The acolyte lights the candles as the priest opens the book. The long wicks flare, and the image of the Virgin appears in the vault above the apse, her gray form steady against the flickering screen of gold. The glass tesserae of her eyes catch the dim light, and her gaze seems to go everywhere.
The priest’s hand moves across the psalter; its thick pages curl and fall. Venite exultemus Domino iubilemus Deo salutari nostro, he intones. Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving, and make a joyful noise unto him with psalms. At the priest’s back are the relics of Saint Donatus, along with the bones of the dragon he slew by spitting in its mouth. Overhead, the wooden roof slopes outward like a ship’s hull.
Even now, hours before dawn, the basilica is not empty. Solitary figures pass in the aisles: sleepless fishermen, glassblowers between shifts, veiled widows impatient for Christ’s return. Some kneel and mutter prayers. In the narthex, at the base of a marble column, a lone drunkard snores.
At the south end of the shallow transept a man drifts along the uneven floor. His steps are cautious, slow, measured by the soft tap of his walkingstick. His downcast eyes trace images on the mosaic floor: eagles and griffins, cockerels bearing a trussed fox, peacocks eating from a chalice. Beneath the clean flames of the beeswax candles the patterned checks of porphyry and serpentine blend into a fluid surface, undulating and unfathomable. The man lifts his black morocco boots like a heron hunting frogs.
Picture him there, between the piers of the old brick church: gaunt and sinewy, around thirty-five years old, wearing the long black robe of a Bolognese doctor. His small forked beard is trimmed close, his red-blond hair cropped a bit shorter than is the current fashion. He is somewhat less filthy, less flea- and louse-ridden, than those he moves among. His velvet cap and brocade jerkin are rich but not ostentatious. His worn lopsided face suggests a difficult birth and many misfortunes suffered since. There is a strangeness to his aspect, a detachment, that those who meet him tend to ascribe to his erudition, or to his many years spent abroad, although in doing so they are mistaken.
The sea is his, and he made it, chants the priest. His hands formed the dry land. Mist rises from the canal outside, wedding the ocean to the darkness, bearing a chill through the heavy wooden doors. The black-robed man shivers, turns to go.
Let this be him, then. Crivano, the Mirror Thief. Let him bear the name. Who else can claim it?
* * *
As he crosses the threshold, Crivano can hear the Te Deum echoing from the convent of Saint Mark and Saint Andrew, two hundred yards north. A bright halfmoon lingers in the western sky; beneath it, the Campo San Donato is all but deserted. In the distance, across the wide canal, torches light the path of a procession as it leaves the new Trevisan house. By the entrance of the baptistery just ahead yawning linkboys trade taunts with a pair of rude commoners, watchmen of the Ministry of Night. Crivano raises his stick as he descends the church steps, and one of the boys puts a taper to his wrought-iron lantern. Here’s your light, dottore, the boy says.
I’m looking for a ridotto called the Salamander.
Sure, dottore. It’s across the long bridge, near San Pietro Martire. Do you want to get a boat?
I’ll walk, Crivano says.
They cross the square and follow the canal south, then turn west when it merges into a broader channel. A gap in the buildings widens toward the lagoon, and for a moment Crivano can see the lights of the city, over a mile away: weak glimmers from the Arsenal, and further on the orange blaze atop the belltower in the Piazza. The sea is calm. A few boats are already on the water, bearing lanterns in their prows, and he wonders whether Obizzo’s craft is among them.
The wide fondamenta grows busier as they approach the long bridge. Merchants hurry to boats moored at quayside, bearing bundles or pushing carts laden with bronzeware and majolica and spindled glass beads, eager to cross the lagoon to their booths in the Piazza San Marco before the festival crowds gather. A week ago, when Crivano last came here to Murano to meet with his co-conspirators, he found many shops along this canal closed for the Sensa, having moved their business into the city. Meanwhile, in the Rialto, the guilds had to cajole and bully their members to abandon their storefronts and show their wares in the Piazza. The guilds’ case seemed difficult to make. When your whole city is a market, why bother with the fair?
From the bridge’s lofty midpoint Crivano can see a tremble in the air over the buildings ahead: heat rising from glass factories. Once lit, their furnaces burn at a constant temperature for weeks on end, even months. The boats below the bridge are stacked with hewn alderwood, soon to be unloaded.
The linkboy leads him past a church, then into a bustling campiello. The workers they pass are flush-faced and soot-blackened; their eyes are red-rimmed and hard, like they’ve come lately from battle. Near the campiello’s wellhead a workman is beating and cursing another, pounding heavy fists on his skull and shoulders. The attacker wears a thick bandage on his forearm; the man he strikes is little more than a boy. When the young man falls, his assailant kicks him until his nose and mouth are well-bloodied. Then a pair of stout fellows steps in and halfheartedly pulls them apart.
Here, dottore, the linkboy says. The Salamander.
Martin Seay’s first novel, The Mirror Thief, has been listed among the best books of 2016 by Publishers Weekly and National Public Radio, and was included among the year’s notable books by the New York Times Book Review. The Chicago Review of Books recently named The Mirror Thief the best debut by a Chicago-area author of 2016. Originally from Texas, Martin lives in Edgewater with his spouse, the writer Kathleen Rooney.
[Excerpt from The Mirror Thief by Martin Seay, courtesy of Melville House Publishing, Brooklyn, NY.]