Spring Garden, 2015
“La Vendetta” is a bit racy, so you are warned. A version of this work can be found in “A Seasoning of Lust”, Lulu.com, 2009.
Maria de Guiseppa Agnesi Faini sprawled on a brocade-covered chair. It was summer and Venice was always hot, humid and moldy. She crinkled her nose at the smell of the water and the slime rotting the stucco sides of the villa.
Her apartments were on the third floor but there was still very little air this sultry morning coming through the long, opened windows. She could hear the music of gondola men, their songs always the same of beautiful women and brokenhearted lovers as they plied their way down the Grand Canal. The men’s lilting voices called out the names of local courtesans, much as the sellers of fish or fruit sang of their ware’s desirability.
“ A lira for a squeeze of Maria’s breast, with a couple of oranges to sweeten the deal!”
Signora Faini squirmed in her chair. The brocade was hot to her skin, though she wore a muslin morning dress. Sweat dripped down the viola curve of her back to the crease of her buttocks and she scratched where it tickled. L’Inglese had introduced muslin and it was all the rage in Venice this season. She thought them a bloodless race, a country of bad teeth.
“Where is he?” She tapped her foot impatiently. “He better bring some good gossip for his tardiness.”
Signor Alessandro Balsamo was her friend. Actually he was her ciscebo, tolerated by her husband because Signor Balsamo was, unfortunately, a castrato. He had been cut when a young boy (“Viva il coltello!” the audience yelled when he appeared on the stage) and sang until his voice disappeared. Other patrons supported him, but alas, Signor Balsamo was growing old and unattractive. His nose was arching to meet his chin, his belly could no longer be contained in his waistcoat and even his corset was now uncomfortably tight.
Signora Faini sighed. This heat would not let up, and there were at least two more months to bear of this weather. She promenaded upon the stones of San Marco plaza, hoping for a breeze from the sea, until she had worn out 20 pairs of slippers in one month, bowing to the left and right, and stopping to gossip with her few friends. Now her feet hurt.
She thought of her new lover and her nipples hardened. Her hand strayed to her bosom and she squeezed a breast, rubbing shapely thighs together. A soft groan escaped her throat.
He was an officer, a dashing lieutenant, now on maneuvers somewhere across the Alps. She remembered the first time, when in Signora Mortanti’s garden, with her skirts flipped over his kneeling form before her. She caught the eye of her husband and had the presence of mind to flutter her fan at him. He barely acknowledged his wife so intent was he in arguing the latest political scandal. Leaning upon a tree, she inched around it, better to obscure her lover’s behavior. He obediently followed on his knees. There would have been two scandals discussed that soft, spring night, and one ending in bloodshed.
Ah, she missed her Alfredo! He was bold, but perhaps all Romans were so. There was a difference between the men of Venice and Roma. In Venice they talked of commerce, but the men of Roma talked of love, and made exciting scandal.
Still, Venice was a wicked city. There were plenty of places to indulge in passionate embraces. Her husband’s gondola was a cozy one, with the canopy making them a snug nest inside if a bit too warm. A few extra lira to the boatman, and she was assured her secrets. Of course, they could never be completely unclothed, but the necessary parts ‘d’amour’ were available. They tried numerous positions, but the best for her was to bounce upon his lap. Then the boatman did not have to compensate for the side to side thrusts of her lover. Her hands strayed downward to that secret place, not so secret anymore to Alfredo. *Ah, Alfredo! I miss your long sword. Not the insignificant dagger of her husband. No, a real sword, one that pierced to her empty womb and she could play with like a regular puttana. The weight of his balls in her hands were like the golden——
“Signora?” A maid knocked upon her door, interrupting her thoughts.
“Signor Balsamo has arrived.”
“Well, let him in.” Signora Faini’s tone expressed her annoyance. Such a stupid maid.
Signor Balsamo entered and made his best leg. His wig was freshly curled and his waistcoat beautifully embroidered. He was a small, stout man, but still he had a certain charm.
Signora barely nodded her head. She continued to fan herself with her limp lace handkerchief.
“So, Allesandro, my love, you dare to show up late….Again?”
“Forgive me, my dearest Maria, there was a large puppet show at San Marco. I thought of you and your love of puppets and perhaps we could walk down and see. They are quite remarkable, almost life sized. The staging is well done.”
Ah, thought Signora Faini. Puppets! I am in the mood for such entertainment. I won’t have to wear out another pair of slippers. I must remind myself to either hide the shoemaker’s bill or start lying to my husband. He will start yelling again, and there goes my fun.
The signora rang a small porcelain hand bell and called for her personal maid.
Signor Balsamo did not remove himself, for he had been present many times when she was at her toilette. He had little interest in a woman’s charms, with one exception. He sat, leaning his chin on his cane and watched her being undressed by her maid.
She shed the morning dress, a confection of muslin and ruffles. Then, stepping out of two petticoats, she stood in a chemise. Already corseted, the maid went behind the Signora and tightened her laces. Sitting, she lifted a slim leg to her maid, not caring that she exposed her fregna to the eyes of her ciscebo. He blinked, knowing she did it to humiliate him. It was an old and cruel game she played.
Today, she was even crueler. Lifting both breasts from her corset, she examined the nipples. She knew her ciscebo had an attachment to women’s breasts, probably something from his childhood. She twisted each nipple, making the small dark pink flesh stand at attention. Her eyes narrowed as she stared at the Signor. She knew he wanted a suck, something she rarely rewarded him. She could see the hunger, his mouth open like a fish and his eyes droopy with sadness. She found a perverse thrill in hurting him. He was such a child, so malleable, so predictable.
Rolling up each silk stocking, the maid tied garters around the Signora’s knees. Then she hurried to a large armoire. Opening it, she awaited her mistress’ decision.
“No, not anything heavy this morning, it grows too hot and already the morning breezes are gone. Perhaps a silk. What do you think, Alessandro? Perhaps this watered blue with the ecru lace? Does it look cool to you?”
Signor Balsamo had been present for this game many times. If he said ‘yes’ to her selection, she would discard it. If he said “no” she would consider it, but there would be layers of clothes spread on the floor and sofas before Signora made up her mind. She was woman! What could one expect?
Sitting at the vanity while completing her toilette, she suffered her maid to pin her hair high on her head. Dark, chestnut curls tumbled to her shoulders. At least they would not create heat on the back of her neck. She was a small woman, like a china doll, all curves and bright eyes and rose tinted lips. She rose and turned to her ciscebo.
“Ah, Signora! A vision of radiant beauty, a cornucopia of delights, a —-“
“Enough, Allessandro.” She turned to the window overlooking the canal, dismissing him unkindly.
“You weary me with the same chants. Let us leave, though the hour not fashionable. Come Alessandro, you have promised me a puppet show and perhaps a glace?”
“Ah, something sweet would be very nice! The ice from the Alps is packed in straw. Last time I got a bit of chaff in my ice, this time I will run the vendor through with my sword.”
Signora Faini laughed, her tones like a tinkling bell. “Ah, Alessandro, you are such a man, so bold and advancing. Too bad about the missing parts.”
With that she grabbed up her parasol and took his arm, not caring for the pain in his eyes. He was to pay, and pay dearly for making her wait this morning.
The sunlight was bright but there were huge, puffy clouds floating across the deep blue sky. The water reflected the light like a million, million diamonds thrown on the surface by a very rich Prince. Carefully being handed into her gondola by Signor Balsamo, the Signora settled her dress around her, and raised her parasol. Signor Balsamo sat next to her, rocking the gondola as he stepped in. They floated down the Grand Canal, Signor Balsamo watching her nod at a few other gondolas, some friends, more enemies. She made many of them as he found out over the two years of their acquaintance. Regardless, a public courtesy would have to be maintained. “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” was Signor Faini’s personal motto. It had much meaning lately. He might be a cornuto, but he was a wise cornuto, thought Signor Balsamo.
They crossed under the Ponte dei Sospiri and past the Paigioni, docked and entered San Marco palazzo. A million pigeons took flight, to circle the plaza and return in great circling spirals to the same stones. The iridescence of their feathers were like tiny winged prisms, caught by the sun. The Palazzo Ducale occupied one side of San Marco with its white confection of marble, Moorish tracery. Signora Faini walked beside Signor Balsamo, her arm entwined in his. He swung his cane with the forward movement of his right leg, and swished it to make the vendors and beggars scatter from their path.
The palazzo was crowded today, even as the bells sounded and the cannon fired, declaring the hour. The sounds of musicians and the bray of vendors added to the festivities. There, before them, rose a stage, with a good crowd fronting the entertainment in already in progress.
It was a large boxed stage, with a black curtain stretching across the wooden frame where the puppets performed. A roof peaked up behind it. Signora Faini recognized “Punchinello” a hunchbacked character with a beak of a nose, and clapped her hands in glee.
Signor Balsamo laughed, and infected with her happiness, said, “Ah! Punchinello! Coglinni! Does he never change, my dear? He is universal for bravery, for laziness, for pride and bawdiness! He embodies the best and worst in mankind. Bravo, my friend!”
Signor Balsamo greeted this huge headed, almost human sized puppet with the enthusiasm one would greet an old friend. Perhaps he was related.
“Ah! He is ugly, and that never changes!” A true observation that made the crowd laugh.
The ‘teste di fantasia” in Venice were known in Europe to be the finest. But this was not a Venetian production, but the work of a Russian, who was known as a Count, or perhaps he was a Prince. Who could tell? The mystery surrounding M. Swartzskya was thick as the fog over the canals in winter.
They watched the puppets and marveled how realistic they were. Dressed in sumptuous fashion, even if a few years out of date, their puppetry revealed only by the wires that went from their moving parts to high above where the puppeteer was controlling them, they were almost human to observers.
A dance, an awkward embrace, the tangling of wires, the sound of puppet feet hitting the stage and on occasion, a groan. Ah, this Count Swartzskya was a genius! The Doge himself would be entertained, for Signora Faini and Signor Balsamo had never seen such a display of pure delight! All the gold in Venice couldn’t replace the sheer magic of Swartzskya!
The sound of a chamber orchestra floated over the palazzo and Signor Balsamo sighed.
“Ah, Maria, they are playing il Prete Rosso’s music. Ah! I never heard him, but my sainted father did. What a wonderful violinist the Red Priest, he said. Quick as lightening on the strings, and the heartstrings too, my little dove! So many Signoras opened their corsets and gave him their hearts and love and other small pieces of their devotion. He was quite the scandal in his youth. And a priest!”
“But you know, Alessandro, every priest has a mistress. How could all these puttani exist without the Church?” Signora sniffed in contempt, twirling her silk parasol above her head.
The sounds of Vivaldi’s music floated through the air, adding to the spectacle before them. Suddenly, as if the puppets could hear the music, as if they had become animated with human sentiment and had blood coursing through papier mache veins, they bowed and did a stately minuet. How gracefully did the unseen puppeteer lift the wires binding limbs and life. How perfectly did wooden, painted puppets, faces frozen in carved sentiment, with eyes strangely human, flashing with passion, express such intelligence!
Signora Faini was overcome, and a few silly tears gathered in her eyes. Ah, Madonna! The combination of the music and the display before her was hitting a hole in her soul, pulling at her own heartstrings. Signor Balsamo patted her hand, a strange smile upon his own countenance.
“Would you like to meet Count Swartzskya? I have had the privilege, Maria, and you will not forget the man easily. This I assure you.”
Before she could agree, a loud rumble of thunder drowned out the music and all eyes looked upward. With curses from the men and screams and laughter from the women, it started to pour down on all standing in the palazzo. The rain was relentless and they could hear “Stronzo di merda!”, “Per carita!” and “Che cazzo!” from the musicians as they scrambled to protect their delicate instruments.
Signora Faini’s parasol, meant for the sun was soaked. Signor Balsamo drew his arm around her small waist and guided them behind the stage. There was a door and a man, who looked Signor Balsamo in the eye and bowed them in.
Maria looked around at the structure. It was big, almost as big as the reception room in her villa, but the ceiling not as high. There were crates on the sides of the painted, wooden walls, chairs and a large table cluttered with puppetry crossbars, carpentry tools, clothes, all directly behind the stage. As she shook her parasol, the water spun off in clear rainbows of light, landing on the carpeted floor.
Suddenly, from the back of the stage, a huge man appeared as if out of the smoke of a large fire. Maria’s eyes widened as she watched the man come silently towards them. Her breath caught in her throat and her heart pounded.
“Ah, Count Swartzskya! Thank you for receiving us. The sudden rain….”
Signor Balsamo’s words faded away and he shrugged his shoulders, his eyes locked on the man who stood looming over them.
“May I present Signora Faini, Sir? Signora is the lady I was mentioning before. She has a passion for puppets, Count.”
The Count took the hand of Signora Faini and kissed it, she unmoving, her eyes fixed on his face.
Count Swartzskya stood before Maria and she thought, I wouldn’t come up to his chest! What a remarkably formed creature.
Maria had reason for amazement. The Count, perhaps in his late fifties, was
over six feet tall. He had black, curly hair, shot with grey and worn in a pigtail at his neck. That he wore no wig would have been remarkable enough in Venice. That he was so large a man was even more striking. He would stand head and shoulders over any crowd in Venice. His hands were huge and long fingered, his thighs were bulging with muscles. Obviously he had either been a horseman or a soldier. Everything about him reeked of physical power. Signora Faini seemed quite overwhelmed by his presence, as her eyes impolitely fanned over his face.
Overhead she could hear the crackle of lightening and the boom of horrendous thunder. She shivered and jumped each time the windows of the room reflected the raging storm outside. Suddenly she screamed, for the lightening struck close and the hair rose on her arms. She jumped right into the arms of Count Swartzskya and stayed there, trembling like a leaf.
“Oh, Madame! Do not concern yourself with what is happening outside in Zeus’ court. You are safe with me. Come, have tea and settle yourself.”
Count Swartzskaya’s voice was a deep as the thunder, but soothing.
He led them from the main room to a little chamber, where a servant set a table for tea. Signora Faini appeared grateful for the hot cup of tea. She was shivering.
As she drank one cup and then another, the two men talked and her eyes started to close. It seemed she could barely hold her head up.
Balsamo and the Count continued their discourse in low voices, ignoring Signora Faini sitting at the tea table.
“She has it coming, la bagascia, but no permanent damage, agreed?”
“But of course, it will just be something frivolous, a small humiliation.”
“But will she remember it?”
“No, she will have no memory of this day at all. However, I can arrange for that to change. What is your pleasure, Signor?”
“No, no, our original plan will be enough – this time, Count.”
Swartzskya tossed a bag of coin to Signor Balsamo and he hoisted it in his palm. A broad smile creased Signor Balsamo’s face as he addressed Signora Faini, now sprawled in her chair, one slipper falling from her delicate foot.
“Maria, my dear girl, sometimes you go too far in your wickedness. But you will pay the piper tonight…or shall I say…the Count?”
With those final words he laughed and left, whistling a piece of his beloved Vivaldi.
Signora Faini could hear Balsamo but could not respond. It was as if she was made of wood, like the puppets outside before the rain drove her into the shelter of Count Swartzskya and into his arms. Madonna! Everything felt wooden, numb about her and her breath barely moved her bosom. She could hear but she could not speak or move her limbs. She was like a puppet awaiting the wires to animate her body.
The Count leaned over and his finger made a trail from throat to cleavage, his eyes staring intently, his face close enough to kiss her. She could not avoid him and suddenly she felt his fleshy lips as he bit her mouth, drawing a little blood. She could only register fear with her eyes.
The Count busied himself with a little squeeze here, a sharp pinch there, but Maria could not feel his hands molesting her. She could only follow his behavior with a limited movement of her eyes.
“You know, Maria, his Holiness and you share a common desire. He loves puppets, just like you. But he will never have the privilege of being one.”
Signora Faini could hear him but could not respond.
“Ah, sweet Maria, some paint to fix your pretty little face, a costume, some wires and you will be ready for a performance. Tonight you will dance before the Doge and his guests. Wonder if they will recognize you? Ah, no matter, I will make you disappear to them in case any are guests of his Holiness. It is a subtle but sharp little revenge of your good friend Signor Balsamo, no? He will be sitting there, enjoying your puppet antics and your memory of this night will be his alone.”
The Count stood and stretched, throwing out his arms over his head. It would be a long night and he had much work. He regarded the little doll of a woman before him, still sitting in her chair, silent, only her eyes animated, and chuckled.
“Ah, Maria…some women learn lessons easily, and some take a bit of the twisting of the wires to get their attention. Perhaps after tonight you will think again before you scorn your Signor Balsamo for his missing parts?”
“Come, Maria, drink a bit more tea. It will fortify you. Is it too bitter? Here, let me add just a little more ‘special sugar’. It will do the trick.”
The Count obligingly held the delicate porcelain teacup to her rosy lips and filled her mouth with tea. She sputtered, but swallowed, her eyes filling with tears.
Maria couldn’t protest, she had no voice. Only the terror in her eyes registered she was even alive.
“Ah, look Maria! Your eyes are sparkling! Tonight you will be the belladonna of the stage. Of course, tomorrow the critics will say your acting was a bit ‘wooden’ but what do they know?”