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Tracing Footprints

From Watermarks

Here. Step here, now. You can see it, if you stand here. If you stand in my place. First look at your shoes. At the gold blush, stretching from your feet and out across the paving. Follow it. Step by step. Your shadow steps behind; fragile in the low sun winter light. Each of your solid steps traces a thousand long dead footsteps. Like water marks on paper they have left invisible imprints. Black boots splashed through puddles on grey rain days; chilled toes scraped over dustings of frost. Though you cannot see them you sense them. You sense that with every step you walk on ghosts.

Look to your left. At how clear the water sings beside you. The canal and the street run hand in hand, they criss-cross this expanse you now call home. Careful - you need to look ahead too. At the people marching towards you. You are not alone. You are never alone in this city by daylight. You must turn this corner, and leave the canal behind, for now. Don't worry, you’ll find another. The sun is hidden; silenced by the tall buildings on either side and it is cold here. You have lost your shadow, and miss its warmth, its comforting presence at your back. I’m sorry. If you want to see what I see you must go on alone.

But no! Why are you stopping there? That wasn’t part of the plan. Put your camera away. Fine. Take the photo. But now please, look through your own eyes, not the glass lens; you’ll remember more this way. It is beautiful; dark wood shaped by loving hands and careful time. There is a chip there, in the corner, do you see it? You may have to lean closer. Perhaps someone kicked it, after a fight inside the house, or stumbled drunk into it, only to be pushed roughly back by the sleeping wood. You’re right, that man is frowning at you. You look a little odd bent double in the street, your nose to someone else’s door. Probably best to straighten up and move on.

Now, over the bridge. Yes, I suppose just a moment to look at the view won’t hurt. The water here seems to roll, buoyed up in some parts and flat in others. The boat moored to the edge there rolls too, rhythmically jostling against the stone, the sound echoes against the walls. You focus on the bell tower rising up in the distance, dark red brick and a cone shaped roof. It’s not just you, it is tilted.

You turn and go on... No there isn’t time for "just one more photo," you’ve taken three already. You turn and go on, down the steps on the other side of the bridge into a campo; wide and quiet but for a few slow movers. It is a cold day, and the afternoon is coming on. You walk past the closed up ice cream shop ‘Il Doge’. The memory of rich, dark chocolate ice cream; it tastes of the sun, the heat on bare shoulders as the cold hits your tongue and a strong arm wraps around your waist. You savour the memory; enjoy it as your steps echo solitary in the crisp cold.

Another bridge. Your feet slip over the steps that are worn smooth, dipped in the middle from a thousand feet pressing in on the ancient stone. The weight, built up slowly over time squats over the bridge, waiting to see just how many feet it can take, waiting for it to crack. It seems to weigh on you too and you reach the top breathing a little harder than you should be. Don't worry; you’ll be used to steps soon.

You keep going as the afternoon deepens. The chill seeps through your coat and attacks your skin. Into the narrow alley ahead, only just space for you and the man walking the other way to pass each other, your shoulders touch as you do. You can’t see much here. The buildings press so close and go by so fast. A blur of brightly lit pizza slices in silver cabinets; the smell of coffee permeates the almost evening air. You take a sharp right and keep going straight—

Wait, stop. You went left not right. I said right. You’re going the wrong way. You won’t see it if you go that way. You’re heading away from everything I want you to see, the Rialto, the Basilica and Saint Mark’s square, so open compared with these tiny alleyways. There’s nothing much the way you’re headed. Just more of the same. Bridges, canals. Alright, if you insist I guess you go left. You head along an alley just like the one you were in before. Cross an unexciting bridge. Walk beside a canal no prettier than any other. The sun slips away for good and the cold descends. There aren’t any cafes around, no bars here for you to step inside and get a warming drink. But that was your decision. You keep on going, following the canal that widens now and curves. You reach a corner around which there will be nothing exciting or half as beautiful as what you would have seen if you had just followed me, followed someone with experience and—oh.

What is that? You are looking up at a building, brilliant white in the early moonlight. Six thick pillars hold up a pediment that you have to crane your neck to see. A rounded door behind the pillars stretches to heights no one could possibly reach. It is no basilica or bridge hundreds of years old. But you found it. It is yours. You stand and gaze up at it. I recognise the look in your eyes as you walk closer, then back again, far enough so that you can get the full effect. You stand there and admire it, admire the treasure you’ve found yourself on this evening walk, until the cold chills your fingers solid.