Venetian Rogues, by Emanuel E. Garcia
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From: Venetian Rogues, by Emanuel E. Garcia
The first thing I did after we ordered our coffees was to ask Donato about his new acquisition. He gave a wave of the hand and a dismissive nod upwards of the head, typical gestures for the musician when irked.
“She professes to love me but, as usual, for all the wrong reasons. She fawns over my hair instead of my tone”—Donato is a violinist—“and sings hymns to my dimples instead of my vibrato, which you and I know is unequalled for variety of expression. And now she has taken to making suggestions about my garb. How long can this go on? It has been all of three months: man cannot live by beauty alone, my friend.”
“Yes, Emilia is a magnificent specimen, but with such an attitude …”
“Well,” he continued, adjusting the collar of his cream-coloured linen jacket, “at least she is not yet planning to ask her husband for a divorce. Speaking of which, how is Cassandra?” he smirked, referring to the woman I helped him to conquer and later, when she had abandoned her spouse and implored marriage from my friend, discard.
Donato’s fear of a lasting union would, I surmised, be surmounted only when age imposed inescapable limitations upon his flesh. Fortunately I was not so afflicted and Cassandra found a husband in myself. I mused with irony that at the time she had praised him often and effusively for the very qualities he accused Emilia of neglecting.
“As beautiful and captivating as ever,” I answered honestly.
“And the book?”
“It continues to sell, with the consequence that the taxman is forever breathing down our necks.”
I was alluding to the bestseller that Cassandra and I had co-authored. Being a poet of some modest achievement, I was able to cut and polish the rough gem of her idea to a perfection appreciated by the masses—unlike the scrupulously filigreed poems I had hitherto composed whose audience might be numbered on the fingers of Venus de Milo.
“Yes, I see copies in the supermarket and airports still,” he snickered. “And I suppose you are planning another?”
“Why, funny you should mention it, but our publisher has already provided a considerable advance.”
“As brilliant as your first? A sequel perhaps?” he queried sarcastically.
Of course there could hardly be a sequel to our tale about the Mona Lisa, the gist of which was that the painting was in fact a self-portrait rendered by the hand not of Leonardo himself, but his lover Lisa Gherardini, whom he tutored in the pictorial arts. The critics cavilled, as critics tend to do, but the public praised the effort, which, at Cassandra’s urging, emphasised feminism and intrigue.
“No, no sequel. But her new idea has merit.”
“That Michelangelo modelled his David on a young woman with whom he was in love.”
Donato lost most of his espresso on a lapel as he spluttered incredulity.
“It’s preposterous! Worse than your first! What has happened to you?”
“Hear me out!” I exhorted. “Of course we know that Michelangelo bestowed his romantic love, such as it was, upon men and that his David, who is far less feminine than Donatello’s, is hardly female. That’s all beside the point. Cassandra has a canny eye for engaging the public’s affection. What the world doesn’t realise, that is, until our discovery is revealed, is that the young Michelangelo, just after receiving his commission from the Florentine authorities for the heroic slayer of Goliath, fell in love with a mysterious woman. He was so absolutely besotted with her that he defied his orders and secretly created instead from that huge block of neglected Carrara marble a sculpture celebrating his mistress’s beauty. At the age of twenty-six he was willing to risk life and limb for this monumental monument to his lover, though he hoped for the clemency of the city fathers once he unveiled this stupendous achievement.”
Donato shook his head but I could see that he, having dedicated himself uncompromisingly to a music that spurned the common man, was nonetheless intrigued. I continued.
“After this noble-woman rejects him—why are you laughing?—owing to political exigencies tragically misinterpreted by the artist as class prejudice, the traumatised Michelangelo himself rejects all women forever and turns to men. In his furious anger Michelangelo destroyed the image of his beloved by whittling the marble of this masterpiece of masterpieces into the David we know today.”
Donato sighed heavily.
“And,” I added, stealing a march on my companion, “we will be unearthing preliminary sketches of the unknown beauty in the novel!”
“If you do, will she be like the battle-axes of the Laurentian Library?”
“No,” I responded with fervour, “she will be the most ravishing female form of the ages, the sculptural equivalent of the Mona Lisa, the great and unique exception in all the art of the great Michelangelo Buonarroti—a seductive, alluring and feminine female! An enchanting woman who is not a Madonna and who has the brains to go with her physical charms! A powerhouse, as we shall describe. A once-heterosexual Michelangelo will be very appealing, don’t you think?”
“I need a drink,” responded my friend. “Really, Marcello, how can you endure her?”
“How could you have courted her in the first place?” I retorted rhetorically.
Cassandra, in the corporeal and non-literary realm was rather sublime: blue eyes, silken blonde hair, a form like an angel’s. No need to state the obvious.
Donato and I had long made a tradition of frequenting the Imagina Cafè fortnightly on Sundays to nourish the friendship and exchange information about our various projects. I was generous with my ear for his exploits, and his musical plans too, and he for my literary endeavours, which of course did not include the commercial ventures with my wife, ventures that paid the bills, as we say, and then some. The poems I had sweated over for years had earned me scarcely a vaporetto fare, and my post at the university did not allow for trips to Cannes or the Swiss Alps.
Words are not Donato’s forte—how could they be for one who was a musician above everything?—but their rhythms and cadences were, and the man had a soul beneath that rascally veneer he took such pains to cultivate, as one indeed could divine from his playing. Dishonesty in matters of art, however, was not one of the flaws he strove so hard to conceal by flaunting: he was in fact constitutionally incapable. And as a reader he was utterly impervious to the claims of friendship upon judgment. Such honesty is the best an author may hope for, even when it draws blood. Donato’s scathing dismissal of my collaboration with Cassandra, which I had safeguarded by pseudonym, I might add, was easy to stomach: after all, the novel was a mere fillip, a semi-literate potboiler for the semi-educated many. He might, however, be equally scathing about a serious work, a work I was hoping would convince him of my reclamation and win his respect once again, the work I now withdrew with trepidation from my satchel.
The hum and din of the cafe gave solace, and as I gathered the leaves of my slender manuscript I thought of Donato’s other virtues. He never, for example, confused the narrator of a text with its author, nor did he inquire of me the whys and wherefores that had brought a composition into being, recognising the fatuity of such an approach. He regarded a text not as a portal into its progenitor’s peculiar psyche but into what that psyche transcended of itself and might reveal of the world at large. Extraordinary, I thought, and no doubt a reason for our kinship. I was nonetheless unusually anxious, for the tale I was about to read represented, for me, a new path: this was no intricately crafted poem whose syllables balanced on a fluttering breath.
He readied himself, as was his wont, by turning his gaze away and lowering his eyelids just as if at a concert. His large but appealing head with its flowing grey locks, the grizzled stubble on his jowls and the mole on his right temple gave him the gravitas of a boar, in profile. He flicked his fingers, urging me to begin, so I did.
A scant twenty minutes had passed when I finished my reading, flushed and sweaty as I had never been before my friend, whose sideways glance however crushed me as no word could ever do: it told of pity. And before he might utter a deceptive verbal feint to soften the blow, for even he was human, I had exited. At home I straightaways pressed the oeuvre into my beloved Cassandra’s hands and with even greater apprehension awaited her verdict. She rewarded me amply for my efforts and, basking in her appreciation, I cursed my friend triply, for I knew he was correct.
After several inopportune crises that seemed to arise only on Sundays I had ceased frequenting Imagina and its pompous local artistes, preferring to use my precious time to continue explorations in the new vein. They poured forth and won the giddy acclamation of my spouse but neither her reverence nor inspired desire, the benchmark of her esteem for me, quieted my qualms. Meeting Donato by chance, as is inevitable in Venice, brought them into relief, for this time he took me aside, justly upbraided me for my discourtesy, and persuaded me to explain myself. I did a poor job of it and as we were crossing the Rialto, of all bridges, he stopped and asked, “For what shall it profit a man? … ”
We meandered silently for some time, I burning with indignation and chagrin that he had divined me, he puzzling and groping for a way to reach across my shame, only to settle on the mundane.
“You seem otherwise happy.”
“And happiness isn’t a bad thing, Marcello, the right kind, that is, in the correct proportions.”
“Why can’t you be frank with me?”
“Then tell me what I already know!”
“But you already know it. And it is hardly uncommon for the artist to find himself in a dark wood, is it?”
I chuckled despite, or possibly because of, the irony.
“You see, for musicians like me, for interpreters, we have always Bach to fall back upon when we stray. But for those who like yourself strive to create ex nihilo,” and here his modesty shone forth through the insouciant facade, “there is no such refuge.”
The noisy oblivious fools who crowded the Piazza San Marco with the sheer gluttony of their petty wants buffered my breaking down. To the tourists of course I looked like any other supercilious Venetian making a virtue of their impossible ineluctable presence by wryly regarding their comedic displays. To Donato, however, I was a soul to be salvaged.
“Come, Marcello,” he urged, “I have the solution.”
“Creative man,” counselled Donato as we wandered the labyrinth of canals, “requires two things: beauty and freedom. Beauty to ignite the imagination, and freedom to pursue its spontaneous imperatives. Only thus may other beauties be born.”
On this summer’s night the fetid air was sodden with the pungent bouquet of the waterways, a heady and perverse elixir that lent my friend’s utterances increasing conviction.
“Once you have bound yourself to another, Marcello, you have sacrificed one or other of these necessaries. For all of Cassandra’s beauty a trespass in a direction not to her liking, material or artistic, would bring difficulty. I have watched you, in friendship, and forgiven of course the excrescence of tripe: who doesn’t need money? But now the pure light of your peculiar but honestly striving poems—the light that illuminated your struggling art and made it your own—has been bent by the gravity of your bondage. It would be the same with another, my friend. What the masses mythologise as nourishment in the promulgation of their fables of perfect union between man and wife is merely sacrifice, submission and slavery—for the artist. The commoner may delight in the arrangement, but not the poet, Marcello. Tell me frankly, my friend,” he added as we paused for breath, “are you happy with what you are now composing?”
I embraced him in gratitude and allowed him to guide my faltering steps into one of those hidden recesses of the city we knew so well until we arrived at the door of a worn but imposing edifice, perhaps some ancient dignitary’s residence now home to apartment dwellers.
“Wait here for a moment, Marcello,” urged my friend.
I lingered alone and leaned against the portico hardly daring to wonder what Donato had devised while confessing to myself the utter truth of his perceptions. Some ten minutes had passed before he re-emerged and beckoned me to follow him up a flight of stairs and then into a spacious and elegantly furnished room.
We were welcomed by an extraordinarily beautiful woman, perhaps in her early thirties, dressed with a refinement that heightened her undeniably sensual appeal, a darker and, I thought, dangerous version of my wife. Donato introduced me to Olympia and as I took her hand I blushed. After an awkward minute, a minute during which Olympia sized me up while chatting about the inanities of our impossible city, we exited.
“Ssssh,” he urged, hurrying me away, “I’ll explain it all at the Imagina. Come, a certain symmetry is required.”
So it was back to the café where I had first met Cassandra and subsequently held court with Donato for the denouement. He kept my queries at bay until, he said, I could relax, and after several glasses of wine I suppose I gave evidence of sufficient calm to permit him to proceed.
“She is beautiful, is she not?” asked Donato.
“And you are not financially constrained, are you?” he continued. He interrupted my response. “It’s not as you imagine. Listen to me.”
He poured yet another glass for ourselves and leaned back in his chair.
“Remember what I said about beauty and freedom, Marcello. Olympia will give you both. And in six months’ time you will be cured of this terrible malady—but only if you follow the rules with absolutely no deviation, no deviation, do you hear?”
“The rules?” I queried timidly.
“Yes, the rules. They are very simple. You are to meet Olympia weekly for an hour—use our time on Sunday afternoon, I will gladly sacrifice it to provide cover. You will see Olympia not as you saw her tonight, which gave only a smattering of her beauty, but in her full and unadorned magnificence. You will drink in that unparalleled beauty, you will drink your fill: but at a distance. You will be free to speak of anything, or nothing, but you are not to touch, never. She for her part will be silent. Her time is expensive, very expensive, but you can afford it. And in any case, what price your soul? At the end of six months I guarantee your artistic animus will be restored. Beauty and freedom, Marcello, beauty and freedom—they will finally be yours. She gives you her beauty and you are free to make use of it with your imagination. Except for her fee she places absolutely no obligations upon you. The most genuine, honest, liberating, and pure—pure!—exchange imaginable. No messy impositions of will or desire, no tethers, however gossamer. The worst that can result is that you will fall back into your present habits. But trust me, Marcello, six months hence when we resume our meetings here you will astonish me not with drivel but with something wild and new and truly your own.”
“But is she …” I stammered.
“She is not what you think. Let’s just say she chooses to be reimbursed for her treasured time, like any good consultant. As long as you adhere to the rules—and Olympia will enforce them should you attempt to stray, believe me—not even your petty conscience can cavil. D’accordo?”
I gave him my hand, and my word: “D’accordo.”
Olympia lay on a divan and permitted me to absorb her splendours from the armchair a few feet away. She was every bit as ravishing as my fevered mind had imagined in the days before our first meeting. It wasn’t that Cassandra paled in comparison, but that Olympia’s dark beauty captivated in a sinister way, a way that was heightened by the rules of engagement: her silence and my forbearance of touch. Dante’s Beatrice, Petrarch’s Laura, Shakespeare’s Dark Lady—none could have excelled this woman who gazed at my discomfort and smiled.
During the first few meetings I found myself tongue-tied into speechlessness, and afterwards I would invariably return to Cassandra with an outlandish ardour she found irresistible and that earned her awe while the vision of Olympia beguiled my inmost eye. When I finally ventured to speak in Olympia’s presence it was because I had reached a breaking point, and when I broke I told her—at a distance—how if permitted I would please her as no other. I spoke eloquently, drawing upon my older poetry and my new desire, while she, so enchanting, remained unmoved. I told her of the sacrifices I would make, of the disgust with every other part of my pitiable existence when away from her, and still she smiled. At the end of our hour, after she had gathered her robe around her and followed me with her eyes to the door, she would nod her head, and that simple nod was all it took to crush any errant impulse, to stay the kisses I longed to lavish on her neck and the arms I yearned to envelop her within.
By the third month I had begun to reach an equilibrium. My physical desires had ebbed and my dreams took a turn away from attempting to win her submission or devotion or adoration or acquiescence or, perhaps, her love, whatever that was, and I began to invent. I told stories, stories with no plot or aim or purpose, stories with characters cobbled from whim and experience and fantastic quirk, stories whose rhythms began to please me, whose cadences connected with the murmuring hum of my blood, stories that twisted and then kinked and exploded with a snap; stories that terrified with indifferent cruelty, or buoyed with charitable acceptance of my own misgivings.
By now I hardly glanced at the serene Olympia lying bemused on her pillowed couch. The eyes and breasts and waist that had frenzied me earlier were unchanged, but their allure had been subsumed into my solipsistic imaginings. I grew joyous, angry, proud, mean, magnanimous, and nonchalant. I laughed and sneered and dribbled venom, I revised Cassandra’s joyfully insipid ideas and sang her loveliness and despised her cloying dedication and feared her rejection. I envied Donato’s ability to sing with his instrument and cursed his great good wordless realm of sound. I chastised Tasso and slandered Goethe and damned, at the last, our dearest Dante, with self-damning cheer.
When the first small poem spluttered into being I could hardly recognise myself. Then poems or tales, stories or strategies—the words began to somersault like unpredictable circus artists and the weekly meetings became as necessary as air, as deeply mirthful as the encompassing sea. I worried for the cessation of the visits and implored the berobed Olympia at the door but she simply and silently smiled.
And then the worry disappeared as well as I resumed my rhapsodies, and my sheaf of secret compositions, which I disdained to revisit once they had been consigned to my satchel, grew. Just when I recognised that I now longed for the end of the allotted time to be reached, I noticed something else.
In the midst of a particularly sparkling soliloquy I chanced to gaze down at Olympia and the sight of her jarred me. She was far thinner than I remembered and her face seemed drawn and wan, despite the implacable smile. Over the ensuing weeks the flesh appeared as if to melt from her frame. In some perverse way she was becoming even more attractive, I noted, still revelling in the torrents that flowed from my mind and mouth, though perhaps a bit more uneasily, until at last there could be no doubt: she was starving herself. But why?
Was she ill? I asked. Only the smile in response. I barraged her with questions, and with hypotheses. Still the smile. I even lectured, desperately, on nutrition—that is, between reveries. And then it dawned upon me: she was feeding on my words! And the words still poured forth unabated despite the evolving calamity, the whittling down of Olympia into a spectre right before my very eyes. Only now could I fully comprehend: she had fallen profoundly in love with me and her wordless fasting was the tacit desperate plea for my touch.
I grew giddy over the final month as Olympia languished, knowing that I held her salvation literally in hand, and plotting just how and at what time I would heal her malady—knowing too that when I did so it would represent a monumental finality. I had no doubt that once I had proffered a caress she would not only recover but consume, and that I would then consume devoutly in return, and all of Donato’s mad ideas would be relegated, along with Cassandra’s fatuous literary tomfoolery and imbecilically attentive dotage upon me, like so much sewage from the encircling canals, to the fathoms.
At our last scheduled session, the anticipation of true beauty and freedom burned through me as I took my accustomed seat. Instead of giving utterance I gathered myself, trying vainly to still my erratic heart, and rose. I stepped very slowly towards Olympia, oh so slowly, as she smiled and as her eyes kindled to mine. Her emaciated body did not repel—no, it allured as never before and inspired the keenest desire! I extended my arm and, curling the knuckles of my right hand, prepared to graze her downy left cheek. She, still smiling, ever so slightly shook her head despite what I could glean from the portals to her soul. My hand recoiled as if stung, and I fell back into my chair gasping for breath and blazing with remorse. I fled before Olympia arose, not daring to face her gaze again.
Donato shook his head as he perused the last of my works. We had pitched camp at our café for the entire afternoon and I took the opportunity to study the musician’s malleable features all through his reading. Not long before I might have murdered him for the agonising aftermath of his ‘solution’, and yet now I owed him far more than the few drinks I was treating him to. He returned my manuscripts solemnly across the table and grinned while offering a toast.
“To beauty and freedom!” he tenderly exclaimed.
“To beauty and freedom!” I rejoined.
“And,” I murmured stealthily after we had drained our glasses, “how is she?”
“Still beautiful,” Donato answered, “and as free as ever. Just as we saw her that evening.”
He smiled earnestly at me for a moment and then wheeled round in his seat and rose abruptly, tapping the lip of his wine glass with a fork to claim the attention of the café’s clientele, whom he then hushed with authority.
“To beauty and freedom!” he intoned, inviting the expectant crowd to join in.
Several amused strangers echoed his proclamation. We quaffed.
“To music!” he declared more imperatively.
“To music!” came the puzzled but growing response.
He now stood the entire establishment to a round, thus rousing greater enthusiasm for participation in his next offering.
“To Marcello!” he bellowed, indicating me.
“To Marcello!” the patrons clamoured.
Then snatching my papers and rhythmically waving them aloft, Donato conducted the galvanised popolo minuto in a chant.
“To Marcello! To Marcello! To Marcello!” they cheered.
Emilia and Cassandra entered just after my brief and red-faced bow had managed to quiet the commotion. Donato welcomed them with chivalrous affection and as the evening wore on and the flirtations at our table flew apace, he ordered a bottle of the finest Prosecco.
Drawing our quartet together for a private tribute he raised his glass once again.
“To beauty,” he whispered, acknowledging our partners, who gloried in the compliment.
“And freedom,” I added, much to their curious glee.