Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Haunted Venice, Part Two

Our second appointment with death begins in the sestiere of Castello, near the salizada de Pignater, where there is featured the sotoportego dei Preti. I think salizada means street and sotoportego means arch. No translation of these words is provided in the book, so hey, you'll learn by immersion! Over the arch you'll find a brick heart, which you can touch for a good luck charm if you're looking for that special humanoid to mate with. Here's the romantic story that goes with it:

Once upon a time, when "magic and reality peacefully shared the same dimension," a fisherman named Orio (yum) caught a mermaid in his net. Naturalment, they fell in love, and she agreed to give up the life aquatic to marry him. There was only one problem: because of a witch's curse, every Saturday she would turn into a snake. She warned him not to try to see her on Saturdays but of course he disobeyed. No biggie, though, because once they were married the curse would be lifted anyway (maybe it was contingent on her not having legs or something). Are you still following? Good. So now the mermaid has legs and she's a regular human wife and she keeps house and squeezes out some kids and everything is going fine until one day she grew ill and died, poor thing. The fisherman misses her but, hey, life goes on. Plus, an interesting thing is happening: no matter how sloppy the fisherman and his kids are, the house always stays clean. It's like some kind of ghost-maid is taking care of them or something. But Orio doesn't put two and two together and one day when he returns home from fishing unexpectedly early only to find a snake -- a snake! -- in the kitchen, he chops it in half! Orio, nooooo! Sure enough, the house thereafter grows messy and cold, as his dead mermaid snake-wife was to visit nevermore.

I think the moral of this story is fairly clear: don't do housework.

Moving right along, we get to another deliciously irreverent tale, that of "The Magician who Joked with the Devil." I quite like this one: in the late 15th century there lived a man who practiced black magic. He was cruel and mean and despised by all, and he was comfortable with that. One night he was out walking when the moon went behind a cloud and it was too dark for him to find his way home. So he summoned his old pal Lucifer and asked for a torch, which was summarily provided. After he got home, he snuffed it out and put it in the woodbox to use again later. In the morning the maid opened the woodbox and screamed -- inside was not a torch at all but a charred arm! Now, this is my favorite part of the story: the magician's reaction. Apparently, he just laughed. Oh Old Scratch, you are a funny guy! You sure got me!

Zing! I love that he isn't disturbed in the slightest that he just used a flaming human arm as a torch.

As long as we're on the subject of wizards, here's another story I liked in this itinerary: "The Wizard with the Heart of Stone." It takes place near the Arsenal, in front of which stands a frightening-looking stone lion.

In November 1719, the mangled bodies of two sailors appear floating in the city's canals. The corpses look as though they've been torn apart by wild beasts. Six days later, another body surfaces, that of Jacopo Zanchi, a Venetian who apparently "lived hand to mouth" with his wife Giovanna. Now, Giovanna had a bad rep and occasionally turned tricks for money, so nobody was surprised when she stood outside the house of a merchant named Fosco and started screaming, "Murderer! Bastard -- you'll pay for what you've done!" I mean, bitches be crazy, right? Now, Fosco leans out the window and hisses, "We'll see, woman, where your boldness will take you, on the next stormy night!" Slightly suspicious, no? Ten days later, said storm blows up but nothing happens, not for hours and hours. Giovanna walks the wet streets; business is slow. Then, at one o'clock in the morning, an "arch of fire" sizzles out of Fosco's house and "literally materializes the old man" in front of the statue of the stone lion. He walked around the lion, running his fingertip along its body, until a huge bolt of lightning appeared and struck it with a blinding flash of brilliance. Slowly the stone crumbled and a huge flesh and blood lion emerged, roaring, from its casing. The lion bounded down the alley and pounced on the helpless Giovanna. The wizard then began to cast a spell on a second lion, but a guard witnessing the scene rushed toward the wizard and plunged his sword into his chest. Now, according to the book, "with a tremendous roar and a blinding flash of lightning, everything suddenly fell silent under the driving rain: the mangled body of the woman on the paving stones, the guard's blackened sword on the ground. There was no trace of Fosco, except for a heart of stone near the razor-sharp sword: it was the stone heart in his chest that could change stone into flesh." Then the guard picked up his sword and cut off the lion's head. Instead of falling to the ground, "the head rose several meters up into the air, and with a final roar exploded into a black substance which covered everything below."


The guard then cut off the head of the second lion, whose body still stands before the Arsenal today. If you look closely, you can see the line around its new where a new stone head replaced it.

(Now this is a slightly amended version of the tale. In the book, there are three lions, and two women, Giovanna and her friend, also a hooker. But this abridged tale retains the essential awesomeness of the original.)

There are a number of bad-weather stories in this itinerary, as it turns out. (I suppose humans need something to do while waiting out the rain and snow.) The next one takes place on a cold, snowy night in November 1917, and is called "The Death Shawl." It's a classic tale of a waifish little girl who flags down a passing gondola with a call of, "Doctor, doctor, come help my mother, she's sick!" and the doctor therein agreeing to help the poor little thing (although he is somewhat puzzled -- "How did she know I was a doctor?") and he helps the sick woman just in the nick of time because she totally would have died of pneumonia if he'd gotten there even a minute later and when he says, "Good thing your daughter flagged me down," the mother replies, "But doctor, she's been dead for a month...."

I just like the classic simplicity of this tale. It's the kind of ghostly tale you could really believe might have happened in the dreary aftermath of the War when death was present everywhere and half of Europe consorted with the ghosts...

But what a downer to leave you with. Our final tale shall also deal with stormy weather, but in a lighter way:

Saint Peter was a stand up kind of guy but, unfortunately for him, his mother was a total scrod. She was such a mean, jealous, selfish woman that she inevitably ended up in hell when she died, despite St. Peter's pleas with god to extricate her from the underworld. Finally, though, god relented and allowed Peter's mother to visit him on earth once a year for fifteen days, seven days before and seven days after the feast of the apostle. Peter was delighted, but the old hag was "so full of envy and spite that every year she brings with her storm, winds and hurricanes, so that no one feels sorry for her anymore, and can't wait for her to go back where she came from."

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