Family tradition relates that in the year of grace 1667, my grandfather, the Count de la Savoia eloped with a beautiful nun from the monastery of Domus Ciliota. The Corpa della Nobilita Venezia revoked his title and threatened to hand him over to the Inquisition. Soldiers swarmed over the countryside to find the fugitives. It is related that two stakes were raised in San Marco’s Piazza and pamphlets circulated inviting the public to witness the execution, but my grandfather and his beloved managed to escape. With the help of a gypsy friend, they boarded a galley and sailed to Constantinople.
When news of his exploits reached the ears of Sultan Mehmet, he was summoned to the grand court to give an account of himself. Soon the Sultan and my grandfather were bosom friends, drinking wine and swimming in the Bosporus on moonlit nights. In the Hagia Sofia, my grandfather arranged for the mullah to recite the Mohammedan vows to him and our grandmother, pronouncing the couple husband and wife. Sultan Mehmet, his grand vizier and the old gypsy were the three witnesses to the ceremony. My uncle, Alphonso Giuseppe Egan de la Savoia, was hence born in the Topkapi harem. He was circumcised and baptised, to honour both Muslim and Christian traditions, and raised by eunuchs and Circassian midwives amid Mehmet’s forty children.
Homesickness brought my grandfather back to Venice where my father, Rosario de la Savoia, was born. Grandfather settled on the island of Murano and with skills that he had learnt from the Turks, built a small factory that produced white glass for telescopes. This noble deed redeemed him in the eyes of the authorities. His title and family arms were reinstated. He was invited to become senator of Venice but he refused the honour and stayed on his island. It was his final rebuke to those who had sent him into exile. When he died, he was buried on the coast that faced the open sea. A year later, our grandmother joined him in heaven.
Count Alphonso, as my uncle was then known, was seventeen or eighteen years old when he inherited the factory. He made many inventions in the manufacture of glass, the most notable being that he replaced his workers with pulleys, levers and other devices. Although he was quite prepared to pay the workers handsomely even if they no longer toiled, word of his infernal factory reached the Inquisition. With the paladins once again on the family trail, my uncle sold the business, gave father half of the proceeds and bought himself a passage to the East.
When I was born, the Count had been away for so long that he had turned into a mythical character. My older siblings used to entertain me with tales of his adventures. Listening to them, I imagined him to be a wizard and secretly hoped that he would come one day and take me away to a magical place where I would be free as air. Our mother was a religious woman. She maintained a frugal household but despite her thrifty ways, we were always in debt. Our troubles began when our father despaired of his work. He had written a book of sonnets; his friends had hailed it as a masterpiece and, encouraged by their flattery, he gave up his government post to become a poet. All our money was lavished upon the printing and binding of manuscripts. Fetes were held on gondolas where the grandees of Venice were invited to listen to his verses. He sent the book to the noble courts of Europe, hoping for audiences with the Kings of France, England and Germany, but the invitations never came. The book failed to sell and our savings came to an end. Too proud to return to his office, father began work on an opus based on the dialogues of the oracle of Delphi. This epic, he whispered to us children, was to bring our family untold riches.
Our tutor was sent home and our education lapsed. I began to loiter in the streets, wandering here and there but mostly lingering at the seaport to watch ships bringing back furs, salted fish, metals and silk from Tunis and the Black Sea. One day, an Ottoman galley arrived and a man wearing striped pantaloons, a short jacket and shoes with up-curling toes walked down the plank. He was holding the hand of a ten or eleven year old girl. As I watched them pass, I gasped in disbelief as I heard that legendary name, the Count de la Savoia.
My uncle returned a wealthy man. It was said that he had perfected the art of alchemy, which was the secret of the Turks’ grandeur. Other, darker rumours suggested that he had forged the giant Ottoman canons that had laid siege to Vienna. An old maid of ours came back from his estate and whispered to us that even his garden was unholy; when she had gone to pluck a flower, she found a silken rose woven upon a copper stem. Our father, being a weak man, hurriedly distanced himself from the Count so that we rarely saw him. But the prohibition was for the sake of keeping up appearances. We were becoming poorer by the day and when he offered us a stipend, father could not refuse.
Every month, a coachman arrived from his estate, delivering a black lacquer box containing thirty sous. Our mother despised this dependence. Every morning, she ushered our father out of the house to find employment and every evening he returned, shaking his head. Only years later did I discover that instead of looking for employment, he found refuge in a bordello, where he continued to write. I think it was my brother who found him ensconced there, poised over his manuscript as if he were a grammarian in the library of Alexandria.
When I turned nine years old, my uncle’s coachman came bearing me a gift. It was a small mechanical grasshopper. A folded piece of paper lay neatly alongside it, which said:
“To my dear nephew, I present a token from the treasures of the Sultan. Happy birthday and felicitations, Your uncle, Alphonso.”
The grasshopper and I became inseparable. It slept on my pillow and travelled in my pocket. Under the magnifying glass, the creature’s wings appeared anatomical replicas of real wings. Constructed of brass, its shell, legs, even its eyes were all built with the same block of metal, hewn and hammered with such precision that the whole was no bigger than its living kindred. Its mechanism was powered by a falling weight, in the same way as a grandfather clock, except that the weight was the size of a grain of rice, suspended on a string, thin as a spider’s thread, which was wrapped around a spindle the size of a kernel of corn.
How I wanted to meet this mysterious uncle of mine. My prayers were answered when not long after my birthday; my father informed me that he had arranged for me to stay with Uncle Alphonso over the summer. He was to teach me arithmetic, geometry and logic. My father remarked that although he had some doubts over his brother’s influence, he was certain that his learning would do me less harm than frittering away my time with the local boys. Thus began a period of my life that I recall with fondness. My uncle lived on the peninsula of Chiozza, a seaport belonging to Venice, with a population of ten thousand or so inhabitants; seamen, fishermen, merchants, lawyers and clerks. It lay at a distance of fifty miles from the city. The ride took over four hours on an old Roman road winding around hills that rolled gently for miles, the sea on one side with fishing boats upon it and the vine-covered hills on the other, dotted by cypress trees, fields of sunflowers and remote hilltop villages of pink stone. We rode through olive groves and small patches of tilled land until I fell asleep listening to the clip clop of the horses’ hooves upon the dirt road. When I awoke, we were riding up a gently sloping hill. I squinted to see a sun drenched villa standing at the crest, surrounded by cedar hedges. The garden was terraced on three levels. All the garden paths were bordered with box and other evergreens. There were rows of cypresses with climbing ivy along the walls and fruit-trees and oaks. Located on the top level was a fountain that had six gargoyles spouting water into a grotto. Channels sparkling with bright water cascaded down steps into a pond filled with ducks.
Two knights with faceplates and full body armour guarded the entrance to the villa. I bounded up the stairs to the main door but as I was about to knock with the brass knob, there was a great clanging sound. I looked up to see that the knights had raised their maces. I took a few steps back when the door opened and a voice rang out.
The knights became still as statues. Between them stood my uncle, his sombre eyes settled upon me.
“Don’t worry about them,” he said with a wave of his hand. “They’re old and rusty and can’t even kill a fly.”
So saying, he turned around and motioned me to follow. He was a tall, gaunt man who strode rather than walked so that I had to trot along beside him. Years of living in the East had darkened his skin like a Moor’s. He had also taken to eastern fashions for he wore a long grey beard and the white skullcap of the Mohammedans.
“Are they automata?” I asked when I had recovered my breath.
He stopped and looked at me a second time, perhaps astonished that a small boy knew anything of automata. “How did you guess?”
I told him about the figures of the Madonna and Child that appeared from a doorway in San Marco’s clock tower on feast days when the clock struck an hour. Inside the church was a singing bird made of silver that sat on a tree and chirped and twittered with other birds. I knew everything there was to know about automata.
“Clever!” he remarked, tapping his head; “But mere toys, playthings, nothing more.”
“And what of the ducks in the garden?” I asked. “Are they automata too?”
“What do you mean?” he asked. “It is the essence of things that matters, not their exterior form.”
When I said that they looked real, he allowed himself a faint smile. “Well, my child, our first lesson begins here,” he said. Then he knelt down and wagged a finger at me. “If something looks real to you then it is real. Remember this maxim and never forget it–whatever you perceive clearly and distinctly is the truth.”
My uncle was a silent man by habit and spoke only when spoken to, looking up suddenly as if surprised at seeing other people in the villa. All day he would spend cloistered in his workshop which was an attic cluttered with watchmaker’s tools, boxes full of chucks and cabinets packed with lathes, drill bits and keys. With his jeweller’s loupe fastened to his eyeglasses, he would sit on a large oak watchmaker’s bench working on his various inventions while I sat beside him on a tall stool. To begin with, my task was to fetch things from the shelves and put them back again; but I was an eager student and within days I could recognise all the tools, fetching and even priming them when they were needed without being told. My responsibilities increased. He would let me use his lathes and cutting tools, darting a watchful eye over my activities every so often and shouting “Careful now, child!” or other such remarks when he thought that I was being careless with his prized devices. He was sparing with praise but, in time, I was given my own pair of brass callipers. I like to think that I became quite skilled with the tools, perhaps because my small hands were particularly suited for using the miniature instruments. I was even allowed to turn the jewelling press, and although my shoulders ached with the effort, I would not have traded places with anyone in the world.
Perhaps because my uncle’s eyesight was failing, I often found myself telling him that he was using the wrong drill bit or that he ought to grind the jewels a little more evenly. My uncle was a proud man and in the beginning he would hear none of such talk. “Child! I’ll sew your lips together!” he would thunder, or “I’ll have you thrown into the sea!” But I paid scant attention to his harangues. He was so forgetful that it became a joke between us. I would remind him that he had already used a threat once and tell him to think of another. By and by, my uncle mellowed and the threats stopped.
I must confess that the workshop was not my sole preoccupation. I was in love. Rosa was her name. She was the girl who had accompanied my uncle–and she was the light of my eyes, my heart’s delight. I was at an age when small boys feel a certain awkwardness in the company of girls but Rosa never scorned me and always spoke to me kindly. She was no ordinary girl. Her body was made of wood; her hair was inserted strand by strand in her skull; her eyes were marble glass, her skin beeswax, plaster and clay and coated with fine paint to give it the colour and likeness of human flesh. The illusion was so perfect that within days I believed her to be a real person, quite forgetting that she was an ingenious and cleverly crafted mechanism. We became the best of friends.
Our chief amusement lay in exploring the hills and the beach that lay beyond my uncle’s estate. When the tide was low, we would hold hands and tread out into the sea, to wave at the fishing boats in the distance, which we imagined to be pirate ships. We would spend whole afternoons together, catching wills-o’-the-wisp, clambering over stone walls and stealing into people’s gardens to gather mushrooms and tulips, only to run away at the sound of barking dogs. Those were lovely days. Everything was a delight. We liked to tell each other ghost stories and make plans to discover new lands. In the evenings, we would dine with my uncle in the great salon under the central dome of the villa where the walls were adorned with Biblical frescoes. From the tall windows, we would gaze upon the fields, a wooded slope and a fine view of the sea. In the centre of the room, the table would be richly laid out with fine food and Rosa and I would sit at opposite ends, crossing our eyes at my uncle’s boasts and then bursting out with laughter.
I will never forget the day I kissed her. Rosa had trimmed her hair with ribbons and jewels and wore a peaked hood with a gown decorated with lace edges and frills at the neck and sleeves. There was a low tide and we had decided to wade out to a cluster of rocks for our picnic. The sky had cleared after a cloudburst. The sea shimmered. Seagulls hung above the gentle waves. Taking my hand in hers, she started running to the water. We ran faster and faster. Her dress rustled against my legs. Her hair whipped in my face. Then she stumbled and we fell in a heap, laughing as we tumbled over each other. Then she rolled on top of me and lay still, gazing into my eyes. I stared back. I felt her weight against me and I touched her cheek with my hand. The air was so still that I could hear the yells of the fishermen as they shouted to each other. I was now fairly dizzy and kissed her.
“Tut, tut!” she exclaimed wagging her finger. “What’s this?”
“I love you,” I cried.
She touched my hand and addressing me with the familiar tu, said, “You poor boy! If a bird and a fish fell in love, where would they live?”
“We’d run away!” I replied. “We’d sail with the pirates. We’d pay them to take us to a country not found on the maps. There we’d find an abandoned castle and there we’d settle and stay.”
“Impossible,” she replied. “You like me now but one day, you’ll see me for what I am and then you’ll want a real girl.”
My face felt hot and my throat heavy with tears. “You are real to me,” I said, but she shook her head. “I’ll always be a doll. Will you love me when you grow up?”
By and by, the days became shorter and the evenings cooler. Summer turned into autumn and my sojourn drew to an end. My mother came to fetch me and amid lamentations and sobs, I was led to the carriage. My family’s fortune’s had turned. My father had been appointed poet at the French court in Versailles and our family moved to Paris. I hated the town. I had no friends there and I missed Rosa. I even vowed to write her a letter. I composed numerous drafts but I never sent her the epistle. I was only ten years old. In a few months, her features waxed dim and her memory was replaced by other obsessions.
Many years later, as a young man visiting the Patriarch of Venice, I instructed my coachman to drive down to Chiozza. Some months before, I had learnt that the Count had passed away after a brief illness. I had not seen or heard from him ever since that magical summer. Time and distance had come between us and the years had slipped by. I would have let the matter pass after some reminiscing except for one detail. Shortly after the news, I received an anonymous letter that bid me come to my uncle’s estate. What I wondered at with amazement was who could have possibly written to me. I had known no one at Chiozza except for my uncle and, of course, Rosa. And the thing that quite shook me was that it was written in a child’s hand.
The journey transported me back to my childhood. Merry little country boys and barking dogs chased the coach. The villa looked the same as I had last seen it nearly twenty years ago but as we came closer, I noticed that the garden was overgrown; the fountain was dry. I entered through the main door, which had been left ajar, and found myself in the salon. It was in a state of neglect. Cobwebs hung from the curtains and there was dust everywhere.
I stood wondering what I was doing there when a door creaked and I heard the faint patter of feet scurrying down a hall. What I saw next was something I shall never forget. Rosa was coming down the stairs, immortal, ageless.
“You came for me!” she exclaimed as she ran up and hugged me. “I knew you would come. Oh, I am so happy to see you again.”
I can still feel the surprise of seeing her with adult eyes. My memory of the beautiful Rosa was very different from the reality of this dusty little creature. But when she took my hand in hers and led me through the old rooms and passageways where we had played our games, I found myself under an extraordinary spell so that by slow degrees, her doll-like reality faded and all I could see was the playmate of my childhood. Tears ran down her cheeks as she told me how she had cared for my uncle in his last days. After he had passed away, she had no one to turn to except me.
“Will you take me with you?” she said, patting my hand between her thin wooden fingers. “We could be friends again.”
“Things change, Rosa,” I said. “I am an adult now. It is not the same anymore.”
She gave me a stare and pulled away. “Perhaps not for you but for me, nothing changes. I am still the same.”
“There is a museum I know,” I said. “The curator is a friend of mine. I will speak to him. He is a honourable man and will take good care of you.”
“I am not an exhibit,” she said.
“You are a mechanical doll.”
There was a rattle in her throat, as if she was laughing. “Do you remember what you said to me long ago? You said you loved me.”
I shook my head. “Please don’t hold me to something I said when I was a child. It was a passing infatuation. I was silly and meant nothing by it.”
She hung her head. “I am sorry that I wrote to you,” she said. “You better go now.”
I had a vision of dust, stillness and great loneliness but I told myself that she was only a machine. I returned to my carriage and banged the door shut. As the carriage drove away, I turned around for one last look. The great building stood mute and still, as if there was no life within, but then I saw a curtain tremble. Rosa was watching me from the window in her tower. We gazed at each other. She opened the window and stepped out on the ledge. I raised my hand in farewell. The villa started to sink under the crest of the hill but just before its tower disappeared from sight, I saw her heel over and tumble. I yelled at the driver to stop and burst out of my carriage. I ran to where she fell to the ground and for a while, I just stood there, aghast at the broken pieces that lay scattered on the gravelled walk. What if Rosa had overstepped her mechanical nature? What if she had somehow acquired the essence of being alive? I had abandoned her and now I felt responsible for her end. My head swam and I was gripped by the blackest remorse. With tears in my eyes, I collected her remains and carried them back into my carriage.
The desire to resurrect her became a mania that eclipsed everything else in my life. I spent months rebuilding her. The day I saw her rise from the bench, I was relieved beyond measure. In the weeks that followed, I taught her to walk a few steps and answer simple questions. I taught her the alphabet. I talked to her when I sat down for my meals. In spring, I took her arm and went for walks along the Seine and in winter, I read to her novels of chivalry. I put up with the ridicule of my friends. The ruffians who laughed and insulted us on the streets called me far cruder names but I endured the insults in the vain hope that one day I would awake to find that Rosa was her same old self again. All to no avail–no effort on my part brought her back. She showed no emotion; she never laughed or cried, but the reason that caused me the most distress was that she had no memory–she no longer recognised me.
After having kept her in my house for years, I decided her fate swiftly. One day, I put her in the carriage and drove out on a journey that took us two days. In one of my previous trips to the countryside, I had seen an abandoned church and it was this building where I took her. When we arrived there, I sat her down in the pews. I told her that I was going to leave her. I told her how sorry I was for what had happened. When I walked away, she did not even stir; fleetingly I could not help think that perhaps Rosa was a figment of my imagination, her reality indistinguishable to my impaired reason from my fantasy. I smiled at the thought. Madness grants a person certain liberties but my remorse ran deeper. The last rays of the sun shone through the windows into her glassy eyes and turned them into fiery orbs. I left with my soul filled with the certainty of damnation.
After suffering from years of guilt, I penned this confession in the course of a single night. I needed to confess long ago but what could I tell the priest? Every time I went to the chapel, my resolve weakened and I turned back at its door. Tonight, I have finally done my penance. Perhaps it is the reward of my expatiation that my burden has eased. Only the happy memories of childhood come back to me now, but I am weary and must go to bed. The candle flickers as the wick burns out. I see my reflection in the window bent over this manuscript, eyes red, face aglow in the light of a candelabrum. Or is it my father’s ghost come for me? Old age confuses the mind. Wait! Is that the roar of the sea? The fields of wheat sway and the sea sparkles blue. Oh, what sweet pain to feel the breeze, to hear a girl’s laughter, to hold her hand and see the sun-washed hills.