The Gondolier–Short Story Excerpt
by Eland Robert Mann
The fog was heavy on the Laguna Veneta, obscuring the bell tower of San Giorgio Maggiore on the right and the banks of the Lido in the distance. Nothing but the weighted bow, combing through the mist, was visible to the tireless rower. He stood at the stern of the gondola, as he had for years, sometimes verbose and sometimes silent, but always his eyes forward, vigilantly watching for each bend in the canal, for each destined mooring. There were times when the muscles of his shoulders ached, when his knees shook and his hands grew weary about the oar; but his eyes never tired. For even then, as he stared through the layers of fog rolling in from the Adriatic toward the mainland, he looked for her.
He had first seen her clothed in white, in the Abyssinian manner, her tanned hands clutching the front of her dress to lift her hem, her exposed feet stepping into the waters of Lake Tana. She was amongst a large crowd about the banks that day, her reserved smile becoming playful as she waded into the water up to her hips, amongst a group of other women similarly covered in white.
“Why do they bathe with their clothes on?” he had asked Captain Bonbiolo as they cut through a grove of fig trees shading the banks where the crowd was gathered.
“They aren’t bathing, young Benetto. They are worshipping. It is Timkat, the festival of the Epiphany.”
Benetto approached the gathering with Captain Bonbiolo and the few other Italian officers stationed at the Residenza in Gorgora, Amhara Province, Ethiopia. A group of local priests, costumed in hues as varied as birds-of-paradise, passed the Italians in khaki.
“The priests have blessed the water,” Captain Bonbiolo said, nodding at the retreating procession. “Care for a swim?”
Benetto assented absently. He watched her laugh as a group of boys splashed in the water. The other women were leaving but she walked out slowly. Benetto removed his boots alongside Captain Bonbiolo and the other officers. When she walked onto the sandy beach, he paused to watch her dainty toes surface from the water. He tried to recall the small face that looked at his, but after so many decades it was becoming impossible. He recalled the sensation in his gut, however, and the color of her cheeks as she looked away; flushed, pink as a blooming tamarisk.
The gondolier sustained the vision in his mind, even as a blackness began to creep in and dim the joy of the memory. A blackness dark and shiny; like motor oil, or the crisp black uniform of Centurione Mancini, the leader of the volunteer Milizia garrison also stationed in Gorgora. The Milizia blackshirts, compared to the regular troops stationed at the Residenza, were hardliner Fascists; and none more so than Mancini, their commanding officer.