MEANWHILE IN VENICE
The General went to Venice. In Venice, years ago, he’d shoved his sister out a convent window, but he’d forgotten all about it. The General was always forgetting. For instance, in Venice, he received a postcard from his sister. It said, “Brother, you’re looking old. Love, Agnes.” He nearly fainted, nearly fell from his terrace into a canal. Then he saw a young girl in a gondola and forgot all about it. The girl wore diamond-studded feathers and held a terrier in each shapely arm. What did the General want? Ten days later, he could not recall. Had it been a tuft of peacock feathers or an heiress? This was Venice. He could have it all! He was standing in a gondola, when an egret flew low and nearly knocked him over. “What the fuck is wrong with that bird?” It was pathetic! Such impotent and meek little legs trailing after it like tiny threads! Take the fearless eagle. Or the virile hawks, for instance, which are eternally and dauntlessly swooping over the craggy bluffs of England! What the fuck was wrong with that bird? Why would god do that? The gondolier said, “Un airone,” which did not address the General’s concern. Something must’ve been terribly wrong, the General thought, with that bird’s feathers. Then he remembered the girl, the heiress with two terriers. It was night, by then, and a thick plume of smoke filled the sky. He ought to find her!
Meanwhile at the inn, the Swiss Guard was also pining. The Swiss Guard had visited a convent with his friend, the General. The inn reminded him of this. There’d been a sister, maybe a murder? Everything in Venice had once been a convent. Everything was haunted. But this inn was haunted in a sexy way. The Swiss Guard lay thinking of a half-dead girl. A ghost. The General’s sister? Truthfully, he didn’t care what she was, so long as she was beautiful. And she was a little wispy, a little hard to see, but beautiful, he was pretty sure she was beautiful.
Some horses brayed with a violence, which the Swiss Guard could only describe as portentous. He was exhausted, unspeakably tired. Besides, he’d conjured the girl in his mind: her downturned mouth, her wild eyes. To keep the image fixed required incredible proficiency and intense concentration. The feat was not unlike driving a six-horse carriage.
Only it was utterly unlike driving a six-horse carriage. It was not unpleasant. It was not unlike wading into a warm body of water, drifting into the heaviness of her dress, her downturned mouth, the froth around her lips. His eyes snapped open. Forget it! He told himself again. He turned over on his pillow. It was not a pillow but a sack of grain. He ought to leave this place, where the horses screamed and the moon was aflame! Something was odd about this inn. What was it? He rolled over. He tried to sleep. Only, yesterday, the girl very nearly smiled at him. He rolled over on his pillow again. That girl never smiled at anyone. What was she thinking? Moonlight flickered over the carriage house walls. A horse or a rooster screamed. Was it morning? The Swiss Guard sat up and blushed. Outside, a thick plume of smoke filled the sky. It was night. The inn was on fire.
Every year on the anniversary of her death, Agnes stood on the balcony, and looked at things—a tapestry, a satinwood chair, a bust—until they burst into flames. It was the anniversary of her death. Some servants ran to and from the lagoon with buckets, sloshed water everywhere, trampled the kitchen garden. The Innkeeper dropped his head into his hands. Everything had once been a convent.
The Swiss Guard sidled up to him, this little man and his massive longing. He’d fallen in love with the ghost. Had he really come to talk of it while the roof beams cracked and the inn turned to ash?
“I will lift the curse,” he said. “I will take her!”
The ghost, watched from the balcony, her hands folded patiently on the fractured banister. She floated down the wide and rickety staircase. She stepped out from behind a pillar, her eyes fixed on the floor, and then, the Swiss Guard caught her wrist, and she raised her eyes to him.
He burst into flame.
A servant flung a bucket of water at him.
“Christ!” He shouted and toppled over a small chair. “What are you?” “You must kill my brother,” she said, “and the curse will end.”
Was this a premonition or a wish? She could not tell the difference. What’s more she wasn’t convinced she did not love the curse a little.
In Venice, weeks later, the General remembered something: Agnes! He was in a gondola, gliding placidly between all these flaming domes and towers, when he remembered it. Agnes was alive or something like it! He was with an heiress whom he’d recently abducted. She held a well-dressed terrier in each of her shapely arms. He’d been telling her about the egrets (egrettasacra). Her terriers were barking at them. “They drink too sparingly, such fluids as they have are diverted to the feathers, and as you can see—” He suddenly sprung up. “Christ!” The heiress shouted as the gondola rocked violently from side to side. A terrier slipped from her shapely arm, and splashed into the water. It was Carnival, and her
terriers wore diamond-studded dominoes, which were adorable but awfully unwieldy, particularly in water. The terrier, she thought, would never make it. She was about to say this when the General leapt onto the landing at St. Marks, and nearly forgot to abduct her. She was looking over the edge of the gondola into the water. “Come!” He shouted over his shoulder. In his haste to leave England he’d forgotten! How was it possible? “Come!” He said again, and the Heiress reluctantly followed after him. The General wore a domino of blue silk. It was beautiful. A plume of feathers sprouted from his velvet hat. He and his heiress dissolved into the crowd.
Meanwhile, the Swiss Guard, his face hidden in a mediocre mask, waited at a portico outside the General’s lodgings. He spotted the twin plumes of feathers that bobbed above the heads of other revelers. He readied his stiletto.
But he had not expected to discover the General in the throws of some great love affair!
Love, the best and worst, insist is all there is, and some stumble from one
bewilderment into the next, saying love is all there is! Love was such a useful invention!
There on the street, in broad daylight, they were inventing it! “Come,” the General turned his head and hissed. Even the vapid, the murderous, and unimaginative imagine they’re inventing it. And when you are alone in a crowd, forced to swallow the spectacle of their invention, of course, of course, you scoff at their hubris and spit. “The idiots!” And so, naturally, upon seeing the General urge his mistress along the cobbled walk with sweet nothings—the likes of “Come! You frilly turkey, hurry!”—the love-sick Swiss Guard spat on the street, and missed his opening.