Glancing around to make sure no one was watching, I tied the boat in front of the boarded up door. At one time every canal in the city would be alive with noise, criss-crossed with drying clothes, bedsheets and banners. I needn’t have worried. With so many houses left empty and boarded up the canal was silent save for one lone laundry line flapping in the light breeze. Nonetheless, I wanted to avoid being seen. People would think I was breaking into a historic building and causing yet more damage to the city of Venice. They would never believe the truth.
I looked at the crumpled Polaroid that I’d discovered in my sister’s diary three weeks ago, after a lengthy search. On one side a mud-covered teenaged boy and girl crouched in a flooded room next to a rotting support beam. Me and my sister, grinning. On the other side read, “Don’t let it wake,” the phrase she would come to repeat over and over.
With a sigh I looked up at the abandoned building. The yellow Venetian marmorino plaster had almost completely gone, leaving only the red brickwork exposed and turning a slick green near the waterline. I looked back at the photo, the only clue I had in my search. 30 years had passed since me and my sister had fancied ourselves as adventurers and explored the abandoned homes. Back then I could have told you exactly which houses we’d been to without ever looking at a map.
But that was 30 years ago. Before we’d found the cave that shouldn’t have existed. Before she had been taken to the ‘psychiatric care centre’ on the mainland.
Careful to maintain my balance on the small wooden boat, I grabbed the door of the building and gave it a shove. The hinges groaned but it moved, creaking open to reveal a magazzini, a ground floor storeroom. All over the city these rooms sat in various levels of flooding.
Venice is sinking. The official story is that industrial wells dug in the 20th century drew too much water from the aquifer, causing the city to sink. 30 years ago it slowed, officially because artesian wells were banned. But truth is always stranger than fiction, and the pace had picked up again, even though the wells were still banned.
I’d started the search in Arsenale in the old marina where we had once explored the dilapidated warehouses. The entrance wasn’t there. I’d tried Canareggio. Aside from squatters who claimed that they were keeping the city alive, the search had been in vain.
“Has anyone been having nightmares, trouble sleeping, disturbing thoughts?” I asked, hoping for a lead.
The blank faces left me frustrated, and I nearly risked showing them the picture. I decided against it. If someone knew where the house I wanted was, it was better they left the place alone.
“Why?” one of the squatters asked.
“No reason.” I said, and quickly took my leave.
I came to Dorsuduro next, on a random thought. The ground in the district is slightly harder than in the rest of Venice. There are fewer sunken houses so perhaps it was a better candidate to find a cave. It was impossible, of course. Mud is mud and you don’t find cave systems in mud. Except that we had.
Ducking, I crept further into the flooded room, muddy ankle-deep water sloshing around my feet as my torch darted around columns and supports. I cocked my head and peered toward the centre of the room, where a rotting wooden pillar sat at a peculiar angle. I closed my eyes and tried to remember the day we’d last been here. Beyond the smell of mould from the walls and the squelch of the slick mud that threatened to pry your shoes from your feet there was something else. A feeling of wrongness in the eerie quiet that had kept us there a moment too long.
I could feel it again now.
I moved closer, brushing mud and moss from the angled beam, searching for the marks that would prove me right. Best sister ever. 30 years ago I had carved a message here, as thanks for her lying to our parents about what had happened. It was still there, etched in the wood. I let out a gasp of relief. This was the place.
With this knowledge my heart began to pound. I turned, casting the light over to find the pile of wood we had drawn over the entrance of the cave. I set straight to work pulling back the planks and exposing the slick and sharp rocks. The entrance to the cave that shouldn’t exist.
The cave that we had not been alone in.
An almost imperceptible tremor ran through the floor and memories flooded my mind as I looked down the slope towards the blackness beneath. I saw the wood splinter as my sister fell through the opening. I heard her scream as her leg was ripped open on the sharp stone. I touched the warm blood dripping from her leg and over the ledge into the blackness below.
Shaking the memories from my head, I inched down the slope to the ledge and peered into the abyss. Though not visible, I knew it was there. I could feel it, an immense presence that seemed to stifle the air. A sleeping leviathan, curled up in the waters below. Restless.
It hadn’t feasted properly since 1630 AD, when official records will tell you the black death wiped out a third of the city’s population. Another lie. The leviathan was twitching, its sleep broken by ferocious pangs of hunger in its stomach. Each time the immense form moved the cave shook, sending minor tremors across the city, sinking the historic buildings another fraction of a millimetre. We couldn’t let it wake up properly, lest it reap its terrible destruction on the city again.
30 years ago my sister’s blood had dripped into the abyss, unwittingly feeding the leviathan, calming its sleep, slowing the city’s descent and buying us a few more decades before it would wake. Now it was my turn. I pulled out my knife and drew the sharp blade across my hand, leaving a line of red across my palm.
I dropped my knife and took a deep breath, steadying myself for what would come next. Then I reached my bloody hand over the abyss and squeezed.
My head began to spin as the first drop hit the water below, and I fell to one knee. The leviathan’s presence was no longer just in the cave, it was in my head. I gasped, my head aching as if in a vice as the creature invaded my mind. Flickers of its past came into my vision, showing me the destruction that the leviathan had wrought over its long lifetime.
It would consume me, turn me into a husk, shivering in a corner plagued by nightmares. As it had my sister. But I had bought us time.
I pulled out the photograph and smiled. “Well sis, it looks like we’ll be spending a lot more time together.”