The Mask Maker
Just outside St. Mark’s square, Walter walked along the polished and posh storefronts of Salizada San Moise. A river of faces flooded past him in the jammed corridor, but he was only looking for one: Kourtney’s. After their tour group’s introductory walking tour, they had decided a day alone was needed after spending so much time together recently, but now Walter was greatly regretting that decision. Venice was a living museum and he wanted his museum partner.
The further the trip had progressed, the less the siblings wanted to do together, and the more he found himself split between museums and intellectual ventures with Kourtney in the day and pubs and nocturnal adventures with Curt in the night. And even though Walter enjoyed both with both, his time with Curt was much more limited and usually shared with everyone else since Curt was becoming the most popular person on the tour, whereas with Kourtney, he was discovering a whole new intimacy of friendship. Their fucked up childhoods and constantly nagging 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. But for two people who were proud loners, it was threating to have a friendship that felt so effortless and there was a natural urge to resist it. But after only fifteen minutes without her, now Walter could resist no more.
Continuing on in his search, he let his gut guide his feet through Venice’s maze of passageways. Unchanged for hundreds of years, the streets had no cars and were so narrow and knotted together, they were in a constant murk from crowded shadows. The past bled easily through the skin of the city, and it took no monumental leap of imagination to travel into it the farther he furthered himself from the crowds.
Crossing the Rio di San Moise canal footbridge then passing the cursed La Fenice opera house, famous for burning down three times, he weaved through progressively tighter and more deserted streets until eventually finding himself alone at a dead end. On a wall of a building in front of him, someone had spray-painted I JUST DESIRE TO TOUCH THE SKY. The phrase 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 turned around, and there she was, Kourtney, contained in a tiny shop window he hadn’t noticed being there before.
Going closer to the window, however, her face subtly shapeshifted like an evaporating mirage, and by the time he was inside, she was somebody else completely.
“Buon pomeriggio signore,” the woman in her place said as he entered. She was about the same age as Kourtney 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 flowy, tan bohemian dress.
“You look like a man in search of himself,” she said smiling. “What kind of identity would you like to try on?”
“Huh?” Walter replied.
“What kind of mask were you interested in?” She gestured around the shop.
“Oh,” he said noticing he was in a mask shop. On the walls, cluttering the shelves, and hanging from the ceiling, were ornate carnival masks adorned with stunning arrays of feathers, beads, and gems. “I do need a mask actually,” he said. 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 nearby mask, “these might be out of my price range.”
“That’s okay,” she said still smiling. “I don’t charge to try them on, and I do have some more reasonable options in the back. However, there is one mask I think would look very handsome on you. I made it with a face like yours in mind.”
“You made all these masks?” he asked.
“I am the mask maker. Beatrice Mezzosesso. And you are?”
“Walter Huxley. Pleasure to meet you.”
“No, no, the pleasure is all mine Signore Huxley—that is if you don’t mind trying on the mask?”
He shrugged. “Sure. Why not?”
“Perfetto. Come, have a seat here,” she said pulling a chair in front of an antique-looking full body mirror.
After Walter sat, Beatrice’s long fingers felt over the contours of his head, face, and neck like a tailor doing a sizing. “Oh yes,” she said staring straight into his 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 polished, 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 a workbench, selected a spool of thick black ribbon from it, and measured a strand from memory. Then with two quick snips, she cut what she measured into two equal strips, then threaded them through holes on the mask. Returning to Walter, she then placed the mask on him from behind, tying the ribbon snuggly around his head. 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 . . . Now, you came in here searching for something, didn’t you?”
“Someone actually,” Walter replied, his brows contracting beneath the mask. “I thought you were them, but I was mistaken.”
“Yes, looks can often be deceiving, and what you see is not what you were thinking.”
His brows crinkled more deeply.
“You fell in love with someone you shouldn’t have fallen in love with,” she said, “and it cost them their life.”
“Do you know me?” he asked.
She gave him a puckish smile. “That depends on your definition of knowing,” she replied. “A face can tell me a lot 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. “But seriously, you read the Rolling Stone article or something, right? Yep, you got me. Quinn Quark, the new Casanova.”
Beatrice laughed. “No, I don’t have you yet…” she said picking up the spool of thick black ribbon again and cutting another long piece, “…but now I do.” She then swiftly grabbed his wrists and cuffed them behind the chair with the ribbon.
He bucked up in surprise, but she swung around to the front of him and pushed him back into the chair with the weight of her body. Straddling him, she 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 confused, afraid, and slightly aroused. “I know the article made me out to be a womanizer, and maybe there’s some truth to that, but seriously, I’m no Casanova. Not even close.”
She chuckled again. “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?”
“Actually... all the time lately. But I’ve got a rather eccentric imagination I don’t trust.”
“Well, what if I told you your body is nothing but a fleshly capsule Casanova is trying to make love with?”
She smiled and shook a finger at him. “Oh, how little you’ve learned in almost three hundred years Casanova,” she said. “Don’t you ever want to find your 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,” he said shaking his head.
“Just let go and play along,” she whispered into his ear.
Certain she was crazy, Walter decided to play along, partly out of fear, partly because he was still turned on, and 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 I fell in love with someone I wasn’t supposed to?”
“The answer is right in front of you,” she said pointing at the mirror.
“You?” he asked.
“Not exactly, but you’re getting closer.”
He sighed. “Then why do I feel more lost?”
“Just think about it.”
Beatrice shrugged and smiled, but said nothing.
“Well, if Amber is listening,” he said looking directly into the mirror, “she should know... she should know 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 and 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.” Tears slowly began dropping from beneath his mask onto his lap. “But I just used your love because I was too in love with myself. I was too in love with myself. And for that, I don’t deserve to find love. I deserve to suffer forever without it. But for you, I will just so you know how sorry I am. I’m so sorry Amber. With all my heart and soul, I am sorry.”
Beatrice put a hand on his shoulder. She then removed the mask and unbound his wrists. His face was a glazed doughnut of tears and sweat.
“No,” she said looking somberly into the mirror, “you deserve to find love. Everyone does. But first, you need to forgive yourself. Blame is hardly ever shared alone and sometimes just as much in our control as fate. But what we do have control over is forgiveness. Forgive yourself . . . Go on, say it.”
“I forgive you Walter,” he said to the mirror. “I forgive you!”
“You are forgiven,” Beatrice said, and immediately after a weight seemed to lift from his chest, a burden Walter had grown so used to carrying he thought it was a part of him.
He turned around in the chair and looked back at Beatrice with awe. Looking into her eyes, he saw someone he knew he knew but he couldn’t explain why.
“Who are you?” he asked. “Really, who are you?”
“I am no one because I am not one,” she replied. “However, you can call me Fate if you’d 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. However, we must go soon. Sunset is approaching.” She then reattached the mask to his face. “And masks must stay on until I tell you to take them off. If we’re not careful, it could cost us our lives.”
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 she called a “felze”. Once 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,” he said taking the glass, then began removing his mask.
“No, no,” she 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.”
“Yes, but this wine and food isn’t for me, it’s for you, Casanova.”
Walter sighed. “So I’m Casanova again?” he asked.
“When you wear the mask you are.”
Soon after departing from the dock, Beatrice pulled open one of the curtained windows. “Do you recognize that palazzo out there?” she asked pointing 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. From there, you then went on to lose your virginity to two sisters at the same time, and after that, your seductions are too numerous to name, but some of your most notorious exploits include: 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.”
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?” she said, pouring without permission.
“I guess so,” he 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.
“But you always blamed your insatiable sex drive on your insatiable curiosity for human nature,” she went on after she finished pouring, “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 all weren’t merely conquests to you. 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 relative equals. You also supported many of your lovers financially and became a lifetime confidant after they were no longer your lovers. Ultimately, however, it is your explorations in the bedroom and not human nature that you are remembered for, and for that Casanova, you have no one to blame but yourself. But now you have the opportunity to finally be forgiven . . . Marcus,” she shouted out the window, 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.”
Coming out of the Grand Canal, they skirted along the Venetian coast lined with more cream-colored palazzos, turning pink from the setting sun, until reaching the Rio del Palazzo canal, where they turned in and sailed under the people-packed Ponte della Paglia footbridge, then approached another much higher, ivory-white and ornately-decorated footbridge connecting the Doge's Palace to the palace prison.
“The Bridge of Sighs...” Beatrice said pointing to it as the boat coasted beneath, joining a hoard of other gondolas, “...our final destination and one of the most famous sights in all of Venice. 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 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 your lust get the best of you, a lust whose winds have reigned over you for nearly three centuries. But now you can finally escape the slavery of your lust and find the divine love you always sought, but never found in life. If you accept this invitation, kiss me at sunset and your divine love will be revealed...” She cleared her throat. “The time is now,” she said touching Walter.
“Time for what?” he said.
“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,” 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,” she said. “You can call me Fate. As far as who I really am, that you can only discover by taking my mask off. However, yours comes off first.”
“Fine,” he said and reached behind his head and untied the mask. Beatrice let out a short shriek 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, Walter’s hands then began untying her mask, but after removing it, he only saw Beatrice grinning. There was, however, a large gap between her front teeth he didn’t remember seeing before. But then again, she hadn’t spent a lot of time full-teeth grinning before then either. He leaned forward regardless 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 more, 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.”
“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.