the colours
had not that confidence of heaven's light.
Perhaps more sullenly, more prone to doubts
I tried all manner with the Schiavoni,
but saw in festivals how sad she looked,
this first of courtesans so plainly dressed,
a listless manner in the way she trod.

I had no answer for her, saw the bone
thereafter grinning at me through the skin.

Outwardly that passed. Our children married.
I grew more prosperous as gifts declined.
But courtier's elegance and women's grace
still hummed as flies do over rancid meat.

 

Now rewritten and published as a free ebook by Ocaso Press