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An Essential Shipment

A man visits the Ports of Venice for a life changing experience.

By Iris HarrisPublished 11 months ago 12 min read
The Grand Canal, Venice (painted by Thomas Moran)

“I can’t believe I’m in Italy,” I am face-timing my parents, excited over arriving in Venice, Italy. The sun was setting on my side, but through the screen I could see the late morning Portland sun in the background.

My mom’s face beams. “Honey, make sure you ride the gondola while you’re there.”

Admittedly, it seems very cliché to ride a gondola in Venice. I feel foolish even thinking about it, but considering the canal is central to the city, it fits the tourist troupe perfectly.

“Yes, I know. I do plan to ride a Gondola through the canals, but it’s going to have to wait until tomorrow. It’s nighttime here.”

“Oh, right. What is it, a twelve-hour difference?” She replies, showing no signs of consideration for time zones. “What else are you going to see while you’re there?”

My affinity for history is what brought me to Italy. It was the last stop on my tour of Europe. Italy is brimming with history: the colosseums, the sculptures, the art. However, what most people overlook is the impact Venice had on the world during the Silk Road trades. Land routes becoming both treacherous and time-consuming, trade eventually evolved to the seas. Venice quickly emerged as an essential destination for merchants, making it the capital marketplace for the world up to the 1800s.

“Well, there is the architecture. With some buildings being centuries old, I am dying to glance inside them. And, of course, I want to see the marine ports.”

“The ports? I’m sure they are no different from any other port. I would think, seeing it from above in the plane would have been enough,” mom jokes.

“Yeah, but I want to feel what it’s like to be in the exact place where the world’s biggest commerce expanded. Just thinking about all the trading that happened and being able to relive it in modern times, excites me.” I chuckle.

“Whatever makes you happy, honey,” she rolled her eyes, not understanding my love for history. History to her was a class worth skipping for a McDonald’s run in high school.

I nod, sensing the end of the conversation. “Look, I really need to go. I have an early morning tomorrow, but you know I fly back to the States in a couple of days.” We spend the next couple of minutes trading “I-love-yous” and “Goodbyes” before we finally disconnect.

After hanging up with my mom, I glanced out of the hotel window at the perfect view of the grand canal. The reflection of the lamps dances on the waters as small boats circle larger ones, racing for dominance. Live music, both from the streets below and nearby bars, battle for attention. Though there is conversation mixed in, every word is Italian. Though I have no experience of learning Italian, I am able to decipher the romantic nuances of each word. Some believe, French is the language of love, but tonight Italian wears the crown.

I complete my nighttime routine of showering and grooming before I pull open the covers and slide into bed. Slumber coerces me into dreamland. I am immediately fantasizing historical Venice.

“Wake up, peasant!”

The words strike my ears.

“Wake up!”

The voice is unrecognizable. I contemplate if I should open my eyes to face the culprit who is robbing me of sleep. I want to ignore them, but…

“Wake up, you stupid boy. The boat needs loading, and we aren’t paying you to slumber.”

Boat? Light floods my eyes as my blurred vision clears to a burly, dark-breaded man. His facial skin is rough from many years of life and he is wearing an antagonize expression.

“I’m sorry, but I think you have the wrong person. Furthermore, not to be rude, but what are you doing in my hotel room?” The brisk reality of the situation, still far from my mind.

He grimaces before confusion over my words settles over him. “What’s a hotel? And, just where do you think you are?”

“I’m…” my sentence is cut when the weariness of slumber melts off with the stench of drunkenness penetrating my nostrils and the bitter winter in the air. My bed has vanished, and I have been lying on the chilled ground. There are others surrounding me; each person either gathering their belongings, or dressing and preparing for a long day of work. My pajamas have been replaced by a heavy set of black, worn out trousers and a grimy white blouse under a thick leather coat. Where my pillow would be, an overly used leather satchel lies calling for my ownership. “Where am I?” The only three words to escape my lips.

“You dumb drunk,” scowls the burly man. “Look, the seafarers are setting sail for England soon. If you want today’s pay, you better hurry to the docks. All you lot. Sober up, and get your drunk arses to the docks.”

As he walks away, he continues kicking a few other men who have not fully wakened from the morning alarm. The men roll over casually and begin rubbing their faces, or folding their blankets. A couple of them release the remnants of drinking from the previous night.

I am caught in a current of confusion, pondering how I ended on the street. I turn toward the satchel, curious about the contents. Peering beyond the flap, there are several shirts, each requiring cleaning from both dirt and body order funk. I also uncovered a few coins.

“Where am I?” I repeat, hoping the answer will fall out of the sky and land on my head.

“You’re in Venice, idiot!” A toothless man replies, shuffling pass me out of the narrow alleyway we were finding refuge in. He immediately vanishes when he turns right. Seconds later, a large trading ship, with multiple white sails, floats into view. I feel starstruck to witness the operating sea-going vessel.

I clutch my satchel and dart out of the calli onto the boardwalk. There are multiple sailing ships filling the waters at the mouth of the Grand Canal. I shake my head, hoping to wake up from the entangled dream. Each vigorous shake only adds onto my dizziness. My environment remains unchanged.

Aside from the various seafaring ships which control the waters, the architecture of the building is much more renaissance appearing than their modern make-over. Furthermore, any traces of the twenty-first century have been eradicated. I am clearly thrusted back to a time before electricity.

The ports are crowded with men and a handful of women. Most of the men were dressed in similar attire as myself, but focused on the laborious work of loading or unloading heavy tan barrels from the ships. Near the port, many merchants were shouting the names of the wares they brought with them: from food to supplies. The food and spice merchants appeared to be the most popular, but other commodities (such as wood and clothing) were given spontaneous attention.

I am guided to an area where there are stacks of barrels and crates. Though there are no labels on any of them, the aroma of spices is obvious. There is also a smell of an unknown ingredient that clouds over me. I try to ignore it, but have a sense of concern for my health regarding the medicinal stench. I continue examining the merchandise on the pier, trying to figure out what treasures are hidden in each of them. There are foreign labels on a few, but my lack of other languages prevents me from deciphering their origins.

The burly man who woke me up is staring at me with a terrifying gaze. He marches over and throws his massive hand over my throat. “What are you doing over here? The barrels we need loaded are by the canal.” He thrusts me in front of him and prods me towards the barrels near a docked gondola.

There are two teams of men. One team is focused on loading crates, while the others are working to load barrels quickly onto a gondola. Once the boats have reached capacity, they are steered towards the sailing ship and loaded onto it. The crate team is working effortlessly in loading the crates, however the barrels appear to be at a standstill. There are supposed to be a team of ten men; four working in the warehouse, four on transport, and two on the gondola. The warehouse team rolls a barrel out to the transport segment. The four men alternate moving the barrel from the warehouse to the gondola and then aid the two men in loading the heavy container on the boat.

“I trust you know what you’re supposed to do?” Burly demands. I nod, hiding my dubiousness as best as I can. “Good, get to work. Time is money, and I’m sure a drunk like you wants to get paid, right?”

My eyes follow him as he walks away. He stops near another man in a black and white suit, clearly on a higher pay scale than Mr. Burly. My ears do their best to tune into their conversation.

“Somehow we’ve found another man for the job, sir,” Burly shares.

Suits looks pleased with the information. “Good, I trust the cargo will be loaded tonight then?”

“Yes, both the crates and barrels will be loaded tonight and set sail tomorrow.”

“Excellent. This should aid in our success in the war.” Suits smiles with contentment, tips his hat and departs from Burly. Before Burly had time to check on me, I quickly joined the transport team.

I reach for the first barrel with my partner, while trying to process the conversation. We roll the barrel to the gondola and wait our turn to help hand it off to the next pair of men. The whole routine takes roughly three minutes before we repeat it again. By the fourth barrel, my body has become accustomed to the rhythm and groove of relocating the barrels. I briefly remember the previous conversation and curiosity over the barrel content starts to overcome me.

“Hey, do you know what’s in these?” I blurt, while we are waiting to hand off one of the barrels.

My partner looks over to me quizzically. “It’s not our place to know, mate. I’m just here to do the job and get paid.”

I am disappointed in my partner’s lack of friendliness, but the urge to know the contents remains swelling inside me. Barrel after barrel and I brainstorm a more creative approach to discovering the mysterious content. I begin taking deep whiffs, but the aroma is sealed in the airtight container, refusing to offer any clues. The gondola becomes fully loaded and as it leaves the dock, another has returned to replace it, keeping up constantly moving.

We turned to fetch the next barrel, when a terrified yell from the stack of barrels adjacent to us created a distraction.

“Watch out! It’s going to fall!”

A group of men were losing their grip on one of the top barrels, and it was seconds away from rolling down the heap. The men below were scattering like insects to avoid becoming human crêpes. Inevitably, the barrel plummets to the ground in a blink of an eye. The lid bursts open, spilling black powder on the ground upon impact.

Pepper? Becomes my first thought looking at the powdery black ground, but there is no smell that tickles my nostrils. A more sinister smokey scent rises. I recognize it. It reminds me of campfires, BBQs, and other family gatherings. The odor is connected to one of those memories. It strikes me the common explosive element in each of those environments: fireworks. Which means, I am staring at gunpowder!

“Is this what we’re putting on the boats?” I say, my stomach turning faster than a rotisserie spit.

Burly, who has been silently hovering over me, jostles me to the ground. “Get as much of that back in the barrel.”

Several other men drop to their knees to scoop the powder using their bare hands. A new lid is secured, and the barrel transported to the gondola when they finished.

Burly faces all of us while we are awaiting orders. “Right, you lot, get back to work. England needs this cargo tomorrow.”

Every disperses back to their assigned job. My mind is plagued with two questions: Why would England need so much gunpowder? What is happening in the world today? I need to know what year it is. It may be the biggest piece to this history puzzle.

The sun begins setting by the time we finish the job and paid in lira for our labor. The flood men head to the nearest pub to drink their earnings, and I am caught in the current. As we flow down the packed street, I spot a daily chronicle left on a table near a café. I stop to pick up and learn it is January 15th, 1782. Why would England require a mass quantity of gunpowder in 1782? Though I enjoy history, I primarily focused on classical European history, or even ancient civilizations. Since Medieval times are generally used in fantasy and fiction, it has become mundane to me. I regret feeling that way now more than ever.

The flow of men leads me to a packed pub with a variety of people: sailors, dockworkers, locals, and tourists. I find an empty table near a small group of tourists and order food. I sit quietly, marinating in conversation.

“After spending all day on the dock, this is all we earn?” Complains some exhausted men across from me. They are unfamiliar to me, but I do empathize; examining my own wages.

“I leave tomorrow. I’ll be visiting Dalia later tonight. I need a bit of refreshing before we sail off,” he laughs along with the others. They continue their sexual bloviation about Dalia and other women.

“Good ole King George has his hand full with them settlers, then,” a male with a British accent utters behind me.

“I say, they did waste all that tea. Tossing it into the ocean. How uncivilized and disrespectful to the Queen and country,” another adds, dismay weighing in each syllable.

The first man snickers. “Well, the ship is fully loaded and plans to depart tomorrow morning. Once that shipment crosses the Atlantic, I am certain the Imperial Army will make quick work of those, what is the term they're using?”


“Ah, yes, Americans. They shall rue the day they cross King George.”

King George? Americans? Tea? The gunpowder is for the Revolutionary War!

“What! No! We need to stop that ship!” I scream, mindlessly. I stand and dart towards the exit.

Burly blocks my escape. “What do you think you're doing? You are not stopping that ship from departing. It needs to set sail first thing in the morning.”

“There is a war going on, I must stop it,” I persist, throwing my arms out to force him away from the door, but his mass and strength easily counters mine.

“You will do no such thing,” he raises his ball hand and slams it against my head. Darkness embraces me; silence surrounds me.

My eyes open and my head is buried deep in my pillow. I feel around to gain information on my whereabout by sense of touch. Bedsheets, check. Comforter, check. Bed, check. I thrust my body into a sitting position. I’m back in my hotel room. It was all a dream.

I jump out of bed and dart to the window. Nothing has changed from the night before, confirming I must have been dreaming the whole thing. Breathing a deep sigh of relief, I pick up my cell phone and call my mom instantly. I figured she should be at home since it would be evening time in the State. Within seconds, her face appears on the screen.

“‘Ello, love,” she answered in a deep British accent.

For a brief moment, my brain is trying to interpret what my ears are receiving. Once my ears have registered, the words shoot out my mouth. “Mom, why are you talking with a British accent?”

“Wot are you talking about?” She replies, confusion striking her face just as it has mine. “No one ‘ere ‘as an accent, love.”

I dismiss her speech. “Look, I’m just calling to check in. I had a crazy dream last night.”

A concern expression covers her face. “Wot was it about?”

The accent continues to confuse me. “I was loading gunpowder on a ship for England. The ship was ammunition for the Imperial Army during the Revolutionary War.”

“And, ‘ow is that crazy, love?” My mom’s expression is absent of worry.

Her question perplexes me. “Well, I mean, America still won their independence, right?”

“Wot’s America?”

“What’s America? The country I’m from. Where you live. The United States of America,” I respond impatiently.

“I thought you were a ‘istory buff? England won the Revolutionary War, love.”

My mind goes blank from the information. I excuse myself and search for my passport. The bald eagle cover has been replaced with the royal coat of arms with the words: United States of England embolden in gold.

And it’s all my fault.


About the Creator

Iris Harris

An aspiring novelist. I enjoy writing ghost, horror, and drama. Occassionally, I dabble with some essays. You can find more of my work with the link below:

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Comments (4)

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  • Leslie Writes11 months ago

    I did not expect that ending! Well done!

  • Donna Renee11 months ago

    I love how you did this and the ending choice you went with! 👏👏👏

  • Babs Iverson11 months ago

    Lovely story!!! Enjoyed the read!!!💕❤️❤️

  • Great Story ❤️😊💯I want to go to Italy 🇮🇹‼️

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