It was on the Piazza San Marco, where I noticed that one of the 'Masks' as the traditional masked figures are commonly called in Venice, was somehow different.
I would not imply that these mysterious masked figures are not special at all, no, but the red, black and gold apparition I saw out of the corner of my eye drew my sudden and undivided attention. Most Masks tend to walk around Venice with the same, slow and elegant, sometimes ethereal pace. But as I peeked at the eyes behind the delicate white mask I noticed they were beautiful but not real. The regular mechanical blink and the slow precise moves showed she was an automaton. I say 'she' because it had a name, Selena ...
For many minutes I watched it, perform an exquisite dance. Then it struck me that she looked even more beautiful than any of the other living works of art that graced Venice during carnival. But then drops of rain began to mar the celebration. Many Masks retired below arches or into cafes and restaurants. The soft rain quickly became a shower and I felt I needed to help the old man, cover up his creation with some tarpaulin. He thanked me in Italian and I nodded courteously and returned his warm smile. He brought up a trolley on which he pushed the automaton and began pushing it from the Piazza.
I could not resist the temptation and followed him. He did not stray far from the Piazza and opened a large door in the wall of one of the ancient houses of this marvellous city. As I walked closer I saw that the man had trouble lifting the trolley over the rather high doorstep. On the trolley itself the mannequin swayed slightly. I merely bent down and pushed the trolley over the edge. The man was surprised to see me, but allowed me to help him. We both pushed the trolley together through the pleasant courtyard of the house and into the house itself.
The small palazzo looked old, but rich and tasteful. The man thanked me in Italian upon which I answered that I spoke very little Italian myself.
"You're an Englishman ?" He said in rather flawless English, while removing his thick moustache and pulling off his large, ruddy nose made of latex. The man before me had gained twenty years.
"No, I'm American actually."
"You sound English."
"I've lived in England for most of my life."
"Thank you very much mister ?" The man probed.
"Tom, Tom Ruger." I answered.
"Giuseppe Toldini." He replied.
Then the man seemed to hesitate. He looked back at the automaton.
"Impressive, did you make it ?"
"Most of it yes ?"
"It must have take you quite a long time to make it. I've heard it would take years to make even a small one."
"It took us about a year."
"Impressive." I merely added as he jumped onto the trolley, removed the plastic foil and fluffed the ribbons and tule.
"It's really the most beautiful thing I've ever seen."
"The inside is even more impressive." He said, somewhat uneasily. "Promise me never to reveal what you are about to see."
"Oh, I won't, I promise ... I swear."
He took off its head-dress and hood and revealed the sleek white head. It had an intensely melancholic beauty about it. He removed the rich collar and the long black velvet gloves and zipped open the back of the red dress. The narrow lower sleeves hooked onto the index and became puffed from the elbow up. He removed the robe and revealed her nice figure. I looked at the delicate arms and hands with articulated fingers. He opened her chest and face and revealed the complicated clockwork mechanism, with turning wheels and cogs. Inside the mask, her face was made of polished iron, except for the eyes which were probably glass, with rubber eyelids. He opened latches on the side and removed the back panel. The head fell backwards and slipped from its connecting rim. Giuseppe undid a latch in the head and opened it. But instead of the clock-work mechanism I expected to see, I was greeted by eyes which were as beautiful as those of the mask. Giuseppe began removing the arm-pieces, much like a squire would help his knight and master remove his armour. The woman inside the elaborate costume was dressed in a tight black cat-suit, complete with hood. When all parts of the upper costume had been removed, he opened the lower half of the torso and liberated her. She climbed out of it with grace and agility and undid her hood, out of which cascaded long black hair. She was quite beautiful.
"Hello, I'm Nikki. That's short for Veronica." She said while rubbing some sweat from her face.
"She's my daughter." Guiseppe added.
I walked over to the costume and expressed my admiration.
"My great-grandfather used to make real automatons. But my grandfather left for the US, he didn't like Mussolini's black-shirts."
"That's why you speak perfect English ?"
"Yes, But he returned right after the war. My father and me were educated in the US."
"Your number was quite extraordinary, I guess it must be gruelling inside a suit like that."
"I'm used to difficulty, I'm a professional dancer. I've been with the New York ballet company."
"This and my family's passion for automatons led to this yearly extravaganza."
Nikki showed me around the house. Most of it was in more or less the same condition as it had been three hundred years ago. In one of the former servant's quarters was a workshop containing a dozen beautiful automaton costumes, each of them masterpieces of ingenuity.
"Impressive right ?"
I merely nodded my appreciation. She showed me amongst others a late eighteenth century page boy attending to Marie-Antoinette. "My younger sister would play the boy." But that was some years ago, And I don't think she'd fit into it anymore.
Besides it stood a blue sorceress and a majestic golden statue of an ancient roman goddess stood proudly.
"Nobody in the whole of Venice knows the truth, you're the first outside the family who knows our secret."
"I would be a jerk to go out and tell people this. This is the stuff that dreams are made from." I said.
She smiled and stretched her body, nicely emphasised by the black suit she was wearing.
"Perhaps I could invite you to dinner ?" I asked her.
"Sure, why not ?" She answered smiling at me. "Meet me back here at seven."
That evening it was a vision of grace I saw at the top of the stairs. Dressed in sumptuous blue, she glided down the stairs with unequalled grace.
I complimented her. "You look gorgeous."
She smiled at me and said a few Italian words to her father and grabbed my arm. Guiseppe opened the door for us and we stepped out in the frisky early spring air, while he wished us a pleasant evening.
Just as we stepped over the high doorstep, we saw before us in the faint light of the street-lamps a trio of golden Masks staring regally at us, covering their golden faces with smaller half-masks. Nikki curtseyed to them and I nodded in greeting. They curtseyed us gracefully in return and walked away.
"I sometimes wonder who hides behind the masks." She said. "Perhaps the people we just saw were good friends or neighbours, or even total strangers."
"I guess it is the appeal of it all, is the face behind the mask, as beautiful as the mask itself ?"
"Perhaps they are actually spirits, who once a year come to life. Who knows."
I thought for a moment about the idea and drifted away, relishing in this surreal atmosphere.
We spent dinner talking about our lives and our dreams. Nikki told me she had had an accident, a broken leg with complications which ended her career as a promising dancer. We lingered on until we were alone with another couple in the restaurant. They got up from their tables and looked at us with a funny look in their eyes, and then wished us the most perfect evening, looking somehow happy for us.
Tired waiters helped us to the door. I tipped them royally and entered the cool night with Nikki.
The sleeping city seemed to glow as we looked upon the solitary piazza San Marco...
"Look !" Nikki suddenly said.
From the four corners came a procession of Masks. Dozens of them, converging to the middle.
In the distance Haendellian music could be heard with harpsichords and mandolins.
The Masks began to dance, preceded by Harlequin and Columbine.
I looked around and noticed with Nikki that there was nobody else to witness this.
Just as I was about to ask Nikki, that Harlequin and Columbine stopped parading and motioned the others to stop. The music also stopped and a handful followed Harlequin. Silently they walked towards us and surrounded us. They examined us from head to toe and put their hands on their mouths as if to think us over.
Harlequin suddenly mimed his having a brilliant idea by happily opening his mouth wide and pointing a finger in the air.
The others seemed to agree with him and shook their heads in agreement at each other. Harlequin went inside his colourful clothes and took out a handful off glittering dust. He sprinkled it over us and there was almost a gasp of wonderment coming from the silent Masks around us.
I began to feel slightly drowsy and looked down at Nikki, who delicately covered her yawn with her hand. Harlequin pranced happily back to the rest of the Masks, vanished among them, and popped out moments above the assembled Masks gathered around him.
He was looking for us, which he mimed by holding his hand over his eyes and looking at the three cardinal directions before noticing us, looked happily at us waving his hands and descended back among the crowd. He popped out on his hands and knees from between two Masks and came up to us with two golden masks in his hands. He bowed deeply before us and presented us the masks. I took the man's mask he held out to me and examined it. I wanted to ask Nikki what she thought of it, but she was already putting the woman's mask to her face.
Whatever I remembered of what happened next, has still a strange dream-like quality about it. I can remember the details, but it all feels fuzzy and distant.
Anyway, just as I put the mask over my face and looked out of the eyes I saw that Nikki was all of a sudden dressed as a Mask.
Her beautiful blue dress had been replaced by an even more magnificent Venetian dress. The plain golden mask also had changed. I stared into her eyes and saw that they were transfixed, just as mine were. I then noticed from the edge of my vision that I was suddenly wearing similar clothes to hers and the masks, clothes which matched hers perfectly.
By now the drowsiness felt more apparent and I felt myself somehow become rigid as was Nikki. I wanted to move and go to her, but I couldn't, my body just didn't respond. Then I saw Harlequin accompanied by Columbine walk up to us again. From the corner of my staring eyes I saw that Harlequin was turning a large key in Nikki's back, and I felt the same happen to me by columbine.
The sensations were odd and peculiar, but I knew then that somehow we had been transformed from mere people into exquisite automatons. And I could feel the cogs and mechanisms inside my body come to life. Columbine then took my hand and guided me to the centre of the San Marco. I noticed Nikki being guided by Harlequin and placed before me. They both gracefully curtseyed to us and left us opposite each other. I stared at Nikki and saw her beautiful dress ...
Her face was blue and silver, covered with a silver crown topped with a crescent moon, interlaced with pearls and gems. Her wide, skirt and puffed shoulders contrasted with her tiny, corseted waist, while a blue gauze veil cascaded over her back like hair. The blue and silver dress sparkled with stars and moons. And I could see the silver key slowly turn on her back.
I, myself, was dressed in red, black and gold, topped with a sun above my own crown. How I know this, I still cannot understand.
Then came the music alternating between exquisite menuets and stately pavanes. I felt my body come alive again as the key in my back seemed to react to the music. I took her hand and led her to the dance, both mechanically moving like the perfect automatons we were.
She was my moon, and I was her sun. I felt Passion and Fire in my soul. She was playful and grace, fresh and beautiful. I stared into her eyes which had now become part of the mask and she stared back at mine.
The spectacle was more beautiful than anything I had ever seen and we were its automaton King and Queen ...
This incredible event continued until dawn, when one of the cathedral's bells began to greet morning.
Everything halted as dawn filled the sky with distantly burgeoning light. The music came slowly to an end while the dancers stopped and greeted each other. Then the bell rang once more and before our eyes, the Masks faded, like a dream ends at waking.
As the first rays of light touched the piazza we were alone, save for harlequin and Colombina. They waved at us and ran off, vanishing in thin air on the way. I turned towards Nikki and grabbed her, since our mechanisms were almost wound down. I grabbed her and felt her mechanical heart beat in her bosom, pressed against mine.
The next bell woke us from this ethereal slumber. We were no longer automatons. I felt Nikki's warm body in my grasp and saw her remove the golden mask and I promptly removed mine. An old man pulling a cart walked over the piazza and smiled to us as if he knew...
We stared into each other's eyes and returned to her house. Words, that day, were superfluous, they might have been dangerous even, because we didn't want to loose the memory of this incredible experience.
This year I returned to Venice with my new bride. The same day, we went to the same restaurant. But we left early, to leave the last couple alone. We smiled at them and wished them a perfect evening, and relished in their pleasantly surprised and questioning gazes.
As I am writing these words right now, I have the golden mask before me. And its immobile lips tell me it wasn't a dream. I see Nikki hold her mask in her hands and hold it to her face. I write the last few words down and pick up the mask and walk up to her.
And then from the corner of my eye, I see the colourful figure of Harlequin stare at us from behind the window. And as I look, it never was but a magical dream ...