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Authors: Gary Jennings

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BOOK: The Journeyer
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You might smile at the assertion that a girl who could talk as she did could be a “good” girl. But there you have evidence of one thing our upper and lower classes have in common: their reverent regard for a maiden’s virginity. To the lustrìsimi and the popolàzo alike, that counts for more than all other feminine qualities: beauty, charm, sweetness, demureness, whatever. Their women may be plain and malicious and ill-spoken and ungracious and slovenly, but they must retain unbroken that little tuck of maidenhead tissue. In that respect at least, the most primitive and barbarous savages of the East are superior to us: they value a female for attributes other than the bung in her hole.
To our upper classes, virginity is not so much a matter of virtue as of good business, and they regard a daughter with the same cool calculation as they would a slave girl in the market. A daughter or a slave, like a cask of wine, commands a better price if it is sealed and demonstrably untampered with. Thus they barter their daughters for commercial advantage or social enhancement. But the lower classes foolishly think that their betters have a high
moral
regard for virginity, and they try to imitate that. Also, they are more easily frightened by the thunders of the Church, and the Church demands the preservation of virginity as a sort of negative show of virtue, in the same way that good Christians show virtue by abstaining from meat during Lent.
But even in those days when I was still a boy, I found reason to wonder just how many girls, of any class, really were kept “good” by the prevailing social precepts and attitudes. From the time I was old enough to sprout the first fuzz of “hair on my artichoke,” I had to listen to lectures from Fra Varisto and Zia Zulià on the moral and physical dangers of consorting with bad girls. I listened with close attention to their descriptions of such vile creatures, and their warnings about them, and their inveighings against them. I wanted to make sure I would recognize any bad girl at first sight, because I hoped with all my heart that I would soon get to meet one. That seemed quite likely, because the main impression I got from those lectures was that the bad girls must considerably outnumber the good ones.
There is other evidence for that impression. Venice is not a very tidy city, because it does not have to be. All of its discards go straight into the canals. Street garbage, kitchen trash, the wastes from our chamber pots and licet closets, all gets dumped into the nearest canal and is soon flushed away. The tide comes in twice daily, and surges through every least waterway, roiling up whatever matter lies on the bottom or is crusted on the canal walls. Then the tide departs and takes all those substances with it, through the lagoon, out past the Lido and off to sea. That keeps the city clean and sweet-smelling, but it frequently afflicts fishermen with unwelcome catches. There is not one of them who has not many times found on his hook or in his net the glistening pale blue and purple cadaver of a newborn infant. Granted, Venice is one of the three most populous cities of Europe. Still, only half of its citizens are female, and of those perhaps only half are of childbearing age. So the fishermen’s annual catch of discarded infants would seem to indicate a scarcity of “good” Venetian girls.
“There is always Daniele’s sister Malgarita,” said Ubaldo. He was not enumerating good girls, but quite the contrary. He was counting those females of our acquaintance who might serve to wean me from the war of the priests to a more manly diversion. “She will do it with anybody who will give her a bagatìn.”
“Malgarita is a fat pig,” said Doris.
“She is a fat pig,” I concurred.
“Who are you to sneer at pigs?” said Ubaldo. “Pigs have a patron saint. San Tonio was very fond of pigs.”
“He would not have been fond of Malgarita,” Doris said firmly.
Ubaldo went on, “Also there is Daniele’s mother. She will do it and not even ask a bagatìn.”
Doris and I made noises of revulsion. Then she said, “There is someone down there waving at us.”
We three were idling the afternoon away on a rooftop. That is a favorite occupation of the lower classes. Because all the common houses of Venice are one story high, and all have flat roofs, their people like to stroll or loll upon them and enjoy the view. From that vantage, they can behold the streets and canals below, the lagoon and its ships beyond, and Venice’s more elegant buildings that stand above the mass: the domes and spires of churches, the bell towers, the carved facades of palazzi.
“He is waving at me,” I said. “That is our boatman, taking our batèlo home from somewhere. I might as well ride with him.”
There was no necessity for me to go home before the bells began ringing the nighttime coprifuoco, when all honest citizens who do not retire indoors are supposed to carry lanterns to show that they are abroad on honest errands. But, to be truthful, I was at that moment feeling a bit apprehensive that Ubaldo might insist on my immediately coupling with some boat woman or girl. I did not so much fear the adventure, even with a slattern like Daniele’s mother; I feared making a fool of myself, not knowing what to
do
with her.
From time to time, I tried to atone for my being so often rude to poor old Michièl, so that day I took the oars from him and myself rowed us homeward, while he took his ease under the boat canopy. We conversed as we went, and he told me that he was going to boil an onion when he got to the house.
“What?” I said, unsure I had heard him right.
The black slave explained that he suffered from the bane of boatmen. Because his profession required him to spend most of his time with his backside on a hard and damp boat thwart, he was often troubled by bleeding piles. Our family mèdego, he said, had prescribed a simple allevement for that malady. “You boil an onion until it is soft, and you wad it well up in there, and you wind a cloth around your loins to hold it there. Truly, it does help. If you ever have piles, Messer Marco, you try that.”
I said I would indeed, and forgot about it. I arrived home to be accosted by Zia Zulià.
“The good friar Varisto was here today, and he was so angry that his dear face was bright red, clear to his tonsure.”
I remarked that that was not unusual.
She said warningly, “A marcolfo with no schooling should speak with a smaller mouth. Fra Varisto said you have been shirking your classes again. For more than a week this time. And tomorrow your class must be heard in recitation, whatever that is, by the Censori de Scole, whoever they are. It is required that you participate. The friar told me—and I am telling you, young man—you
will be
in school tomorrow.”
I said a word that made her gasp, and stalked off to my room to sulk. I refused to come out even when called to supper. But by the time the coprifuoco was rung, my better instincts had begun to overcome my worse ones. I thought to myself: today when I behaved with kindness to old Michièl it gratified him; I ought to say a kindly word of apology to old Zulià.
(I realize that I have characterized as “old” almost all the people I knew in my youth. That is because they seemed so to my young eyes, though only a few of them really were. The company’s clerk Isidoro and the chief servant Attilio were perhaps as old as I am now. But the friar Varisto and the black slave Michièl were no more than middle-aged. Zulià of course seemed old because she was about the same age as my mother, and my mother was dead; but I suppose Zulià was a year or two younger than Michièl.)
That night, when I determined to make amends to her, I did not wait for Zia Zulià to do her customary before-bedtime rounds of the house. I went to her little room and rapped on the door and opened it without waiting for an avanti. I probably had always assumed that servants did nothing at night except sleep to restore their energies for service the next day. But what was happening in that room that night was not sleep. It was something appalling and ludicrous and astounding to me—and educational.
Immediately before me on the bed was a pair of immense buttocks bouncing up and down. They were distinctive buttocks, being as purple-black as aubergines, and even more distinctive because they had a strip of cloth binding a large, pale-yellow onion in the cleft between them. At my sudden entrance, there was a squawk of dismay and the buttocks bounded out of the candlelight into a darker corner of the room. This revealed on the bed a contrastingly fish-white body—the naked Zulià, sprawled supine and splayed wide open. Her eyes were shut, so she had not noticed my arrival.
At the buttocks’ abrupt withdrawal, she gave a wail of deprivation, but continued to move as if she were still being bounced upon. I had never seen my nena except in gowns of many layers and floor length, and of atrociously garish Slavic colors. And the woman’s broad Slavic face was so very plain that I had never even tried to imagine her similarly broad body as it might look undressed. But now I took avid notice of everything so wantonly displayed before me, and one detail was so eminently noticeable that I could not restrain a blurted comment:
“Zia Zulià,” I said wonderingly, “you have a bright red mole down there on your—”
Her meaty legs closed together with a slap, and her eyes flew open almost as audibly. She grabbed for the bed covers, but Michièl had taken those along in his leap, so she seized at the bed curtains. There was a moment of consternation and contortion, as she and the slave fumbled to swaddle themselves. Then there was a much longer moment of petrified embarrassment, during which I was stared at by four eyeballs almost as big and luminous as the onion had been. I congratulate myself that I was the first to regain composure. I smiled sweetly upon my nena and spoke, not the words of apology I had come to say, but the words of an arrant extortioner.
With smug assurance I said, “I will not go to school tomorrow, Zia Zulià,” and I backed out of the room and closed the door.
 
BECAUSE I knew what I would be doing the next day, I was too restless with anticipation to sleep very well. I was up and dressed before any of the servants awoke, and I broke my fast with a bun and a gulp of wine as I went through the kitchen on my way out into the pearly morning. I hurried along the empty alleys and over the many bridges to that northside mud flat where some of the barge children were just emerging from their quarters. Considering what I had come to ask, I probably should have sought out Daniele, but I went instead to Ubaldo and put my request to him.
“At this hour?” he said, mildly scandalized. “Malgarita is likely still asleep, the pig. But I will see.”
He ducked back inside the barge, and Doris, who had overheard us, said to me, “I do not think you ought to, Marco.”
I was accustomed to her always commenting on everything that everybody did or said, and I did not always appreciate it, but I asked, “Why ought I not?”
“I do not want you to.”
“That is no reason.”
“Malgarita is a fat pig.” I could not deny that, and I did not, so she added, “Even I am better looking than Malgarita.”
Impolitely I laughed, but I was polite enough not to say that there was small choice between a fat pig and a scrawny kitten.
Doris kicked moodily at the mud where she stood, and then said in a rush of words, “Malgarita will do it with you because she does not care what man or boy she does it with. But I would do it with you because I do care.”
I looked at her with amused surprise, and perhaps I also looked at her for the first time with appraisal. Her maidenly blush was perceptible even through the dirt on her face, and so was her earnestness, and so was a dim prefiguring of prettiness. At any rate, her undirtied eyes were of a nice blue, and seemed extraordinarily large, though that was probably because her face was somewhat pinched by lifelong hunger.
“You will be a comely woman someday, Doris,” I said, to make her feel better. “If you ever get washed—or at least scraped. And if you grow more of a figure than a broomstick. Malgarita already is grown as ample as her mother.”
Doris said acidly, “Actually she looks more like her father, since she also grew a mustache.”
A head with frowzy hair and gummy eyelids poked out through one of the splintery holes in the barge hull, and Malgarita called, “Well, come on then, before I put on my frock, so I do not have to take it off!”
I turned to go and Doris said, “Marco!” but when I turned back impatiently, she said, “No matter. Go and play the pig.”
I clambered inside the dark, dank hull and crept along its rotting plank decking until I came to the hold partition where Malgarita squatted on a pallet of reeds and rags. My groping hands encountered her before I saw her, and her bare body felt as sweaty and spongy as the barge’s timbers. She immediately said, “Not even a feel until I get my bagatìn.”
I gave her the copper, and she lay back on the pallet. I got over her, in the position in which I had seen Michièl. Then I flinched, as there came a loud
wham!
from the outside of the barge hull, but just beside my ear, and then a
screech!
The boat boys were playing one of their favorite games. One of them had caught a cat—and that is no easy feat, although Venice does teem with cats—and had tied it to the barge side, and the boys were taking turns running and butting it with their heads, competing to see who would first mash it to death.
As my eyes adapted to the darkness, I noted that Malgarita was indeed hairy. Her palely shining breasts seemed the only hairless part of her. In addition to the frowze on her head and the fuzz on her upper lip, she was shaggy of legs and arms, and a large plume of hair hung from either armpit. What with the darkness in the hold and the veritable bush on her artichoke, I could see considerably less of her female apparatus than I had seen of Zia Zulià’s. (I could smell it, however, Malgarita being no more given to bathing than were any of the boat people.) I knew that I was expected to insert myself somewhere down there, but …
Wham!
from the hull, and a yowl from the cat, further confounding me. In some perplexity, I began to feel about Malgarita’s nether regions.
“Why are you playing with my pota?” she demanded, using the most vulgar word for that orifice.
I laughed, no doubt shakily, and said, “I am trying to find the—er—your lumaghèta.”
“Whatever for? That is of no use to you. Here is what you want.” She reached down one hand to spread herself and the other to guide me in. It was easily done, she was so well reamed.
Wham!
Squawl!
“Clumsy, you jerked it out again!” she said peevishly, and did some brisk rearranging.
I lay there for a moment, trying to ignore her piggishness and her aroma and the dismal surroundings, trying to enjoy the unfamiliar, warm, moist cavity in which I was loosely clasped.
“Well, get on with it,” she whined. “I have not yet peed this morning.”
I commenced to bounce as I had seen Michièl do, but, before I could get fairly started, the barge hold seemed to darken still more before my eyes. Though I tried to restrain and savor it, my spruzzo gushed unbidden and without any sensation of pleasure whatever.
Wham!
Yee-oww!
“Oh, che braga! What a lot of it!” Malgarita said disgustedly. “My legs will be sticking together all day. All right, get off, you fool, so I can jump!”
“What?” I said groggily.
She wriggled out from under me, stood up, and took a jump backward. She jumped forward, then backward again, and the whole barge rocked. “Make me laugh!” she commanded, between jumps.
“What?” I said.
“Tell me a funny story! There, that was seven jumps. I said make me laugh, marcolfo! Or would you rather make a baby?”
“What?”
“Oh, never mind. I will sneeze instead.” She grabbed a lock of her hair, stuck the frowzy ends of it up one of her nostrils, and sneezed explosively.
Wham!
Rowr-rr-rrr … The cat’s complaint died off as, evidently, the cat died, too. I could hear the boys squabbling about what to do with the carcass. Ubaldo wanted to throw it in onto me and Malgarita, Daniele wanted to throw it in some Jew’s shop door.
“I hope I have jarred it all out,” said Malgarita, wiping at her thighs with one of her bed rags. She dropped the rag back on her pallet, moved to the opposite side of the hold, squatted down and began copiously to urinate. I waited, thinking that one of us ought to say something more. But finally I decided that her morning bladder was inexhaustible, and so crept out of the barge the way I had come in.
“Sana capàna!” shouted Ubaldo, as if I had just then joined the company. “How was it?”
I gave him the jaded smile of a man of the world. All the boys whooped and hooted good-naturedly, and Daniele called, “My sister is good, yes, but my mother is better!”
Doris was nowhere about, and I was glad I did not have to meet her eyes. I had made my first journey of discovery—a short foray toward manhood—but I was not disposed to preen myself on that accomplishment. I felt dirty and I was sure I smelled of Malgarita. I wished I had listened to Doris and not done it. If that was all there was to being a man, and doing it with a woman, well, I had done it. From now on, I was entitled to swagger as brashly as any of the other boys, and swagger I would. But I was privately determining, all over again, to be kind to Zia Zulià. I would not tease her about what I had found in her room, or despise her, or tell on her, or wrest concessions with the threat of telling. I was sorry for her. If I felt soiled and wretched after my experience with a mere boat girl, how much more miserable my nena must feel, having no one willing to do it with her but a contemptible black man.
However, I was to have no opportunity to demonstrate my noble-mindedness. I got home again to find all the other servants in a turmoil, because Zulià and Michièl had disappeared during the night.
The sbiri had already been called in by Maistro Attilio, and those police apes were making conjectures typical of them: that Michièl had forcibly abducted Zulià in his batèlo, or that the two of them had for some reason gone out in the boat in the night, overturned it, and drowned. So the sbiri were going to ask the fishermen on the seaward side of Venice to keep a close eye on their hooks and nets, and the peasants on the Vèneto mainland to keep a lookout for a black boatman conveying a captive white damsel. But then they thought to investigate the canal right outside the Ca’ Polo, and there lay the batèlo innocently moored to its post, so the sbiri scratched their heads for new theories. In any event, if they could have caught Michièl even without the woman, they would have had the pleasure of executing him. A runaway slave is ipso facto a thief, in that he steals his master’s property: his own living self.
I kept silent about what I knew. I was convinced that Michièl and Zulià, alarmed by my discovery of their sordid connection, had eloped together. Anyway, they were never apprehended and never heard from again. So they must have made their way to some back corner of the world, like his native Nubia or her native Bohemia, where they could live squalidly ever after.
BOOK: The Journeyer
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