La Serenissima

Annette O'Neil
photo credit: alexdavidwriter. (license)

The gondola sways a little bit. It occurs to her that she might be sick.

A straw hat wraps its red ribbon around the shoreline reeds as it drags past like a drowning child, pawing at branches as it traces its immutable downward diagonal path.

She doesn’t remember why she chose that particular boat. Maybe it looked a little shinier than the rest; maybe the gondolier was a little more picturesquely muscled; maybe the discount clapboard at his feet (“Today Only! Champagne Special For You!”) was the deciding point. Whatever it was, it worked. She had clambered in.

The boat had swished waterbuggishly along in smoothish stops and starts, accompanied by the soothing prattle of the gondolier. (The guild only licenses four hundred and twenty-five gondoliers, and then only after we pass a comprehensive exam.)

She had wrestled the cork from the bottle and poured herself a glass into a fingerprinted flute. It had refused to balance on any surface in the boat, so she’d quickly abandoned it, setting the bottle within arm’s reach, swigging intermittently from it like a student. (The oars are always made of beechwood.)

They had passed ferries full of waving children and sunburned, exhausted parents. They had tucked down whisper-thin tributaries between high, heavy-shuttered brick walls. (The races on the Grand Canal, you know those races, are done with different boats. Gondolinos.)

They had ducked under cupid’s-bow bridges, past the incense of a cigarette smoker in a low kitchen window, along a little ledge trafficked sparsely by skinny cats. (Vogga alla Veneta is different…you stand up when you do it, and you face forward. I have a few medals now, but I have to make my living.)

They had passed out of the city, the splashing and the maritime barking of the other gondolas fading behind them, dodging a motorboat or two as they made their way. The sun was strong. She had forgotten her hat. She dug in her bag for sunscreen. She was bored.

She was confused. Where were they? Suddenly, they were deep in a little forested inlet, the city sounds muffled by greenstuff and distance. A ding from her phone; she slipped out of the world and into the promise of a familiar hello.

He was still talking when he started taking off his shirt. (Isn’t that a little unprofessional?) He stepped down, towards her. Half-occupied by her phone, she was completely off her guard. He wasn’t fast, but he was strong, and heavy.

The champagne cork lolls in front of her sandaled feet. Suddenly, she remembers it shoving into the space under her shoulder blade as she had wriggled backwards, clawing and flapping, cornered.

But not so cornered.

He had drawn up a bit to unclasp his belt. One heavy arm sandbagged the ridge of her clavicles and crowded her throat, but her right hand was free, and she suddenly felt the thin, familiar outline of a discarded ballpoint pen rolling under her fingertips. She rolled it into her fist, fingernails stabbing into her palm.

When he twisted slightly to excavate for the button of her shorts, she was ready.

When the pen plowed into the muscles under his rib, his face registered surprise before pain. (She remembered a documentary video: A grizzly bear taking a bullet. Startle; recognition; rage.)

She dove into the fraction of a second she had bought herself, rocketing to her feet, inexpertly horse-kicking his chest when he tried to rise, wrapping both hands around the neck of the three-quarters-full champagne bottle on the seat, swinging it behind her, swinging it home.

She expected it to break when it connected, frothing giddily of bubbly like the crescendo of a ceremonial ship launch. It did not.

His straw hat sailed off into the water. His head changed shape. His eyes emptied. His air and his fluid made riverbottom noises in his face. His weight leaned back against the hull, but his center of gravity was too high to keep him in, so she watched him spill slowly backward; watched the little rodenty twitches of his hands and legs as she stayed carefully opposite, scrupulously weighting the boat, moving to the center only to kick his legs over when they hung heavy at the knee.

Now he drifts, unbuckled trousers hanging humorously low, into a clump of reeds.

She dunks the bottle in the river before she takes a swig. The champagne is warm and mediocre. The bubbles rustle and sting.

She watches the ferró pitch back and forth, its metronome rhythm soothing the leftover race in her breathing; smoothing the hitches. Its knife curves spin the sun. She had always thought that the ferró had a weaponish look. They’re always a little too big. Scimitars.

She scratches the crimson velvet seat beside her. A bit of blood comes up in her fingernail, but the rest is invisible in the scuffed pile. There’s a bit of blood pooling on the boat’s flat bottom, but a bit of quick work with what’s-his-name’s discarded shirt solves the problem. She leans over to rinse it in the river — quickly, so the red doesn’t stay in the regulation-width white stripes. She wrings it out and hangs it tidily on the back of the seat. The July sun will quickly starch it dry.

She picks the oar handle up and pushes the business end down into the water, expecting to feel the pudding embrace of mud. Nothing. In a few strokes, she gets the hang of it. She crabs over to where he bobs. She finds the gap in his skull with the edge of the oar and shoves hard, pestling the pulp and exposed bone to shove him deeper into the vegetation.

She smiles.

She finds her footing on the shiny, surfboard space on the back of the gondola and swishes into a steady rhythm. As the city comes back into view, she starts to whistle.

photo credit: Roberto Trombetta (license)

Annette O'Neil

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