The trading ships had arrived in Venice from Kaffa only two days ago. The summer solstice had come and past and now the days were hot and heavy with humidity. The piers were alive with the sound of activity and excitement. I could smell the tang of varnished wood , the stale odor of stagnating water, the enticing aroma of goods being unloaded from the ships, exotic spices from the Far East, their scent hinting at the strange and wondrous places of their origin. I was on my way to the market place. Usually, I did not have the money to purchase anything of value, but I still enjoyed the experience. I would sit near the outskirts and watch, a detached spectator, and imagine the luxury goods I would one day be affluent enough to buy. Then no longer would I be merely a spectator, but an open contender in the commerce. A childish daydream, but one that gave me a welcoming reprieve from the daily grind of life.
However, today was different. I was here to buy a gift for my sister’s wedding with a small sum of money I had saved for the occasion. And a splendid occasion it was going to be. Her fiancé was an upper middleclass man, a well-known merchant . This was an opportunity for my family , and, in times such as these, opportunities were not to be squandered.
The marketplace was crowded, too much so to be entirely comfortable. I could hear the irritated voices of the customers, berating the merchants, attempting to bargain down the exorbitant prices. In one vendor’s stall, I saw the drying, blackening carcasses of three pigs, their strong smell mingling with that of exquisite perfumes and spices, meshing to create something disconcerting, almost nauseating.
Finding the perfect gift was going to be difficult. The merchandise was either much too costly or simply raw materials, which would be laughably crude for such an occasion. Then I saw it, an irridescent silken scarf from the far off Orient, elegantly emblazoned with a red and black flower, one foreign to this land. As I started to haggle with the merchant over price, I became distracted by two men at a neighboring stall, heatedly arguing over some outrageous rumor percolating through the market place. “I tell you, the devil was aboard that ship,” said one with an uncomfortable and superstitious fervency. “They said that two men died, their flesh rotting off as they still lived”. “It was six that died,” countered the other, “but it was the spice. It gave them fever and black spots. They are calling it black death. They have thrown away the entire cargo.” “No, the sailors saw the devil, three went overboard.” And so it went. The market place was, generally, rife with such stories, which I found were invariably traceable to the effects of long voyages and the imagination of bored sailors. In my opinion such fanciful devil stories were nothing short of preposterous. I finished bargaining with the merchant, concluded my purchase, and started on my way home.
The day was coming to an end. The sun hung low on the horizon, a bloated sanguinary tinged disk, filling the evening sky with its dull red glow. I was well on my way back. As I walked along the piers, I heard the sound of children laughing. I noticed a group of three boys who looked no older than ten, gathered in a circle. As I got closer I was able to make out words, threats of obscene violence, “stab its eyes out”, “break its bones”, “tear its ears off”. And then I saw it, a small kitten with jet black fur. The boys were tormenting it with the disturbing and unwarranted cruelty of which young boys are so often capable. It almost made sense, the animal had most likely been thrown off a ship due to the recent rumors and prevailing superstitions.
I felt a hot flash of anger. I had once had a cat, a large male with silky black fur which I had named Zitto. He had brought me nothing but fortune. My father had been a merchant at the time. He had found him on a ship and he was a fine mouser. When my father would leave on long voyages, Zitto would keep me company. He would sit on my bed, while I watched the ships from the window, hoping my father was returning with them. Then one day my father left and never returned. Reports later confirmed, he had died in a shipwreck. I was devastated. Zitto sat with me, comforting me through this time of despair and grief, a last link to my father. Those times were long past now, and, Zitto, like my father, was merely a memory.
I angrily strode into the group of boys and grabbed one of their sticks and broke it. “Get out of here !” I shouted and roughly pushed the nearest one. They scattered, running off, laughing senselessly. I picked the kitten up. It was trembling, every muscle tensed. I thought of Zitto and stroked it till it calmed. “You will be just like Zitto,” I whispered, “you will be a great mouser and a loving companion and you will bring me fortune,” but, I noted wryly, scratching my arm, “you will not be sleeping in my bed until we get rid of these fleas.” I put the kitten in my coat pocket and continued home.
Credit To – Milo DeOlivares