The Girl who Reached for the Stars is a breathtaking tale of daring dreams and a love that surmounts all barriers. Set against the evocative background of Medieval Venice, this riveting story is told from the perspectives of several people whose destinies are tightly intertwined: a young pickpocket, a savvy Jewish survival artist, and a teenage girl with a remarkable talent. All of them are torn apart by violence, intrigue, revenge, and greed but also united by friendship, dreams of justice, and the courage to reach for the stars.
Echoing his international bestseller THE BOY WHO GRANTED DREAMS, Luca Di Fulvio's novel tells the unforgettable love story between a Christian boy and a Jewish girl against the backdrop of the first Jewish ghetto in sixteenth-century Venice.
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About the Book
About the Author
THE GIRL WHO REACHED FOR THE STARS is a breathtaking tale of daring dreams and a love that surmounts all barriers. Set against the evocative background of Medieval Venice, this riveting story is told from the perspectives of several people whose destinies are tightly intertwined: a young pickpocket, a savvy Jewish survival artist, and a teenage girl with a remarkable talent. All of them are torn apart by violence, intrigue, revenge, and greed but also united by friendship, dreams of justice, and the courage to reach for the stars.
Echoing his international bestseller THE BOY WHO GRANTED DREAMS, Luca Di Fulvio’s new novel tells the unforgettable love story between a Christian boy and a Jewish girl against the backdrop of the first Jewish ghetto in sixteenth-century Venice.
Luca Di Fulvio was born in 1957 in Rome where he now works as an independent author. His versatile talent allows him to write sweeping historical sagas, riveting adult thrillers and cheerful children’s stories with equal ease. One of his thrillers, “L’Impagliatore,” was turned into the movie “Occhi di cristallo.” Di Fulvio studied dramaturgy in Rome where he was mentored by Andrea Camilleri.
Luca Di Fulvio
THE GIRLWHO REACHEDFOR THE STARS
Translated by Ann McGarrell
Digital original edition
Bastei Entertainment is an imprint of Bastei Lübbe AG
Copyright © 2015 by Bastei Lübbe AG, Schanzenstraße 6-20, 51063 Cologne, Germany
Written by Luca Di Fulvio
Translated by Ann McGarrell
Edited by Toby Axelrod
Author’s note translated by Sharmilla Cohen
Project management: Kathrin Kummer
Cover illustration: © shutterstock: Darja Vorontsova |Mikhail Zahranichny | holdeneye |Dn Br
Cover design: Christin Wilhelm, www.grafic4u.de
E-book production: Urban SatzKonzept, Düsseldorf
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.
1 Corinthians 1
IN THE YEAR OF OUR LORD 1515
Fall 1515 — Winter 1516
Rome — Narni — Central Apennines — Adriatic Sea — Po Delta — Adria — Mestre — Venice — Rimini
Everybody in Rione dell’Angelo called it the shit wagon. It came by once a week, on Mondays.
This Monday, after five days of rain, the shit wagon lurched down the narrow Via della Pescheria, scraping against some of the house walls. The six jailbirds chained to the shafts sank into mud up to their ankles, groaning with the effort of heaving the wheels out of the potholes that had swallowed them. Their rough wool leggings, coarse and ripped, were soaked crotch-high. Another two prisoners walked ahead, chained together, hoisting buckets of trash and excrement from outside house doors or from courtyards, then emptying them into the cart’s huge tub. Four armed guards, two in front and two at the rear of the nauseating procession, kept watch over the eight prisoners.
A heterogeneous small crowd remained blocked behind the cart, mostly composed of foreigners, as often happened in the Holy City. There were two German scholars, with heavy books under their arms; and three nuns whose wimples seemed like great upturned wings, advancing with downcast eyes; a North African with skin brown as toasted hazelnuts; two Spanish soldiers in red and yellow tights, stumbling forward, eyes shut to blunt the pain in their heads after a night at the wine shop — now all they wanted was to get back to the barracks. There was even a turbaned Indian, leading a camel that brayed in the cold, heading back to their circus across the Tiber; and a Jewish merchant, too, wearing the yellow cap prescribed by law. And all of them had the same look of disgust painted on their faces: The nearer they came to Sant’Angelo in Pescheria, the more pungent the stink from the shit wagon grew, enriched by the reek of fish market scraps that had been rotting on the ground for six days.
When they came to a wide place in the street, the group of stragglers managed to shove past the shit wagon and disappear into the little Babel of people crowded into the piazza.
The merchant Shimon Baruch quickened his pace, glancing around nervously: A fearful man. He’d just concluded a profitable business deal at the nearby rope market, selling a large quantity of braided ropes that came from a ship anchored at the port of Ripa Grande, and they’d paid him the whole sum in cash rather than the usual credit. And so now he hunched over as he walked, uneasy about being out in the Roman streets with a leather pouch full of coins tucked into his belt.
Shimon Baruch took note of the dignitary from some exotic land: mustachioed, two giant Moors as escort, the engraved blades of their scimitars glinting beyond the ivory grips. He glanced at the olive-skinned jugglers and at a little group of elders sitting in front of their houses on straw-bottomed chairs while they cast dice from a wooden box on the ground. And then three poor women, hovering around the fishmonger’s marble slab where now only a few wicker trays remained, with mackerel from Isola Sacra and a few perch from Bracciano. The women rummaged through these leftovers, looking for a head or a tail to flavor the broth of weeds that was all they’d have to serve tonight. Two of the women were in their forties, with lips clenched against the cold and unnaturally wrinkled, hinting at missing teeth. The third woman, however, was very young. She had dark-red hair and skin that looked white and as transparent as alabaster under a crust of dirt. Shimon Baruch thought she looked like Susanna, spied on by the elders in the Book of Daniel.
“Move along, whores, or I’m tossing you in the shit tank too,” shouted one of the jailbirds pulling the cart. The soldiers laughed and motioned the women away.
Shimon Baruch, his head lowered, started towards Teatro Marcello, where he could finally store his moneybag safely. But he turned back one last time to look at the pretty girl with coppery hair, and he saw her exchange a glance with a ragged boy. His skin was yellowish and he had long dirty hair; he was sitting a little way off in the ruins of the Portico of Octavia, lazily throwing stones at a she-goat browsing on the nettles and moss that grew from cracks in the wall. For a moment Shimon Baruch thought he’d seen the same boy earlier that morning, at the rope market. And as he watched him, hunching over even more, the boy looked at him and shouted, “Good-looking cap, mister Jew! Prosperity! Prosperity!”
Shimon Baruch turned away quickly without answering, and now he saw a hulking youth, who’d been leaning oafishly against the opposite wall of the piazza, come suddenly lumbering towards him. He was big and heavy, with thick pale hair like donkey straw, growing so low and brutishly on his scalp that his brow almost disappeared. He was dressed in rags and moved his short sturdy legs awkwardly, swaying his stocky torso. His arms were short, too, disproportioned, stubby. Like a giant dwarf, thought Shimon Baruch. At first glance, he took him for a crazy person. And then he was certain of it when the giant, squinting timidly as if he feared a beating, spoke in a guttural voice without inflection, in an odd language where the syllables kept tangling together: “Niceman me want piece money beg lustrous signor.”
“Go away,” said the merchant, flapping his hand at the air as if he were shooing a fly.
The giant shielded his face with a hand but stayed close, insisting:
“One piece money, one piece most exulent mister sir, me only one.” And then, just in front of the church of St. Angelo, he grabbed the merchant’s arm and clung to him eagerly.
Shimon Baruch turned towards him, alarmed. “Keep your dirty hands off me!” he growled, trying to hide the fear that was clutching at his throat.
At that same moment a boy of about sixteen, with sun-browned skin and hair black as pitch, lanky, with a yellow cap perched crosswise on his head, came running around the corner of the church. He almost bumped into the merchant and clung briefly to his shoulder to keep from falling.
“Sorry, signore,” he excused himself at once, and then, noticing the merchant’s yellow cap, he added, “Shalom Aleichem,” bowing his head in respect.
“Aleichem Shalom,” Shimon Baruch replied, somewhat reassured at seeing someone who shared his religion, yet still agitated because he couldn’t free himself from the loony’s grasp.
“No, me see him first!” the giant protested, flaming with wrath at the new arrival. “Good gennulmun he give alms for me!” And, clinging to the merchant’s arm, he gave the boy a violent shove. “Go way!”
“Let go of me, wretch!” shouted Shimon Baruch, with a note of fear in his voice.
“Let him go!” the newcomer also cried, flinging himself at the giant who, however, bent him in half with a fist to the stomach. But the youth didn’t give up and again hurled himself forward, punching the oaf in the face.
The giant emitted a guttural roar, released his grip on the merchant, grabbed the youth, and twirled him in the air before flinging him against Shimon Baruch so that both of them tumbled to the ground.
The guards, who at first had seemed ready to break up the fight, now laughed at seeing the two wearers of yellow headgear struggling in the mud, as if they were fighting each other. And all the fishwives laughed, hands on hips, breasts bouncing. And the two Moors with scimitars and the Grand Vizier’s dignitary roared with laughter too. The jugglers stopped lofting their balls, and the two Spanish soldiers, never slowing their pace, were now marching backwards so as not to miss the spectacle. And even the German students stopped and peered through their eyeglasses.
“Kill, kill!” screamed the boy who’d been throwing rocks at the she-goat a little further on, inciting the demented lad.
The jailbirds roared with laughter and one of them yelled to the giant: “Teach ‘em a lesson! Kick ‘em where it hurts!”
At which point the oafish lad landed a kick to the stomach of the boy in the yellow cap just as he was helping the merchant to stand. The youth gasped, turned towards Shimon Baruch, and told him, his eyes dark with fear: “You’d better run!” Then with a shout he hurled himself at the giant with the strength of desperation. He punched him one more time and then fled away. The giant came shambling after him towards the bank of the Tiber, and the longhaired boy with jaundiced skin also joined the pursuit, shouting “Shitty Jew! You’re dead meat now, you shitty Jew!”
Shimon Baruch thought that he should come to the aid of the young member of his tribe. But that thought lingered only for an instant, until the fear that tyrannized his life won out, and the merchant fled in the opposite direction, towards Teatro Marcello.
Fishwives, jailbirds, armor-bearers, and everybody who’d clustered around Sant’Angelo in Pescheria laughed out loud, watching the little boy and the giant who were chasing the youth in the yellow cap.
In the confusion, the alabaster-skinned girl rummaging through the fish scraps dipped her white hand into a wicker basket at the very edge of the marble slab, snatched up as many mackerel as she could, slipping them into her billowing sleeve, and then, holding her breath, she moved away without the fishwives even noticing her.
Meanwhile the boy in the yellow cap had rounded the corner and the two pursuers were on top of him now, still howling insults about Jews. A drunkard lurched into the middle of the alley and stretched out his arms, shouting at the approaching boy, “Stop right there you stinking Judas!”
The lad came to a halt one step away from the drunk. “Answer me this question: On a scale of one to ten, how stupid can you be?”
The drunk stayed motionless, a dull-witted look on his face.
The boy took off his yellow cap and swiped it across the drunk’s brow, laughing. “While you’re thinking about it, better go and have another drink.” He tucked the cap away and turned towards the boy with yellowish skin and the giant who had caught up with him. “Get going,” he ordered.
The drunkard gaped at them, not understanding.
“Asshole,” said the boy with the yellowish skin, and spat on the ground.
They strode quickly away, all three together, in silence. They turned the next corner, and then the boy jabbed his elbow into the giant. “When are you going to learn not to hit me so hard, you ugly brute?”
The giant looked frightened and bewildered. “Me sorry,” he whined.
The youth turned to the little boy. “Try to keep your pet bear tethered.” He bent over, gasping. “That kick he gave me ruptured my belly.”
“Ask him to forgive you,” the child ordered the giant.
“‘Scuse me, Mercurio …” the giant whined again. “No stick knife in Ercole, pretty please.”
“No, of course I won’t stick any knife in you, fool,” said Mercurio, standing upright.
The little boy gave the giant a vigorous shove. “Can’t you ever remember you’re strong as an elephant?”
“Oh sì, Zolfo,” the giant nodded, mortified. “Ercole asshole.”
“Yes, and sweet goodnight to that,” grumbled Zolfo. And then, turning to Mercurio, “You’ll see, he’s going to be better …”
At that very moment they heard a scream echoing from Piazza Sant’Angelo in Pescheria. “They’ve robbed me! Stop, stop thief!” shouted the merchant. They heard the burst of mirth from the crowd who understood what had happened and was now more amused than ever. “I’m ruined! Stop those thieves! Accursed creatures! May they be cursed forever!” And the more desperately Shimon Baruch cried out, the more uproarious the laughter coming from the piazza grew, like an explosion, a stage effect at the theatre.
“Let’s get out of here,” Mercurio ordered.
They climbed down the riverbank across from Isola Tiberina, and as they made their way towards a hiding place among the brambles, the copper-haired girl with alabaster skin joined them. “I’ve got dinner,” she said proudly, showing the five mackerels she’d stolen.
“We’ve got more than that, Benedetta,” cried Zolfo.
Mercurio pulled out the leather pouch filled with the merchant’s coins. He noticed that a red hand was painted on it. He undid the leather lacet, and crouched down, pouring the coins out on the ground. The coins glowed, bright as embers in the sunset light.
“That’s gold!” Zolfo exclaimed.
Mercurio’s mouth hung open. He counted the coins rapidly and divided them in the proportion of two for himself and one for each of the others.
“But there’s three of us,” Zolfo began.
“I’m the one who had the idea,” said Mercurio dryly. “I’m the one with fast hands. If any of you tried to do it, they’d grab you right away.” He gave them a condescending look. “All you are is two accomplices, or rather — one and a half, because the big one isn’t all there. And a girl for a lookout.” He put his own share of coins back in the pouch and tied it up again. He stood up and nodded at the coins on the ground. “That’s your share, and I’ve been more than generous. If you don’t like it, you can go into business for yourselves.” He gave them a defiant stare.
“All right,” said Benedetta, sustaining his look.
Zolfo bent down to pick up the coins.
“At least now we know which one of you is in charge,” Mercurio laughed.
“Do you want to eat fish with us?” asked Benedetta.
Zolfo gazed hopefully at Mercurio.
“I don’t like to eat with anybody,” Mercurio answered brusquely. “If I need you for anything, I know where to look.” He pried open the drain cover. “And don’t say anything to Scavamorto, or he’ll find a way to rob you.”
“We could stay with you,” Zolfo offered.
“What, and break my balls?” scoffed Mercurio. “I’m fine by myself. And this place belongs to me.”
Then he slipped into that stretch of sewer he called home.
When Mercurio heard the others go off in silence, dragging their shoes in the mud, he pulled the drain cover shut behind him and started to advance on all fours down the low and narrow tunnel built of squared stones, with gaps and sticky algae. As soon as his fingers touched the polished stone panel he knew so well, he scrambled to his feet, tilting his head to the left, because he knew there was a kind of outcrop, a protuberance in the vault that he needed to avoid.
Down here the clamor of the Holy City couldn’t penetrate. Everything was silent. A thick silence, profaned only by the constant drip of water and the quick scuttling of rats. Mercurio felt an emptiness inside. And a kind of chill in his stomach. He turned back, crawling all the way to the drain cover, to tell the others they could spend the night with him after all. But when he looked out at the riverbank, Benedetta, Zolfo, and Ercole were already gone. “Yes, you’re proud and you’re really stupid,” he told himself, walking carefully beneath the vault where brick pilasters marked every ten steps. Down the center ran a lazy stream of raw sewage. After he’d passed three of the brick pilasters, he squeezed through a narrow opening in the tufo. He struck a spark from the flint he carried and lit a torch stuck into the wall.
The tremulous flame from the pitch-soaked rag illuminated a square space, at least as tall as the crossbeam where they hang relics behind the high altar. In the middle of the room was a kind of rudimentary scaffolding that looked anything but solid, made out of four vertical poles with boards laid across them to make a platform, two steps wide by two steps long, where Mercurio could sleep above the damp on a pile of straw under two horse-blankets embroidered with the papal coat of arms. He’d stolen them from a stall in town. One section of scaffolding was closed off with a piece of heavy canvas, torn in several places. It might once have been a sail.
Mercurio pulled himself up the ladder. He set the torch in a hole he’d dug into the wall with a knife. He opened the bag he’d stolen from the merchant and poured the coins out onto one of the boards that made a floor for his fragile dwelling. He looked at how they gleamed. Counted them again. Twenty-four gold pieces. A fortune. But instead of rejoicing in them, he kept hearing the merchant’s curse echoing in his ears. He was afraid something bad would happen to him. He told himself that Jews made pacts with the devil and performed wizardry. He made the sign of the cross. He looked at the red hand painted on the leather pouch that had held the coins and felt afraid. He flung the bag away and poured the coins into another, lighter one made out of cloth.
He pulled a piece of bread from a different leather sack, nibbling on it as he wrapped himself in a blanket, fighting the temptation to leave that place. For three months now he’d been suffering from the silence and loneliness of the sewer. He leaned over the platform, looking down at the damp cloacal ooze.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” he said out loud. Chewing another bit of bread, he burrowed more deeply under the blanket. “Sleep,” he told himself. But he couldn’t. In his mind he could still hear the terrible noise from three months earlier, when the river had breached the sewer. And the squeals of rats seeking escape.
He opened his eyes wide and sat up, gasping for breath. Again he looked down below at the paving stones. No water. The sewer wasn’t flooding. But Mercurio already knew that. Even though he’d escaped a year ago from Scavamorto, he still wasn’t used to solitude. And he’d never be able to admit it.
“Mercurio,” he heard, “Mercurio … are you there?”
He jumped down from the platform with the torch in his hand. He looked towards the entrance and saw Benedetta, Zolfo, and Ercole. “What do you want? I told you to go away,” he said. He couldn’t bear to let them know how glad he was to see them. There were things he didn’t know how to say.
“At the osteria, you know — the Osteria dei Poeti …” Benedetta began, with tears in her eyes. “Well, the owner …”
“He stole our piece of gold,” Zolfo finished the sentence.
“I’m not interested,” said Mercurio, waving the torch at them.
“We gave the fish to some beggars,” Benedetta went on. “We wanted to eat like rich people just for once … so I went to the osteria and ordered every good thing on God’s earth, and the host, the owner … he asked me if I could pay. I showed him the gold piece and he wanted to bite it, to see if it was good. Then he told me, ‘This coin belongs to me. Go ahead and call the papal guards if you want to denounce me, just be sure you can tell them how you got this piece of gold, seeing that you stink of thievery a mile off. Now get lost.’ He started laughing at us and while I was running away I could still hear him laughing …”
“Dirty thief!” Zolfo cried.
Mercurio stared at them. “And why are you telling me this?”
Benedetta gazed at him, almost surprised. “I …” she began.
“W- we–” stammered Zolfo.
Mercurio kept looking at them in silence.
“Help us,” Benedetta said at last.
“Yes, please help,” echoed Zolfo.
“And why should I do that?” asked Mercurio.
The three petitioners looked at the ground. There was a brief silence.
“Let’s go,” said Benedetta. “We were foolish to come here.”
Mercurio stared at them without speaking. They looked like three stray dogs, like the ones he always saw slinking through the Roman streets at night, all skin and bones, ready to raise hackles at any sound and flee from every shadow. And like those dogs these three could show their teeth, hoping to pass for fierce animals when really they were afraid of being pelted with stones. Mercurio knew what they were feeling. Because he felt it, too.
“Wait,” he said, as the three turned away. “Who is this host?”
“Why? What do you care?” asked Benedetta.
Mercurio smiled. Perhaps he’d found a way to keep them here. “Me? I don’t care about anything. But it might be fun to find a way to shove it up his culo.”
“We’d need to think about it,” said Benedetta.
“Come on in,” said Mercurio. “Get one thing clear, though: I’ll help you get the gold piece back, then everybody goes his own way.”
“I’m glad to hear you say that,” Benedetta retorted, “because the idea of having another brat to look after doesn’t sound like much fun to me.”
Mercurio laughed, beckoning them. “Ladies first …”
Once inside, the three gaped in wonder when they saw the strange, suspended construction.
“What’s behind that curtain?” Zolfo asked.
“Mind your own business,” said Mercurio, hoisting himself to the platform. “And remember: this place belongs to me.”
“It’s a sewer, it stinks of shit. Keep it. Who’d want to live in a sewer?” said Benedetta, climbing after him.
“I do,” answered Mercurio.
“Fine. For all I care you can drown in it,” said Benedetta.
“Don’t ever say that again!” Mercurio burst out angrily, eyes wide.
Benedetta moved back a step. The platform swayed. The boys were very still.
“This was a stupid idea,” muttered Mercurio, calming himself. He slid under a blanket. Threw the other one at the group.
“You’ll have to share, that’s all I’ve got. And don’t stick too close to me.”
Benedetta spread out the straw and told Ercole and Zolfo to lie down. Then she lay down too. “Aren’t you going to put out the torch?” she asked Mercurio.
“Afraid of the dark?” Benedetta snickered.
Mercurio didn’t answer.
“Ercole no fraid of dddark,” the giant remarked, proud as a little child.
“Just shut up,” Zolfo scolded.
An embarrassed silence fell. There was no sound but the crackling of the torch and the hasty skittering of rats in the tunnels.
“I hate their shitty little feet,” said Mercurio, as if talking to himself.
No one said a word.
“Three months ago all of a sudden the river rose …” Mercurio said softly. For all he knew, the others were asleep. That didn’t matter; he needed to talk about it. For the first time. “The shitty Tiber water flooded the sewer. I didn’t know what to do … The water got higher and higher … And there were all these rats swimming, making those squeaks … dozens of them, hundreds …” He stopped. His breath choked in his throat, tears rose to his eyes. He was scared. Like that other time. But he didn’t want anyone to see.
“And then?” came Benedetta’s voice.
Zolfo huddled closer to Ercole.
“The rats kept on rushing towards the place where the water came in …” Mercurio began, in a thin little voice. “Disgusting, I’d never seen so many … and so I went the other way, towards where the sewer branches off, the filthiest places under the city … and then … I met a certain poor bastard … I knew him because whenever he was drunk I stole everything he had … And he — he grabbed my jacket and yelled at me, told me to follow the rats. ‘The rats,’ he said, ‘those rats know where to go. Swim with the rats.’ And I — I don’t know why I believed him, he was nothing but a lousy drunk … ‘Go with the rats!’ he shouted, and so even though it was disgusting I did it, I followed the rats, some of them climbing up my back, on my head … making those hateful squeaks ….”
Benedetta shivered. Zolfo clung tightly to Ercole.
“And then came the water, rushing everywhere, and the rats sank too … I couldn’t see anything but when I swam under the water I could feel them … sometimes my hands touched them … I thought my lungs would explode …” Mercurio gasped, as if he were reliving that long apnea. “I got to the barrier, I pushed it open and fell outside … I climbed up the riverbank and the rats did too. I stayed right there, waiting for the drunk to come out … so I could thank him. I felt bad about stealing stuff from him so many times, robbing this loser who … well … and here he’d saved my life … I stayed there all day long. Nothing. He never came out. And then a week later, when the river went down, I came back here. I was looking for my things and I went into one of the east forks …” Mercurio fell silent.
“He was in there,” Mercurio went on after a pause, his voice even softer. “He hadn’t followed the rats because he couldn’t swim. He was stuck in the sewer. He’d taken the path I was going to take before I ran into him. He was all swollen, his tongue thick and purple, eyes wide open, they looked like red glass … his hands clenched on the bars of a barricade he couldn’t get open.”
Not even the sound of a breath.
But the story wasn’t finished. There was still something Mercurio needed to say. An image that tormented him. He took a deep breath. “And the rats had come back … and they were hungry …”
Again silence fell.
And in that silence they heard: “Now Ercole he fraid of dddark.”
The Adriatic Sea, near the mouth of the Po
At the ninth hour, the galley bore leewards under the wind.
The crew was mostly made up of Macedonians. Their swart faces, baked in salt and frost, were furrowed with deep wrinkles. Certain places on their skin — even visible through their black hair that hung limply in locks — had clotted stains like crushed strawberries. And when some of those men spoke, revealing their gums, a pale red juice, blood thinned by saliva, stained their yellow teeth loosened by the illness all seamen had come to know as scurvy. There were many ways of trying to undo its harm. But until a few years earlier most sailors were convinced that the only true remedy came from a particular amulet: the Qalonimus.
An ancient legend told of a saint, martyred by the barbarians, and of a pious doctor who had cared for her, easing her death and hearing her last wishes. The saint had asked that her corpse be taken back to her own country and given a decent burial there. But since she feared that scurvy might kill the sailors who would have custody of her mortal remains, before she died she whispered in the pious doctor’s ear the ingredients of a miraculous herbal formula. And she promised that any sailors who wore her special amulet, no matter what creed they embraced, would be protected from the illness. The name of the saint had long since been lost in the night of time, but that of the pious physician Qalonimus still lived on, and thus the amulet bore his name.
Nobody knew that the legend was not in fact ancient, but something invented less than twenty years ago. Nor did anyone know that neither the saint nor her doctor had ever existed. This was known only to the legend’s imaginative creator, who had grown rich selling credulous and superstitious sailors the amulet he’d invented, which consisted of a simple mixture of foul-smelling herbs and a lump of iron sewn into a leather pouch. And for the last week his fifteen-year old daughter had known it, too, since the aging swindler had wanted her to know the truth.
The rogue called himself Yitzak Qalonimus da Negroponte, thus proclaiming himself a descendant of the legendary doctor he had himself invented, and his daughter was named Yeoudith.
And now father and daughter stood hand in hand on the galley’s deck, rigid, ready for farewells from the captain and the crew who had brought them this far, to this shallow stretch of the Adriatic across from the mouth of the Po.
“Well, this is where your journey ends,” said the commandant, with a furtive air. “You know the Venetian law. They won’t let any boat bring Jews ashore there.”
The charlatan bowed respectfully. “Thank you, you have done more than I expected.”
“Your fame merits all our respect,” the commandant replied.
Yitzak knew perfectly well that the man was lying. He turned towards the line of crewmen. Those sailors couldn’t wait to be rid of them.
The commandant nodded towards two of his men who began to lower a small boat. The wooden pulleys creaked, giving off a little smell of burnt oil.
“Lower away … lower … ” came the boatswain’s voice as he leaned out, watching his men ease the boat downwards, awaiting its four oarsmen and the coxswain.
“My men will land you on the riverbank, over there,” said the commandant, gesturing at a wide tract of water where reeds grew thickly. “Not far from the old city of Adria. There’s a country inn where you can spend the night. And then head northeastwards, that’s where Venice is.”
“My daughter and I are forever in your debt,” said Yitzak Qalonimus da Negroponte. Now he glanced over at three large trunks fastened with iron chains and locks.
“Your goods will be consigned to Asher Meshullen at his palace in San Polo, just as you arranged,” said the commandant. “Don’t worry.”
“Of course. I trust you completely,” answered Yitzak, still staring at the trunks, as if he didn’t want to separate himself from them. Then his gaze shifted to the sailors, seeing their look of impatience and cupidity. He turned and gazed again at the captain, so very kind, but now so impatient too, as shown by the nervous quivering of his right leg, and by his hands that kept clasping each other like two spiders in love. “I have every confidence,” he repeated, but as if he were not so much making a statement but asking a question. Or offering a supplication.
The captain attempted a smile but what his face twisted into was more like a sneer, expressing both worry and delight. “You’d best get started … otherwise you’ll be traveling in the dark. And the world is full of people with bad intentions.”
“Ah yes,” Yitzak nodded, head down, resigned. Then he thrust his daughter towards the braided rope ladder the sailors had let down. “It’s time to go, my child.”
Just then one of the sailors, old and ravaged by scurvy, came away from the other crewmen and flung himself at Yitzak’s feet. “Touch the Qalonimus, Excellency, heal my sickness,” he cried.
The commandant gave the old sailor a furious kick, and shouted, “Coglione! Quit breaking my balls!” He turned to Yitzak, trying to ease the situation.
“Please, commandant. This will only take a moment.”
Yitzak bent over the old man. He looked at his teeth, his gums, the bruises on his neck. “You still believe in the Qalonimus?” he asked him, surprised.
“Of course I do, Excellency,” the old sailor wheezed.
“Bravo,” said the charlatan, “good for you,” and he thought with nostalgia of bygone days when every sea-going man believed in the Qalonimus and its magical powers and paid him three silver coins to wear it around their necks.
“Touch the Qalonimus for me, illustrious sir,” the old man said again.
A murmur of impatience went through the crew, like a vibration transmitted from one man to the next. But no one said a word.
Yitzak Qalonimus da Negroponte leaned over the sailor. Between his two hands he pressed the amulet that had made him rich for many years, containing the disk of hammered iron that gave it weight, and a mash of simples, the wild herbs that grew behind his house, brewed up for a few copper coins by an old woman now long dead.
He closed his eyes and murmured under his breath: “By the authority of the saint whose name has been forgotten and by virtue of my blood, the same blood as that of my prodigious ancestor Doctor Qalonimus, I hereby confer upon this miraculous prescription renewed powers of healing.” He opened his eyes, let go of the amulet, and pressed both hands to the sailor’s head. “Thou art my baraka,” he said in a solemn voice. “Be thou blessed and healed.” Then, turning to his daughter with a smile swift as a cat scratch, something between embarrassment and complicity, now that she shared the secret, too: “Come, child, it’s time to go.”
Around her neck Yeoudith hung the purse she’d sewn herself from a bright-colored scrap of Persian kilim. She lifted her skirt to her knees, drawing the eyes of every crewman to her slender legs as she climbed down the steep rope ladder that was dangling against the galley’s side. She dropped lightly into the little boat. Her father saluted the commandant once again and joined his daughter.
“Row,” cried the coxswain. The sailors dipped their oars into the water in synchrony. The shallop began to move slowly, oarlocks creaking. Then all at once the craft gathered speed and began skimming over the water towards the lazy river mouth.
Yeoudith turned back towards the galley and saw the commandant and the crew flinging themselves on the precious trunks. She turned towards her father, worried.
“I know, my child. The locusts are swarming,” said Yitzak too softly for the oarsmen to hear.
“But all our things,” she began, anguished.
Her father held her head delicately between his hands and turned it towards the mouth of the Po. “Look straight ahead,” he told her.
Yeoudith didn’t understand. Her breath came in quick gasps there where her bodice had grown tighter in the last year. She tossed her head, as if rebelling against the injustice of what was happening. “Father, they’re thieves,” she murmured, fretful.
“So they are, dear child,” Yitzak agreed.
She tried to pull out of her father’s embrace. “How can you let them do something like that?” she hissed.
Yitzak gripped her more tightly. “Stop it, now,” he ordered her, his voice hard.
“But father –”
“Stop it, I said.” He looked at her. Her eyes were dark and long, like a deer’s.
Yeoudith tried to struggle free, but her father gripped her hard, almost hurting her, until she yielded.
The shallop left the open sea and slipped into the mouth of the Po, passing easily over the rill where salt water met sweet.
The river stretched out ahead of them, mysterious and fecund, like their own future. The banks were muddy, shifting, afloat in a reed-filled swamp. A bird with a long, thin neck rose up in flight as they passed. A flat boat with no oars, poled by scrawny fishermen, was dragging nets behind it, like a snail with its damp trail. And further back in the swamp she could see a hut made out of poles, straw, and reeds.
The setting sun tinted the landscape rose and amber. Wisps of fog rose out of the water, hovering in the cold air.
And then Yitzak, after a quick glance back at the galley, said in a detached tone, “Our locks and chains held out just long enough …”
Yeoudith followed her father’s gaze and saw the commandant, now only a dark speck, gesticulating after them, trying to capture the attention of the rowers and the coxswain. Behind him, like a beast with many tentacles, the other crewmen were madly waving, too; perhaps even shouting, but they were too far away to be heard.
The young girl, baffled, looked at her father. Yitzak, unsmiling, in his rough way, murmured to her: “I’m sorry to lose three fine trunks to a band of foolish pirates.” He sighed. “Not to mention all those precious rocks brought from our island …”
“Would you prefer me to have filled our trunks with gold and silver?” He drew her to him.
Yeoudith looked at her father’s profile with its aquiline nose, noble and sharp; the strong chin with its curly pointed beard. The world of Yitzak Qalonimus da Negroponte was much more complex than she’d imagined. But his embrace, strong and warm, was enough to make her feel safe. Even if she’d learned a few days ago that he was a charlatan and a cheat. She frowned, drawing her heavy eyebrows together, black as pitch, then bent her head, and rested it on her father’s shoulder.
Their former life was finished and a new one had begun. One with new rules.
“Rocks?” she repeated, laughing softly.
In the territory of Adria
They’d disembarked at a rickety pier. The coxswain had pointed an arm towards the northeast, saying: “Venice.” Then, as the sailors hurried away, anxious to glean their share of the spoils before their fellow crewmen, he’d pointed again to the northeast and shouted: “Path. Two miles. Locanda dell’Orso.” And then he smacked himself twice on the head. “Yellow cap! Jews!”
Yitzak and Yeoudith stood still, watching the shallop disappear into the fog. Now they were alone in a world. Yitzak extended his arm towards the northeast and said, mocking the coxswain’s voice, “City, Venice.”
The girl laughed, but she looked all around, bewildered.
“Ribbonò shel olàm, the Lord of the World shelters us in the shadow of his wings,” Yitzak reassured her. “Don’t worry.”
Yeoudith pointed her own arm towards the northeast and repeated, “Locanda dell’Orso. Food.”
Yitzak smiled at her, with a shamefaced expression. “I’m sorry, dear one. We’re not going to the Locanda dell’Orso.”
“The captain probably didn’t think those three trunkloads of rocks were amusing. I made him concentrate on those trunks, thinking there was treasure he could seize. That way he wouldn’t want to slit our throats. Do you understand?”
“No …” Yeoudith’s voice was thin, stifling a sob, as she saw her father’s face through a scrim of tears.
Yitzak embraced her. “Dear child, they might decide to come back, disembark, look for us at the Locanda dell’Orso and make us pay. And we don’t want to let a stinking band of Macedonians get the better of us, do we?”
Yeoudith shook her head, finally weeping. “No …”
“Good. And that’s why we should go where they won’t be looking for us.”
“Far from Venice.”
“And in a few days we’ll come back. As itineraries go, yes, it’s a bit twisted, but much healthier, don’t you think?”
Yeoudith nodded, pressing her face against her father’s shoulder. She sniffled.
“Are you getting snot on my cloak?”
Yeoudith jumped away from him. “Father! That’s disgusting! You should have had a boy, a son!”
“Did you smear me with nosedrip or not?”
“Of course not!”
“Must I look and make sure?”
“Father!” A timid smile appeared on Yeoudith’s frightened face.
“Come here,” said Yitzak.
“No …” But slowly she did draw near, swaying slightly, hands clasped behind her back.
Yitzak drew something out of his velvet bag, then passed it to his daughter. “You heard him, didn’t you?” He gave himself two taps on the head. “Yellow cap. Jews.” Then, with a kind of solemnity he pulled one onto his own head and waited for his daughter to do the same. “From this moment on, we’re officially European Jews,” he said. “And from now on my name is Isaac da Negroponte and yours is Giuditta.”
“A beautiful name.”
“And you are beautiful, too, even with that ridiculous object on your head.”
“Ah, no, eh! Please! Don’t, don’t do those girlish things, I can’t bear it,” said Isaac.
Giuditta looked at her father, trying to see if he were joking.
“I’m not joking.”
Giuditta blushed again. “I’m sorry, I’m not doing it on purpose,” she said.
Isaac muttered something, almost a grunt, and raised his eyes to the heavens. Then he pointed to a narrow muddy path that led westwards. “This has to go someplace.” But first he left footprints on the path that led to the Locanda dell’Orso and then came back, walking on the grassy verge. “They’ll be drunk and they’ll be angry. They won’t even notice. But it’s always best to do everything the right way, remember that.”
“Where did you learn these things, father?” Giuditta asked.
“Some things, you don’t need to learn,” said Isaac, embarrassed. He turned westward, being careful not to walk on the muddy path. “Stay right behind me. We’ll walk in the reeds for a while so that we don’t leave any …”
He heard a thud, a watery splash, and a stifled cry.
Isaac turned back.
Giuditta had stepped off the path and now her whole left leg was soaked.
“Ah! What a nuisance you are!” Isaac scolded. He grabbed her and hoisted her onto solid ground. Then, sensing he’d hurt her feelings, he gestured clumsily and muttered, “I was only … joking.”
“Really? I’m sorry, was I supposed to laugh?” Giuditta said coldly. “Can we go on now?”
Isaac stared at her, his breath swelling inside him, but he restrained himself and walked on. But he’d only taken a few steps before he stopped. He turned towards his daughter, snorting like a bull. Now it was his own face that was deeply flushed. “Oh, all right!” he barked. “I wasn’t joking! Happy now?”
Giuditta looked at him in silence. She was trying to be proud, but her father could read the fear in her eyes.
Isaac thought that she looked amazingly like her mother. And he thought what a shame it was that Giuditta had never known her.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know how to behave with a daughter. I should have raised you myself, but I didn’t. That’s just the way it was. But now can we put it to rest?”
Giuditta lifted one eyebrow.
“Would that be a yes or a no?”
Giuditta shrugged. “Yes.”
“Good,” growled Isaac, feeling guilty. He turned away and started to walk again. “And mind where you put your feet,” he said sharply. “I mean –” he corrected himself, biting his lips because of the rude tone he’d used, “try to keep up with me.” He took a deep breath. “I mean … if you can … Here, do you understand me or not?”
No answer from Giuditta.
Isaac turned to her. “Do you understand?”
They walked on in silence for a good mile. Then the path widened into an equally muddy road. The sun was at the horizon now, pale and veiled in mist.
During that whole mile Giuditta hadn’t stopped thinking for a single instant about a question that haunted her. A question that she’d already asked many times in her own head, from the time she was a little girl.
She couldn’t count how many times she’d wanted to ask him, but she’d always been afraid. Afraid of asking. Afraid of the answer. Afraid of losing the little that she had.
“Speak up, what is it?” asked Isaac impatiently.
Giuditta gazed all around her. She looked at the unfamiliar world that was offering them a new life. She looked at her father’s shoulders. He’d brought her with him. He hadn’t gone off alone.
Giuditta took a deep breath. She could feel her heart beating in her throat. “Father, I have to ask you a question,” she said suddenly in a little, trembling voice, with her eyes shut. And she went on, quickly, before yielding to the hammering of her fear, before Isaac could turn around: “Are you angry with me because I killed my mother? That’s why I grew up with Nonna and never got to see you, isn’t it?”
Isaac was about to turn and look at her but the question chilled him. He slumped, as if from a huge and unexpected blow. He couldn’t turn around. He felt a great lump in his stomach.
“Keep moving,” he managed to say, but he couldn’t bring himself to look at her. “It’s getting dark, and … hurry, we have to walk.” He went on a few steps, and then began to speak in his rasping voice. Without looking at his daughter who was following him, her head bent. “Your mother died in childbirth. You didn’t kill her. There’s an enormous difference, and I hope you can understand that — feel it inside yourself. I never thought you — I wasn’t there because … well, I was leading a kind of life that — the life I’ve told you about. Or some parts of it. And your nonna, your mother’s mother, she took care of you — not because I didn’t want to see you but because I trusted her … and you … you …” Isaac stopped. He still couldn’t make himself turn and look at her. He heard Giuditta draw in one sharp breath. And only in that moment did he manage to see his daughter, whom he’d always thought of as independent, for what she was: a child who’d grown up believing that her father hated her. “How could I have been so stupid …” he said softly. He took a small step forward, then cried “I don’t know!” almost shouting it, and came to a sudden halt.
Giuditta had kept on walking, and, so that she wouldn’t stumble against her father, she stretched out one hand and rested it against his back. But feeling him stiffen, she jerked it away as if it burned, murmuring “Sorry.”
“No,” said Isaac.
They stood there, not moving. Isaac incapable of turning. Giuditta with the hand that had touched her father still upraised in mid-air.
“I’ve told you that my father was a doctor …” Isaac began, knowing that this story was going to awaken a sorrow that he didn’t want to confront. “He was skilled, the best doctor on the island of Negroponte. The personal physician to the bailo, the Venetian governor. I myself never saw that world … I was born in 1470, when the Turks occupied the island and drove the Venetians out. They didn’t kill my father. They let him keep on being a doctor, but he had to stay inland, where only poor folk, shepherds, lived. And he adapted to that life, dying there, storing up rage and nostalgia for the life he’d had before. He was the proudest, most haughty, demanding, stubborn man who ever lived …” Isaac paused. “Does that remind you of anyone you know?” He smiled sadly, thinking of himself.
Giuditta touched her father’s back, timidly. “No,” she said.
Isaac felt a twinge of emotion in his breast. And a sensation of warmth, where Giuditta’s hand had touched him. “For years he made us live in a filthy hut, my mother and me, and my three brothers, and two goats that gave us milk. The people he treated had no means of paying him. But every evening he spoke of nothing but Venice, the gold and the high civilization, the brocades and rare spices. He taught us to speak Venetian, too, the bastard. He pulled teeth, he delivered babies and lambs, he could castrate cattle, and chop off a Christian’s infected limb. A barber, in short.
He, the great doctor to the bailo of Venice. And he took me with him … because, he said, I was the only one of his sons who wasn’t afraid of blood. And then, out of spite, that bastard would tell people, ‘This son of mine has no fear of blood because he doesn’t have a heart.’ And do you know why he said that? Because he’d found out that I was surviving any way I could, hanging around the port to get food, even if I had to steal it, for my mother who was growing weaker and weaker. But he … would never compromise. Not he, not the noble doctor to the bailo of Venice … not that bastard …”
Giuditta drew closer to him and clasped him from behind, resting her head against his thin back.
Isaac tightened his lips, frowning, trying to hold back the tears of rage he felt surging behind his eyes. “Then one day I left. I’d invented the saint’s legend, and the Qalonimus. And I met your mother. She’d been cast out of her house by a father like my own. Perhaps that’s why I understood her, why I knew the way she felt. And one year later, she was ready to give birth to our first child … you. But something went wrong. The midwife …”
Isaac bent over in pain. “Oh, Lord of the World, help me to bear it!”
Giuditta crouched beside him, not letting go.
“How could an innocent newborn babe possibly kill her own mother?” Isaac said in a voice raw with emotion. “Not even if she wanted to. Whatever put that into your head, my daughter? But I … I couldn’t help her … even though I thought I’d learned everything the great bastard, the bailo’s famous doctor could teach me … yes, I killed her. If anybody killed her, I, I’m the one!” Isaac straightened and found the strength to turn towards his daughter. He held her face between his hands. “I told myself that I couldn’t stay at home because of the difficult life I led …” He gave her a melancholy smile. “I told you that same lie just a little while ago …” He drew Giuditta to him. He couldn’t bear to look into her eyes for long. “I couldn’t stay with you because I felt such guilt towards you, for having deprived you of your mother.”
They clung to each other in silence.
“Hush, child … there’s nothing to say.”
They stayed clasped in their embrace. Isaac with his pain and the guilt he had just now been able to admit for the first time. Giuditta with her father, who was so different from how she’d always believed him to be. True, he was a charlatan and a cheat. But he didn’t blame her for her mother’s death.
“Father,” said Giuditta again, after a long time.
“Hush … you don’t need to say a thing.”
“But father, I do.”
“Then say it.”
“These mosquitoes are eating me alive.”
Isaac pulled away. “You look like your mother, but your mind works like mine,” he said, with a rich laugh. Then, hugging her again, “Come, it’s time to go on. We’re behaving like two females.”
“I am a female.”
“Ah, so you are!” Isaac laughed again, pulling Giuditta’s cap down to her eyes. “Mind where you put your feet, troublesome creature.”
The sun had just gone down when they came to an inn whose chimney was pouring out thick smoke. The front wall bore the fading likeness of an eel daubed in red paint. It looked more like a shabby sea monster. The door was shut.
Isaac stopped and looked at Giuditta. “Listen to me: I wouldn’t trade you for any son in the world,” he blurted out all at once.
Surprised, she blushed.
“You mustn’t do that!” Isaac cried.
Giuditta’s cheeks reddened again.
“So, you expect me to endure this?” he growled.
Somewhere a distant bell was chiming vespers.
“Oh, never mind. Come, let’s go inside,” said Isaac. He knocked on the door and opened it.
The father and daughter felt a pleasant burst of warm air. They breathed in odors of both food and stable. The big room they entered was divided in half, one side for customers and the other, separated by a low wall and a wooden gate, was a stall. They could see two milk cows and a donkey. The ceiling was low and oppressive. Tiny windows. An oil lamp burned on the long table made of rough planks. Further back another lamp, a big one, hung from a beam. The far end of the room was almost completely dark.
Two customers were sitting at the table, their gaze fixed on the void beyond a carafe of wine. They hardly turned to glance at the newcomers.
“Good evening, good people,” said Isaac, loudly, summoning an unseen host from wherever he might be.
From the floor above they heard a whimpering that grew into a scream. A child’s voice. The scream lasted a few seconds and then died away.
“Good evening, gentle folk,” Isaac called towards the upper story.
They heard the sound of a door opening and then closing, and then a woman, young but haggard, leaned over the railing with a distracted air. She was holding a closed lantern with a wick inside.
“Good evening, my good woman,” Isaac said. “We’re travelers, we’d like to spend the night here and eat something hot, if that’s possible.”
The landlady stared at them, her mind elsewhere. At last she said mechanically, “Half a silver piece.”
“Very well,” said Isaac.
“Nothing here but bread and wine,” the woman said.
“Then we’ll have that.”
She nodded, but still didn’t move. Then a new wail made her turn away. She put a hand to her mouth, clearly despairing. She came down the stair made of rough wooden planks, opened a cupboard in a dark corner, pulled out a loaf wrapped in a coarse linen cloth, and from a jug she filled a carafe with red wine. She set these on the table, and then brought two chipped glasses and a
knife for the bread.
“I didn’t cook today,” she said tiredly. “My only daughter’s sick, so sick …”
“I’m very sorry,” said Isaac.
“And I’m going crazy,” the woman continued, with a vague look that showed all her suffering.
“What does the doctor say?” Isaac asked.
The landlady stared at him, astonished. At last she shook her head, her thoughts elsewhere. “What doctor would come all the way out here? We have our babies by ourselves, in bed, and we die in that same bed, alone, when our time comes.”
Giuditta looked at the woman, feeling herself take on the woman’s pain.
A new cry came from the floor above.
The woman gave a start, tightened her lips. Her plain face displayed her suffering almost indecently.
And then Giuditta without thinking said, “My father’s a doctor.”
My mother was an actress, said Mercurio, swinging down from the platform at daybreak. In fact … an actor. He watched his three companions climb down. They were listening. You do know, dont you, that women cant show themselves on stage?
Benedetta and Zolfo looked at each other. Of course, everybody knows that, said Benedetta, lying.
Right, said Mercurio. Well, for years my mother dressed as a man when she was acting. Everyone thought she was a boy. And she made such a pretty boy that they had her play womens roles.
Benedetta and Zolfo hung on every word, fascinated, though confused by the boy-mothers gender. They didnt really understand.
Mercurio took hold of a piece of soiled and patched canvas that hung under the platform. Ready? he asked, and then pulled back the curtain with theatrical flair, revealing what had been hidden.
Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!
Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!
Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!
Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!
Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!
Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!
Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!
Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!
Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!
Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!
Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!
Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!
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