by Becca Pogson-Jones

Another fragment of an unfinished novel...

"I picked it up and it bit me..."

Mr. Moses Venus took a large test tube out of his inside jacket pocket. The tube was sealed with a cork. Mr. Venus held the tube up into the light. A large bug scuttled back and forth restlessly.

"Rare indeed" said its owner. "The blue cockroach. I was a child, eighteen or so, wandering stupidly around the world. I ended up in South America, tramping through the jungle with a couple of crazy Dutch botanists. I did the cooking. One day I'm setting up my fire, and I see this shiny, iridescent blue cockroach on a stick. I picked it up and it bit me. I managed to seal it in a test-tube before I fell to the ground. Strange and powerful visions filled my skull, twisting and turning around and over each other. I was helpless. I couldn't move my body, and my head was full of poisonous pictures in which creatures from beyond our galaxy danced to jittery moronic music. I was incontinent, panic-stricken, and paralyzed.

The Dutch couple finally got me to a village, and then to the airport. They strapped me into a seat in the back row of a Piper Cherokee with a piece of paper giving my name and address pinned to my shirt. The woman touched my face. She was crying. I wanted to thank her for her tears, and I spoke for the first time in three weeks. I was unintelligible, babbling like a lunatic child.

After a few months in the back wards here in god's country, my mind cleared. Clear as the pellucid tone of the steeple bell from the village church. I'm still weak, and have trouble sleeping. I have since discovered, through my persistent and unwelcome inquiries at the Center for Research in Tropical Disease, that the bite of the blue cockroach almost always results in madness, followed by death. I am the only person ever to survive a nip from this bug with his sanity and life intact. The blue cockroach is extraordinarily long lived, by the way, and will bite anything that comes near. It's quite indiscriminate in this way."

Mr. Moses Venus slipped the corked test tube and its occupant back into his inside jacket pocket.

"I keep it in my nighttable, next to the Glock 9mm, and the extra clip. You never know. Brandy?"

After a profound silence, Mr. Moses Venus continues....

"Last night, I couldn't sleep. Ugly echoes of my experiences in South America gnawed at me. I tried reading -- a book I'd bought at a local flea market. Curious volume --'Memoirs of a Venetian Gentleman, with the tale of Arthur Gordon of Vermont, and the Peculiar History of Count Orsino of Trafontane'."

'In the year of our Lord 1884, on a bright summer afternoon, a young man could be seen walking slowly along the Zatterre Degli Incurabili, a book under one arm. As even the most casual visitor to Venice knows, the Zattere curves about the shore facing the Guidecca, and is called "of the Incurables" as at one time a municipal hospital for the insane existed on that pleasant pathway. In those days, it was a popular amusement to stroll the Zattere at sunset. At that hour all the madmen would twitch and tremble, pressing their faces against the barred windows of their little rooms. Some shouted lunatic theories, others screamed insults to the crowd below, others simply let the glow of the dying sun bathe their fevered minds.

The young man on the Zattere was an American, a native of Vermont. Visiting Venice, and like so many before him, having been caught in its spell, he'd stayed on for months. His name was Arthur P. Gordon, and he had planned to spend this day as he had spent so many -- reading and wandering, allowing his soul to delve deeply into a book, or to wander freely among the mellow and mysterious stones of Venice.

On this day, however, he found himself unable to read, and the byways of the fabled city had lost their charm. His mind was obsessed by thoughts of the enigmatic Countess Bobinski, the beauty he had met on the quay last night.

She had stood there, distraught in the moonlight, unable to find a boat at that late hour to take her back across the grand canal to the Sfogliatelle Palace Hotel. Arthur offered his gondola. They drifted in the darkness. The waters slapped the gondola's black sides. A single candle burned in the lantern on its prow.

They talked. Her marriage was an unhappy one, to an older man. Her husband was a diplomatic attache at the Polish embassy, who gave her diamonds and beat her. She displayed a bruise on her upper arm. By the time the gondola drifted in alongside the Sfogliatelle Palace Hotel dock, Arthur Gordon was madly, passionately in love.

Arthur knew he must forget his hopeless infatuation with the Countess Bobinski, and tried again to lose himself in the book he had picked up at a yard sale off the Piazza San Marco. He forced himself to sit on a bench along the Zattere. He glanced down at the title page: "The Interesting Life of Count Orsino, by Himself." The setting sun illuminated the page with a dull red fire, and the ghosts of all the inmates of the madhouse read along over his shoulder.

"My name is Orsino. In the middle of life's voyages all my guiding stars were hid from me forever, behind a veil of blood. I have been exiled from my native Venice, my graceful Palladian villa, my ruined gardens, and the strange and compelling statuary that lie hidden in their shade. These statues were created by my grandfather, carvings made in an age where they better understood the passions that can fill the mind and heart of a nobleman. Lust is transformative and divine, and begins and ends in beauty. The green juice that runs in the pear tree gives life and sweetness to the fruit. The dull burghers of Venice, unable to understand what they termed my excesses, sent me away.

Now, in old age, suffering from gout and neuro-syphilis, I, Count Ludivico Orsino, am writing my memoirs in a cell maintained by the Cistercian Order of Nuns on the island called Idle Hour in the Venetian lagoon. It has this name as it was once a resort of pleasure boaters, and was home to many brothels and eating houses. Now the island is dedicated to Christ, and his holy sisters and myself are all its custom. I pay the nuns well to feed and house me. I am free to go anywhere, except I may not join in their communal meals, their work, or their devotions. They fear the devil. Idiots.

I write, or I wander onto the stone pier that juts out toward Venice, and watch her spires and arches float on the sea.

Truchas, New Mexico 1993