Taking the bird’s-eye-view to its highest possible aspiration, E. Lily Yu’s “Serenissima” is soaring and gorgeous and concerns the politics of seagulls for the third week of four free stories in July. ~ Fran Wilde, July 24, 2022
by E. Lily Yu
There is little in a city that a seagull hasn’t tasted, sometimes to its detriment, and this was particularly true of the sacerdotal colony of mew gulls, Larus canus, which was long established on the rooftops of Dorsoduro in Venice. Along with their sacred duties, stories of the gulls’ rarer and more exotic meals were passed from the parents’ red-spotted beaks to chicks with the day’s catch, so that their young ones knew what to snatch and when, in their leisure hours.
As a result, Pliny Aurelia Octavia, though she had never had the pleasure of tasting such delicacies herself, grew up hearing about the executions between the human-figured and lion-figured high roosts on the Piazza, and the ensuing meals of entrails and eyeballs, and blood reddening the canal. The colony grew fat in those days, as fat as the merchants in their finely fronted houses whose roofs were the gulls’ undisputed domain—and sometimes, whether due to his politics or bad dealings, the gulls tasted the fat of one of the merchants in those houses.
The present times boasted less variety in gustatory experiences. There was always whatever could be snatched off the ice in the fish market, from sluggish eels to saint-peters. Pliny’s broodfellow Septimus had once helped himself to a whole swordfish steak, in fact, and made a conspicuous picnic of it on the roof of the library. In summer, one could shove aside heaps of burbling pigeons for the crumbs and fried scraps that tourists trailed behind them. Traditionalists plucked fish and crustaceans from the lagoon and flensed the odd rabbit. The unluckiest spent winters digging up worms in fallow farmland.
Though she was hungry, Pliny’s assigned hour had come, and she was mindful of her duties. She floated above the city in a sacred gyre, fish market to ghetto, in the ancient patterns committed to her particular colony, crying for the sun to complete its course across the sky. The mew gulls had flown in these patterns and cried these cries long before any of these jostling, phone-led tourists had been born, before any of the doges had come to power, before the Romans had laid their roads and settled this lagoon. What the tourists did not know, what the doges and merchants had not known, and what few Romans had paid attention to in Homer’s account of Leucothea, was that, without the gulls and their holy geometric flights, the sun would fail to cross the sky.
Neither would the sun rise out of the sea at dawn without the cooing and coaxing of a particular sect of pigeons, who admittedly had some uses other than as meat, nor sink into the land without the careful tracery of a flight of swallows at twilight. The mew gulls of course considered their rites the most important of the three, for they required the most endurance and the most complex elliptical calculations, a delicate thrumming of the faint magnetic mesh to draw the sun neither too quickly nor too slowly. One gull or another always flew westward with the sun, ahead of the swallow rites, until it reached the next sacerdotal colony, where it could rest and feed while others flew in the day’s prescribed paths.
Across the world it was thus. If Pliny did not fly, if her colony did not faithfully perform its rites, the sun would stop still in the sky until half the world boiled and the other half froze.
The sunlight was warm on Pliny’s wings, and she cried and danced, cried and danced, high above the canals and the terracotta ribs of the roofs. One old man, a silvery olive twig in his hand, stopped and shaded his eyes as he looked up at the gull, as if the ancient cry had stirred some equally ancient ache in him.
Pliny flew until the metal men atop the clock tower beat the minutes before the hour, then the minutes after, and then it was Quintus’ turn to take the air, and Pliny’s to forage.
Freed from its ellipses, her shadow skimmed over rooftops and pavement.
It was difficult, Pliny thought, to be the terminal point of so many lines of history. She was one of the holy gulls of Venice and also came of august ancestry, and in consequence, both expectation and gossip weighed heavily.
Her forebears had dined on lion leavings in the great arenas, on snails soaked in milk and left propitiously close to windows and porticos, on the flesh and viscera of crucified slaves. One or another had tasted each of the four pieces of Biasio when they were strung up around the city. Her great-aunts had warred against the peregrine falcons of the Basilica and lost blood and pinions thereby. Her parents had gotten deliriously drunk on the abandoned cocktails of movie stars on the beaches of Lido. All these tastes were memorialized, thousands of years of them, and passed down.
And so not only the ordinary mew gulls, who were easily awed, but also those of the holy colony awaited great deeds from Pliny and her siblings.
Her siblings did not disappoint. The colony knew not only of Septimus’ swordfish, but also of Quintus’ daring strike at a skinned dogfish, of Secundus’ whole hamburger and Prima’s storming of a tray of sushi. Even sickly little Novena had, one Easter, seized half of an almond-studded colomba from the arms of a woman going home with flowers and oranges, distracted by her child.
But Pliny Octavia had no epicurean glory of which to boast. Apart from the colony’s rites, Pliny had no glories whatsoever other than her white signature upon the great roosts in Piazza San Marco, as well as upon several other bronzes and marbles throughout the city, but she had to admit that the bumbling doves were more than capable of doing the same, and left far more graffiti, in far greater volume, than she ever could.
The wind through the city stiffened. In a few minutes, it tore hats off heads and salads and fries off dinner plates at tables along Fondamenta Zattere, the diners laughing, the servers wrestling with billowing umbrellas. Pliny dove and took and ate.
When the sky darkened, she perched in a crumbling overhang and contemplated Quintus’ long, sweeping curves overhead. He would have rain and foul winds to contend with, while she had flown in sunlight and a clean, snapping breeze like a song. Such was life.
Nothing stayed the same from hour to hour, flight to flight, rite to rite. In the beginning there was the lagoon, and the gull colony of the lagoon, and then there were settlements, cities, whole cliffs and canyons of brick and Istrian stone, propped up on old trees driven into the mud. Over all of this Pliny flew as the first gulls had flown. Time swept in and out with the tide and left its concretions, here shells with the years ridged on them, there a slimy dark decay on the tree trunks used as pilings. The gulls worked much as the metal hammering men above the clockface worked, as the wheels behind the clockface worked, faithful and steady in their measurement of time, despite time’s own rust and ravages.
Like the clock tower, the gulls themselves decayed through their cycles of nesting and hatching and teaching, their flights and feasts and hunts. One day, sooner or later, hawk-struck or aged, their bodies fell in a final stoop into the deep green water, and what ate everything was eaten.
In between, one tasted as much as one could.
The rain began in earnest. Another mew gull, not of Pliny’s colony, flopped into a line of flowerpots along a window below her ledge. She recognized him: Scavius, red-eyed and endlessly importunate.
“Cara Octavia,” he said, “mia caramella, I think it is past time that we laid an egg together. You with your holy flights, I with my handsome yellow legs and pearls on my tailfeathers—can you not imagine?”
“May you choke on a lobster,” Pliny said pleasantly.
“Alas, cruel and beautiful priestess!” he cried, and launched himself off of the flowerpots, which would have been more entertaining if he did not have wings. Between his kick and the walloping wind, one of the pots crashed to the street below, burying its purple cyclamen in a streak of soil.
“But perhaps,” Scavius said, circling over her, “there is something I can do to impress you. Shall I dance an aerial ballet? Fence a swordfish? Fetch a crab?”
Pliny ruffled her neck feathers and preened them down.
“Fetch me the sun,” she said. “Not the whole thing, I am not greedy, but a drop of it—a crumb. I will eat it and taste what time is, older than shells and cities, swifter than our flight, and I shall sing of its taste to my colony, who serve the sun but have never tried it. Then I shall mate with you and lay a stone-speckled egg.”
“Of course, my lady, my one true love,” Scavius said. “I’ll fetch the sun for you, right away.” He saluted with a flick of his yellow feet and vanished over the chimney pots.
Pliny flew off in the opposite direction and made a very good meal of rain-soaked bread and other dropped and discarded treats.
Two days passed before Scavius reappeared. Pliny performed her ritual flights with her usual punctuality, towing the great white orb of the sun from one side of the sky to the other. In the evenings, she listened with stony expression to the colony’s recounting of meals past, meals present, and meals to come. That she could peck at the impossible Scavius felt like a relief.
“Behold, my queen, la mia Serenissima,” he said. “The sun!”
“That,” Pliny said, looking askance, “is an orange.”
“But is it not round and bright and yellow like the sun? Does it not concentrate the sun’s sweetness in its liquor? Please, taste my offering, and you will taste the sun!”
Pliny tasted it.
“That is a rotten orange,” she said. “It is most certainly not the sun.”
“Then I will do better,” Scavius said. “I swear it on my bill and by the pearls on my tail.”
This time he disappeared for three days. When he returned, bedraggled and triumphant, he bore something heavy and gleaming.
The previous night, Pliny had endured an hours-long recounting of notable historical meals in the countryside, from exquisitely prepared artichokes to a nestful of fine pheasant eggs, and felt herself to be not far from murder.
“I have returned!” Scavius said. “And here is your fragment of the sun!”
Pliny tilted her head to one side. “That is a brass doorknob.”
“It is a golden orb, made of the same light as the sun!”
“That is not the sun.”
“Ah,” Scavius said, catching on to her mood. He began to back away. “You are correct, it is insufficient, it is not the sun, and I most humbly beg your forgiveness, widest-winged of mew gulls, my divine Octavia.”
He was quick enough to dodge her first wide-winged strike, not so quick with the second, and rose bruised and regretful into the air. “I shall find it,” he called down. “I shall find you your sliver of sun. Give me time!”
“It is I who hunger for time,” Pliny hissed after him, though he was too far to hear. “Give me time so I may strip it to its bones like a fish, to taste what wearies me and weighs me down. Give me a sliver of the sun that I must drag behind me, that I may tell what it tastes like, and say I have fed on it.”
For two weeks she did not see Scavius. She flew into a fruit stall and gnashed her beak into a tray of wild strawberries, filched a squid from the fishmongers, caught goby and shrimp in the lagoon. Meanwhile, Tertia flew through green shutters opened to a gloriously warm afternoon and seized a morsel of a flustered family’s Easter lamb.
“Grilled and succulent, garlic and rosemary and the taste of green fields, everyone smelling of incense, and the coratella with onions on a plate beside it,” she told the colony, her breath still gamy with it. “Oh, the howls, the cries, the thrown forks, the gesticulations! They would have plated roast seagull along with the lamb were I not nimble and swift in absconding.”
“A beakful, a mere beakful,” Septimus of the swordfish said, fleering. “Might as well dig into the innards of wolf-slaughtered lamb as it ripens in the sun. Better eating. Less fuss.”
“Ah, but this is what they call the Lamb of God,” Tertia said, “which they carve into wall plaques and mold into marzipan. They worship and serve it, this milk-fed lamb, and then they slaughter and serve it this other way. Just as only we few are holy, and many mew gulls are not, the lamb I tasted was holy, and many are not.”
“But Octavia,” Septimus said, rounding upon her. “What have you eaten lately?”
“Nothing of note,” Pliny said, “dear, dear Septimus.”
“Not all of us can be notable epicures,” matronly Prima said, in an attempt to console. “It’s a distraction from our duties, anyhow. You fly the most perfect ellipses, with mathematical rigor, and the sun obeys you faithfully.”
“The sun obeys us collectively,” Quintus said. “And not Pliny in particular. Or did I not fly across all of Italy last week to bring the sun to the gulls in Lyon? Will I not fly that path again?”
Pliny fled the colony and went north into the night. She did not stop to harass the pigeons huddled in sleep, did not shriek to wake students in their beds, but winged silently over the lighted water lanes and blue-blinking water ambulances to the odd bronze boat with two men in it, floating halfway to San Michele, that had been added to the water not long after her hatching. These metal men were better company than her colony, being silent and watchful and not at all concerned with fine dining. She slept there, in the corner made by their cloaks and the strange boat, and the waves rocked her into a dreamless sleep.
When she next discovered Scavius—or rather, since she hardly looked for him, when Scavius next discovered her—Pliny had just finished her sacred flight. She folded her wings and descended to the Piazza, and Scavius alighted beside her, half dancing with delight.
“Pliny Octavia, my little mouse, please follow me!”
“Why in the world would I follow you?” she said.
“Because I have prepared for you the sun!”
“You have given me a rotten orange and an old doorknob,” Pliny said, “and you have called these things the sun.”
“I was mistaken, you must forgive me, I am not one of the priests. We are ignorant, we lay gulls, and easily misled. But this time, oh this time, I have procured the sun!”
“Fine,” Pliny said, following him into the air. “But I shall tear the feathers from your head if you have brought me a doorknob or an orange or a stone.”
Scavius had left the sun upon a palace roof, a tidy circle that glittered and dazzled in the noontime glare. Pliny eyed what he had prepared. “I do not recognize it.”
“It is golden tiles pecked loose from the mosaics of San Marco, and the yolks of cormorant and harrier eggs, and gold leaf plucked from clocks and crosses and statues, and how it shines, oh cara mia, oh how brilliantly it shines. It is a very drop of the sun itself, and I swear that by my pinions, pull them all out if I lie. This time I have surely brought you the sun!”
She pecked at the mass, intrigued despite herself. It tasted of stolen eggs and bereft birds, of unpunished crime, of ancient worship and present extravagance. It tasted like what she imagined time was, radiant and fragile as a butterfly. Bits of golden yolk and gold leaf dripped from her beak and yellowed her breast as she thought.
“Perhaps,” she allowed grudgingly, “you have indeed brought me the sun.”
“I most certainly have,” Scavius said. “Please, eat.”
Pliny ate. When all that was left were the gold mosaic tiles, she lifted and dropped larger stones to shatter them and ate them too, for the gastroliths in her gizzard had grown smooth and useless. Her beak glittered with gold.
“Fly with me,” she ordered Scavius, and they flew blindly in a helix toward the sun, the same sun that Quintus was dancing across the sky, from Venice to Lyon and onward, and for a while, all they saw was purest light.
* * *
The egg that Pliny laid in her nest in the bronze boat was speckled like stone, as all mew gull eggs are, but it was also curiously wrapped around with a thread of gold.
“It will be a holy chick, belonging to the sacerdotal colony,” she told Scavius, who had fetched her any number of delicacies as she brooded, and covered the nest himself as she flew her assigned ellipses. She had not told her colony of her taste of the sun; the gold glass ground in her gizzard with a strange pressure, and she had a sense that there were secrets of which she ought not speak. “It will fly the sacred paths that make the hours.”
“It will be our chick,” Scavius said, “and I will stuff it to bursting, and feed it every thing that moves and slithers, every glorious fried, mashed, growing, living, sweet and sour thing that can make a mew gull swift and strong.”
“It will be our chick,” Pliny agreed. Against her breast she felt the hard yet delicate curve of the egg that was in itself a small universe, a curved porcelain sky like the one above them, enclosed above and below, illuminated by its own golden, interior sun. She and Scavius would guard the egg against beaks and rain and cold until the red thread of life within broke through, broke into time and became of it. They would guard and feed their chick until the weak wings feathered and spotted, then paled into priestly white, growing strong enough at last to tow the sun.
Bells clanged in the clock tower. Scavius took her place on their lichen-pillowed nest, and Pliny drifted up over the palaces into the clear blue sky, the black tips of her wings tracing the curves of infinite time.
Thank you for joining The Sunday Morning Transport’s journey this week.
E. Lily Yu is the author of the novel On Fragile Waves and over thirty-five short stories appearing everywhere from McSweeney's to Tor.com. She is also the librettist of Stars Between, with composer Steven K. Tran, for the Seattle Opera Jane Lang Creation Lab.
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