Eventually he arrives in San Servolo, the Island of the Mad, in the Venetian Lagoon, only a few minutes’ boat-ride from Venice. At the island’s old, abandoned hospital which has been turned into a conference center, he discovers a mess of papers in a drawer, and among them the correspondence and notes of two of the island’s former inhabitantsa woman with a rare genetic illness which causes the afflicted to gradually become unable to sleep until, increasingly hallucinatory and feverish, they essentially die of sleeplessness; and her friend, a man who experiences epileptic seizures. As the sleepless woman’s eyesight fails, she wants only one thingthat her friend read to her from Dostoevsky’s great novel, The Idiot, a book she loves but can no longer read herself. As Ambrose follows their strange tale, everything he has ever known or thought is called into question.
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REFUGIUM IN PERICULIS
* * *
I, Ambrose A., having no family or worldly attachments, though at times ghosts have visited me, and far-off waters still swell inside my mind — the Adriatic, the canals of Venice —; I who carry voices of the dead, or are they of the living?; who have traveled far or have I traveled not at all?; I who have read the secret pages of others — the sleepless woman, the epileptic —; who have felt the world come to me in fragments but never whole; who have known myself as one of those fragments, "a mis-shapen piece" (though isn't all that comes into the mind mis-shapen, partial, hurt?); I who dream even now of the one who can't sleep, and the one seared by wild joy in the moment before seizure; I who have loved facts as others have loved bodies — I don't know if what I leave is part of the material world, if it's burning or not, ashes, dust, lit only in the mind or not.
I have loved the facts of things. The lists, accumulations.
The way, for instance, I can type the words "magic characters" into Google and what comes up has nothing to do with anything I might have thought, but a page from a "hyperlatex manual" in which "magic characters" are explained as "meta characters used as single-character marks for various kinds of layout directives in a text, as where a paragraph break should occur." There are also those that "protect a text from being interpreted." But how is this so?
And what is "hyperlatex"? The site says it is "a software package that allows you to prepare documents in HTML and, at the same time, to produce a nearly printed document from your input."
I, of course, know nearly nothing of these things.
Or I can open a book and find: "Among Venice's many relics is the body of St. Lucy, protectress of the blind."
Or: "In the 14c, Venetian paper from the workshop of ___ was embossed with such emblems as eyeglasses and gloves."
And for a few moments I am less preoccupied, less restless. I have felt the world touch me with its strange, unpredictable hand. And for a few moments have not doubted or recoiled from that hand.
* * *
Should I say my name is Ambrose or Anselm? Even this, which should be so simple, is unclear.
In the foundling home they named me Anselm. A name plucked for convenience from the alphabet's beginning. Or could I have been named for the Duke of Friuli who became St. Anselm in 805? As a child I considered various options, looked up what I could.
I learned that St. Anselm withdrew from the world at the height of his political power. Founded a monastery at Fanano, then another at Nonantula. Built hospitals for the poor. I liked him for this, was pleased to share his name.
But after a while the caregivers began calling me Ambrose. So what was my true name? They said I was quiet like him, liked to read only to myself, like him. Augustine had written, "When Ambrose read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue kept still. He never read aloud ..." By then I was often in the infirmary for weeks or months at a time, waiting for my bones to heal. And even when well enough to walk, I mostly sat in a corner, reading and thinking, my back more hunched and twisted by the year.
And so my quietness seeped into my name; they had re-named me.
Over time I learned more about Ambrose. How as an infant in his cradle (around 337 AD) a swarm of bees settled on his face, leaving a drop of honey on his cheek which caused him to feel deeply the sweetness of words. And how decades later, when told he was to be named Bishop, he gathered his loved books and stole out of the city by night, concealing himself as best he could, but lost his way and wandered for many days until he came upon the house of his friend Leontius who reluctantly turned him in. Still, even as Bishop he remained an ascetic — gave away his land and money to the poor. For them he melted the church's gold collection plate: "The church possesses gold not to hoard but to scatter ... It is not from your own goods that you give to the beggar; it is a portion of his own that you restore to him. The earth belongs to all."
In the face of attacking soldiers, he said, "My only arms are my tears."
"The poor are my stewards and treasures."
"Wars and the Sea, not thoughts, destroy lives."
(Yet I wondered even then, was this true? Hadn't thoughts destroyed many lives? Don't they still?)
Nights I turned his name over in my mind, liked that it was mine. Thought of the drop of honey and the poor. Touched my own hand to my cheek. Wondered if it could be true — that the earth belongs to all. If this was so, what forms might this take outside the walled grounds where I lived?
I pictured him hiding, not wanting to be found. Dressed in rags and homeless.
"The earth belongs to all. ... It is not from your own goods you give to the beggar ..."
All this I spoke only quietly and to myself.
* * *
If you could see me, what would you see? A hunchbacked man in a frayed, camel-colored coat, his large balding head seeming to protrude from his chest. And if I tried to look into your eyes (but it is rare that I would try) you would see a face straining sidewise, as if struggling to lift itself out of some dark, viscous liquid. A face half-drowned and yet still breathing, twisting upward as if seeking some small, indiscernible speck in the distance. Something, maybe, it could love. I have glimpsed from the corners of my eyes sudden fright in the eyes of those who've watched me.
I don't blame them for their fear. Maybe we are all made of a secret, tender chaos not visible at the surface of skin, and I remind them of that chaos. Though I think what I am to them is more mysterious, unquantifiable, variable, complex.
I don't pretend to know what I am to them.
Inside my hump a bird has grown completely silent; its dark lidless eyes don't understand why it's not free.
Each week I pass a parade of worn shoes, dropped paperclips, sales slips crumpled into rough, irregular balls. The knobbed bottoms of tree trunks. Mismatched socks. Hems billowing or tightly folded. The fragile, sinewy rivers of torn stockings. I track the cracked sidewalk's intricate, unmeaning damage.
So much that is despised, discarded, overlooked.
I was eight when the doctors first told me the name of my illness as I lay in the infirmary waiting for my bones to heal. Osteogenesis Imperfecta, they said — and those words opened over me, a Luna moth's papery blind wings trembling, almost breathing, though there was a harshness in them also.
One brown helpless eye on each green wing.
Gradually the doctors gave me to understand (but what does it truly mean to understand?) that my bones would break over and over. That this wouldn't change. The improper formation of cartilage and bone simply part of what I was. And without sufficient collagen, the whites of my eyes would turn blue, blood-filled capillaries leaking from beneath the surface: two small seas but waveless — all turbulence hidden.
Then gradually the hump began as well.
"So much averse I found and wondrous harsh." Which of my books had said this?
Is all seeing inseparable from the interruptions of seeing, all thought from the distortions and contradictions of thought?
Though I write these things, I speak of them to no one.
* * *
But why write these words at all? Why leave these pages filled with streets of water, sleepless eyes?
Why speak of the places I have seen, the islands I have traveled? The sleepless woman? The epileptic?
How explain that a voice I barely knew led me to the Lagoon of Venice? And that I feel even now a tenderness for that voice. That I would bring it if I could news of these frail islands once known as Refugium in Periculis, Refuge in Peril.
* * *
But I suppose I must go back to the beginning, or at least as close as I can get to what might pass for a beginning.
For a time (often poorly, I admit, but still I managed) I worked as a book scanner in a digitizing company's cramped offices.
There were two of us in that basement room, myself and a quiet brown-haired woman.
I knew it was only a matter of time before robots would replace us. But the technology was still developing, the few robotic scanners too expensive to be widely used.
I began each day by placing a book in the scanner's metal cradle, then flattening its first page against the glass. After setting the camera and pressing the scan button, I watched its light flare sideways, up and over. Page upon page of histories, geographies, fictions, biographies in white heat before my eyes. 20 or so books per day.
Sometimes I still think of all the strangers who have come across my scanned, mistaken handprint on the page — that irregular gray island not unlike the islands of the Venetian Lagoon.
From a few feet away my office-mate scanned as well, her motions near-shadows of my own.
The signs over our work stations read: OUR DIGITIZED WORK MUST BE CAPABLE OF BEING DELIVERED IN A VARIETY OF MEDIAS, SOME OF WHICH HAVE NOT YET BEEN INVENTED.
I often wondered what this meant. Sometimes I'd just sit there imagining things that weren't yet invented: Print encoded into skin? Books inserted into infants' brains at birth? Whole tomes like DNA within a single cell? Things that wouldn't happen in my lifetime if at all.
The company's marketing brochure spoke of "freeing the printed word from the books that bind it ... moving knowledge from books to bytes by digitizing the vast, worldwide depository amassed over centuries of human history — this is how the printed word is freed."
But I didn't think of us as "freeing" anything. It seemed almost the opposite was true — that we were banishing words into air, sending them into some desolate restlessness, dematerialized, ghostly, wandering far from any shelter.
Evenings, walking out into the dimming light or the dark if it was winter, I felt the scanned words traveling beside me, something homeless and disoriented in them, though I told myself this was foolish. Or I'd see in my mind's eye a bit of marginalia the computer program had systematically erased. I wondered then, and still do, if she felt as I did, the printed words and the erased beside her.
* * *
Every morning I heard the hum of her machine, smelled her morning coffee.
The lights from our machines slid back and forth without memory, and yet they appeared to enact a kind of memory.
Much too often they seemed more solid to me than myself, and I just a shadow. Wasn't my memory more helpless and troubled than theirs, less manifest, effective?
The books smelled of dust and darkened rooms, dampness and neglect — or maybe it was a kind of privacy I smelled — the way they managed to go on year after year unopened and untouched as if existing for themselves alone. Unread and yet still filled with words.
Wasn't this what partly made them beautiful? I thought of them as beautiful.
The spines were cracked and torn, hanging or unglued. Inside were watermarks. Food stains. Tabbed-down corners. Ink blots. Marginalia.
On one a winged lion held a tablet. On others there were fishes, dogs, celestial bodies, all kinds of creatures — as if to read were to step into an un-summarized, still-forming world.
A few were held together only by brown twine or household string; there were no cover-boards at all.
Every now and then from the corner of my eye I noticed her pausing to read a single page — was there sadness in her face, or perplexity, or pleasure? But I barely ever looked into her face.
* * *
The dictionary says that to be silent is "to cease giving out natural sound," and yet I heard a sense of who she was even as we didn't speak. And how reticence is also speech — layered, various, highly detailed. That this, too, is natural. In any case, I'd lived for years within silence, and still do — felt the scars in it and voices, damaged pathways moving back and forth inside the air. My name tied from early on to silence. And sometimes even now when I think about my breaking bones, I remember how silence is said to either break or to be kept, as if one can't exist beside the other. But what breaks is also kept, I know this. We never said good morning or good night and yet I sensed in her a kindness, a way of thinking strong and fragile as the islets where I'd later walk.
* * *
This, too, I also learned:
The Sanskrit root for "man" means "think, concentrate, be silent."
* * *
Nights, back in my room, I listened to noises drifting up from the alley (my one window faced the rear exit of a restaurant kitchen) — garbled talk and laughter, whirring sounds, garbage cans dragged along concrete, clanking metals. Every now and then, an odd whimper appeared that seemed neither animal nor human, I could never figure out what it was. Often I spent a few hours at my computer. I'd type in a word, then see where it might lead.
One night I chose: "brittle." (As a boy I'd looked this word up often.)
"Brittle" led to: "brittle star":
"An echinoderm that crawls across the sea floor using its five, slender whip-like arms for locomotion,"
which led to: "abyssal fauna":
"One of three divisions of marine fauna ... Many are blind, while others see by means of the phosphorescent glow emitted from their bodies and the bodies of others. Their organs of touch are often highly developed. No plants can grow in the abyssal depths ..."
Then "abyssal" opened onto: "unfathomable," and "abyssal zone": "the portion of the ocean deeper than 6,600 feet."
"The abyssal realm is very calm. It lies far from any storms, and is marked by neither diurnal nor seasonal changes. There is only darkness, calm water, sediment-soft bottoms. Oxygen is scarce."
That night I crawled along the sea-bottom, my phosphorescent bones signaling and probing for any sentient creature nearby, but there was nothing. After a while my green glow grew terrible with wordless shame. All I knew was that 6,600 feet of black water were flowing over my hump and clumsy head, my twisted body.
* * *
Then one day this came:
It is hard to know where to begin. Please forgive me I I sleep little now, in time I will sleep less, then probably within a year not at all. Mine is a strange malady, poorly understood, which is said to have its origins in Venice. There is a doctor there whose specialty is epilepsy, though he studies this as well. I expect nothing of him.
In my sleeplessness many things have begun to happen. Does it matter how or why?
I see pages being written, then burned. The canals of Venice and St. Petersburg. A man in a stone room feverishly scribbling. Other hands writing as well, sometimes warming themselves, sometimes touching, though rarely, the hand of another.
Do you know of Mikhail Bulgakov, author of the novel The Master and Margarita? Lately his book has been coming into my mind, I don't know why. It is said he burned his unfinished manuscript, then wrote it all over again. This was under Stalin. From 1928 until his death in 1940, he hid it in a drawer, worked on it in secret. In the book there is a character called the Master who also writes a book and burns it.
With Bulgakov many questions arise. For instance, the novel's first paragraph as transcribed by his wife, can be found nowhere in his surviving notebooks. So did he dictate it to her before he died, or did she alter it after his death? Such things can never be known. What can be known is the compassion of the text. And the Master's love of books and for his companion, Margarita. The many strivings, transformations ...
Sometimes my mind wanders I
I believe there is a certain notebook in Venice, now lost, not by Bulgakov, but by someone else. I don't know why it comes to me or why I care, though
I sense in it many feelings not far from my own. A hurt presence like the Master's. A person struggling with his body as I struggle with mine. Sometimes I see the hand that writes but never the inked pages. So I know nothing of its contents — only that there's suffering in it, and gentleness, and deep care for another.
Turgenev worried that one of his ghost stories was too fantastical, but Dostoevsky countered that in fact it was not fantastical enough. That the ordinary is stranger than anything if only we could see it.
I think about this often.
In my mind's eye I see you walking in Venice, though I know it is hard for you to walk. I see you climbing up stone steps and finding in a drawer — or somewhere — the pages of that notebook, but how can I even say this to you?
Una notte bianco — a night in white — this is what Venetians call a sleepless night. So much whiteness in me now, so much distance.
You will understand now why I can no longer come to the office.
Think of how fragile they are, the islands of the Venetian Lagoon. So thin and unprotected.
I believe you understand such fragility. I have sensed your kindness.
If you go there I will write to you, I promise —(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Island of the Mad"
Copyright © 2017 Laurie Sheck.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
PART IREFUGIUM IN PERICULIS,
PART IISAN SERVOLO,
PART IIIMARGARITA FLYING,