I Am Marco Polo’s Brother

Picture credit: Egor Myznik

My name is Giuseppe Polo, son of Niccolò and Nicole Anna, born in the year of our Lord 1251 in the magnificent city of Venice. Magnificent, I say, not only because of my city’s Gothic-style palaces and narrow canals winding through its districts like so many cobblestoned streets, but also because of the power and influence of the Republic of Venice. Our republic is prosperous, ruling many territories on the shores of the Aegean Sea and beyond.

I was but a boy of three, still weaning from my mother, when my illustrious father and uncle Maffeo set forth as traveling merchants on a mission to the East. They sought spices and silks, precious gems, and gold and silver utensils, anything that would benefit our family business, but I believe the true intention of their journey was something other than material wealth.

I look back at these events with the wisdom of years and realize today that my father and uncle shared an intense desire for exploration. They were determined to encounter unfamiliar cultures and religions, to observe the obscure customs of worlds unknown in our humble Venetian home. My younger brother had this same desire for adventure.

When Marco was born, my father was already four months into his journey, and I cannot say for certain if he was aware of the birth. Shortly afterward, our mother of blessed memory passed away, and Marco and I were raised by her sister. We grew up on the banks of the city’s canals. We were schooled by well-known scholars in the home of one of my father’s benefactors, and took pleasure in the free time allotted to us between lessons of Latin and Geometry. On more than one occasion, we borrowed one of his gondolas without permission and circled undetected around St. Mark’s Basin.

When I reached the age of eighteen, I began to seriously consider my future. I would work in mercantile trade, certainly, but I also set my sights on marriage. I met Giulia at a costume party at the Doge’s Palace. She wasn’t beautiful in the sense of a painting, but still she was fair to admire. Giulia was the daughter of a merchant with little business acumen, hardly worth the nobility he claimed. Yet, Giulia made for a loving wife and a caring mother of my children.

Shortly before our wedding, my father and uncle returned from their first voyage. They regaled Marco and me with tales of residence in Constantinople, and how they escaped that city’s Venetian quarter just before it was burned and raised by the Emperor of Nicaea. They told us how they walked across the Arabian desert for 17 days with minimal provisions, not seeing anyone save for a few wandering nomads and their livestock. And they spoke of their arrival at the royal palace of the great Kublai Khan. With time, I would learn more about this knowledgeable and resolute ruler.

Marco was fifteen years of age and expressed his heartfelt desire to accompany our father and uncle on their next journey along the Silk Road to distant Cathay, and at last, my father relented. I was betrothed to Giulia, so I could only stand at the docks as they sailed off, uncertain when I would next see my brother.

They say that if you don’t pay attention, the years will pass so swiftly that you cannot distinguish one from another, and so it was. I busied myself with the family business, reselling the silks, jewels, and spices my father had transported to Venice. My life with Giulia lacked for nothing. Our children grew quickly, and a smile formed on my face when I discovered my sons had procured a private gondola for their own voyage through the canals. With the passage of time, my hair turned gray and still, I heard nothing from my father or Marco.

One day, many years after their departure, a ship docked in the port, one of our navy’s two-masted galleys with triangular sails arriving from parts unknown to me. After it anchored, its passengers disembarked. I witnessed a group of men clothed in rags, their hands shackled and their feet bound by rope, being led down the gangplank. Guards escorted them along the docks and across the piazza, with all in attendance staring at their passage. Over the bridges, this sorry battalion trooped until they reached the city jail.

I hurried to engage one of the sailors as I wondered if the crew had any word of my long-lost father or brother. Set on fitting the ship for its next voyage, the crewmen ignored my inquiries. I ventured to the jail and beseeched the keepers to let me talk to the prisoners. Perhaps one had news to share of Niccolò Polo, or could inform me of the wellbeing of my brother, Marco.

In the jail, I met a man who introduced himself as Rustichello of Pisa, and he confirmed his acquaintance with Marco. He stated he had gained Marco’s confidence to a degree that my brother had related his adventures to him when the two were held captive together by the Genoese. Marco, Rustichello told me, had returned to the East following his release from that prison, while he himself had been captured by the Venetians in a great battle and falsely accused of treason. He had now been brought to Venice to serve out his sentence.

Marco described to Rustichello, and he described to me, the powerful and splendorous court of the Tartars. Kublai Khan, a rotund man with several wives and many slaves, was a keen supporter of literature, and while he embraced Buddhism, he permitted other religions to be practiced in his empire as well. The Khan asked the Polos to invite their Pope to send 100 educated men to come and teach Christianity to his people. In particular, the Khan was interested in acquiring oil from the lamp of the Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem.

My beloved brother, I learned, served as Kublai Khan’s emissary in and carried out diplomatic assignments in the provinces on the Khan’s behalf, observing and reporting the activities of the emperor’s subjects. Marco was an engaging storyteller, and this entertained the Khan greatly, to the point where he refused to grant permission for the Polos to return to their native Venice.

Rustichello told of my brother’s familiarity with the cultures of Cathay. Marco said bread is not eaten there and instead rice and millet are more common. In those distant lands, wheat dough is only used for noodles and other pasty food. On his missions, Marco visited cities housing more than a million residents, so he asserted, and he encountered wild animals of the kind we have neither seen nor imagined. Rustichello asked me if I could picture a gray animal, shorter than an elephant, with a single horn protruding between its eyes. Marco claimed to have seen one such beast.

I returned to the jail several times, at the expense of my usual business activities, to meet with the prisoner Rustichello. Each time I sat with the man and listened to his narratives. I duly set down on parchment the stories he told of my brother’s expeditions.

Where is Marco now? I inquired, but to this question, Rustichello gave no answer.

After much reflection, I gathered the many pages and laboriously compiled them into an illustrated handwritten manuscript which I entitled “The Travels of Marco Polo”. I related the stories authentically, I believed, but alas, the book was not well received. My fellow Venetians considered the stories fictitious, imaginary, without any ground in fact. An animal with a single horn protruding from its face? Unbelievable. Noodles better than what we have in Venice? Unlikely. Three Venetians crossing mountains, deserts, and plains to faraway Cathay? Improbable. Marco’s account of a city with more than a million residents led to his being ignobly nicknamed Messer Marco Milioni.

The most serious charge was thrown at me by none other than the Doge himself. Real or imagined as these adventures may be, he said, you have stolen your brother’s stories and made them your own. You have attempted to gain celebrity when your brother is not here to defend his honor.

I was so disheartened by these words that shortly after, I fell near-deadly ill. I was bedridden, partially by a fever, but even more so by the ridicule my book had brought. Nothing Giulia could say or do could relieve me of my symptoms, and I awaited the black darkness that would accompany my soul’s final journey.

Then one evening, as the rays of the setting sun dropped from the basilicas and palaces, a messenger came to our door, heralding the arrival of important visitors. I closed my eyes; it was not an opportune time for an audience of any kind. But then my son said something that made me sit up from my pallet at once.

“Your brother has returned to Venice!”

And this was truly the case. A miracle, for his many years of absence had led to my firm belief he was dead. His appearance had changed such that he was barely recognizable. He had aged, as had I, and his hair had grayed like my own. He was hale and hearty, for sure, and I perceived wisdom in his dark eyes. He wore garments the likes of which I had never seen before in all my years; apparently this shabby, coarse costume was one he wore on his travels. The fever lifted from my limbs and I rose to embrace my brother.

“What’s this I hear?” he asked me. “You have written a book about my adventures?”

“I have been faithful to the words I heard from Rustichello’s mouth,” I said.

“Rustichello? That fool couldn’t be relied on to faithfully recount the gospel of our holy books. Let me read of my escapades as told in your words.”

Marco sat in the wooden chair where Giulia had nursed our infants long ago and considered my writing. His lips moved as he read, and I wondered what was going through his head.

“It is as I supposed,” he said, looking up at me. “The tales you recorded are fanciful and exciting, but of considerable distance from the truth. The words of Rustichello do not do justice to my experiences; they belittle my discoveries. They do not fully detail what has occurred.”

I feared what my brother would say next. Would he charge I had taken his tale and transformed it into a work of fantasy of my own, although with no material gain to myself? Would he be of the mind that I had chronicled his travels flippantly, as if anyone with great fortitude could undertake such odysseys at will? Would he feel I had failed him as a brother?

“My dear Giuseppe,” Marco began. “Dip your quill in ink and prepare to undertake a noble mission. Let me inform you of what in fact befell me over the long years since we were boys rowing gondolas in the canals of our dear city. I will speak honestly of my journeys and then you can inform the world of the true adventures of Marco Polo.”

And with that, I began to write.

Ellis Shuman

Ellis Shuman is an American-born Israeli author, travel writer, and book reviewer. His writing has appeared in The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, and The Huffington Post. He is the author of The Virtual Kibbutz, Valley of Thracians, and The Burgas Affair. His short fiction has appeared in Isele Magazine, Vagabond, Esoterica, The Write Launch, Adelaide Literary, and other literary publications.

Ellis Shuman is an American-born Israeli author, travel writer, and book reviewer. His writing has appeared in The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, and The Huffington Post. He is the author of The Virtual Kibbutz, Valley of Thracians, and The Burgas Affair. His short fiction has appeared in Isele Magazine, Vagabond, Esoterica, The Write Launch, Adelaide Literary, and other literary publications.

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