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Authors: Gary Jennings

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I also brought what clothing I could—outgrown or worn-out garb of my own for the boys and, for the girls, articles that had belonged to my late mother. Not everything fit everybody, but they did not mind. Doris and the other three or four girls paraded about, most proudly, in shawls and gowns so much too big for them that they tripped on the dragging ends. I even brought along—for my own wear when I was with the boat children—various of my old tunics and hose so derelict that Zia Zulià had consigned them to the household bin of dust rags. I would remove whatever fine attire I had left my house in, and leave that wedged among the barge’s timbers, and dress in the rags and look just like another boat urchin, until it was time to change again and go home.
You might wonder why I did not give the children money instead of my meager gifts. But you must remember that I was as much of an orphan as any of them were, and under strict guardianship, and too young to make any dispensation from the Polo family coffers. Our household’s money was doled out by the company, meaning by the clerk Isidoro Priuli. Whenever Zulià or the maggiordomo or any other servant had to buy any sort of supplies or provender for the Ca’ Polo, he or she went to the markets accompanied by a page from the company. That page boy carried the purse and counted out the ducats or sequins or soldi as they were spent, and made a memorandum of every one. If there was anything I personally needed or wanted, and if I could put up a good argument, that thing would be bought for me. If I contracted a debt, it would be paid for me. But I never possessed, at any one time, more than a few copper bagatini of my own, for jingling money.
I did manage to improve the boat children’s existence at least to the extent of improving the scope of their thievery. They had always filched from the mongers and hucksters of their own squalid neighborhood; in other words, from petty merchants who were not much less poor than they were, and whose goods were hardly worth the stealing. I led the children to my own higher-class confino, where the wares displayed for sale were of better quality. And there we devised a better mode of theft than mere snatch-and-run.
The Mercerìa is the widest, straightest and longest street in Venice, meaning that it is practically the
only
street that can be called wide or straight or long. Open-fronted shops line both sides of it and, between them, long ranks of stalls and carts do an even brisker business, selling everything from mercery to hourglasses, and all kinds of groceries from staples to delicacies.
Suppose we saw, on a meat man’s cart, a tray of veal chops that made the children’s mouths water. A boy named Daniele was our swiftest runner. So he it was who elbowed his way to the cart, seized up a handful of the chops and ran, nearly knocking down a small girl who had blundered into his path. Daniele continued running, stupidly it seemed, along the broad, straight, open Mercerìa where he was visible and easily pursued. So the meat man’s assistant and a couple of outraged customers took out after him, shouting “alto!” and “salva!” and “al ladro!”
But the girl who had been shoved was our Doris, and Daniele had in that scuffling moment, unobserved, handed to her the stolen veal chops. Doris, still unnoticed in the commotion, quickly and safely disappeared down one of the narrow, twisty side alleys leading off the open area. Meanwhile, his flight being somewhat impeded by the crowds on the Mercerìa, Daniele was in peril of capture. His pursuers were closing in on him, and other passersby were clutching at him, and all were bellowing for a “sbiro!” The sbiri are Venice’s apelike policemen, and one of them, heeding the call, was angling through the crowd to intercept the thief. But I was nearby, as I always contrived to be on those occasions. Daniele stopped running and I started, which made me seem the quarry, and I ran deliberately right into the sbiro’s ape arms.
After being soundly buffeted about the ears, I was recognized, as I always was and expected to be. The sbiro and the angry citizens hauled me to my house not far from the Mercerìa. When the street door was hammered on, the unhappy maggiordomo Attilio opened it. He heard out the people’s babble of accusation and condemnation and then wearily put his thumbprint on a pagherò, which is a paper promising to pay, and thereby committed the Compagnia Polo to reimburse the meat man for his loss. The sbiro, after giving me a stern lecture and a vigorous shaking, let go of my collar, and he and the crowd departed.
Though I did not have to interpose myself every time the boat children stole something—more often it was deftly managed, with both the grabber and the receiver getting clean away—nevertheless I was dragged to the Ca’ Polo more times than I can remember. That did not much lessen Maistro Attilio’s opinion that Zia Zulià had raised the first black sheep in the Polo line.
It might be supposed that the boat children would have resented the participation of a “rich boy” in their pranks, and that they would have resented the “condescension” implicit in my gifts to them. Not so. The popolàzo may admire or envy or even revile the lustrìsimi, but they keep their active resentment and loathing for their fellow poor, who are, after all, their chief competitors in this world. It is not the rich who wrestle with the poor for the discarded molefish at the Fish Market. So when I came along, giving what I could and taking nothing, the boat people tolerated my presence rather better than if I had been another hungry beggar.
 
JUST to remind myself now and again that I was not of the popolàzo, I would drop in at the Compagnia Polo to luxuriate in its rich aromas and industrious activity and prosperous ambience. On one of those visits, I found on the clerk Isidoro’s table an object like a brick, but of a more glowing red color, and lighter in weight, and soft and vaguely moist to the touch, and I asked him what it was.
Again he exclaimed, “My faith!” and shook his gray head and said, “Do you not recognize the very foundation of your family’s fortune? It was built on those bricks of zafràn.”
“Oh,” I said, respectfully regarding the brick. “And what is zafràn?”
“Mefè! You have been eating it and smelling it and wearing it all your life! Zafràn is what gives that special flavor and yellow color to rice and polenta and pasta. What gives that unique yellow color to fabrics. What gives the women’s favorite scent to their salves and pomades. A mèdego uses it, too, in his medicines, but what it does there I do not know.”
“Oh,” I said again, my respect somewhat less for such an everyday article. “Is that all?”
“All!” he blurted. “Hear me, marcolfo.” That word is not an affectionate play on my name; it is addressed to any exceedingly stupid boy. “Zafràn has a history more ancient and more noble even than the history of Venice. Long before Venice existed, zafràn was used by the Greeks and Romans to perfume their baths. They scattered it on their floors to perfume whole rooms. When the Emperor Nero made his entry into Rome, the streets of
the entire city
were strewn with zafràn and made fragrant.”
“Well,” I said, “if it has always been so commonly available …”
“It may have been common then,” said Isidoro, “in the days when slaves were numerous and cost nothing. Zafràn is not common today. It is a scarce commodity, and therefore of much value. That one brick you see there is worth an ingot of gold of almost equal weight.”
“Is it indeed?” I said, perhaps sounding unconvinced. “But why?”
“Because that brick was made by the labor of many hands and immeasurable zonte of land and a countless multitude of flowers.”
“Flowers !”
Maistro Doro sighed and said patiently, “There is a purple flower called the crocus. When it blooms, it extends from that blossom three delicate stigmi of an orange-red color. Those stigmi are ever so carefully detached by human hands. When some millions of those dainty and almost impalpable stigmi are collected, they are either dried to make loose zafràn, what is called hay zafràn, or they are what is called ‘sweated’ and compressed together to make brick zafràn like this one. The arable land must be devoted to nothing but that crop, and the crocus blooms only once a year. That blooming season is brief, so many gatherers must work at the same time, and they must work diligently. I do not know how many zonte of land and how many hands are required to produce just one brick of zafràn in a year, but you will understand why it is of such extravagant value.”
I was by now convinced. “And where do we buy the zafràn?”
“We do not. We grow it.” He put on the table beside the brick another object; I would have said it was a bulb of ordinary garlic. “That is a culm of the crocus flower. The Compagnia Polo plants them and harvests from the blossoms.”
I was astonished. “Not in Venice, surely!”
“Of course not. On the teraferma of the mainland southwest of here. I told you it requires innumerable zonte of terrain.”
“I never knew,” I said.
He laughed. “Probably half the people of Venice do not even know that the milk and eggs of their daily meals are extracted from animals, and that those animals must have dry land to live on. We Venetians are inclined to pay little attention to anything but our lagoon and sea and ocean.”
“How long have we been doing this, Doro? Growing crocuses and zafràn?”
He shrugged. “How long have there been Polos in Venice? That was the genius of some one of your long-ago ancestors. After the time of the Romans, zafràn became too much of a luxury to cultivate. No one farmer could grow enough of it to make it worth his while. And even a landowner of great estates could not afford all the paid laborers that crop would require. So zafràn was pretty well forgotten. Until some early Polo remembered it, and also realized that modern Venice has almost as big a supply of slaves as Rome had. Of course, we now have to buy our slaves, not just capture them. But the gathering of crocus stigmi is not an arduous labor. It does not require strong and expensive male slaves. The puniest women and children can do it; weaklings and cripples can do it. So that was the cheap sort of slaves your ancestor bought; the sort the Compagnia Polo has been acquiring ever since. They are a motley sort, of all nations and colors—Moors, Lezghians, Circassians, Russniaks, Armeniyans—but their colors blend, so to speak, to make that red-gold zafràn.”
“The foundation of our fortune,” I repeated.
“It buys everything else we sell,” said Isidoro. “Oh, we sell the zafràn too, for a price, when the price is right—to be used as a foodstuff, a dye, a perfume, a medicament. But basically it is our company’s capital, with which we barter for all our other articles of merchandise. Everything from Ibiza’s salt to Còrdoba’s leather to Sardinia’s wheat. Just as the house of Spinola in Genoa has the monopoly of trading in raisins, our Venetian house of Polo has the zafràn.”
The only son of the Venetian house of Polo thanked the old clerk for that edifying lesson in high commerce and bold endeavor—and, as usual, sauntered off again to partake of the easy indolence of the boat children.
As I have said, those children tended to come and go; there was seldom the same lot living in the derelict barge from one week to the next. Like all the grown-up popolàzo, the children dreamed of somewhere finding a Land of Cockaigne, where they could shirk work in luxury instead of squalor. So they might hear of some place offering better prospects than the Venice waterfront, and they might stow away aboard an outbound vessel to get there. Some of them would come back after a while, either because they could not reach their destination or because they had and were disillusioned. Some never came back at all, because—we never knew—the vessel sank and they drowned, or because they were apprehended and thrown into an orphanage, or maybe because they did find “il paese di Cuccagna” and stayed there.
But Ubaldo and Doris Tagiabue were the constants, and it was from them that I got most of my education in the ways and the language of the lower classes. That education was not force-fed to me in the way Fra Varisto stuffed Latin conjugations into his schoolboys; rather, the brother and sister parceled it out to me in fragments, as I required it. Whenever Ubaldo would jeer at some backwardness or bewilderment of mine, I would realize that I lacked some bit of knowledge, and Doris would supply it.
One day, I remember, Ubaldo said he was going to the western side of the city, and going by way of the Dogs’ Ferry. I had never heard of that, so I went along, to see what strange kind of boat he meant. But we crossed the Grand Canal by the quite ordinary agency of the Rialto Bridge, and I must have looked either disappointed or mystified, for he scoffed at me, “You are as ignorant as a cornerstone!” and Doris explained:
“There is only one way to get from the eastern to the western side of the city, no? That is to cross the Grand Canal. Cats are allowed in boats, to catch the rats, but dogs are not. So the dogs can cross the canal only on the Ponte Rialto. So that is the Dogs’ Ferry, no xe vero?”
Some of their street jargon I could translate without assistance. They spoke of every priest and monk as le rigioso, which could mean “the stiff one,” but it did not take me long to realize that they were merely twisting the word religioso. When, in fine summer weather, they announced that they were moving from the barge hulk to La Locanda de la Stela, I knew that they were not going to reside in any Starlight Inn; they meant that they would be sleeping outdoors for a season. When they spoke of a female person as una largazza, they were playing on the proper term for a girl, la ragazza, but coarsely suggesting that she was ample, even cavernous, in her genital aperture. As a matter of fact, the greater part of the boat people’s language—and the greater part of their conversations, and their interests—dealt with such indelicate topics. I absorbed a lot of information, but it sometimes did more to confuse than to enlighten me.
Zia Zulià and Fra Varisto had taught me to refer to those parts between my legs—if I had to refer to them at all—as le vergogne, “the shames.” On the docks I heard many other terms. The word baggage for a man’s genital equipment was clear enough; and candelòto was an apt word for his erect organ, which is like a stout candle; and so was fava for the bulbous end of that organ, since it does somewhat resemble a broad bean; and so was capèla for the foreskin, which does enclose the fava like a little cloak or a little chapel. But it was a mystery to me why the word lumaghèta was sometimes spoken in reference to a woman’s parts. I understood that a woman had nothing but an opening down there, and the word lumaghèta can mean either a small snail or the tiny peg with which a minstrel tunes each string of his lute.
Ubaldo and Doris and I were playing on a dock one day when a greengrocer came pushing his cart along the esplanade, and the boat wives ambled over to paw through his produce. One of the women fondled a large yellowish cucumber, and grinned and said, “II mescolòto,” and all the women cackled lasciviously. “The stirrer”—I could make out the implications of that. But then two lissome young men came strolling along the esplanade, arm in arm, walking with a sort of springiness in their step, and one of the boat women growled, “Don Meta and Sior Mona.” Another woman glanced scornfully at the more delicate of the two young men and muttered, “That one wears a split seat in his hose.” I had no notion of what they were talking about, and Doris’s explanation did not tell me much:
“Those are the sorts of men who do with each other what a real man does only with a woman.”
Well,
there
was the main flaw in my comprehension: I had no very clear idea of
what
a man did with a woman.
Mind you, I was not entirely benighted in the matter of sex, any more than other upper-class Venetian children are—or, I daresay, upper-class children of any other European nationality. We may not consciously remember it, but we have all had an early introduction to sex, from our mothers or our nursemaids, or both.
It seems that mothers and nurses have known, from the beginning of time, that the best way to quiet a restless baby or put it easily to sleep is to do for it the act of manustupraziòn. I have watched many a mother do that to an infant boy whose bimbìn was so tiny that she could only just manipulate it with her finger and thumb. Yet the wee organ lifted and grew, though not in proportion as a man’s does, of course. As the woman stroked, the baby quivered, then smiled, then squirmed voluptuously. He did not ejaculate any spruzzo, but there was no doubt that he enjoyed a climax of release. Then his little bimbìn shrank again to its littlest, and he lay quiet and soon he slept.
Assuredly my own mother often did that for me, and I think it is good that mothers do so. That early manipulation, besides being an excellent pacifier of the infant, clearly stimulates development in that part of him. The mothers in the Eastern countries do not engage in that practice, and the omission is sadly evident when their babies grow up. I have seen many Eastern men undressed, and almost all had organs pitifully minute in comparison to mine.
Although our mothers and nursemaids gradually leave off doing that, when their children are about two years old—that is, at the age when they are weaned from the breast milk and introduced to wine—nevertheless, every child retains some dim recollection of it. Therefore a boy is not puzzled or frightened when he grows to adolescence and that organ seeks attention of its own accord. When a boy wakes in the night with it coming erect under his hand, he knows what it wants.
“A cold sponge bath,” Fra Varisto used to tell us boys at school. “That will quell the upstart, and avert the risk of its shaming you with the midnight stain.”
We listened respectfully, but on our way home we laughed at him. Perhaps friars and priests do endure involuntary and surprising spruzzi, and feel embarrassed or somehow guilty on that account. But no healthy boy of my acquaintance ever did. And none would choose a cold douche in place of the warm pleasure of doing for his candelòto what his mother had done for it when it was just a bimbìn. However, Ubaldo was contemptuous when he learned that those night games were the total extent of my sexual experience to date.
“What? You are still waging the war of the priests?” he jeered. “You have never had a girl?”
Once again uncomprehending, I inquired, “The war of the priests?”
“Five against one,” Doris said, without a blush. She added, “You must get yourself a smanza. A compliant girl friend.”
I thought about that and said, “I do not know any girls I could ask. Except you, and you are too young.”
She bridled and said angrily, “I may not have hair on my artichoke yet, but I am twelve, and that is of marrying age!”
“I do not wish to marry anybody,” I protested. “Only to—”
“Oh, no!” Ubaldo interrupted me. “My sister is a
good
girl.”
BOOK: The Journeyer
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