Fall 2015, Volume 19

Fiction by Robin Uriel Russin

San Secondo


Aldo glanced up from the scarred wooden squares of the folding chessboard that sat between them on the stone bench. He studied his old friend’s face, unsure if he’d heard Elia correctly. Even though they were in the shade of the plane tree, Aldo had to squint against the harsh sunlight reflecting off the stone pavement.

“I think I’ve been seeing them.”

Aldo chuckled. “What, here in the campo?”

He waved around at the public square that formed the heart of the Gheto Nuovo, the ancient Jewish enclave of Venice. There were scattered clumps of tourists, conferring over maps or wandering lethargically to the points of interest prescribed in their ever-present guidebooks. Four bearded young Hasids from the nearby storefront Chabad were marching past them, boisterous in spite of the heat, chanting and carrying a banner proclaiming their candidate for Messiah, the deceased Brooklyn Rabbi Menachem Schneerson.

“You mean the Hasids, or the tourists?”

“I’m serious. In my room. The past few nights.”

Aldo’s smile faded as he heard his friend’s tone. As he had gotten older, Elia had been given over more and more to fits of depression. He attributed it to his experiences during the war. Aldo found that hard to accept. More than half a century had gone by; Aldo himself only remembered those events in black and white, like old film, even though he’d lived through them as well. The fact that both men were surely nearing the end of their lives was a more likely cause for Elia’s moods, though it didn’t bother Aldo as much.

“I thought Jews didn’t believe in an afterlife.”

“We don’t. At least I don’t. But...” Elia trailed off, shaking his head. “They come around my bed. I can’t see their faces, but it feels like they’re my parents. And my sister.”

“You were dreaming.”

“I was awake.”

“You dreamed you were awake, that’s all. Are you still taking those sleeping pills? I read somewhere that they can give you hallucinations.”

Aldo regarded Elia with a sad smile. It occurred to him that he could barely see in his friend’s face any traces of the cheerful, freckled boy he’d been when they first met. Not that he could recognize his own youthful self in the mirror, either, he thought.

“Look, we buried Vincenzo last month. Sometimes I think I see him, disappearing around a corner, down some calle. But it’s just wishful thinking. Almost everyone from our time is gone. You and I are the ghosts, or soon to be. Your move.”

Elia stared blankly at the board. He picked up his knight, hesitated, then made his move, clicking the peg under the piece into the hole in the wood.

Aldo raised a shaggy white eyebrow. It wasn’t like Elia to make a mistake like that, but the move had been made. Aldo moved his bishop, taking the knight.

Scacco Matto.” Checkmate.

Porca Miseria…”

Elia spat. His saliva dried almost immediately on the pavement. He took out a well-used handkerchief and wiped his forehead.

“Maybe it’s the heat. I can barely sleep anyway.”

“Or maybe you’re getting senile. It’s to be expected, at our age.”

“Speak for yourself.”

It had to be over forty degrees Celsius in the shade. But it hadn’t occurred to either of them to go inside. Unless it was raining, this was where they had come to play for fifty years now. It was partly a defiant statement of ownership. They were native Venetians, a vanishing breed. There were only a third as many living in the city now as when they’d been born, over eighty years before. And, it was partly a ritualized element of their daily routine, like their morning cup of caffè corretto, spiked with harsh local grappa. The only exception had been two decades earlier, when Aldo’s wife Laura had suffered a stroke. Then they’d played chess in her hospital room overlooking the canal-side walkway of the Fondamenta dei Mendicanti, until Laura passed away. After that, their daily games were all that kept Aldo from a nervous breakdown, along with their excursions out onto the lagoon in their two-oared, two-man mascheretta, a working skiff converted for exercise and competition. Over the years, Aldo and Elia had accumulated a room full of trophies from the various regattas in which they’d competed as a team.


Elia glanced around, ill at ease. As on every summer day, almost everyone in sight was a tourist, a stranger. He’d long ago become resigned to this, but today the campo felt suddenly alien to him. Perhaps because of the unsettling apparitions, or perhaps just because of the heat, he had turned melancholy, his thoughts drifting back to his childhood and how things used to be.

Back then, the Ghetto had bustled with families who had been there for dozens of generations, descended from waves of Jews who’d arrived in search of commerce or simply been forbidden to live anywhere else. When Napoleon had invaded and liberated them—along with plundering the city—some had become rich and even bought palaces on the Grand Canal. Others, like Elia’s ancestor, had chosen to remain. His forefathers had all been straccivendoli, or ragmen. His family’s apartment, passed down from one generation to the next, was on the fifth floor of one of the Ghetto’s “Venetian skyscrapers”—during the Jews’ confinement, as their numbers had grown, they had been forced to add layer upon creaky layer to their buildings. The apartment was so cramped that as Elia reached his teen years, his hair brushed the wooden ceiling rafters. Elia didn’t mind. It made him think of the generations of ancestors in their apartment whose hair had also brushed those dark, ancient beams. His father had joked that he “wore the ceiling like a beret.” His father had been a kind, funny man, loved by everyone.  For some reason, his sense of humor was all Elia could really remember about him. He couldn’t remember much about his mother either, or his little sister. He’d been so young when the war came and erased his family.


Aldo packed up the chess set and nodded his head. Elia followed his gaze: outside the intrusive green security kiosk, two armed and uniformed commandos, provided by the Israeli government to guard the Ghetto, were arguing with a group of young men with dark complexions. The Israelis’ faces were friendly, but their hands rested lightly on the automatic weapons strung over their shoulders. After a moment, with a burst of obscenities, the young men flipped them off and stalked away across the iron bridge to the Fondamenta dei Ormesini.

“Sicilians, not Arabs” laughed Elia. “Those Israeli kids can’t tell the difference.”

“Is there any?” quipped Aldo.

“Don’t be such a bigot.”

“Who am I insulting? Arabs? Or Sicilians?”

Following a tour guide with upheld parasol to keep them in line, a gaggle of sweaty, pink-faced Germans emerged into the blistering sunlight from the low black arches under which the sotoportego tunnel led to a bridge off the island. It had once been the only access point to the rest of Venice. A few twists and turns beyond was the noisy shopping street of Rio Tera San Leonardo, seemingly a world away. The Germans meandered through the campo, unselfconsciously chattering and snapping pictures. 

One plump German couple in shorts and too-tight “Pirates of Venezia” T-shirts broke off from the group and approached as if to ask a question. But then the wife simply turned and struck a pose in front of Aldo and Elia while the husband took a picture, without asking permission. It was as if the old men were simply another item of scenery: “Look, here I am, in front of two authentic Venetian antiques!” Or perhaps, Elia couldn’t help thinking: “Look, here I am, in front of one that got away!” Elia found himself disgusted by the back of her pallid, German bare legs, lumpy with cellulite.

Something she was saying as she returned to her husband filtered through Elia’s distracted thoughts.

“…wenn mein Vater war hier während des Krieg…”

Elia felt the hair on the back of his neck rise. What had she said? Her father had been here during the war? He couldn’t make out any more of their conversation as they strolled away. Elia sat for a moment, composing himself. Maybe he’d heard wrong. His German was rusty, after all. And he hadn’t slept well.

He shook his head, then stood and stretched. His hips ached, but for a man in his eighties, he was still tall and remarkably fit. So was Aldo, although shorter, with thick limbs and fingers and hair. Both had made a pact to give up smoking years before it was fashionable to do so, and spent at least two hours a day together out on the water, plying their oars.

“Want to join us for lunch?” Aldo asked. “Gioia is making sarde in saor con polenta.” The simple dish of sardines with onions marinated in vinegar and a side of cornmeal would normally have been fine, but today the thought of it turned Elia’s stomach a bit.

“No, I think I’ll just wander over to Gino’s for a panino, then take a nap.”

“Don’t let the ghosts bite.”

“Don’t break my balls.”

Aldo grinned, put the chess set in his worn leather shoulder satchel and headed across the bridge to the broad Fondamenta dei Ormesini walkway and the working class, northernmost neighborhood of the city. Neither man had to mention that they’d be meeting again late that afternoon to go rowing. It was an unvarying appointment. It was just as well that Elia had turned him down, Aldo thought. Elia seemed due for one of his “moods blacker than squid ink,” as Gioia, Aldo’s niece, liked to put it. Better to leave him alone for a while.


Elia strolled over to the low water fountain in the middle of the campo. He bent down and rinsed his head, pulling the thinning strands of white hair back behind his ears, then drank a few cupped handfuls.

He found himself trailing the German tour group without having decided to do so. Following Germans around his city had once been almost a compulsion for him after the war, when tourism and the veneer of normal life had returned. He detested the very sound of their language, but he had forced himself to learn it, as if in its guttural cadence he could find some answer to the tragic mysteries of his life. He finally stopped doing it years ago, after Aldo had persuaded him that he was just torturing himself. And yet, here he was again, following as if someone other than himself was guiding his actions. Maybe the damned ghosts, he thought sourly. Or maybe it was what he thought he’d overheard that woman say.

The Germans crossed the bridge above the Rio Del Gheto canal and into the Gheto Vecchio, where the guide pointed out the location of the synagogues, also guarded by armed young Israelis. Then they continued down the lane to the wide Cannaregio canal and crowded onto the platform for the Guglio vaporetto or waterbus that would take them on the next part of their tour. Elia followed them on.

The group stood there complacently, waiting for the boat and chattering about the heat or what souvenirs they still had to buy. Elia took a closer look at the woman he’d overheard. Her bland, full-moon face was harmless enough. He shook his head. What was he doing? Yes, he’d probably heard wrong; he couldn’t hear that well to begin with any more. Or he was just tired and imagining things. Elia turned to exit the platform, about to squeeze past a fellow whose substantial backside was blocking his way, when he heard the woman begin to whisper to her husband. Elia looked back: she was pointing up the canal, toward a bridge with three arches, beyond which the open lagoon was just visible.

“It was just out there, he said,” she confided, in German. “The little island. That’s what father told me.”

“Well, it’s not really something I want to think about,” her husband said with an uncomfortable laugh.

“I know. I’m sorry. But... what if it was true? That poor family, hiding out there, betrayed, tortured--”

“Christina, please, stop.”

Elia stood behind them, frozen. He was vaguely aware that he’d stopped breathing.

 “This is our vacation, not some guilt trip about what happened before we were born. It was a war. Bad things happened.”

Elia felt a sudden pain as if he’d been knifed in the stomach. He felt more than saw the husband take his wife’s arm.


“No. You’re right.” She shook her head. “Still...it’s just hard to imagine. What went on back then.“

“Well, it wasn’t our fault.”

“I guess.”

The vaporetto arrived, rocking the platform as the worker roped it to the iron cleat. The German group got on, along with the others waiting for it.

Elia, left alone on the platform, felt as if his entire body had gone numb. Nausea swept through him. Collapsing against the platform’s large rope cleat, he vomited into the canal, drawing stares from passersby. A young woman came over and asked if he was ill, but he staggered past her, back onto the pavement. He stared out toward the lagoon. The island was out of sight from where he stood, but he could see it, in his mind’s eye.


Before the war, like many Jews, Elia’s father and grandfather had joined the Fascist party, eager to prove they were supporters of a strong, united Italy. Though Elia couldn’t remember the event, he had a photo of himself at the age of four being held and kissed by Mussolini, who at first had welcomed Jewish support, and even had a Jewish mistress. But that was before he joined forces with Hitler and issued the “racial laws.” In 1943 the Jews in the Ghetto were turned over to the Germans, often by their gentile neighbors. Only a few survived, escaping across the lagoon to join the partisans.

Elia’s family had looked for safety by hiding on San Secondo, one of the many tiny abandoned islands in the lagoon. Over the centuries, it had housed everything from a convent of debauched nuns to a military powder store, but for the past two hundred years it had been empty, a forgotten islet off to the side of the Ponte della Libertà bridge that connected Venice to the mainland. There, Elia, his mother, father and little sister camped in a ruined fortification, hearing the occasional train go by across the water, surviving on whatever cuttlefish, snails or crabs they could catch by the shore, and whatever Aldo brought over in his skiff at night. Aldo--like Elia, a boy barely fifteen years old--was the only one who knew they were there.

Then, one night when Aldo had risked taking Elia out fishing for cuttlefish by torchlight, Elia’s family had simply vanished. The boys scoured the island, tearing their clothes and their flesh on the dense, thorny scrub, but there was no trace. With no other option, Elia had remained alone on the island, Aldo his only tie to the world, until the Allies liberated the Veneto. Years later, his search confirmed that the Germans had no record of what happened to them. No one did. It had long been a source of resentment to Elia that the Ghetto administrators hadn’t included their names on the bronze plaque commemorating the neighborhood’s Holocaust victims. But, as they said, no one knew what happened to them. 


Elia wandered aimlessly through the drab, labyrinthine Cannaregio neighborhoods, his mind a blur. He eventually came to a stop at the limit of a bleak calle dead-ending into a tiny canal, somewhere in the grubby northern part of the Castello quarter. He sank down on the marble steps descending into the drab green channel, his feet submerged on a lower step, almost invisible through the few inches of still, murky water. In spite of its filth, he cupped his hands and splashed his face with it. Bits of vomit washed off, apparently stuck to his chin all afternoon. He examined his shirt. His bile had caked and dried on it. He tried to wash it off, then stopped. His hands were trembling. Elia rose unsteadily and headed back toward the ghetto, feet squishing in his wet shoes. He avoided the main routes. He didn’t want to see anyone he knew. Anyone at all, really.

The Ghetto was mercifully empty when he got there, except for the Israeli guards, who ignored him. He let himself into his building, slogged up the worn stairs to his apartment, where he now lived by himself. He stripped naked in his unlit, poorly windowed bedroom. His reflection in the ancient mirror above his battered dresser was thin, pale. Almost skeletal, he thought. His eyes were sunken, lost in the shadows. Soon enough, he thought. Soon enough.

The bells in the nearby Gothic church of Madonna dell’ Orto startled him. They were joined, as if in a duet, by the bells from Santi Apostoli. Elia glanced at the brass clock on the stand by his bed. He was going to be late. For a moment he gazed at the faded black and white photo standing framed next to the clock. His parents’ wedding photograph.

Another wave of nausea hit him. Elia clutched at his stomach, choking back the bile, and lay down heavily on the bed. He clenched his jaw, sucked in a deep breath, and then relaxed. A soft sigh whistled out from between his teeth.  


Aldo sat in the mascheretta, which was tied to a mooring post in the canal beside some stone access steps, not far from the Ponte Tre Archi on the Cannaregio canal. The fondamenta was deserted; few tourists ever came this way. The residents were inside preparing dinner, or at evening mass. Aldo tapped his fingers along his oar. He glanced impatiently from his watch to the sky, where the sun was getting low, casting an orange haze across the lagoon. Then he saw Elia, who approached with a firm stride, carrying his own oar over one shoulder, a small rucksack slung over the other. He was wearing the outfit they both normally wore only once a year, when competing in the Regata Storica, white knee-length cotton shorts, the red and white striped gondolier’s shirt and a short black cravat.

Aldo raised an eyebrow at Elia’s outfit. “You are getting senile. Not only the wrong time, but the wrong day of the year, apparently.”

Elia clambered down the steps and into the boat.

“Do you remember,” he said, “that passage we had to learn in middle school, from The Odyssey--‘Then take up a well-shaped oar and wander until you come to a people who do not know the sea... Who do not salt their food and have never heard of our red-stained ships or well-shaped oars. And another wanderer will ask why you carry a winnowing fan on your shoulder. There, you must plant the well-shaped oar in the earth, and make sacrifice to Lord Poseidon.’”

“There, that proves it. Senile. You’re in your ‘second childhood.’”

Elia fastened his oar into the forcola, the sculptured wooden oarlock.

Aldo stared at him for a moment, then shook his head and unfastened the rope from the mooring post.

“Come on, it’s late. Let’s go.”

Both men began working their oars, Aldo in front on the left, Elia in the rear right. The boat glided almost soundlessly up the canal and out into the lagoon.

“It’ll have to be a short run today. Maybe just out around San Michele and back,” Aldo said, nodding off to the right, where the cemetery island was appearing around the little park of trees at the northernmost point of the city, its 19th century brick enclosure glowing hot in the late afternoon sun.

“No. Let’s go to San Secondo.”

Elia pointed toward the small, overgrown isle just ahead, already silhouetted by the setting sun. Beyond it, the backlit Ponte della Libertà bridge seemed like a slice of black horizon. Off to the left, further south, a cruise ship loomed enormous behind the Isola del Tronchetto, its white hull glazed pink by the sunset, dwarfing the ancient city like some alien spacecraft.

Aldo stopped rowing and turned to face Elia, who nodded to the bag he’d brought along.

“We could watch the sun go down. I even brought a bite to eat.”

“You want to moor at San Secondo? What for! You spent two and a half miserable years, on that miserable bit of scrub. Nothing has changed there, believe me. It’s nothing but bad memories.”

Elia shrugged.

“Besides, it’ll be dark in an hour.”

Their craft rocked slightly in the wake of a passing motorboat.

“We’re going to San Secondo, Aldo.”

Aldo had stopped rowing. He suddenly realized that Elia was continuing to stir the water with his oar, back and forth, silently moving the boat forward. They were fast approaching the island. 

“You’re crazy, you know that. I’m turning us around. Something’s not right with you today. You should see a doctor or at least go home and rest.”

He turned, his back again to Elia, and sank his oar in, paddling backward to swing the iron-knobbed prow of the boat back towards Venice.

With one smooth motion, Elia disengaged his oar from the forcola and swung it around, bringing the flat of the blade hard on the back of Aldo’s head, with a sharp smack that echoed across the calm water. Aldo jerked forward, losing his balance and dropping to his knees, his hands up as if praying. Before he could recover, Elia hit him again, harder. Aldo sagged down, unconscious, into the belly of the boat.


When Aldo awoke, he was lying on his side. He coughed, sputtering. Elia had poured a little wine from a bottle into his open mouth.

“What the hell...?”

He looked around, disoriented. The sun was gone. Insects buzzed in the twilight. His head throbbed with pain, and for a moment he wondered if he’d been in an accident, if they’d collided with another boat. Then he realized that he was lying on bare, moist earth, in a small clearing surrounded by dense scrub. On one side loomed the ruin of a fortification, a solitary stone archway leading into blackness. Aldo tried to sit up, but found that his wrists were trussed behind his back, and from there to his ankles. He looked up at his old friend.

“Elia, what is this?”

Elia settled on his haunches. He took a sandwich from the shoulder bag, wrapped in a napkin. He took out a folding knife and cut the sandwich in two.

“Prosciutto crudo and provolone.”

He held one of the halves toward Aldo’s mouth. Aldo jerked his head away, regretting the move as pain flashed behind his eyes.

“Elia, have you gone completely insane?”

Elia shrugged, sat more comfortably on a small boulder and set the sandwich aside, next to the wine bottle.

“Do you remember, after my family disappeared, how you used to come visit me? We’d sit in this exact spot, where they couldn’t see us from the water, and we could hustle in there if a plane came by, and we’d eat the food you brought me. Prosciutto crudo and provolone, and bread, and a bottle of raboso. Much better than the stale, half-rotten stuff you brought when my family was still here. I asked how you got it, supplies were so scarce back then. You said your dad had managed to become well-connected, worked his way into the Germans’ good graces. He was a loyal fascist, after all. It made sense. What other reason could there be? Especially since you were the only one who knew. Who came every week, bringing food and wine. The only human contact for two years.”

Aldo started to struggle against his bonds, but quit after a moment. Elia was a sailor. He might have lost his mind, but he knew how to tie knots.

Elia looked down at the sandwich. Nudged the wine bottle with his foot.

“But it wasn’t true, was it?”

“What? Elia, I’m your best friend!”

“My last friend. My only friend. So why, Aldo? Why was I spared?”

Aldo fixed his eyes on Elia’s, which glittered in the last light. His face was a pale mask. A death’s head, Aldo thought. And then real panic seized him and he started to scream, in spite of the searing pain it caused in his head.

 Elia got up and kicked Aldo as hard as he could in the stomach, shocking the wind out of him. Aldo gagged and puked on the dirt, trying to suck in air.

Night birds were beginning to chatter in the growing darkness. A train rattled by on the nearby bridge, invisible. Elia took out a small electric lantern and turned it on, setting it on the ground. Bugs swarmed around it. Aldo began to sob quietly.

“I tried, Elia. My father noticed what was going missing, even the half-rotten scraps. At first I told him that I’d been eating it all, I was a teenager, I was starving. He beat me. He said we were all starving.”

Aldo struggled into a cramped sitting position.

“Finally I told him the truth. You’d been our friends, I thought he’d understand, that he’d let me keep bringing you something, anything. But instead he went to the Germans. They had offered a bounty for information about Jews and partisans. I found out later that day, when he came home in a good mood, saying we were going to get something decent to eat at last. He said you were going to get caught or die sooner or later anyway. And he wasn’t going to let his own family starve for the sake of a few doomed Jews.”

“Why didn’t you warn us?”

“There was nowhere for you to go! The Germans were coming here that afternoon. All I could think was that...if I came and got you to go out in my boat that evening, maybe when the Germans found the others, they’d think that was all there were.”

“So you took me out in your boat and left them here to be killed.”

“You don’t know that! No one knows what happened to them!”

Elia didn’t answer. He seemed to be studying the night fog, rising from the water and the damp ground. His knew his family was out there, under the lagoon somewhere. Having found them already weak from hunger, the Germans decided it wasn’t worth the effort to bring them back and process them for transport to the death camps. So they did their business, and then...

“What else could I do, Elia? I was just a boy--all I could think about was how to save you. And I did. You owe me your life. You owe me that at least.”

Elia sat motionless for a moment, then nodded.

“I owe you that at least.”

He bent down and cut the ropes tying Aldo’s hands and feet with his knife. Aldo worked his fingers against his thick wrists, trying to kill the agonizing prickling sensation as the blood rushed back in. Elia uncorked the bottle again and handed it to him.

“To what we owe.”

Aldo took a long drink. His mouth and throat had been parched. In spite of everything, he felt somehow relieved. He tenderly touched his head, wincing as he felt the knots where he’d been hit.

“You crazy bastard. Just feel those lumps.”

Elia moved behind him, and did.


Then he leaned back against the ruined fortification. The fog was getting thicker, slowly congealing into discreet shapes. The shape of his father, of his mother, of his little sister. The ghosts had found him here. Maybe they had followed him. Maybe they were drawn by the blood now spilling from Aldo’s throat, slit from ear to ear, the wound gaping as he had turned to look back, startled. His blood seeped into the earth like the blood of the sheep whose throats Odysseus slit as an offering to the souls of his fallen comrades and his long-suffering mother.

Elia eased his friend’s body to the ground and set his knife aside. The ghosts gathered quietly around him, hovering in the gloom. The night was cool. He closed his eyes.




BIO: Robin Russin is a professor in the Department of Theatre, Film & Digital Production at the University of California, Riverside, where he also teaches in their MFA for Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. He has written, produced and directed for film, TV and the theatre, and is co-author of the books Screenplay: Writing the Picture, now in its second edition, and Naked Playwriting. His stories, articles and reviews have been appeared in Script Magazine, Verdad Magazine, Connotation Press, Harvard Magazine, The Los Angeles Times, The American Oxonian, Shofar, and elsewhere. His play, The Face in the Reeds, recently premiered in an extended run at the Ruskin Group Theatre in Santa Monica CA, where he initiated and leads a workshop for emerging and established local playwrights. His original one-hour pilot script about King David, Beloved, sold to ABC TV, and is now adapted and in production as Of Kings and Prophets.