Last week I bestowed my handbag upon the waters of Venice. The strap had snapped open as I was getting out of a boat. The contents spilled into the lagoon.
I experienced several strange sensations while watching my beautiful red eel-skin purse sinking irretrievably through the green murk. I thought about the eel’s skin going back where it belonged, travelling fast as if with a homing instinct for the depths in which it was born and once lived.
I thought of the plastic bottles that tourists throw into the water in Venice, as if that is what the city deserves after offering them so much beauty, history and life.
And I thought about other things lost or given to the water, as discovered in my recent researches. There is the precious psalter that the intemperate King Sweeny (or Swiney) threw into a lake in Dark Ages Ireland, with the consequence that he was cursed to live bird-brained in the trees, even though a spiritually aware otter fished the book out of the water.
No otters in Venice, sadly, and certainly none to save my purse.
But that Irish otter had spirit brothers at the time of St Cuthbert, who gave himself as a gift to the icy water one winter, standing in it up to his armpits all night, singing the praises of God. When he finally emerged from the sea, a pair of otters came and twined themselves around him, warming and reviving him.
Back in Venice, in January 1894, a distraught Constance Fenimore Woolson threw herself from a window at the Palazzo Semitecolo. She was found dying by a gondolier. Henry James, whom she had loved in vain, was her executor. He tried to drown her black silk dresses in the lagoon, but the lagoon did not want this gift. The dresses filled with air and floated like great black bubbles around him. James fled.
The water takes more often than it refuses.
And this week, very sadly, the wonderful Tales on Moon Lane Bookshop in London’s Herne Hill gave many involuntary gifts to the water when a burst water main flooded the premises and indeed the street, up to a metre deep. The owner of the bookshop, Tamara Macfarlane, a great lover of Venice, is also the person who gave me my beautiful drowned eel-skin purse … and her poor flooded bookshop reminded me of the scene in my novel The Floating Book, in which Windelin and Lussieta, the printer and his wife, take their boat out into the lagoon to launch the first ever printed edition of Catullus into the water. Their idea is that publishing a book is like casting it upon the water, to see if it will sink or float. So they enact the metaphor, with hope, as Venice is all about enacting metaphors.And that reminded me of a trip to the zoo this week with another History Girl and her enchanting daughters. We saw a chameleon who runs so fast and is so light that it can walk on water. Here’s a video of one doing just that. The only gift this chameleon is offering is the brief imprint of his tiny feet. The water quickly palimpsests itself, ready to receive other impressions.
James George Frazer’s Golden Bough describes how young women are given to the water, a ceremony that finds parallels all over the world:
Among the Nyanja-speaking tribes of Central Angoniland, in British Central Africa, when a young girl finds that she has become a woman, she stands silent by the pathway leading to the village, her face wrapt in her calico. An old woman, finding her there, takes her off to a stream to bathe; after that the girl is secluded for six days in the old woman's hut. She eats her porridge out of an old basket and her relish, in which no salt is put, from a potsherd. The basket is afterwards thrown away. On the seventh day the aged matrons gather together, go with the girl to a stream, and throw her into the water. In returning they sing songs, and the old woman, who directs the proceedings, carries the maiden on her back.
Sometimes it was a tree dressed as woman that ended up in the water:
in Russia at Whitsuntide the villagers go out into the wood, fell a birch-tree, dress it in woman's clothes, and bring it back to the village with dance and song. On the third day it is thrown into the water.
An architect friend told me, ‘Water in architecture of course brings peace and above all reflection.'
Yet reflections can be dangerous. Frazer again:
As some peoples believe a man's soul to be in his shadow, so other (or the same) peoples believe it to be in his reflection in water or a mirror. Thus “the Andamanese do not regard their shadows but their reflections (in any mirror) as their souls”. Some of the Fijians thought that man has two souls, a light one and a dark one; the dark one goes to Hades, the light one is his reflection in water or a mirror …The Zulus will not look into a dark pool because they think there is a beast in it which will take away their reflections, so that they die. The Basutos say that crocodiles have the power of thus killing a man by dragging his reflection under water.
…We can now understand why it was a maxim both in ancient India and ancient Greece not to look at one's reflection in water, and why the Greeks regarded it as an omen of death if a man dreamed of seeing himself so reflected. They feared that the water-spirits would drag the person's reflection (soul) under water, leaving him soulless to die. This was probably the origin of the classical story of the beautiful Narcissus, who pined and died in consequence of seeing his reflection in the water …The same ancient belief lingers, in a faded form, in the English superstition that whoever sees a water-fairy must pine and die.
Vikings gave their kings to the water on burning boats. The Chinese and the Indians set fire to water too.
A shaman has recently taught me a lovely act of redemption. I wrap painful thoughts and vivid nightmares, often recorded in the form of poems, around rocks. Then I throw paper-swaddled rocks into the Thames. Sometimes they land on the stony river bed, awaiting the high tide to take them away at its leisure. Other times they sink straight into the great grey greasy waves of the Thames.
Archaeologists of the future will perhaps think that an icy kind of Bluebeard, a horny-skinned rhinoceros and an implacable rapacious monster terrorised the decent women of Southwark in the early twenty-first century. Or maybe a novelist downstream is reading my words every now and then and basing a work of ‘fiction’ around them.
More than a decade ago, in another life, I passed an extraordinary evening in Venice with an American, two Venetians and another Anglosassone like myself. Each of us was beset by demons. Between us, we had broken hearts, cancer, bereavement and financial woes. Each of us wrote our troubles and tied the paper into a scroll. Then we inflated an eight foot plastic crocodile, to whom we tied our troubles. At midnight we launched the crocodile into the Grand Canal at San Vio and let it float downstream, taking our griefs away. We watched it in silence until it disappeared.
A few years later, when my friend Marilyn died, her daughter brought her ashes from America to Venice. Marilyn had been at her most serene in La Serenissima. We gave her ashes to the Grand Canal along with a dozen pale peach roses. Ashes and roses promptly set off in the direction of Marilyn’s favourite café, as she herself did so often.
So many fleeting trains of thought, quickly sinking, as my purse did, into the soft debris of subterranean history. Someone once said – who? – that it is cruel to detain a fleeting thought. So I’ll stop here.
Your turn now.
What gifts have you given to the water? What might you like to give to the water? In your novels, in your historical researches and in your real lives?
Michelle Lovric's website