Eternal Venice


By Guido Eekhaut


Sitting Among the fishermen of Porto Giorgo, and drinking with them from their abundant and heady wine, I manage to sustain my sorrow. They are aware of this, in their casual and brutal manner. They try to convince me to stay with them, instead of returning to that sinking city. They ask: What is there for you to find out? It’s a smelly place and the rivers are dead. Here at least you can breathe, eat fresh fish, drink decent wine. Here at least the walls of the houses aren’t coated with fungus. Here at least you do not have to worry about the many treasures that will irrevocably disappear in the water or rot away before your eyes.

I try to explain them why I must return, why I cannot part with this sinking city, why I prefer the stinking alleys filled with rotting fruit and vegetables to the harbour and taverns of Porto Giorgo. They accept my arguments, but understand them they cannot, and never will. They live their shallow lives in the shade of a universe which is less complicated than mine. In their shallowness however they find the strength to be content with simple things. I envy them their happiness, which I cannot imitate. My most common conclusion is that I crave the misery of the decaying city, and that I return there again and again out of a perverse need. On other occasions I’m sure that the art treasures are the ones responsible for seducing me to return. There is no way out of this dilemma.



Awaking the next morning, squinting against the harsh light of the sun that reflects over the water of the lagoon, the first thing I see is Nobilé at the breakfast table. She has made toast, but only for herself. Clearly she is angry. I know why, but I am sure it is for the wrong reasons.

“Where have you been last night?” she asks. “Have you been drinking?”

I sit down at the table, look at my empty plate, and say, “In Porto Giorgo? I have been drinking, yes. Again, as you would add. But then, why not? Why not escape from this city for a couple of hours, as you yourself do, every …”

She lowers her cup, angrily. “Every Sunday – every Sunday I take the ferry to my parents, in the hills. Where the whole family convenes. Raymondo and his wife, and the children, and Xanthé, and … The only one who isn’t there is you. You are never there. They wonder … They wonder if you’re still married to me. The wonder who is this strangers living with me.”

She is angry, and she’s convinced of the righteousness of this anger. I am aware that my absence causes her grief. However, she should be the first to understand the dimension of my obsession. “They wonder if I am still married to you? If you weren’t, why would you want to remain in the city? Certainly not for the view. Certainly not for the clean air, for the vibrant nightlife.”

Vigorously she takes a byte from a piece of toast. She hasn’t put on any make-up and looks older than I can remember her from the day before. Older than her biological three decades. “You just can’t be bothered to behave like a normal husband, can’t you? Either you’re boozing with those simple fishermen from Porto Giorgo, or you’re with your nose in old manuscripts and books for days on end, or you’re roaming those rotting palaces.”

“It’s my duty to save those treasures.” It sounds weak against her anger, very weak. What is the weight of worldly treasures when her pride is at stake? “I happen to be an archaeologist, appointed by the city counsel to rescue the greatness of the city. That is my first responsibility.”

“The doge said …” she starts – but to that at least I have a suitable reply.

“The doge is an old fart,” I say. “Nothing he says is of relevance.” It has become a fashion to besmirch the doge, now that anarchy is on its return.

But I won’t have my victory without a battle from her. “The doge said the city cannot be rescued. All noble efforts notwithstanding, the city cannot be rescued – that’s what he said.”

“I know what he said.”

A deep grumbling noise disrupts this idyllic conversation. It’s the sort of noise people in the city nearly have gotten accustomed to. Whose house is it this time, I wonder. Even the centuries-old petrified oak logs that support the buildings in the city no longer seem able to bear their weight. Whose house has just collapsed? Someone we know? Someone who has not been able to leave the city and is now buried under his own home? We are, however, not curious enough to get up and look out the window. Too much calamity has numbed us. We just don’t want to be part of it all. Because being part of it means that it may and will happen to us soon.

“Listen, Nobilé,” I say urgently, “there are still so many things that need to be saved. The official artful treasures, and the library of the nunciature, all that is gone, but the mosaics…”

“Ah, yes, the mosaics…”

“And the half-reliefs. The private library, the collections, the Moorish garden. The Etruscan portal.”

“Ah, yes, the Etruscan portal.”

“You can’t be serious, Nobilé. You can’t be.”

She shakes her head, somewhat regretful. But even then her voice has a distinct edge of irony. “No, you’re right. It’s all very valuable and all that. The Etruscans. And the mosaics. But all cannot … cannot be saved.”

Something prevents her from comprehending my obsession. Perhaps her upbringing. She has been taught to place reason above feelings and intuition. Who am I to reprimand her? A failed archaeologist who is trying to save his own surroundings from the claws of oblivion? “I can’t live with the idea that such beauty will forever disappear beneath the waves,” I say. “The fishermen of Porto Giorgo may be inclined to reconciliation with the casualness of their existence, but not me.” Meanwhile my plate remains empty. “I want to … preserve. Something that has been there for a thousand years does not have to disappear without a trace.”

“Future generations will hardly care, Sorrentino.”

“One day, one man will mourn the loss of the Etruscan portal, the mosaics, the half-reliefs, and for me that’s sufficient to try …”

She butters a piece of toast and deposits it, without looking at me, on my plate. As if she will, after all, forgive me. Women are like that: they make up the circumstances under which you accept their forgiveness as a precious gift.

“Than you have to do what you have to do,” she says, finally looking at me.

“I know,” I say. “The fishermen of Porto Giorgo have as much trouble accepting this as you. But at least they care little about my professional occupation. But you…”

She pours me coffee. “I will wait for you, tonight, with bread and wine.”

Some distance away another large building collapses. And I think: thank God it’s a great distance away.



The workers have stopped all activities. I ask them why. “Cardinal Lucas,” they tell me. “Cardinal Lucas ordered us to stop. He doesn’t want us to remove the mosaics. Not in God’s House, he says. What are we to do?” I tell them I will talk to him. It takes some effort but finally I find him in the famous marble hall, an empty marble hall it is now, where the sound of my footsteps loses itself between the pillars. Cardinal Lucas is not alone. I find him prostrated in front of the large Byzantine cross, the only thing to remind one that this has been a church. A cloister, actually. No longer than a year ago a dozen priests lived and worked here, together with some hundred monks and a score of laymen. From here the word of God was spread all around the area. Chasubles the colour of snow and blood. Nothing left of it. Except for a lonely cardinal with a definitely shrunken entourage.

“Cardinal Lucas,” I interrupt. “Good afternoon.”

He looks up, hardly recognizes me, although he spoke to me only yesterday. “Sorrentino. Is it you? What is going on in this place? Why do your workmen destroy my walls?”

“They are removing the mosaics, your excellence. So that they can be transported to the mainland.”

He gets up with a sigh, an old man already in his mid-fifties. That’s what this former eternal city does to you. “Transported? Mainland? This happens to be the house of God, Sorrentino. The mosaics belong to Him. We have no privileges here. Never had any. Keep that in mind.” The frayed gold of his robe catches an oblique ray of sun. His last moment of glory perhaps.

“It is my concern, your holiness, to save these treasures, so that they may be exhibited in other Houses of the Lord, unto His glory. There’s no reason why all this should go lost with the city.”

He snorts, disapprovingly. Formerly he used to be known for his patience. “The noble families and the rich merchants have already moved their treasures, their fine furniture and their wives into safety, and not necessarily in that order. Not to forget their concubines. Should we, with eternity in mind, do the same?” He gets even more excited at the thought. “This is altogether too insane, Sorrentino. Hacking mosaics from the walls. So what? Who would care?”

“It seems, your excellence, that we have had this conversation before.”

He frowns deeply. “Is that so? I can’t remember.”

“Only yesterday.”

“Yesterday? Was I here yesterday? Cannot remember at all. I have been … forgetful lately. As if …”

This forgetfulness is a well-known phenomenon. It may be linked to the sinking of the city. At least, that’s a current theory, not supported by any research. But how this connection works, nobody knows. Nobody has had the time too look into the phenomenon, mostly for lack of interest. Everyone wants to get out.

“You have so many things to worry about,” I assure him. But more than this cliché I cannot offer him. He is the priest, after all, not me.

He glances at me, unsure about his role. “You think so? Well, whatever … It all seems so … useless. Useless. Did the Doge … did he …?”

“I have received permission from the civil authorities to carry on with this work, your excellency. You may not remember exactly, but I also received your personal permission.” But not in writing, a detail that I am disinclined to mention.

He is not quite sure about the permission, but lets it pass. “And you ordered your workmen to start right away.”

“The water rises more every day, your excellency. Every day houses collapse. As do public building.”

“You do not have to remind me …”

He wants to leave, but I retain him for another moment. “Can the …”


“Can the workmen continue then?”

His gesture is casual. He has given up the battle. “Whatever…”

He shuffles out on his soft shoes, surrounded by his minions, all dressed for some formal occasion. For a brief moment I pity him. On his own he tries to do God’s work, which proves to be a heavy burden. Reality slips away between his fingers. Within a few days he too will have to leave the city.



When I raise the glass, the fishermen of Porto Giorgo quietly laugh at me. They say: he raises his glass, but he does not pronounce a wish, the poor man from the city. They converse amongst themselves in a dialect nearly incomprehensible to me. I do however understand what they gossip about. Their mockery is of an universal kind. So is their pity. But who are they to pity me? I compare their lives with mine. Their wives wait at home for their husbands to return, with the children and a kettle of soup, and sometimes they wait for a long time. All this is trite, but this is the full horizon of their existence. Children, husband, soup. For the men there is little more to look forward to: their sloops, the sea where they make their living, wine, house. They have a few things more than their women have, but taking all into account it is an empty life. My life is so vastly more fulfilling.

This evening the ferry will once again return to the mooring of the sinking city, and I will be on that ferry, keeping my coat closed against the chill of the night. From far away over the waves I will hear the murmur of other continents. Continents that shall never welcome me. I shall set foot again on that familiar mooring, and I will feel at home. Still I will know that things are wrong. In the sinking city all premonitions concern events that have already come to pass.

One of the fishermen, a skeletal old man, approaches. He knows my name because he is here more often than the others, a regular guest in the winehouse. His skin is grey, his nose red. He has not shaven for some time. He is aware of the others keeping an eye on him when he greets me, but he does not seem to care.

“Good evening, master Sorrentino,” he softly says. “Good evening. Will you join me in a conversation, while we drink some wine?”

I do not reject his offer, curious as to what he will be proposing. “How was the catch today,” I ask, somewhat as a response to his offer.

He sits down noisily. In his left hand he carries, half hidden, a long-stemmed glass half filled with the sort of clouded wine that is cultivated not far from this place, in the hills. “Patrone,” he calls towards the owner. “A glass of wine for Master Sorrentino.” And then again, directed to me, and on a conspiratory tone that presumes a confidentially which does not exist: “The catch, Master? We take all the fat fish and eat them, even if the have two heads and even if their meat is yellow or brown.” The wine arrives. It has a peculiar smell but it tastes excellently. “We cannot be choosy. There you go. After all, it’s mostly us that eat the fish. The very best parts go to the factory where they pack it in little metal cans, with lots of oil added, so that nobody has anything to comment on the colour.”

I try to remain interested. “Has it become worse since …?”

“It becomes worse by the day, Master. That fish is diseased. Diseased, and feeding on too many algae. Not the right kind of food for fish.”

“And still you eat the fish.”

He gestures helplessly. “What else is there to eat? Rice and flour are expensive, and meat is nowhere to be found. What do people eat in the city?” Now he bows forward, as if he is prepared to share a secret. “I hear the rumour that people there eat the corpses of other people, of drowned citizens, because there is much hunger and people have gotten used to meat on the table every day.” After with that he leans back again, awaiting my reaction. Does he believe these stories himself or is he trying to get the truth out of me?

“Who would be telling such nonsense?” I ask him, as neutrally as possible, but still with insistence on the last word.

He massages his lips with his extended right index finger. “Hush. It is being whispered. These are rumours … There are … so many rumours. Are the canals not full of bodies? Do women not give birth to children with gills?”

“Not at all. These are all fabrications. Surely you do not believe them? Whoever spreads this sort of nonsense should be taken into custody. It is simply criminal.”

“We are only … simple people, Master,” he says. He is less sure of himself now, realising he has gone too far. “We do not know what happens in the city.”

But I let not go. “Still no reason to believe such dark fantasies.”

He coughs, looks into his nearly empty glass, does his utmost best to avoid my stare.

            I rise. “I think  I will go back now.”

            “Back to the sinking city?” He asks, glancing at me again.

            “Where else? Thank you for the wine.”

            “My pleasure, Master Sorrentino. My pleasure. But be careful, in that sinking city.”

            In a moment I will be on that ferry again, holding my coat against the chill of the night. From afar I will hear the murmur of other continents, which I will never set foot on. I will alight at the familiar mooring, and feel at home. Home again in the sinking city where children have gills and where the meat we eat is of human provenance.



It has gotten warm all of a sudden, and outside the air vibrates almost audibly. I am present in the Cardinal’s library and try to find out which books I will be able to save and which not. So many rare volumes,  many foliants and manuscripts. There is no way to rescue them all. All the secrets the learned heads have unravelled in the past, all that peculiar knowledge, and none of it can help us to save the city from doom. It sinks, and no-one knows why. No-one wants to know why, because demonic powers are suspected to be involved. That’s what is whispered, but gossip is the excuse of the desperate. The city workers have no idea of what is really going on and try to keep the streets clear of debris. Geologists point at the presence of marshes under the waters of the lagoon. Architects talk about … But the churchfathers believe in the work of demonic powers, so much for the rumour. That may be the reason why Cardinal Lucas wants everybody out as soon as is feasible.

            But even Lucas, with his power as a church elder, cannot scare away the foolish and the stubborn. I am one of the latter. I will agree to stupidity and stubbornness concerning the obsession that keeps me here. But I have a right to this madness. I have a right to this obsession. Neither Lucas nor the Doge can make me change my mind.

            Suddenly the workmen recommence working. The mosaics will be saved after all. If I could convince the Cardinal about the statues of the saints, and the large crucifix. Sometimes I have the distinct impression he is all too eager to see the churches disappear under the water. Most of the time he gives the impression not to know what he wants.



Nobilé carries that stubborn expression I know all too well. When I came home last night she slept soundly, but this morning she had risen long before me. Only now, at midday, is she prepared to talk to me. “You spend more time with the fishermen of Porto Giorgo than with me,” she says. Am I supposed to excuse myself, or remain silent? Am I supposed to save the semblance of a marriage? If I try to explain the premises of my madness, to confront myself with rationality, I will have to start doubting. I can’t let it come to that.

            “Yes, I spend more time … And then again you ask me why. As if I would be the one to know the answers. Why would I not prefer to be away from the city, where children have gills and where Etruscan portals …”

            “What are you talking about? Have you been drinking again?”

            “Drinking? Do I not have the right to drink? Yesterday the Chiesa degli Scalzi collapsed, and several houses on that side of the Canalazzo. Even the San Simeone Picolo, on the other side, is threathened. The whole of the city disappears with always greater speed under water. Does that not give me the right to drink?”

            “As if drinking could solve anything.”

            “No, but it is only …”

            “Every Sunday I visit my parents, in the hills. We’re all together there, Raymondo and Xanthé, and … who else is there?”

            “What are you talking about? What has that got to do … with drinking?”

            She’s confused, and defensive. “About my parents … and …”

            “You said so much yesterday evening, Nobilé. You repeat yourself.”

            “Yesterday? Have I … said it already?”

            “You don’t remember? Well, it doesn’t matter. I have to go now. I have to look into some books at the library.” It sounds as a poor excuse, unintentionally. “You have no idea about the treasures in the library …”

            “The Doge said …”

            “Who cares what the Doge said!”

            “… that the city cannot be saved. That it will be sinking …”

            She talks in a dreamy, unsteady way, hardly aware of her own words. Things happen to her that I cannot understand. Quietly I say: “Everybody knows the city is sinking, Nobilé. That’s why I try to save as much as I can. To remind the world, later, how important and great we were.”

            Preoccupied, she shakes her head. “Important?” she repeats. “Important? A city-state, lost at the end of an insane century, the world turned into chaos, philosophers and theologians who cannot agree if this is or isn’t the end of times …”

            “Now, Nobilé …”

            But she goes on. “And you want … you want to preserve the detritus of the past, while maybe in our future nobody will be interested. Perhaps there isn’t even a future at all, and it ends with a city being drowned in … in the black water of … a … lagoon.”

            She stares, into nothing, as if dense fog clouds the future for her. I touch her arm. “Nobilé,” I say. I cannot reach her any more. “Nobilé,” I try again, but it is in vain.

            Some hours later I sit in that very same room, alone. I have sent her away, to her parents. To the villa of her parents in the hills. Where she will be safe. Here, if she stays here, she will become a ghost, without a soul, without any ambition to continue her life. Here people, the ones that remain, suffer from melancholy and oblivion, diseases that cannot be cured neither by modern science nor by the old occult knowledge. All seem to be afflicted with an indefinable illness, an incurable disorder that erases all memories. As if the sinking of the city finds its all too illogical parallel in the disappearance of memory. Maybe there is no more future. Maybe history stops here, not only for Venice, but for all mankind.

            I cross the room, displace some smaller worthless objects – Nobilé has moved anything of value to her parents’ house. I try to read a book but am interrupted by a collapsing building. All my more valuable books have gone. What remains are worthless tracts and third-rate novels. I am prepared to read anything if it helps me to divert my attention away from my worries.

            None of this melancholy stops me, however, from saving treasures. While the workmen remove the last of the mosaics and pack them in crates, I haunt the empty corridors and hallways of the palaces, libraries, salons and offices, looking for a past that no longer begs for rescue. I cannot accept the absence of a future, for then everything will become futile. So then why run? The future will certainly be different from the past, surely, but at least there will be a future.



With the mosaics saved, I go look for a new house, a new fragment of the past to rescue. An aged librarian refers me to the Casa Sanudo – named after the famous chronicler Marin Sanudo, from the sixteenth century – in the vicinity of the Calle Tintor. I am somewhat familiar with the property because it belongs to Master Polonius, the astronomer and personal counsel of the Doge. I expect to find nothing there, since Polonius has left already and has certainly taken his archives along. On entering the house I sense a potential for surprise. I seem to have developed a feeling for hidden treasures. I come upon some marble statues that have survived a number of centuries, as well as some paintings and fresco’s. The most important discovery however is in a large, cavernous and vaulted room, filled with books, manuscripts, maps. Why would Polonius have left behind this part of his archives? It is probably, judging by the size of it, unique in the civilized world, with what seem at first glance rare books and papers of all sorts, all collected by him in the space of half a century. Little time is given me, however, to admire the treasure, since I am interrupted by the clatter of armour and weapons, as a detachment of soldiers enters, swiftly followed by a gloomy Cardinal Lucas.

            “I order you to leave this room instantly,” he says without ceremony.

            I can’t believe my ears. “What do you mean? Why the soldiers? I have here … there are many things …”

            “You will do nothing. This room, this very house, is forbidden territory.”

            “You cannot be serious. Just look at all these books …”

            But he is serious. He approaches ma and softly, but all the more threatening, he says: “You know to whom this house belongs?”

            “Master Polonius? Why would he leave so many of his books behind? One would assume … a man as himself … all of this should be rescued!”

            “That’s enough, Master Sorrentino. Master Polonius has left the city, and this room is to be sealed, by order of the Doge. Why do you not read the ordinances posted at the Porto della Carta?”

            “By order of the Doge?”


            “The same Doge who allowed me full freedom in removing any sort of national treasure?”

            “Without a doubt. There is, to my knowledge, only one Doge.”

            I am lost for words. The result of centuries of knowledge are surely collected in this house, that much I know by glancing at the titles of some of the volumes. Leave all that to the water?

            “There are things, Sorrentino, that better remain hidden to us.”

            But I cannot accept. What is the use of rescuing the statues, the mosaics and the paintings while letting the knowledge go lost?”

            Cardinal Lucas, sensing hesitation on my part, beckons his soldiery to guide me away. I hardly resist. “Be careful, Sorrentino,” he calls. “People may be forgetful, but administrations are not.”



That same evening I flee again to Porto Giorgo, on a draughty and cold ferry, with hardly any passengers. That ferry only sets out on account of its tradition. The captain is too old to change his habits, so he makes the trip as usual. And he will probably continue to make the trip, twice daily, even after the city has disappeared.

            I find a seat at the back of the tavern. The fisherman I met before sits in front of me, even more grey as I can remember.

            “It still gets worse, Master Sorrentino,” he says. “Ever so often they bite through our nets. Teeth they have now, and claws. As if the Devil has entered the game. Everybody is afraid. People whisper …”

            “What do they whisper?”

            He leans forward, conspiratorial. “They whisper that all of this will go on till the city has disappeared completely. That this is a curse, Master. That there is no escape.”


            “Even then, Master, even then … The claws and the teeth of the fish, they are real enough. And the city is sinking for sure.”

            “She has been build on marshland, that’s why she sinks.”

            “You believe what you want to believe …”

            “Finally, in the end, nobody knows …”

            “So nobody can prevent it?”

            “The sinking? No. It seems rather improbable to hold the city above water with brute force alone.”

            “There are wakes being held in the Cathedral, so I heard. With priests and incense and hymns and all that. Very beautiful singing, I’ve heard. We don’t have any of that here, in Porto Giorgo.”

            “Wakes, yes. While the foundations are crumbling. But the story is not entirely correct. The Cathedral is forbidden territory now. For fear of collapse. And the priest have all gone.”

            “And still you return there, day after day.”

            “As you eat those fish, day after day, yes.”

            He shrugs. “That’s what we live on.”

            “Yes, precisely.”



When I return home I’m alone once again. The captain of the ferry bade me goodnight when I walked down the dark quay, but he probably didn’t notice my responsive gesture. The streets were moist, and far away I could hear the groaning of foundations and walls under stress. Further on I had to make a detour: a row of houses had collapsed. Now I’m home again, in my hollow rooms. I think of Nobilé, without really missing her. Tomorrow Cardinal Lucas will tell me that there’s nothing for me anymore to find in the city, and he will have me evacuated on the spot. On the continent I will be one of the many who wait, without knowing for what.

            A knock on my door, short and precise. I open. I do not recognise the officer, but the purple collar tells me he is a major with the Doge’s guard. High but unexpected visit. Will I be evicted tonight already?

            “Master Sorrentino?” he queries. This annoys me. Who else would he expect in this house?


            “Please follow me.”

            “What is this? Where will we go at this hour?”

            “Orders of the Doge, Master. If you would be so kind as to follow me.”

            “I probably have no choice.”    

            “Choice, Master? No, of course not.”

            So I follow him. He is a major in the guard of the Doge. And who am I? Officially an archaeologist, serving the administration. The streets are as cold as before, mostly because of the draft from over the lagoon. Suddenly the major is alarmed. “Did you hear, Master?” I didn’t hear anything, except for the far call from distant continents and the groaning of the city. I can’t imagine a major of the Doge’s guard to be fearful. “As if you can hear the past,” he continues. I shrug. He still looks around, as if expecting assailants.

            “Why are you nervous, Major? This city is safer than ever. Nothing to steal anymore, nobody to rob. All thieves and murderers have left for the mainland.”   

            “That’s not entirely true, Master. It is so …”

            So quiet in the city. What he hears are the fragments of our history. He hears the music of our past. He hears the dead cry for help. He hears the foundations move. He hears, like me, the song of distant continents. Some distance away there’s the all too real sound of a building collapsing. The city moans and groans as a living creature, knowing it will die soon.

            “Die, Master?”

            “Die. Can’t you hear it. Can’t you hear how the ghost from past times …”

            He shudders. “Come, Master. The Doge is waiting.”

            The Doge? How do we know the Doge isn’t another of those spirits or ghosts from the past? The palace he inhabits certainly seems to belong to a ghost rather than to a worldly nobleman. It is one of the oldest buildings of the city, a mere ruin. Water drips from the arches, from the ceilings. Vermin scuffles over the floor. Rats gnaw and crows crow. Walls are covered with fungus. The guards stand around as rusty suits of armour.

            The major leads me into a rectangular room – sparsely furnished, bare walls – where the Doge awaits me. All of value seems to be removed into safety. Soon the Doge himself will move with his retinue towards the hills, on the mainland, and it seems his possessions have preceded him.

            “Ah, Master Sorrentino,” he beckons. “Please sit over there. I have, these last few days, considered your zeal … concerning the treasures. And I’m seriously concerned. Would you agree with me, Master Sorrentino, that it has become an obsession? Laudable, certainly, but an obsession nevertheless. Don’t worry, I know about obsessions. How many times haven’t I … But, to the point. The Etruscan portal…”

            “With pulleys, a diesel engine and a dozen workmen I could have it removed in a week, your excellence.”

            “And after that?”

            “It can be transported to a safer place. Somewhere in the hills, for example.”

            “Yes, the hills …”

            “But surely you did not ask me to come over, this late, to discuss the removal of the portal, I assume?”

            “No. Certainly not. It is late, Master Sorrentino, and at an hour like this the old subconscious has a tendency to emerge … But, as I said, to the point. The library of Master Polonius …”

            “Where I was removed manu militari.”

            He coughs, and I sense his inconvenience. “Very zealous, this Cardinal … What’s his name again?”


            “Ah, yes. Very zealous, that Cardinal. I must address the nuncius on this matter. Incite Lucas to moderation. He meant well probably. By order of. The library of Polonius is forbidden territory.”

            “That much is clear.”

            “Nothing that is to be found there can be saved. Yes, I know what you think, but the affairs of state do not take into account the cultural value of …”

            “I try to save everything.”

            “That much is clear. You are concerned with the past … our past … But the affairs of the state … I can’t explain. Am not allowed.”

            “Why not make a selection of the books and manuscripts in his library? So that I can rescue what is of no importance to you?”

            “There is no time for that, I’m afraid.”

            “You’re not even allowed to tell me anything about the nature of the secrets kept in his library?”

            His gesture of unease is all too explicit, and studied. “It is all so very … all these things of the past, but certain people would … be embarrassed by some of the details.”

            I cannot contain the irony in my voice. “And we certainly cannot allow that.”

            “No we can’t. It seemed more … diplomatically suited to us.”

            “So the books have to be sacrificed.”

            “Sacrificed?” he says, annoyed. I am getting on his nerves. “Dear God, it isn’t all that terrible, isn’t it? There are so many other books …”

            “What precisely are you hiding from me, your excellency? What is so terrible that has to be sacrificed to eternity?”

            He shifts uneasily in his chair. “Concerning the nature and meaning of things,” he starts, but I interrupt him, although I know I can’t risk his anger. But it seems I have pushed him into a corner and he has no intention of fighting. “This must be a terrible secret, excellency,” I continue. “Embarrassing certain people? I don’t believe any of it. Surely there’s more behind it. The city is sinking, and certain people would be concerned about their reputation?”

            “I can have you put under house arrest, Sorrentino,” he warns (but I’m sure he is less than serious, otherwise he would already have done so), “or have you evicted. With no more treasures to save. Concern yourself with the Etruscan portal and avoid the house of Polonius. This is an order, don’t make any mistake about it.”

            I am calmed, I’ve gone too far. People have not been beheaded for a century and a half, but the punishment can be reinstated instantly, for pushy archaeologists and the like. “Very well, your excellency, I will obey.”

            “Excellent. Now continue. Save our worldly treasures. Preserve the soul of our city for … for the future.”



Arriving home again, a day later, after having spend a fruitless afternoon in a warehouse filled with marble statues, Nobilé awaits me. She is as pale as the marbles and her return is not on her own initiative. She sits on the couch and looks out of the window, but does not rise when I enter. She merely turns her head in my direction.

            “Nobilé? What are you doing here? I thought I had …”

            “Sent me away? I have returned. To fetch you. I feel so lonely in those hills.”

            “And what about your parents? And Raymondo and Xanthé? And the children?”

            She shakes her head. “Without you it is …” But she can’t remember how it used to be. She can’t even remember why exactly she had returned.

            “You shouldn’t have come.”

            “I want you to come along with me,” she urges.

            I sit down and am overpowered by exhaustion. These past weeks and months take their toll. “You want me to come with you. The Doge wants me to stay away from his mysterious books. The Cardinal … the Cardinal wants something else again. And meanwhile the end of times seems near. Why does everybody want to keep me from doing my work?”

            “There’s nothing left for you to rescue. You have done what you could.”

            “The Doge is hiding something, Nobilé. He does not want me to see Polonius’ library.”

            “Polonius? Name sounds familiar.”

            “The astronomer of the Doge.”

            “No, something else … Oh, I remember. My father said something about the man yesterday. He drowned.”


            “Polonius. His body was found on the beach. He was thought to be safe and on the mainland. Had been dead for a day or two when they found him.”


            “Father mentioned he had left the city three weeks ago.”

            “Leaving his archives behind? Why the hurry?”

            She sits up. “Let’s leave, Sorrentino. Come with me, out of this horrible city.”

            “I can’t …”

            “Yes, you can. You just have to …”

            “No, I can’t. Strange things happen, and I have to …”

            “It is all in your imagination, Sorrentino. You have … you have to come along.” She bends over en takes my hand. Her hand is warm, feverish. “There’s nothing here for you…”

            But I am suspicious now. “Who brought you back here, Nobilé? Who asked you to convince me?”

            Her hand retreats, as if caught in sin. “No-one has … nobody asked me … I mean…”

            “Perhaps some agents of the Doge? Some minions of Cardinal Lucas? Sorrentino too curious? Has to be removed from the city?”

            “Now, Sorrentino, they are right. You must …”

            “No. My obligation rests here. I have to find out what happens here.”

            I rise, but still she will not let go of me. She grabs my arm, pushes her body against mine. “Please, leave with me …” I pull myself loose and desert her.



Things are quiet in the café at Porto Giorgo. The place is empty but for two men over at the bar who silently drink their wine. In front of me sits the old fisherman.

            “All leave, Master,” he whispers, even if nobody is paying attention. “Fishing is finished for them. They’re afraid of …”

            “The curse.”

            “Yes, and of the things they might find in their nets.”

            “Fish with teeth and claws.”

            “Bodies too. Human bodies that is. People from the city. Barely recognisable. As if …”

            “As if what?”

            “As if the fish dined on them. Ghastly sight.”

            From over the sea a deep, ominous sound reverberates against the walls. I know of its origin, but to the fishermen it may come straight from hell.

            “Listen,” he warns, pointing his finger up. “The sea speaks to us. The demons. They predict the end of the city. Maybe the end of the world at large.”

            “A marsh. The city should never have been build there in the first place.”

            He entwines his fingers, a caricature of devotion. “So many things we know nothing about, Master. The sea is unmeasurable in its depths, except in the lagoon, but even there …”

            I rise. He bores me. He has nothing to add to what I already know. It’s a waste of time. “What will you do? Leave as well?”

            He nods, but his hart isn’t in it. “I assume so, yes. What is there left for me?”

            “So this is our last conversation.”

            He refuses to look at me. “I had hoped …”


            “That you would understand … That you would stay, and leave with us. So you would not have to return.”

            “I have some unfinished things to attend. I can’t leave yet. And my wife is still there.”

            “I hope … you find what you are looking for.”

            He is sincere, without understanding my motives. I will never meet him again, except by coincidence. I will never set foot in this place either, in this café filled with dust and smoke that serves only wine and water. In a moment I will board the ferry for the last time, holding my coat closed against the chill of the night. From afar I will hear the city groan on its rotting foundations. I will set foot once again on the familiar mooring, but no longer feel at home – no longer feel at home in a city where secrets are being kept in libraries, where people sink away in oblivion, where Doges and Cardinals try to perpetuate the shadows of power. I have lost Porto Giorgo, I have lost the sinking city. Only one thing remains to be done.



I do not have to live by the rules. Things are being kept secret for me, to my dislike. So I entered the house of Polonius in secret. The door isn’t even locked, there is no guard. What carelessness. Probably the guards have, against all orders, left for the mainland. Which is fine by me. I carry a storm lantern that provides me with sufficient light. The building groans as if ready for collapse. I am here not to save the archive – it’s too late for that – but to find out why I am being kept away from it. In a moment the edifice will crumble, after which the search for mysteries will end.

            Start where? In the glass cabinets filled with ancient books, some bound in a stubborn half cloth, or in filing cabinets with a chaos of papers. I am looking for something, but do not know what. I look for ghosts, pretexts. For manuscripts that will embarrass some people. Texts that will point the finger. Perverse texts. Pornographic texts. Semantics and Structure ? an unusual book for an astronomer, even for a counsel to the Doge, but he was probably blessed with a far-ranging interest. And what is this: Deamonology? The Conquest of the Seven Signs? Did Polonius believe in that sort of things?

            I am interrupted by a loud cracking sound. The house is warning me: I have little time left. My search continues. Astronomical and tidal tables, books on theology: Polonius seemed to be reading almost anything. I wonder how he died. All very suspicious. His dead and then the ban on saving his archive. Monsters and Deamons? The Liturgical Secrets? The Lost Head? Creepy. And still nothing I wouldn’t be allowed to see. Are there secrets in one of these books … I would have to read them all, but don’t have the time.

            Cracking again. A deep rumble. Dust, grit, books falling from cabinets and closets, the ceiling coming down on me.

            Later I could not remember my last thought.



To rise is as to rise from death. For a moment there is no memory, after that it all comes to me again. I am surprised to be alive at all, expecting to be buries under the rubble of Polonius’ house.

            Apparently not. I lay stretched out in my own bed. The sheets are fresh but clammy. I feel no pain. Everything seems in order. Only then I touch my body. A bandage around my chest, plasters on my arms and hips. A slight tingle in my left foot.

            The door opens and Nobilé enters, followed by Cardinal Lucas and the Doge. Important visitors for a wounded man who disregarded their orders. What punishment will follow?

            “He is still somewhat confused,” Nobilé says, as if I am not there at all. “From shock. He was quite lucky. Only the southern wing of Master Polonius’ house was left standing, and that saved his live.”

            “He should not have been there at all, madam,” the Doge says. He hardly sounds angry, as if expecting from me nothing less than this sort of disobedience.

            “You must forgive him his intellectual curiosity, your excellence,” Lucas implores, willing to propagate a universal virtue.

            The Doge however seems less inclined to absolution. “You, Cardinal, were responsible for the security of the premises. Let us not discuss the matter of forgiveness.”

            Nobilé, feeling my recovery will in no way be served by their arguments, introduces the visitors, however unnecessary. “Sorrentino, his exellence the Doge and the Cardinal are here for you …”

            I try to play my role as wounded victim to the limit. “Gentlemen, welcome. Forgive me for not rising …”

            “No amount of irony can save you nor your reputation in these instances, Sorrentino,” the Doge says. He addresses Nobilé: “would you be so kind as to leave us alone, madam? Matters of state are at hand.”

            Nobilé glances at me and leaves, without a word. After she has closed the door, Lucas says: “You look well.”

            “I cannot complain. I have been lucky.”

            “No luck you deserved,” the Cardinal says. “But, to the point. There’s no reason to evade the central questions. You probably know everything already, so we will be frank with you.”

            The Doge, impatient, interrupts him. “I will do the talking, if you do not mind, Cardinal. So I may forgive you the security problem.” He looks at me. “Now, Master Sorrentino. Polonius had in his possession some important information concerning the history and the fate of the city. He understood the need for secrecy concerning this information. Since you are now also party to that information, we assume … well, we hope you will be as discreet as he was.”

            I have no idea what he is talking about, but he assumes I know all their secrets. If I keep him thinking that, he might enlighten me. “But why has this to remain a secret?”

            He gets flustered. “How the early chruchfathers, the predecessors of Cardinal Lucas and of the nuncius, once cursed the city? Is that not enough reason for secrecy?”

            “Well,” I say.

            Lucas touches the Doge’s arm. “Be careful, your excellency. I suspect Master Sorrentino knows nothing of this terrible secret. You assume he had ample time to examine the documents in Polonius’ archives. Probably he is just bluffing, so that we confide in him.”

            The Doge frowns at me. He is prepared to forgive much, but not my ruses. “Is that so, Sorrentino? Speak, or you will find yourself a visitor in one of my dungeons.”

            I am not attracted by his offer. “Indeed, I had no time to find you secret in the archive.”

            “Good God!”

            “He knows too much now!”

            After a moment of silence the Doge says, “the more people that know of this, the more our position becomes untenable.”

            Close-by a house collapses, sending dust in the room. Their position in this city will most probably become untenable even without any secrets getting into the open. A matter of weeks, no more. The lagoon becomes impatient and longs for the soul and the stone body of the city.

            “You can no longer stay here, Sorrentino,” the Cardinal says. “The neighbourhood is very unsafe.”

            I try to sit up. “And you worry about your position here, your excellency. Within a couple of months this place will have vanished altogether.”

            He sighs. “Certainly. Still, what I will tell you now must remain a state secret at all costs.”

            “As you wish.”

            “Very well then. Some two hundred years ago this city had distanced itself from everything that we would call Christian morality. Within its boundaries all sorts of sins and perversities bloomed. Our predecessors failed to intervene, themselves part of a number of unnatural proclivities. The few churchfathers that ventured some sort of protest were locked up. Some of them died in the dungeons. The survivors invoked a ban over the city. In those days they were less than choosy about the sort of allies they needed in cases like that. They prayed to God and to the angels, but to a number of fairly abject daemons as well. They sought to fight evil with evil, and invoked some rather powerful daemonic creatures, in order to punish this city, this cesspool of moral decay. The daemons themselves where, however, not in a hurry. The churchfathers died in their dungeons or were exiled, while sin and crime of every sort continued to be part of everyday live. When the Doge died the Austrians took things over and re-instated order. Since then the city has become a decent Christian society once again …”

            “But the daemons were still there,” Lucas added.

            “Exactly. The churchfathers had written everything down, the invocations and the names of the daemons, but these records were lost and forgotten. When the city started to sink away, a year and a half ago, nobody understood why…”

            “Until Master Polonius found the manuscripts in his collection, and made some terrible conclusions.”

            “And paid for it with his life,” I added.

            “Suicide, we assume. Out of remorse. Because he could find no solution. Or maybe … killed by these very same daemons.”

            Something the old fisherman had said crossed my mind. “The fish that were caught, all teeth and claws …”

            “The daemons destroy … they change everything. Into their image, so we assume. And whomever remains in the city will await the same fate. As if not only the city but also its past must disappear. You wanted …”

            I try to grasp it all, to understand. Lucas comes closer. “That’s why the Doge gave you permission to save as much as possible. But Polonius’ archive, we could not allow that. It would … it would have destroyed all hope of starting over again, elsewhere.”

            The Doge seems less certain. “For as far as that will ever be possible…”

            “Can’t these daemons be restrained?” I ask. “There must be books … incantations that …” But I see the answer in their eyes. They will have tried everything, but they failed. “Too late for that,” the Doge says. “Polonius could not find one text that would counter the power of the daemons. And now that his library has been lost …”

            “So there is no hope?”

            “We really never had any hope,” Lucas says.

            “That is why we allowed you to try to recover most of our past, in one way or another. For when and if the city would be rebuild elsewhere.”

            “Is there still time?”

            The Doge shakes his head. “No. You are wounded. Tomorrow you will be taken to a hospital on the mainland. You will stay there till fully recovered. There is no task for you in the city any more. We did what we could, and so did you. Now the time to leave has come, before the sea closes in, or oblivion. I don’t know which I prefer. I will go myself next week. I will relocate my retinue in that fishing village here you preferred to spend you time off.

            “Porto Giorgo?”

            “I think that’s what it is called. Nobody living there any more, it seems. The locals have left the vicinity for some reason or other. I’ll have a new palace build there. After that we will see.

            I try to imagine his palace amongst the ruins of the old dwellings, with a café for the soldiery and the noblemen. “Fish with claws, children with gills,” I mutter.

            “You say ..?”

            “Nothing. Really nothing. It is not important. I had hoped … But finally it is of no importance.”

            The Doge rises. Lucas imitates him, faithful to the end. “Good, that’s settled then. I take care of your trip. You can move in with your wife’s family, I heard. I wish you the best. If you come around to Porto Giorgo, I may want to entrust you with my personal archives. I need a faithful archivist. After all, let us not forget we were all citizens of the same city once.”

            They leave without ceremony. A faint smell of incense remains in the room. Nobilé returns, helps me to get comfortable. She asks nothing. I assume she is a willing partner in the plot, while I am the unwilling and powerless victim. My body, no longer stunned by medicine, starts to ache. I long for the cool breeze among the firs, up in the hills. A villa with servants and a pool. I have no other ambitions left.

     © Guido Eekhaut



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