April 15, 2011

Bride of the Water

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Bride of the Water
by James Lecky


That I knew Abramo Della Casa may come as a surprise to many. That I alone know the true circumstances surrounding the great artist’s disappearance may be even more unbelievable.

You would not think to see me now that this grey, bent old man with rheumy eyes and withered hams fought under the Duke of Terranova at Pavia or that by the end of that terrible day in 1525 my sword, armour and even my very hands were stained with blood. Abramo Della Casa was there too, my comrade in arms and sword-brother until a Spanish arquebus ended his military career and, almost, his life. A blessing in disguise, perhaps, since it turned him from the way of sword and pistol to the path of chisel and brush.

I was in the prime of my life at Pavia, a swaggering condottiere with sharp wits and an even sharper blade, able to drink all night and fight all day when the situation demanded. It was a different time, of course, not like the pallid age we now live in, where the pen not the sword has become the chief instrument of politics and the young men have become peacocks rather than hawks.

And even though almost twenty years have passed since Abramo Della Casa vanished, I still remember every detail with stark and terrifying clarity.

* * *


The Year of Our Lord 1546 found me in Venice in the employ of Alessandro Tocatti, a merchant of the city and staunch patron of the arts. Fanciso Donato had been elected Doge and Venice herself was about to enter a time of peace and wealth. But even so there was work to be had for a skilled swordsman since not all quarrels between the merchant houses were settled through talk alone.

Abramo Della Casa had found his way to the City of Masks some years before I arrived there, and quickly gained a fine reputation for his work. We met but rarely since his time was occupied by sculpture and painting and mine with the task of protecting the interests of the house of Tocatti. Still, on those occasions when we had time to drink a bottle or two of Montefalco Rosso our talk invariably turned to times gone by and past triumphs. One such conversation remains foremost in my mind since it was the precursor to all that followed, although I did not know it then, when we sat with our wine in the Locando della Luna watching the high, sluggish water of the canal.

“You were a holy terror in those days, Teodoro. There were moments when you even frightened me.”

“If I did you hid it well, old friend,” I said. “And, in truth, I spent most of my time trying not to piss my codpiece with fear.”

“A little fear is good for a soldier, it keeps him sharp.”

“For a soldier? Yes. But for an artist? What good is fear to an artist?”

He smiled enigmatically and I noticed for the first time how haggard he had become even though at forty he was five years my junior. The pain of his old wound, perhaps, from the shattered thighbone that caused him to walk with a pronounced limp and gave him the nickname of ‘Più Molle’ with which he signed his canvases.

“Fear?” he said. “Everyone should know a little fear, for without the darkness what good is light.”

“A philosopher now as well,” I said, only slightly mocking him.

“Every man is a philosopher after the first glass of wine.”

“And a fool after the fifth.”

“That is so.”

Even by the standards of the day, Abramo Della Cassa was considered to be something of an oddity. Although not exactly reclusive he was withdrawn by nature and given to morbid subjects in his work. You have seen, no doubt, his painting La Carica A Pavia with its strange, skull-faced riders and misshapen carrion birds amidst the pageantry of battle. Or perhaps you have been one of the few privileged to view La Sposa Delle Acque – The Bride of the Waters – and seen for yourself the esoteric skill he brought to his work in marble. Despite his solitary ways, he was nonetheless in high demand and even my master had expressed an interest in commissioning him. But when I mentioned it Della Casa dismissed the notion with a curt shake of his head.

“I will paint no more portraits of fat merchants or ugly dowagers,” he announced, and poured another glass of wine.

“Why so?”

“I have found myself a muse.”

I almost laughed, but the look on Della Casa’s face curtailed me. “I thought the city herself was your muse.”

“Once. But no longer.” He took a sheaf of papers from his doublet and spread them on the table before us. They were a series of drawings, quickly but expertly rendered in charcoal, showing the squares of the city, her canals and palaces, rendered in that particular style that characterised Della Casa’s work, the angles somehow wrong, as though the subjects had been viewed through a prism of warped glass. And in each one, sometimes in the background but more often the focus of the drawing, there was the image of a young woman, her face a study in melancholy.

“Who is she?” I asked.

“The Signorina Velia Pellame. She is beautiful, is she not?” Despite his words I knew it was not a question. Moreover, I had witnessed Abramo Della Casa’s temper at first hand on more than one occasion and was aware that he sought confirmation rather than an opinion.

“She is comely enough,” I said, although, in truth, her features were a little too sharp for my tastes, her eyes too large and her figure lacked curves.

“My muse. And soon to be my wife.”

“Congratulations, my friend,” I said, and raised a glass. “When is the happy day?”

“Soon,” he said. ”I have yet to ask her formally for her hand, but I know she will not refuse me.”

“I wish you good fortune,” I said. “For a home is poor without a woman.”

“Indeed so.”

We parted we a promise to meet again soon and I made my way back to my home close to the Campo dei Frari. The waters were high that season, bringing with them the threat of plague and cholera, but the City of Masks was well used to disease and life continued much as it had always done.

For my part, my days and nights were kept busy with what we called il lavoro della limierina – the work of the blade – and only rarely did I see Abramo Della Casa, limping through the Rialto markets with his beloved by his side, a man blind to the world, and to the appearance of an old friend.

I did not resent his happiness, but I confess that the charms of the Signorina Velia Pellame were lost upon me. On our first, somewhat hurried, introduction I found her cold and aloof; hardly the portrait of a woman in love. Still, a man must find joy where he can.

Late one evening, returning home after a scuffle with the bravos of Gianluca Contarini, my master’s fiercest rival, I was surprised to find the Signorina waiting for me in the doorway of my house.

“Teodoro Zangari.” She spoke my name in no more than a whisper and at the sound my stiletto was half way from its scabbard.

“Stay your hand, Captaino, I mean you no harm.” Her accent, foreign to those parts, was flat and harsh, utterly unlike the musical speech of Venice or my own native Lombardy.

She moved from the shadows and I saw her clearly. Her sharp face the colour of parchment, shadows marking the hollows of her cheeks, and eyes burned with a feverish intensity.

Despite myself I took a step backwards. My first thought – plague.

As though she read my thoughts she said:

“Do not concern yourself, Captaino, there is no risk of infection. Unless heartbreak is contagious.”

“What has happened to you?”

She shook his head. “Not here,” she said. “May we go inside?” As she spoke she glanced down at the waters of the canal and her right hand made an involuntary gesture which may have been a blessing or a protective sign.

Once inside she sat primly in a chair and I poured her a measure of sweet malvasia which she drained in two large gulps, holding out the glass for more. The second draft revived her somewhat, and the fire dimmed in her eyes, though her skin remained pallid.

“You are Abramo’s friend,” she said. And the way she said it, without inflection, left the meaning clear – his only friend. “I do not mean to trouble you,” she continued, “but I do not know who else to turn to.” Her gaze strayed to the shuttered window of the room. “We are secure here?”

“As secure as anywhere in Venice.”

“Good,” she said. Then, as though the thought had just occurred to her: “You must keep Abramo away from me, I cannot marry him.”

My spine stiffened. “So you would toy with his affections, Signorina.”

She rose from the chair and crossed the room to me. “You misunderstand me, Captaino Zangari,” she said. “I love Abramo with all my heart.”

“Then you have a curious way of showing it.”

“Please,” she said, and for the first time there was genuine emotion in her voice. She placed her hand upon mine, her skin was cold to the touch, faintly clammy. “I am promised to another and have been since the day of my birth.”

“Is Abramo aware of this?”

She shook her head. “No,” she said.

“You did not think to tell him?”

“Because I did not think to fall in love.”

“And the man you must marry, what does he think of this?”

She inclined her head slightly and the lamplight caught her eye, the pupil somehow too large. “He does not know, nor would I have him know. He is…. a lord of the sea.”

I knew the kind of man she spoke of, a Dalmatian pirate, no doubt, seeking legitimacy by marrying into a Venetian family. Such marriages were common then – and for that matter they are common still – yet another way for the City of Masks to protect herself and her interests.

“This will break Abramo’s heart,” I said.

“Do you not think I know this?” she snapped. “I have no choice in the matter. The bargain was made a long time ago.”

“I will do what I can,” I promised. “When do you marry?”

“Tonight,” she told me.

“So soon?”

“It has been arranged,” she said, as if that were an end to it. “Afterward, I leave Venice on the midnight tide.” She crossed to the door and opened it, allowing frigid night to spill into the room. “Abramo will never find me. In time his heart will heal, even if mine will not.”

And with that she was gone

I waited for a while, mulling over a glass or two of malvasia , then made my way to the Saca Della Misericordia and Della Casa’s studio there.. The tide was high that night – higher than I have ever known it before or since – spilling out from the canals and onto the walkways, the lower storeys of houses, covering the city squares.

Della Casa’s studio was situated on the upper floor of what had once been a grand house now sadly fallen into disrepair. The courtyard outside was under nearly two feet of filthy water, for we were close to the lagoon here and there was little to stop its ingress.

I found him in his workroom, slumped on a divan, his attention fixed upon the figure that stood in the centre of the room – a life-sized figure rendered in marble. I recognized it at once as the Signorina Velia Pellame. But it was not the woman I had seen only an hour since. Rather it was a strange travesty of womanhood, the cuts in the marble made only recently to judge from the chips that littered the floor at her feet.

The sharp face had been altered making it more angular, giving it a somehow piscine aspect; a hint of scaled skin, the merest suggestion of gills marring an elegant neck. It was beautiful and terrible all at the same time.

“La Sposa Delle Acqu,” Abramo Della Casa said. “The Bride of the Sea.” Despite the brandy his voice was steady and level, only the shining vacancy of his face betraying the agony of his soul. “It is how I see her now.”

“So you know of her marriage?” I said.

A bitter smile twisted his lips. “Of course I know,” he said. “Venice holds no secrets from me. Do you think me a complete fool?”

“All men in love are fools,” I told him.

“Do not mock me, Teodoro.”

“I am sorry, my friend,” I said. “I meant no disrespect.”

“She marries her sea lord tonight on the Lazzaretto Nuovo – a fitting location , don’t you think?”

“The Signorina came to me this evening and asked me to keep you away,” I told him. “She fears for your safety.”

“It is not my safety she should fear for. Do you have your sword and pistol?”

“Always,” I said.

He looked up. “Velia loves me,” he said, and the pain was evident in his voice and face. “This man, this sea lord whoever he is, is not worthy of her. He will never love her as deeply and completely as I do.”

“So what do you propose to do?”

He rose, his crippled leg making his movements akward, and strapped a sword to his waist. “I propose to put a handspan of steel through the bastard’s liver and claim my love back again. Will you stand beside me?”

I thought of the Signorina Velia Pellame and of her parting words to me- his heart will heal, even if mine will not’ Had they been a tacit plea for help?

My whole life has been governed by the work of the blade, I am a man for whom action has always been easier than words. Moreover, Abramo Della Casa was my friend and comrade, there was nothing I could say that would stay his hand and I was not prepared to keep him at the point of my blade. How could I?

“I will stand beside you,” I said.

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There are few who visit the Isola del Lazzaretto Nuovo willingly, even now. In times of plague the sick were taken there in droves. Not so hellish, perhaps, as the Lazzaretto Vecchio where the hopeless cases found themselves, but hardly the place for a wedding.

We rowed there in Della Casa’s little skiff, through waters as black as the sky above us. A mist had risen, thin and acrid, dulling the lights of the city behind us and blurring the outline of the Lazzaretto Nuovo as it loomed out of the night. We hardly spoke to each other – old soldiers have ways of communicating that do not always require words – but I believe that each of us knew the folly we embarked upon.

“What now, Abramo?” I asked when we had beached the skiff and stood on the shingle beach.

“Now we find Velia.”

Then, from somewhere in the darkness, we heard a voice, distant but still intelligible.

“Lord of the Sea, I beseech you to come. To accept this offering and bestow your protection upon our city. Keep us from the waves, o mighty Dagon.”

It was Velia Pellame’s voice, strangely high and sibilant, rising and falling as if in the words of a litany. I thought again of that strange blessing she had delivered to the waters of the canal earlier that night.

“Take me as your bride, mighty Dagon, that the sea may be kept from us.”

Something roared in reply.

Della Casa set off at a hopping run, dragging his crippled leg behind him. He did not turn to see if I followed. But I did not follow. At least not at once.

Something in that sound, in the utterly inhuman timbre of the voice that made it, kept me rooted to the spot. It was more than fear - for I am no stranger to fear and have faced it before and since – rather it was deeper than that.

Think of the awe the first man to make fire must have felt; the unleashing of a primal force capable of transforming the world. Or destroying it.

The roar came again, and this time it seemed to call directly to me. So I followed in Della Casa’s wake. As I crested a small hummock of sandy soil I saw something that will stay with me until my dying day, haunting my nights and plaguing my days.

The Signora Velia Pellame was there, standing in the misty shallows where the Adriatic lapped at the shores of the Isola del Lazzaretto Nuovo. She wore her wedding gown – white velvet with a speckled bodice –her hair held in place with a garland of dying flowers. She should have been beautiful, all brides should be beautiful on their wedding day, but her face had changed somehow, in response to that terrible call, resembling nothing so much as the statue that stood in Della Casa’s studio. The dull moonlight played across her mottled skin, accentuated her opaque eyes, the marks on her throat. Again, I thought of gills and scales and a dreadful thought struck me, that the woman known as Velia Pellame did not belong to the land on which we stood. Rather she belonged to the sea and to this sea lord, this Dagon, who claimed her as his bride, transformed by the arcane power of that dreadful roar.

Abramo Della Casa limped towards her, his rapier drawn. I could not see his face, but his breath came in great ragged gasps and at each step his leg threatened to give way beneath him.

“Velia!”

She turned at the sound of his voice and for a moment she was the same frightened woman who had come to me earlier that night.

“Abramo! Dear God, you should not have come.”

He splashed through the water and fell at her feet, already drained by his exertions.

“Return to me,” he said.

“I cannot. My duty will not allow it.”

And again the roar that drove all thoughts from my head, that caused Abramo Della Casa to cry out and clasp his hands to his ears, that wiped the last vestiges of humanity from Vellia Pellame.

Somewhere in the misty night the water heaved, sending a vast wave rolling towards the shore, and I saw – or thought I saw – the creature that caused it.

Vast and dark it was, made more terrible by its resemblance to a man; long arms swept the waves, eyes as large as shields glittered with malevolent idiocy, a great crest that decorated its skull and back; row after row of yellow teeth in a cavernous mouth.

Dagon. Lord of the sea.

As the wave crashed against the shore I saw Della Casa and Vellia Pellame knocked from their feet then dragged further into the water as the wave retreated. They clung to each other, lovers after all, as the tide took them, pulling them towards that nightmare shape as it reached out with weed-mottled hands.

It plunged back beneath the surface and the last I saw of Abramo Della Casa was the silver flash of his rapier as the water dragged him down.

* * *


Of my return to the city proper and the journey in that little skiff back from Lazzaretto Nuovo I will not speak of overmuch, other than to say that each ripple, each tiny wave filled me with terror. With each stroke of the oar I expected the water to erupt beneath me and long, scaly arms to drag me into the depths. But in time I reached Venice and the relative safety of her bridges and walkways, falling into a deep sleep the moment I collapsed upon my bed: I had supped too much of horror and my mind sought oblivion.

It was not to be, for in my dreams I saw Della Casa once again, his face fish-belly white beneath the water of the Adriatic and beside him Vellia Pellame, transformed utterly into a thing of the sea, still holding her lover’s hand. Yes, she was the bride of the water now - the bride of the thing called Dagon, sacrificed that mighty Venice might live in harmony with the sea – but her heart still remained true to Abramo Della Casa.

Although it was the cause of much gossip for a month or so, few people cared to analyse the artist’s disappearance. Some posited that he had simply moved to another city – to Florence or Rome perhaps – at the insistence of the Signorina Vellia Pellame, others that he had simply slipped and fallen into the canal whilst in his cups.

For my part I offered no explanation, preferring to keep my own counsel on the matter lest I be thought mad.

In the years since his disappearance, Abramo Della Casa has been called a genius by some - his paintings and sculptures grace the halls of many fine and noble houses - the mystery surrounding his final days adding to the allure of his work

For my part, the passing of time has treated me well enough, I am a man of substance and if I have been known to quaff a little too much wine of an evening it is merely as an aid to sleep.

But sometimes, when a thin, acrid mist rolls in from the Adriatic and the waters of the lagoon wash over the streets and squares of the City of Masks I sometimes believe I can hear a faint roar in the distance. More than that, there are times when I swear that I can see faces in the dark waters of the canal, pallid creatures with large eyes, their shape vaguely human. The children of Vellia Pellame and the sea lord Dagon, perhaps, or merely the drunken fancies of an old man who has lived too long and seen too much.

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James Lecky is a writer and actor based in Derry, N. Ireland where he lives with his wife and cat. His short fiction has appeared in various publications both online and in print including Mirror Dance, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly and Innsmouth Free Press as well as the anthologies Emerald Eye, The Phantom Queen Awakes, Arcane Whispers 2 and Through Blood and Iron.

What inspires you to write and keep writing?

Enjoyment, pure and simple. I love to wander around in new worlds. I love language and the way words fit together. The thing that draws me back to the page or the keyboard again and again is that sense of the infinitely possible, the way that sometimes a word or a phrase can send a story in a completely unexpected direction.