The Masque of Ascension
by Ross Smeltzer
The merchant noticed that Christina’s eyes had fallen upon the mask. He grasped it and presented it to her with unexpected nimbleness. He clutched it tightly in his bony fingers. Christina feared he would shatter it in his trembling hands.
“This, Signora, is the item to which I alluded! I suspected you would be intrigued by it. Unremarkable to most, it possesses a unique and magical property. It was enchanted long ago. I know not by whom. Doubtless a mascherari of no inconsiderable skill.
“But no matter! This mask can transform you into those people you long to be. It renders you a facsimile of another, someone remembered fondly or, more commonly, recollected enviously.”
Christina laughed. Intense study had rendered her an instinctive rationalist. She was proud to be uninfected with medievalism. It was one of her few reservoirs of vanity.
“I did not believe this claim when I first heard it either, of course. Such a premise! Preposterous, is it not? But I’ve seen this mask accomplish miraculous things. Quite impossible things.
“For a time, I saw a beggar order men about as if he were a count. An old whore who owned this mask presided over one of the city’s most highly regarded salons! People who had thought nothing of her or who had regarded her only as a source of public corruption begged to be in her presence, kissed her hands. I saw these and other wondrous things with my own eyes!”
The junk dealer’s eyes grew wide, like those of a fish. His smile grew broad as he regaled Christina with fanciful, impossible tales.
Solitude had poisoned this merchant, as had a life spent in an atmosphere suffused with putrefaction.
“Its magic is, as fortune would have it, limited to Carnival, Signora! It is remarkable you chanced upon it today, is it not?”
Christina was bored with the shop and with the bothersome shopkeeper. She purchased his magical mask — to humor him, she told herself, as she dredged into her empty purse to find a few copper coins.
She returned home, navigating the fast-flowing torrents of humanity, threading through the bon-vivants and the women in towering wigs and golden finery. She reached the Duke’s palace, swiftly locating her quarters.
She loosened her hair and cast off her black dress. She folded it neatly and laid it on a creaking chair. She would wear it tomorrow.
Christina looked into her mirror and examined her hands and face. Her fingers, unadorned by gems and trinkets, were indistinguishable from those of a common laborer. Her face lacked some ineffable refinement; it had a coarseness she did not see in those of her young wards. She tried to sleep but could not, attributing it to the laughter rising from the streets below.
The day that followed was a long one. Christina’s fatigue was complete and her charges frustrated her with their lack of interest in books and studies. They heard the festivities beyond the palace and wanted to participate in them.
Christina sympathized with this aspiration. She, too, wished to glory in marvelous profligacy, to watch aristocrats exhibit their opulence on a scale normally prohibited and to watch their inferiors vie with them.
Once, she glanced out into the crowded streets and saw a masked couple dressed wholly in silver gliding through the narrow avenue below. They seemed to be dressed in the shimmering, auroral skins of fish.
It was late when Christina finally put her students to bed. She retired to her quarters and undressed, tossing her black dress onto the floor. She spied the mask she had purchased the night before. She ran her fingers over the smooth alabaster and brought it into contact with her face. It was cold to the touch and seemed to recoil from her flesh.
She tied the green ribbon, affixing the mask to her. She looked into her gilded mirror. It was a joy to gaze out onto the world from the confines of a more perfect tabernacle.
Christina put the mask on every night after the first. There could be no resistance to the mask, for its effects were tangible and immediate. Rationality could be adjusted to include this instance of magic.
On that first night, Christina was transformed into a young Styrian countess whom her employer, the Duke, had charmed over the course of the previous spring. Christina had forgotten the young woman’s name, but she had been enchanted by the anonymous ingénue.
Christina saw her naked body transform, assuming all the qualities and characteristics of the young woman. Her posture, deformed by too much study and application, was corrected. Her stature was augmented. Her fingers became long and delicate; the years spent working in her father’s stall in the fish market were erased in an instant.
Elation succeeded these many marvels.
The mirror testified to the comprehensive quality of Christina’s transformation. But the mask reshaped more than flesh. It spun a world around the new flesh: a world to armor and protect it.
Bodices and corsets which had once been laced around the young countess’s new, fresh form now enshrouded Christina’s own. Delicate pastel silks which had never before deigned to touch Christina’s skin — the now milky and soft skin — hugged it tightly.
Christina attended many fetes in the guise of the nameless Styrian. At one, she supped on white parmigiano reggiano and soft red pears. She beguiled the ambassador of some German bishopric who looked handsome in the glittering light of a thousand dainty candles.
Christina returned home from her revelries late in the night. She tore the mask from her own flesh and went to bed. Her skin stung. Her hair, which had been miraculously fashioned into a monumental tête de mouton collapsed into a mousy drape. The serried ranks of powdered curls became brown and dull again.
The next night, Christina became a duke she had spied from afar at some unremarkable Carnival excursion. She promenaded on rain-slickened streets, her buckle shoes clattering loudly on the cobbles.
She chanced upon the duke’s companions, all drunk and all turned out in velvet jackets ornamented with gold and silver. They wore viloti: masks that caricatured the peasants of Friuli. They took her to their club, a shadowy place populated by the cream of the Veneti.
She apprehended, as she nibbled daintily on purple grapes — savoring each one — that the Duke was a truly eminent person. Witticisms flowed from her newly-cunning and clever tongue. She luxuriated in the confidence of inherited station. She thrilled at transgression.
As she staggered out of the club and was conveyed home by a passing litter, hoisted by men in liveries finer than the most opulent clothes her father and brothers possessed, Christina counted herself fortunate. As she crept into her quarters and slid into the thin sheets of her bed, she reflected: transient delight was better than none at all. It was a pleasing thought and it tranquilized the pain she felt as she wrenched the mask from her face. It clung to her prominent cheekbones and could only be wrenched from her tender skin by considerable force. She placed the mask beside her mirror.
Christina put on her mask every night. Every transformation brought new delights; every day greater hurt. To be reverted to anonymity after briefly escaping it was a torture.
One night, Christina was converted into the old Duchess of Solferino, a woman with whom her employer was intimately acquainted. She was not alarmed by the process of accelerated disintegration to which she was treated. The mask’s refashioning invariably improved on her and afforded her wonderful opportunities. She trusted it.
She was conveyed to the duchess’s salon by one of the old woman’s numberless sycophants. When she entered the great gilded chamber, she became a sun; everyone else in the expansive room functioned as a lesser celestial body. All orbited her, greedy that the brilliant light of her recognition should shine on them.
In the dark salon, with its golden braziers and copper wallpaper, her snowy riding habit was the chief source of luminosity. The cunning duchess had not done this unintentionally, Christina realized. She marveled at the ingenuity of the old woman. The duchess’s garb was also calculated to exalt her above her courtiers. It communicated a studied nonchalance: its full skirt and unadorned lapels advertised that the wearer was detached from the endless war for station in which those around her were engaged.
Christina enjoyed her evening as the duchess best of all. The conversation fizzed and sparkled and Christina was overjoyed when a philosophe she admired was paraded about the salon like a show pony. He was courtly and rarely jousted with his aristocratic adversaries with much spirit. He knew that nothing pleased his adversaries so much as a victory easily won.
It was thrilling to have one’s every comment met with approval and one’s every witticism met with peals of laughter. She remembered Count Rodrigo and felt the resentment within her grow, ballooning like a cancer.
A dwarf in a harlequin costume brought her a bowl of orange sherbet garnished with mint. Her guests were denied this pleasure. Christina thought it best not to overturn a precedent likely established years before. The duchess’s guests were surely acclimated to neglect. They would have thought less of her if she showered them within even the scantiest part of her munificence.
To her, the sherbet tasted especially sweet.
In a quiet moment, Christina chanced to look at her hands. When she had been transformed, her fingers had assumed the characteristics of the duchess’s own. They had become wiry and desiccated, like the digits of some ancient mummy. But she had been compensated for this decay. Her new fingers were crowned with jewels of all shapes and sizes. Garnets competed with sapphires and rubies. Stones the size of scarab beetles distracted the viewer from the repellent flesh they garlanded.
Christina wept in the early morning hours, when the sky was pink and she was once again in her quarters in Duke Valentino’s palace. She removed her mask and saw her baubles disintegrate. It was cruel to see them become a soft grey miasma that fast dissipated in the still air.
Over the course of the next week, Christina was transfigured into seven different persons of condition. She repeatedly touched an inconceivable yet extant Utopia: a demesne that was preserved with burnished gold and unsheathed hauteur rather than with muskets and cannon.
Copyright © 2013 by Ross Smeltzer