Farewell to Venice – Marija Vugdelić

It was the third anniversary of the Sealing of Otranto and St Marco’s square was busier than usual. The delicate network of scaffolds that caged St Marco’s Basilica was full of people in orange jackets milling around like insects. The cranes that had been looming over Basilica’s dome for several weeks were finally moving. Because on this day, the scheduled dismantling of the Basilica has commenced. Men and machines were removing brick after brick, ornament after ornament, carefully packing them in marked boxes so they could be assembled again at their new home on the other side of the world.

Yards beyond the wall of screens printed with UNESCO’s logo, “Employees only” signs and lines of Chinese characters that encircled the Basilica, a table was set. Caffé Florian was open, and few of the last remaining inhabitants of Venice gathered there to bid farewell to yet another familiar sight of their beloved city. 

Francesco was going around the table serving coffee, water sloshing around his rubber boots. He was dressed in a meticulous white jacket that framed the black waistcoat into the shape of a swallow’s tail. With his white sideburns and waxed black hair and moustache, his stern monochromatic appearance was in contrast with the pattern of bold red stripes on the shirt that was hugging the wiry body of Nico lounging at the table. This was his uniform, and he wore it although the trade it represented no longer existed. His angular face was deeply tanned and creased with furrows that only the constant exposure to sun and sea can make. He was twirling a broad brimmed hat, its red ribbons dancing in a circle.

Next to him sat Rosa and Amadeo. With wisps of fluffy white hair, thick rimmed glasses and wooden canes, they were like mirror images of each other. Their matching trench coats, plaid scarves and black wellies were an epitome of decades of sharing the same life. And finally, there was Lorenzo. Dressed in khakis, with a stubble and a scruffy ponytail of brown hair, he also was wearing a mark of his trade – a camera, slung around his neck.

They were solemnly observing the opening of a new gap in Venice’s skyline. The skyline that already lost Campanile, Santa Maria della Salute, Rialto… The iconic structures that came crashing down, forever vanishing before anyone realised that death had arrived to Venice.

Death was small and came from the sea. It was black and shiny. It was sharp like a scythe. And it cut through the ancient wooden piles that supported Venice for centuries, leaving her at the mercy of gravity, tides and currents. Later, this death was given a name: Mytilus defuniscula.The mussel from the cable.

Lorenzo was the first to break the silence: “The Chinese sure know their way with buildings.”

“I guess dismantling is just the reverse of building. And that they surely know!” Francesco nodded in agreement.

A splash of water came as Nico stamped his feet in anger. “For eight centuries the Chinese dreamt of Venice. Ever since Polo went there. Now they can finally have a piece of it. I feel like the whole Silk Road business was just so that one day they can come over and take Venice to China.”

Amadeo put his hand on Nico’s back to calm him. “Come now, we all have to remember that the Basilica is, at least, given a chance. Even if it means moving it across the world. Santa Maria was not that fortunate.”

“Ah, Signore Amadeo, always the voice of reason!” Francesco declared, and everyone relaxed a bit. “In any case, I guess this calls for something stronger.”

He straightened his jacket and waded into the Caffé, disappearing in its dark and musty recesses. Coming back, he held five glasses of Florian’s finest crystal and a dusty bottle. Its shape and label insinuated something sweet and aromatic. He went around the table and poured the syrupy essence of nostalgia brewed with an intent to ease the pains of the present.

“For the Basilica and her new life,” said he.

“For the Basilica,” murmured the others back.

“May the Chinese protect it better than we did,” Nico added. 

They fell silent again, wrapped in their own thoughts. Lorenzo was observing the deconstruction, searching for the best angle to capture the new outline of Venice with his camera. Nico was remembering all the stories about Basilica that he’d invented for the pleasure of foreign ladies that used to ride in his gondola. Francesco was trying to imagine the number of all the people that ever enjoyed the view of St Marco’s from Caffé Florian’s tables. And Amadeo and Rosa were recollecting that moment, all these years ago, when exhausted from an all night’s roaming around Venice, they watched the birth of the new day across St Marco Square, realising that it is with each other they want to greet every new day for the rest of their lives.

But their reveries were shattered by the blaring of the sirens announcing the end of the first day of the dismantling.

“Lorenzo, I guess you and your Nikon will now be starting your shift.” Nico slapped him on the back.

Lorenzo was slowly stroking the lens of his faithful companion, still lost in thought. “You know, I was actually there that day in Montenegro, when the cable was switched on. Sent there to report from the event. There was this big ceremony, red ribbon cutting and all that. Montenegrin and Italian politicians patting each other’s backs. Montenegrins thinking the cable would give them the power to control Europe. Italians thinking they would suck out all the electricity the Balkans can produce. Both feeling like they’d built an elevator to the moon, and not just a stupid power line through the sea. Everyone wanted to be in the photo. When shit hit the fan, some claimed they were photoshopped into it. That’s politicians for you.”

“I can’t say I remember the day,” Nico continued. “But I do remember this one Montenegrin girl… The legs she had on her… Mamma mia!””

“It is all about the women with you!” Francesco rolled his eyes. “Why exactly did you stay in Venice after the women stopped coming?”

“Because, there was ever only one woman for me. And that is our Venezia! Just as it was for you, so don’t you give me that look, my fellow bachelor!”

Rosa was looking at them with a loving smile. “You boys…” But then her smile faded and she continued: “I also don’t remember that day. But I do remember when we started tracing the invasion routes as they were reported in the news. We were drawing lines from Montenegro, to Italy, to Croatia, to Italy again, where cruisers and other ships passed, spreading the mussels in their wake. I got really scared when I saw how the lines around Croatian islands were becoming thicker every day. Their lovely coast turning into a black patch where mussels ate every algae, every fish, everything…”

“At least they ate all the plastic rubbish. That was nice of them,” Nico cut in.

Mytilus defuniscula.” Amadeo accented every syllable. “For me, it never sounded as something that is destroying the world.”

“You mean not like Homo sapiens?” Nico asked with a sardonic smile.

“When I think of how many shellfish were served just here at Florian, I can’t but feel like this is their revenge,” Francesco was wondering.

“Man, it makes me so mad! If a spark could have jump started life itself from a soup of basic organic molecules, how come no one thought anything could happen when you put a constant lightning through a sea already full of life? Like a mutation, for instance? I mean: really?”

“And what makes me even madder,” Lorenzo continued, clasping his head with hands, “is all that bickering that came afterwards! Politicians throwing blame across the Adriatic, yapping on and on about who was supposed to maintain the cable…”

“Don’t forget the academics.” Nico waved his index finger. “All the research grants they spent, the papers they wrote, the conferences they held. And still nothing! Impotent, as always!”

“Do you think humanity learned a lesson from all this?” Amadeo pondered.

“Are you honestly asking that?” Nico flared, throwing his arms in the air. “You know very well that nothing happened until petrol dollars started dwindling as the mollusks ate everything that the rigs were sucking out from the earth. Only when the oil companies stepped in, they managed to find a solution.”

Francesco raised an eyebrow. “So you are saying that putting up a barrier at Otranto that sealed off the whole of the Adriatic, and then sealing Gibraltar and Suez and now Bosphorus is a solution? Putting the Mediterranean—a whole god damn cradle of civilisation—into quarantine until the mutated mussels eat every hydrocarbon molecule in it?”

“Well at least it is a band-aid. I guess that is better than them eating up all the oceans of the world…” Nico shrugged.

“They are buying time until science comes up with something better,” Amadeo said.

“Yeah, just like UNESCO is buying time with this whole moving-buildings-to-China thing.” Nico smirked.

“Have you heard that there are companies taking tourists to see the barriers?” Francesco asked. “Otranto is full of Yankees who want to see how we managed to seal off a whole sea.”

“Ha, good old Yanks, always fascinated with walls.” Lorenzo shook his head.

Francesco continued: “There’s even a name for it: disaster-based tourism. And it’s booming.”

“Maybe I should move there,” Nico started and then suddenly stood up, his hand moving vivaciously, his voice thundering, as if addressing an imaginary crowd. ‘Behold The Last Gondolier of Venice. One Euro to see, five to touch. A night with him? Priceless…” Everyone burst into laughter.

Once their laughter died, Francesco said: “Damn tourism! As if it hasn’t given Venice enough insult already. And Amadeo, you are asking if humanity learned a lesson!”

Amadeo was silent. He turned to Rosa expectantly, and when she nodded, he continued: “Actually, Rosa and I have something to say.” His voice became grave, so everyone turned to him, expecting. “We… we are leaving Venice.”

The others went silent. 

“It is becoming too hard for us—the moisture, wading through the waters… Our bones are way too old for all that. Insurance won’t cover if something happens to us here, because we didn’t evacuate on time. They expect our house to reach the red alarm stage in a few months, anyway. The mollusks are already halfway there to claim it. Besides, we will join our son and his family in Rome, finally spend some time with our grandchildren.”

Rosa was trying to suppress her tears. She was about to speak, but a gasp choked her words. Amadeo lovingly put his arm around her shoulders. “She feels like we are betraying you. And Venice.”

Lorenzo took Rosa’s hands in his from across the table. “Rosa, darling, you know it is not like that. It was always just a matter of time. For all of us. Sooner or later we will all have to leave. We have already hung around way longer than anyone expected.”

A faint smile came to Rosa’s face. She gave him a look full of gratitude. She said: “There is something we would like to ask of you all. Lorenzo, we were wondering if you and your Nikon can make some pictures of our home before it sinks. So our grandchildren can at least see where their father grew up.”

“Of course, my friends. Anytime you want.”

Rosa turned to Nico. “And Nico—do you think you could put your gondola on water and take us around the canals, one last time before we depart?”

Nico took her hand and kissed it. “Rosa, belissima, for you I would keep it afloat until it’s bottom gets eaten and it joins its sisters at the bottom of our lagoon.”

“Thank you, my dear.” Rosa caressed him gently on the cheek. Then she turned to Francesco.

“And Francesco, could you open the Florian for a night, just for the two of us? Light a candle, serve us some wine?”

Francesco made a bow. “At your service, dona Rosa.”

“Help us remember Venice as it used to be. The most glorious place on Earth!” Amadeo spread his hands as if to hug the whole city.

“To Venice!” Everyone stood up, raising their glasses. 

They downed their drinks and remained silent. 

Finally, Lorenzo took the lens cap off his camera. “Well, I better get on with work.”

“We should get going, as well. It will take us a while to get home,” Amadeo said, took his walking cane in one hand and offered the other to Rosa.

“I guess I will let Francesco tidy up for the day.” Nico put on his hat.

“Same time tomorrow,” Francesco reminded everyone as they were departing.

One by one, they took leave in different directions. The shells of dead mussels brought in by the waves and tides crunched beneath their feet as they waded through the slimy shallow waters that were slowly taking the city they loved into its aquatic grave.

©2021. Marija Vugdelić

Marija Vudgelić, 1979, born in Podgorica, Montenegro. She holds an MA and PHD in biology in Great Britain, specializing in ecology and environmental conservation, and from that context hails this story. A nature lover and hiker, she’s also interested in photography and handicraft. From her earliest days she’s loved fantasy and all its subgenres. Her favorite writers are Gene Wolfe, Robert Silverberg, Ursula LeGuin.

The story Farewell to Venice was published in the first issue of the Morina kutija magazine available for free download here.

Marija Vugdelić, 1979. godište, rođena u Podgorici, Crna Gora. Diplomirala i doktorirala bioloske nauke u Velikoj Britaniji, specijalnost ekologija i zaštita prirode, iz kog konteksta i potiče ova priča. Ljubitelj prirode i planinar, bavi se fotografijom i ručnim radom. Od malih nogu ljubitelj fantastike u svim podžanrovima. Omiljeni pisci Gene Wolfe, Robert Silverberg, Ursula LeGuin.

Priča Farewell to Venice objavljena je u prvom broju časopisa Morina kutija. Časopis je dostupan za skidanje na ovoj stranici.

Urednički komentar: Smrt u Veneciji ne dolazi uvijek sa pješčanih sprudova, već ponekad i iz samoga mora – uz malo ljudske pomoći. Marija Vugdelić poigrala se starim, ali uvijek aktualnim pitanjem: koliko je zapravo krhka biosfera našeg mora.

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