It was in a hazy dream of crumbling, pinkish Venice that I first met the Duke. I was struck by the extraordinary resemblance of his milky green eyes to the soft-sucking waves of the lagoon. It was from washing every day in the canals, he had confided. The brackish foam refined the features. Though most likely it was just another effect of the radioactive waste, gradually turning us all into briny mutations. Radiation was a matter of belief, the Duke had assured me. Everything glowed in a dioxide sunset, anyway.
I was always a little bit in love with him, so I humored his absurdity and whenever he patted his pockets and asked if I could, just this once, pick up the bill. Perhaps everyone was in love with the Duke. You had to be to survive those bleak mornings, of neon clouds and smoke plumes puffing through sidewalk cracks, as if the city was oscillating on a volcano.
I wondered if his beauty was entirely the cause of his charm. For the rest of us, generations of disfigurement might have gone unnoticed if it weren’t for the Duke, whose ancestry of inbreeding had produced some kind of genetic resistance. He alone remained: a testament to a misty past. His own legend, perhaps already dissolving into memory. We were enthralled by him, trapped in the thin line between world and self, between love and hate.
My boy! he would exclaim, although we were the same age – my boy! And he would grab my hand with those slender fingers, their tips painted to maintain the illusion they still had nails. Would you believe that I’m the last one?
I learned that beauty could be itself a monster, if so far removed from life. The Duke was too alive, with his polite, wet lips and his thin gooseflesh skin even on those seething nights. Impossible for anyone to fit him into a dusty halo. His existence was a dissonance in an era of resignation. Who wanted to be reawakened to the pain of loveliness and longing? Who wanted to be reminded of hope?
It was too much.
Were we ever so cruel? I saw no violence in the end of the Duke. There was only the embarrassing revelation that even someone so exquisite was nothing but a vessel for hot poisonous blood. It was with gentleness that we drowned him so that he would remain young and unspoiled. It was with reverence that we cut and drained him into the pulsating canals he so adored, in hope that his blessing would seep into the city.
And it was with love, that very same love and exaltation—it was with great roars of heartache and ecstasy that we carried the sublime corpse away—on that glorious smoldering evening. All of us huddled there in a gloaming of fumes, heaving ropes that blistered our weak, twisted hands. Lifting the Duke up the acid-scarred battlements, body like a limp flag.
Clio Velentza lives in Athens, Greece, and is a winner of “Best Small Fictions 2016”. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in several literary journals, including “(b)OINK”, “Corium”, “The Letters Page”, “Jellyfish Review” and “Wigleaf”. Find her @clio_v.