White, Green, and Gold
by Elana Gomel
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
White, green, and gold: the colors of their love.
White like the snow on stone, like the wedding dress she had worn, defiantly old-fashioned, all lace and flounces. “Till death do us part...” And beyond.
Green like the ageless patina on the old candelabra, like the mute sparkle of emeralds in the soothing dusk of a museum, like the walls of their room.
Gold like the dome of St. Mark’s, like the water under the Bridge of Sighs at sunset...
She locked the mask in the drawer and found a dress she had worn in Venice. Strangely, it did not fit as well as it used to.
Her resolve was momentarily spoiled by Mario who came to the door, telling her something she did not want to hear.
“Money?” she asked.
He waved his hand angrily and disappeared.
The alarm shrilled, yanking her up like a hooked fish. Erin sat up in bed, blinking in the moonlight. The shadow of the large madrone tree fell upon the blind. The numbers on the clock showed 12:03.
She listened intently but everything was quiet. She got up, hushed like a mouse. She had been sleeping in her white dress, and the rumpled hem had left a welt on her bare leg.
The shadow on the blind moved. Wind? She could hear no soughing in the branches.
The shadow moved again, this time in the opposite direction. And suddenly she remembered that the madrone tree had been cut down by Mario a week ago because it was leaning dangerously into the house.
She bit her lip. The shadow shifted, turned around, and became a silhouette. Erin saw a long beak, a bumpy forehead crowned by a stag’s antlers and splayed many-fingered hands pressing against the glass. The window shattered.
Screaming, she rushed to the door. The clink of broken glass was joined by a rattle coming from the drawer where she had locked the mask. The drawer pushed forward an inch.
Erin fled, clutching the carved rail to guide her down the stairs.
The carpet was plush and warm under her feet.
The sconces of the wall shed soothing golden radiance.
She looked down the stairwell, expecting to see the kitchen door, and found her gaze drowning in the bottomless well of shadows lapping at the long flight of richly carpeted stairs. The carpet’s deep pile was the color of clotting blood. The banister was blond wood, carved with sinuous reliefs like tensed muscles. The sconces were lily-shaped and some of them were slowly closing like flowers at night while others spread out their Murano glass petals.
Erin pulled at her white dress, took one step down, then another. There was no reason to be afraid, she told herself. She made it. She was where she wanted to be.
There was a landing below, tiny as if seen through the wrong end of a telescope. She ran down trying not to feel the carpet squirming under her feet, licking her bare insteps.
She pushed open the leather-upholstered door and found herself in in the familiar hallway with the wavy parquet and brocaded walls.
Two hotels had been knocked together to create a sprawling structure that crouched over the gray canal among the crowd of waterlogged palazzos. The Canal and Walter Hotel. The Canal and the Walter had been joined by this passage that went between them like a secret panderer. She and Bill used to stand in this strange intermediate space, holding hands and kissing, feeling themselves invulnerable to time and change.
All she had to do was to ascend to the second floor and turn left. And there it would be: Room 234. There was no room 235 or 233; in fact, the rest of the rooms on that floor were numbered 1 to 5. And Bill would be in the room, waiting for her.
Behind her, the door burst open. Something dark poured through it like a mudslide. The carpet!
But now it was not merely a flat length of fabric. It was a seething, roiling mass and gleaming. In it were the blond-wood sticks of the banister like a handful of loose bones. Even as the carpet crept through, the wooden bones were assembling into a crude semblance of a human skeleton. The carpet-flesh, thick and velvety, flowed up the bones, but it was not enough to clothe them completely, and the sticks remained only partially submerged when a headless giant rose up and stumbled toward her.
Erin ran. She careened into a door that flapped open, propelling her into the familiar foyer. There was the receptionist’s desk fronted by a glass cabinet with some knickknacks and beside it a tiny bar, choked with Prosecco bottles and silk flowers. The bar and the desk were deserted. White light dribbled through the blind.
Erin took a long breath and fought to be happy as her gaze alighted on the clunky, old-fashioned phone. Coming back from her shopping, she would punch in their room number and Bill would come down the stairs, his eyes twinkling as the kaleidoscope reflections of the ornate Murano chandelier painted his face with gold and green—
The memory prompted her to look up, and the chandelier was there, though unlit. It was hanging so low that Bill’s head would occasionally brush its crystal pendants, glittering like a waterfall of frozen tears, and set them a-tremble...
She was too short to touch it but the crystals trembled nevertheless, swaying and tinkling delicately, and then one fell down and splashed on the parquet, not breaking but dissolving on contact and then another and another... A faint taste of salt touched her lips.
She reached for the phone and the door behind her creaked.
The headless giant squeezed itself into the room. It was so huge that chunks of its carpet-flesh were sheared off by the jamb. Some of its banister-bones were broken and poked out. It made clumsy gestures with its fingerless stumps.
Sitting on its shoulder was the creature whose shadow Erin had seen in the window: a man, a bird, and a deer in one; its smooth porcelain body naked and more than human; its head dominated by the giant crooked nose; its forehead folded into deep furrows. Its neck was bowed by the weight of elaborately branching ruby-tipped antlers.
Somebody squeezed by the giant’s shapeless body and emerged into the foyer.
It was a man, swathed from his elegant foot to his broad shoulders in a voluminous black cloak, his hair covered by a triangular hat, his neck drowned in layers of exquisite lace. His eyes gleamed with subtle and malicious mockery through the holes of the green-and-gold mask.
“Why are you doing this?” Erin asked, trying and failing to control her suddenly squeaky voice. “You’re trying to keep me away from him! Why? What have I done to you?”
The masked cavalier tilted his head, sending a wave of unwanted heat through her.
“Your husband bought me, Signora,” he said, his voice as rich as the embroidered silk brocade of his coat. “He bought me fair and square and gave me to you. We are a merchant people; we honor our deals. I am trying to protect you. Your husband is dead; you’re alive. Forget about him. Because if you don’t forget, you’ll have to remember.”
“I want to remember,” she whispered. Another giant glass tear slid off the chandelier and puddled on the floor. Surrounded by monsters and dreams, she felt her resolve melt. And before it evaporated altogether, she snatched up the phone and dialed Room 234.
It was Bill’s voice, just as it used to be.
“Bill?” she whispered, past the painful catch in her throat.
“Er? Where have you been? I’ve been waiting for you!”
“Come down!” she said. “Come here. Now!”
She put the phone down daring the monsters do something, anything, rush her or try to prevent Bill from coming down. But they stood still. The light was failing and they melted into the dusk. But the cavalier stood out clear under the splashing of the glass tears.
“Ah, Signora,” he said, and his voice sounded human and sad, “that was a foolish decision. But what is done cannot be undone.”
She did not reply. She waited.
The footsteps outside grew louder. And then the smell hit her.
Rotting flesh; urine and feces; the smell of mortality, in all its unendurable ugliness. The body rotting alive and nothing to stop it, nothing to come as a screen between her and the odor of death except the sickly sweet deodorant, the artificial smell of rosemary, meant to refresh the tainted air but only making it worse.
The door opened. Bill walked in.
His face was sloughing off nuggets of corrupted flesh. There was a breathing tube stuck in his nose but it was filled with yellow pus. His lips had rotted away, disclosing still-perfect capped teeth.
“Er?” he said and his voice was underlain by liquid sloshing. “Where have you been? I’ve been waiting for you...”
“No!” she screamed and the memory came rushing back.
Bill is lying in his hospital bed, surrounded by the complicated medical gadgets that flaunt their failure in curing him. His face is a yellow skull. The stink of his diseased breath permeates the room. The clock is blinking. 12.03.
“Er?” he says. “Where have you been? I’ve been waiting for you...”
And she is running away, down the corridor, away from him, in the blinding confusion of white, green, and gold.
The white of the hospital beds.
The green of the doctors’ scrubs.
And the gold of the arrows pointing to Exit. And it is the gold she is following, toward the pure air outside, away from the room where her husband is dying, alone.
“No!” she keened, and Bill was approaching her, and she could see how the monsters of Venice shrank away from him. When his dead flesh touched the giant, it fell apart, disintegrated into a heap of worn-out carpeting and broken sticks.
The bird-deer tried to crawl into a corner, but its antlers stuck in the chair and the dead man’s fingers casually broke them off. The masked cavalier sidled out of his path, but Bill’s rotten hand brushed him and his cloak caught fire, unclean coils of smoke drifting into the air.
“Er!” The cadaver’s arms stretched toward her. The wounded bird-deer covered its beady eyes with its many-fingered hands.
“Yes, Bill,” she said and, when the wave of stench broke over her, she walked unhesitatingly into it, and embraced the corpse, and kissed him on the lips.
The stink of rot lingered as she stepped back and watched, dry-eyed, the dead flesh turning to dust and blowing away and the bones falling into an insignificant heap at her feet.
“I’m sorry,” the mask said. “I tried to help. He did buy me for a full price.”
“I know,” Erin said. She was sitting on her bed, cross-legged, and the mask lay on the counterpane, its empty eyeholes looking up into her face.
“It’s a hard thing to remember, Signora. No surprise you wanted to forget.”
“That I left my husband to die alone because I was scared shitless of cancer? Not a memory to cherish, no. But he’s dead; I’m alive. I wish it were different. But what is done cannot be undone. I cannot go back to Venice. And I don’t want to anymore.”
The mask rocked back and forth and she thought: He’s nodding. Or maybe laughing.
“Who are you?” she asked after a while.
“My name is Brighella.”
She remembered reading about him: one of the stock characters of Commedia dell’Arte, a schemer, a trickster, a masked seducer, a lower-class climber who charms rich women with his smooth tongue and singing voice. But also a loyal servant and a steadfast friend.
“Can I see your face?”
The mask gave a low, intimate chuckle and Erin felt a strange slow shiver crawl down her spine.
“Are you sure you’re ready to see my face, Signora?” the mask asked, and she remembered how the same shiver had waylaid her in the secret alleyways of Venice as she met the dark, liquid eyes of a man in a curbside cafe or head the birdlike exchange of two lovers embracing in the shadow of a Renaissance church. She would clutch Bill’s arm or bury her head in his chest... But there was nobody between her and the world anymore.
“I think so,” she said and picked up the mask, running her fingers along the ornament on its cheeks.
Somebody knocked on the door. Dropping the mask, she hurried downstairs into the hot, brassy morning light.
Mario stood there, clutching a bunch of rosemary plants, their denuded roots dripping clumps of soil.
“I did it,” he said sulkily. “All the romero. You want something else planted instead?”
She stood still, looking at his strong brown face. “I don’t know,” she said. “Let’s talk about it. Come in, have a cup of coffee.”
Copyright © 2015 by Elana Gomel