Alexander would always remember the first time he experienced perfume, which was unexpected since he was born without a sense of smell.
It was the morning of the Carnivale of 1780 when all of Venice would go into a great madness of celebration. But for Alexander and his friend Pietro, it was just another cold day. While most of Venice slept in beds, the boys snoozed in an old abandoned gondola. Chained under lock and key behind a fourteenth-century palazzo in Cannaregio, forgotten by its owner, the old gondola was the perfect bed for two neglected boys. Years of abandonment had stripped the gondola’s shiny black paint away, leaving only sunbaked timber, weighed down by algae and barnacles. Within its felze, a tall rectangular cabin, the curtains for its large open windows were long gone, as well as its front door. On rainy days, they would hang scraps of old sails over the windows and door to keep themselves dry. The velvet cushions, faded and torn, made perfect pillows. Their blanket was a friendly stray black Labrador retriever, named Rocco, who joined them every evening.
Asleep in the rocking gondola, Alexander spluttered awake. A stream of warm liquid spilled over his hair, eyes, and mouth—he didn’t need a sense of smell to know it wasn’t water. He shot up, waving his arms to block whatever it was. The dog started barking as Pietro wailed.
Laughing on the quay was a bulldog of a kid dressed in gold-colored silk with a freshly powdered wig. Was he insane? And why in the devil’s name was he pissing on them?
“Stop it,” screamed Alexander, leaping out of the gondola, but his tattered shoe slipped on the wet stone, and he plunged into the lagoon. When he fought to the surface, gasping at the cold, Rocco was still barking wildly, and Pietro was bawling from inside the felze. Even from the water, Alexander could see Pietro trembling, looking down at his clothes covered in piss. That bulldog will pay for this.
The bulldog cackled, buttoning up his front flap and said, “I finally found a good use for street rats.”
Alexander pulled himself out of the lagoon and charged at the laughing bulldog. But he anticipated it and struck Alexander perfectly in the jaw with the silver handle of his walking stick. The world spun, then a sharp pain hit him in the head as the cold stone broke his fall. Dizzy and wheezing, he groaned, trying to move, trying to find which way was up.
The bulldog leaned over and hissed, “How dare you attack a gentleman? Know your place, street rat.” Stabbing Alexander’s ribs with the end of his walking stick, he added, “No one cares if an orphan goes missing. Next time, I’ll see you drown in the canal.”
Straightening his cravat, the bulldog grunted, tipped his tricorn hat and said, “See you around.” He spun and disappeared around the alley, the sound of his wooden heels trailing behind.
The wooden palazzo doors opened and a maidservant stepped out, holding a basket of trash. The moment she saw Alexander lying on the ground, she dropped her basket and wagged her finger, as she must have at her own children when they were little. “The devil, it’s you two, again. Every day you’re here, go somewhere else. I mean it, get out.” She shoved Alexander with her foot, trying to force him to turn and move.
Alexander groaned and sat up, rubbing his bruised head.
“That’s right, get out of here, go. I better not see you two out here when the countess comes out,” she said, dragging her trash basket and dumping it into the canal. She walked back to the door and gave them a look that said don’t test me and slammed the door shut going inside.
He staggered over to Pietro, his brown eyes bloodshot, snot running down his face. Alexander stepped into the gondola and put his arm around Pietro.
Pietro’s lips trembled. “The smell is horrible. You don’t even know.”
“Come on, jump in the canal, it will help,” Alexander said.
“But, you know I can’t swim.”
“It’s okay, just hold on to the gondola and you will be okay.”
Pietro nodded; he was still in shock. Alexander helped him ease into the dirty canal. Pietro’s fingertips turned white from gripping the sides of the gondola so hard. “It’s cold,” Pietro said shivering as he dunked his head under the water.
Alexander looked out at the water and saw the trash the servant had thrown out. “Hey look, she left us some bread,” Alexander said, walking over to the bow of the gondola. He reached down and grabbed two end slices of bread and a brown leaf of lettuce. But then he noticed something else.
Bobbing in the canal was an exquisite glass bottle, one like he had never seen before. “What is that?” Alexander asked, reaching out to grab the small flacon. But when his fingertips touched it, the bottle gurgled and disappeared, leaving a few beads of air bubbles behind.
“What was it?” asked Pietro.
“I don’t know. But it looked expensive,” Alexander said, wondering what such a beautiful flacon could be used for and why someone would throw it away.
A faint chime rang from a silver bell, and Alexander perked up. “They are about to eat, hurry we have to get to the roof,” he said, pulling Pietro out of the lagoon.
The two boys walked across the clay roof of a two-story palazzo startling three pigeons that fluttered away. They hunched down between two large chimneys, peering across the narrow canal, into the third story window of the countess’s palazzo.
Alexander handed Pietro one of the end pieces of bread. Pietro looked down at it and said, “You ate the burnt piece last time, it’s my turn to eat the burnt end.”
Alexander pushed it away. “Don’t worry about it; it’s all the same to me, I can’t taste anything.”
Pietro shrugged and looked down at his moldy piece of bread. “At least the canal made it soft. You know how much I hate it when it’s hard.” Alexander nodded and took a bite of his blackened piece.
“I wonder what’s for breakfast today?” Pietro asked, peering through the open window of the palazzo. The count and countess were seated at a long oak table with polished silver and two candelabras with new candles. Three women servants placed silver trays filled with assorted pastries on the table.
“Oh, look at that…” Pietro said lustfully, patting Alexander’s arm, “…what is that? I think it’s bruttiboni and… look at all of those cannolo. Why can’t they ever throw those out?”
Alexander broke off a piece of his bread and dropped it down to the stray, who instantly licked it up.
“I can smell the espresso, what I would give to try espresso. Is that cherry crostata?” Pietro said, licking his lips. “Oh, look at that. It looks incredible.” Without taking his eyes off the pastry, he took a bite of his bread. “If I concentrate really hard, I can almost make my bread taste like that.”
“That’s not a crostata, it’s something else,” Alexander said.
“I know it is because I know my pastries,” Pietro said biting into his moldy bread. Then with his mouth full he said, “Hey, look, it’s your girlfriend.”
This got Alexander’s attention; it was what he was waiting for, the highlight of his day. He jumped next to Pietro and looked over at the palazzo. The corner balcony door had opened and a girl stepped out, stooped, and picked something up.
It was the countess’s daughter. She was about the same age as Alexander with pale skin, big sapphire eyes, full luscious lips, and high cheekbones. She wore a peach-colored gown and moved delicately, like royalty.
“She found it,” Alexander said.
“Of course, she found it. You leave her one every day.”
The girl was holding a small flower made of scraps of old newspapers, each petal carefully folded. She brought it up to her nose as if to smell it, and smiled.
“She smiled, did you see that?” Alexander’s eyes twinkled. “She’s beautiful.”
Pietro rolled his eyes. “You say that every morning. Gag.”
“Pietro, I promise you one day we will eat our own crostata, we will have our own servants, and we won’t have to live in a gondola. Then we will live like a family. I’m going to get a palazzo bigger than that one and you know what? I’ll marry her, and we’ll get married in the palace.”
“No one gets married at the palace, and no orphan gets to marry someone like her,” Pietro said, drawing on a fragment of terra cotta with a charred stick. He snickered and handed it to Alexander. It was a poorly made portrait of the girl. “This is the closest you will ever get to her.”
Alexander didn’t listen, his eyes fixated on the beauty in the balcony. “I wonder what her name is,” he said to himself. She twirled the small paper flower between her fingers and went inside. “It doesn’t matter what her name is because…” he slowed down his words so they would sink in, “countesses don’t marry street rats.”
A half hour later, Alexander finished making another paper flower from some trash he had found in the street. He pushed a short piece of hemp through the top hole of his coat and tied the flower to his battered collar.
Pietro tapped Alexander and pointed at the palazzo as Alexander hid behind the tall brick chimney. The wooden door opened, and the countess stepped out, turned to her woman servant and said, “We will be attending the evening’s celebrations. Have our gondola prepared; my daughter wishes to see the fireworks. I find them loud and pointless, but my daughter loves them and insists on going. But you know her; she is still young and easily amused.”
Alexander turned to Pietro and said, “She’s going to the carnivale tonight. We have to go,” he scratched his disheveled hair, “but if they are going by gondola, we are going to have to get a gondola.”
“Where are we going to get a gondola? Ours is chained up, and we don’t have a key.” Alexander looked at him and grinned.
That night, Alexander and Pietro hid behind some wooden crates, stalking a squeri. The light of the gondola maker’s shop spilled out into the alley and down onto the canal. Alexander adjusted his black mask so he could see better. It covered his eyes and nose, leaving only his mouth exposed. Pietro’s mask was too big for his face, so he tightened the knot to secure it better.
“My mask smells like nasty wine,” said Pietro, washing his hands in the canal, “and it’s sticky. Yuck.”
“Well, next time someone throws their mask away, I will ask them not to pour wine on it.”
“What now?” asked Pietro.
“We borrow one of his gondolas. He won’t miss it tonight and then we return it when we are done,” said Alexander.
“I don’t want to steal a gondola.”
“We’re not stealing; we’re borrowing it. And he has lots of them, you see? He won’t miss it at all.”
Alexander snuck over to the shop and peeked around the corner. The gondola maker’s sleeves were rolled up on his massive forearms, and he worked hard sanding a long joint of mahogany and fir. He had iron-like hands and thick shoulders. He cursed trying to wipe the dust from his eyes, but it just made it worse.
Alexander was about to make his move when a gondola pulled up next to the shop. An older man stepped onto the quay; he was thick and strong with the swagger of a criminal. Scars battered his face, old knife wounds cutting across his nose, eye, forehead, cheek and hairline. He was holding an old walking stick, but there was something strange about his grip. His right hand was missing a finger, sliced at the knuckle. He had a scowl that would frighten a demon. The four-fingered man tied the gondola off and stepped into the gondola maker’s shop. But, a second before he walked through the door, Alexander noticed something in the four-fingered man’s belt—a pistol.
Alexander’s heart raced. He snuck up against the wall of the shop, peeked in and saw the four-fingered man talking to the squeri.
“If you aren’t here to buy a gondola, then what the devil do you want?” said the gondola maker.
“I came because of the debt you owe,” said the four-fingered man.
The squeri took a step back and stammered, “Who are you?”
“I’m the one they send when people don’t pay.”
Alexander’s hands reached out of the shadows and snatched two scraps of elm from the shop’s waste pile, then disappeared back into the shadows.
He hustled back to Pietro, handed him one of the scraps of wood and whispered, “Got it! Let’s go!”
Passed out and snoring on the cold stone of the quay was the gondola maker’s assistant. He was half in the lagoon and half out, clutching a broken bottle of wine. He was bony with a sunken face, clearly preferring wine to eating. His cravat had floated away, and the water had darkened his coat’s sleeve, seeping all the way up to his shoulder, surely ruining the old blue silk.
“Shh,” Alexander whispered to Pietro. “Follow me.” Alexander stepped over the sleeping giant and stepped down on his wig but froze when the giant stopped snoring. The drunk lifted his arm. Searching for his face, he brushed Alexander’s leg, stopped and found the leg again. The drunk mumbled incoherently. Alexander grabbed the man's sleeve and carefully placed it back on his chest. The hand found what it was searching for. The drunk scratched his nose and muttered, going back to sleep. Alexander sighed in relief and crept farther down the quay.
“Let’s take this one,” Alexander said pointing to a gondola that looked like a coffin rocking in the moonlight. It was covered with a black velvet cloth, which would be perfect to hide under. Alexander could hear the muffled sounds of the squeri and the four-fingered man arguing; as long as they kept talking they wouldn’t be noticed. Alexander loosened the rope holding the gondola, and the boat eased away into the dark alley like a snake into the brush.
The canal was narrow, and the fog had begun hover above the water. The old man’s gondola was moving on its own, slowly, like a mouse in a den of cats. Alexander knew if someone had walked by they would never think the gondola was loose and even if they did, they wouldn’t be very worried because gondolas frequently wandered off and were usually found and returned to their owners. Everyone had lost a gondola at some point, and most had gotten theirs back.
Alexander and Pietro hid under the gondola’s black velvet cover. Small ripples were rolling away from their two elm planks as they rowed slowly.
“Ouch,” said Pietro, rubbing his thumb. “That’s my third splinter.”
“Shhh,” said Alexander.
“You couldn’t have grabbed a piece that was already sanded?”
“I grabbed the one that was the best size, stop complaining,” said Alexander.
They paddled and eased slowly past three docked gondolas. Alexander found that walking his hands up the docked boats made him move faster than paddling. In retrospect, he should have picked longer paddles, but there was no way he would admit this to Pietro. The canal was dark and empty, but Alexander could hear the sound of revelers in the distance.
It took the boys ten minutes to reach the next bridge. The air was colder there, and the sound of the water lapping against the shore reflected off the underside of the brick bridge.
“What do you see?” whispered Pietro.
“Keep paddling, we aren’t even to the Grand Canal yet,” said Alexander.
“My hand is freezing, and my arm is getting tired,” said Pietro, panting.
“Wait, I think I hear something,” whispered Alexander.
The gondola rocked slightly as Alexander shifted his weight, trying to get a better view. He gripped the edge of the soft cover and raised it slowly.
Water lapped the brick walls that flanked him. The mortar between the bricks had almost completely eroded from a thousand years of salt-water abuse. The wall looked unsafe, but in Venice, that was every wall.
It was low tide, and a foot of wall above the water level was covered in green algae and barnacles. Ahead, Alexander could see two old gondolas tied off. They creaked as the waves brushed past their hulls.
The two boys had reached a tricky part of the canal. The canal would take two sharp turns, first to the left then a quick right. If anyone spotted them here, they would not be able to get away.
“We’re nearing the turns, paddle us toward the wall.”
“Which way is the wall?”
“Which side is port side?”
“The right,” Alexander said.
Pietro hesitated for a moment. “The right?” he said. “No, I thought port was left.”
“Then why did you ask? “
“Which way do you want me go? Left or right?”
“Left, go left.”
Pietro got on his knees and pushed the paddle away from himself. The gondola rocked as Pietro gave a big shove with the paddle. Alexander lost his balance and slammed his elbow right into the edge of the gondola. He wanted to scream as the shock ran down the length of his arm, but he bit his lip instead.
“Watch it,” hissed Alexander, irritated as he massaged his arm.
“I hear something; do you see anything?” Pietro insisted.
“I’m not sure,” said Alexander, raising the black velvet again to get a better view. He squinted. It was dark, and moonlight could play tricks. He panicked and hid. “Someone is coming.”
“Who?” said Pietro. “What do you see? Tell me?”
Alexander waved his hand at Pietro. “Shhh.”
A woman’s laugh, a short staccato that started low and ended high, came from an approaching gondola. Alexander lay quietly, his heart pounding.
“What if they find us?” asked Pietro.
“They can’t see us, it’s dark,” he said, trying to convince himself.
“Yeah, but if they find out we stole this gondola—”
“Borrowed. We borrowed it,” said Alexander. “Stop paddling or they will spot us; we’re going to stay still until they pass.”
Pietro pulled his arm into the boat, drying his hand off on his dirty pants.
The woman’s laugh erupted again, closer. He could hear the oar rubbing against the forcola of the woman’s gondola. His heart raced, and he held his breath. A gold glow filled the space under the thin velvet cover; it was coming from the lantern hanging from the front of the gondola. Alexander hoped this didn’t mean they could be seen from the outside. He didn’t want to be spotted, but why was that woman laughing? What was it about her laugh? It was different than laughing at a joke; this laugh was something else.
“Why is she laughing?” whispered Pietro.
Alexander slowly lifted the covering up, just barely, and spotted the woman at once. She was close now, and Alexander saw instantly she was an extraordinary beauty. Voluptuous breasts filled her green bodice. Powdered curls and pearls decorated her tall white wig. She had a long neck and porcelain skin. A red and gold mask with ornate scrollwork covered her face, and her green eyes sparkled through the eyeholes. Sitting next to her was a young man wearing a mask as well, elegantly dressed. His laugh was higher pitched than the woman’s.
Pietro tugged on Alexander’s coat. “What do you see? Alexander, tell me.”
Alexander was intrigued. He could tell the two masked individuals were lovers, but what was the man doing?
The man removed his mask, revealing a devilish smile. His face was heavily powdered white. Above his lip was a black silk spot, which danced on his face as he laughed. The woman giggled and fanned herself nervously. The man tip-toed his fingers along the front of her dress, then hooked her torso, pulling her closer. This made her stop fanning, even as her skin flushed. He stared deep into her eyes, and she became shy and looked away. With his other hand, he gently caressed her shoulder, then slowly slid his hand up to cradle the top of her neck. He closed his eyes, pulled her head back, and drank in her scent. It was primal, the way he ran his nose along the length of her neck, a vampire savoring his next meal. The woman let out a flirtatious giggle, appearing to enjoy every second of it.
Alexander could see her scent was powerful, what was it? His eyes widened. “What do you smell, Pietro? What do you smell?”
“Ughh...” Pietro shrugged.
“Now, Pietro. What do you smell? Tell me. I have to know now.” Alexander couldn’t keep his eyes off of the man, who seemed to be storing up her fragrance deep within his mind.
“Um, okay, I smell dead fish. It’s sour, it makes you want to puke, it’s gross. Trust me you would not like this smell. It smells really bad right now—we must be near a dead fish. Imagine if the bells of the Campanile di San Marco were a smell—you know how they hurt your ears when you get close to them—yes, that is this smell.”
Alexander’s eyes studied the woman. This woman smelled like dead fish? She smelled like a loud, ear-piercing bell, a painful bad smell? There is no way a man could smile that way at the top of a bell tower.
“You don’t smell anything else?”
“Oh, I smell something else, it’s, it’s… yes, it’s… oh, wow, yeah, body odor, yeah, definitely body odor, it’s also a horrible smell, and it cuts you like a knife. Yes, it’s like someone has shoved a stick up your nose; it’s truly horrible. Oh, wait, that’s me. I’m smelling myself.”
“Would that smell make a man smile? Is that the smell of a woman?” asked Alexander.
“Well, some women smell like that, I guess.”
Alexander studied the woman. Her smell was like sticks in your nose? He frowned. That did not seem pleasant at all. This must be one of those things only grownups understand.
“No, wait,” Pietro said excitedly. “Oh. Oh, wow. Okay, I smell something else now.” Pietro’s eyes lit up. “Yes, I smell it, Alexander.”
“What is it, what do you smell? Tell me,” Alexander said, tightening his grip on the velvet cover.
Pietro lifted his nose and fanned the air with his hands as if to pull more of the scent to himself. He smiled. There it was, the same smile the man had.
“This is a good smell,” Pietro said, moving closer to the opening, “it’s… it’s like warm sunshine after the rain. It’s like that time we snuck into the dressmaker’s shop, do you remember? When we snuck in and found that giant pile of cotton, and we laid in it. Remember how it felt on the skin?”
Alexander smiled, recalling the memory. “Yes, yes, yes, that must be right,” he said, looking at the lovers. “That is exactly what it looks like.” He imagined himself smelling the woman. “Like lying in cotton,” he whispered to himself.
He imagined being the lover, sitting next to the woman, pulling her head back and taking in her scent.
He smelled with his mind, imagining the Piazza San Marco filled with cotton. The scent would feel like leaping from the clock tower and sinking into that white softness. It was a wonderful, delicious thought. Now he, too, was smiling like the man.
“It’s perfume; it smells like roses and lemons,” Pietro said.
“Roses and lemons,” Alexander said to himself. Then slowly he repeated, “Perfume.” He let the word roll off his tongue. Of course, he had heard the word, but this was the first time he had seen its power, the power to drive lovers wild.
“Perfume is a good smell, not like the fish,” Pietro said, scratching his head. “Is she beautiful?”
Alexander couldn’t take his eyes off the two lovers; he was entranced, mystified, and completely captivated. The man began to kiss the woman’s neck, her perfume had him spellbound. This invisible thing, something he couldn’t see, was driving the man crazy. He thought of it—perfume—as being like fire; you can feel fire, even if you don’t see it. That must be what smells were like, something you could feel but not see. But he couldn’t feel anything. And whatever that woman had was so powerful, it had floated across the water and into their gondola where no one could see them. They thought they were hidden, but this invisible ghost had found them. It wasn’t bound by any barriers and able was to wander wherever it wanted. Why couldn’t he feel it? Why couldn’t he smell it? He had a nose. Why didn’t it work?
Pietro slapped Alexander’s calf. “Is she beautiful?”
Alexander glanced at the man, who was now kissing the woman’s breasts. “Yes, she is.”
“I knew it,” said Pietro, “all beautiful women smell good.”
“Yes, I think you are right,” said Alexander.
“Is she with a man?” asked Pietro.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought. He smells like cheap wine and that bad body odor smell, or is that you?”
“Men smell bad?” asked Alexander.
“Not all of them, just the poor ones,” Pietro said, sticking his hand in his armpit and then smelling it. It made him gag.
Alexander glanced back, the lamp of the lovers’ gondola was getting smaller.
“Do you still smell it?” asked Alexander.
“Yeah, I always smell my armpits.”
“No, the perfume, can you still smell it?”
Pietro sighed, sniffing, “Nope.”
The smell was gone, but where did it go? It was just in the gondola with them, so what happened to it?
“Are they gone?” asked Pietro.
“Yes, they’re gone,” said Alexander as he crawled back to his side of the boat. “Okay, paddle.” He shifted his weight, rocking the gondola and unbalancing Pietro, who reached out to steady himself, knocking over a long wooden crate. It was too dark to see what spilled out onto the floor of the gondola, but it had the sound of thin metal pieces.
“What was that?” asked Alexander.
“I don’t know,” Pietro said. He raised the cover to let some light in. As the moonlight caught the metal objects, Alexander tensed.
“I’ve never seen so many swords and daggers,” said Pietro, avoiding them like they were venomous snakes.
“What does a squeri need swords and daggers for?”
“I think we took the wrong gondola.”
Suddenly the black velvet that hid them so well disappeared, as if someone had taken the lid off a dish. On the quay, towering like a general over his enemy, stood the four-fingered man with the black cover hanging from the tip of his cane. He was only a few feet away. “You little rats, I’m going to kill you.” He tossed the cloth aside and raised his cane to strike Pietro.
In one swift move, Alexander snatched one of the swords from the pile and blocked the cane. The man’s strike shoved Alexander into a small rug. The rug broke loose, unrolling over the stern and splashing into the canal.
Pietro let out a blood-curdling scream, leaping back from the end of the Oriental rug. Bobbing in the canal was a mass of flesh and tissue. Alexander squinted as ripples from the gondola rolled over the mass of flesh.
It was a man's hand, sliced at the wrist.
Alexander stumbled back, tripping over the gondola’s long oar.
The four-fingered man cackled, then his eyes turned dark. He pointed at the hand and said, “That is what happened to the last person who stole from me.” He swung his walking stick again, and Alexander blocked, sparks leaping into the night sky like startled fireflies. That cane was not made of wood.
The four-fingered man tossed his walking stick into his left hand. With his right hand, he dug out his pistol, aimed at Alexander and pulled the trigger.
Alexander ducked as a lead shot pulverized the top of his oar, hurtling splinters into his hands and face. The gunshot echoed off of the tall houses, filling the air with a white cloud of smoke. Keeping his head low, he rowed fast as a second shot burst into the canal behind them. Hidden by the fog of smoke, Alexander and Pietro made their escape, the four-fingered man’s cough growing more distant with every stroke.