Sponsored Collection

Atlantic Books for the Holidays

About the Author

Mark Frutkin

Mark Frutkin has published two previous volumes of poetry, Acts of Light and The Alchemy of Clouds. The Governor General's Award nominee has also published six novels, including Slow Lightning, The Lion of Venice, Atmospheres Apollinaire, and Invading Tibet. His newest work is Iron Mountain (Fall 21). His work has appeared in the United States, England, Holland, and India, as well as Canada. He lives in Ottawa, Ontario.

Books by this Author
A Message for the Emperor

A Message for the Emperor

More Info
Colourless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously

Colourless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously

also available: Paperback
tagged :
More Info
Erratic North

Erratic North

A Vietnam Draft Resister's Life in the Canadian Bush
also available: eBook
More Info
Fabrizio's Return

the ­tower

26 August 1682 / Cremona, ­Italy

“Omero, awake!”

Towards the east, Mercury, Saturn, Jupiter and Mars climbed one by one from the horizon, forming a straight line across the sky. The moon was not yet half full and Orion the Hunter came leaping over the walls of the city, the three stars of his belt throwing spears of light. Padre Fabrizio Cambiati leaned over the parapet high atop the tower to see the clock on the tower’s face. He read it upside down – 4:45 ­a.m.

And then he saw what he had been waiting for. The comet. Out the corner of his eye – almost behind him. He ­turned.

“Omero, awake!”

A small man with an enormous head which barely reached as high as the priest’s elbow, Omero clambered to his feet and stumbled to the parapet, his mouth hanging open in awe. “Dio mio,” he breathed as he cringed in fear of being doused with the comet’s ethereal vapours. “I see the face of the ­goat-­footed one! Save me, Don Fabrizio!”

“Calm yourself.”

Low on the horizon, the head of the comet shone silvery white, its tail a haze of glowing feathers, as if someone had set fire to a dove and tossed it over the city ­wall.

Together they watched and wondered as the comet coursed up and across the heavens – a ­slow-­moving acolyte, lit taper in hand, passing down a row of candles, lighting them one by one. The light of a great comet would nor­mally have weakened the brilliance of the stars, but this was not a normal comet. Far from it. The comet ignited the firmament. It refreshed the constellations, brightening the stars as it went, irradiating the hard diamonds of Orion’s belt, the glints from the surface of the water in the Water Bearer’s bucket, the shards of light in the eyes of the Lion, the sparks from the hooves of the Bull, from the horns of the ­Ram.

Late that afternoon, the priest and his manservant had begun their ascent of the torrazzo that stood on the main square of Cremona, the tallest tower in a city of a hundred ­towers.

Omero, who had been sleeping at the tower’s entrance while he waited for the priest, had struggled to his feet as his master arrived out of breath. Fabrizio Cambiati’s rich hair, as black and shiny as if it had been dipped in ink, was combed straight back. Oddly, his brown eyes, set in a face of weathered skin, didn’t seem to match – one was happy, the other sad. With his black cassock to his ankles, Cambiati looked taller than he actually was. While he could not be called handsome, when he smiled he displayed a warmth that made him appear more youthful than his middling years would ­warrant.

The priest glanced back the way he had come. “I have been all afternoon with a patient. Amazing, the efficacy of castor beans and ground senna pods in dealing with a serious blockage. Come quickly now, Omero.” Fabrizio stepped into the shadows. “I believe his wife was about to thrust a basket of bread and cheese upon me as payment–a gift she can hardly afford to deny her family. I saw her coming after me down the street. Hurry.”

They mounted the worn stone stairs within the tower, the staircase turning ninety degrees at each ­corner.

Omero lugged a basket of food. Chunks of ham, a fresh loaf of bread, Nebbiolo grapes, a brick of hard white cheese, a bottle of lively red wine and a green melon the size of a man’s head. The servant stopped often to catch his breath, putting the basket down at his feet, leaning against the cool brick ­wall.

Fabrizio carried a sheaf of papers in one hand, and in the other a long, thin object wrapped in ­cloth.

“Come a little more quickly, Omero. At this pace, she will catch us with ease.” The priest glanced back down the stairs, turned and started to climb again, but noticed a window cut in the wall. “No, wait.” He looked out the window, scanning the piazza below. A number of stone buildings surrounded the rectangular square – the tower in which they stood, the massive cathedral next to it, an ­eight-­sided baptistery at the far end, the town hall across from the tower, a small ­fortress-­like armoury next to that and a row of small shops at the other end, including a baker’s and the workshop of Niccolò the violinmaker. A few people conversed in the piazza but there was no sign of the wife of his ­patient.

They climbed again and soon Omero was puffing. “It’s heavy, this basket.”

“If you hadn’t insisted on that huge melon, and the largest bottle of wine you could find, it would be easier. You have only yourself to blame.”

Omero grumbled, and climbed ever more slowly. He halted, thinking to steal a rest by making conversation. “Why are we climbing this tower? This day’s too hot for climbing.”

“You know perfectly well. I told you yesterday. Do you not remember?”

“I wasn’t listening.”

Fabrizio sighed. Omero stared at him. The priest’s eyes were watering, as they always did, day and night. “What guarantee do I have, Omero, if I waste my breath telling you again, that you will listen this time?”

“You are indeed a cruel master. Can we not stop here and eat?”

“No. Cease your whining. We must mount to the highest point for the best view.”

“If you could take a turn with the basket . . .”

“All right. Give it to me.” Don Fabrizio took the basket from him. “First you fill it to the brim, then you get me to carry it. Here, take the sky maps.” Before lifting the basket, he placed the long object on top of the ­foodstuffs.

They trudged upward through the tower, its walls and ceiling of ­reddish-­brown ­brickwork.

“Well, are you going to tell me what we are going to see, or am I to remain in ignorance for this entire . . . ascension?” He said the last word with his finger pointing in the air, as if he had just discovered something ­new.

“Yes, yes. We are going to look upon a comet high in the heavens. Rodolfo told me there would be a great comet coming tonight. Do you recall him? I saved his life, remember? An altogether strange fellow – people call him the Man of the Reeds.” The priest paused. “Are you even listening?”

“What’s that? Oh, I was thinking – do you suppose we could stop by the taverna later, after we are done with all this?”

Fabrizio halted and stared at his servant. “Usually a capacious forehead is a sign of intelligence . . .” The priest continued, “We will view the comet through this instrument called a telescopio. With it we will bring the stars close to earth. The Englishman, the scientist of the heavens who was here last year, recently sent it to me as a gift.”

“I remember him well. The two of you spent many a night talking of mad things about which I know nothing.” Omero gave him a blank look. “Tell me, which is it that moves through the tube – the distant object or the eye itself?”

Fabrizio laughed. “That is a question I cannot fully answer. While I am sure that neither eye nor object moves through the tube, my understanding of the science involved is severely limited. I know there are mirrors inside, and somehow . . . but come, look.”

The priest paused and, with care, placed the telescope on a wide, ­waist-­high stone ledge before a window. He unfolded the indigo cloth and revealed an instrument about three feet long, constructed of pearwood and bearing three rings of ­brass.

It looked to Omero like a musical instrument – a pipe or woodwind. He stared at it, and as he did so it seemed that a ray of sunlight shot through the nearby window and sparked off the middle brass ring. He imagined the object filled with stars and tiny comets bouncing off the interior walls of the tube. He wondered it did not explode before his ­eyes.

close this panel
Iron Mountain

Iron Mountain

also available: eBook
tagged : canadian
More Info
The Artist and the Assassin


I am the cloud in the sky and you, artist, the cloud's shadow scurrying over the earth. I am the cloud over your shoulder, sailing through the heavens, encountering no resistance. I carry lightly the thoughts, the belief, of a man who has never known doubt, while you, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, are the shadow of the cloud on the earth, rolling up and down hills as you try to escape. Where cloud and cloud's shadow meet will be your end.

Rome 1600

He has me posing as a saint, me, Luca Passarelli, with a thief for a father and my mother a wet-nurse. To be precise, he wants me playing Saint Matthew. Matthew, the one called by Christ from the streets to his spiritual life as an apostle. I sit at a table in the vaulted cellar of a palazzo belonging to one Cardinal Del Monte. I'm waiting with the artist's other models, several older louts and two young men, boys really, snappily dressed in silks, wealthy punks out slumming with the likes of us. The artist chooses to pose me as the apostle and saint. If you can imagine that. Me a saint. I would qualify for a saint's vow of poverty, certainly, but not by choice. Me with my one set of worn, flea-ridden clothing, a shirt, a tunic, and a pair of hose with holes in the knees. I cannot afford anything else. He has made me up to look older than I am. And I am no Jew, though Matthew was.

Altogether, seven of us pose in this cellar. Two of the models stand across the room, representing Jesus and Peter. Christ himself is pointing at me. The rest of us sit around the table counting the coins I gathered as if we are preparing for a night of gambling. I am the focus. Me, Matthew, known as Levi the Tax Collector in the ancient stories. The light shines on me, and on the young scamp to my left, one of the artist's favourites, I hear. I wonder if he is bedding the boy? Could be, I wouldn't be surprised, but I can't say for sure.

Michelangelo Merisi, this artist from a little village called Caravaggio, stands across the room, gazing into his enormous canvas and working it, licking his brush before stabbing it again into his palette, and occasionally glancing out at us models posed around the table. His eyes are sharp, he bites his lip, he wears his thick, black hair longish in the front. Youthful style. A small window of this cellar is covered by a sheet of paper soaked in olive oil. I watched him early the first morning pour the oil over the sheet in a large pan. I could smell it. Expensive stuff. Enough oil for a family of six for a month.

The old guy sitting to my right complained on the second afternoon: 'Why not make a quick drawing and let us out of here, finish the painting in your studio?'

Merisi didn't even look up from his palette when he replied in a flat voice, 'I don't draw.'

He offered no more than that. Not, I cannot draw, but I don't draw. No explanation. No apology. Nothing. As if we were invisible. As if we were made of clay and he the Creator. What kind of artist is he then? I'm no expert but it seems to me an artist should at least have the skill to draw.

We sit here day after day as he vanishes into that other room in his huge canvas--it must be more than ten feet across--coming out once in a while to look at us as if ... as if we are statues. Models. Actors. Our lives disappearing, dissolving into thin air, vanishing into his great work. We are worth less than drying pigment.

'Stop moving,' he warns, when one of the boys adjusts his seat.

As long as he keeps paying me, I will sit here, but I don't have to like it.

[Continued in The Artist and the Assassin...]

close this panel
The Rising Tide

From "Strange Arrivals and Sightings"

Venice / September 1769

The grey door, runneled with cracks, creaked open onto one of the narrowest alleys in Venice, a calle barely wide enough to accommodate a folded-open folio, a slit of a passage where sunlight entered for a mere twenty minutes a day.

For nearly two years, Michele Archenti had been going in and out of the door that faced this narrow capillary of an alley. Today, he was exiting his print shop to join his friend, Arcangelo, for lunch on the nearby square. A wind, from the north he sensed by its freshness, spilled down the alley's throat.

As he closed the door and turned, setting his tricorne on his head, he paused in the alley, thinking about those two years since he had arrived in Venice. They had passed as quickly as a comet coursing through the heavens.

* * *

Arcangelo posed a question before Michele had time to insert himself in his chair. "My friend, have you heard the rumors flitting about the city? Like a flock of nervous starlings."

"Greetings, Arco. No. What do you hear?"

In his eagerness to impart his news, Arcangelo leaned forward and waved his arms about. "They say a wolf was spotted yesterday on the isle of Torcello. That in itself is unusual enough, but this wolf was seen running across a field dressed in a cleric's robes. A tattered priest's cassock fluttered across his back! Can you imagine?"

"Ah. Is that so?" Michele nodded.

"And this in the same week the new Inquisitor arrives from Rome to take up his duties."


"Yes. And what's more, there was a sighting, also on Torcello this week, of a strange man bearing a skeleton on his back. So many astonishing events all together. People are saying it's the Second Coming, Michele. These are signs."

"What? That's ridiculous."

"The rumors are rampant. They say Christ returns, his crucified bones still nailed to his own resurrected body to remind all Christians of His suffering and His sacrifice. Some are claiming that this is surely a warning of the end of times."

close this panel
Walking Backwards

Walking Backwards

Grand Tours, Minor Visitations, Miraculous Journeys, and a Few Good Meals
also available: eBook Paperback
More Info
Where Angels Come to Earth

Where Angels Come to Earth

An Evocation of the Italian Piazza
by (photographer) Vincenzo Pietropaolo
text by Mark Frutkin
foreword by Ken Greenberg
More Info

“Italy is indeed the kingdom of the piazza, the ubiquitous city square that is a key element in Italian architecture as well as its social, economic and cultural life – and the reason so many Italian cities today remain civilized places to live. Piazzas offer vibrant, diverse spaces that continually recreate and revitalize the urban environment. Many of them also happen to be extraordinarily beautiful.”

close this panel
Show editions
close this panel

User Activity

more >
Contacting facebook
Please wait...