Gondolas linked Venetians to their dead. Gondolas linked Ignazio to his dead. A history of death and gondolas lived buried in the corners of his home. When Ignazio was eleven, his grandfather revealed the past as they sat alone in the workshop. Nonno Umberto was not usually loquacious. He spent long hours by the window, bony hands at rest, swaying in the rocking chair he'd carved as a boy. He stared out at the houses reflected on the water, at linens on clotheslines, calm, quiet, no matter how loud the shouts got in the kitchen. He was deaf. He pretended to be deaf. Ignazio was never sure which one was true. He came and sat on a low stool at Nonno's feet, in search of calm or at least a pretense of it, and finding, one day, the telling of a story, slippery, secret, as furtive and as heated as confession.
Long ago, said Nonno, the Firielli family made a modest living building simple gondolas. They had done this for centuries, and assumed they would do it for centuries to come. He was born into the business. He grew up. He married. He had seven children, and his family also lived among saline slabs of wood in raw states of formation. It was a bad time for Venezia. Cholera ran rampant; no one had enough to eat; corpse after corpse swelled the cemetery of San Michele. "The Austrians." Nonno Umberto gripped a fistful of the quilt on his lap. If the quilt had been alive, Ignazio thought, it would be choking. "They had blood on their hands. They took from us and let us rot."
Sun streaked the walls and fell on the skeletal boats around them. Nonno stared out the window. Ignazio stared out also, and he saw the old-time Austrians, big men with monstrous faces, wearing crowns, reclining in a gondola and laughing at beggars on bridges and shores. In the kitchen, the shouting continued, his mother, his father, a slap, a fall, more shouting.
Nonno went on: the revolution came. It was 1848. Venetians chased out Austrian rule. Umberto and thousands of others danced on the cathedral steps until the sun came up. The city churned with hope: freedom was theirs, they were independent, Venezia would be restored. For a year that was true, and then the Austrians returned. Cholera flared back up and burned across the city. Within six months, six of Umberto's seven children had died of cholera. Four daughters and two sons. Only Diego survived ("your father, Ignazio; your father was the only one"). On the night that his last sister died, nine-year-old Diego went silent and said nothing for two years and thirty-seven days. On that same night, Umberto sat beside his silent son, empty as a rag that has been wrung over and over. The undertaker arrived, shrouded in black, his face masked in a hood with slits for eyes. He stared at young Diego through the slits.
"Don't look at my son," Umberto said.
"It won't harm him."
"Don't look at him."
The undertaker raised his hands. Umberto punched him and the man reeled back and Umberto punched him again until the hood lay flat and crushed against his head.
"May fever take your house," the undertaker shouted. "May you all rot." He stumbled out without the boy's body.
Later that night, Umberto woke up to a rustle at the foot of his bed and saw an angel ("I swear it," he told Ignazio, "an angel, with wings and all!"). Umberto sat for a minute in the glow of silence. Then he asked the angel how his last son might be spared. The angel said God hears what crosses the water. A wing tip brushed Umberto's head, and he fell back asleep. The next morning, he entered his workshop and stayed for three days and three nights without sleeping, and built a funeral gondola that shocked him with its beauty. Four pillars held a ceiling upholstered with lush velvet. He carved his prayers into the wood: ornate crucifixes on each pillar, rolling vines and grapes and fleurs-de-lis, cherubs with their trumpets, a witch tearing her hair out, sylphs engaged in coitus, Hercules weeping on a mountain, and, at the helm, Orpheus with his golden lyre, poised to sing the way to Hades. The day that gondola crossed the water with their last daughter's body, it caught the eye of a duchess and she commissioned one for her husband, who had died of syphilis. After that, Firielli gondolas carried the corpses of Venezia's finest dead.
Excerpted from The Invisible Mountains by Carolina De Robertis Copyright © 2009 by Carolina De Robertis. Excerpted by permission of Knopf. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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