Short-listed Entry: Fiction Category
By: Dalton Fischer Linnett
How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies
—W. B. Yeats, Leda and the Swan
“Look,” she says. “I’m tickling your shadow.”
You smile vaguely, though the gesture is more of courtesy than amusement. Shadows are for children, the little boys and girls on the strada with bloody knees and dirt on their faces. Even now you can see them, emerging dubiously from the darkness beneath restaurant awnings, eyes downcast, faces concealed behind grubby caps and torn garments others rightfully discarded years before. You are not one of them, you think. They live in the shadows, squatting the damp corners where the canals lap against limestone walls, where the reek of moss and mildew is so great even the vagabondi will not go.
“Come on,” she chides. “The sun’ll be too low soon.” She’s right. It won’t be an hour before your shadows fall into the canal to be lost amongst the crestless waves, cast in force by the rush-hour traffic of the gondolas and water buses. Sighing inwardly, you extend a tentative shadow-hand, tilting your arm just so, like she taught you, to catch the sun at such an angle that even the slightest movements alter the shape dramatically. Your finger twitches, and on the cobbled ground baking beneath your feet, that of a shadow mimics you in so exaggerated a fashion it is as though he is mocking you; his finger so moves in jest, wagging at you in reproach, demanding why he is not put to better use than child’s play.
She giggles, and you’ve fallen into her trap. You know you’d not deny her smile, nor the carefree embrace of her laughter, so immense in being yet light in mass, like the shadows cast by surly gargoyles astride their great gutters that run from the domes of the churches, their stony glares out of fashion in the spectacular piazzas where Americans and Germans traverse clumsily, inexplicably entranced by chips in the pavement or family crests long obsolete, shining new cameras cataloguing every ancient discrepancy, each forgotten rail and stone.
You play briefly, darting in and out of a set of pillars, losing your shadows amongst those of the low stone buildings behind you. Soon she stops, panting and laughing, her grin a wall of impassive
white teeth, the brightest pearls you know, with the power to outshine the jealous moon. “You’re too big now,” she laughs. “And I’m too fat.” You both know it’s a lie—her figure all but disappears should she turn from the light. You envy her long, delicate fingers, her slight legs and perfectly curved hips. In the sun she is a goddess; in the dark an angel. You’ve been aware of this ever since she came to live with you several years ago, the orphaned daughter of your father’s friend, she’d said.
“When’s Dad coming home?” you ask, wondering as always how it is that she knows your father’s schedule better than you, perhaps even better than he.
She shrugs. “Soon, I think. He had to go to Verona today, for a client.”
Your father deals antiques to short old ladies and their stuffy husbands from the city’s old upper classes for grossly inflated prices. “If I can get my way,” he often mutters in his dangerously soothing tones, “there’ll be no more of this damned ‘family money’ in Venice. Kids’ll grow up and learn how to make it themselves, merda.”
You take a seat together on a set of steps leading into the canal, the first of the evening commuters beginning to appear, motors churning white froth in the emerald water. As you sit, you realize one of them is Klaas, the polite Dutch boy whom your father employs to ferry wares and supplies to his shop, in his wood-paneled speedboat, which his sister named Manhood after she purchased it for him on his sixteenth birthday. He smiles at you as he kills the motor and glides expertly to a stop beside you, mooring the boat lazily to a stout bollard.
Klaas’s apparition comes as a surprise to you, and you are startled to realize that you were unaware of his whereabouts today, an unusual occurrence. Leda, however, does not seem to share your puzzlement; indeed, she looks almost relieved by his appearance. Manhood collides lightly with the wall, knocking a plastic bottle from the helm into the canal. Klaas grins and alights on the steps with expert balance, taking a seat beside you. He puts his arm around you as he winks at Leda, who smiles back.
“How’s you, big guy?” Klaas punches you lightly with his other hand. He’s always treated you younger than you are, and although he’s going on twenty now, the five years between you seem shorter than ever. The gulf that separated you previously—working, responsibility, height, virginity—has been filled, and though you feel as if he should be obliged to view you as a contemporary now, you find yourself mysteriously warmed by his babying, as though the idea that he likes you despite your age somehow inflates the validity of your relationship.
You shrug. “Tired. And yourself?”
Klaas chuckles. “Is this from being up all night on the phone to that tipa? I told you that wouldn’t go anywhere.”
You look away sheepishly, a feeble assent to Klaas’s suspicions, though he knows he’s guessed right regardless. Klaas has always had an uncanny talent for unraveling that which you do not disclose outwardly. If there were Dutch blood in your family, you’d swear Klaas to be kin. He shares even your blond hair, white as the Alps that loom imposingly just past the horizon, and crumpled ears, much greater in volume than they appear to the eye. He smirks and shakes his head. “Oh Persi,” he mutters. “You’ll never learn, will you?”
Leda vibrates softly with laughter beside you, and you can feel the blood pumping behind your cheeks. If only she knew how easily she could put an end to the hours you spend cooing through the phone, the afternoons you spend traversing the canals with the tipas of the city. If only she knew….
The clatter of a tumbling restaurant chair in the square behind you catches your attention, and as you turn to examine the scene, you sense that Leda has leaned in to Klaas, perhaps to speak to him, though also perhaps to kiss him. The moment this thought crosses your mind, you whip back around and immediately curse yourself for even having conceived of the latter possibility. Klaas wouldn’t—he knows how you feel. He’s got a good heart aligned with his soul.
He turns to you, and in his eyes you think you catch a flicker of knowing—as if he’s read your thoughts and knows what you’re thinking, why you neglected the scene unfolding at the café in the square so immediately and remorselessly. “You want to go for a ride?” he asks, and your heart jumps at the prospect of an invitation from Klaas. It puzzles you why his acknowledgement of any sort delights you so—you know he’s your friend, but friendship always feels so fickle when maintained with one so much your senior.
“I guess, sure,” you reply, forcing yourself to repress the burst of joy within you. A man doesn’t wet himself when his friend asks him for company on the canal. “Where to?”
Klaas shrugs, a gesture that somehow empowers him in a way no amount of words or muscle could do for you where he is concerned. His indifference gives him an aura of wisdom and experience you are simply ill equipped to manifest. Five years, or a lifetime? you wonder. You glance at Leda, who avoids your eyes. She bears a strange look now, one you cannot place. Does she wish she’d been invited? Somehow you know this is wrong; her expression is one more of shame than jealousy.
Klaas brings the boat around, interrupting your analysis. It’s irrelevant, anyhow, you conclude. Leda’s a big girl—two years older than even you—she can take care of herself, though you wonder if you should request her company nonetheless. For that matter, why did Klaas disregard her so when he invited you to accompany him? Of course, had your paranoia not interfered, perhaps you would have seen their momentary encounter while your back was turned for precisely that. Klaas is right—when will you learn?
You climb aboard Manhood, and your qualms are dispelled as Klaas guns the motor, looking back at you and grinning when he sees how easily he’s sparked excitement within you. He calls to Leda to unfasten the mooring, to which she obliges with a faint smile. Standing, or perhaps posing, at the helm, Klaas eases the throttle back and the craft charges forward with a power that regularly astounds you. Manhood is not much to look at, perhaps, but she packs a substantial power. She churns forward, maneuvering the narrow, crowded canal until Leda can no longer be distinguished from the long shadows cast by the setting sun.
Neither of you speaks as the Klaas navigates a twisting path through the city, bringing Manhood about between the endless rows of marvelous churches and palazzi leading to the Grand Canal, but in the open-topped boat, exposed to the wind and sounds of the city, words travel poorly anyway. The congestion begins to increase markedly, but Klaas is unfazed; he winds expertly between the gondolas and vaporetti cluttering the tight passages. But then you are clear, into the bustling traffic of the Grand Canal, lost instantaneously amidst a sea of sea crafts. Klaas throws the steering wheel and you emerge from between the banks of land and into the great lagoon separating Venice from the island of Giudecca, its great protruding dock visible even at distance.
Klaas redirects the boat in this direction, and as the sun disappears behind the horizon, he pulls the boat alongside a leafy expanse on the south side of San Marco, the great steeple of the Isola San Giorgio just visible over the cypress trees, lined up like dark soldiers in the deepening night. Surprisingly, you are alone in the water as Klaas kills the engine and steps down from the helm to sit beside you. In his hands are a bottle of orange juice and another of rum, a dark liquid amber in its strangely shaped container. Your stomach flutters at the recognition—you’ve been drunk with Klaas only once before, on his birthday the year previously when he upturned a mischievous flask of mixed spirits into your unsuspecting mouth. Perhaps he sees you for the man you’ve become after all.
The cheek is unmistakable in his smile as he passes you a paper cup full of putrid-looking liquid. Excitement overtakes you and you down it in one go, a move intended to assert your maturity but whose actual result is the precise opposite.
“Don’t go too slow now,” he laughs, though he refills your cup without asking.
As you drink this round, this time at a more measured pace, Klaas drains his own mixture and stands up in the boat, spontaneously removing his shoes, then stripping off his shirt and trousers in no more than a few precise motions. You find yourself uncontrollably moved by the grace of his naked body, the dark patches of hair contrasted against his pale skin like shadows cast on fresh snow. He lowers himself slowly out of Manhood into the water, mild in the warmth of an Italian spring.
“Come on then Persi,” he says, pulling at your arm. “It’s nice.”
Already feeling the damp fingers of inebriation stroking your insides, you strip down joyfully, and in a burst of sudden invigoration, you leap headfirst into the dark water, glassy and smooth in the moonlight. You look into his face, and no longer can you determine if your electrified nerves are so from the alcohol, or from the rush of entering the cool water next to this boy you’ve looked up to for as long as you’ve known him. Your vulnerability endears you to him, you young and drunk, he old and sober despite having drunk with you.
You frolic together for a time, splashing one another’s faces and wrestling in the water, and he lets you win even though he could crush you if he wished. Time seems to become not a measure of seconds or hours, but rather a single, flattened entity in which events are not chronological, but instead ordered by their respective importance and beauty. The stillness of the night is wrought backward by the pulse in your veins, the life in the very air. But the effects of the rum soon overcome your joy—it is joy, such a joy as you have never felt before, and you fall against his bare back, your head resting comfortably on a strong shoulder. “I love you Klaas,” you mutter, and you mean it, you think. Then your eyes close, and you can feel him lowering you into the boat, gently dressing you and restarting the motor, a soothing hum, lullabying you into a peaceful unconsciousness from which you feel no need to return.
But you do, lying in the boat as your eyes crack softly open, Klaas watching over you intently, as if on guard. You are back home, where you started, you realize, the boat perfectly still in the canal, devoid now of traffic. The night is calm and dark, but for a light streaming through a window—your father’s window, you see. Turning your head ever so slightly, so as to keep Klaas from seeing, you focus on the shadows moving behind the glass—the mane of hair flowing down an arching back, the collage of arms and legs, grasping and clinging to one another in a frenzied passion. You hear Leda’s gasp, her heightening murmur, and your father’s shape is apparent rising from hers, his great arms paired unmistakably with his scrawny legs.
Fury, hot and red, boils within you as the haze clears and the world explains itself wordlessly. The unjustified drunkenness, Leda left behind beside the canal, Klaas’s mysterious apparition with Manhood. Her years of evasion, the repertoire of guilty looks and downcast eyes.
Tears are silent as they blur your vision, the walls of the canal form a tunnel that runs along the canal and forever on into the bleak future, filled now with lies and lust and hatred. Your father rises and his form fills the window as Klaas bends over you in heightened suspicion, blocking the moon and canal and stars, but his figure obstructs not the memories, dark shadows cut and branded in your mind from the night on the canal when manhood came.