Based on the true curse of the Palazzo Dario.
Dusk is falling on the Grand Canal as they wind their way north. The water is silky to the touch, undisturbed by the customary plethora of bustling adventure-goers and unrequited lovers. They watch the muscled hand of the gondolier steer their craft, and the ripples exude from the paddle and throw patterns on the surface.
The air still carries the remains of a sultry day, tainted by desolate vendors and fading Venetian masks. They pass a solitary vaporetto, but do not wave at the driver. He does not need to be disturbed by their follies.
The Palazzo Dario. They cannot help but stare at the exquisite gothic features. Oppressive, some like to say. Malice ridden, others. He remarks that it stands rather forlornly, sinking on its foundations. A microcosm of Venice itself, a city lost to the sea.
She’s watching him as he fixes his gaze upon the façade, tracing the curve of the arches. He’s trying to peel away the outer walls and delve beneath the surface. Striving to decipher the hidden, dark secrets, he might say, in his endearing, hackneyed way. This could be a metaphor for their relationship, she muses. There’s Hugo, earnest and sincere, totally devoted but lacking intellectual curiosity. Always trying to weasel his way into her thoughts, to undress her, metaphorically, not literally of course. Then there’s Florence, who prides herself on her vocabulary, her English Public School sentences and her academic panache.
And now they find themselves huddling on the damp seats of the Gondola, their breath clouding the air. ‘Venice in winter’ an aloof cousin-once-removed had declared, ‘are you barking mad?’
A distant uncle had bought the palace in September and needed various documents to be signed, and Hugo had been selected. He had naturally dragged Florence along with him; she was willing, enthusiastic even, and happily left her mundane routine behind. But he held the antithesis of her view, falling prey to the rumour circulating the palazzo.
Superstition had never been one of her weaknesses, but predictably, he was the opposite. She had diagnosed this as a feeble characteristic in him, forcing herself not to despise it. She chose to ignore the petty habit he had of glancing over his shoulder while walking her home: he was meant to be protecting her, after all.
He had made sure to research the palace before even setting foot in Italy. ‘The Curse of Palazzo Cà Dario’ was the first article he came across. A promising start. A brief skim over the article had intensified his fear. Three suicides, three lost fortunes, and two deaths due to mysterious circumstances. He had recounted the article later to Florence who, settling a pillow by her head, had remarked casually ‘Darling, don’t be foolish. These are stories invented to scare children’. They had left it at that.
The palace disconcerts him more now, as he hovers a mere ten feet away. The Pisa-esque tilt lends the place a disturbing, disproportionate appearance. The marble encrusted oculi should serve to enhance its beauty, but not for him.
Maybe- he hopes at least- it is just the age-old trypophobia kicking in.
Unpacking is a quiet affair. They busy themselves with quotidian tasks and do not talk throughout. Dinner is served and they seat themselves facing each other, avoiding eye contact and chewing slowly and deliberately. The flan is not finished, and he notes that she is eating less than ever.
Soon, the plates have been cleared away and he ventures out into the crisp winter air for a cigar. The tendrils of smoke curl and twist, dissipating into the atmosphere, and he watches them gently fade away, softly caressing the railings of the bridge. As he is focusing intently on their meandering flight, he catches a swift movement in the corner of his eye. Was that a hand he saw trailing against the balustrades of the farther bridge? Did he just imagine the retreat of a swinging skirt, vanishing into the alleyway? He should not wander into the world of his imaginary horrors, and chides himself.
Now he is making his way back, sauntering through the unfrequented vialettos and he hears a soft footfall behind him. He wheels around in alarm. Nothing once more- a mere figment of his imagination. This is becoming annoying now.
When he returns, Florence is noticeably irritated. He has been out far too long, absorbed in his thoughts. Another point against him: they’re stacking up quickly.
They sleep without exchanging any affectionate gesture, lying on either side of the magnificent four-poster bed. He has barely closed his eyes when the eerie siren of a police boat cuts through the air. He starts, but Florence shows no sign of disturbance. He remains inert until the foreseeable heavy breathing ensues, before he wearily lifts his body from the comfort of the bed, and stumbles out of the room.
Down the corridor the air is heavy with damp, and cracks have formed on the walls. He turns into the bathroom and narrowly avoids slipping on a pool of tepid water. Cursing, he brushes his teeth and hurriedly makes his way back to the room, his slight frame quivering from the cold. He has yet to pull the heavy, oak door closed when the muffled ‘drip, drip’ of a tap reaches his ears. Slightly irritated at his carelessness, he hastily retraces his steps. But just as he is nearing the bathroom, a flash of white crosses his vision and he feels momentarily thrown backwards. Dizziness overcomes him, but he blinks, and it has vanished. He cautiously enters the bathroom, only to see the tap firmly turned off. Blaming the incident on fatigue, he returns to bed, and sleep willingly embraces him.
Morning dawns, serene but bracing, and the Grand Canal is host to a small flotilla of gondolas which reflect the morning sun. Silhouetted against the Palladian window, he resembles an Edouart portrait, cigar clasped between index and middle finger, casually reclining against the shutters. As he contemplates the surroundings, he is temporarily blinded by the sun. He squints and the image is burned into his retina. He blinks, once, twice, before resigning himself to an after image that will not fade for some time. It takes him a while to discern the fact that the image on his retina does not reflect the scene on the Grand Canal. If he concentrates enough, he can make out misshapen figure of what he thinks is a woman, curled up like a foetus. A rope is attached around her neck, but before he can make out any more detail, the image fades. All he is left with is white light. He shudders, questioning his sanity. Is he still half asleep? Before he can think more of the matter, Florence stirs. She glances quizzically at him, before uttering a few lengthy yawns, and leaping gracefully out of bed. The morning looks promising, and they have plans to explore the city.
They catch the vaporetto bound for St Mark’s Square with minutes to spare, and she presses her face up against the window, expressing childlike curiosity for the sights. He compliments her skirt, certain that he has seen it before, despite her insistence that it is brand new.
He pronounces the view from the top of the Campanile to be awe-inspiring and breathtaking: yet another string of empty platitudes that she has been observing more frequently these days. She sighs, and nods her head in agreement. He spends a few long minutes gaping at the view, she sporting perhaps a more refined stare, and then he turns away for a moment.
When he looks back, she has vanished.
‘Florence, Florence!’ He projects his voice into the haze, for suddenly the clouds have descended upon the top of the tower. The bell tolls, resonant and dark, and rings out, once, twice…now it is twelve times and he still cannot catch a glimpse of her. Panic is beginning to rise in his chest, he breathes deeply, slowly, trying to calm his heart rate. He cannot understand. He glances down over the parapet, and to the casual eye all seems in order. But now, a terrible fear overwhelms him as he notices a sprawled figure at the foot of the bell tower. He cannot quite make it out, but is that a misshapen torso he can see, clad in a floor length white skirt?
His feet cannot fly down these stairs fast enough. The walls are ensnaring him, forcing themselves inwards on his broad shoulders, impeding him. The soles of his shoes seem to be sticking, his hands are clammy on the wrought iron railings. Goddamn himself for being so leaden footed, goddamn Giorgio Spavento for designing this staircase so narrow.
He is perspiring, and his linen shirt clings to him. He rushes into St Mark’s Square, and a cloud of pigeons takes flight, their grubby wings flapping, propelling feathers everywhere. He is still hastening across the square, and he comes to the point where she has fallen. No sign of her. He examines the ground, and to his horror he can just about make out the faint black smudge of where her body made an impact.
A damp hand on his shoulder has him wheeling around. Florence.
‘I’ve been searching for you, darling, where have you been?’
His face is a blank mask, scanning hers.
‘You look unwell, here, have some water’. He gratefully accepts, and rises cautiously to his feet. He glances down, and the imprint has disappeared.
The fog is thickening, swirling around their feet, caressing them in its soft, damp embrace. They opt to walk back, and her heels echo around the walkways. They are hand in hand and admiring the scenery, as any other 21st Century young lovers might do. He mentions that he wishes to take a photograph, and bids her wait on the Rialto Bridge.
She is the epitome of elegance, he reflects, as she gracefully reclines against the bridge and turns to face the camera. Her skirt matches the colour of the Pietra d’Istria of the bridge, and her ivory skin tone compliments the image. He can now recall the familiarity of the skirt- was it not that same garment that he glimpsed while wandering the Rio delle Torreselle last night? That fleeing skirt, which swung so effortlessly around the corner. Had she been following him?
No time to think now, for tourists are milling, and are on the verge of ruining the picture. A quick click and the polaroid slides smoothly out. She smiles coyly at him, and turns to walk away. The fog envelops her immediately, and the throng of nameless people obstruct his view. He muscles through the crowd, trailing elusive Florence, yet another theme in their crumbling relationship.
He passes a mask shop, eyeless faces leering creepily out at him, but still no sighting. He fears that he will lose her twice in one day. This is bordering on the ridiculous. A flight of stairs looms out of the fog. His feet move of their own accord, taking the steps two at a time. He struggles not to lose his footing. As the fog lifts, his eyes focus on the naked image of his fiancé, curled up in the foetal position, neck snapped back in an inhuman position, strangled by a cable. But perhaps what shocks him the most is the slime that coats her body, green and putrid, scarcely serving to hide the rancid flesh.
When the polizia arrive, they confirm that Florence has been dead for three days. Hugo is oblivious to the linguistic to and fro as he stands on the quay, fascinated by the angle of her neck.
Winter in Venice holds an eerie charm, some might say.
Read it on Palatinate here.