Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

The Haunting

One day when he was searching through his trunks he discovered a secret pocket in the inner sleeve of the child’s funeral kaftan, and in so doing inadvertently released the dead child’s spirit.  Or so he concluded because shortly after this – and surely it was no coincidence? – Ma Lin returned.

The first he knew of it was when Moreta acquired an imaginary friend.  They played together in the Campo, much to her older sisters’ amusement.  ‘Moreta has an imaginary friend,’ they crowed.  ‘Really?’ asked Marco Polo absent-mindedly, ‘What’s she called?’  ‘Ma Lin,’ they said.

Marco Polo turned faint and his heart leapt painfully. How could they know his name when he himself hadn’t uttered it in nearly ten years?  He got to his feet to hide his expression, walked across to the window, looked out on the square where Moreta was cuddling an invisible child.  ‘So she has,’ said Marco Polo, as nonchalantly as he could whilst in his head he was wondering how the child had got here and what would happen if Donata discovered him.

It was ten years since he had seen Ma Lin.  On that last occasion they had been together in Qinsai, eating the street food for which the city was famous.  They had sat in one of the city’s many gardens, with him on one side and Lu on the other and the child between them, and she had picked out the best of the meat and had fed it to him with her fingers.  The garden was filled with temples with curly eaves, paths and little bridges.  There was a view of the Heavenly Mountain and the boats out on the lake that they called the Waters of the Moon.

It was extraordinary how he, who had swaggered his way across half of Asia, could find himself so unmanned by this small child.  Twenty times a day he had asked her, ‘Is he hungry?  Is he cold?  Why is he crying?  Shouldn’t we feed him?’  But she had only smiled her brilliant smile.  Mother and son were as tiny as each other, each with a brilliant smile, each looking at him hopefully.

Not long after this Ma Lin died of the plague and he and Lu buried him in his best kaftan and then Marco Polo went back to the service of the Khan and when he came home again Lu was dead as well and her family had taken the two of them and buried them he knew not where.  Like his mother, Ma Lin had belonged to the Empire of the Song that Marco Polo’s master, the Great Khan had destroyed.  Thus, if you were leaving from Venice, you would have to pass through two Looking Glass worlds to reach them.

And yet somehow it seemed the child had found his way to Venice.

After a week of careful watching it seemed to Marco Polo that all three children were now playing with Ma Lin.  When he came upon them unexpectedly – which he did as often as possible – he noticed that they would stop what they were doing and glance at each other guiltily.

Marco Polo was seized with a desire to see Ma Lin so bitter that he thought his heart would stop. He noticed that the child was rarely around in the middle of the day when the sun was at its highest, that the girls preferred to play with him either after breakfast or in the early evenings. From this he deduced that the child might be short of playmates either at the beginning or the end of the day.  So this was when he searched for him, in the pearl-grey, silvery mornings, or the thick, blue, twilit evenings.  He was looking for a child yay big (holding out one hand, measuring the distance between ground and hand with his eyes), in a red jacket with blue trimmings (surely that should be noticeable?) and with the imperious look that some children have when they feel unusually small.  His hair was blue-black like a bird’s feathers (he got that from his mother) and he had the wide-eyed look of the westerners (he got that from his father).

But hunt as he did around the house and the neighbouring streets Marco Polo never saw him.

‘Didn’t I love you enough?’ asked Marco Polo sadly.  Although the real questions were, how had he got here and where was his mother?

The Haunting

ii.  Marco Polo soon discovered.  One day he heard Donata clattering more than usual in the kitchen, one saucepan and then another and another going flying from her fingers, to curses and shouts from Donata.  ‘Nothing will stay in my hands any longer,’ she grumbled, and at that it became instantly clear to him what was happening (though it wasn’t of course clear to Donata), that Lu was downstairs in the kitchen, wreaking havoc with the saucepans.  Lu couldn’t cook; hence the street food in Qinsai.

So that was Lu. He wondered how jealousy would manifest itself in Donata (though what she was jealous of she couldn’t say) and soon discovered – it was pink-cheeked outrage, that somehow, someone had invaded her kitchen.  Donata’s food went off – or maybe she was on strike? – it was the first time it had ever happened.  Marco Polo went down to the kitchen, felt Lu’s presence so strong he could reach out and touch her – sitting on the table, smiling and swinging her legs.  ‘Give her a break, Lu,’ he said out loud, ‘And shouldn’t you be looking after Ma Lin anyway?’

Somehow Marco Polo had acquired two wives.  It made life complicated. It was bad enough that Lu was in the kitchen but what would happen if she came up stairs and invaded the marital bedroom?  It was enough to put him off his stride.

Meanwhile – so he heard – Donata was going every morning to the Church of San Tomas to pray for patience – and then going on to the Fish Market by the Rialto where she offloaded her frustrations by giving the traders grief. He also knew that she was talking to her girlfriends because whispers crept back to him that their marriage was in trouble.  He overheard them one day as he lay stretched out in the barber’s shop, swathed in white towels and with the barber overhead wielding the cut-throat razor. Two old men were talking – they hadn’t seen him – saying that Donata believed he had a mistress and that her family would be coming shortly to take her home.  (‘That’s those brothers of hers,’ thought Marco Polo grimly.)

And still he hadn’t seen the child.

(c)  Words by Rachel Morris,  images by  Isabel Greenberg