“Do you understand what I mean?” Andrea asked, interrupting his reverie.
Martin looked at him and nodded that he did. He had no idea what his friend has just asked him. He was too busy living the moment, a moment that he would remember as being one of the most pleasant and important of his entire life.
They rounded the corner to Andrea’s boutique and as they stood in the street there was a moment of uneasy silence and nervousness. It was Andrea who spoke first.
“Allora, this has been an… interesting day! And one that has proved expensive for you!”
Martin shook his head in an offhanded way.
“Yes,” He admitted, “interesting and expensive but I am on vacation, and anyway, I have learned something today.”
Andrea studied him closely. The harried look that hung on him like a disease when he had first come in the door of his shop earlier in the day was all but gone. Was it because he was dry and warm? That probably had something to do with it but he knew that it was something else too and it almost always happened to those who visited Venice for the first time. Venice, the dark mysterious streets, the sea and canals; the very spirit of a city as old as any on the face of the earth had begun to work its way into Martin’s soul and like a tonic, it had begun to soothe him. Andrea looked around him. He took a deep breath of the rain clean air and he knew what it was to be at peace in Venice. It was his city and though he was not privileged to live there he was one of the lucky few who at least got to work there and to spend a great part of his life within the tranquil borders of a city that had weathered more history than any place he knew to name. Whatever this man’s worries and he had not told them to Andrea, they were beginning to recede away from him like the tide. Perhaps the Lion of Saint Mark would take hold of him yet…
“What is it you have learned?” Andrea asked.
“Ah, it’s silly.” Martin confessed.
“No please,” Andrea begged him, “tell me.”
Martin hesitated and then spoke.
“There’s more to life than just work.” He said quietly. “I have lived all this time to work and thought I had it right but I am beginning to see that it should be the other way around. When I get home, I think I’m going to do some living and maybe throw a little work in on top of it.” He smiled.
“Bravo amico!” Andrea exclaimed. “Well, you see my shop has been closed all these hours and I have made no enterprise to feed myself and my family so…”
Martin looked at him and suddenly realized that this little man had taken most of his day to help him; to help a stranger he didn’t even know.
“Thank you.” He said warmly.
Andrea shrugged shyly like a little boy caught peeping through the keyhole of his sister’s bedroom door.
“Oa, my wife will only yell at me for a few minutes but she will feed me all the same! If you should remember where my boutique is located, please, stop to see me before you go back to America. For your time here, remember what I have said; don’t just look at the ‘Living Room’ and imagine what you might do… come in, sit down and enjoy yourself!”
“I will.” Martin affirmed as he extended his hand.
Andrea took it and the two stood for a few self-conscious moments until Andrea said,
“Come back to see me!” Then he walked quickly away from his shop toward the boat stop.
Martin looked around him and then decided to walk whichever way his feet would take him.
Several minutes later he walked under the outside arches of the Procuratie Vecchie and stood just beyond the small lagoon at the base of the Hotel Cavalletto, its marvelous Lilliputian quay filled with Gondolas. He wished he had remembered to bring a camera! The parking area in front of the hotel was so beautiful it made him want to weep. How could any one place on the face of the earth hold so much beauty? The Gondolas swayed gently, nudged each other in the tiny lagoon. Most of them were covered against the rain that had earlier salted the city but there were one or two left open and a few people working about them.
He stepped into the dark brooding confines of the curtained balustrade and then just as suddenly he found himself standing in the most magnificent place he had ever seen in his life; San Marco Square, Living Room of the World in all it’s elegant splendor and glory!
A flock of pigeons abruptly sprang to flight in a great reckless flurry of feathers and startled cooing, their wings flapping madly as they fought to rise above the thick oppressive air. They circled the interior partition in perfect synchronized unison, wheeled hard over and settled to the far side in front of the Church of Saint Mark. The sky began to darken again and in a few minutes it would rain. All around the great quadrangle, the shops were gaily lit by multi-tiered Murano chandeliers, selling everything from gold to clothing. Hundreds, maybe thousands of people milled casually about and the din of their languages, tongues from every corner of the globe, buzzed lightly in his ears. There were portable booths selling cheap souvenirs and weather beaten old women vending small bags of cracked corn for the flocks of haggling birds that gathered in an undulating gray tangled carpet at his feet along the intricately tiled pavement. The low ancient buildings, their countenance shadowed by the draped arches he had walked under, squatted like venerable old men of centuries past, keeping their watchful eyes on the tourists lest they mar the eminence of the square with their heresy and video cameras. To his right was the towering Campanile. He titled his head back and breathed the lightly dilled air as the massive bells began to toll their three-part harmony across the rooftops of the world. So beautiful… so beautiful!
The grand facade of the church of five domes glimmered like a golden mirage in the fading light and the Byzantine Horses that stood defiantly atop the parapet of the face seemed to beckon him forward. He heard music. A solitary violin mourned through the sodden air near the enormous doors of the Basilica. He saw a gnarled old man, poorly dressed, standing over an open instrument case swaying hypnotically as he coaxed a mesmerizing euphony of notes from the worn frets through his nimble moth like fingers. The bow he played back and forth across the delicate strings was frayed and its strands of hair floated and swirled around his head like ghosts. The simple melancholy strains filled the ample square with a whimpering so rueful that Martin could barely stave away the tears that welled up in his eyes. He had never heard anything so sweet, so redolent or sorrowful. He stumbled awkwardly through the crowds of people toward him. He was drawn to him. He could not have stayed away if he had wanted to. He drew abreast of the ragged musician. His eyes were tightly closed and he lovingly cradled the violin like a wayward child under his chin as he entreated the milling throngs, Venice and the world, to grieve with him. Martin stood transfixed and listened. The world about him could have come to an end and he would not have noticed, so enchanted was he by the beguiling melody!
As the music died the man opened his eyes and saw Martin standing there. His face was deeply lined and carried on it the time worn heritage of penury, of dolor. He smiled the smile of a man who knew how cruel and inequitable life could be.
“Buon di amico…” He said with a gravelly voice that smacked of too much wine and tobacco.
Martin wiped a tear from his face.
“I’m sorry. I don’t speak Italian.” He apologized as he reached into his pocket, grabbed a handful of coins and dropped them into the violin case. “That was beautiful.” He said knowing the man would not understand.
“Thank you.” The man said haltingly. “Yes,” He admitted, “I speak English, some. You are American?” He asked.
“Yes.” Martin said.
“A tourist, no?” The man asked.
The man looked up to his right at the royal blue zodiac face of the clock tower and then to the flag staffs in front of him.
“Do you know the legend of the Lion of Venice?” He asked.
Martin looked to the golden statue of the winged griffin and shook his head. “No.”
“For a few pennies more, I will tell you.” The man answered as he gestured towards Martin’s pockets with his frayed bow.
Martin reached into his pocket and pulled out a ten thousand Lire note and dropped it into the musician’s instrument case. The old man smiled. He reached to Martin, grasped him firmly by the shoulders and turned him around to the pikestaff that served as the perch for the golden winged lion of Saint Mark. He began to speak in a low staged whisper, his servile voice rumbling tremulously like distant thunder. As he spoke he used his bow as a pointer, the frazzled hairs swirling in the light breeze.
“You see the Lion? You see?” He asked, “He is Venice and Venice is the Lion. Look, see his mouth? Does he smiling to you or no?” He leaned closer to Martin so that the warmth of his worn breath spilled across the back of his neck. “When you look at the Lion, if you say to yourself ‘See, the lion he smiles to me!’ then you have within you the heart of a poet, the soul of a lover and Venice shall always be a part of you, shall always be a home, a safe refuge for you but if when you see the Lion, he is not to smiling for you but is to frown or snarl then… then you are an ungrateful child;” he rasped heavily causing goose bumps on Martin’s flesh, “a man with no love in him, no soul or eyes for seeing and Venice is not for you! I am a gypsy, yes? There are things I know to tell you and this is one. So tell me now, figlio mio, is the Lion to smile for you or no?”
Martin squinted. He tried to see. “I… I don’t know.” He murmured.
“Then walk these streets carefully figlio mio,” The gypsy warned, “for that one there, the beast… he has eyes for you!”
Martin stood and regarded the statuette a while longer and tried to see a smile, even a snarl but it was just a statue to him and he saw neither. He turned back to the old man, the violinist to ask him what he meant but he was gone. Martin cocked his head to one side and studied the square but he did not see him. It occurred to him that he should check his pockets but he knew the man had stolen nothing from him. He had taken the ten thousand Lire note and simply vanished.
Martin turned to look at the Lion again and in the distance thunder rolled ominously across the sky. He felt the first drops of rain on his face and then a brilliant stave of ice blue lightning illuminated the gaping toothsome mouth of the golden Lion. Martin trembled. ‘Is the Lion to smile for you or no?’ the words echoed back. He didn’t know…
Andrea unlocked the door to his apartment and stepped in. He was immediately set upon by Angelina.
“Ciao Bambola!” He exclaimed as he scooped her up and buried his whiskered chin into the nape of her neck. He made all the sounds of a hungry beast eating her up while she giggled and flailed to get away from him.
When the Lion Smiles © 2011 by Mitchell L. Peterson.
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