The Masque of Ascension
by Ross Smeltzer
Christina soon found it difficult to part from her mask. It was always unpleasant to remove it and see herself returned to the worthlessness from which she had, but hours before, exited. But now it hurt to eat the food of servants and participate in their conversations; her tongue now recoiled from pane rustica. It wanted to be daily indulged with pillowy, soft pane bianco.
These pains were not wholly the product of a psyche grown jaded. During the day, when she was dressed in drab black and when she administered her lessons on writing and arithmetic, she felt queer hurts and convulsions within her. Her body had, she reasoned, been confused by the many transitory alterations that had been visited upon it. Her flesh and innards were likely disturbed. But, to Christina, the sensations that now palpitated within her were a small price for the privilege of limitless possibility.
It was but a few more days until Lent. Carnival would soon end, and the mask’s eldritch powers would be temporarily exhausted. Christina could hardly part from it to attend to her students.
After one particularly taxing lesson, she ran to her chamber and donned the mask. She held the cold alabaster to her hot, twitching skin and threaded the green ribbon through her brown hair. Her hands shook.
She was swiftly transformed into a young woman she had seen some time ago; a coquettish girl with creamy skin and blond hair. She wore a white gown festooned with clouds of lace and cream-colored bows. Christina tittered with delight. She could never tire of transfiguration.
She witnessed strands of brown hair become enormous feathers and flowers. The girl’s beauty, then at its most brilliant, lent this waving plumage an indescribable charm.
Christina exited the Duke’s palace. Though evening was imminent, the streets were quiet. The novelty of libertinism and jumbled identity had worn off for the year and most Venetians had lost interest in Carnival. They were steeling themselves for the forty days of privation that loomed.
It was cold, and a foul, yellowish mist hung in the air. It rose from the canals. It was as if the slow-flowing water sought to strangle any remaining revelers.
She entered the wide Piazza San Marco, briefly marveled at the Chiesa d’Oro, and swept into one of the multitude of narrow streets that grew out of it like the tentacles of a jellyfish. Her feet resounded on the grey stones. The echoes swam around her in the gathering dark.
Christina could find no diversions. The taverns were filled with masked men and women. They were not the people she sought. She could now recognize inauthentic affluence from afar; it was a talent she was happy to have acquired. She chuckled as she passed a gambling house. The building itself, engorged with fortune-seekers, seemed to groan with discomfort. It was burdened by the ambitions of the crowd.
Christina’s wanderings were fruitless. The wealthy had become bored and had retired to their palaces. She was inexpressibly disappointed and turned for home, threading her way through dark alleys and deserted piazzas. The saffron-hued mist still hung low over the silent city. Her body ached. She was ravenous with hunger.
She found the Piazza San Marco and began to cross it, cutting through the sullen void like a fat caravel at sea. A lanky dog watched her from its post beside a deserted puppet theater.
Christina felt a strange pain in her right shoulder. It grew and became relentless: the hurt occasioned by something willful and capricious worming within her skin, squeezing through muscles and pushing aside bone. She cried out.
This first hurt was soon joined by a throng of others like it. It felt as if a thousand barbed knives were piercing Christina’s fragile, youthful skin — or, rather, the fragile, youthful skin of the young countess. She staggered into an alley, incapacitated. The nearby dog barked stupidly. It soon stopped and watched the novel scene transpiring before it.
Christina clawed at her airy, rose-colored gown. The silk was unyielding and the pains wriggled, evading her fingers and reappearing in new locations in her small body. They seemed to breed within her until her entire body was riven with oscillating, shrieking torments.
She tried to scream again but found herself incapable of doing so. Her tongue had seemingly retreated into the deep pit of her throat. It soon uncoiled itself, doing so independently of Christina’s commands. Her mouth agape, her eyes wide, her tongue extended beyond her and into the air. It had grown long and wormlike and responded to an intelligence of its own.
Tears dripped from eyes unaccustomed to such sights. The overgrown glistening tongue swayed in the air like an eel loosed from its cavern. It wanted and it was seeking.
The white dress was stained with blotches of crimson. The dog resumed its relentless, aimless barking, monotonous and repetitious like the peals of a clock.
Hands and fingers burst through skin and clawed their way through silk and lace, annihilating with ease and without reflection. The hands and fingers, like the long tongue, groped and fumbled at the air. They, too, wanted; they, too, sought. They grasped at things imagined and things to which they had become accustomed. The fingers waved like sea anemone buffeted by slow currents.
New mouths appeared in Christina’s skin: gnashing jaws brimming with white teeth. They bit and gnawed at the air, frustrated by neglect and disappointment.
The flesh, so mutable and so compliant, had rebelled against its mistress. Unsatisfied, it had usurped her.
Christina dragged herself to the canal. She willed her body into the obliging water.
The Piazza was quiet. The dog left the scene of Christina’s misfortune, attracted by the familiar sounds of a drunk retching on the Basilica.
A few days later, a fisherman found a curious mask in one of his nets. It was painted to approximate the color of flesh, with red lips that looked as if they had only recently savored sweet wines and savory viands. The fisherman, long since cured of any fascination with Carnival, saw that the mask’s owner had prudently inscribed his name in it. He returned the curious mask to the junk shop from which it had escaped.
In the dim light afforded by feeble candles, the junk dealer marveled at the mask — his mask. He smiled at the artifact, running his hands over its smooth surface. He looked into its eyeless visage and smiled. He had worn it once, and only once.
He commanded his trained monkey to restore the mask to its accustomed place in the back of the shop. He smiled a contented, cattish smile. He had sold the mask many times; he would sell it many more.
Copyright © 2013 by Ross Smeltzer