How strange that he had never thought of them as men before now? And why? Was it as Salah said, because they were Marocchino? He watched them rolling their beds and washing themselves as best they could from bowls of water gathered from the cistern near the edge of the courtyard. The water was certainly cold, so cold as to be horribly uncomfortable and yet, they splashed it on themselves without complaint. He thought of his own routine in his bathroom in the morning. The water was so hot as to be nearly uncomfortable and yet he complained of it. How curious that what he took for granted and grumbled over, these men did without in silence. He watched as a bowl of fresh water was brought to Salah, how he began to wash and shave with the same small knife that he had thrust under Andrea’s chin. The sound of the scraping of his whiskers, even for the blade’s acuity, was laborious, and yet, Salah never flinched as he drew the edge in long precise strokes across his face.
After Salah had finished with his shaving, after he was washed as thoroughly as he would dare in the morning cold, he returned to the fire and sat. He looked to Andrea his face softened by his meditations and prayers. His stare was still penetrating, like that of a seer but not malicious, one that was more analytical than hard. Andrea was still shivering from the fear that stank on him like sweat and from the cold. Salah spoke softly to a man near him. The man hurried away and the returned with a glass of dark tea, a small bowl of honey and a piece of flat bread. Andrea looked questioningly toward the man before receiving the modest gift. He glanced uncertainly at Salah.
“Please,” Salah instructed gently, “the tea is meant to warm you.”
Andrea raised the steaming cup to his mouth and sipped. It was indeed very hot and felt good in his mouth but was also extremely bitter and strong. Against his will, he frowned. Salah smiled benevolently as he stood and moved nearer to Andrea. He reached to the bowl of honey, dipped a large finger into the tureen, turned a fluid measure of nectar onto it and then held it over the cup of tea. The pale elixir, enlivened by reflections from the swirling fire, swelled over the top of his extremity like an angry boil and then rolled over and stretched downward, curling like molten gold into the tea.
“Try now.” Salah breathed as he sucked his finger clean.
Andrea swirled the cup and drank. It was sweet, still as strong but smooth as it slid across his tongue.
Salah studied Andrea for a protracted moment. He was not so different from him. In this place they were both a long way from home and frightened. They were both confused and lost. They were where they did not belong, involved in circumstances they could not control, and in the end, no matter what they were about to do, their fates hopelessly intertwined and sealed. The difference in them was the color of their skin, no deeper and no more profound than simple pigment; made in the image of a God who is all that is and all that is not and each of them requiring the other to exist.
“You asked of the American…” he began.
“I, uh, I…” Andrea stammered.
Salah drew in a great sigh and looked to the Haji and then turned back to Andrea and spoke.
“Signor, I ask forgiveness for frightening you. I am angry for the death of my friend, but I know you are not responsible. As the Haji has promised, you will not be harmed, not by us, by me. I will tell you everything I know, but I warn you, it is dangerous for you to be here.”
He leaned nearer to Andrea so that he was but a breath away and spoke in low hushed tones as if he feared that the very darkness that held them would be their undoing.
“The Polizia have already asked where this American is, they did not learn from us. We do not know and would not tell them if we did, for we are under penalty to find him ourselves, before the Polizia.”
“Why?” Andrea asked.
“There are those whom it will benefit more than the Polizia, those who make other men to disappear into the ‘leg of the sea’.”
“’Leg of the sea?’ I don’t understand this thing. Do you believe the American has done this murder to your friend? You spoke of not caring about his innocence, are you to mean that you believe he is blameless in this?”
Salah sighed again. “He did not do this crime. He did not kill my friend but he was there and saw. It would be better for him to be accused by the Polizia, even to go to jail, for he would live. It would be better for him if he were not found by us, for we must give him over to the men responsible. But we cannot find him,” Salah smiled deviously, “though we have not searched vigorously. We will be punished for our slovenliness, perhaps even severely, but I cannot condemn a man to death who is innocent.”
Andrea jerked his eyes to meet Salah’s; “You were going to kill me!” He sputtered.
“A momentary weakness that would have resulted in an injury, yes, but I would not have killed you. I am not a murderer. I have been angry, even at you for daring to throw away your life to come here.”
“What are you talking about? How have I thrown away my life for coming to the place where all of Venice knows you live? Who is there to kill me here if not you?” He smiled nervously as he gestured toward the Capo.
Salah was not amused. Obviously this Italian did not know many things. He did not know the Marocchini were men. He did not know that he was not better or worse than them and he did not know that Venice was alive with curious eyes; that there were eyes and ears everywhere in a village, even at a time before the sun had shone over the lagoon.
“Italian,” Salah spoke sternly, “if a man closes one eye to the world he will see only a distortion but it is when he opens both eyes, that he sees the truth and more: those who continue in their blindness are aware of his newly found sight. Yes, all of Venice knows and pretends that we are not here, save one. All of Venice is content to keep an eye closed to us, except for him. Do you think it will go unnoticed that you have come here, to see that which you have ignored for all your life, even before it is light? Do you think that after you have been illumined, you will be able to return to your darkness and ignorance? Listen to me; a man cannot hide illumination! I will tell you things you will wish you did not hear, things you will wish you did not know, for your life is in forfeit now. You have not known it but it is true.”
Andrea shifted uncomfortably on his carpet. How was his life in forfeit? From Sergeant Franco?
“Two years ago the Marocchini were sold into slavery,” Salah began as he stirred the fire, “though we did not know it at the time. A man, a representative of a very powerful Venetian came and offered us vast sums of money to perform a small service several times a year. We took the offer, though we knew that it is probably illegal. But we could feed our families, and in doing, we enslaved ourselves. Only it is that we thought we were partners of a sort, simple couriers and no more. It was only after the first of our brothers disappeared that we realized our position. It was then that we tried to abandon this duty, but we were convinced with great cruelties that we could not. The Police are uninterested in the problems of those who are not citizens here and we could not explain fully to them without pointing a finger of guilt against ourselves for what we knew to be a crime, the serious nature of which only became obvious in the bruises on our faces and backs. Have you not noticed that there seem to be a few Marocchini that linger in your city beyond the season?”
“It is because we wait at the behest of this man. Hidden in our wares are special bags and purses for this man and they are to be sold only to him. Your American took one of those the day you and Masu’ud argued. It was the absence of that bag that got Masu’ud murdered.”
“What is inside? Drugs?
“There is nothing inside them. They are empty. We do not know their significance only the penalty if they are not delivered properly or damaged in any way.”
“What is the penalty?” Andrea asked, hoping the answer would be different from the one he already knew to be true.
“Those who displease our employer are said to disappear into the leg of the sea. We do not know what or where this is, only that the one who goes there, does not return. We presume they are dead, but of this, we have no proof. And now this American, when he is found by this man, will disappear as well, and so may some of us.”
Andrea hardened his face and turned to look full into Salah’s tired eyes.
“Do you tell me then that the Marocchini believe in fairy tales? That they are children to be made afraid by fables, by witches and dragons?”
Salah turned and looked off into the night as he spoke. “And if I told you that your wife, or your Mother or a friend was swallowed up by this ‘leg of the sea’ and after that time, you never saw them again; if your father, or brother, was then swallowed up as well, and then six others of your family or acquaintances, would you not come to believe as we do?”
“I would believe that they were gone, or taken to somewhere…”
“And how would you describe this ‘somewhere’, if you did not know the name by which it was called?”
“I don’t know, I guess…”
Salah turned back to him. There was an eloquent moment of silence before he spoke again,
“You would call it by the only name it had been given; dragon, witch or ‘leg of the sea’.”
“Who is the man who makes these things happen then? What is his name? I will go to the Polizia!” Andrea insisted.
Salah shook his head in disagreement.
“No, you will not. He is untouchable. Do you think that we have not already tried? Six of our number over the last two years have gone from us and the Polizia do nothing. Do you think that because you have a more fluent tongue they will listen?”
“I don’t understand! Who is this ‘man’?” Andrea spoke impatiently.
“Please, lower your voice.” Salah implored. “The man who has done this thing is named Bruno Trevisani and he works for Signor Mirko Cofau.”
Sitting in the small halo of light, Andrea felt the world shift under him. Mirko Cofau? And how would he go to the Police with this name? Mirko was Venice’s most treasured citizen and patron Saint! Had he not been honored in the very days before for his philanthropy and generosity? And if the Son of God were guilty of a crime, to whom would you cry out? Where would you go to seek justice? Andrea shook his head in dismay. He was no better for the knowledge.
Salah leaned back and sighed heavily.
“It is as I have said, no?”
“But why? Why would Mirko Cofau have a simple Marocchino killed…”
Salah raised his eyebrows in disapproval.
Andrea put both hands to his face and paused to choose his words more carefully.
When the Lion Smiles © 2011 by Mitchell L. Peterson.
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