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Between the hours of three-thirty and six in the morning, the work barges dieseled up and down the Grand Canal, carrying cabbages and eggs, plastic sandals, condoms, rechargeable batteries, cases of beer, milk, fresh bread, toilet paper, pencils, cheese, new editions of the Gazzettino and the International Herald Tribuneall the mundane stuff needed for another day of city life. This is the reason why Venice is so expensive. Ordinary things like throat lozenges and duct tape must be brought over from the mainland, loaded on to the barges, then unloaded again. The inflation comes in portage fees.
The garbage scows chugged along behind the work barges, just before dawn. One of these scows idled in the canal for twenty minutes every morning below my window, the stench of diesel fumes and rotting garbage mixing with the damp air in the apartment. I tried closing the shutters, putting a pillow over my head, earplugs. I even tried dragging a blanket into the big marble tub in the bathroom and padding the door with towels. Nothing worked. Between the stench and the noise, I remained wide-awake, and in another half hour the canal was flooded with lucid morning light, all thought of sleep impossible.
Soon, I began to wake up automatically at three a.m. in anticipation of this watery cacophonythough no matter how early I went to bed, I could never fall asleep before midnight. I felt like one of Pavlov's dogs, trapped in a ridiculous state of self-conditioned wakefulness. Exasperated, I took to roaming the streets in the small hours of the morning. Anything was better than lying stiff and rigid in the clammy sheets, waiting for the scow's inevitable arrival as the clock ticked one slow second after the next.
Perhaps the best way to get the true feel of any city is to walk its back alleys when everyone else is asleep. I soon discovered Venice is like an apple that looks great on the outside, but inside of which lives a giant worm. Away from the theater-backdrop facades of the Grand Canal, the expensive cafes of the tourist campos, the streets were narrow and poorly lit, the smell of mildew and rot persistent, the palazzos held together with heavy cables and makeshift scaffolding, sinking into the muck of the lagoon, their very stones permeated with the mold and damp of centuries.
During the course of my sleepless noctambulations over the first two weeks, I did not meet a single other human being. Only the cats emerged from nowhere in the darkness to do their business in the empty campos. There are thousands of stray cats in Venice, mostly odd-looking flat-faced tabbies, a few orange and white. Where they live during the day is a mystery, but after midnight, the city belongs to them. There is no sand or dirt anywhere, barely a single tree, every inch is paved over with ancient flagstones, and so the cats squat to shit and piss unnaturally against the walls of the buildings. At dawn, men in orange municipal jumpsuits come with big brooms to sweep the steaming mounds of cat shit into the canals.
With the right directions, it is theoretically possible to cross the city from the Bacini di Cannaregio to the Canale Scomenzera in forty-five minutes. In practice, however, the right directions are a matter of conjecture. Venice is made up of one hundred and eighteen separate islands, connected by narrow bridges that cross and recross a thousand stagnant canals. A labyrinth of crooked alleys and dead ends, many unmarked and nameless, must be negotiated to reach a palazzo fifty yards away as the pigeon flies. For my three a.m. rambles, I quickly learned to set a specific destinationsay the church of San Zanipolo, or the Basilica San Marcothen plot the course in red pencil on a detailed map of the city. I always made sure to bring along the map, neatly folded to the parameters of my journey, and a handy pocket flashlight.
But one morning, half sick from lack of sleep, inevitably, I forgot both map and flashlight. Five minutes away from the Palazzo Bragadino, I was already lost. I tried to point my nose in the direction of the Grand Canal and ended up more lost. I wandered around in the early gloom completely disoriented, unsure even of which part of the city answered the hollow echo of my footsteps. There was no one to ask, no street signs. Everywhere I looked I saw the crumbling facades, sagging into each other at crazy angles. Above, the same featureless, hazy sky.
After an hour of aimless wandering, I began to feel claustrophobic and sat down in a doorway and put my head on my knees. My eyes ached, I was slightly dizzy. Even eyes closed, red squiggles floated at the edge of the blackness. I hadn't slept more than three and a half hours a night for weeks. How long before I collapsed from exhaustion, had to be medevaced back to the States? A breakdown like that, in the middle of an important assignment for the bank, would be just the thing to end my career with a bang.
As these grim thoughts descended upon me, I heard a small mewing sound from close by. I lifted my head off my knees and saw a kitten standing in the center of the alley about ten feet away. It was black, which is rare for Venice, no older than six weeks, with yellow eyes like Elizabeth's. The kitten stared up at me with its yellow eyes and mewed again, then ambled off around the nearest corner. For reasons I can't say, I rose and followed.
From up ahead came a vague feline rumble. The alley turned sharply at a ninety-degree angle and emptied out into a small campo whose damp pavement wascovered with cats. They sprawled everywhere, numerous as pigeons, purring, fighting, licking their paws, chasing each other in and out of the shadows, hunched together in furry groups. A single streetlamp with a tin pie-plate shade hanging from a wire overhead blew back and forth in a wind that smelled of tar and rotting fish. The buildings on both sides were boarded up, a few blackened by the soot of a fire long past. At the center stood an ancient wellhead, capped with a rusting iron grate, and beyond that, a neglected Renaissance chapel, its heavy doors bolted against the night.
The kitten disappeared into the general mass of cat fur. Then the fishy wind shifted the lamp on its wire and I made out a woman crouching amidst the cats just the other side of the wellhead. Her back was toward me; she wore a voluminous black cloak, of the type called a domino, usually worn in Venice during the Carnival. The hood hung around her shoulders and her tightly curled blond hair shone in the wavering light. She was unwrapping newspaper bundles of fish guts and other food slop, and spreading them on the pavement for the cats. Several bundles lay open already; a few cats stood around this mess, quietly feeding. Most didn't seem to be in any hurry. Some sniffed at the food disdainfully, others lazily watched from the shadows.
I pushed through the cats, careful not to step on any tails. They jumped out of the way with a little whine of complaint, or hissed at the laces of my running shoes; one or two tried to rub their heads against my leg, nearly tripping me up in the process. As I got closer I heard the woman whispering. She was talking to the cats. I couldn't make out words, just a low sympathetic hush. I stopped short on the far side of the wellhead; I didn't want to startle her.
"Scusi, parl'inglese?" I called out to her. It was the only complete phrase I knew in Italian.
The woman set down her bundle of fish guts, paused for the length of a heartbeat. When she turned in my direction, I drew a sharp breath. Even in the dim light of the campo, her skin glowed with the sort of unnatural whiteness that used to be the result of bathing in arsenic. She was maybe twenty-eight or thirty; her dark eyes contrasted oddly with her dyed blond hair. They were black and seemed to reflect nothing at all.
"Sý, inglese," she said at last. "I speak." Her voice held the low timbre of certain complicated wood instruments.
"I'm lost," I said. "If you could just point the way to the Piazza San Marco."
"Piazza San Marco, from here is difficult," she said.
"Maybe if you could tell me where I am. Then I can get my bearings."
"You are in the Campo dei Gatti," she said. "This means the Place of the Cats."
"Yes," I said, looking around. "I don't need to understand any Italian to figure that out."
The young woman's expression registered something halfway between amusement and complete disinterest. "You like the cats, signore?"
"I had a cat for years," I said, without thinking. "I had to have her put to sleep. Actually, she was my mother's cat. She was old, sick. . . ." I stopped myself, feeling foolish.
"Put to sleep?" the woman said, not understanding.
"That is, the veterinarian gives the cat an injection," I said, embarrassed, "and then it . . . it dies. . . ." My voice trailed off. It was an odd conversation to be having at four in the morning with a stranger in a campo full of cats.
"So you do not like the cats?" she said, frowning.
No one had ever asked me this question. My friends had always assumed that a man with a cat must like cats. "It's not that," I said at last. "With my job, I don't have much time for animals. Animals get lonely, just like people. I guess I wasn't home much at the end. I'm not saying I feel great about that."
The woman came around the fountain, cats rubbing themselves against her ankles, and studied me frankly for a long moment. "You are an American?" she said, then answered her own question. "Sý, sý, only an American would dress like this." She indicated my outfit with a wave of her white hand.
I had to agree: I wore a Nike "Just Do It" T-shirt, a zippered Chicago Bulls sweat jacket, turquoise and black running shorts, and a pair of Air Jordans. The typical gaudy mishmash of brand-name athletic wear favored by Americans at leisure.
"Also only an American would come to Venice with but a few words of Italian. Am I right?"
"You're right, about that one, too, unfortunately," I said, grinning.
"You seem an honest type," she said, then she nodded to herself. "Yes, I think so. Are you an honest type?"
I shrugged. I had many faults, but I liked to think that lying wasn't one of them. "I'm as honest as the next guy," I said. "But real, absolute honesty is nearly impossibleit all depends on the circumstances. Thank God I'm not in advertising."
"Yes, sadly, we live in a time of many lies," she said. "People, they prefer lies to the truth. It is good to tell the truth, I think. But even with that, one must be careful. There is a famous expression "Le falsité non dico mai mai, ma la verité non a ogniuno.' This is what Sarpi says. It means lies to no one, but the truth not to everyone. Do you know Sarpi?"
I said I didn't.
"He was a very great man, very wise and holy. Every Venetian they love Sarpi, because Sarpi, he loved Venice. He"
In the next second, one of the cats let out a weird, unearthly wail that made me jump. The woman laughed, showing small pointed teeth.
"Do not be frightened," she said, then she stopped laughing and looked into my eyes for a long, disconcerting moment. "People say that cats are cruel, but they are not cruel. They are as God made them. Their souls are innocent. They will not harm you."