Copyright 2016 Mari Biella
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All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Table of Contents
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“Here too,” the man said, “there is darkness.”
I gazed out of the clouded window and into the twilit square beyond, and did not doubt it. A raw winter night had begun to descend, and the streetlights were flickering on one by one. People hurried past, wrapped up against the freezing air, and a church clock struck the hour. This was a side of Venice that very few visitors ever saw, and I supposed I should feel privileged.
“I know,” I said, and stirred my tea idly. There weren’t many other customers in the bar at this hour. A middle-aged man sat at a corner table reading a newspaper, and a harried-looking woman was chatting to someone on her cell phone. The owner, a plump little woman with dyed black hair, was standing behind the bar watching TV, paying us no attention at all.
My companion glanced at me, and smiled. He had ordered some coffee when he arrived, but I noticed that he hadn’t touched it.
“You think you know, perhaps,” he said. “I think it’s a little like sex, or death. You have to experience it to truly understand it. You say you haven’t been in Venice for very long, so I doubt you’ve had the chance to become acquainted with all its secrets.”
Our common nationality had brought us together, providing an instant link between two strangers. This often happens when compatriots meet abroad, I’ve found. Divorced from your usual environment and feeling yourself a stranger, you form friendships with people you wouldn’t have a word to say to at home. This man, for instance: if we’d been in Birmingham or Cambridge instead of Venice, I doubted we’d have been sharing drinks and small talk. The only thing that bound us together was an accident of birth.
Or so I thought, at least. It was hard to tell what kind of person he was, and his appearance betrayed few clues. He was dressed rather elegantly, with an immaculate white shirt and dark blue tie visible above the collar of his woollen coat. His hair was cut with almost military precision. His accent suggested public schools and quiet villages in the Home Counties. And yet, curiously, his rugged face and strong body made me think of a physical labourer or farmhand. He was neither, of course; but then I couldn’t for the life of me imagine who he might actually be.
“How long have you been here?” I asked.
The man gave a melancholy smile.
“A long time. Years. I haven’t been a permanent resident – I’ve gone away for months at a time, a whole year once – but something keeps drawing me back here. I don’t know why. Even Venice loses its charms after a while. When you’ve lived for a certain number of years, everything begins to seem dull.”
“You don’t look very old.”
“I’m older than you think.” He said it very definitely, as if he had no doubt what I thought. “Ah, well – I suppose that, ultimately, I simply love this city. It was where my life changed; where my life truly began, perhaps. Everything before that was like a shadow – and even that shadow, it seemed, was destined to fade out before its time.
“Let me explain. I was ill when I arrived here – deathly ill, in the most literal sense of the term. I had a year, according to the doctors, eighteen months if I was lucky – or unlucky. It wasn’t to be a peaceful end, you see. No gentle fade to black. Instead, I faced months of watching my body degenerate, of becoming a prisoner in my own flesh. I had already begun to notice the decline: I was clumsy, uncoordinated, not fully in control of my own movements. The disease was still in its early stages, though, and I was well enough to travel and make the most of the little time that was left to me. I set out from home one morning with very little idea of where I meant to go, trekked around aimlessly for several weeks, and then found myself in Venice.
“I found a room in a small pensione, not far from St Mark’s Square. It was a basic little place, I suppose, but it suited me well enough; I didn’t want to go to one of the big hotels, where I might meet someone I knew. I didn’t want pity, and I certainly didn’t want to be the object of people’s curiosity. I wanted to be left alone, and my little boarding house allowed me that luxury. It was November when I arrived, and most of the summer’s visitors had already retreated back across the Alps. The pensione, then, was practically deserted, and I preferred it that way.
“I soon grew comfortable there, and even came to like it. I should tell you what it was like, that place, since it’s important in terms of what happened next. It was an old building, tall and narrow, which was accessed via a small courtyard. My room was at the back of the house, and overlooked a tangled garden. When I gazed out of my window I could just make out, through the branches of the trees, an old palazzo.
“I found myself becoming fascinated by that palazzo – indeed, it’s surprising how interesting such things can seem, when you’ve little else to do. It had a lonely, melancholy air that was not altogether unpleasant. The shutters were warped, the windows were cracked, the paint was peeling, and another tile seemed to slip off the roof every time the wind blew. The garden too had been neglected, and had grown wild, with waist-high grass and ivy that crept over the statues and fountains. It must have been a beautiful place once, but now – now, like so much else in Venice, it was on the brink of decay.
“I searched for the palazzo’s front entrance in the nearby streets, and eventually found it in a narrow lane next to a canal. Stone steps led up from a small landing stage, and the front door was just across the street from them. I imagined noblemen and ladies stepping out of gondolas there, and walking the few steps to their home. How saddened they would be now, to see what it had been reduced to! – for the front of the building was in no better condition than the back. Rickety shutters covered the windows, and cracks ran through the masonry. A snake had been engraved above the front door, as if it were keeping guard; its cruel eyes glared out at the city, and its mouth was open in a snarl that revealed its fangs. It must have been a striking sight once, but now it looked only faded and decrepit, a being that could do nothing and harm no one.
“An elderly couple ran the boarding house where I was staying, and I asked them one day who the owner of the palazzo was. The old man shrugged in that casual way that Italians have, and said that it was the property of a family named Caresini. This proud and ancient line had withered in recent years, he said, and now boasted just one living member: a woman, a countess.
“ ‘She is hardly ever there, signore,’ he told me, almost apologetically. ‘That ruined old building is no place for a woman – no place for anyone. The countess spends most of her time abroad, I believe.’
“His wife, who had been listening to this exchange, made a strange hissing sound. ‘The best place for her,’ she said. ‘Vucodlàca. Striga.’ She spoke with a venom that shocked me, and then turned and left the room, slamming the door behind her.
“ ‘What does she mean?’ I asked, and the old man looked embarrassed, and shrugged again.
“ ‘There are rumours,’ he said. ‘Folk beliefs, superstitions. I pay no attention to them, but my wife – well, she listens. And she believes what she hears.’
“ ‘What are these rumours?’
“ ‘Idle gossip. Witchcraft, haunted houses – all the things that foolish people have always enjoyed scaring themselves with.’
“Idle gossip indeed, and a man who stands as close to death as I did need have no fear of such empty threats. I stood by my window many nights, heedless of the cold air, looking out at the palazzo. For the absent, maligned countess and her family I felt a vague yet instinctive sympathy. They had become my unseen companions, my comrades in misfortune. They were the dying remnants of the past, in a world that was racing toward a future that they would never know. I understood their plight – or believed I did, at least.”
The man paused, and glanced down at the untouched cup of coffee before him. The line between his eyes deepened. I felt that he was almost reluctant to remember or tell his story, but that something caused his mind and tongue to run on regardless. I waited, saying nothing.
“I was a contemplative man,” he said at last. “That has much to do with what happened, I think. Had I been otherwise, things might perhaps have turned out differently. I didn’t suspect it at the time, but it later became apparent that my habit of standing by my window and staring across at that rotting palazzo had not gone unobserved. It never occurred to me that, during those evenings, I was being watched in turn. There was no reason why I should have suspected such a thing, for the place certainly seemed empty: there was never a light at the window, never a movement or a sound to indicate that anyone lived there. I never thought, never imagined, that someone was indeed in those rooms, someone as fierce as a wolf and as stealthy as a cat. Someone who was every bit as observant as I was, and prepared to wait, but who – unlike me – was not afraid to act.”
Pietra by Mari Biella / Horror have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on20 votes