And then the autumn came, and the time of rising waters. First they crept up the water stairs and did away with the lowest steps where the children liked to play. Then they crept across the lower courtyard where they colonised the floor in spreading puddles. Next they reached the steps to the upper floors, shortening his journey from the canal to his front door and bringing Donata flying down the stairs to supervise the removal of the dried food store to higher levels. Donata and the children retreated to the upper rooms from where the children hung out of the windows and looked down on the half-drowned world. Marco Polo joined them. He was still looking for Ma Lin – as he suspected was Moreta – worrying that the child was underdressed in the damp Venetian winter.
The waters paused in their upward climb and the city breathed with relief. But then came a night when an autumn storm coincided with an autumn tide and the waters began to climb again, this time with dizzying speed. All night it rained whilst Marco Polo slept fitfully until at five in the morning they were woken by clamouring bells – telling them to leave before the waters grew so high that the boats couldn’t get under the bridges. Into the children’s bedrooms ran Marco Polo and Donata, seized the children, flew down the stairs. The boat was bucking and fighting in the boatman’s hands. In went the children, then Donata, and last went Marco Polo – but as he made to jump he looked back once more and saw Ma Lin at the top of the stairs. He was dressed in his red jacket with its blue trimmings and he had a look of pride on his face but also of alarm as he surveyed the rising waters. ‘Come down at once,’ roared Marco Polo and Donata, sitting in the boat, thought her husband had gone mad. She shrieked, the boatman shouted and Marco Polo turned and seeing the look of terror in his children’s faces, made a choice at last and leapt into the boat as well.
They were only just in time. ‘Duck,’ shouted Marco Polo as they swung away down the canal and the boat veered wildly from side to side and made it under the nearest bridge by a whisker. Within seconds they were being disgorged into the Grand Canal and now they saw that it had stopped raining, that a wrack-ish moon was up and that by its light a torrent was visible, pouring down the Grand Canal as if upended from a bathtub. He saw a boat shoot over the Rialto Bridge. He saw a dog on the very top of the Mocenigo Mansion – how had it got there? – with its nose to the moon, and howling like a baby. And in the water’s wild eddies he saw toys, boats, clothes, bits of houses, terrified faces and waving hands all milling and swilling together. The mad current caught them and took them leftwards, towards San Marco. The boat leapt and twisted like a fish. The children screamed. The boatman’s face turned white as a sheet. Other boats were making the same wild journey. He looked across and saw another boat, neck and neck with theirs, and in it a party of women, one with a wig which was being tugged by the wind and peeling away to reveal the bald head beneath it.
By the time they made it to the Lido it was morning – a wild, autumn morning. They scrambled from the boat with the church bells still ringing wildly on the island behind them. The water was up to their knees. It covered the marble paving in front of the church door. Moreta screamed – the waters came up to her waist – and Donata snatched her up, but Marco Polo looked down and saw the long spine of a Chinese dragon curling sinuously across the face of the waters.
ii. Can you die twice? It seems you can because in all his long life he never saw the boy again, although when they first came home after the flood he found one small, blue, Chinese slipper, drenched and sodden, at the top of the stairs.
Marco Polo grew old. Time baffled him. His other children grew up and he no longer knew which were the greater distances – in time or space? – and where in those two terrifying dimensions he had lost his loved ones. Sometimes he turned a corner and thought he could see the children, Fantina, Bellela and Moreta kneeling on the cobblestones with Ma Lin, playing Jacks.
His treasures had survived the flood – they had been stored high up in the attic. Now he laid them out – including the golden passport of the Khan, the umbrella and the wolf-skin robes (though he left the kaftan well alone) – and lo, he had a museum – which in some small way shrank the dizzying distances between the then and the now. He took to buttonholing passers-by and telling them his stories. He was afraid that after he died, stories and objects would become muddled up and the wrong object attached to the wrong story. He began to bother his grandchildren, trying to impart to them what he knew. But he had left it too late, his voice had grown weak and mumbly, and the children had no patience for listening.
And so sure enough within a few years of his death they had forgotten what the golden passport said, the story behind the wolf-skin robes, and in which direction the compass pointed (the lettering was in Chinese). An object without a story is on its way to bric-a-brac and dust. One day the smallest grandson took the compass out into the street to play with it and then dropped it in the canal and never dared confess.
The umbrella and the kaftan meanwhile had both lost their stories – they had died with the old man who could never bring himself to utter them. And so no one knew that the child who had worn the kaftan had had blue-black hair like a bird’s feathers, and had liked to take giant steps in the rain although he was only four.
Not long after this the Polo family fell upon hard times – and so they melted down the golden passport for money, and sold the salamander cloth to an up and coming merchant. The gunpowder was frittered away in small boys’ explosions. The wolf-skin robe was left out for the children to play with until it grew too threadbare to be comfortable. The umbrella, the kaftan, the Mongol armour, a bolt of silk and both the books, one with the map folded inside it – all this was packed away inside a trunk and left in the corner of the room to be forgotten…
Meanwhile Marco Polo’s stories began to come back to them. It seemed that the Italian called Rustichello, who had been in the Genoese gaol with him, had written down all his stories in a manuscript that was being copied again and again, so that one became two and two became four and four became eight until eventually his stories were everywhere, blowing on the wind, recounted in the taverns, and wildly exaggerated, even by Marco Polo’s standards. But as the Polo family said, ‘There’s no money to be made in stories.’
iii. After Marco Polo died Ma Lin went quiet for a while, didn’t reappear in fact until one winter’s day many years later, when his half-sisters had grown up and had become Venetian matrons. The youngest of Marco Polo’s grand-children (who was as boastful, imaginative and excitable as her grandfather had been) opened up the trunk in the corner of the front room and whilst fingering her grand-father’s treasures, revealed the kaftan and inadvertently released the Ma Lin’s spirit.
But by now Ma Lin was growing tired and it made him crotchety. For Marco Polo’s grand-daughter he took the form of a child who wouldn’t play with her, who was always running ahead and getting to places first. He liked to sit on church steeples and pelt her with peach stones, or take short cuts across the canals where she couldn’t follow him. Marco Polo’s grand-daughter grew thin and white with frustration and her mother dosed her up with camomile spirits. And then one day she seemed to the onlookers to throw a fit. She stamped her feet and turned blue, shrieked at the empty air, ‘Go home, little boy, I hate you,’ and in the land of the spirits his mother Lu, who had been searching for him all these years, finally found him and took him by the hand, at which Ma Lin went quiet and stopped his hauntings.
(c) Words by Rachel Morris, images by Isabel Greenberg