How A Venetian Ghost Story Happened

I love the idea of situating a character with aquaphobia–the fear of water–in Venice, Italy. I visit Venice fairly regularly (since 2017, I’ve found myself in Venice four times–three times for the art biennale, and once just because), and I often wonder if anyone lives there who is afraid of water… and how they deal with it. Not only is Venice surrounded by water at every turn, the water is a regular threat to Venice’s very existence. Acqua Alta doesn’t affect all parts of Venice, but there’s also the fact that Venice is sinking at a rate of 1-2mm each year and the lagoon waters are rising. That would be terrifying for someone with a water phobia. It’s nearly impossible to get away from the sound of water, let alone the sight of it.

But that’s not how the idea for my short story “All This Water”–published in the most recent issue of Not One Of Us–was sparked. The first inkling of a story popped into my head in May 2022 when my husband and I were wandering around Cannaregio, the neighborhood in which we were staying. It’s not uncommon to see graffiti in Venice–it’s not everywhere, but it exists (there’s a book recently released, I Graffiti di Venezia, that I’m dying to lay hands on–but there’s no English translation; it’s not WHY I want to learn Italian, but yeah, I want to read this book). Near one of the bridges I ran across a stenciled word: strega. That’s the Italian word for witch. It’s also an Italian liqueur, but that’s not where my head went when I saw the word near a bridge–I was firmly thinking about witches. I saw the word several more times that day–in narrow alleyways, in the side of buildings. Of course, when I went back to grab a photo (after being obsessed all day), I couldn’t find any of them. Venice can be confusing, but that confusing?

Another nugget of the story fell into place when my husband and I met up with a tour guide for a ghost walk late one night. The meeting point was the Ponte dei Mendicanti, a bridge that used to connect an ancient hospital where, once a leprosy outbreak abated in the 1600s, the poor gathered together until a hospital was built to help them. The leprosy doesn’t have anything to do with my short story–just a bit of interesting historical trivia. Anyway, the ghost walk was absolutely delightful and full of great stories, including one involving Venice’s accused witches in the 16th century. It was particularly interesting to me since I had just taken a history class about gender and the persecution of so-called witches in the U.S. and Europe the summer before.

My brain couldn’t let go of any of this–the thought of aquaphobia, the strega graffiti, the ghost walk story about accused witches, the class I’d had the summer prior–and I ended up going down a rabbit hole about the history of Venetian witchcraft, the Benandanti, Ember Days, and other random Venetian witch stories. What came out at the other end is “All This Water,” in which married couple Emily and Doyle are vacationing in Venice, despite Emily’s crippling fear of water due to several near-drowning experiences; Doyle convinces her to accompany him on a ghost walk, meeting their guide Seth at a bridge that is close to the Fondamente Nove vaporetto stop (unnamed in the story, but it’s absolutely the Ponte dei Mendicanti). The strega graffiti (slightly altered from my recollections) is involved, as is a portion of a story told on my actual tour. I won’t tell you more than that so as not to spoil the story, which I hope you decide to read (the issue of Not One Of Us is order-able here).

I’ve been thinking of “All This Water” today because I emailed our actual tour guide, who name is Alex, to send him a copy of the story. I felt compelled to note that the tour guide in our story was inspired by him, the character is not based on him. I admit that I did consider naming the tour guide Alex in tribute–but I don’t think he’d be flattered by the comparison, so I couldn’t do it. Of course, I’m also thinking of “All This Water” because I’ll be back in Venice in seven or eight months for the art biennale, and where to stay is something I was mulling over. It’s a good problem to have–as is having “All This Water” published. It really is one of my favorites.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.