Retracing by Claire Polders

It’s easy to disappear in the dampness of this town. Twelve moons ago, my mother wandered through a murky labyrinth of streets and bridges, crossing canal after canal—like I do now—leaving no footsteps. Cold air snakes across her face and her loneliness swells. She slips into a ruined palazzo like the fog at night and climbs the marble staircase. Music invites her to dance through the infinite ballrooms as the woman she once was. She twirls and forgets, shedding mass. She twirls and levitates. She is like smoke, like a cloud of perfume, vanishing into a dreamscape no mortal eye can see.

I blink. A cruise ship docks and its travelers inundate the streets. My mother stands tall like a rock that lets the water flow around her. She is annoyed, repulsed, and then, listening to an inexplicable murmur in her blood, jealous. The lion of Saint Mark closes its eyes. She imagines being mindless—no responsibilities, no decisions—and changes herself into a nameless piece of driftwood. She bobs along with the tourist flood, gaining a freedom she never knew existed. She buys, she sighs, she crosses the ramp. And when the monster ship cruises out of the harbor, she is gone.

One night, the alarm for the Aqua Alta sounds. I stand on the grand piazza as the water gurgles up from the drains and laps against my boots. The lagoon overflows, reaching for unbalanced life passing on the quays. She watches her reflection in the wrinkled surface and sees her dreams fly like birds from her hands. The silt-streaked houses are silent; their windows, dead. She descends the quay’s stone steps until the water whirls itself around her like a rope. Her heart sinks. The gondola floating by is as black as a coffin. I’ve read that people come to this dark, furtive town to become ghosts upon the sands of the sea.

What was I in her life, a ripple or a wave? What will happen to the memories she kept like tarnished secrets in her chest? Can she float into tomorrow without a body? Where is the weight of my future? Can I accept loss without knowing how it came into being? Is there a foundation that will prevent me from tumbling down? Why did I ever think that salt is the essence of tears?

Claire Polders grew up in the Netherlands and currently roams the world. “Retracing” was inspired by her monthlong stay in Venice. She’s the author of four novels in Dutch and co-author of one novel for younger readers (A Whale in Paris, Atheneum / Simon&Schuster, 2018). Her short prose is published wherever it is appreciated. Read more of her work online at

Narrow city street at night
Share This