Upon a Wall
Posted May 09 2012
Every hour, after five, the church bells rang. He woke to the sound of metal instruments swinging back and forth, back and forth, clanging with each sway. It would first start at six, when the sun brushed the top of San Marco, an abruptness that inundated the piazza and the marble pillars in sound. Then through the canals the first bell was met by a second, then a third, then a fourth and then a fifth, until the city rejoiced with the morning’s greeting. But not all bells were this simple sounding. Some were complex musicians that weaved together reverberations of smaller and bigger bells, creating melodies from the clinks and clanks. Such a song came from Basilico San Marco, a sign that signified the start of the day.
By the time the last bell came to a gentle rest, the town people, already busy, bustling to buy fresh bread and breakfast delicacies, had prepared cafés and stores for a hopefully profitable day. Those who didn’t rise with the bells were lured by a river of aroma, coffee that called the sleepy from the warmth of their beds, were brought to cafés to be fattened with crepes and croissants bathed in chocolate. Business men, having downed their espresso, a swift gulp that left the taste buds with a treasure trove of sugar, grabbed their brioche and briefcase and boarded the next boat.
He awakened with them, drifting to the balcony to gaze down upon the waterways below. He watched as a boat swam towards his hotel, bringing bundles of suitcases to the floating lobby. It had been three months since he left home but despite the distance, echoes of the depression found him. He enjoyed the relaxation and freedom of the trip even if he should be saving to a buy a new house instead of living with his parents and he couldn’t accept what people said.
“You can’t run from your problems.”
But he knew returning home wouldn’t change a thing.
It was April and the influx of tourists hadn’t yet arrived. He trudged through a small alley way acknowledging his neighbours with a slight nod or a quiet “Buongiorno” before coming to ‘Café Bianco’, his favourite. It was his morning routine to come here, order a coffee and croissant,
“Posso avere un caffe e croissant per piacere,” and explore.
Each canal, lane or piazza had its own unique memories. He had once found a piazza like any other which housed a building like any other but on the inside of this building was an assortment of instruments unlike any other. Strings summoned to be strummed, keys called to be caressed and brass beckoned to be blew. Just like Venice, most of the instruments were ancient. The labyrinth of lyrics led him to what he considered to be the most unusual piece. In a small corner of the hall a shortened piano stood. It was much like a keyboard in terms of size yet its keys were real and so were its strings and pedals. But it was not the size that intrigued him; the piano had black and white keys not the usual white and black. He longed to play it but he knew such sound would remind him of home.
And memories were sometimes hard to remember so he returned to the present. His hotel was an easy walk to the grand canal and from there he took a traghetto. Venice was composed of waterways and pedestrian pathways hence the only way to traverse the city was by boat or one’s own feet. A traghetto was probably the most common form of transportation. It is a ferry that navigates through Venice from the busy train station to the islands of Burano and Murano. The craft continued, cruising the canal, crawling under the Rialto Bridge.
“La prossima fermata, Piazza San Marco,” “Next stop, Piazza San Marco,” the lady announced in both languages. He readied to disembark the ferry.
Again pleasant memories brought him back to his first visit. San Marco wasn’t the tallest building in Venice but it was the most intricate. Massive marble masts held up the edifice and the collection of aqua cupolas that rose slightly above the surrounding buildings. Underneath the arches were pictures painted by tiles and gold; religious stories in their most spectacular glory. Statues guarded the basilica, observing the crowds with frozen eyes. The inside was just as elaborate or even more so. It would seem that all the country’s marble and gold and been united in this one structure. He knew this wasn’t the case for anyone who had been to the Vatican. Whispers strived to survive the silent but mostly they were lost in the vastness of beauty. He stood alone, wishing that one day his family could see San Marco, one day when they had solved everything.
“Can you take a picture of us?” an elderly woman asked and suddenly the basilica vanished, drawing his eyes to the retired couple in front of him.
“Sure,” he replied, extending his arm out to take the camera and heaving it upwards to imprison a memory. Unfortunately for the holidaying couple dark clouds had begun to congregate, taking the sun hostage, a violent hand clasped over the luminosity.
“A good time to visit San Marco,” he said to the couple and walked away. Quickening his pace he darted through the maze of streets, over bridges and under archways. But he was too late. Bullets buzzed around him, belting him, instantly soaking his clothes. Other people put up their shields but he didn’t have one. Accepting defeat he retreated into a small store.
The door creaked open revealing the many masks hanging upon the walls. A common mask shop. Masks were a symbol of Venice as old as the canals themselves. He stared into the hollow eyes, mesmerized.
“Posso aiutarti?” a voice bellowed. He spun around greeted by a large man behind the counter. His jolly cheeks rose into a smile, moving his long white beard. Glasses sat upon his large red nose, windows for his merry eyes. The man bore a striking resemblance to Santa Claus and for a second he wondered if he would be home for Christmas. He returned to the man’s ask for help.
“No, I’m just looking thanks,” he replied, the masks capturing his attention again but not for long. Two screaming children ran out from the back room, running rings through their grandfather’s legs.
“Nonno! Possiamo mangiare le ciocolate adesso?” the little girl asked, a hopeful smile broadened her face, her brother beside her just as eager.
“Non ancora,” another voice called from behind, sauntering over to the children who hung their heads in dismay at this response. He was a thinner version of his father, almost anorexic and his brown, bushy beard had not turned to his dad’s snowy colour. Also similarly to his father was his radiance of happiness that spread outwards like the morning sun’s rays of light.
“Scusa,” the shopkeeper’s son said and led the children away muttering to them as he walked.
“C’e fresco pane.” And then they were gone.
“Kids; always wanting chocolate,” the shopkeeper laughed. He smiled too but also inwardly thinking that if the man had been slightly fatter his laughter would have caused his belly to ‘shake like a bowl full of jelly’.
“Now what can I do for you?” the man requested.
“I’m fine, I’m just waiting for the rain to stop,” He answered, gesturing to the downfall outside, disappointed to now see miniature canals that spilled the streets, washing away rubbish and with it the last hope of sunshine. The smile never left the man’s face.
“Try one on,” the shopkeeper suggested, already shuffling towards him to seize a mask off the wall. Before he could protest the man placed a petrified face in his palms and stepped backwards in anticipation. With nothing to lose he planted the mask on his head, hoping to please the storekeeper.
Murmurs of waves reached the shore. Washing in then withdrawing, washing in then withdrawing. For a long time it was the only sound. Then birds celebrated the tranquillity; entwining all their songs into an entirety; an ecological enactment of magnificence that trembled throughout the rainforest. He slowly realized he was here too. His toes wriggled in the sand, neither hot nor cold. Scanning the horizon he could see stone mountains materialize out of the water covered in emerald foliage. The water was equally stunning; a deep sapphire that reflected the pale blue of above. He was lost in the calmness of the bay and absorbed by its wonder. It was only when his head rested on the sand that his senses returned. How did I get here? Where is here? How do I get back? A whirlpool of confusion plagued his mind, instantly dulling the world around him. His last memory had been of him putting on the mask and then this. A sudden noise interrupted his thoughts. A girl appeared out of the water, standing in the shallows and walked towards him.
“Hello?” he addressed but his voice seemed to have no impact on the girl as she continued walking eventually lifting her eyes to stare into his. Her face failed to express any emotion as if he wasn’t there and she treaded up the beach. He followed her steps and spied a mansion that sat upon a cliff, overlooking the vast sea.
On the edges of his mind something stirred. He tried to ignore it but it was like an itch and kept returning. He fought with it too, sparring with his thoughts until he was fraught with exhaustion of the mental melee. He succumbed to the persistence. A voice emanated from the darkness.
“Take off the mask.” But how? He felt his face only finding smooth skin. No mask. Then the world dimmed. First the mountains disappeared, then the water, then the forest and even the sand until darkness was his vision. It stayed like this until he realized his eyes were shut.
Opening them made him gasp. In front of him was a wall hung with faces. He was back in the mask shop the empty eyes piercing his puzzlement. He spun around.
“What happ – ,” he questioned but the cheerful man was gone; he was alone. A chill shook him and he escaped through the door, into the storm, getting attacked by shrapnel, stumbling through the shadows of dusk.
He awoke to the bells once more and with haste left the apartment. Answers lay at the mask store. Just like yesterday he sipped his espresso, travelled on the traghetto, paced the piazza and strolled into the store. Today the sun had returned, drying the remnants of the storm with powerful heat. To his dismay the shopkeeper’s son manned the counter, watching him intently as he pushed the door.
“Where is your father?” he demanded.
“He is out,” the son responded.
“And when will he be back?”
“He comes and goes as he pleases. He may not come back for a day or perhaps a week but he did say this. If you try on a different mask he will return and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
He grumbled but trusted this man and so grabbed the nearest mask. He chose one that was a combination of two faces; two different expressions. One had its mouth stretched up into a mischievous smile, a grin that hid the reason of its amusement. Then joined to a side of the face was another. Its mouth drooped down into a shape of horror and sadness, imaginary tears spilling over the stiff cheeks forming a puddle on the ground. This dual disguise was actually the famed comedy symbol. He flipped the mask over, revealing its plaster interior. Three words were written on the surface. La dolce vita, the sweet life. He hesitantly raised the mask, fitting his face into the one filled with melancholy.
Tantalizing fragrances spiralled through the thick air, bouncing off the cottage roofs and soaring the streets. It left in its wake a sugary atmosphere that hung in the air like autumn leaves. Clouds of coloured smoke clambered out of chimneys, creating new odours, swirling with others as if someone was mixing a cake. He watched as people moved in and out of the cottages which were actually stores, restaurants, bakeries and butchers. Curiously, he ambled towards the nearest shop; a furniture store. He grasped the doorknob and then withdrew his hand immediately. It was sticky. The handle was a bright red and as he knelt down he saw what it truly was; a candy apple. He stood back agape taking in the whole building in his sight. The weatherboard walls were a fusion of the three chocolates; milk, dark and white and the roof consisted of tiles of toffee. Its tall chimney was built of bricks of biscuits and its door was a long piece of wafer. There was still a sun in this world making the chocolate walls malleable even now dripping from the heat. The other houses were much of the same fashion. There was a bakery made entirely of pastry, a fountain of coffee and even a church decorated with a rainbow of icings, the ornate sugar reminding him of San Marco.
Trying the doorknob again he stepped inside the furniture store. He explored the store touring its sites that were equally as unusual as the village outside. Like a child in any furniture store he tested the couches, each was constructed of a different kind of cake. He first assembled on the almond and orange armchairs, then he sat on the sponge sofas and finally he relaxed on the raspberry recliners. With wonder he saw that everything, big or small was made from delicious desserts.
He arrived into a room of the store that upon its walls hung a vast collection of mirrors. Some were very plain their frames macaroon mahogany. Others were lavish, spirals of marbled chocolate adding to its elegant design. He could have studied each one but knew his journey here would end soon.
An extremely fat customer walked into the room, shaking the floor with each step. He stammered past and was welcomed by the shopkeeper. He was equally obese if only slightly slimmer. He sat in his oreo office chair humbly and made an effort to drag his massive cheeks into a smile. His glasses sunk into his eye sockets and his beard was littered with crumbs. The shopkeeper seemed to beam at him and for a second he thought this man could see him but his customer turned and saw nothing.
The client waddled toward a mirror seeing only his overweight self but then the image started to quiver as if a drop of water landed on its liquid centre then the silver was gone and was replaced by a moving picture. He strode over to examine it more closely. He staggered back with shock. The display was of Venice, easily recognizable by its murky canals. The illustration began progressing down a familiar lane and he was overcome by awe as it entered the mask shop. A lone figure was inside; himself. The plump man was transfixed by the mirror, not blinking nor breathing. There was an unfortunate feeling of something clawing at his conscience, he tried not give in but its power was too great. The last thing he saw was the furniture store’s shopkeeper suddenly vanish, then everything went black.
He forced his eyes open more quickly this time, exposing the chubby hands removing the mask. The storekeeper wore his happy expression waiting for the attack of questions yet he was given an order.
“Explain everything,” he growled.
“Some things are better left for one’s self to discover but I will explain most,” The man said. He opened and closed his mouth then began.
“The masks transport you to another world but not physically only in your head do you experience it.” This explained the darkness and the assaults on his mind just before the mask was pulled away, he thought.
“The worlds are actually heavens. You see heaven is place created by the deceased person that he or she desires most. This place can be magical, bringing elements of the person’s imagination into being or can be a real place in the world like one’s favourite camping spot. I believe you have witnessed both.”
“Okay,” he stammered, “but how do these heavens exist in the masks?” He asked. At this question the man paused and licked his lips, appearing cautious before continuing.
“The spirits of the dead have been captured in them.” Revulsion gripped him and then anger controlled his mind. How could this benevolent man do such a thing? What purpose did it serve? He yearned to smash the masks on the ground, hoping that the spirits could escape from the shattered mess. Again he felt himself fleeing from the shop, the storekeeper shouting something as he exited the door,
“Return once you have learnt the truth.” He almost stopped mid stride but continued only with a more hurried speed.
The next morning was to be his last in Venice. He couldn’t bring himself to believe of what the fat storekeeper told nor did he want to yet he enjoyed every moment in the other worlds and it was still a shock that such magic existed on earth. Not even Venice could make him forget his problems at home but these worlds could which was why he had to leave. He now acknowledged that you couldn’t run from your problems. And even if he himself did not play a role in them, he was still affected by them. He would return home, hoping to make things better.
His final glance of Venice summarised everything it was; a beautiful city. He remembered his first gondola ride, his first lick of gelato and his first ask for directions.
“Dovè l’Osteria Da Carla?”
And now he was leaving these memories behind and reluctantly replacing them with more solemn ones.
He arrived home at midday, noticing the absence of cars. He let himself in, the pleasant smell of his house wafting through.
“I’m home!” He shouted but it was not met with a joyful cry. Dragging his suitcase in and closing door behind him he observed how similar the house looked from his last visit; too much the same. In fact everything was as he last remembered it as if his family had disappeared with him. Not a single paper, TV remote or stack of folded clothes had been touched. Echoes of the shopkeeper’s last words rang through his mind.
“Return once you have learnt the truth.” An overwhelming feeling of dread clutched at his heart, stabbing him. He first walked quickly through each room but with impatience, terror and concern his hasty strides turned into a flurry of feat. He gasped for breath. He entered a room. He left the room. He gasped for breath. And then he ran out of rooms. The garden. With violent hands he seized the door, sliding it open and stepping outside. One thing was different. It rose out of the grass like a hideous hand, its stone figure flashing with the sun’s light. It was a gravestone and he took no time in reading its inscription.
We will always hold you dear in our hearts
As we hope you hold ours dear too
O Mighty Lord take him to a better place
Loving son of Mary and John
Loving brother of David and Joseph
The revelation stabbed him in the heart as had been his death.
He was another mask upon the wall.