The day the girl arrived in Venice, the city was laid to rest in a coffin as pink as a tart’s tit. Every exhibitionist in town turned out, dressed top to toe in black. They unfurled the wrong flag, and there was scarce a nobleman amongst them, but at least they acknowledged our demise. Across the world, they watched the city’s funeral in living pictures made from light.
She must have passed that carnival of death, but I doubt she noticed it. Her mind was set on plunder, after all. For centuries, we have watched the bloodline weaken, despairing at the profligates and rakes and gaudy sybarites who came after us. The final straw was Marco, who stuck a poisoned needle in his arm and burdened us with debts there was no one left to pay. And now the family home is up for sale. The Ca’ Bonvecchiati, in bond to charlatans and bankers who will tear us out with the terrazzo, rip us from the walls, dispose of us like ancient cobwebs.
On the eve of the girl’s arrival, I called a great colloquium of the generations. My brothers emerged from the shadows, from deep inside the black mirror that contains so many of us. Five hundred odd, we gathered in the portego to decide how to resist. Only Marco was absent, condemned to isolation for his treachery. These days, he crouches in a foul corner of a forgotten room that is filled with the flap and chatter of birds. Released from their cages, they torment him with their extravagant joy.
I desired to chair these proceedings myself, but I was trumped by Veronica, once consort to a Doge. She stood before us, propped up by her sisters, rigged out in frayed blue silk. The admiral tried to shout her down (and Alvise muttered that while her husband was indeed a Doge, he was also a half-wit), but Veronica persisted. ‘I refuse to permit this sale,’ she said, in her strangulated whine. ‘The home of the Bonvecchiati will not become a boarding house. I shall not foresake it without a fight.’
The admiral advocated the use of cannon, as he always does. But Paolo, who is a Modern and knows about these things, said we must do better than that. ‘They are ghosts, too,’ he said. ‘They don’t need to show up in the Rialto and shake our hands like in your days. They merely shuffle assets round a screen.’
With the Moderns, you must feign an understanding of their ridiculous philosophies, their alchemical fantasies. I nodded sagely at my youthful brother, then took the podium myself. I spoke plainly, lest there be any doubt about our plight, stirring my brothers for the fight. ‘Deprived of our refuge,’ I said, ‘we are destined for an eternity of mortal suffering. Whatever pain we endured in life will revisit us a hundredfold.’
My brothers winced at one another’s wounds, remembering what it felt like to sustain them. ‘If we fail to act, we shall join the clanking ghouls outside San Zanipolo, the headless horrors at the depths of the lagoon, the spirits who writhe night after night in the Piazzetta, endlessly reliving the agony of execution.’
‘We must retaliate,’ said Veronica. ‘We must seize,’ she said, and her voice grew stronger.
‘What can we seize?’
‘The girl,’ I said, ‘She is their emissary. Let us seize the girl.’
The entire house shook as the cheers reverberated down the generations, through the black mirror and the bird-filled attics and out into the waters of the canal. Since we all bear the marks of our mortality, few of us are presentable in the living world where looks mean everything. I have my plague scars and Alvise his lacerations. As for the admiral, he lost his fingernails to the Turks at Famagusta. Generally speaking, the Moderns are easier on the eye. Putrefaction of the organs, failure of the heart; these things leave fewer scars. Consumption did little to mar Chiara’s pale beauty, so she was the one we chose to represent the family. We needed our own man, of course, to play the notary and I decided on a distant cousin, a ridiculous chap who once ran a theatre. But how to materialise? For the dead Bonvecchiati, you see, existence is a paradox. Inside the house, we are solid creatures. We bear the wounds we had on death, and yet we feel no pain. Outside it, we become mist, but suffer constant agonies.
A committee of alchemists from the five branches of the family went to work in Marco’s old kitchen. They mixed and simmered and strained. They eviscerated a rat and mixed its liver with silt and rust, with fibres of Araby silk and hot red peppers. They toasted lavender on a candle from the high altar of the Frari and sprinkled it on a mother’s day old milk. They scraped mildew from the portego walls and boiled it up with spittle of spoilt priest. Materialistion was accomplished just before dawn: we might take corporeal form outside the house, but its duration was unsure. An hour perhaps, but not much more. We sought two volunteers for the lesser roles of secretary and boatman and one of the Modern women produced the attire that would allow them to pass muster in the world. She primped and tutted and sighed, until at last she said they would do. When all was complete, we sent them out to work.
Joanna took a water taxi straight from the airport. She barely noticed where it brought her, though she recognised the Rialto and assumed that meant she’d arrived. A little way on, they passed a flotilla of gondolas. The driver drew her attention to it, and said it was a funeral. When she looked closer, though, the coffin was pink and the whole thing looked like a carnival float. He said it was the city’s funeral. A protest. That someone had to stand up for Venice. The city was dying, he said, with all those foreigners buying it up. Joanna had heard this kind of thing before, in other places, and thought no more about it.
As an apprentice solicitor, Joanna had served her time in a variety of offices: gathering completion documents, making lists. Sometimes the photocopier worked and sometimes it didn’t. There was steel, and glass and marble, but brocade was rare. Here, the walls were padded with the stuff. Joanna accepted coffee, which was bitter and gritty. The notary’s secretary tapped serenely at her keyboard. Though her fingers never stopped moving, they appeared to glide an inch or two above the surface. The clock, a gilded contraption on the wall behind her, ticked arthritically. It seemed the vendor hadn’t yet arrived. Joanna waited. Time seemed to crawl painfully slowly. Then, at last, the door opened.
Joanna had been expecting a suit, but the girl looked no more than eighteen. Pale and paper-thin, clothed in a wild mixture of vintage fabrics, she resembled a cut-out doll dressed up in all its outfits. More hippy chick than banker, there was a strange glassiness about her. They stood there awkwardly side by side, vendor and purchaser, while the secretary rang a little bell on her desk. When the notary emerged from his office, he shook Joanna’s hand vigorously. Perhaps the strength of his grip pinged a funny bone she didn’t know she had, but she felt a twinge of electricity shoot right up her arm. He ignored the vendor, who took her seat in silence and proceeded to unwind ceremoniously three or four long scarves from around her neck. These, she folded carefully and placed one on top of the other in a tottering pile. The notary produced the counterpart documents with a flourish and Joanna set to work, initialling each page. Meanwhile, the vendor was conducting a minute examination of the biro the notary had given her. She held the transparent case up to the light, then shook it daintily over the palm of her hand.
‘Andiamo,’ said the notary. He plucked the pen from the vendor’s palm and manipulated her fingers into a writing position. When all the pages had been initialled, the vendor’s in spidery blue, the purchaser’s in black uniball micro, and both had signed, the notary performed a little scribble and applied his stamp.
‘So,’ he said. ‘It is done.’ He smacked his lips slightly, then looked down at his fingernails, splayed out on the desk in front of him. He wore a tweed jacket, and at each cuff Joanna noticed a little fringe of dirty lace. The lace was strangely out of place, and she couldn’t take her eyes of it. His dress sense was appalling, she thought. Huntsman meets Pirate. She hoped his legal skills were better. She stood up, to signal the end of the meeting, and went to shake his hand until she remembered the electric shock and thought better of it. He looked up at her, with eyes that were either green or blue. ‘Don’t you want to hear about the house?’ he asked.
‘These houses have wonderful stories to tell, I’m sure,’ she replied, a little too mechanically perhaps, since her mind was already on the airport duty-free and the price of Aqua di Parma. She hadn’t checked her BlackBerry for at least an hour and her fingers itched for it. Normally, she felt a pang of regret for the old houses the company scraped out and re-made but, from what she could see, Venice needed all the help it could get.
The client, Velvet Inc., would make a hotel of the house. It would be damp-proofed, lifts would be installed, and every second room would become a bathroom. The façade would remain, but the interior would disappear beneath dropped ceilings and partitioning and the uniform bathroom pods shipped in from Germany. The formula was tried and tested all over Europe. The panelling had already been sold to a client in Kazakhstan and would be surgically removed by the end of the month. Velvet had been particularly successful in Bruges, where their three hotels had achieved top room rates all year round.
‘No interest at all?’ the notary asked. He leant towards her, and she noticed that he smelt faintly of compost. ‘Neither in the house nor in Venice?’
She wanted to say that, actually, for business purposes there was nothing unique about Venice. It could be any one of a number of prestige heritage destinations: the same principles applied. And there was no need to know anything of Venice, per se, especially if you were merely the most junior member of the legal team. That’s not what she said, of course.
‘It’s a fascinating city,’ was what she said, still wondering about her emails. In reality, though, the place gave her the creeps. She turned to look at the vendor, who might at least have had the manners to engage in a little small talk, now that the deal was done. But she seemed hardly there at all. The notary was still going on about the palazzo, as he insisted on calling it. ‘And you have no time for that magnificent staircase?’’
She didn’t say it was a stupid question.
‘No, sadly,’ was what she said. ‘I’m just here to complete the formalities.’
The notary sucked in his pale cheeks. She’d heard the Venetians were a touchy lot, who thought the world owed them for having built its first theme park. Then, he gave a sudden smile, and for the first time she noticed his teeth, little brownish stumps.
‘You must see it, before they rip out its heart. You will see it, of that I am sure. And when you do, fall silent and listen. Listen to the voices in the walls. To the long long story of the Bonvecchiati.’
‘I will show the palace,’ said the vendor suddenly. She coughed drily.
‘Who better?’ said the notary, his little face amused, as though he’d been expecting this all along.
She tried to say never mind, that she was sure someone would take some before-and-after shots, but nothing came. She could feel the words bubble at the back of her tongue, but she just couldn’t force them out. She was beginning to panic that she might drown in her own unspoken words when she felt them pop gently on the back of her teeth. She was about to ask them what the hell was going on when the notary turned to the vendor. ‘Come Chiara,’ he said. ‘Take the young lady by the hand.’
An infusion of calm spread up through Joanna’s arm and across her chest until she was suffused with the most exquisite languor. The notary executed a deep and elaborate bow in front of her and, though she could see a bruise as big as a beetroot on the back of his neck and knew that bankers rarely held hands with the other side, she was quite unable to put two and two together and come up with anything at all.
Ten or more of us accompanied Chiara and the girl in the covered gondola, crushed in like anchovies in a jar. The noise was deafening, yet the girl could hear nothing. She sat there amongst us, an invader disarmed by spectres, and now quite powerless. Alvise had brought most of his retinue and they gathered about her, shouting in her ear, spitting, clawing at her garments. Oblivious, she just clung onto that bag of hers with the worthless document inside it, and gazed right through us. She looked so young, and her skin was so very like a ripe peach I was tempted myself to bite into it. But even a ghost has his scruples.
Our chronicler captured all this on the machine he calls a camera. He is a good man, Paolo, despite being a Modern. Death claimed him when he fell from a flying machine, a great metal bird, and he mourns the world, having left it too soon. He records it constantly, as though he will one day return there. Perhaps he believes good conduct may earn him new life, who knows how these Moderns think? Whatever the reason, he didn’t join the others in abusing the girl. Instead, he trained his machine on her so that he might fashion her image from moving light.
By now, Alvise was screaming right into the girl’s face, and someone had set the twins on her. They crawled over her lap, pulling at her hair and scraping her cheeks with their uncut nails. They tugged at her ear with their ragged teeth, but she didn’t flinch. She had come to expel us, yet outside of the Ca’Bonvecchiati we could make no mark on her. The thought of a return to potency inside the house gave me some solace, but Paolo said that had little value. ‘We’ll have to be cleverer than that,’ he said. ‘We’ll have to beat the world at its own game.’
Joanna was not sure how she had got from the notary’s office to the slippery quay outside where the air had a tang of sewage and raw fish. She tried to touch the roof of her mouth with the tip of her tongue but it felt stitched in place. Her legs wouldn’t do what she told them to either. She knew she should be alarmed, that something extraordinary was happening to her, but the realisation was so distant she seemed quite unable to worry about whether she would catch her plane, or even about not having rung the senior partner to tell him it had all gone through. She’s sleepwalking to disaster. It was a comment she’d overheard someone make of a colleague, once, a long time ago. It sounded melodramatic, ridiculous, but she couldn’t get rid of it.
The water taxi was not like the one she had taken in from Marco Polo; the windows were covered in heavy curtains so that she could see neither the driver nor the canal outside. The girl sat with her back to her, and made no attempt to communicate. Although there was plenty of space, the boat felt as cramped as the Tube at morning rush hour before it emptied out at Bank. She tried some deep breathing. Breathe two three. Out two three. But it was extraordinary how thin the air was. She could hear no motor, just the slapslap of water on the side of the boat and the faint rustle of Chiara’s many layers.
Sitting there, in the almost-dark, Joanna began to feel like she was sinking. She tried to say something, but by now it was hard even to open her mouth, and once again the words formed uselessly, then silently subsided. Anxious, now, that the languor she’d felt was down to the effects of some dangerous drug she should be fighting, she began to beat on the wooden seat next to her, to demand Chiara stop the boat and let her out. Chiara didn’t reply, but swept back the curtain on the window next to her. Joanna tried hard to stay calm. Breathe two three. Out two three. But the pressure on her chest became even greater. Breathe two. Out two. It was getting harder and harder to catch her breath. And what she saw out the window was inexplicable.
It had been late morning, bright and clear, when they left the notary’s office. Now, it was dusk and a mist had fallen. Lights bobbed smokily on the water, and voices echoed singly back and forward across the wide canal. The boat slowed, and she heard a cry and then what sounded like applause. Next, the boat passed through an ancient water gate, and deep into the dank cavern of a house. The night mist seemed to surge through the cabin. Seconds later, it subsided to reveal a jumble of strange bloodied people in fancy dress jammed into the boat like sardines. There was scarcely room for them to move, but they jabbered and spat, and those with their hands free gestured horribly at her. She knew of course that it was impossible for the boat to have been empty and then for these ghoulish creatures to suddenly appear, but she was just too exhausted to try and work it out. Then, she spotted a guy in a leather jacket with a video camera. One of the selling points of the Ca’ Bonvecchiati had been the palazzo’s suitability as a film location. Perhaps they were shooting a zombie movie. Yes, she thought, some slasher zombie flick. She couldn’t think how they did the night scene outside, but they could work wonders these days, couldn’t they? Wow she thought, nearly had me there. As for the zombies, well, they must be holograms or something, special effects. Then she felt their spit on her, their rank breath at her neck.
Once inside the Ca’ Bonvecchiati, my brothers had regained substance. I feared that they might now cause the girl some pain, so I resorted to the most effective solution, a sharp blow to the back of the head. Together, we removed her from the conveyance and carried her up to the piano nobile, where we laid her on a daybed. I blindfolded her with a band of black silk, a small kindness should she awake. A second colloquium that evening would decide how we might make use of her.
News had spread that we had the girl. This time, the gathering was larger and rowdier than before. Even some of our most distant cousins were present: casualties of Foscari’s campaigns for the terraferma, fashionable ladies in silk and blue jeans, pox-ridden boys of the Compagnie della Calza and a long line of choleric merchants.
Since the first meeting, the ancient Veronica had grown in stature, if not in height. She no longer needed the support of her sisters, but sat bolt upright in a heavy carved chair placed by the hostage’s head. She had begun to employ some of our more indigent women as maidservants, and she stationed one of these maids at each of the girl’s extremities to hold her down should she awaken. The admiral had donned his ceremonial armour and stood with his sword trained on the girl’s heart. Chiara showed little interest in proceedings, but sat with her embroidery tilted towards the open window, even though the light had died.
Time was short. The bankers from Milano who had attempted to sell the house from under us were at the Gritti, still waiting for the girl to arrive. Sooner or later, the alarm would be raised. There would be other lawyers and other documents; more was required than the confiscation of a sheaf of paper and the abduction of its mistress. We had a captive, but to what end? The alchemists wanted her marrow for their potions and Aretino’s mistress stood before me, hands on hips, and demanded the girl’s golden hair for a perruque. As for Alvise, he said she was a comely enough maiden and that he could find some use for her, he was sure. Veronica, however, had taken charge.
‘I have taken counsel from the Moderns,’ she declared, to much jeering and whistling. She raised her hand and, to my surprise, an immediate hush fell on the assembly. ‘Paolo, approach.’
Paolo stood up. He raised his camera, and it cast moving images of our return to the Ca’ Bonvecchiati onto the wall behind the Dogaressa’s head. Some of our more weak-minded brothers hooted with delight to see their own images. The twins snarled. Others just stood with their mouths hanging open.
‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ Paolo began. ‘Outside these walls, people have learned new arts. There are whole fields of endeavour of which you know nothing.’
The alchemists were becoming overexcited, but Paolo ignored them. ‘Many now spend their days observing the world in images made of moving light. They receive messages through the air and read them on the walls of their saloni or on tablets black as onyx.’
The alchemists were overjoyed, clenching their fists at this endorsement from a Modern, but most of their brothers jeered. Veronica clapped her hands and demanded they all pay attention.
‘You can change more with a picture than with a sword,’ said Paolo. At the mention of the word, the Agnadello veterans, who prefer wine to speeches, gave him their attention for the first time. ‘Nowadays, nothing is more powerful than an image,’ he said. ‘I understand your anger, but our cause is best served by keeping clear heads. We have a hostage. Let us use her to scare them off. Once the world sees what we can do, no one will work on the renovations, let alone spend a night here. They will simply abandon the house to us.’ His plan made no sense to me, but the colloquium gave its assent.
The girl was still unconscious, but we tied her down as a precaution and four of Foscari’s soldiers helped us lift the daybed through the grand rooms of the piano nobile. First, the room of the bird-cages which once held the blackbirds, larks and nightingales which now frequent Marco’s quarters. Then, the room of water whose rotten walls are swollen with it, whose window frames crumble like dark sponge. Then, the room of living pictures where Paolo stopped a moment to retrieve the tools of his trade. The whole story of our city can be observed in that room and I have often sat and wept into my goblet to see the last Doge hand over his cornu to the little Frenchman.
When we reached Marco’s quarters, Foscari’s soldiers restrained him while Paolo set up his camera, attached the long cord and trailed it down the corridor to the room of living pictures. He arranged for the machine to continue recording the scene even after we had departed. The girl was still deep in slumber when we left her, but my personal physician administered a sleeping draught so that she would not suffer.
Joanna dreamed, though she was not normally a dreamer. The dreams were intoxicating, and swirled around like ribbons in her head. She was bathed in petals in a chariot borne by eagles, or lying in a flotation tank with a new-age soundtrack, or floating above a distant planet where jewel-coloured cities lay spread out before her. She was one bird amongst many, flapping in formation against a winter sky. She smelt lavender and mildew, heard water slapping on old stone. There was never any urge to escape the dreams. There was no hunger or thirst, no fear.
But then she awoke, and felt a spatter of light rain on her bare arms and a cold wind in her hair. Her first thought was how thirsty she was, how hungry, how cold. She couldn’t understand why she couldn’t see, until she realised her eyes were covered. When she pulled off the blindfold she found herself propped up against the seeping stone of an ancient wall – by the water gate to a crumbling mansion she’d never seen before. And then she remembered she was in Venice. She was profoundly cold, but there is nothing colder than Venetian stone in winter. She had a dim recollection of a brocaded room and a cup of gritty coffee, and wondered if someone had spiked it. She remembered the sale, but was dismayed to discover she had mislaid all the documents. She had no idea where her BlackBerry was. She looked down at her arms, and was shocked to see they were covered in scratches and welts and tiny red pinpricks. Her hands were a mess, the skin shredded. She remembered birds, and thought she might have flown with them, but she remembered no accident or assault, no pain. She tried to move away from the house, to look for someone who might tell her what to do, but as she did her body began to fade into mist until all that was left of it was the memory of a thousand agonies.
The continuous video stream appeared first on the tourist websites, then on the ex-pat blogs. Soon, Save Venice and Venice in Peril both found their content drowned out by the grainy images. Experts were assembled to analyse the stuccowork, the quality of the light, to try to ascertain what part of the city this was. There were just two players in the never-ending scene; a thin, sallow boy and a girl who might already be dead she lay so still. The boy played with a hypodermic syringe he held in his fist like a dagger, puncturing and slashing at his own leg until he turned his attention to the girl. The authorities tried to block the images, shut down the websites, but it was no good. ‘Horror movie hijacks airwaves,’ said the agencies. Soon, every search engine was swamped by the images. ‘It is a nightmare from which we are trying to awaken,’ declared the Mayor of Venice. ‘It’s cyberporn,’ said the President of the USA.
Media interest reached fever pitch when a socialite in New York said she recognised the boy. Marco Somethingitalian. She’d had a fling with the guy the year before, until she realised he was a nut. Two cocktail waitresses contacted Fox; the guy was a weirdo druggie pervert and was probably armed to the teeth. Then came reports that the experts had managed to identify the house from the bottom section of a stone crest just visible above the door. Word was, the police were closing in.
Live update: hostage crisis stakeout on the Grand Canal.
The world’s media camped out on barges, water taxis, whatever they could muster. The vaporetti were diverted, and the Rialto Bridge was closed for fear of a shoot-out. An old nanny, now retired to the mountains, made contact with Il Gazzettino. She had brought up two generations of an esteemed Venetian family, and said she’d recognise that chin anywhere. ‘Have you all gone mad?’ she asked. ‘Don’t you realise that Marco Bonvecchiati died of a heroin overdose six months ago? Ghosts don’t appear in films.’
Around then, the live stream was cut off. Instead, a message appeared on computer screens from Venice to Sydney, the words spooling off into infinity. Warning. The house of the Bonvecchiati has been reclaimed by spirits. Viva I Bonvecchiati. Warning. The house of the Bonvecchiati has been reclaimed by spirits. Viva…………………………………………………..
The night we released the hostage, the city came and nailed boards over all the ground floor windows and doors. I am not sure whether they meant to keep us in, or others out, and neither does it matter. As for the hostage, she found the world outside too inhospitable, her wounds too distressing, so she returned to the Ca’ Bonvecchiati of her own accord. Now our refuge is hers, too.
When Veronica addressed us that night, she wore her husband’s cornu to show the high days had returned. We drank, all night, the best of old Barolo and danced and made merry. The generations were united, and young men in hose cavorted with girls in denim while the Moderns told us all how clever they had been. Paolo spoke as quietly as ever, though, and said we had won a battle, no more than that.
Annemarie Neary is an Irish-born novelist and short story writer, now living in London. Her novels are Siren (Hutchinson, 2016) and A Parachute in the Lime Tree (The History Press Ireland, 2012). Her awards for short fiction include the Bryan MacMahon and Michael McLaverty short story competitions (Ireland) and the Columbia Journal fiction prize (US). Her stories have been published in journals in Ireland, the UK and the US and broadcast on RTÉ radio. @AnnemarieNeary1