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by Paola Moretti
(A Renaissance man, of no definable age, wearing sumptuous clothes with the negligence of someone who is enormously rich but has no regard whatsoever for his own wealth. He is fatigued and in bad physical shape. He finishes writing, then gathers up the scattered pages and begins reading, first quietly to himself, then, little by little, the volume increases; towards the end, overpowered by unbearable emotion, his voice breaks, becoming barely audible. Behind him surreal images evocative of his story may be provided )
The episode, while transfigured by literary mediation , is based on a true story.
THE MERCHANT – I too was there when they found her floating in the sea, her hair fanned out upon the waves … a huge halo framing a face in a sea-weed veil.
She was wearing a satin robe trimmed with filigree from Rhodes and fresh-water pearls from the Aniene, which I had the Prato branch of my father’s textile firm weave and embroider. It was an indecent shade of green, so they said, and colour is important, they added, as a merchant ought to know, because a profound knowledge of the secret implications of dyes and a keen sense of nuance are the hallmarks of his trade. The fact is, as everyone down on the docks knows, from the page to the corn-broker to the money-changer, if you don’t pay due attention to things, they have a habit of turning on you and bringing about your downfall. But she wanted to meet the king of France in her robe as green as the Sacred Basin, as richly ornate as the Zaccaria cross and, adding sacrilege to sacrilege, woven without a seam, a garment better suited to Lucifer as he wanders through the night knocking on monastery doors trying to lead the monks into temptation.
When I moved to Genoa I was sixteen, the heir apparent to a flourishing merchant company, about whose fortune terrible tales were told, but in whispers so low and with glances so askance that nobody ever found anything out. At the turn of the new century my father deemed it indispensible to open a trading post in the harbour from which ships set sail for Spain and the North Sea and fabulous convoys left for the Levant; I was expected to show that I could put what I had learnt about trade to good use by opening up an old warehouse previously used for the production and sale of French woollens and which had been closed down after only ten years due to the severe business setback caused by the plague of 1400.
The Marquis Spinola, an old friend and debtor of my father’s, had placed a wing of his sumptuous palace at my disposal, but I was distraught by melancholy, bewildered by those rooms, by the narrow Genoese laneways, choked by the fumes of the port and homesick for our beautiful Florentine home, so full of the warmth of the sun and caressed by the perfume of breezes.
Furthermore, at night, it seemed that sorrowful sobs arose from the secret recesses of the house, to slide along the gilded stuccoed walls, writhing and whining, to stop where I lay, watching me in silence, their presence revealed only by the slightest suggestion of seawater and decay. Wild fancy, certainly, and my secretary Falduccio agreed, but on certain nights I slept at the warehouse on the docks, lulled by the maternal smell of the bales of wool, troubled only by the throngs of colourful, insolent prostitutes drawn by my melancholy and my glabruous body, a novelty to them, used as they were to Greek and Levantine sailors. I used to return home before dawn, and passing through the sombre, silent chambers like a shade, I would reach my rooms, darker and more silent than ever, trusting nobody had noticed my comings and goings so piteous to explain.
Then one night I saw her, bent over the basin of the fountain in the garden, wet and shining like the white Virgin, the patroness of those who die by drowning. I saw her because I looked in a direction different from the previous nights; perhaps she had always been there unnoticed by me, because gardens, with or without fountains, do not attract me in the least; I have always found gardens of all kinds with their obtuse greenery intolerable, so, if that particular night I saw her it was simply because of an uncanny and, to date, inexplicable change of conduct. This is how, at times, pain, because of an unprecedented glance, a nod or a glimmer, steals into the unsuspecting, unknowing heart which unwittingly lets it in.
She turned in my direction and I recognised the wife of the Marquis whom I had met on the day of my arrival but had never seen again until that very moment.
Ah, the young merchant, she said, as she might have said, ah the young servant or ah, the young prince, with an indifference, so absolute that it was hard to accept even in such an unusual and ephemeral situation.
If I loved animals I might take a look at her fish; if I truly loved them I might draw near the fountain, a wedding gift from the Marquis, so to say, that she had personally filled with African mother of pearl and corals for the delight of her golden herrings, a rare and appallingly fierce breed, who devour each other yet continue to live regardless of mutilation, she told me, caressing the pitiful white bones that swam near the surface and wiggled their spectral tails at their mistress’s call.
I too loved animals and had suffered greatly when separated from my favourite dog who had the embarrassing habit of venting his youthful ardour on the bales of newly sheared French wool, howling and writhing in the presence of customers.
Yes, I could understand her. At that time of the night she looked younger and almost pretty, perhaps due to her wet hair which curled around her face or the dark which enlarged her eyes or her superb white brocade garments with their silver arabesque trimmings imported by us from our Constantinople emporium.
In Genoa, she said, it’s impossible to establish normal relations, the inhabitants of the city simply pronounce and repeat meaningless strings of words, with neither rhyme nor reason to them; their urge to churn them out is such that they vomit them into the void, their eyes closed for fear of contradiction, as if one could contradict nothingness. You have to fear not only leaving the house, but putting your head out the window, even thinking about doing it, because a normal thought, the smallest conceivable thought, is obliterated by gossip before it can even take shape.
She wished she could go elsewhere, somewhere remote and different, France maybe, and would have left long ago had it not been for her beloved herrings whom she could never forsake and who could not possibly survive such a long and extenuating journey.
She must have been young and inexperienced indeed if she didn’t know that France was an easily reachable elsewhere and that in any case our Company’s ships could carry her in total comfort wherever she wished along with any animal of her choice, however delicate, spoilt or bizarre.
But would you believe me if I told you I can’t stand the hustle and bustle of departure? she asked me. How could she leave home amid two wings of words repeated over and over again, stated and restated, to climb aboard one of our ships and continue to live ?
Then, all of a sudden, I recalled, like a flash of lightning tearing asunder a summer sky, one particular morning down at the warehouse as I checked a stock of sheared wool and had the impression that something exceptional had come about, because the port was gripped by a strange, absolute, uncanny silence.
The pedlars of digestive spices and purple cankerwort-seed biscuits capable of arousing the humours of passion and moving the bowels, fell silent; the Jews who manufactured the seven kinds of incense that burnt in Holofernes’s tent, the Catalans, chief dealers in blessed mummy powder, miraculous cure of all afflictions but infallible in the presence of colic, love pangs and lung congestion, capable of awakening one from apparent death, potent amulet against misfortune, envy and witchcraft, all fell silent, and the merchants of iguana skins, crane feathers, butterfly wings and cottoned monkey seed, famous for preventing or causing miscarriage depending to the dose and one’s intentions, fell silent.
Tommasina Spinola is going out in her carriage murmured my secretary Falduccio, in words one could barely hear, despite the total silence, words utterly devoid of meaning for me, at least in that form and that tone of voice. And yet I heard them expand and pass from mouth to mouth, swift and sharp, inflated and untamed like a southwester, which tears away the huge newly-dyed skeins of wool hung out to dry snarling them in midair before tossing them into the sea to form whirlpools of light so blinding that sometimes fishermen are dazzled so much they lost their nets and hurried ashore trembling with fear.
Yes, I could understand her, at times even I found it hard to pass unnoticed, but I made no mention of the plumed, garish train of prostitutes that followed me daily to the warehouse and overwhelmed me with kisses.
Instead I told her that our Company’s convoys could reach any known destination overland, the utmost secrecy and that, if she so wished, I could arrange things to guarantee herself and his Excellency the Marquis the greatest possible comfort.
His Excellency the Marquis had nothing to do with it, she retorted, even though she had no desire either to leave him or to remain with him. On their wedding night his Excellency the Marquis had taken her in his arms, she told me, due to nostalgia and despair she had waded into the fountain up to her breasts; he had taken her and carried her, all wet and icy cold as she was, back to their sumptuous bedroom, leaving an endless trail of salt water and sea weed behind him on the precious Persian carpets. She had lain damp and cold the whole night emitting only a tiny light that no tender kiss or fond word could quench.
What is this light ? asked the Marquis, but he fell asleep before hearing the answer, stunned by the reek of sea salt and herring which clung to the room and which from that night on he could never bear.
And then he forgot her, not out of indifference or cruelty or revenge, no, simply because he had forgotten everything it was impossible for him to remember, which overpowered him with horror, like the herrings, the dark grey stone basin, and his bride floating in the water up to her bosom. He had overcome what he could humanly overcome and had put it behind him, as they say; he had continued to love her tenderly, as people also say, but he had never again gathered her up in his arms, icy-cold and sodden with sea water, to carry her back to the vast, sumptuous bedroom. This had certainly caused no sadness, to him, let alone to her who was used to this sort of solitude and couldn’t have stood a state of happiness which she could never recall experiencing.
A French forbear of hers had spent her entire life asking herself whether she was happy or unhappy, a question she was never able to answer and with which she tormented herself and others. On her deathbed she wasted her last two gasps to murmur heureuse and malheureuse, and departed without solving the enigma, to the relief of all. She had therefore, she told me, set aside this kind of utterly futile suffering and even when she swam in the basin with her beloved herrings, she chose, in a deliberately capricious and illusive fashion, never to ask whether she was lonely and unhappy or not lonely and not unhappy.
Yes, I too avoided posing myself questions regarding the things of the spirit, what my father called, de putain merdaille, that’s exactly the way he put it, maybe because French is the language best suited to philosophy.
This basin has a steady supply of running sea water, she told me; it is governed by the tides, the currents and storms, even if imperceptible to those unused to recognise the signs and the differences. When one has a feeling for the sea, as she put it, a feeling for the sea, it makes no difference whether you were in a small fountain, in the sweet Mediterranean or at the hub the chasms the sea is capable of conceiving.
She waded in up to the breasts, her beautiful Constantinople robe afloat amid the corals and fins, exactly as the Marquis Spinola had seen her do on their wedding night, I thought, because I too felt a sudden urge to gather her up in my arms and carry her off, to another part of the Earth where she might be completely heureuse, France maybe, if that’s where she wished to go. Maybe that’s what I thought, maybe not; I don’t think I compared the two situations or myself to the Marquis; I didn’t think of anything because I was totally overwhelmed by the desire to possess that creature submerged in the water, who beheld me with absolute trust, at least that is what it seemed to me, and tear her away from that horrid basin and from those hideous creatures.
Why France? I asked. No, I didn’t ask, this is simply a posthumous supposition, such as those we introduce when describing events and claiming to tell the truth simply to justify ourselves. There was nothing to ask because nothing mattered to me, more likely, except my riotous passion which offered no respite.
Why France ? I asked. To see the King again, she said, he was her intendyo, son frère d’alliance, lord of her heart and thoughts. Could I understand that ?
No, I couldn’t, because in all my life I had never met a being more repugnant than the King of France; actually, I had learnt the distinction between what is repugnant and what is not, once I had seen and beheld in him all the characteristics of repugnance to degree of clarity that I had lost my innocence forever.
My father was his submissive creditor, it had cost him a fortune to deck out the Court and the entire army in finery, but all attempts, more or less explicit, to be reimbursed had simply led to further requests of cash or letters of change which he was obliged to concede with a bow and a smile for fear of retaliations against our prosperous Marseilles warehouses.
I had met him at Pavia at Corpus Christi, during the scrofula healing rite; healing is a charisma the Kings of France claim to have inherited with their dynastic privileges and the people pretend to believe in, for reasons of pure interest, seeing that not even an infant would be taken in by such a blatant lie; besides, those who persist in believing in miracles would obstinately claim that even shitting on your head can heal you.
The King touches you and God mends you, Louis XII used to say, placing his flabby fingers on the scrofula.
And I pay you, muttered my father, his teeth clenched out of respect for his Marseilles outpost, as he made a mental note of the silver Tournois doled out with nonchalant prodigality to the numerous sick.
Among his other atrocities, I told her, the King had the unpleasant habit of smiling when he spoke, even when there was no need for it. He smiles with such a vengeance that one might be inclined to believe that some involuntary grimace contracts the corners of his mouth, filling them with frothy spittle, which cause even the most intrepid courtiers to lower their eyes so that a self-styled impartial observer may be led to surmise that the King of France enjoys the deepest and most spontaneous respect of his subjects, who in reality, from the youngest to the oldest, bow their heads in his presence to avoid encountering his smile. But a reign based on a lie and on repugnance is the only solution when there are no respectable qualities at hand; one must recognise the fact that respectable qualities have never been the hallmark of either Valois or Tudor or of any of the other weavers of infamy, who instead of respectability earnestly prefer their dung heaps to increase daily so that it may be admired by the peoples of the Earth, as they say, and considered the most sacred, regal and venerable of all known dung heaps.
I ceased speaking as I had begun, without any apparent reason or solicitation; I couldn’t say I ceased out of shame because I wasn’t lying outright; no, I wasn’t lying at all, except for the general premises, that is, my hatred for the King of France. In truth I neither hated nor loved him, I had no more interest in him than in the least of my dyers, if anything the least of my dyers might have interested me more than him; the opposite could never have happened. But that too was a lie, or to put it more precisely, it was a matter of a surprising lack of objectivity, because, while I wouldn’t have wasted a single word on the faults of the least of my dyers, I would have been more than willing to speak all night long about those of the King of France, although I knew him far less that the least of my dyers; yet on his altar I was willing, it seemed, to immolate a life of hatred.
I leaned, exhausted, on the edge of the basin, close to her as she combed and plaited her wet hair, winding it around her head and loosening it again, enveloped and lost in a luminous shroud of vapour.
Although she’d listened she’d heard nothing, a virtue not rare in women, capable as they are of losing the overall perception of words when convinced that these will not favour their plans, so that listening or not makes no difference, if anything it leads to undue boredom.
She was desperate , she told me, because the King could not answer her letters. Son beau Sire, frère d’alliance, had been ill for months now and no physician was capable of healing him or naming his malady.
She continued to send long letters of fervent love, she told me, full of the purest passion, and everyone knows how dreadful it is not to receive a response to perfect love.
There is no doubt, it is the most atrocious of ordeals when the soul wanders away without the body to speak of love, with nobody to hail it, nobody to receive its glowing, gentle dance, until the words allow themselves to die oppressed by their futile beauty, broken, confused, beyond recognition.
So this is perfect love, I thought, which from afar sickens for an ailing old man, and, indifferent, takes no notice of me, young, handsome, sitting here right next to it.
No, I thought no such thing, I am absolutely certain of that, I would never have seen myself as young and handsome, attractive or unattractive, I didn’t view myself in any way, least of all young, handsome and in love; I was naturally inclined to shy away from figments like undying love, burning passion, mad jealousy and other oddities.
Maybe I was capable of understanding her, she said, because, the practice of commerce, presumably, intensifies profound awareness by heightening the powers of the senses; she too, as the daughter of a merchant family, tended to seek beauty in the exquisite weave of fabrics and embroideries so unusual and rare to give the impression of being beyond the bounds of art to those who were neither gifted nor sensitive like me.
She was merciful, I thought, and for mercy’s sake she came down to my level, seeing that hers, superior to mine, was beyond my reach; to console me she conceded that I be her intendyo as far as the choice of fabrics to show to the herrings was concerned.
And that splendid green satin robe, she said, was the matchless masterpiece of the Prato branch of our production; she would wear it to meet the King of France as soon as he recovered.
Then, you’ll never wear it, I said, because the King is dead.
It wasn’t true, but I said the King was dead just to break her heart, because for one split second I had the precise and uncontrollable urge to break her heart and hurl her into the abyss of no return, of endless, absolute, irremediable sorrow.
She didn’t ask me from whom I had heard it, how and when, if there was some mistake, a doubt, a misunderstanding; she sought no refuge from my lie, because she trusted me who had fatally wounded her; one moment I fatally wounded her, the next and from then on, she was no longer accessible, no word could reach her, she was already wandering in the realm of the dead, calling out in vain to her beau frère d’alliance.
I too was there when they found her in the sea, so beautiful that she seemed to be alive still, her emerald robe afloat amid the seaweed and the infinite cohort of silver fins, so ferocious that no-one dared draw near as they escorted her beyond the horizon.
And I remained there looking at it, for the rest of my life.