The Gnome of Venice

There is a place in Venice we call the “Sheriff’s Star,” a back-lit cul-de-sac at the heart of many dead-ends. Dusky alleys lead you to a locked door, a blind wall.  The canal on one side of the Principessa’s palazzo exists as a vibrant undertone.  The Principessa was doyenne of the Biennale and midnight Carnival balls, and may have possessed a tail and two heads: I knew only hearsay.

But that night someone had summoned me there, I must hurry to the palazzo at once, said the voice on the phone.

I did not want to go there – not alone. I also did not want anyone to get there before I did. That fatal ambition of mine. It made all the difference to me that by the time my father was twenty he’d already become a detective of first rank.

“Oh Father, come!” I telephoned him right away. He was the only person I could think of calling. He said, confused: “The Principessa? She wants me?” I said: “Father, it’s me, Sophia. I got a call from someone who says there’s strange activity at the Principessa’s palazzo. Will you meet me by the Sheriff’s Star?”

I bounded in front of him in a kind of exultant trance. The length of the palazzo’s rooms, the echoes they returned, made the passing of time hardly real. Bleary-eyed and yawning, my father trudged behind me. After a long time I fell in step with him: two slow-poking, reluctant detectives on night parade. Short shadows made continual sweeps of our heads – bats. If he was beginning to have doubts, as I was sure he was, I was grateful he didn’t say so. Once, I let out a hard, gulping laugh – to test the silence.

That was when a maid appeared. She huddled open-mouthed, peering at us from a dark sliver of a passage. My first thought was, she is some big, stuffed crow. Then her protesting wail – she was pointing to a dwarf door we might never have noticed, camouflaged, as it was, by peeling paint: “There! Not here! There!”

My father, as if to shake off his fatigue, did a violent shuffling lurch through the door. We were in the hidden chamber of a gnome. I had the urge to squat down – to look the gnome full-face. 

He was sitting (waiting for us?) in a chair with the Principessa’s coat of arms on a silver riser above his head. A small grilled window let in a moonbeam. It occurred to me that the window and the dwarf door were the only objects in the entire palazzo that matched his size. The slightly garnet glow from a low-watt bulb on the wall pulled the shadows down in streaks. This garnet bulb may have influenced me. A hellish glow, it goes without saying.

He sat up rigid, watching. He said only: “You’re too late.” He spoke a guttural Italian with a German accent, which I recognized as the voice on the phone.

I spoke low to my father:  “This must be the tedesco uomo who called.”

Following us into the room, like a bat herself, was the maid: “I was told by the Principessa never to enter, except to bring meals, and I am not one to disobey!” And then she toppled over. My father took her arms and heaved her against him. He said to me: “You question the German. Ask for details and make a note of inconsistencies. I’ll be back.” – “Thank you, Father!” I called behind. It was a great honor for me to be allowed to begin the questioning alone.

The maid, as she being steered by my father out of the room, called my father by his name, or did she? I could have mistaken his name, Pia, for any number of words she was howling. I took out my notebook. The gnome was watching me with an odd, sideways smile, and I had to suppress a reflex to smile back. I thought, here’s another stuffed bird.  But it wasn’t a smile, he never changed expression. A waffled scar by his lips pulled his mouth to one side and gave him the permanent leer of a Carnival mask. He seemed close to my own age, twenty, and he was dressed like a lot of my friends in Venice dressed that year, in head-to-toe black; shabby, over-large (borrowed?) clothes billowed around him like spirits in search of a body to cleave to. His hair was a scattershot of curls of uneven length down his back: more dusty than blond.

“You are?” I said, preparing to write down everything he said.

“I’m the painter.”

“Painter.” I looked around doubtfully. I saw a dimly charcoaled X on an empty canvas against the wall.

 He answered my look with a hands-up shrug. “The Principessa asked me to do her portrait, something like Fragonard aka The Lover Crowned, but I never got to it. It’s not what you think.”

“What do I think?” I asked.

 “I’ve been having a dry spell.”

“Yes,” I said, feeling very stupid. “But why did you call tonight?” 

“I called because I thought you’d come quickly. It’s customary for the police to respond quickly.”

“Yes, and we only showed up now,” I said by way of apologizing. I should have come at once, of course, and not waited for my father to accompany me. My poor, dream-tattered father! He had wanted to shave and shower and have a coffee first. At the time, I hadn’t thought there was anything significant about his delaying, and of course I said nothing of this to the painter. “I was alone on my shift. I was waiting for a back-up.”

“You’re too late,” the painter complained. “Everyone’s gone.”


“The men, the motorboats. Motorboats picking things up, men piling things into motorboats.” The painter pointed to the window.

“You saw them from this window?” I looked out: a moon bulged to fullness, putti blurred pale against stone. The lone cry of a gull. 

“I saw them, yes. I hoped to do her a favor and get her arrested before she did herself harm.”

I stared. “Get who arrested?”

It was at this point my father joined us. He poked his head through the door, bubble-eyed, strained-alert. He had the keenest eyes in Venice. He’d spoken with the maid, he said.

“Where are we?” my father asked me.

“He said he saw men moving things…but I don’t know how much he could have seen from this tiny window,” I added in a murmur.

“Smuggling things,” said the painter. “First I thought, the Principessa is being robbed. But then I saw her getting in one of the boats. She moves very slowly. Stoned, probably. She usually is. If you’d gotten here sooner –“

“But what would she be smuggling?” I blurted out.

My father, who was idly shuffling through things on the worktable, waved a sheet of paper in the air. “What’s this?”

“That’s” – the painter made a grab for the paper, then stopped and sighed. “That’s… all right, I’ll tell you. It’s something she said to me once. It intrigued me, so I wrote it down.”

“Heaven is…” my father began to read from the paper.

“Wait – will you give it to me? I’ll read it.”

The painter read to us: “In 1589, Giovanni Marian Esposito figured that Hell is 3,758.4 miles away from us and has a width of 2,505.5 miles. Heaven, where the blessed rest in the greatest happiness, is 1,7999,995,500 miles away from us.”

I looked to my father, who stood at a distance directly under the garnet light bulb. He gave me a conspiratorial wink, which confused me the more.   

“She felt the numbers weren’t right,” the painter added. “In Venice, and particularly from her house here, heaven and hell must be neighbors, she said.”

“So the Principessa left tonight,” my father commented.

“Yes,” the painter responded in a heat. “Capable of doing something desperate, but I couldn’t stop her.”

“There’s still time to radio the boat patrol,” I ventured.

“Yes, do it, do it,” said the painter.

My father smiled wanly. “The maid says the Principessa has gone on a trip.”

“A trip?” the painter gave a start. “A trip to where? Why? How? I know her better than anyone. We’re family. She and my father are second cousins. She would tell me if she was going on a trip. And what about those boxes? Boatloads of boxes. Irgendwas stimmt nicht.”

“Say that again?” my father asked. 

“You think the Principessa is in danger?” I put in.

“I think I’m in danger,” the painter corrected me. “She didn’t trust Bull. She told me so. She said, ‘Bull will put the nails to your coffin.”

“Bull?” I echoed. “Bull Bianchi? Why would she mention him?”

The painter misunderstood my question. “That’s her idea of humor,” he answered.

“She was warning me.” He whistled through his teeth. “But the old bitch still has some life in her yet!”

“There’s no way the Principessa would know Bull,” I protested. I had watched Bull Bianchi being interrogated two days before. He was often pulled in: racketeering, drugs, years in prison and out again. We had never been able to keep him in for good.

As my father would say, our cleverness is not always equal to our intentions.

“Bull!” The painter insisted. “He’s always around her. The idiot who sells fake Ecstasy to tourists.”

My father spoke grimly. “Describe exactly what happened tonight.”

“Thank you. At last you’re taking me seriously.”

“But you’re mistaken,” my father countered. “I’ve been taking this very seriously.”

“All right, I’ll start yesterday if you please…”

“Will this take long?” my father demanded.

“Suddenly in such a rush!” the painter snapped back.

My father bowed slightly. “My apologies. You have all the time you want. Please go on.”

The painter began: “Yesterday, I said to her: ‘I’m as good as done with your portrait, there’s no real reason why I should stay here any longer.”

“You’re done with her portrait?” I stopped him. “You told me you hadn’t done her portrait.”

“Yes, I was teasing her – she knew I hadn’t done her portrait.”

“That’s clear. Go on,” said my father.

“Suddenly, Bull burst in and interrupted us. She turned white and told him: ‘Not here. Not in front of the boy.’ But he ignored her. Bull spoke to me: ‘I got a fine catch, would you like to see?’ He was holding a pail.”

The painter jumped up from his chair and pantomimed the scene for us. “She was standing here. She swept her hand over my worktable, hesitated, and then she said to me in a whisper: ‘I can expect you’ll stand by me, can’t I.’” The painter looked at us knowingly.

“What was in the pail?” I inquired for lack of anything else to say.

“A human head.”

My father changed the tone at once, for nothing ever escaped him: “You’re shown a human head in a pail yesterday and you waited till tonight to call us.”

The painter seemed as slow as I was to wake to this fact. “Waited… Well. Yes. Could I have helped her? I care about her. She is in over her head. I waited to see if there was anything I could do –”

“And you’d had a shock,” I couldn’t resist saying.

“Sophia,” my father called me over. He motioned me to produce the photographs we had brought along.

“Show him the ones on top,” he spoke low. And to the painter: “Do you recognize any of these men?”

“Right. Right. That’s the one. Bull. The fat one.”

My father and I exchanged a look. I was reminded of what the mayor had once remarked: “We follow your father, but not with equal steps.”

“You’re sure this is Bull?” my father gave the painter another chance.

“Ja, that’s Bull. ‘The sooner you leave,’ he said to me, ‘the better off you’ll be.’”

The painter looked at us with a sudden fright. “Do I think I should call my consulate?”

“I don’t think that’s necessary,” my father remarked.

The painter eyed us for a second, then tittered bitterly. “Ja, ja. What do they say about consuls? They’ll work miracles for you, as long as you don’t need their help.”

My father spoke sharply: “This man’s not Bull.”

“What?” the painter blinked back at him. A poor beat gnome with the Carnival leer.

“This man in the photograph is not Bull Bianchi. This is Bull.” My father thrust him another photo.

“Wait.” The painter wagged his arms high in the air. “Wait. Let me see the photos again… You’re right. Yes. My mistake.” He appealed to me: “The light here isn’t the best.”

My father: “And perhaps the light is poor enough that you could be mistaken about a human head in a pail?”

The painter let out a strangely disengaged giggle. What was the joke? A cat appeared, banging a toy around the painter’s feet. And another touch of whimsy: hanging on a wire from the ceiling was a tapestry woven through with a set of frolicking satyrs and puppy dogs snapping at their heels. The painter’s blunt-tipped leather boots looked incongruously like the satyrs’ hooves.

“All right,” the painter slumped down in his chair. “Don’t believe me. They paddled the boats far out to sea before they turned on the motors. Doesn’t that say something?”

My father: “The sea is not visible from this room.”

“But I can see the canal…”

My father: “Yes, they paddled the boats from the canal, which is not unusual practice.”

The painter made an arc in the air as if he were drawing a cloud around him. “One more thing: Her grandson. Whatever money’s in the family, the kid has it, and she has to toady to him, the little tyrant. And she sticks by him like glue. She would never go off on any trip.”

My father stood gazing down at him. “How would you describe yourself?” he finally said.

“Io sono un artista.” The painter squinted up at my father’s too bright eyes. “I am an artist.”

“A fantasist,” muttered my father. “Unless you have more questions”… he turned to me.

In the sudden silence, there was only the dulling monotonous hum of the garnet light bulb. Nearby, the standard metal worktable, the X across a solitary canvas.

“No, I don’t have any questions,” I shook my head. It was the end, my father was itching to be home, have it over and done with. I understood why! It rankled, this young German’s fabulous insinuations.

We packed our things and left him there and when we went outside we seemed to open our mouths in unison and heave sighs of relief.  My father was so jaunty, he even described the dream he’d been having before he was awakened by my phone call.  “An anarchist and a judge were in a boat…”

“I have a dumb question,” I said to my father.

“Go on.”

“Don’t painters need light? The only light was from that little window.”

“You call that a dumb question? I think if we’d stayed another quarter-hour he would have contradicted everything he said.”

I nodded. “I would have believed him, Father, if you hadn’t been with me.”  A human head in a pail. Why not? The painter himself looked like something left over from a bloody attic purge. I shuddered. “I’m trying to remember what I know about the Principessa. We children, looking up at her windows, used to say: ‘There’s the witch, boiling dogs for her dinner.’ But to judge by the painter, she’s a collector of lost souls.”

We walked along a little ways before my father replied: “She’s someone for everybody.

“Heaven and hell are neighbors, yes…I think that’s true in her case, in her palazzo.”

“By the way, shall we go home now?” my father broke in – a sudden emptiness gaping between us. My father and I had not seen much of each other lately. Ever since my mother died, he had been living in a rented room near the old salt warehouse on the Zattere. He brooded and grieved too much alone, I thought. Our shifts rarely overlapped.

My mother had once made a radius around us and her absence now was all we shared.

I lingered, holding him in a tight hug. It would never do, I knew, to ask him to come home with me; he was way too proud. He disapproved of my boyfriend; not that he minded our living together, only Danny had “too few brains.” But of course I could say:

“Thank you, Father, for coming.” I added: “I’m sorry I interrupted your sleep.”

“I prefer not to sleep,” my father gave me a wrenching smile. “You made the wise decision. I’m very proud of you.”

“Those trick doors and funhouse mirrors in the palazzo”… I started again.

My father yawned. “Yes, Sophia. And don’t piss in your own nest.”

“Is that what the painter’s done?” I asked.

“That’s what I’m going to do!” he laughed. And then: “Good night, daughter. You did a fine job.”

As he headed over the footbridge, my father held up his arm and shook out a small wave without turning around, as if he knew I would be watching him.

Reluctantly, I began walking. In terms of direction, I felt I was going everywhere at once. I was in no hurry. It was the empty time of night the detectives called The Gooseflesh, for obvious reasons. The only noise was wind in the hollows of alleys as if someone were blowing through cupped hands. The stones themselves had an aura of furtive life. I heard the occasional cheep of a rat. I turned, feeling a presence behind me.

The wind brought the slightest noises close.

I doubled back and retraced my steps. I must have been walking in circles a long while, because by the time I reached the Principessa’s dock a fresh flush of mist was over the canal and a breaking sun glistened off the spires of San Giorgio Maggiore, as if wet.

I went a little way inward to the neighboring canal and stood dead still. A woman was climbing into a boat. She moved slowly. I thought: she’s trailing great groaning wings. I shook my head, I might have even rubbed my eyes. She was exactly the degraded angel one expects to encounter at daybreak on a deserted waterfront.

A fat hand swiped the air: a child, who was hidden in the bow of the boat, lurched to a stand. The wake made a kind of turnstile and the figures listed to and fro; the child staggered, backing away from her. It was light enough for me to identify him absolutely, my heart thudding. The painter. The woman lunged – she had the might of a demon – she pushed him hard. A few feet away from me a stupidly puffed-up gull let out the loudest shriek I’ve ever heard. The woman was gunning the boat out to sea, the gull in hypnotic chase. I had one glimpse of the painter in the gurgling waves, then everything blurred and went black.

I didn’t see it, I did. The feeling, that I was being pressed through a crack in a tunnel. My head seemed to fall away from my hands like pebbles. God help me, it didn’t hurt as much as I groaned. I groped blindly, in a free fall, lost walls, sucked-in space.

When I came to, the wind pushed my breaths back into my mouth.

Someone had knocked me down from behind, I knew that much. Absurdly enough, the first thought that came to me was when my father had congratulated me for nabbing the one-hundredth pickpocket this season: “I can expect you’ll stand by us,” I heard him say, an echo of the Principessa’s words to the painter.

I stood unsteadily, disgraced – as if I had an audience. You know the feeling, the more alone you are, the more those damn phantoms press upon you like a crowd. Who was watching me? But everything was shuttered up. A pigeon waddled away from me, it looked merged into a deep quietude. I thought, this is a new situation altogether, I must tell my father.

It was then that I saw a figure in the shelter of an archway. She must have been standing there a long time, waiting for me to notice her. She shifted into the sunlight. I could not even hear her steps as she approached me. Light and shadows flickered around her, made her look aged and hard, or then again bewitching and voluptuous, the degraded angel of before. Nothing was fixed about her. I knew this had to be the Principessa:

“Someone for everybody.”

The first thing I fumbled for was my gun. Next, the handcuffs which I rattled in my pocket for… for what? oh, maybe just for a touch of the commonplace.

A short screech from the shutters opening across the alley and then a woman, dressed for Sunday, rushed past me across the flagstone. The Principessa made a brusque motion with her hand, as if she were pulling a veil over her face. She did it again – and now it was a signal for me to follow her: careful, don’t let anyone see. Yes, I followed her. The alley, and then into the piazza with its tinkling fountain. I stopped and used the fountain to wash my face. I saw how she turned, waiting for me, and entered her palazzo, leaving the door wide open behind her. The child skipped past me into the immense, echoing hall and I went in after him. The Principessa’s voice snapped the child to attention. He made a mock salute to her, and then to me. I made a mock bow. Then through another door broad enough to encompass an army, the child retreated – backward, keeping his eyes on me. The bells of Venice were tolling for early Mass.

Dawn light streamed down in long banners from the ceiling vault.

So: this great chamber was where she held her infamous Carnival balls. “The food was delicious, but there was very little of it,” was the way my father had described her last ball to us, to Danny and me, on the one occasion hen he had come to dine. In retrospect now, it seemed like a veiled warning to me.

I tried not to betray my uneasiness. I came toward the Principessa and tripped over a baffling tile. She let out a high, implausibly girlish laugh, directed not at me, but at the mangled object lying on the floor between us. I thought, so there is the human head.

Close up, I saw it was only a bunched-up paper glider the child had left behind. This seemed from the start to set the tone of playfulness, at least for her. These vast interiors of Venice are anyway like play spaces, airy as meadows compared to the cramped outdoors.

The venerable lady was bending over the paper glider, murmuring in her girlish voice: “Yes, I am told I am idle and nothing changes” and “Then you can solve your little mystery if you want to call it that”… (And whom was speaking to now?) The time lag between words was like a stutterer trying to get an urgent message across. She wasn’t a stutterer, but her voice in the monstrous empty hall sprang over and over against the walls.

She was holding a book that she made no attempt to hide. She flipped open its cover (like a cigar box) – hollow inside – and she held it out to show me. A book that was not a book at all. What was she saying?… “…and will follow me to the bake house…”

I followed. She was leading me into a smaller room with soot-botched, half-tumbledown walls. Again, no furniture. A bat flapped by like a black handkerchief.

Spinning to face me, she flicked her hand toward empty space:

“I have nothing, as you can see. I’m one of the few people who can say I possess less now than on the day I was born…” she stopped abruptly on a high note, nearly half a whistle. As if on command, a side door swung open and my father entered.

“Here,” she said to me, as if she were delivering to me the contents of the empty book.

My father: I took an involuntary step back.

The Principessa watched us, her eyes crinkled full of frank curiosity. When she wasn’t speaking, she looked to be anywhere between fifty and seventy years old. She bobbed her head to my father and then to me and signaled to the door. Something sinister and unnatural seemed to be behind that door. The child, I understood. We should keep our voices low because the child might be listening.

She spoke to me in whisper: “The boy is dead. You know this. He couldn’t hold his drink. I’ve always believed that’s a sign of an honest man.” Her head rotated to my father, as if to reply to something he’d said. He scarcely moved; his arms hung motionless. The woman’s vivacity, in contrast, made him seem almost faceless.

“I grieve for all men,” the Principessa was whispering, “the plural of men.”  At this, my father grasped her elbow, as if to prop her up, or to prop himself up. She patted his hand reassuringly.

“Father,” I ventured with caution. I thought, if knowledge grows with experience, so does innocence? “Father, I think we should consider what the painter told us.”

“What the painter told you?” the Principessa echoed. “Did you happen to see the sketch of me the painter did?”

My father spoke for the first time but directed his words to the woman, not to me.

“The sketch in the studio?”

“Yes, it should still be there,” she replied. “It’s a charcoal sketch, which he later erased. That’s the kind of boy he is. I asked him for a portrait and I get an X. What was he trying to say about me? I am erasable. I am erased.”

I said: “Yes, and he spoke of being in danger.” 

My father: “He spoke about a lot of things.”

“The painter is dead. That changes everything, Father!”

“He couldn’t be helped,” said the Principessa. “No one could have helped him.”

“Father, I saw –“

My father’s gaze sank into a dim incurious stare beyond me. “What you saw. You had an impression.”

“But Father! I saw her push –“

“Tell her, tell her,” the Principessa urged.

“The Principessa comes from a distinguished family—“

“No, not that,” she interrupted my father. “Explain. I went straight to you afterwards.”

“Yes, of course,” my father stumbled for a moment. “You came to me.”

“I came to you and then? No, let me explain. I was coming home from early Mass. I heard whimpering from the boat. I looked to see, and before I could help him, he had fallen in the water… I hadn’t a chance in the world to help him.”

“No, Father, oh Father! It wasn’t an impression. Someone else was there. Someone knocked me unconscious. Someone who didn’t want me to see what I was seeing.”

The Principessa suddenly broke out in a gusty, choking laugh that seemed to attack my chest with tiny toothpicks. I thought, now it is my turn to topple over. The air in this former bake house had become unbearably sultry.

My father was fixing me with eyes of hot anger: “Someone knocked you down? You saw this person. You can identify this person?”

“That’s enough, enough!” cried the Principessa. “Your daughter deserves a reprimand. I must talk to D.P” – she named a government official.

My father interceded: “Principessa, she’s a good girl. She has a lot to learn… Solving crimes – no, that isn’t her strength.”

“Shush,” the Principessa interrupted, squeezing my father’s hand so I felt the palms of my own hands grow hot.

The two were not looking at me now, but at the door, as if at some congealed dust on the door, and then at each other, an unspoken wish to have that child who may be listening behind the door scooped up and removed at once. I could smell the coffee on my father’s breath. He was very close. I raised my fist and only managed to graze his shoulder while he, on the alert, clenched both my wrists in his hands. We looked eye to eye. Our panting went in unison. A split-second later we pulled away, embarrassed. It happened that quickly. An ugly, meaningless reflex.

Smarting with humiliation, I spoke quickly, recklessly, turning on the Principessa as I could not turn on my father. I said to her:

“I’ve never ‘solved’ a crime unless that crime was committed directly under my nose. That’s why I’m called ‘Daddy’s Darling’ when my father is out of earshot. I’m not competent. I wouldn’t be given my job if it weren’t for my father’s reputation.”

I rambled on, “Oh and yes, that’s why I was given the shift tonight. Because it’s a slow Saturday and nothing happens on a slow Saturday that Daddy’s Darling can’t handle. So you have nothing to fear from me. No one would believe me, whatever I said. As for clues, I’ve never looked for them – I’ve never been called to look for them, Signora -- but if I was, I would sooner search your face than a bridge or a boat or a room.”

That was that. I’d said my foolish words. O Father – he did not look at me. Father! No voice called me back.

I left, feeling as if I were walking too loudly, but that I couldn’t walk fast enough. I only slowed down my pace when the child  – his hand clamped around a bunch of grapes, his ugly face reminding me disconcertingly of the painter’s  -- appeared on the threshold of the faraway, monstrous door. And seeing him, I stopped. Then it gave me real pain to inhale. I had taken the wrong door – I was deep inside the domestic quarters, a maze of closed doors. What was it about those rooms, Father, that were broad and high and empty for a man to get lost in? But from earliest days I’d heard it as a ringing challenge: a call from the heart in my father’s voice (the dreamily temperate voice of a father tucking in a child at night): “The more onerous the crime, the more difficult it is to solve…”

Only when I was outside the palazzo – when I had run “out of doors” – did I allow myself the luxury of looking back: no one. The door shut behind me. A bronze doorknob shined gold where innumerable hands had grasped it. Inspecting it, one might have seen – as if through a glass smeared with filth – the fingerprints of careless men.

One might have seen, but. 

My line of sight went no farther than the nearest shadows: the Sheriff’s Star, steeped in heart-stopping chiaroscuro. A place that resembled nothing but a sketch. A figure.

Bull Bianchi was sitting on the bench by the fountain – not looking at me. He stood up and crossed into the far alley; he returned with a newspaper and sat down again. No one else came by. Not even the clouds seemed to move. The newspaper, I supposed, would carry a short notice about the German drowned in the black muck of a canal in our fallen Venice. Moments later, Bull stood up, crushing the newspaper under his heels, and vanished. Shadows from the Principessa’s palazzo crept over the space where he’d been.

Pigeons blinked back the dead heat, the windless sky. They waddled toward me desultorily, as if they shared with me the same mute futility. What looked like two angels floating above a shuttered window was only an abandoned stork’s nest. The black footbridge, the black bench, the musky smell of stone. The bells calling Venice to early prayer. The same calls again and again, from lagoon to sea. Our sins washed away: If I were a believer, I would believe.