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The Mascareri

By Izzy Varju

“Do you have any masks for someone so old as me?” asked the man standing in the doorway to the shop, eyeing the different forms and faces staring back at him from the walls. It was an unnecessary question—her masks were far older than he—but she’d found every customer had to ask something of the kind before they entered.

“Maybe one or two, for a customer such as you,” the mascareri replied with her customary refrain, putting aside the one she’d been finishing up. Its hollow eyes stared upwards, the extra sockets on the cheeks and forehead as empty as the rest. It was a special order, one that promised its wearer secrets—and to let her finally be able to lie.

Tapping his umbrella against the threshold, the man left it dripping by the door and stepped inside. His face was thin with wind-weathered wrinkles and a birthmark like a wine-stain across his cheek. The mascareri wondered if he’d come to ask for a mask because of it, for it drew her gaze as her bone needle drew its thread.

“What are you looking for?” she asked, watching his step and the bob of his head as he looked around at her wares. They sat in stacks, lay in piles and generally hung about her shop like too many children that she hadn’t managed to get rid of yet. There were those that were no thicker than the paint on their leather, lounging in bright colors and spreading their ribbons for anyone to pick them up. With so many distractions, it was easy to hide what she wanted where most would look but never see.

The man turned to her finally, after minutes of silent searching.

“Something to change people’s minds. Not too overbearing, just forceful enough to make them think again, think something different. Do you have anything like that?” She could’ve told him before that idle browsing didn’t produce results for his type of query, but she let the customers do what they liked until they realized what they wanted. They were more agreeable that way.

The mascareri set down her awl and went to the front of the shop, where the window display stood so full that she couldn’t see the canal whispering past outside even on the brightest of days. She unpinned one from the bottom of the board, old and yet distinguished with its raised curling red designs that stretched up in mesmerizing swirls, moving in the light.

“This is what you want,” she said, holding it out to the man to take. “It will do exactly what you ask for.”

“I’ll take it. How much?”

“Nothing.”

“I can’t accept this without paying,” the man insisted, gesturing to the rest of the shop. “They say this is the last true mask shop in Venice, how are you going to stay open if I don’t pay?”

“That is my concern, not yours. Do you wish to have it or not?” The mascareri sat on her stool and watched the man frown, patiently waiting for his answer.

The man turned the mask over in his hands, running a finger along the worn inside with a pensive set to his jaw. He’s hesitating, the mascareri noted in surprise. But then, she didn’t want what he had to offer if he didn’t first wrestle with what was inside him first, and come close to losing. It had to be strong, after all, for it to be worth her while.

“My conscience would never leave me alone if I left without giving you something,” the man finally said, after long minutes of silence.

“Then leave your conscience with me,” the mascareri said with a smile, holding out her hand. “I will have nothing else.”

The man let out a rueful laugh and gave in, taking her hand and bowing low. “You’ve made me a very happy man today. I will wear it well.”

The mascareri kept her smile and did not shake her head at his promise; she could only offer the ugly truth and that was not what a customer deserved when they said such things in good faith. But as he left the shop, umbrella blooming above him outside the door and mask tight in his grasp, she gathered up what he’d left behind and held it close. It was strong, tough after a life-time of morality and she was thankful to have one in her possession at last. But as it warmed to her and she accepted it, she thought again of the deal, and felt a new unpleasant weight settle inside her.

Izzy Varju is a neuroscientist by training who writes queer novels and short stories. Their work has been shortlisted for the Ruritania Prize and appeared in Luna Station Quarterly, From the Farther Trees, and Havok. When not contemplating the mysterious life of the giant squid they serve as an editor for a literary quarterly and has done panels on queer representation and editing at writing conventions. Their work can be found at IzzyVarju.wordpress.com, and on their Amazon page.