A Task From God

by Zephyr Dorsey

I am putting away the dishes when I hear Maria come stomping into the room behind me. For someone as light as she is, it is amazing how much her walk can shake the whole house when she is upset. She informs me that she has heard the news that my older brother, Niccolo, is planning to leave Italy. Again.

“I was going to tell you—”

She waves her hand to shut me up and shakes her head. She puts her fists on her hips and asks if I am planning on going with him. When I begin answering with a stuttering affirmative and an even more stuttering explanation, she cuts me off and launches into one of her hand-fluttering tirades, her words flooding over her lips so quickly that I can barely understand them, although I’m pretty sure that somewhere within the cascade of invective she calls me a self-centered, greedy, vainglorious fool. Then, she turns abruptly and exits the kitchen, the house shaking with every step. A few seconds later, I hear the front door slam. After a moment of debate, I go after her.
I catch sight of her stepping into a gondola and break into the closest thing to a run I’ve done in months, but she has already left the embankment by the time I get there.

“Need a ride, mon amie?” asks a gondolier seated inside his boat. His Italian is French-accented.

“Uhm, no, no,” I answer, “I haven’t any money on me.”

“Chasing after a woman?”
I hesitate, a little embarrassed. “Yes, actually. I am.”
He grabs the long pole beside him and stands. “Then no payment necessary.”
I start to call out to Maria from the edge of the concrete bank, but the man stops me.
“Trust me. It is better that she sees you up close,” he says in his heavy accent. “You spook women when you yell at them.”

I get in his narrow little boat, and we speed over the murky waters. As we approach Maria, my gondolier gives a loud whistle. The gondolier ahead of us turns his head, and the two exchange signs. Maria’s boat soon begins to slow. A few moments later, the two gondoliers are skillfully bringing the two crafts together side by side beneath the Lion Bridge, one of the tallest bridges in Venice.

I stand and begin talking before Maria has even noticed that it’s me in the rudely crowding boat. “The mission my brother has now, Maria… it is very important. A task from God, Himself.”

Maria stands in her boat, also, as if she is ready to do battle. “A task from God? So is a man supporting his wife. So is raising a child.”

Tears begin rolling down her cheeks. She informed me only a few days earlier that she was pregnant with our firstborn.

“Niccolo is more devastated than you can know,” I continue. “He lost everything during our last trip. Not just Joanna, God rest her soul, but his money and his future place in Venetian society. And now the Pope has asked him to go back to Cathay one last time. To attempt to save the souls of a million people in the East. Maria — a million!”

“He should worry more about his own soul. Your nephew Marco needs a father!”

“We will bring him with us.”

“Your trip will take years! Three at least! You will miss your own child’s first steps, its first words.”

“I’m not going all the way. As soon as I have trained Marco to be more of a help than a hindrance to his father, I am turning around and coming straight back to Venice. To you.”

“They do not even get along, the two of them.”

“They must learn to get along.”

“Why, Maffeo, why? Why must this happen to us? With a child on the way?”

“It breaks my heart, too, beloved. But Niccolo is clinging to this mission as if to a floating plank after a shipwreck. He must go. All he has in Venice is monumental failure and constant recriminations and the terrible, terrible grief of a husband for his deceased wife.”

“Fine. Let him and Marco go. But why must you go with them?”

“Maria, before you, I had nothing in Venice to keep me here.”

“And now?”

“And now it is hard… Still, I must go. It is my duty as a Christian. And as a brother. I owe it to a million souls, and to one soul.”

Maria puts her hands on her hips and looks across the watercourse. At this time of day, beyond the shadow of the bridge, even Venice’s dark waters sparkle with reflected sunlight.

“I suppose if you were less kind-hearted, I wouldn’t have fallen in love with you,” she says after a moment.

I reach across the sides of the two boats and wipe a tear from her cheek, leaving my hand on her cheek.

She wallops me on the shoulder, throwing me off balance and almost causing me to capsize my gondola.

“But we would be more happily married if you were less kind-hearted!” she declares, the timbre of her voice returning immediately to its full, imposing vigor.
I have no answer for her. My duties are torn. My heart is split wide open.
She reaches for me, and we embrace unsteadily across the boats.

I see my gondolier grinning.

“What?” he says to the other gondolier with a shrug. “I am French. Love is my bread.”

Zephyr Dorsey is a writer of fiction and nonfiction, short-form, and book length.

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