|Janee J. Baugher|
At San Marco Piazza in Venice, a street vendor sells pigeon-feed. But the seeds must be laced. Next to the Basilica, a barricaded area where the birds nest. Among twenty dead pigeons, live ones poke about. One beast upon a dead one, seducing its stillness. It jumps off, circles around a nearly-dead one, all fluffed out pigeon-like in heat. It jumps back on her, but another pigeon pecks it off, then hops on her limp neck and pecks at her face. It’s barely breathing. Later, on tour through the Bridge of Sighs and to the prison, pictures of women on stone walls. See, a frontal view of a smiling woman with narrow hips and two U’s for breasts. Back across the bridge, on the stone ledge of the prison building, a single pigeon has laid down to die.
They’d be brainless for a while because soon after death their brains were pureed with a metal rod and extracted through the nose. Brains regenerate. While conducting a ritual of anointment – scent of earth, scent of myrrh – they’d uncover their old preserved bodies. Uncoil strips of muslin from each limb and remove from the torso wood shavings, mud, sand. They could then easily slink in. Their internal organs were stored separately. The row of canopic jars could be pried open and the contents swallowed down: intestines, kidneys, pancreas, liver, lungs, spleen, stomach. The order’s imperative. Hearts never leave the body. Often, the journey back took generations. Emerging from tombs, funerary amulets in their perfectly raisined hands.
Ambling, shackled over this bridge, I’m tortured by boatmen below – gondolas taking people where they want to go, the drivers singing as the executioner might after the blade’s been whetted. To touch this white stone offends the hand – scratchy, cold, dead. Here because of the mouth-of-truth. A single accusation. The magistrate doesn’t refute accusations. And as I am lead from the courtroom, over this small stone bridge, I think of Venice, and of treason I did not commit but I would have, and then I look out below – at people gay and living, I bow my head – cannot bear the frocks glimmering in the sun. And then to the cell.
I share a six-man cell with nine others. I am a poor man, so my bread’s paid for. But why must they feed me at all? The hand comes through this small opening in the center of the oak door. All I can make out is parts: a face, a hand, a mouth – all whiskers and stink. Smug on that side of the door.
One day I find a piece of lead. I draw. Not my wife, but the eldest daughter of the produce merchant. Her chaste body. And while I sleep the lead piece is routed to the others. In the morning: a crude map of Venice, her lagoon so lovely in February; flowers, wisterias; profiles of women, I think I recognize; scribbles in Latin that I fear are too private to read. One of my mates made a cross and coffin. This is our fate, we shall live here, the healthy and those fortunate sick who die first, but not before sickening the rest of us. We drink well-water which burns the throat, piss in pails, and sleep on wooden slats. Each night I dream of a headstone for my head.