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VENICE,  a short story by Eugene Garber

 
    Could not see absolutely could not see I tell you any more than they say an ant tracking the contours and climes of fragrance can see so Matthias was like one of Klimt's floating musettes swimming blindly in currents of music.

    But Berta that could be grand think! lifting your cup with the semi quavers of a viola setting it down to the tinkling of a triangle drumming your feet to a door which slides open magically in its pockets with the ominous thunder of a kettle.

    All well and good Theodora in the poesy world of his last symphony Pan and the bacchantes running around poor little Maiernigg the flowers and the birds suddenly singing secret wisdom and over in Klagenfurt the honest barrel organist driven from the streets by a mad symphonist whose brassy feet play on the cobblestones tantaras and Trauermärsche all well and good I say to be blind amid bacchic symphonies but in the great mixed world of opera with its drama and scenes it will not do!

    Well maybe . . .

    No maybe Theodora in opera the sets cannot be just so much cloud the music soars over and all the silk gowns armor horned helmets winged sandals swords and pikes so much papier-mâché only on stage to get the singers into musical character no! the director of opera has to see for God's sake see but Clara couldn't make him see Max couldn't make him see and even Alfred threw up his hands in despair.

    And how exactly did this stubborn not seeing manifest itself?

    Childishly as in pretending to listen to the smoke rise from his cigar saying it made music much like that of the new lapsing French school.

    How else?

    Shutting his eyes and pretending to navigate the house by sensing the unheard melodies of furniture and door jambs all these antics to defy those of us who were encouraging him simply to see see see.

    Ah! but this must've been going on all his life.

    No doubt to some extent but his manic immersion in the symphonies has aggravated it and besides in the past it might not have been noticed but then he was not director of the world's greatest opera.

    But you say that now at last he can see?

    Yes! and who do you think did it Theodora?

    Max? Clara? Alfred? you? ha you did it in Venice Berta I see by the twinkle in your eye.

    Not exactly but see Theodora if you can put together the following an aristocratic Venetian lady a chamber pot a mysterious beggar and a Chinese silk screen.

    No of course I can't Berta you wicked tease and so you must tell me the story everything from the beginning.

    It began with Clara all out of sorts and suggesting that we take Matthias to Venice for there he might find his eyes or the fourth movement to the symphony he's currently working on or if neither then at least he would be out of her hair for a while.

    Oh I like this Berta and who were these with whom Clara could safely entrust her genius husband troublesome and eccentric no doubt but nevertheless passage to the very aeries of Viennese society even up to Prince Rudolf's lap.

    Shame! the trusted persons were Alfred and I who obligingly took Matthias away by train and then by vaporetto and then by gondola until there we were in Venice sitting behind a crumbling balustrade having a sumptuous lunch under buxom white clouds scampi in olive oil con riso accompanied by an Amarone from Santa Sofia the waiter insisted we must have and all of this followed by manly draughts of caffe alla Borgia the kind of thing Matthias never allows himself.

    Oh you devils you!

    Well were we the keepers of our brother's belly Theodora? no we were there to open his eyes and so we arranged that with lunch he would have a kingly prospect of the Grand Canal the sun bouncing off the water and the white clouds and blue sky outTiepoloing Tiepolo but did Matthias see? no he was busy cocking his ear to the singing of the gondoliers and to the accordionist begging coins below all the while explaining to us that the sing-song Italian of the Veneto is an effect of the sudden movement from hill to ocean and that the notorious deviousness of the Venetians comes from the way sound is forced through labyrinths by the system of canals from which he would nevertheless learn uses of reverberation and stereophony in orchestral placement that the Venetians being inured would never themselves recognize and on and on so I thought let him unthinkingly overfill his belly why should I say anything?

    Not to be contrary Berta but even Goethe found something of the same in his poem about mein wankend Venedig remember the plashing canals and the pigeons circling Saint Mark's and the muted songs of stevedores and the congeries of canted poles like tell-tale tops of weirs to catch the imagination and the moonlight splintering against the gold of the gondoliers' lanterns and the stones echoing still the commands of the old lions of the sea and . . .

    Stop Theodora it's too easy to go all gummy about Venice but this is not a story about romance it's about the effects of overindulgence and the inconveniences that arise when those effects manifest themselves in a foreign city far from one's own hotel to which incidentally one has been taken like a prisoner of war.

    Whatever can you mean Berta prisoner of war?

    I mean when we arrived at the vaporetto landing and the stewards handed our luggage out onto the dock a huge simian under the direction of a deformed little Rigoletto ran a leather strap through the handles and threw them over his shoulder like so much cotton batting and marched us off over three bridges to an accomplice gondolier and we had no choice but to follow the ape our remonstrances and pleadings unheard and thus the achievement of high civilization nullified in an instant by brute strength and so quite unfair of me to shout at Alfred and Matthias that if I could not trust them to protect my bag what would be the fate of my body when the notorious predators of Venice swooped down on me to which they replied they would lay down their lives for me but not for luggage so we were forcibly ensconced in a hotel not of our choice yet luckily quite decent each room with a view of the canal and yet I felt like a transported strumpet for a while until the wonders of the city began working on me.

    Berta! to think you were near the very spot where Puccini and Leoncavallo dueled famously for the rights to the first Bohème.

    Oh no doubt and where Verdi in a dream met Otello goaded by Iago to rage upon the Rialto and where Antonio bearded Shylock and where the Doge cold as marble sent the Pope's emissary back with word that Saint Mark the Lion of the Sea would not pay particular homage to Saint Peter and the piddling Tiber and where God only knows what else happened for in Venice at every crossing history hovers like the smell of fish and . . .

    Please Berta back to the aftermath of the lunch.

    Ah yes our story has brought us to the Giudecca and to clear signs that Matthias was in distress.

    Oh dear but let me ask if you and Alfred had been able in that glorious city to improve his ensemble.

    No indeed and because spring was still a bit raw he wore his old coat buttoned haphazardly as usual Alfred observing that the pattern suggested a major fifth but this sally had no effect and so we were accompanying not one of the world's greatest conductors and symphonists but a refugee from some shtetl in the hinterlands old hat crushed in his hand hair flying about wildly the long forehead unaccustomed to the southern sun already reddening the eyes glinting behind his tiny spectacles and now the contortions of nature's call twisting his body and activating his leg tic so that Theodora I must confess and I think I speak for Alfred too I felt an almost insuperable desire to get away from what was becoming an object of unfavorable public attention and was clearly progressing toward a climax decidedly not symphonic.

    I wish I had been a fly on the wall.

    You would not have been alone I can assure you because Venice even before the heat comes is already flyblown.

    Yes well it's been said for years that Venice is a kind of parable with its surfaces of extreme beauty and its underside decidedly cloacal but not worse than Paris I think where settled opinion has it that it's dangerous to cleanse one's mouth and baths are even more perilous but back to the Giudecca Berta where we have poor Matthias twisting in the winds of overindulgence.

    Yes by now it was poor Matthias my earlier irritation giving way to sympathy so I bravely summoned up my opera Italian Alfred having less and Matthias as you know even in extremis determined never to speak anything but German and so approaching a toothless beggar who began immediately to grin lasciviously as if I was arranging an assignation asked where we might find a what? suddenly now coming into my flustered brain the word for toilet in every language but Italian WC toilette cuarto de baño but thank God the beggar quickly divined my meaning and hurried the three of us breathless and agitated to a wrought iron gate that opened with a creak and admitted us to a short passageway covered with wisteria and thence to a lovely courtyard behind which towered a grand rococo palacio apparently designed by a devotee of Neptune shells embedded in stucco painted tiles depicting oceanic evolution from mollusk to whale through all the orders of crustaceans and fishes but the owner of these wonders lo! not a sea captain but an imposing old lady all in black with high cheekbones and aquiline nose appearing suddenly like a patrician eagle stooping down from the blue sky to pluck us out of distress.

    Oh how I wish I'd been there why didn't you and Alfred take me along I'll never forgive you but never mind what did the duchessa say?

    Bienvenido or some such in Italian or willkommen for all I know she obviously perceiving immediately that we were foreigners the beggar incidentally having disappeared without a word it being his inveterate habit perhaps to bring there all the dyspeptics of Venice and keep in mind it was impossible given Matthias's appearance and Alfred's and mine flustered and winded with urgent walking that she could have had the slightest inkling that in her presence was one of the world's chief musical ornaments as the Deutsche Tagblatt likes to proclaim for Vienna's glory of course not Matthias's.

    Never mind about Matthias's glory or the journalistic filching of it Berta go on.

    Well then now appeared a servant in dark livery and led us into a drawing room where it was made clear we were to stay while the one in need was led by the servant through a large door deeper into the interior leaving us to imagine what accommodation was being provided and to discourse upon such subjects as we chose for the lady excused herself with a courtly bow and disappeared upon which Alfred in a stagy pantomime of nervousness began to pace perusing the paneled walls and whistling and when I reported to him that the sound was not welcome in my ears he claimed to be surprised that I did not recognize the opening of the adagietto movement of Matthias's new symphony to which I replied that it was not possible to whistle anything of Matthias's but that only launched him into panegyrics though I reminded him that we had come to Venice expressly for its visual splendors not its sounds but he went on extolling and explicating the distancing effect of the French horn in the opening movement and how the second movement Stürmisch bewegt mit grosser Vehemenz achieves its breathless and feverish advance in great part by constant modulations from key to key some of them as transitory as small birds blown by huge winds how all of this counterpoints the contained sorrow of the preceding Trauermarsch whose sighing appoggiatura ninths become utterly anguished in the high woodwinds and how at times the tempo becomes so rapid that the melodic line disintegrates into a frantic chromaticism and then how against the impenetrably dark ostinato a distant light is kindled in the form of an upward thrust of crochet triplets . . . but I see that you are amused Theodora as I was not.

    Don't you see it Berta Matthias on a chamber pot and Alfred yodeling about crochety triplets it's too much!

    Too much is right because Alfred went into deeper explications posing the central question of the symphony how is the contention between light and storm ever to be resolved the light yearning toward a triumphant chorale but every time the noble brasses ascend evil winds undercut them and then comes a furious tutti with a whirlwind of quavers and triplets against which the light still struggles this time in the form of string arpeggios the victorious chorale rising once more but only to be struck down yet again by a chromatic paroxysm that ends in a musical paradox of awful tension the spent storm but a feeble echo of itself and the chorale too weak to impose its grand harmonies well Theodora in spite of all that musical pedantry I have to confess that I was moved by Alfred's deep devotion to Matthias's music a true disciple.

    Well I never should have laughed Berta but the juxtaposition of the symphonic and the cloacal . . .

    I understand but you must know that just as Alfred completed his admiring elucidations the composer himself reentered the antechamber smiling benignly as upon familiar petitioners coat over arm hat no longer crushed and wadded but waved aloft with a decidedly Italian flourish a magic fedora that might any moment sprout plumes and seeing our wonderment this ducal personage assured us that all was well and I hope you marked carefully Theodora that seeing-our-wonderment because Alfred and I perceived immediately a new light in Matthias's eye.

    I did indeed mark that seeing Berta and I assume that now at last I'm to learn where it came from.

    Indeed we asked where he had been and what he had seen hopeful that he would not tell us how a flocked wall imitated the suave tones of a harp or how the sconces shone with sounding brass and our hope was rewarded because he told us of an apartment of elegant appointments silken drapery a lovely high secretary a sideboard gleaming with tiny pieces of Venetian crystal and nothing Theodora about tintinnabulations he told us of a tapestry of Diana and Acton and again nothing about horns splintering the forest and in the very center of all this splendor a chamber pot under a leonine chair representing Saint Mark and beside it a beautiful Chinese screen depicting peacocks on a mountain terrace.

    Tell on Berta it's not fair to go silent and roll your eyes up like that leaving your audience to guess the meaning of such memorious rapture.

    Ah Theodora you are eloquent today all right I'll tell on just at the conclusion of Matthias's report of the marvels within we three looked about us in wonder the servant escort nowhere to be seen the signora long ago vanished like a fairy godmother in short everything more than a little uncanny and so we looking about us like bewitched children withdrew into the courtyard down the passage of purple wisteria and back out onto the street never having seen a soul to thank.

    But Matthias seeing you say perhaps for the first time in his life really seeing.

    Yes it's true Theodora his eyes were extraordinarily bright and the perpetual little purses were gone from the corners of his mouth because I think astonishment had made him a child again and just then as if planned by some providential power we were walking along the edge of the lagoon and looking down and there was his image and Alfred's and mine wavering in the wake of a passing gondola our faces breaking in the strangest way mixing all together and then drifting apart and then muddling again until we hardly knew who was who and then Matthias holding a finger beside his shiny little spectacles and saying my God Berta do you see that and still stand there stupidly saying nothing his old impatience coming back because his friends were proving idiotically obtuse failing to follow the potent track of thought that had guided him through the passages of the palacio and now along the lagoon.

    How unkind of him and so like his insufferable hauteur but what thought was it exactly that you failed to follow?

    I think his sudden seeing was so vivid to him that he couldn't believe we didn't think and see exactly the same but then he said to me more softly looking me in the face and then looking down into the water again don't you see all the beautiful little Bertas a new one each second with a new wisp of curl and a sweet little crook in her mouth and then another one smiling mischievously and then another one that has gotten a crown of cloud on her head and . . . I'm sorry.

    Don't be in the least ashamed Berta because if you hadn't been moved I would've thought you monstrous this is what he does to all of us puts us at arm's length of his genius which as you know is a very long arm and then moves us to tears with his music and with some sudden revelation of his deep wound but now just think what you've done for him!

    You tell me Theodora what I have done for him because I begin to wonder if I have damaged one of the world's great composers and directors.

    Damaged him? How on earth?

    Listen Alfred points out and Alfred is musically very shrewd even if he is a painter that Matthias's music is moving steadily away from programs and into great wordless imageless depths of inner darkness and I agree and would be horrified to be responsible for any retrogressive tendencies toward the mundane visible world you see what I mean.

    Don't fret Berta because you know as well as I that Matthias has been marching to his own drum since the earliest days of his childhood and all the gold and blue of Venice cannot make him swerve an inch from that any more than the musical traditionalists and prima donnas and anti-Semites of Vienna can make him swerve so I think what really disturbs you is that you don't know where the Berta of the lagoon with her little curls and clouds has gone and you don't know where you want her to go.

    Ah what kind of friend is this Theodora to show a woman her crooked heart.

    We must all try to right our crooked hearts Berta and if it takes the pain of unrequited love to straighten them out then at least that's better than skipping off to eternity with all our misshapenness upon us and anyway just think Venice has given birth to Beautiful Berta of the Lagoon a mythic creature whose face will launch a thousand notes.

    You flatter me Theodora.

    Not at all. I see the notes flying up into the blue innumerable little icons of the Lady of the Lagoon some of them vaulting and stormy some as mellow as green glens some as sweetly distant as lapping waters. Don't you see them?

    Yes I have to confess I do.



Eugene Garber has published two collections of fiction: "Metaphysical Tales", winner of the AWP Award for Short Fiction in 1981, and "The Historian", winner of the William Goyen Award in 1992. His fiction has been anthologized in The Norton Anthology of Contemporary Fiction, Best American Short Stories, and The Paris Review Anthology, among other compilations. "Venice" is one in a series of stories set in fin de siecle Vienna.

Gene Garber says:  "The lack of punctuation in this story has an essentially musical aim, harmonious, I hope, with the content of the story: to invite the reader, like the music listener, to engage in the discovery and construction of the cadences and tonalities of the voices of the narrative."

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