City of Water
(A/N: More of a travel writing piece than fiction but still pretty enjoyable)
Walking early morning in Venice, I felt as if I was submerged underwater. The streets were no bigger then alleyways and the buildings loomed, blocking the sun. My breath grew shallow as claustrophobia welled in my stomach. Left, right, the smell of fresh bread mixed with rotting wood, glass and precious stones glimmering from a shop window like sunlight under the sea, down a dead end, turn around, a brick wall, peeking through, school boys play on a small soccer field, their shrill cries breaking the morning stillness. We got lost, but that had been our purpose all along. We stumbled onto the main canal where a crowd of art students sketched the likeness of a large baroque building into their notebooks. Curious, we wandered around them, watching beauty pour from real life onto their page. We dived back into the alleyways. Turn left, Turn right, up and down, at every bridge crossing we breathed in the pungent sea air. Everything was tight. Everything was dark. We watched masks watch us watching them. Like skulls, they only know how to grin.
Outside a small café, I locked eyes with an old man. Wrinkles ran across his face like creases on a well-worn shirt. But his eyes shone bright, wide and unblinking, they hint at some memory that we should share. Everything he wore was gray, his slacks, his coat, and even his cap settled on his hair. His right hand held a cigar, a thick roll of smoke and ash that melted into the atmosphere as we stared. I broke away from his gaze, but later inside, he came up, placed one soft hand on my shoulder and began to sing in Italian. He knew me, though I have never known him. With a smile, I gently brushed him away.
On the second day, the acqua alta, a seasonal flooding, brought back a childhood nightmare. Milky green water, a frothing foam filling my nose, my ears, my mouth with a salty darkness that would sweep Venice into its murky domain. I wake up, for a second a 7-year-old again, traveling with my parents in Venice, seized by the fear that we would all drown.
We made our way to the island of Murano. I, motivated by a childhood memory of glowing embers and a glass horse gifted to me by an artisan. The streets, wet with rain and smelling of mold, still glimmered with hypnotic displays of fragile promises. We found a factory that gave demonstrations on glass blowing for 5 euros and settled down on the small cushioned seats they laid out for tourist. What I was expecting was science, blowtorches, machinery, the numbing sound of metal to stone. What we received was magic. The Maestro, the magi, the male-Madonna of the show, came out with his wand, a metal pipe half his size and thrust it into the furnace. We watched as he heated the glass, a glowing orb at the end of a metal pipe, which he spun back and forth in the furnace. When it was ready, he pulled it out and to our surprise, began to blow through the metal pipe. Like a balloon or bubble, the glass inflated until it was the size of a large fist. When he was satisfied with the proportions, he thrust it into the furnace, still spinning the glass the whole time. Like melted candy, it would bend and drip if kept still too long. With heat, the glass was malleable as toffee. With his breath, it inflated like a balloon. He heated, then blew, then heated again and with large metal tweezers shaped the glass. The maestro fought against gravity, which threatens to warp his work, and time, which threaten to cool the glass again. With an almost instinctual level of precision, he molded, spun and shaped. The process was quick, no more than 10 minutes. At the end, we were presented a blue vase that blossomed like a geranium.
We left stunned and in awe by what we had just seen, the heat, the light, the quick hands that molded glass like it was candy, like it was lava under the sea. Every glass vase we saw in a new light. The acqua alta had subsided, leaving just a putrid scent of the lagoon. The fears ebbed, so did the drowning, and I was left with the image of sand, melting, bending, twisting until, in the hands of an artisan, it blossomed.