A man sits calmly upon the water. He doesn’t sit upon its surface, however. He rests upon a pile of books, which are balanced on waves cresting into small mountains that vanish and replenish themselves each few seconds. Nothing supports his back, yet he looks at ease holding a book with a sailboat overspreading its cover. He smiles while crossing calves warmed with Wellingtons.
He wears a fishing jacket as a seagull hovers above him. Whether he will eventually eat the seagull, likely first by strangling him, I’m still uncertain. All I know is that his island is made of paper, and a paper island has no garden. Still some clams may lurk below him, though clams prefer the shallows, while the water surrounding him looks to have no bottom. Should he fall from his books, he might fall victim to an endless drowning, hunger no longer a problem.
The owner of Libreria Acqua Alta isn’t really sitting on books stacked upon the water, however, books so little worth reading they’re better used as furniture. The photograph of Luigi Frizzo on the bookmark he gave me is likely the last I’ll ever see of him. He gave me the bookmark with what felt like love or something approximate when I bought a magnet from his book shop, the most beautiful in all the world, or so a handwritten sign claims outside its entrance.
Most of its inventory has mold metastasizing across spines begun to bend and soften. You smell the books from down the alley and are drawn inside regardless. The Libreria Acqua Alta not far from Piazza San Marco in Venice is sinking, as is the city it rests in.
Every year, one to two millimeters of Venice disappear into its lagoon. Its canals will all someday meet and subsume its palaces. This city of water will someday have no city to it. This is hardly a revelation, less to Venice’s residents than to its tourists, who still come flocking with their arms always featherless, ourselves included.
Few people too come with any solution to the problem, with any way of preventing the city from collapsing into the Mediterranean. Instead, we further weight its islands with luggage. We encourage water’s currents to inflict yet further erosion. Among its gondolas and bridges, we surrender to the flooding that comes at high tide, or acqua alta, as locals call it.
The phrase “happy as a clam” is an incomplete one. Abbreviated, the idiom implies clams know no sadness. But clams are not demonstrative; we have little way of inferring their emotions. They throw no parties or temper tantrums. “Happy as a clam at high tide” is the phrase in full, referring to clams’ safety from those intent on boiling them alive for their own consumption. Clams bury themselves in mud as deeply as six inches, though at low tide depressions in the mud betray them.
Yet even in its wholeness, the phrase still raises questions. Were it true in every sense, Venetians too would grow happier with each millimeter the lagoon rises. Happiness, however, is subject to cyclical rhythms, resistant to demands for its growth to remain indefinite. Clams at high tide too may be starving, their emotions secondary to another instinct.
I arrived in the city three days before my husband, to enjoy a larger serving of Venice, because of the two of us I am the hungrier person and also have more flexible vacations. For three nights, I ate out alone, savoring the open air, eating Italian meats and cheeses while feeding my love of beauty as if it were a second stomach. I also wanted to feel, like everyone else here, I imagine, more beautiful as a result of being in a city so ravishing. A woman alone in Europe, however, has also only to make an appearance. She does not have to be beautiful to be called this. She has only to present herself at water’s edge once the tides have weakened.
Venice was for the well-heeled, I’d read, and so I packed my best dresses. I wore shoes that clicked against the ancient pavement. I never left my room without applying mascara and lipstick for the thousands of eyes crowding the city’s open spaces. Eyes themselves also offer companionship, if only for a few seconds. I have known far more eyes than people, more eyes of men than women. I have perhaps taken too much comfort from their passing gazes in cities beloved for their dilapidation.
I found more than enough eyes here to sate me despite the endless flashing of cameras to blind them. Venice consists of 118 islands with hundreds of tavernas, all selling clams with spaghetti. Venetian chefs are more generous with clams than you’ll find in other places, as clams here are too plentiful to be precious. Put a spade anywhere at water’s edge once the tide has grown so low it’s nearly faded out of existence and the clams offer themselves freely as old virgins.
Clams have photoreceptors more than eyes as we know them, though of these they have hundreds lining their shells’ edges. They cannot see shapes, only spatial movements, prompting them to close their shells to escape predation. Able to detect threats approaching from all angles, they likely see more at times than they wish. They can see people digging for a clambake, for instance, and still not move or summon any defenses. As I sat alone those few days without my husband, I watched men watching me the same way clams must watch fishermen skulking along shoals where their shadows lengthen.
While they perceive shapes enlarging as they come closer, clams seem impassive. Still inside their shells they may stir with some excitement in the growing threat of being eaten. Perhaps something bordering on eroticism lies in the shadows shifting before them. Perhaps better too to see your end approaching. Better to surrender to the boiling alive to come inside a Venetian kitchen than live always with a panicked happiness. Better to overhear Italian men whisper about what you will never know for certain than to hear only weather reports in English.
Long used to each other’s attractions, my husband and I are often better attuned to our grievances. Once he arrived, I immediately felt more of a person. I became someone with a past all of a sudden. In the course of our first conversation, all my sins rose to the surface. He looked at me less with longing than with what I became too quickly once more accustomed. The waters that had hidden all the clams at their bottom dried into mud again.
The advantage of strangers is that this never happens. They see you for who you are only in the moment, are witness to only the beauty or ugliness that emerges from your silence. Love from strangers is given freely because they know nothing of your history. There is no obligation.
Half of Basilica San Marco was occluded by scaffolding when we first confronted its edifice. We walked quickly through its mosaics then rushed just as quickly out of it. We were looking for a place to escape Piazza San Marco and everyone standing before it while facing the opposite direction, smiling for only cameras, one dead eye blinking. Whatever our differences, we were agreed in looking for a darker, quieter happiness.
Skies were cerulean with no clouds streaked through them. Three and a half days in Venice and no rain had fallen or was predicted. We followed nuns carrying pink balloons and eating gelato from paper cups scrawled with ribbons before we found a shaded café nearby to rest. I picked up a phonebook left lying on a chair beside me as we ordered coffee. I paged through it as if it were a novel I was reading while my husband studied passing women.
Afterward, he led me down a serpentine alley, saying he wanted to show me something he had seen on the Internet. An hour of wandering without finding it, and I told him I was hungry. Couldn’t I wait? he asked me. Well no, I couldn’t. However enticing what he had to show me, my hunger would wreck my enjoyment. He groaned but has known me long enough to accept the truth in it.
We stepped inside a restaurant playing “The Song Remains the Same” by Led Zeppelin, a song I love but which my husband admits has lost its luster for him. Our waiter had long hair the color of cement overhanging a cleft chin and looked at us with hatred, for not, I supposed, having made the song sound any different. I felt equally hurt and relieved by his animus. I also realized I had been looking for him. Throughout the past three days, I had been looking for someone indifferent to all the city’s frescoes, women, and bridges curving like diseased spinal columns.
Lining the windowsill beside our table were several thorny succulents, some with arms rounded like a cactus, all of them growing from wide, ceramic vases. The plants never knew any sun, because I doubt the waiter or anyone else here ever moved them. The alley you must walk to reach Libreria Acqua Alta is narrow and perpetually shaded.
We ordered a plate of pasta with clams, a portion large enough for two, as well as a bottle of prosecco. We are not normally day drinkers, but we had left our normal lives empty and vacant. There was little reason not to get a little drunken.
When he brought the wine, the waiter didn’t look at our faces or at any of the succulents. He made no eye contact with any plants or humans. Behind us, two guitars were propped on a sideboard carved with frozen fish, and when he brought us our plate of clams my husband asked him to play. I expected the waiter to ignore this. Instead, he took down the darker acoustic and began playing music that transformed him into something radiant.
He played some soft, aching melody as if speaking a different language in which he was more fluent. As he sang, filling the room with sound waves that soothed even the tables and chairs with gentler vibrations, he looked into my face and sang something in Italian I could not interpret. He looked at me for the first time as if I were a strange woman, someone whom he knew only by what came from her silence. Once we thought he was finished, he played his song again.
For sound to travel, something must always carry it. In a vacuum, sound vanishes because a vacuum has no arms as well as any atoms. Sound is like a newborn baby whose legs serve little purpose. Water carries sound waves at four times the speed as gases, allowing whales to travel vast distances yet continue their conversation. Underwater, clams can hear us better than we can hear them while still breathing the air above them. They hear us tell them they’re happy when the tide comes in while they either say nothing or start shouting how we know nothing of their emotions.
The clams we were eating had some sand inside them but tasted luscious. I ate more than half as well as most of the buttered pasta. Each clam has kidneys, a heart, mouth, stomach, and an anus, and I ate dozens of all of them. I consumed dozens of the whole organism, all except the exoskeleton. I ate, and the waiter returned to us. On his own now without us asking, he began to strum the guitar strings and hum a lazy rhythm. He was no longer singing for us—no longer looking our direction—but was speaking to himself in his own language. This time, his lyrics sounded only vaguely Italian.
He had understood our need for loneliness, even before he seated us. He had seen that among so much beauty in Venice we were hungry for something that felt more familiar to Americans. Even with his hatred, he had been kind enough to offer this.
As we left, he smiled then hugged us, and we walked into the darkened alley on a day of unrelenting sun. The wine’s bubbles had made our bodies lighter, had leavened them with something gaseous. We both began to burp as we walked inside Libreria Acqua Alta and its tidal waters washed over us.
The bookstore contains three gondolas, two bathtubs, as well as a garden with a wall of books I doubt are available for purchase because they look so badly damaged. Hundreds more volumes form a staircase that patrons are free to climb and from which you can overlook working gondolas in the canal running past the wall containing the plantless garden. Here you can sit on yet another, higher tower of books, becoming effectively an island within an island. John Donne famously said no man is one, but I have never believed him, because even continents are islands. Even Africa is floating in an ocean. Even this one small planet is bobbing in its orbit, separate from all others. Islands stacked on islands is the human condition. When you live within a body, this is simply what happens. Otherwise, you would transcend both happiness and sadness. Life without boundaries could not distinguish between emotions.
After I walked down the stairs of books, we left the garden of words alone. We stepped inside the shop again, walked past another gondola overflowing with cookbooks, when I sat down on a bench, which held a door open. The door led to no room beyond it but directly onto the canal. Open the closed door in winter, and you would step onto the water as if onto a terrace. When the city’s water rises only a few inches, the Libreria Acqua Alta will become subaqueous. This door will do little to stop this. Each year, the city also settles deeper into its bed of shifting sediment.
My husband browsed books of photographs, and I stayed sitting on the bench while dangling a foot over the smoothing ripples. A man came and stood beside me while looking out the doorframe. He sighed and said, “What a beautiful island,” when I agreed with him. Hearing his accent, my husband asked where he came from, when the man named a small town an hour outside Paris. His eyes were shimmering as if water were rising behind them, and his hair was bluish black. He had studied here in Venice in his twenties, he said. He was so happy that in the past ten years the city hadn’t too badly flooded. The Libreria Acqua Alta was blessedly still with us.
He nodded toward the bench where I sat and said I was the fire warden. I looked up with confusion, when he smiled and said I was sitting beside the fire exit, the only safe place to vacate the building in case of conflagration. Beside me I noticed an empty bucket—for putting out fires, he said, if a fire came before the floods by accident. Luigi Frizzo, sitting at the cash register, then started laughing. I had picked up the bucket and was swinging it, although it was empty. I was preparing to save us years too early.
After we talked for a few minutes, he invited us to stay with him should we ever come to Paris. We exchanged email addresses, though we have never written. Still I could see he was a clam begun to open. He was feeding by extending his siphons, making friends who would never come and visit.
On land, clams make a sound only if one shell is clanked against another object, and this had made for most of the fun of eating them half an hour before this. Before our waiter stopped hating us and played his music, I’d sounded certain rhythms on my plate with their exoskeletons. I clinked them together as if they were small tambourines whose insides I had not just eaten. You can make this kind of music, however, only when all your softness lies within.
I had wanted the clams to provide us entertainment, to become louder, heightening the celebration. Once our waiter began singing, I used them to insert syncopated percussion. I beat one shell against another then tapped my spoon against a small cairn I’d built of the rest, begging the clams to pretend they were as happy as I was for the moment. I beat and beseeched them to raise their spirits before the water began receding again.
Yet real clam music consists of only silence as far as I can determine. In the back of my mind, I knew this. Only I chose to ignore it, as silence makes for odd merriment. Real clam music never clamors for attention. It expresses neither joy when the tides are high nor depression when the moon pulls the water deeper into the ocean. Real clam music eschews all tonal variation. It remains constant, seemingly indifferent to whether someone ever boils the clam open.
Compared to clams, we cannot keep even our fists closed for any length of time. Our muscles quickly weaken while certain proteins allow clams to close their shells for as long as a month, for what amounts to brief hibernation. During this period, they may still open their shells at will to filter feed, or they may go hungry for protection. Their muscle strength arises from not wasting it, from not traveling to far-flung continents to witness beauty that will soon be flooded.
Flooding, however, cannot be silent. Some screams must sound through the drowning once the waters rise forever over Venice. Screams too are carried farther under water. Everyone who drowns in that part of the Mediterranean will hear each other more easily while discovering whether clams are truly happy once the waters rise to what we will consider calamitous. Those last Venetians alone will know whether clams sing once the water rises so high no one can claim them or whether they grow quieter.
Melissa Wiley is the author of Antlers in Space and Other Common Phenomena (Split Lip Press). Her creative nonfiction has appeared most recently in places like The Rumpus, DIAGRAM, Phoebe, Waxwing, Vol.1 Brooklyn, The Offing, Juked, Noble / Gas Qtrly, Drunken Boat, PANK, and Queen Mob’s Tea House. She lives in Chicago.