Excerpt from The Mirror by Richard Skinner (Faber & Faber - January 2014)
There is a house near St Mark’s used for no other reason than to bring up the abandoned children of courtesans. In the walls of this house, next to the iron gate, there is a hole the size of an infant, in which courtesans place their unwanted offspring. When I was a baby, my mother placed me in that hole in the wall. When the women of the house found me, there was a bag of olives wrapped up with me, so the women called me Oliva. I grew up in this house, neither an orphan nor a child with parents. I never found out who my mother was. I started singing when I was young, and soon the women of the house realised that I could sing the harmonies, those notes that made the singing of others sound more beautiful than it was. When I was twelve years old, the women of this house considered maritar ò monacar for me. They said that, although I had a face that men would not turn away from, I had no dowry, and so would not find a husband. The women said to me, ‘If you cannot have a husband to govern you, then you will need a wall to contain you,’ and so I was to become a nun. They asked many convents to admit me, but as the women could not pay the dowry for that either, none would accept me. When the women approached Sant’Alvise, they begged the Abbess to take me, but the Abbess asked why she should take me when all the other convents had refused. When the women told her that I could sing like an angel, the Abbess agreed to hear me. The next day, the women took me to Sant’Alvise and when the Abbess heard my voice, she agreed to take me gratis. I had little choice but to say yes, for if I had said no, I would have been homeless.
The next day, I left the only house I had known and walked to a place I knew nothing about. I said goodbye to the women of the house, but they were not too sad to see me go, for they had their hands full with dozens of other foundlings. Their memories of the people that come and go in that place do not wound them. They are like a knotless thread drawn painless through their hearts. I walked northwards through the city to Cannaregio, crossing many bridges and turning many corners. It was the hottest day I can remember. The streets were like a furnace and the sun was like an executioner. As I walked, I passed by street vendors crying out to sell their fish, and spice markets selling cinnamon and ginger. I can smell the spices now. I turned every corner and walked along every edge, feeling the life of the city as if for the first time, for I would not see these things ever again. I soon reached the edge of the lagoon. There was nowhere else to go after that. It was the end of the world. I arrived at Sant’Alvise with nothing but memories of the halfway house and those sounds and smells. The Abbess welcomed me and showed me to the chapter, where I met the madri di consiglio, the noble Signoras who made all the decisions in the convent. I was nervous about meeting them, for they held my future in their hands. The Abbess told me not to expect to become a nun overnight; she said that my becoming a nun would happen over a long period. The first thing I was told to do was to cast off my lay garments. I had no other clothes, so the Abbess directed me behind a curtain to the communal vestiario, which was replenished with the clothes of the sisters that had died. I chose a plain habit and a white wimple. When I came out, the Abbess told me to remove the white wimple and replace it with a black one as I would not be allowed to wear a white wimple or veil until I had married Christ our Lord. Then Signora Lucretia produced a pair of shears and my hair was cut short. I watched with sadness and humiliation as the locks of my hair floated to the floor. It was all I had left of me and it was being taken away. Wearing my habit, and with my hair cut to the skull, I then had to take a vow of poverty, chastity and obedience in the church next to our convent. Some of the sisters were present at my vows. The others were watching from the choir above. The Abbess said that, by casting off our lay garments, we were casting off the vanities of the world, and by wearing the habit, we were enveloped in a cloak of virginity. I lay down on the ground, my lips touching the stone floor, as I had been instructed. A black cloth was thrown over me, and lighted candles were placed at my feet and my head. One by one, the sisters stepped over me. Up in the choir, the litanies were sung. I remained perfectly still, as though I were dead. I was to be the witness to my own funeral.