— A standalone extract from my new book, about a mad painter in Renaissance Venice.
He sat, up on the terrace, beneath a cloudy night sky that obscured the stars, everything but the moon that had reached the climax of its monthly journey. Even then, he could not make out the contours of that glowing lunar orb: her form was twisted, distorted, just a murky haze that peered through the patches where the cloud thinned.
He could hear the eerie sound of a musician, strumming gently away, in the distance. Weaving through the air, the song came to haunt his ears. A weeping harmony, it prised past the weak barrier he tried to hold up, tried to hide behind. Opening his soul, it forced him to stare at his shameful reflection that sprang to life before his tired, itchy eyes: an illusion conjured under the spell of the misty moonlight.
He was back home, marvelling at the speed at which his brother’s fingers moved, plucking swiftly and precisely at the guitar. It was a warm summer evening in their grassy courtyard, and the upbeat tune was pierced by sounds of laughter. The laughter of his father and mother, of Cecilia who skipped and twirled, tossing her hair with the carefree delight of a girl yet to be confronted with the brutal realities of a corrupted world…
His sister. How many years had it been now, since their separation? However long it was, there was no doubt that she would no longer be a girl.
Tears leaked from Matteo’s eyes, as he mourned for the family he had lost. For his sister, whose face he’d too frequently, in recent times, recalled with jealousy. Now, concern consumed him – concern that she was safe, that she’d survived the turmoil, and that somehow she could still dance and twirl in blissful innocence and ignorance, spared from the ruthless pursuits of lusty men.
He looked out across the canal, eyes meeting with the shadowy outlines of crowded houses, jostling with each other at the waterline. By day, the sight inspired him, when the sun shone upon the brightly coloured paint, casting vivid and strong reflections into the water.
By night, in the gloomy darkness, the silhouettes bore oppressively down upon him. Looming in, they reminded him of his emptiness and his distance from home. This entire city was an artificial maze of stone pathways and bridges, not a tree around to soothe and to nourish, to remind him of his roots.
And yet, still he sat there. Long after the musician had packed away, for the harmony stayed with him and seemed to trap him in place. It lingered like the soft touch of her body against his, the body of the woman he had so cruelly violated, when the possessive clutch of madness had taken all control from him, awakened the brute inside.
But he could not blame the madness. He could not blame his captors, the people who held him here against his will. He could not blame her, for coming to him – even if he did not understand why.
In the end, he could only blame himself, and his perverted fascination with anger and hatred and pain. Somehow, somewhere, he had to find another way, another source of stimulation.
He did not move from the terrace, but there came a point when his body slumped with weariness and his lids drooped shut, surrendering to the pull of fatigue. Slipping into the realm of fitful dreams, he found himself painting the leafy boughs of a place far away, a land hidden in the folds of memory. A guitarist played a blissful tinkling tune, which got faster and faster, until it beat with ferocious intensity, hammering at his temples.
Then the next thing he knew was that bells chimed, bells announcing morning, bringing him from his slumber. Glorious notes, they should have brightened the air and erased his pain, singing with love and forgiveness.
Yet their heavenly touch was not meant for his flesh, and he felt only the thump of an anvil on his heart, punishment for his sins, as each strike reminded him over and over of what he had done.
Image: John Joseph Enneking, Venice at Night