The Masque of Ascension
by Ross Smeltzer
Carnival had begun. For twelve days, splendor and gambling, drinking and debauching, secrecy and treason would be blended in the Serenissima’s winding, cobbled streets. It was a time when masked men gambled fortunes and used their anonymity to evade slavering creditors; it was a time when noble ladies mimicked the cooks and maids and met secret lovers in clogged thoroughfares.
Great schools of humanity, disguised and liberated, surged through cold piazzas and negotiated narrow alleys. All gorged on sanctioned license and gloried in unfettered aspiration.
On the first day of this year’s Carnival, Christina found herself in the hot, stinking pen of Clara, an African rhinoceros being exhibited in the city. It was an inauspicious beginning to Christina’s 22nd Carnival.
“It’s rather less remarkable a beast than I had anticipated,” she heard the nearby Count Rodrigo say drolly.
She had seen the young bravo many times. He waved a pale hand to signal his contempt for the animal. Young and charmless and uniformed in striking lilac and gold, he was attended by a coterie of allies. They nodded to signal their agreement and returned to trading trivialities with one another. Christina admired the rings that appointed the count’s delicate fingers.
Christina whispered to her students, her words melting out of the flanks of her white mask, “I disagree. It’s a quizzical and wondrous specimen. It makes me long to see the perilous jungle where it once lived.”
The two children nodded in approval and rushed to support her judgment. The puzzle of her original utterance was scrambled, the pieces disordered and confused. She smiled anyway, delighted to have her wards’ backing.
Christina was sickened by the arena. The sweet smell of steaming hay was mingling with other more pungent notes and recombining into a noxious perfume.
The beast’s keeper, who had seemingly been gifted with sharp hearing to compensate for his lumpy, swollen face, heard Christina and said, “Indeed, Signora, the rhinoceros is a remarkable creature.”
An ugly man in a brown waistcoat, the keeper was a practiced showman. He shouted above the din of the assembled crowd, “The rhinoceros is known to sharpen the horn at the tip of its nose on rough stones and to charge and gore elephants that have the temerity to enter its territory. The people of Hindustan and other lands say it is quick, impetuous, and cunning.”
Christina found it difficult to believe the oafish creature before her was as bold and fearsome as its keeper claimed. She secretly thrilled to being called “Signora,” although a native Venetian would easily have seen she was nothing more than a costumed plebeian. This rube from distant shores had been misled by her disguise.
“Clara,” the animal keeper said in a friendlier tone, “has been domesticated. Her instinctive viciousness has been tranquilized by her proximity to civilization. She is now, gentle Veneti, quite as harmless as a milk cow or a fatty pig.” He waited a moment before adding, “My arts and talents, of course, played no small part in her conversion from brute to beast.”
Clara defecated to the delight of children and adults alike. Her small black eyes remained fixed on the wall in front of her. She nibbled on a clod of hay.
“A rather ugly beast,” Christina’s employer, Duke Valentino, said. He spoke in a rasping tone, which was made even less audible by his heavy mask. “Lumpy, scaly and the color of a speckled tortoise, hardly a credit to the Creator’s arts.”
Christina nodded obligingly. She wanted to find another diversion.
The Duke had, mercifully, lost interest in this amusement. Clara had only momentarily enchanted him. He planned to ask Christina and his children if they would like to repair to some other place, but, as he was wont to do, he prefaced his question with an extended introduction. He was a member of the Signoria and was accustomed to bombast; his speeches were rarely interrupted and his volubility, which served to mystify his enemies, was seldom critiqued.
“Carnival is a unique and wonderful time. Why, dearest Christina, at Shrovetide all the world repairs to our lagoon, where they watch us in our follies and our revels. The braver among the voyeurs participate in our merriment. Few sense its importance and value.”
He coughed but carried on, undaunted by whatever ailment was growing inside him. “You see, what makes this uniquest of festivals so special is that women, men, and persons of every conceivable condition disguise themselves, wander the narrow streets going from house to house, all glorying in a thousand impossible and wonderful gambols.”
He stopped and then resumed, “This event, though it was momentarily diverting, has ceased to be so. It is not a credit to Carnival.” He had, at last, arrived at his point.
Christina nodded after the conclusion of this discourse. In truth, boredom alone was not driving her to exit Clara’s pen. She could hardly breathe beneath her mask.
Christina, the Duke, and his children returned to his palace, crossing piazzas filled with gaudily dressed men and women, most of whom sported white and black masks. Christina, too, wore one out of deference to the holiday. Her old black dress, which had been obscured in the press of the animal enclosure, advertised the mediocrity of her station. Christina found little to enjoy in Carnival.
Christina passed a man dressed as an Ottoman satrap. His turban, which looked like an overgrown red onion, towered above him and augmented his already considerable height. He beamed at Christina, revealing a mouth filled with brilliant teeth. He was an aristocrat and swaggered like a prowling tom. He had no need for a mask. He was not stealing into the sanctums of privilege with each step, as Christina was.
Christina smiled in return, happy to be acknowledged.
Christina and her party reached the Duke’s home. It abutted the Piazza San Marco and, like the neighboring Zecca, was built of solid blocks of Istrian marble. It mimicked the older structure.
Christina put the children and the Duke to bed. The former were exhilarated by the day’s adventures; the latter was debilitated by them, so much so that he did not make the sorts of demands that often accompanied the onset of darkness.
Christina tried to sleep, but tossed and turned in her small bed. She could hear merrymaking even through the heavy, cyclopean stone of the palace. Laughter crept through hidden fissures and tormented her. But ambient merriment alone was not dispelling sleep’s magic. Something had disturbed the governess: something within had gone unsated and now, in the deep night, demanded gratification.
Christina donned her mask, slipped past lazy valets, and went out into the streets again. The narrow walkways were clogged with drunken men and women, boisterous and thrilled by dissolution. It was a joy to be inside the heedless, libertine throng. Christina, adapted to a life of study, toil and compromise, rarely enjoyed Shrovetide. No matter how many times she stalked the streets during the authorized wildness, she felt detached from it: an observer rather than a participant. This detachment was, she feared, incurable.
The wants gratified during Carnival would, Christina knew, always return. These twelve days could not eradicate boundaries and limitations.
Christina walked for a long time, her wide eyes gazing into taverns and restaurants brimming with wealthy patrons and those who expertly aped them. She did not enter them. She was aware of her limitations as a thespian.
She passed an antique shop, brimming with artifacts long ago discarded. It was poorly lit and sat at the bottom of a sullen building that seemed to smirk at passersby. Christina was unaccountably intrigued by the shop, and pushed open its heavy green door to enter. It was like the rhinoceros’s pen, airless and stifling.
The place was a sty: a heap of clutter into which a brave visitor needed to burrow to make any headway. In one corner, opulent dresses and gowns of various colors were heaped one on top of the other. They formed a mountain of silk, lace and chintz. Despite their age and disrepair, the dresses were assuredly too costly for Christina. In another corner, there was a veritable ziggurat of discarded tricorns.
Paintings of all sizes, mostly numberless artists’ evocations of Venus and Pluto and dancing fauns and drunken satyrs, populated the walls. An entire wall had been sacrificed to portraiture. Countless pale faces glared down at Christina. All of the paintings had been hung carelessly: their gilt, filigreed frames were universally askew.
In one corner, Christina saw a pile of helmets, curved swords, cruelly-pointed maces and other armaments. Burnished and caked with gems that clustered together like barnacles, these bellicose instruments appeared to have been abandoned for centuries.
Ugly, ragged cobwebs hung from spears and sabers, and mounds of ashen dust coated cuirasses that had once preserved the hearts of celebrated dukes and marquises. When the Turks had been finally sapped of their warlike spirit, these items had lost their relevance. For a time they had functioned as venerable but pointless and impractical curios: auxiliaries deployed to bolster portraits of insecure statesmen and patricians. They had now been robbed of even this unhappy occupation.
Eventually, Christina found the shop’s proprietor, a stout, bespectacled man. He was bent over an antique desk with clawed feet. Reams of ragged paper, scrawled with figures and tabulations, seemed to grow out of the desk like the fronds of some tropical plant.
The junk dealer’s lavender jacket needed mending. He had the shrewd look of an experienced trader. He had probably been selling outmoded and unfashionable things since before Christina’s father, a toothless fisherman, had abandoned his nets and transferred his family to the city.
The only thing Christina could hear was the sound of a sharp pen stabbing and scratching the rumpled paper. The city’s sounds were smothered by the shop’s sickly, dolorous air.
The junk dealer sat in a massive chair, the back of which was shaped like a great crab. His spindly arms rested on its wooden claws, worn smooth by years of use. A black monkey sat beside him. Its eyes, like those of its master, had a cunning quality. Christina was comforted to see it was leashed, tethered to its industrious master by a golden chain.
The junk dealer eventually noticed his guest. The novelty of the occurrence probably accounted for his tardy reaction. He smiled broadly when he saw Christina, thrust his pen into an inkwell and tumbled out of his chair. He sallied out from behind the fortification of his heavy desk and approached her.
“Would the Signora be interested in a gown? Or perhaps an elegant fan? I have fans that would rival the wings of a fluttering moth in their delicacy.”
He surely knew his guest’s shabbiness was not some aristocratic affection.
“I’m not sure, actually,” she said. “I was just out walking and spied your shop and thought I might visit.”
“Ah yes, an accidental visitor! Excellent! I think we have many items that might interest you,” he said, smiling. “This dress, for instance, would look quite becoming on a woman with your abundance of charms.” His smile stubbornly refused to diminish. “It’s made of the finest chintz.” He pawed the pink dress like a contented, entranced cat.
“I fear you are wasting your time on me, Signore. I haven’t the means for such finery.”
The merchant opened his mouth, stunned by this explanation. “A woman of such uncommon loveliness should not go about in rags,” he exclaimed. “But I sympathize with those who lack means. For people like you — and myself, as well, Signora — the cost of one pretty, becoming dress or one fetching jacket is too great and the rewards too little. One dress or one jacket cannot transform us; these things become costumes and serve only to remind us of our station rather than release us from it.”
Christina had underestimated the shop owner. He was, evidently, some kind of savant. She assured herself that he had practiced these utterances for many years, honing them until his bewildered customers were incapable of resisting them. It was a rare talent, seemingly only the province of shopkeepers and politicians.
“I have something for you,” he said quietly, as if he were divulging some invaluable secret. “This item, which is not on display, can affect that transformation you seek. It would go unappreciated by the masses.”
Christina smiled, thinking it unlikely “the masses” patronized this disagreeable place.
“I should like to see it,” she replied, humoring the junk dealer. “Though I think you overestimate my discontent,” she added tartly.
Her acidity had not gone unnoticed. The junk dealer grinned slyly. He motioned towards the back of the shop, his brittle fingers waving towards one particularly dejected corner. Christina approached it. He limped behind her, herding her towards his allegedly mystic wares. His pet monkey trailed behind him. It snarled periodically, displaying canines so white they glowed in the gloom.
She stopped before a green sedan chair embroidered with gold. It had a musty, unwholesome smell. On it were heaped all manner of items: discarded dolls, limp hats, enormous feathers, and yet more dresses.
There was also a mask made in a style with which Christina was unfamiliar. Venetians had come to favor flamboyant adornments, and their masks were no exception. The blank white and black masks of years before had been replaced by masks painted in colors seldom seen in nature.
The mask that Christina spied was different. Though of the traditional larva variety, it had been painted to affect flesh; it had rosy cheeks and claret-colored lips and slender black eyebrows. A jade ribbon dangled from it; it looked like a strand of wet seaweed, glistening.
Copyright © 2013 by Ross Smeltzer