A Startling Afternoon
June 1, 1899
The blow came without warning and from nowhere. Just one second before, Teodora had been happily browsing in an old-fashioned Venetian bookshop, a dim, crumbling building that spilled out onto a square with a canal at one side. This was no ordinary bookshop. For a start, it was lit only by whispering gas-lamps and yellowy candle-stumps. A large brass mortar-and-pestle stood on the dusty counter instead of a till. There were no piles of famous poets, or detective stories or fat novels for ladies. In fact, there was just one battered copy each of all manner of interesting books like Mermaids I Have Known by Professor Marìn. And The Best Ways With Wayward Ghosts, by “One Who Consorts with Them.”
And the bookshop was empty of other customers apart from one fair-haired boy no older than Teo herself. He was elegantly dressed with a linen waistcoat, spotless boots and a cap at a rakish angle. He stood at a lectern, reading The Rise and Fall of the Venetian Empire, which was as big as a safe and had no pictures at all. Occasionally he looked up to give Teo a princely, disapproving stare.
For Teodora was not just gazing but sniffing at the tall shelves. Those shelves were like coral reefs, looming far above her head, full of deep, mysterious crevices. The shelves went so high up into the painted ceiling that Teo (being the kind of girl who liked to imagine things) could imagine fronds of seaweed waving up there. But down at her level--and Teo was embarrassingly small for eleven--somewhere between the books, and even over the tang of mold and the sweetish whiff of dust, she could definitely smell fish.
Indeed, she’d been smelling fish since she arrived in Venice three days before. She would not eat fish, because she believed it was cruel to kill them (Teo was a vegetarian), but this fish smell was so delicious, so fresh and alive, like perfumed salt--that she suddenly thought to herself: “This is what pearls would smell of, if they had a smell!”
The fair-haired boy harrumphed and looked down at his book. In Venice, he seemed to be implying, one reads books, one does not sniff at them.
Teo lived in Naples, hundreds of miles to the south. Her parents--that is, the people who’d adopted her--had brought her to Venice for the first time, and with the utmost reluctance, as it happened. Teo had been told that she was adopted as soon as she was old enough to understand it. But she’d never known any other family or any other home but Naples, and she’d always been perfectly happy with both. At least, until she was six years old. That was when she had found a book called My Venice at the library. Leafing through pages illustrated with oriental-looking palaces floating on jade-green water, Teo had felt a lurch just like hunger inside.
To get to Venice had taken Teo five years of skillful and dedicated nagging, with postcards of Venetian scenes left on the top of the piano, a Venetian glass ring for her mother’s birthday and other hints that were far from subtle. Her parents, who normally loved to think up treats for Teo, had always seemed oddly unwilling to bring her here, offering one unconvincing excuse after another.
There had been moments when Teo daydreamed of doing something outrageous, such as running away from home, and making her own way to Venice. She might even have done it, if only she’d had a friend to share the adventure with. But bookworms like Teodora are not generally known for their wide circle of adventurous friends. So they tend to have their adventures in their minds’ eyes only.
At last Fate intervened. (Or so Teo whispered to herself when her parents couldn’t hear. They were scientists, and prided themselves on being thoroughly modern and rational. In other words, they weren’t great believers in Fate.) During the last few months Venice had been engulfed in a wave of strange and sinister events. Teo’s ticket here came in the form of an emergency meeting of “the world’s greatest scientists,” who had been summoned to save the threatened city. An invitation to her parents had fluttered into the letterbox.
To think they had still tried to keep Teo at home! At first, they had insisted that she should not miss any school. Although it was nearly summer, it was still term-time, and the examinations were looming. But her teacher had given permission instantly, saying in front of everyone, “Teodora’s excused the exams. She’s going to write me a lovely story about Venice instead.” No one likes a teacher’s pet: naturally the other children had glared. Teo was mortified.
Then her parents declared that the situation in Venice was so very dangerous at the moment. As if that would keep her away!
“No one has actually died yet,” she had told them.
They’d had to admit that was true.
So finally she was here, and the real Venice, despite or perhaps precisely because of its tragic situation, seemed at least twice as precious as she’d imagined.
Almost more than anything else she had seen, Teo loved this old Venetian bookshop. She liked the stone mermaids carved above the doorway, the reflections of water playing on the walls. She liked the old bookseller too, with his creased-up face, velvet breeches and waistcoat, and his scent of talcum powder and candle-grease. He sometimes peered at her with a curious expression, as if he knew her from somewhere but could not quite place her. He never told her not to touch. And even warned her to keep a grip on Smooth as a Weasel and Twice as Slippery by Arnon Rodent.
“It has a tendency to fly out of people’s hands,” he mentioned kindly.
She looked at him closely--or rather, just above his head as he spoke. For Teo had a very unusual gift. When people spoke, she saw their words actually written in the air above them. Also the manner of their speaking: some with the curt efficiency of typewriting machines, some like laborious handwriting, others with flourishes and heavy underlinings. The old bookseller spoke like a scroll of parchment unrolling, each word beautifully distinct and old-fashioned.
Teo didn’t really know what she was looking for on those bookshelves, but she had the strongest feeling that there was something marvelous here, if she could only find it. From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Undrowned Child by Michelle Lovric. Copyright © 2011 by Michelle Lovric. Excerpted by permission of Yearling, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.