A novel excerpt. Venice, 1516.
GOOD EVENING. ARE YOU AN ANGEL?” Doge Enrico Dandolo, dreaming in his chambers, asked the golden-haired girl who had arrived wearing a hair-shirt frock with a greenish sea rope around her waist, rather like a fat, corded adder. Her carriage and her ensemble put him in mind of a mannequin from the era of plague, one of those held aloft in barefoot street processions. He was certain she was a dream apparition. Had she been real, he could not have seen her. Though he had been totally blind since returning from the sack of Constantinople over three hundred years before, in his sleep, his eyesight was panoramic. Her hair was a wreath of light, and the disposition of her presence extinguished the candle on his bedside table.
“Ehhh?” The little girl weighed her response with the Venetian articulation that indicates a moment of pondering. “I’m more of a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
That voice, he thought. Measured, buzzing, mid-frequency. In the waking world, it could only be duplicated with taut gut strings, bray pins, and a tortoiseshell plectrum.
“Not come to plead some sort of auto-birth, have you?” He raised his withered hand from the bedsheets to wave away such an absurdity. “Where would we be if I were ever given the authority to evaluate legitimacy?”
“I don’t plead auto-anything. But if I am to be on trial, you are not to be the judge.”
He had heard that voice before, in his expansive gardens. A cloud of bumblebees, maybe, enriched by their long hours of embroidery, just having graduated from the spinning chorus, lingering over a meadow of clover?
“And what is it you have you come to say?”
“The savior is to be reborn.”
“Is he? None too soon. And who will be the father?”
“Guilty,” she said.
“And the mother?”
“Guilty on both charges.
He rose up in the bed and peered at her. In the coronal light of her hair, he made out a slight protrusion, no more than a blister, beneath a coat of hastily applied paint at the bottommost of her belly. He thought of an inhabited wombat’s pouch.
“Child, I am but a blind old man,” he entreated. “What have I to do with these tidings?”
“Make the way,” she said in her drone whisper, and with a shiver she disappeared, leaving flakes of gold leaf and speckled cowrie shells on his floor.
Doge Enrico turned to lie face down. Just before drifting back to sleep, he felt the warmth of his candle reigniting.
As soon as Archbishop Giovanni D’Angeli, papal legate in Venice and the cleric in nominal charge of the Inquisition, had returned from the funeral of his mentor, Cardinal Colosimo, in Rome, he was greeted with news of an ascension. This was not so unusual in itself. Although Venice was not a particularly religious republic—indeed for a few short years it had been disowned by Rome—no one could claim that it was a less than grandiose one. Venetian families who lost members at sea were known to assert that God had assumed their loved ones into heaven, missing corpuses and all, in order to reunite them with their souls, which he had long held in preferential trust. Evidently, the child who had lately ascended, a nine-year-old blonde girl with milky skin named Benedetta, had done so from the veranda of her building in an impoverished quartiere in the Rialto. Her family had petitioned for the use of a black-creped gondola and a charity coffin to launch into the waters of the lagoon. When asked for the pertinent measurements, they had answered that the size of the casket did not matter, since her body had floated up to heaven. The mother felt the mock funeral ceremony would prevent her daughter’s soul from returning to haunt her household.
A miracle in Venice—and they were reported with the same frequency as pickpocketing—always seemed to end up as a source of consternation, and this one was no exception. Already people were gathering along Benedetta’s street to spread the news of a newly minted martyr, although, D’Angeli concluded, without giving the matter more thought than it deserved, if there had been any violence, little Benedetta had likely done it herself, or been assisted by her extended family. Parish priests were being hectored into confirming the phenomenon from the pulpit. Next, he thought, there would be an unconsecrated plaster-of-paris effigy on her street corner, its feet strewn with petitions and chrysanthemums, then rumored sightings and drunken candlelit regattas of fishermen’s skiffs, and the clergy would be left to shake their heads and say, “As if we haven’t given them enough wine and saints as it is.”
Spurious saints wrought renegade prayers, and renegade prayers, when shared, wrought heresy, which tantalized the landless, moneyless, and unlettered in the village markets like some newly imported Persian apple with the novelty of a pit rather than seeds. Pope Leo’s family, the Medici, had found many occasions, public and private, to call upon the wealth and seagoing prowess of the Venetian Republic, and from the outset Leo had decreed that the Inquisition would leave only the lightest of blood prints in Venice. However, the Inquisitor D’Angeli still sent men and women to their deaths when he found cause—not at the public stake, as those ordained acrobats in priestly robes were doing elsewhere in Italy, mind you, but in darkened church basements with the expedient and merciful double-looped linen garrote. D’Angeli knew that he had made enemies who would, as enemies of Rome had always done, use their own imagined saints to attack the faith in the name of purifying it. His first course of action, then, would be to encircle Benedetta’s neighborhood with his small band of assistants—only a foursome, but all them juris canonici doctors: Father Miro, Father Rocco, Father Luca, and Father Zago—in their black hooded cassocks like cowled wolves, and sound out the neighbors on exactly what degree of unpleasantness Benedetta’s departure was likely to entail.
The neighbors, it turned out, didn’t seem constrained in any way, and the babes-in-arms of the local fishwives deigned to play peek-and-whistle with D’Angeli’s priests. They testified that the mother was something of a refugee from an ecclesiastical drama, a fallen woman in the sense of having fallen off the edge of the earth, rather wanton, petulant and self-dramatizing, a “black leggings,” in the local parlance. She had, they said, a cluster of sons and daughters, some of them seemingly older than she was, and all of them short, dark, and slump shouldered. The neighbors expressed puzzlement at the commotion: no one could remember seeing a blonde girl among the brood, or recall a sister named Benedetta. Then again, no one had seen or heard of a husband or father either.
D’Angeli forewarned the family of his official visit by having the bells of San Giacomo rung, and the chiming had set the neighborhood dogs to barking, compounding the agony of the cacophony. Weren’t there tandem-running souls in one of Dante’s nether circles who had been deprived of their human voices and could only carp out their woe in the yelping of whatever breed of dog they had proved themselves in life to most resemble? An aggressive timbre for the rottweiler, a kvetching and disloyal yip-and-whine for the pinscher, and so on? On the whole, the Venetians were friendly to clergymen, and this was the first time the archbishop could remember feeling so unwelcome in the Rialto. He whispered to Father Zago, “Pray to Saint Roch to stifle the mutts.”
Zago glanced right and left. “Better Julian the Hospitaller,” he said. The patron saint of clowns, jugglers, and killers.
Though feeling out of favor, D’Angeli remained intrigued. The interiors of these buildings, he knew, could be a trauma, what with the fish-pot and chamber-basin stenches and the pigeon nests showing through the gaps in the ceiling trusses, but the exteriors were ennobled, one and all, with pale white Istrian stone, used because the sea air would have ossified even the most rugged oak. He couldn’t help marveling at the delicate pink carbonic-acid shadows that the Adriatic had painted along the walls. “The kiss of the sea,” the Venetians called it. No wonder these ocean people were so highhanded and licentious. They were living in a landscape painting made by the elements themselves.
In the courtyard of the building, a gargoyle-cum-lion fountain was being used as a repository for sardele, shrimp, black squid, eels, oysters, and soft-shell crabs, a goodly portion of which were still alive. Evidently the day’s catch was communal, and several children were already on hand to dip their scoop nets and carry their selections away in canisters for the evening’s dinner. D’Angeli looked up. As he’d expected, none of balconies jutting from the façade had railings. And as he’d predicted, a few feet from the fountain stood a plaster-of-paris statue of this Benedetta whom no one in the neighborhood could attest to having glimpsed. He could see it was meant to be her, however. It was a miniature Madonna, legless and kneeling, pitched haphazardly forward like an old bateau. The statue had been left unpainted, its wings segmented into misshapen florets like dented nautilus shells. One hand stretched out in a gesture of either benediction or caution. Trouble was brewing already.
Just as reported, the signora’s quarters were filled with children of all ages, many roosting beneath the furniture, the tiniest lying swaddled in cabinet drawers, their bare, begrimed feet protruding from their blankets and black licorice suckets protruding from their mouths. The signora had a flat, round Neapolitan face with awestruck watery eyes the size of swan’s eggs. Her dark hair had been cropped short, but seemingly not in mourning. She appeared both agog and impish, like a lice-ridden, oft-chastised, ever-antic child. “Benvengnu,” she said, and every dog in the neighborhood ceased barking.
“Madam,” he said, “I represent the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition.”
She smiled. “Yes, I know, and we would like a pony.”
“For the children.”
D’Angeli’s four assistants entered the apartment unbidden, bowing slightly to the mother. They would audit and compare impressions afterward.
“I am investigating what I suspect may be a grave offense to Venetian and Holy Mother Church law,” warned the archbishop. “I have not come to give out Christmas gifts.”
“Oh, the pony wouldn’t be a gift,” she said.
She was obviously mad. But the insane always proved malleable. She could certainly be made either to confess or tell him who had murdered her daughter. “You’re saying you presume that you may purchase a pony from the parish?”
Her expression didn’t change. “Oh, no. We are owed one. God took my daughter. For the sake of the other children, I must be given something to take her place. Don’t you keep horses?”
“The doge’s palace has…stables,” he said, regretting the uncertainty in his voice. “When and where was your daughter when you last saw her?”
“Sundown on the verandah,” she said, motioning. The opaque glass partition, gyred like a troubled ocean surface, was parted, and a cold wind was coming in from the balcony.
“Doing what?” he asked.
“She was having a fever.”
“Shouldn’t she have been in bed?”
“I don’t mean a physical fever.”
Tears were rolling down her cheeks now, but surely not from anything approaching sorrow. She was rapt and giddy, like a figure in an Annunciation painting, warmed by the blaze of gold leaf and enraptured by the antigravity of her own halo. The infected mind, he knew from experience, flickered in and out like the shadow of a candle flame against a window. Perhaps his own window of opportunity would be likewise constrained. He was not above leading the witness.
“Your daughter was experiencing a religious ardor?”
“Did she say anything?” D’Angeli pressed.
“The angel kept her still.”
“There is more than one?”
“Did you see it?”
“How could I see when the light was inside her?”
“And did your daughter talk in tongues?”
“Does silence have a tongue?”
He could only wish he had an answer to that. It might justify his decision to become a man of the church. Quite suddenly he felt a longing for her delirious account to turn out to be the truth. For all the souls he had condemned, he had never verified a miracle or confirmed a saint. The opportunity had never seemed so readily at hand. Weren’t all the saints, from the starveling Catherine of Siena to the inflamer Peter the Hermit, conceived and confirmed in something of the spirit of hysteria?
“Any gestures?” he asked.
The mother held both her hands straight out in the air.
“Just like that? Both arms extended, both hands open and held out?”
She pointed with her index finger, and D’Angeli found himself looking upward to the crease in the ceiling.
“Arms straight out or up?”
“Out and then up.”
“Which direction did her body gravitate in when she fell?”
“I’m assuming upward, madame,” he urged her. “What exactly did you see?
“It became misty at that moment,” she answered.
He knew about the alacrity of the Venetian tide and its curtains of mist. “The fog had come in with the tide?”
“It was the hem of the angel’s gown. Crinolines.”
“You are saying that the angel enfolded her, and that you didn’t witness the moment…”
“If downward, there would have been something to bury,” the mother said.
And nothing to beatify, the archbishop thought. “You haven’t heard from your daughter since that moment, have you?”
She returned a defiant look, her tears seeming to dry all at once. Was she chiding him for his distrust, or was she suggesting that she and her daughter had never been out of touch? It was time to adjourn. But how?
“Signora, I will need a birth certificate.”
“She had none.”
“Please, in this city, children need a birth certificate to be baptized, enroll in a school, receive Holy Communion, be confirmed, or even to attend Mass. Have you something to hide, then?”
“Benedetta was Jewish,” she said.
It was impossible. The name alone? This mother was a killer.
“Provide me with a valid birth certificate, or I will have you arrested for murder.”
“Do as you wish.”
“How would a Jewish child acquire the name of Benedetta?”
“God named her.”
“But why Benedetta?”
“So that you would know she belonged to him.”
Somewhere in the apartment a baby began to wail. Then another.
“You petitioned for a burial at sea,” D’Angeli said at last. “I was under the impression that Jews must bury in the earth?”
“Yes, in the earth permanently,” she said. “But Benedetta, you see, won’t be away permanently. Have you ever heard of life being renewed out of the ground?”
He felt helpless, defeated. And somehow grateful. These had to be the delicate circumstances under which miracles occurred. Somewhere between slaughter and salvation. “You told the municipal authorities that you feared a haunting.”
“You are afraid, or you are haunted?”
“Is the spirit of your daughter here now?”
“Judge that by the fact that you’re here now.”
Too much digging, he told himself. He had struck a layer of hard crust. It was dulling his pickaxe. “What kind of pony would you like?” he said at last.
“A black one, please.”
Robert Anderson, Flannery O’Connor Award–winner for Ice Age (Georgia), is also the author of Little Fugue (Random House). He teaches writing in New York City.