by Elizabeth Copeland
Our story opens in Venice in 1541 on the steps of the Basilica di San Marco. Paulo, a man once revered as the greatest musician of his day, is raving about the oppression of the people in his beloved republic. Though the character of Paulo is fictional, the corruption of the Doge and the Council of Ten was, sadly, all too real.
“Citizens of our Most Serene Republic!” Paulo announced from the steps of the great Basilica, his voice rising and falling in a melodic cascade. “Listen to the voice of Il Vento di Candela!”
Waving an aged candle high above his head, he continued. “I am Paul, descendant of Saint Paul of Tarsus martyred in Rome. I come to tell you that the age of Il Vento di Candela has come!”
Paulo adjusted his hat – yellow velvet trimmed with ermine, then cleared his throat. His resonant voice began a slow, artful crescendo.
“Our great leader, the Doge, is senile and corrupt. Then, dear citizens, there is the Council of Ten. Who among us does not tremble like a newborn kitten when we see one of those dark knights walking our way? Why friends, would you believe that my words to you might be considered a threat to the Republic? Incredibile! How do we survive these terrible times? Let me tell you!”
His heart burning with long-held fury, he threw his arms skyward and shouted, “We must allow the winds of change to blow through our mortal minds! Listen to the song of Il Vento di Candela! As Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt, so shall Il Vento di Candela show us the way out of the darkness and into the light. As the candlelight flickers in the gentle breeze, so shall the light in our hearts dance with the Divine!”
Flashing a radiant, toothless smile, Paulo threw his hat high in the air and, catching it, bent forward at the waist in the theatrical bow of a great maestro.
Many of those hurrying by in the early morning crowd knew that Paulo meant no harm. After all, he was once a greatly celebrated musician, named by Father Gianni himself as Il Magnifico. But Venice in the year 1541 was no place for lunatics waving candles in the air and shouting at the top of their lungs about corruption, the Council of Ten, and the heretical notion of dancing with the Divine.
As he pushed open the doors of the Basilica to welcome the early morning worshippers, Father Gianni heard the familiar voice of his old friend and shook his head.
“Madonna mia.” He rubbed his tonsure. “It is going to be a long day.”
Lucia awoke before the dawn’s light to find her husband missing.
“Madre Dios. Where have you gone, Paulo?”
Her heart racing, she dressed as quickly as her old bones would allow, cursing herself. Why had she forgotten to give him the nightly dose of the calming medicine the doctor had prescribed?
Throwing her cloak over her shoulders, she saw that Paulo’s hat was gone. That hat, a gift from the Doge in better days, was his pride and joy. Its absence could only mean one thing. Crossing herself, she hurried out. She knew exactly where to find Paulo.
Lucia ran as fast as she could, down the lane and into the Piazza San Marco. The vendors were setting up shop, and the smell of fresh vegetables and fruit, some from the New World, filled the air. She ran by the butcher’s shop, turning her head away from the bloody mess, then absentmindedly waved to Signora Picardi, who was busy shooing the local beggar boys away from her freshly baked bread.
Slowing to catch her breath, she nodded a greeting to Solomon the Jew, remembering the debt she owed him. He had rescued her husband on the day he threw himself into the canal, saying Il Vento di Candela would save him. At home preparing the evening meal, she opened the door to find a Jew holding Paulo, drenched and unconscious. She was shocked to find that the eyes of the apostate did not burn holes in her. It was the first time she had looked into the eyes of a Christ killer, and the kindness she saw there had disturbed her greatly. Since then she found that she couldn’t help but like him. Why did it matter what his people had done so long ago? Wasn’t our Lord born a Jew? Weren’t Christians taught to love thy neighbor?
“Madonna mia,” she sighed as she shook her head and ran on. She had been listening to Paulo’s rants for far too long.
Would her heart have been lifted if she had looked back to see her friends praying as one to the blessed San Marco? To know that Giuseppe the butcher, Pina the lace maker, and Jacquo the wool dyer, whose hands were dyed a permanent blue, all knew that look of worry on Lucia’s face? Il Grande Paulo, for that is what they called him, could be a bit of a nuisance. But he was touched by God, and more importantly, he was one of their own. He brought a touch of whimsy into their fearful lives, and his spirited rantings were a welcome respite from the pompous arrogance of the Doge and his Council. So when he came along and swiped a pear, or a slab of cheese, they shook their heads and let it pass. In spite of his ragged clothes and the ridiculous hat he wore, Paulo carried with him a measure of grandeur long ago lost in their world.
In front of the Basilica, Lucia cried with relief when she saw the familiar black hat of Vincenzo, the physician. She ran to him and shook his arm.
“Doctore! Please come!”
The doctor silently cursed that he had not lingered longer with La Bella Antonietta, and then resignedly followed Lucia. After all, he had made an oath to help others. As he approached Paulo, he surreptitiously scanned the crowd for members of the Council.
Paulo stood silently, lost in reverie. Vincenzo let himself hope that Paulo would come down quietly.
“Paulo, vieni giù!” the doctor whispered.
Paulo’s smile faded as he turned, red-faced, to look at the doctor. “I am not Paulo!”
Then, casting his vision out into the Piazza, he opened his arms in a wide gesture of embrace, his voice a roar of thunder.
“Citizens of our Most Serene Republic! I, Paul of Tarsus, am commanding you to follow Il Vento di Candela. The great wind of change has come!” He raised his arm, revealing the sweat stains on his doublet, and waved the candle high for all to see.
Vincenzo flinched and pulled his hat down over his face. An oath was one thing. To be associated publicly with this lunatic was another.
“Dio,” the doctor sighed to himself. “A wind has come indeed, but more likely a human wind from bad humors in the stomach and too much vino.”
Lucia stepped up beside her husband. “Cara mia,” she soothed, stroking his long silver hair and wiping the spittle from his face. “What difference does it make whether we call you Paulo or Paul? You are still my husband. Come home. I will make you your favorite bread. We will buy some soft cheese, and you can eat under the fig tree in the garden.”
Paulo kissed his wife of thirty years, leaned over, and said in a conspiratorial whisper, “Not now, bella. I have work to do.”
Rising on his toes, in the style of Il Grande Ballerino, he turned and flung himself headlong into the Basilica. Stopping to genuflect only long enough to show reverence, he danced down the aisle on his long, skinny legs, his coattails flying out behind him.
The early morning worshippers looked up, their eyes wide. Father Gianni turned from the altar and hastily stood. Wanting to avoid a scene, he moved too quickly toward Paulo, tripped on the edge of his robes and landed unceremoniously on all fours.
Paulo came to a stop inches from the top of the priest’s head.
“Your Holiness, I am St. Paul of Tarsus bringing the message of Il Vento di Candela!” Paulo put the candle in his teeth and sidestepped around Father Gianni, who was trying to regain his balance.
Rushing to the priest, Lucia remembered to pull her shawl up over her head. “Mi scusa, your holiness,” she whispered. “Let me help you.”
With the elegance of a bird in flight, Paulo flew up the stairs to the Great Organ. Not wasting an instant, he slid onto the bench, adjusted the stops, and flexed the muscles in his hands.
Against his own better judgment, Vincenzo had followed Paulo into the Basilica, his hat pulled low over his face, the collar of his cloak held high. While Lucia helped the aging priest, the doctor whisked a chalice from the altar, hiding it under his robe. He tiptoed up the stairs to the loft, then crawled forward on his hands and knees so as not to be visible to the congregation below. His robe fell open. The Holy Chalice fell to the floor.
Visions of damnation dancing before his eyes, he hissed, “You lunatic! Now look what you have made me do. Stop this nonsense now before all is lost!”
But Paulo was now in a realm where he could neither be lost nor found. Lifting his eyes up to the Madonna, he smiled and began to play. The music, sweet and soaring, rose to the heavens.
Mumbling a quick prayer to the Blessed Saint, Vincenzo fumbled in his pocket, pulling out his special medicine, a powerful mixture of valerian, opium, and wine that he carried with him always. It was useful in emergencies and for those moments when the demands of his profession overwhelmed him. He took a small sip to calm his nerves. If only he could get a dose into Paulo, this mad scene would be over.
Playing high and light with only a touch of bass, Paulo drew down from the heavens the winds on which the blessed angels flew. With the wind came the sun. Brilliant light filtered in through the stained glass, and the love in the eyes of the Madonna shone for all to see.
“O Dio!” a man in the front pew cried, sure he was witnessing a miracle.
“Madonna mia!” A matron at the back of the sanctuary wept, falling on her knees and crossing herself.
Meanwhile the doctor was reaching with shaking hands for the chalice. Surely it would be sacrilege to put anything but the blood of Christ into the holy vessel. But then how else could he still this crazy man who could possibly ruin him? Slopping some of the precious medicine into the goblet, he gathered up his robes and stood, making straight for Paulo.
“Drink this,” he ordered in the tone of one used to being obeyed. When the madman did not respond, Vincenzo made as if to strike him. “In the name of the Blessed San Marco, open your mouth!”
Vincenzo’s voice rang out for all to hear. Looking up, Father Gianni called out, “Stop, doctore! Please, no violence in the house of God.”
Chastised, the doctor stepped back into the shadows, taking a sizeable gulp of medicine.
The priest pinched the bridge of his nose, hoping to ward off the headache that threatened. He knew that what Paulo said was considered heresy and that the man belonged in an asylum. But who could deny the presence of God in this music? Who could deny the sudden and bright light shining through the eyes of the Holy Mother? And though he would never admit it out loud, was it not possible that Il Vento di Candela was not another word for the light of the Holy One?
“Lock the doors,” the priest ordered. Lifting his robe carefully to avoid another tumble, he ascended the stairs.
“Mi scusa, doctore,” he said to the glassy eyed physician. “May I have a quiet word with my old friend?”
Holding the chalice and its priceless contents firmly in both hands, Vincenzo stepped, then stumbled backwards.
Father Gianni put his hand on Paulo’s shoulder and whispered, “You are lucky. The Doge is not present and that the Maestro is once again late. Five minutes. That is all the time I can allow you. The spies of the Council could be lurking anywhere.”
Paulo took the candle from his mouth, placed it reverently at his side, and removed his hat. “As you say, compagne.”
Once again raising his face to the Madonna, Paulo began to play Desprez’s “Ave Maria”, first soft as a whisper, then sweet as a mother’s kiss. Father Gianni closed his eyes. Surely the voices of the angels were no sweeter than this.
Sweetness turned to savage passion as Paulo came down the octave. The worshippers inhaled as one, and as the music swelled, each heart felt the majesty and awe of the Mystery itself.
The doctor stood frozen in place, unaware that his hat had fallen from his head and his face was open for all to see. His orderly mind in chaos, he scratched his head. Had he put too much opium in this most recent batch of medicine? Or was the Blessed San Marco himself standing before him? With shaking hands he brought the chalice to his mouth and took a long draught. What was happening?
As Paulo played the final chords, a gentle wind began to play with the fire burning on the altar candles. The flickering flames danced upward toward the vaulted ceiling, chasing the shadows away. Beauty herself poured into the room. The faces of all the Saints lit up, and the Madonna’s eyes were awash in love. Even Jesus on the cross looked happy.
“Christos!” Vincenzo sputtered, dropping the chalice on the floor.
“Grazie a Dio,” Father Gianni whispered, bowing his head in prayer.
As the worshippers stared in awe at the unfolding spectacle, Lucia bowed her head to the Madonna, and whispered, “You’ve had him long enough. Per favore, let him go.”
Paulo shook his head and rubbed his eyes, as if awakening from a long sleep. Picking up the candle and tucking his hat under his arm, he slid off the organ bench in one graceful movement, and respectfully approached Father Gianni. His eyes quiet, he spoke softly.
“Il Vento di Candela has come, O Holiness. Gracious thanks to you for your patience this day.”
Walking gracefully down the stairs, Paulo went to Lucia, took her hand in his own and kissed it. “Come, bella. My work is done.”
The whispered prayers of all those present following in their wake, Paulo and Lucia processed up the aisle in much the same fashion as they had thirty long years ago.
As they exited the sanctuary doors, Vincenzo pulled his hat down over his face, and looked about for an exit. Father Gianni signaled for the doors to be opened, and then turned his back to the congregation. He didn’t want them to see the joy on his face. He couldn’t stop himself from smiling.
So ends the story of Paulo, known once in his own mind as St. Paul of Tarsus, sent to bring Il Vento di Candela to Venice in her time of trial. Who can say what really happened that day in the Basilica? Was it a miracle or merely a trick of the light? But one thing we know for sure. Music, as expressed through the hands of a master can calm the human mind in times of trouble. And in that calm, who knows what mysteries can unfold?
Elizabeth Copeland is a writer, theatre artist and arts educator. She writes fiction, poetry, plays and impassioned letters to the editor. Her works have been published or are forthcoming in: The Furious Gazelle, Forge Journal, Bread ‘n Molasses, The Lorelei Signal, So to Speak and Vitality Magazine, among others. Her novella, JAZZ, won the 2013 Ken Klonsky novella prize, and will be published by Quattro Books in November 2014. An excerpt from her novel, TRAEH GNUL, won the 2014 Writer’s Federation of New Brunswick Y.A. fiction prize. She lives near Miramichi Bay in a little house in the woods with her composer husband, Glenn. You can find her at www.thewritingofelizabethcopeland.blogspot.ca.