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The Mask Maker
Walking past the polished and posh storefronts along Salizada San Moise, just outside St. Mark’s square, Walter saw her face swimming toward him in the crowded passageway. As it drew closer, however, it subtly shapeshifted, then evaporated like a mirage. There were no cars in Venice. The city’s web of alcoves and narrow footways could never accommodate them. The buildings, many unchanged for hundreds of years, were so close and twisted together the streets were in a constant murk, and shadows can play tricks on the eyes Walter reasoned, because there was no reason to be seeing Amber’s face here.
Before the apparition, his thoughts had been wrapped up again in Amsterdam and whether or not fate was ever going to give him a sign. Although his night there never escaped his mind, it was the first time since St. Goar he’d been truly left alone to reflect on it. Over the past few days he’d been distracted by his deepening friendship with Curt and Kourtney, but also the siblings’ widening divide. The further the trip progressed, the less they wanted to do together, and increasingly he found himself stretched between museums and intellectual ventures with Kourtney during the day, and pubs and nocturnal escapades with Curt in the night, leaving sleep the only time he got to himself, but even that was mostly done with others on the bus.
While Walter hadn’t expected to partake so much in the nighttime revelry, Curt had an almost supernatural, easy-going charisma that made him not only the most popular person on the bus, but at every bar, beerhall, club, or pub they went. Evenings with him always ended in unexpected places with unexpected people, and through him, Walter was again finding his own charisma and confidence he thought he’d lost to Quinn Quark. Also, with the exception of the serviceman, he was discovering no one in their tour group really cared who he’d been before the trip, and those who did felt mostly privileged to party with a former rock star.
But as much as Walter enjoyed and was benefiting from his time with Curt, his time with Kourtney held much more significance. Through her he was discovering a whole new intimacy of friendship and learning to be vulnerable with someone again without worry of judgment or duplicity, and he permitted her the same. Their fucked up childhoods and constantly nagging insecurities and anxieties gave them a lot of common ground, and it seemed when one of them went out of whack, the other always knew how to bring the other back in place. For two people who were loners at heart, it was strange to have a friendship that felt so effortless. But loners aren’t loners so much for the sake of being alone, but being alone with their thoughts, and usually that’s impossible with someone else, but not them. They could spend hours together only speaking with their eyes. If they came across a painting in a museum or an interesting historical fact or artifact, it only took one look to know what the other thought.
However, being proud loners, there was also a sense of guilt about enjoying the company of someone else too much, so after their introductory walking tour of Venice, they decided a day apart was needed. But now Walter was greatly regretting that decision. Venice was a living museum and he wanted his museum partner. Remaining relatively the same for hundreds of years, history bled easily through the skin of the city, and it took no monumental leap of imagination to travel to the past. Thus, after only fifteen minutes of separation, he had gone looking for Kourtney, but so far was only finding ghosts.
Continuing on in his search, letting his gut guide his feet, Walter passed over a footbridge crossing the Rio di San Moise canal, went past the cursed La Fenice, an opera house famous for burning down three times, weaved through progressively tighter streets until finally reaching a deserted dead end. On the wall of a building in front of him, someone had spray-painted I JUST DESIRE TO TOUCH THE SKY. The words captured him, and he stood trapped, trying to translate a meaning, when out of the corner of his eye he saw a phantom flicker. He then turned around, and there she was, Kourtney, contained in a tiny shop window he hadn’t noticed being there before.
Going inside the shop, however, he discovered like Amber’s face, Kourtney’s too evaporated, and in her place was a woman about the same age with bangs, long, dark brown hair, and large, golden eyes, made more striking by her black eyeliner. She wore a bright red headwrap, not unsimilar to a pirate or gypsy, which was the same color as the lipstick on her full and pouty lips. The body beneath was gracefully drawn-out like a dancer’s, draped in a tight-fitting black tank top and a light and flowing, tan bohemian dress.
“Buon pomeriggio signore,” she said smiling. “You look like a man in search of himself. What identity would you like to try on today?”
“Huh?” Walter said.
“What kind of mask were you interested in?”
“Oh,” he said noticing the shop he walked into was a mask shop. All around, on the walls, cluttering the shelves, and hanging from the ceiling, were ornate carnival masks, some with long noses, others adorned with stunning arrays of feathers, beads, and gems.
“Actually, I am in need of a mask,” he replied. Contiki had a themed party almost every night and for Venice it was a masquerade ball. “However,” he said examining a price tag of a mask near him, “these masks might be out of my price range.”
“That’s okay. I don’t charge to try them on, and I do have some more reasonable options in the back. But there is a mask I think would look very handsome on you. I made it with a face like yours in mind.”
“You made all these masks?”
“I am the mask maker. Beatrice Mezzosesso. And you are?”
“Walter Huxley. Pleasure to meet you.”
“No, no. The pleasure is mine, that is if you don’t mind trying on the mask?
“Perfetto. Come signore, have a seat here,” she said pulling a chair in front of an antique-looking full body mirror. As he sat, her long fingers felt over the contours of his head, face, and neck like a tailor sizing someone for a fitting. “Oh yes,” she said staring him straight in the eyes, “I’ve been waiting a long time for you.”
She then danced more than walked across the small store in elegant, metered movements to some waltz she was lightly humming. She went to a shelf holding several wood and glass display boxes and took one down made of expensive-looking mahogany with a red satin bedding. She opened it and removed a bone-colored mask with a strong brow and aquiline nose in a stern facial expression. The mouth had no opening but the chin protruded forward far enough to fit a hand in for eating and drinking. She then went to what looked to be her workbench, selected a spool of thick black ribbon and measured a strand from memory. With two quick snips, she then cut what she measured into two equal strips which she threaded through holes on the side of the mask. She then returned to Walter and placed the mask on him from behind, tying the ribbon snuggly. The mask clung to his face as if it had been custom made.
“Yes,” Beatrice said staring into the mask’s eye sockets. “I knew it. Just perfect . . . You came in here searching for something, didn’t you Signore Huxley?”
“Someone actually,” Walter replied. “I thought you were them, but I was mistaken.”
“Yes, looks can be deceiving, but often what you need is not what you were thinking.”
He looked at her funny. She gave him a puckish smile.
“You fell in love with someone you weren’t supposed to,” she said, “or more so they weren’t supposed to have fallen in love with you, and now it’s cost them their life.”
“Do you know me?” Walter asked.
She smiled again. “That depends on your definition of knowing,” she replied. “A face can tell me a lot about what I need to know about someone, and yours has death and love written all over it. That’s why I chose the death mask of the world’s greatest lover for you. Don’t you know who you are?” she said pointing to the mirror. She then leaned into his ear and said in a whispered scream, “Casanova!”
Walter laughed awkwardly. “You’re funny,” he said. “And a good salesperson. But seriously, you read the Rolling Stone article about me or something, right? Yep, you got me. Quinn Quark, the new Casanova I guess.”
“No, I don’t have you yet…” Beatrice said picking up the spool of thick black ribbon again and cutting another long piece. She then stood behind him and gently wrapped it around his neck, then pulled it down his chest, making his hair and nipples stand on end. He gasped and his breath deepened while his eyes closed in arousal. Then in a flash of an instant she had his wrists cuffed behind the chair with the ribbon. “…but now I do,” she said.
Walter bucked up in surprise, but Beatrice pushed him back into the chair with the weight of her body. Straddling over him, her hand then reached under the mask’s protruding chin and softly slapped him.
“No more games Giacomo, Le Chevalier de Seingalt,” she said. “I saw you in there peering at me through this man’s eyes. But who’s in there with you? So many voices. You must be a very troubled man Signore Huxley.”
“Huh?” Walter said, slightly afraid and still slightly aroused. “I know the article made me out to be a womanizer, and maybe there was some truth to that, but seriously, I’m no Casanova. Not even close.”
Beatrice chuckled. “You still don’t understand,” she said. “Casanova! He is inside you. All he needed was a body and yours is an open gate for the spirit world to communicate. You are living amongst the dead, and the dead can whisper through you. You must know this. Haven’t you ever felt like the voices in your head aren’t your own?”
“Many times actually. But I’ve got a rather eccentric imagination I don’t always trust.”
“Well, what if I told you your body is nothing but a fleshly capsule Casanova is trying to make love with?”
She chuckled again. “Oh how little you’ve learned in almost three hundred years Casanova,” she said. “Don’t you ever want to find divine love? Don’t you ever want to free your name of womanizer and instead be recognized for the great writer and mind you were? Or will your soul always be caught in the powerful tempest of your lust?”
“I’m so lost,” Walter said shaking his head.
“Just let go and play along,” she whispered into his ear.
Certain she was crazy, he decided to play along, partly out of fear, partly because he was still turned on, partly because he was also crazy. And the more he thought about it, maybe Casanova’s ghost was inside him.
“Okay,” he said. “Um… what do you mean someone fell in love with me that wasn’t supposed to and now it’s cost them their life?”
“The answer is right in front of you,” she said pointing at herself in the mirror.
“You?” he asked.
She smirked. “Not exactly, but you’re getting closer.”
“Then why do I feel more lost?”
“Just think about it.”
Beatrice shrugged and smiled, but said nothing.
“Well either way,” Walter said to the mirror, “if Amber is listening, she should know she did nothing wrong by falling in love with me. It was all my fault. I gave up on someone who really could’ve been my ‘one’. I just thought I was looking for perfect, but I was too blind, too selfish to see I didn’t need perfect. I needed love. And no doubt, with the exception of my grandmother, nobody loved and believed in me more than you, yet how little belief and true love I gave you.”
Tears began dropping from beneath the mask onto his lap. “Maybe this was why you gave me this trip,” he went on, “to understand your suffering; to find love, then have it violently ripped away. I used your love and offered hardly any in return because I was too busy loving myself. I’m so sorry Amber. I’m so sorry. I don’t deserve to find love. I had it and threw it away because I didn’t know what I was looking for. I was too in love with myself.”
Beatrice put a hand on Walter’s shoulder. She then removed the mask and unbound his wrists. His face was a glazed doughnut of tears and sweat.
“No,” she said somberly, “you deserve to find love. Everyone does. But first, you need to forgive yourself, but before you can, there’s someone else who needs forgiveness, someone very much a part of you whether you want them to be or not . . . your father.”
“Because if he dies unforgiven you will never forgive yourself. Your guilt will outlast your hate. Didn’t Squids teach you that? My father was an alcoholic too and the last thing I told him before he died was I hate you and I want you to die. But I was just an angry teenager, and his alcoholism had hurt me a lot. But now that time has dulled some of that anger, I can see he did love me in many moments outside his drinking. He may not have been the greatest father, but at least he was more of a father than the father he never knew. At least he tried to be a father, and so did your father. He fucked up in a fuckup nobody would know exactly how to fix, a fuckup of his own doing, but nevertheless, he was younger than you are now when it happened, and look how much you still fuck up.”
“Yes, but fucking up being a father is much different,” Walter retorted. “A father doesn’t prioritize the needs of a monster over his own son. A father doesn’t allow his son to be treated like an unwanted pest for the first ten years of his life. Yes, ultimately he did leave that monster for me, but he told me in the end how much I was really worth to him, about three rum bottles. He deserves to die unforgiven. Fuck him.”
“Forgive him,” Beatrice commanded. “Forgive him and your stepmother if you ever want to be forgiven yourself; if you ever want to know divine love.”
“Who introduced you to Metallica then took you to your first concert ever, a Metallica concert?”
It was his father but Walter stayed silent.
“Who taught you how to tie your shoes,” she continued, “and is the reason why you still bunny ear instead of loop and swoop? Who taught you the habit of ironing your clothes, how to whistle, how to blow a bubblegum bubble?”
He suddenly remembered it was his stepmother. There had been some moments when she was more mother than monster in the beginning. Agape, Walter turned to Beatrice.
“Who are you, really?” he asked.
“Okay, fine. I suppose there were some moments when they attempted to care, especially in the beginning before the drinking fully took hold . . . And I suppose you’re right. There’s no way to forgive myself without forgiving them because a part of me is them . . . I forgive you Dad. I forgive you L-L-Lilith.”
Walter shuttered. He hadn’t uttered his stepmother’s name in over fifteen years. Once she stopped calling him by name, it gave him a reason to do the same, and his names for her were just as bad if not worse as hers for him: bitch, cunt, the pretty witch, mother monster. At times, he really did everything he could to antagonize not only her hatred for him, but her alcoholism. Now fault didn’t seem as easy to place. But blame is hardly ever shared alone and sometimes just as much in our control as fate. What we do have control over, however, is forgiveness.
“I forgive you,” Walter continued. “I forgive you!”
“You are forgiven,” Beatrice said, and immediately after a weight seemed to lift from his chest, a burden he’d grown so used to carrying he thought it was a part of him. Looking into her eyes with awe, he saw someone he knew he knew but he couldn’t explain why.
“Now will you tell me who you are,” he asked, “who you really are?”
“I am no one because I am not one,” she replied still transfixed on the mirror. “However, you can call me Fate if you would like. But truthfully, I’m just someone who wants to help you find divine love. However clever it’s been disguised, it is waiting for you.”
“A place only you can reach within your heart, but I’m here to take you to the next part. But we must go soon. Sunset is approaching.” She then reattached the mask to Walter’s face. “Casanova must also come along though. And masks must stay on until I tell you to take them off. If we’re not careful, it could cost us our lives also.”
After masking herself in a gold, long-beaked “plague doctor” mask, Beatrice put on a black, full-body, hooded robe and had Walter do the same. She then took his hand and told him, “Don’t let go,” and led him out of the shop to a nearby private dock on the Grand Canal. There, a gondolier in a black toga she addressed as Marcus was waiting, standing atop an all-black, dragon-looking gondola with an enclosed cabin, or what Beatrice called a “felze”. Apparently almost all gondolas used to have felzes before their primary purpose was toting around tourists. Inside the red velvet-lined felze, a bottle of wine and a bucket of oysters were waiting for them.
“Is this gondola always stocked with oysters and wine?” Walter asked after they sat and Beatrice poured him a glass.
“Oh yes,” she said. “A gondola ride wouldn’t be complete without them.”
“Well, santé,” Walter said taking the glass, then began removing his mask.
“No, no,” Beatrice said stopping him. “The mask must stay on, even while you eat and drink. That is what the mask is designed for.”
“But you can’t eat or drink with your mask.”
“Because this wine and food isn’t for me, it’s for you, Casanova.”
“But what if you’re trying to poison me?”
“Well I doubt it will make a difference. You’ve been dead for over two hundred years.”
After departing from the dock, Beatrice pulled open one of the curtained windows. “Let us begin,” she said. “Do you recognize that palazzo out there?” She pointed to a three-story, cream-colored palace on the canal.
“Should I?” Walter asked, still confused as to who he was supposed to be.
“That is the Palazzo Malipiero, former home of Senator Alvise Malipiero, and site of your first seduction. The senator took you in as a fifteen-year-old protégé and taught you all the customs of high society until you were caught ‘exploring the differences between bodies’ with his seventeen-year-old love interest and he expelled you out of the house…”
As they pushed down the Grand Canal, Beatrice continued filling Walter in on landmarks and transgressions of his possessor’s life until reaching the Rialto Bridge where they turned around.
“More wine signore?” Beatrice said, pouring without permission.
“I guess so,” Walter replied amused and red-lipped beneath his mask. She’d already emptied half a bottle into him and mouth-fed him a dozen or so oysters. He’d never felt more lavished on in his life.
Coming out of the Grand Canal and skirting along the Venetian coast, lined with more cream-colored palazzos that were turning pink in the twilight light, Beatrice shouted out the window, “Marcus, prendere noi sotto il Ponte dei Sospiri !”
“Si mama. Summum virtutum.”
“Sunset is coming,” she said to Walter, aka Casanova. “Our date with fate is almost here.”
Turning into the Rio del Palazzo canal, they sailed under the people-packed Ponte della Paglia footbridge, then approached another much higher, ivory-white and ornately-decorated footbridge connecting two buildings.
“The Bridge of Sighs...” Beatrice said pointing to it as the boat coasted beneath it, joining a hoard of other gondolas, “...our final destination and one of the most famous sights in all of Venice. It connects the interrogation rooms in the Doge's Palace to the palace prison. And according to legend, as prisoners would cross, they would look out onto beautiful Venice one last time and ‘sigh’ before being taken to their cells. In 1755, arrested for blasphemy, freemasonry, magic, and of course fornication, you yourself walked across this bridge Casanova. But instead of being put in the regular prison cells, you were instead held in a collection of cells called ‘The Leads’ directly beneath the palace roof. Because the roof was lined with lead slabs, these cells were very hot in the summer and ice-cold in the winter, and also thought to be inescapable. But on the night of the 31st of October 1756, you proved that to be untrue by prying off one of the slabs and escaping through the roof in a tale that would later become one of your bestsellers.
“You then fled to Paris where you would later make a fortune by inventing the first state lottery, a fortune which would be wasted away like all your fortunes, to gambling. But being a prolific polymath, you always managed to climb your way back into status and wealth through a variety of occupations and sometimes questionable ventures. In your seventy-three years alive, you were an abbot, lawyer, officer in the Venetian army, theater violinist, diplomat, mathematician, spy, alchemist, Freemason, cardsharp, magician, faith healer, actor, a famous playwright, duelist, physician, and librarian. You were fluent in Italian, French, Latin, and Greek, and proficient in German, English, and Russian. You discussed religion and philosophy with Voltaire, powered flight with Ben Franklin, taxation with Fredrick the Great, and bringing the Russian calendar in sync with the rest of Europe with Catherine the Great. You were also good friends with Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s favorite librettist, and may have served as the inspiration for Don Giovanni, possibly even writing some of it yourself. You wrote forty-two books which included a history of Poland and the Venetian government, a modern Italian translation of Homer’s Iliad, a five-volume science-fiction novel, Isocameron, which predicted the motorcar, airplane, and television, and of course your twelve-volume, thirty-five-hundred-page autobiography, Histoire de ma vie, which you are most famous and infamous for.
“Casanova, you could have been an Enlightenment icon had you not let lust get the best of you. But you always blamed your insatiable sex drive on your insatiable curiosity for human nature, reasoning the bedroom offered no better view into it. Old, young, fat, skinny, royals, nobles, nuns, slaves, whores, virgins, even a few men and transvestites, you bed them all. But they weren’t all merely conquests. You actually fell in love quite easily and often. You liked to satisfy and be satisfied intellectually as well as sexually by your partners, and in a time when women were second-class citizens, you saw them as equals. You were attentive and appreciative in your lovemaking, and at times, supported your lovers financially and became a lifetime confidant.
“However Casanova, your name didn’t become synonymous with womanizer by accident. Some of your most notorious exploits include: losing your virginity to two sisters at the same time; bedding and having a child with a castrato singer whom was thought to be a boy, but was in fact a girl using a fake penis; having a ménage à trois with two nuns; sleeping with five sisters in exchange for saving their mother from financial ruin; and probably your most repulsive achievement, almost marrying your own daughter whom you unknowingly conceived with a former lover, only to later bed her and her mother at the same time, although you did say you left your virgin daughter ‘intact’ for whatever that’s worth.
“Casanova, you stand guilty of gluttonous lust, a lust whose winds have reigned over you for nearly three centuries. But now you have an opportunity to finally escape the slavery of your lust, to find divine love, what you always sought but never found in life. If you accept this invitation, kiss me at sunset and your true love will be revealed . . . The time is now,” she said touching Walter.
“Time for what?” he said confused.
“To take off your mask and kiss me, that is if you’re ready. Love isn’t always who you think it should be. Once in a while it’s in the strangest of places.”
Walter’s head turned sideways pondering who was really speaking behind that golden bird beak.
“I’m not kissing you until you tell me who you really are and what’s really going on,” he said. “Plus, I heard being granted eternal love by kissing someone at sunset under the Bridge of Sighs was just some bullshit legend told to tourists.”
“I told you already, you can call me Fate. As far as who I really am, you can only discover that by taking off my mask. But yours has to come off first.”
“Fine,” he said and reached behind his head and removed the mask. Beatrice gasped behind her beak.
“What?” he asked.
“It’s not for your knowing, just as what you see when you take off my mask is not for my knowing.”
Slightly trembling, his hands removed her mask only to discover Beatrice grinning. Although a part of him wished for Shiva, he was also relieved reality was behaving as it should. Besides, Beatrice really was beautiful, a beauty he could stand for an eternity if that’s what it meant. But truthfully, he had no clue what anything meant anymore.
He then noticed a large gap between her front teeth he didn’t remember seeing before, but she hadn’t spent a lot of time full-teeth grinning before then either. Regardless, he leaned forward and lips met, then tongues began dancing until something bristly began tickling his upper lip. He opened his eyes to find Beatrice had grown a mustache. Then as his eyes adjusted, he realized it wasn’t Beatrice behind that mustache. It was Dug.
“Ah!” Walter screamed and pushed Dug back into the seat across from him, but by then he had already morphed back into Beatrice. “Ah! Ah! Ah!” Walter kept screaming.
“You didn’t like what you saw I see,” Beatrice said straightening herself out after being thrown.
“I’m sorry. No, not at all what I was expecting.”
“Often divine love isn’t what you expect.”
“But you don’t understand. I saw—” She covered his mouth.
“I told you,” she said, “what you saw is not for my knowing, or anyone else’s knowing. You must keep it to yourself and only to yourself, otherwise neither of us will find divine love. And believe me, I’ve been waiting a long time. Centuries you could say.”
“Wait, are you—”
She covered his mouth again and smiled. She then brought her index finger to her lips and winked.
“Just keep our little adventure today to yourself,” she said. “It’s in your best interest and mine. Not like anyone will believe you anyway.”
Back at the boat dock, Walter and Beatrice shared one last kiss, this time with no mustache, before she stepped back onto the boat. She said there was somewhere she needed to be soon, and so did he. His ferry back to the Italian mainland where he and his fellow Contikians were camped in a village of mobile home trailers was departing shortly.
As the gondola withdrew into the Venetian Lagoon, from the bow of the black dragon, Casanova’s death mask in one hand, the other waving goodbye and blowing him kisses, Beatrice shrank into the darkening horizon until at last she touched the sky and disappeared into it.