When I started The Secret of the Tirthas, Venice was high on the list of possible portals for Lizzie’s garden. However, it wasn’t until the fifth book, The Unknown Realms, that I finally found the right storyline for it.
I was lucky enough to spend a long weekend in Venice a few years ago, when a friend got married there. My wife had visited before so she knew some interesting spots – and cut throughs – that were less crowded.
Venice has a special hold on the imagination of many people in Europe. Obviously the main reason for this is its sheer, phenomenal beauty – its gondolier-strewn canals, its baroque bridges and buildings, its beautiful squares and churches. But it also resonates because of the subtle, bohemain air of dilapidation. Once the greatest port and trading post on the Mediterranean, it is now, as a lived-in city, dying. Its native population has declined by well over 50% in the last 100 years.
For these reasons, it made the perfect setting for the doom-laden chase involving Lizzie, the demon Pisaca, and the bean-nighe, or banshee. And for the miraculous, out-of-this-world experience that Lizzie has shortly afterwards, in the boat of the mysterious gondolier.
The Unknown Realms is the fifth and final volume in The Secret of the Tirthas. In it, Lizzie faces her most perilous challenges yet as she seeks to stop the demons and their followers from corrupting the power of the tirthas for their own treacherous ends. And worst of all, she must face them alone, as she has lost all hope of reuniting with her friends.
Here’s a short excerpt from the second chapter, The Cannaregio Shrine:
Alessandro’s grandfather, Nazario, told him that the shrine of the Madonna in Cannaregio was the oldest in Venice. When Nazario suffered a stroke that left him bedbound and dumb, Alessandro used his pocket money to buy a tealight each day from Severina’s shop which he would take to the shrine in the wall, light with a match, and pop through the grill. He could just reach through to the bottom ledge if he stood on tiptoes. He would say a prayer to the ivy-shrouded statue of Our Lady, wishing his beloved grandfather would return speedily to good health, so they could laugh again and enjoy a sweet zaleti together in the morning sunshine.
Today, as he was coming down the canal-side street to the corner where the steps led up to the shrine, Alessandro was thinking about his cat, Tito. He was wondering why Tito never ate all of his food, even when it was fish, when he heard an unusual creaking sound ahead. It was followed by a dull thud, and then a cough, a human cough, echoing through the twilit street. He was sure someone must be up by the shrine, perhaps a straggling tourist.
Alessandro cried out in surprise as he turned the corner and came face to face with the person who must have made the noise.
‘Madonna!’ he gasped, seeing the bedraggled, greasy hair, the bony, wrinkled forehead, and above all the large, desolate eyes, eyes full of a sorrow that would haunt him for the rest of his life. ‘Chi sei?’ was all he could think to say, who are you? Although at the same time he was thinking what are you might make more sense.
The awful crone didn’t reply. After holding his gaze for a moment and filling him with a wretched chill that he felt right down to his heels, she barged past him, clutching something tightly against her side. She hurried off in between the tall buildings, alongside the still, green-dark canal.
Alessandro stood still, feeling sad, in need of his mother, in need of God, but most of all just confused. After a moment, he realised the sharp edge of metal that his thumb was flicking in his pocket was today’s tealight. Before running back home, he would at least light that, to remember his grandfather’s health, and the hope and mystery of the Madonna.
He turned the corner and began to climb the small, white-washed steps to the shrine, which was set a couple of metres up in the wall and covered in a fine ivy that was turning red with the autumn.
Then he stopped again, and watched something happen that simply did not make sense.
Dropping from the shrine, from its opened grate, was a person – a girl with a pony tail, older than him – with the Madonna statue clutched in one hand. No sooner had the girl landed on the pavement than she was followed by another, much larger, figure – a woman, no, a man, thought Alessandro, and then he thought, no, un mostro, a monster!
The second figure was huge, only just able to squeeze out through the small opening in the wall, clad in black, with the most terrible features, a giant, reddish face, teeth like a bear’s, a brutal, snubby snout, and thick dark hair.
‘Diavolo!’ gasped Alessandro, as the creature straightened and placed a hand on the shoulder of the girl, who was looking down the steps at him with a clear, steadfast gaze.
And then his eight-year-old imagination kicked in, a clear connection was made, and he realised what he must be seeing. A woman wearing a mask, of course! But then he thought: why, when it wasn’t carnival season?
The girl said something to him then. She spoke in a language he didn’t understand, but her eyes were kind and her voice reassuring, so he felt the fear in him subside. Then she looked up at her strange companion and said something to her. The masked woman replied, in an urgent voice that sounded to Alessandro like Darth Vader from Star Wars. Was something wrong with her? he wondered. The woman stepped aside and, standing on tiptoes, the girl quickly replaced the statue of Mary in the shrine and pushed the protective grill back into place.
Next moment, the woman with the demonic mask was striding down the steps towards Alessandro, pulling the girl along behind her.
‘Togliti di mezzo!’ the woman said to him, and he stepped sideways to pin himself to the wall as they came past, clearly in a hurry.
There were many things Alessandro would never forget from that night – the crone, the foul, factory-like smell of the devil-masked woman, the deathly, unbearable wail that shook Venice a short while later and made everyone think their decadent city had finally reached the End of Days.
But the one thing he would remember above all were the eyes of the girl as she came past him on the steps.
The eyes of a girl who understood more than any other girl. A gaze that held so much, and that made him think one day, years later when he was an apprentice glass maker in Murano, that this must be what the gaze of a saint would be like.
A gaze full of compassion and understanding.
And trapped by Fate.